This story has been updated with comments from an Atlanta Police Department spokesman.
Marlissa Crawford stood at her front door on a Friday evening with her camera phone set to record. The former paralegal, mother of two teens, and six-year Ashview Heights resident knew all too well that foolishness would follow.
Angela Dalton was back.
This time, Dalton posed across the street with her back to a parked yellow van carrying one of the construction crews renovating once-derelict homes along the street. She wore a black hooded coat, black boots, grey socks, underwear but no pants.
Dalton looked to the left, made a forward bend at the waist and stripped off her bottoms. Crawford dialed 911, stepped on her west Atlanta porch and shouted.
“Angela! Angela! Put on some clothes!”
Another video filmed minutes later shows Dalton in a white hair net, making off with an extension cord wrapped around a seven-foot pole from a construction site. Another recorded later that evening shows her blowing a whistle and swiping a plastic chair from a neighbor’s front porch.
She was booked into jail that February evening on misdemeanor charges of indecency and distribution of drug related objects.
It was her 80th arrest in the Atlanta area, give or take a few.
Crawford and others in the Ashview Heights neighborhood have spent the better part of a decade on the difficult case of Dalton, a homeless, 41-year-old convicted prostitute who squatted in abandoned homes there. She often worked partially clothed, in broad daylight, and a short distance from schools, police reports show. Police and neighbors repeatedly caught her in public with her genitals exposed, records and videos show.
With increasing concern about how repeat offenders are returned to the streets, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution looked into Dalton’s case to learn what keeps metro courts and rehabilitation services from stopping those who commit serial, minor crimes. These nonviolent offenses are far more common than ones that typically make headlines, and are often difficult to combat, even for an engaged neighborhood determined to seek justice.
Neighbors’ efforts yielded multiple criminal cases against Dalton, the personal involvement of Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard, and one stint for her in a federally funded health study for former jail inmates. Residents advocated successfully with the courts to have her sentenced to residential drug treatment programs.
None of this proved effective against Dalton, a non-violent, petty offender whom police reports show is easy to catch. She was often high and all too willing to be coaxed into the car of an undercover vice squad cop with a false promise of money for sex. Police reports show she tried to sell sex acts for as little as $5.
While Dalton exasperated her neighbors, so too did years of lapses, communication mix-ups and errors by the sprawling criminal justice system. As courts statewide choose rehabilitation over punishment, Dalton’s multiple cases show just how difficult it can be to use them to fix chronic problems in the neighborhoods that need the most help.
Dalton’s Ashview Heights cases were spread out over three different local court systems, two jail systems and among public and private treatment programs run by a range of agencies. Some authorities offered sporadic help, but it was up to neighbors to solve the problems agencies could not or would not deal with.
Few were willing to comment on the issues Dalton’s case posed.
Attempts to interview Atlanta solicitor Raines Carter, Atlanta police officials, municipal court Chief Judge Christopher Portis, Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard, and state Department of Community Supervision Commissioner Michael Nail were unsuccessful.
A representative from the Georgia Public Defenders Council said it could not comment on Dalton’s cases.
An Atlanta Police Department spokesman said that stories like Dalton's are why the city backs programs to fight substance abuse and homelessness.
"Angela Dalton’s story underscores the difficult dilemma that our Department faces every day. The public expects us to enforce the law, and we have an obligation to do so. Clearly, arrests are not always the best solution," APD spokesman Carlos Campos said.
Atlanta public defender Kenneth Days said his office has only received money to hire social workers in recent years, and cases like Dalton’s are a powerful argument for more of them.
“If we only think about the court case and we’re not solving problems for the person, they’re just going to cycle through,” Days said. “As you’ll see, there are thousands of Angela Daltons.”
With her Feb. 1 arrest, Dalton’s neighbors felt they had another chance to set things right. This time they had years of experience coordinating with police and prosecutors and knew what pitfalls to avoid.
They still wanted Dalton to get treatment. But they wanted her out of the neighborhood for good.
“We are so fed up,” said Crawford. “People are tired and the neighborhood is changing.”
Dalton was not ready to give up cocaine, she said in an interview from the Fulton County Jail’s women’s annex. She liked to party too much, especially around the abandoned houses of Ashview Heights.
“Camilla Street is just a lonely street, and I’m just wild as hell on it,” Dalton said.
To catch a prostitute
Dalton’s antics, lewd or otherwise, grew to become a part of daily life for residents of Ashview Heights. Residents knew other prostitutes by nicknames they gave them — Miss Woodstock, Ponytail and Popsicle. But even children knew Dalton by name.
“All of the other prostitutes keep their clothes on,” explained David Gregory-Yarborough, who has served as president of the Ashview Heights Community Association on and off for a decade. “It’s bad enough as it is here. But at least they keep their clothes on.”
Dalton would howl and shout inexplicably, said neighbor Melody Cook-Blount. Once, while Cook-Blount planted flowers with her daughter and neighbors, Dalton walked up with her crotch exposed.
“I get really sad just seeing her and knowing what she has gone through most of her life,” Cook-Blount said. “She’s 40, 40-something? She’s never really known what life can be like.”
Crawford and others knew Dalton needed far more help than they could provide on their own, but felt it was important to try. They said they had relatives or friends who suffered from mental illness and hoped someone would do the same for them.
One neighbor researched programs that helped women leave prostitution. Crawford tried to locate Dalton’s family in hopes of reuniting them, but Dalton seemed to have no one to rely upon. Atlanta Detention Center records show she was last visited there in 2013 by a man who logged his address as “homeless.”
Residents thought following police advice to dial 9-1-1 would help Dalton get services. But for all the trouble she caused, it took years to convince them to arrest her and other prostitutes. Unsatisfied with the response, association members logged each call and outcome on spreadsheets and sent them to police supervisors.
“I did think this would be easier,” Crawford said. “I’m a believer in the justice system.”
Officers explained that they would only arrest prostitutes when they’re caught in the act, Gregory-Yarborough said. The neighborhood group countered by hosting porch parties every second Friday of the month where they’d socialize and watch for Dalton.
They caught her on their second or third try.
“We saw her get in a car. We called 911 and we busted her,” Gregory-Yarborough said. The porch parties continue to this day.
Catch and release
Despite the criminal charges, Dalton faced few serious consequences and treatment remained hard to come by. She’d plead guilty on municipal court cases immediately after arrest — before attorneys could work out a deal to place her into a program. Once she and several others left for lunch on their first day of court-ordered rehab and never returned.
“Maybe you all should start providing a catered lunch or something. I don’t know,” a judge said to a probation officer at her revocation hearing.
Prosecutors’ get-tough efforts collapsed when officers or judges did not follow along. In 2013, city court prosecutors opted against plea deals and took the rare step of placing Dalton on trial for three of her misdemeanor charges. Atlanta police officers failed to show up to testify in all three cases and charges were dropped. Similar results followed a 2014 prostitution bust when an officer twice failed to show up to testify before a grand jury.
Authorities in charge of monitoring Dalton could not or would not do so. Police would arrest and release Dalton half a dozen times or more while she was on felony probation before she was brought before a judge for violating it, an AJC analysis of her criminal history shows.
During one streak, she was arrested and released 11 times before being kicked out of a superior court program.
Neighbors seemed to make headway in October 2015 when a judge sentenced Dalton to a lockup drug and mental health treatment program run by the state Department of Corrections at Arrendale State Prison.
Yet Dalton was back on the streets that December. The program’s waiting list was so long that she finished her sentence before a space opened up, court records show.
The next time prosecutors tried to get Dalton into Arrendale, she complained she needed to leave because she was hearing voices in jail. The judge asked attorneys to find a program with a shorter waiting list but they never did.
Dalton finally entered the lockup center Aug. 14, 2017, after being sentenced to drug treatment in yet another case. But this was no victory, either, and led to another early release. The program dropped her when administrators deemed she could not complete it because of an unspecified “increased mental health issue,” a transcript of a Sept. 20, 2018, Fulton County Superior Court hearing shows.
Police arrested Dalton again on Oct. 18, after an officer found her having sex with a man on the porch of an abandoned house in Ashview Heights, records show. The man said he paid Dalton $15 in cash and a lottery ticket.
Dalton was released on a signature bond the same day. She failed to appear for her Dec. 1 court date.
The morning of Dalton’s first hearing on her newest charges began badly. She was scheduled with the 9 a.m. misdemeanor cases, even though Assistant District Attorney Danielle Simpson had worked all weekend to upgrade her to more serious felony charges.
Clerks moved Dalton to the felony docket at 11 a.m., but the day’s caseload was so heavy that Simpson and Crawford waited until 1 p.m for Dalton’s name to be called. Simpson read aloud from Dalton’s criminal history, which included charges of entering an auto, theft by taking, cocaine possession, prostitution, and criminal trespass.
“Damn,” an astonished stranger whispered from the gallery.
Simpson told a disappointed Crawford, who attended the hearing on her day off, that Dalton would receive no addiction treatment in jail.
As Dalton waited without bond at Fulton County Jail’s Union City annex, she wondered aloud why she ran wild that night. She took proper medication for her bipolar disorder, she said, and hadn’t been arrested in two months. Lately, she had been squatting at a house with a friend she called Uncle Herb.
“It wasn’t like I was out there tricking or nothing,” Dalton told the AJC.
Dalton binged on cocaine in the days after she found Uncle Herb collapsed on the floor of his bedroom, dead, she said. She wanted to blot out the memory.
When she started feeling good, she just didn’t stop.
“That’s ridiculous, isn’t it? It’s stupid,” Dalton said and began to cry. She wanted to go home.
Dalton got her wish sooner than neighbors expected. Her case was added last-minute to a Feb. 25 superior court calendar and she was sentenced to time served. Simpson wasn’t informed. Dalton wasn’t on the court’s official schedule, the attorney wrote in an email to residents.
“I know this is not the resolution we hoped for in this case, but the fight is not over, and I vow to stand with you through it all,” Simpson wrote.
On March 1, the day of Dalton’s release, police arrested her on new charges of distributing a drug-related object and occupying a vacant building without permission. The Atlanta City Detention Center released her on a signature bond two days later.
On March 12, Dalton returned to the city detention center on a charge of improperly crossing a roadway. This time, she was not released. The city solicitor’s office would proceed with the unresolved October case where police said she was paid $15 and a lottery ticket for sex.
Treatment and an Ultimatum
The Fulton DA’s office only heard about the city court case because an Atlanta police watch commander told them about it, a resident said. City and superior courts don’t coordinate their work.
Simpson gave neighbors the news in an email only a day before Dalton’s next hearing in April.
“Are you kidding me? Is this some type of joke?!?!” Cook-Blount wrote back. She was out of town and couldn’t attend. It was too late for Crawford, Gregory-Yarborough and the rest of the neighbors to clear their schedules as well.
The court had no program for a woman with Dalton’s challenges, so they cobbled one together.
With the help of social workers with the city public defenders office, Dalton’s court-appointed attorney won Dalton’s acceptance to the House of Cherith, an Atlanta residential program for sex-trafficking victims. City solicitors agreed to a plea deal that allowed her to spend her 180-day sentence there. Restore Atlanta would monitor her progress and she would report to a judge monthly.
Dalton stood before Atlanta Municipal Court Judge Herman Sloan on April 4 in braided pigtails, jeans and the same hooded jacket she wore when she stripped before construction workers. Unlike the lockup treatment center that dropped Dalton the previous fall, she could leave the House of Cherith if she chose, he said. But the consequences would be severe.
“You have to understand, if you walk away from the treatment facility — if you are put out of that treatment facility — you have a six-month jail sentence,” Sloan warned Dalton.
She was transferred to the program later that day.
‘I pray for her’
Dalton’s next two court hearings began with confusion. At the first, Dalton never arrived from the center outside the city where she had begun treatment. Judges disagreed briefly over which courtroom held jurisdiction over her monitoring.
At the second, Dalton arrived an hour late because of problems scheduling transportation. Restore Atlanta workers told Sloan they had trouble contacting House of Cherith to monitor her progress.
Yet each time Dalton arrived in court, her spirits seemed to rise. By May, she had transferred to a long-term stay center nearby.
“I’m free now. It’s Friday. I’m in Atlanta,” she said with tears in her eyes.
Dalton appeared before Judge Sloan June 28 in a black sheath dress and ruby-red pumps, carrying a Narcotics Anonymous chip she received to celebrate 90 drug-free days. Her attorney said she logged no disciplinary problems and attended treatment classes daily.
“I think you got this. I seriously do,” Sloan told Dalton.
Keep two pictures in your head, he added. One of who you were, and another of what you are now.
“Each morning you got to look at those two pictures and choose,” he said. They both smiled.
Dalton’s final hearing on this case is Aug. 30.
Dalton’s Ashview Heights neighbors are unsure what to make of her recovery. Cook-Blount worries the system had failed Dalton too many times. Gregory-Yarborough suggested a city-run jobs program that could help.
“I don’t know if she’ll make it,” Crawford said and recommended a nearby drug treatment and health clinic. “I pray for her, because she can’t come back here.”
They plan to call police if they see Dalton in Ashview Heights again.