Former owner of notorious apartments to pay $3 million in teen’s death

Renovations are underway at Creekside Forest Apartment Homes located off I-20 in DeKalb County.

Renovations are underway at Creekside Forest Apartment Homes located off I-20 in DeKalb County.

Two years ago, attorneys suing the owner of Creekside Forest Apartment Homes couldn't find the man, or even be too sure about what his name was. Nor could DeKalb County authorities, who had a warrant for his arrest after he missed a court date over hundreds of code violations at the ramshackle property off I-20.

Now, the lawyers have not only found the owner — whose name turned out to be Cheskel Meisels, not “Chester,” as residents had thought — but have also reached a $3 million settlement for a death at the complex. The lawsuit claimed lax security at the notorious complex in South DeKalb contributed to a shooting that left a 15-year-old boy dead and a 27-year-old man injured in 2016.

In a deposition, Meisels, a New York state resident, acknowledged that the sprawling development on 21 acres had spiraled out of control before public outrage rose over the conditions. Another witness, who was said to have been in charge of security at the apartments, said in his own deposition that residents were "sitting ducks" to criminals because the gate didn't work and guards were instructed to look after the property, not the people on it.

The sign for Creekside Forest Apartment Homes complex in Decatur as it appeared in November 2016. (DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM)

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"The truth is that the owners of these apartments just did not give a damn about the people who lived there," Jeb Butler, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said in a news release.

On Jan. 6, 2016, Jaylon Maddox, 15, and Justin Sellers, 27, were shot in what police described as a robbery attempt near the entrance. The teen died, and months later his blood still stained the pavement.

Residents said conditions continued to deteriorate after the shooting, with gangs and squatters on the property. The leasing office was abandoned, and trash littered the grounds. Many units were badly damaged by water leaks and vandals, and residents said they couldn't even find management to pay their rent.

Had the property been in better condition and had good security, the shooting might not have happened, the plaintiffs’ attorneys argue.

Renovations are underway at Creekside Forest Apartment Homes located off I-20 in DeKalb County.

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The plaintiffs’ attorneys said a former employee of the defendant wrote in an affidavit that security guards were “taking half of the money that changed hands in drug deals on the property.”

After DeKalb county officials threatened to get a court order to demolish the complex and helped moved residents out of the complex, Meisels’ company, Creekside by TAG, sold it to Falcon GA Investments in 2017. The new owners are in the process of renovations.

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Bruce Datrez Howard was convicted of murder and robbery last year in the shooting and is serving a life sentence in state prison, according to Georgia Department of Corrections records.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit were relatives of the 15-year-old and the 27-year-old shooting survivor himself. Both parties were represented by the Butler Tobin firm, as well as The Stoddard Firm and The Mabra Firm. The settlement, which will be paid by the complex’s former owners’ insurance policies, came as the case was approaching trial after two years of legal grappling in DeKalb County State Court.