Jury holds former apartment owners liable in sexual assault case

By CAREN M. PENLANDSPECIAL TO THE STAR-TELEGRAM

ARLINGTON — A Tarrant County jury has sent a strong message to North Texas apartment owners: Hiring criminals who may endanger residents will cost them.

The jury hit the former owners of the L’Atrium on the Creek apartments with a $4.85 million damage award Monday for a mother who sued after her 4-year-old daughter allegedly was sexually molested by a maintenance worker in 2001. The jury deliberated for about six hours before deciding that the apartment owners could be held liable.

The case was about negligent hiring practices and about putting profits ahead of residents’ safety.
It was pointed out that it wasn’t the first time that a worker at that complex was accused of sexually assaulting a resident. A woman was raped by another maintenance worker in 1998; Juan Ochoa of Arlington is serving a prison sentence for that crime, according to court records.

“This little girl has emotional scars that will never heal,” Johnson said. “There have been two heinous crimes on that property. I hope this verdict will change the way apartment owners choose their employees.”

David Randall Lowder, 26, is accused of molesting the 4-year-old, police said. He fled Arlington shortly after an arrest warrant was issued in November 2001. Arlington police spokeswoman Christy Gilfour said detectives suspect that Lowder is in Arizona. They have forwarded information to detectives there.

An initial background check run on Lowder by the apartment management revealed two counts of shoplifting in McKinney in 1999, said attorney Scott Campbell, who represented the apartment complex owners.

“Who would have thought that a shoplifter — a man with no other convictions on his criminal record — would commit such a terrible crime?” Campbell said. “It was a tragic incident for this girl, but it was completely unexpected.”

Campbell said his clients are disappointed with the verdict. In 2003, they sold L’Atrium on the Creek, at 1676 Carter Drive in east Arlington, shortly after the family filed suit, Campbell said, and no longer do business in Texas.

Maria, the girl’s mother, said she wishes she’d never moved into the complex. The Star-Telegram is not releasing her last name to protect her daughter’s privacy.

The incident wrecked her family emotionally, the mother said. Her daughter — now 8 and in second grade — still has trouble sleeping at night and is “scared to death of any man in uniform” because Lowder was wearing his staff uniform when he cornered her daughter in the bathroom, she said.
Maria said she was in the kitchen cleaning while Lowder was repairing the bathtub. She said her daughter was alone with him for about five minutes.

“After he left, she told me he ‘played with her.’ I asked her what she meant and she put her hand into her panties and said he put his finger in her privates,” she said. “After that she was scared to leave my side, always clinging to my leg. Her spirit was broken.”

The apartment management blames the 1998 rape on a third party used to conduct background checks. Campbell said that immediately after that incident, the management switched companies and put additional safeguards in place to protect residents. But since Lowder’s criminal background didn’t include any felonies — shoplifting is a misdemeanor — he didn’t appear to pose any danger, Campbell said.

Maria said the money will pay for a lifetime of therapy for her daughter that her family couldn’t afford. The family of five also wants to move far away from Arlington. They live in Grand Prairie, which is “still too close.”

As for other mothers living in apartment complexes, Maria advises them to stay in the same room with children when workers come into apartments.

“Don’t trust anybody. I did, and look what happened,” she said. “My girl will never be the same. And there’s no justice in something like this. The money won’t make her the same girl she was.”