Peering into a flood-damaged Lower 9th Ward house that should have been empty, four officers found squatters.
There were two men -- armed with a semiautomatic handgun and a civilian version of military's M16 assault rifle. A drug stash was nearby.
The intruders would ultimately find themselves in the custody of New Orleans police and National Guard troops at the close of the mid-May episode, more than two and a half years after Hurricane Katrina left the house in shambles. But the officers who got them to surrender were sent out by a program that few would associate with gun-toting law enforcement: the Road Home.
Financed by $4.6 million in federal housing grant money, Corporate Security Solutions employs 60 private security officers to patrol 8,100 Road Home properties in 22 southern Louisiana parishes, parcels that homeowners decided to sell to the state rather than rebuild or renovate. These buyout properties represent 7 percent of 115,000 Road Home grants paid so far. State officials estimate that when all is said and done, there will be about 9,000 total buyouts.
The officers patrol each night from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., following scheduled routes and responding to calls from neighbors. Each month, they find hundreds of trespassers entering the state-owned properties. Some are out to steal copper wire; some are dealing drugs; and some are simply looking for shelter.
The fact that few residents know the security team exists is a good sign to the public officials who have overseen the security company's contract since September and soon must consider whether to renew it for another year.
"No news is good news," said Joe Williams, a board member of the Louisiana Land Trust, the state-created, federally financed nonprofit that holds Road Home properties until they can be transferred to local parishes for redevelopment.
--- Board scrutiny ---
By and large, state officials, property maintenance contractors and community groups agree the security force is one of the more effective parts of a high-profile recovery program often marred by controversy.
Still, there are questions about whether taxpayers should be paying $100,000 a week to supplement normal police patrols. At the Land Trust's latest public hearing, held July 11, new board member Donald Vallee, head of a New Orleans landlord association, asked why the state should use any federal money to field an extra security force.
"They're doing a good job, but the question is: Do we need it?" Vallee said during his first board meeting.
As time goes on, the structures are supposed to be demolished or restored, lessening the need for constant surveillance, Vallee said.
The latest Corporate Security Solutions status reports indicate its officers have checked on all 8,100 Road Home properties sold to the state, including just two in Acadia Parish and one in Iberville Parish. But about half of the properties are just vacant lots. There would be even fewer dwellings to secure, except FEMA stopped paying for demolitions before the Road Home could buy most of its parcels.
The Land Trust has been negotiating with FEMA to try to get the federal agency to pay for removing more buildings on the state-purchased properties, but so far there has been no agreement.
Vallee says his skepticism is merely an attempt to intensify the board's scrutiny over contracts. But Al Sterling of H&O Investments, one of the firms cutting grass and removing debris on the Road Home properties, said his crews rely on the security forces for protection.
"It makes me nervous and uncomfortable to think what would happen if we don't have the security forces we do now," he said at the Land Trust meeting.
--- Lack of understanding ---
One thing that was clear at the meeting was board members' lack of understanding of the security team's work. That was initially true for neighborhood groups, too -- at least in the spring.
The unmarked patrols previously generated fear and confusion among neighbors, some of whom called police on the Road Home officers.
Until recently, the Corporate Security Solutions officers wore generic black security T-shirts and were easily impersonated by thieves. An April 18 incident report filed by the officers said sheriff's deputies in Chalmette found a man, wearing the easily purchased black shirt, allegedly stealing copper wire and a compressor from a Road Home property.
But the contractor has apparently handled that problem after meeting with neighborhood groups and local police officials to hear their concerns.
During one meeting this spring, Lakeview residents and New Orleans Police Department Sgt. Doug Eckert helped the security company understand operations of the neighborhood's special crime prevention district and persuaded it to change its uniforms to khaki shirts with CSS patches and to clearly mark its vehicles.
"It was an excellent meeting," said Lakeview resident Mary Anne Colwart. "All present had a better understanding of the problem."
CSS' project manager for the Road Home contract, Robert Halladay, told the neighbors, and the Land Trust board, that his officers have had extensive weapons training and federal background checks, that each was upon hiring fingerprinted by the FBI. The force includes several former police officers and soldiers, he said.
--- Sobering picture ---
The security force responded to 1,883 incidents in June alone. Most stemmed from routine problems, such as debris or a broken window, but 538 involved signs of entry, while 145 involved complaints about loitering and 19 involved vandalism, according to monthly reports to the Land Trust. Halladay said at least seven incidents in the past few months involved trespassers with weapons.
CSS officers sometimes find evidence that decrepit storm-damaged homes have been turned into drug houses, and they pass that information along to law enforcement.
Each night, the Road Home security officers ride in various types of white vehicles -- cars, pickups, SUVs, most with identifying decals but some still unmarked -- on 35 different patrol routes, mostly in Orleans and St. Bernard parishes.
The Land Trust controls about 3,700 properties in each of those two parishes. Jefferson, St. Tammany and Plaquemines parishes each has more than 100 properties.
A review of incident reports from recent months paints a sobering picture of why the security patrols may be necessary. In many cases, a former owner or former owner's relative has returned to live in the home sold to the Road Home, ignoring orders to vacate -- and inhospitable conditions -- because the person has nowhere else to go.
The Road Home forces at times are less forgiving of such trespassing than police. For instance, on the rainy night of April 18, Mikel Starr, an officer with subcontractor Inner Parish Security Corp., found a man in a full leg cast sleeping on a cot in a pup tent inside a Road Home property on Tupelo Street, in the Lower 9th Ward. The tent was littered with beer cans and junk food wrappers.
The man said his parents sold the house to Road Home, "but he had no place else to stay," Starr reported. Starr goes on to say that Halladay ordered him to have the man arrested, but when police arrived, they refused.
"The officer . . . informed me due to his broken leg and it used to be his home that he would not be arresting him," Starr wrote. "When he left he only took the clothes on his back and his crutches."