The woman leaning on a crooked fence wore a black, brimmed hat low over her eyes. Still, Marlissa Crawford knew her instantly.
Crawford raised her camera phone to her car window and pressed record. The woman met her gaze through the afternoon shade.
“There’s Angela,” Crawford said. The rumors were true.
Angela Dalton, 41, an admitted cocaine addict and convicted prostitute, was back in west Atlanta’s Ashview Heights neighborhood. She had at least 80 arrests to her name.
It was Sept. 4, only six days after a municipal court judge determined that Dalton had successfully completed five months of court-monitored drug and mental health treatment. This latest stint in rehab was supposed to be different.
A decade of justice system lapses and Dalton’s own antics thwarted attempts by Crawford and other neighbors to help her leave the streets. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution chronicled those struggles and her latest journey through the courts earlier this year.
Over the summer at House of Cherith, a residential treatment center for victims of sex trafficking, Dalton sat through group therapy sessions, took up gardening, attended classes on cultivating her self-worth, and got baptized. The changes she made by her last court hearing appeared so dramatic that the courtroom burst into applause.
Residents like Crawford, a former paralegal, held out hope that the transformation would take hold, but said they would not be surprised if it didn’t.
“She has to have the personal will to overcome, to redeem herself from all of that,” Crawford said.
What happened in the months to follow exposed the limits of court-ordered intervention and rehabilitation when faced with addiction and mental illness. It also tested the compassion of a neighborhood that lobbied to help Dalton, even when she was at her worst. Dalton left treatment before arrangements for after-care were made.
In truth, Dalton was tired of pretending that she liked the House of Cherith and dodged offers of after-care and housing, she confided to a reporter. She didn’t have a cell phone to call people who could help her anyway, she said.
On Labor Day weekend, Dalton left for Lithonia with a man she calls “Dad” but is no relation, she said. They clashed, and Dad drove her back to Ashview Heights. She was free.
“I’m certified to do what I want,” Dalton boasted. “I’m just a complete, self-owned person.”
Return to the streets
Of all the prostitutes who worked the streets of Ashview Heights, it was Dalton who caused the most grief. She strutted in the street with her crotch exposed or howled and shouted for no reason. In February, Crawford recorded her as she stripped and danced in a neighbor’s front yard.
The Fulton County District Attorney’s Office prosecuted some of Dalton’s prior misdemeanor charges as felonies using state repeat offender laws.
Yet when prosecutors asked the Ashview Heights Neighborhood Association whether they should recommend that Dalton serve prison time, the association voted to support drug treatment instead.
“Everybody needs options,” said David Gregory-Yarborough, who has served as association president on and off for about a decade.
Dalton behaved strangely, but she couldn’t help herself, said Nate Davis, who held court on a rickety Ashby Grove porch on warm evenings. The locals who gathered there to pass the time knew her as “Asia,” they said, and showed no surprise when she bounded up the steps Sept. 4, the evening Crawford first spotted her. She hid a crack pipe in her hand.
Dalton asked to borrow a lighter, but Davis ignored her.
“Where’ve you been?” Davis asked, adding that she should rely on God in her times of trouble. Dalton fidgeted and asked for a cigarette.
Davis objected. “I have only six left.”
Dalton asked again for his lighter.
“You’re going to blaze right in front of a reporter?” Davis said, nodding at the AJC journalist sitting next to her. “Be patient, now.”
Dalton sulked beneath the black, brimmed hat and hurried off down Ashby Grove.
On Saturday Sept. 7 at 7:04 p.m., an Atlanta police officer spotted a woman in the yard of a vacant house on Ashby Grove.
“The individual appeared to be rolling around in the dirt,” the report read.
It was Dalton, who was trying to sleep. A warrant check showed she was wanted in North Carolina for an 18-year-old violation of probation charge, but authorities there did not want her back.
Police cited her with occupying a vacant and placarded property and gave her a court date for later that month. Dalton failed to show up.
‘Angela needs help’
Residents snapped photos as she passed and shared them on a neighborhood association text message chain, but as outrageous as her behavior was, she typically avoided arrest.
One Sunday, she ambled down Ashby Grove in a zebra-print tunic with three-quarter sleeves, but no pants. An attempt to hide from cameras by draping a black T-shirt over her head only made her more conspicuous.
Some residents emailed or sent text messages to Atlanta Police Department Maj. Charles Hampton, who sent his Crime Suppression Unit to address Dalton and other reports of prostitution. For minor crimes such as indecent exposure, his officers have to witness the behavior themselves to make an arrest, he said.
Prostitution is hard to prove in court because sex workers and customers lie, he said.
“Yes, we all are probably 100% sure that’s what’s going on, but my officers won’t be able to write a case and get a successful prosecution because of it,” Hampton said.
Arresting Dalton would not solve her problems, Hampton said, and the agency does not have social workers to find her drug treatment and other assistance. The Atlanta/Fulton County Pre-Arrest Diversion Initiative, a program that provides treatment and services to those accused of minor, nonviolent crimes, does not operate in Ashview Heights.
Dalton’s arrest record was probably too long for her to qualify, anyway.
“Angela needs help,” Hampton said. “She needs services outside what can be provided by the police department.”
It was up to the courts to help Dalton.
The court’s next chance at Dalton came Oct. 2, when she flagged down a vehicle on Mitchell Street while holding a crack pipe in her left hand.
The two police officers who emerged from the vehicle knew who she was, but Dalton tried to fake them out just the same, an arrest report said. She tossed the pipe onto the ground and introduced herself as Donna Johnson.
Police arrested Dalton, but her drug paraphernalia charge was dropped the next morning by municipal court prosecutors. A judge sentenced her to time served on her count of making a false representation to police.
Less than 24 hours after her arrest, Dalton lounged on a bench outside of Atlanta City Detention Center smoking a borrowed cigarette.
Maybe it was time to make a change, Dalton said. “I know I’m worth it.”
Or maybe it wasn’t. Cocaine is more to her than an addiction, she explained.
“I’m very powerful when I smoke,” she announced, but her basic needs soon distracted her.
“I’m tired. I’m hungry. I need a Honey Bun,” she said, and pointed to a silent man in a red shirt who sat nearby.
“He’s going to get me something to eat,” she said. “I’m not going to have sex or nothing.”
‘Redeemable from anything’
Crawford learned Oct. 9 that a fire was burning on Ashby Grove street when a neighbor knocked on her door at 9 a.m. As she hurried down the street, she could see smoke rising from the roof of the vacant house she purchased as an investment for her children.
Plywood that covered the back door had been torn off. People milling outside told Crawford that Dalton had been there.
The fire charred a patch of the living room carpet, but no one was injured, and the house was saved. Crawford’s belief that Dalton could change if she mustered enough strength remained unshaken.
“I still feel she’s redeemable from anything, if she just applies that will to herself,” she said. Someday, when Dalton is in treatment, Crawford hopes to visit with her.
An arson case remains open and investigators are aware that Dalton was at the scene, said Atlanta Fire Rescue Department spokesman Sgt. Cortez Stafford. They have questioned her in several fires around the neighborhood over the years, but there has never been enough evidence to tie her to a case, he said.
That evening at about 5 p.m., Dalton flashed longtime homeless outreach worker Marshall Rancifer and asked for $5.
“Five dollars,” said Rancifer. “That’s the cheapest kind of rock there is.”
Dalton cursed and hollered when she realized Rancifer was there to offer help. Based on his experience, rehab was pointless.
“She’s going to have to lose every single thing she has before she stops,” he said.
Police arrested Dalton two hours later on the steps of a vacant house on Camilla Street. The words “KEEP OUT” were spray painted on boards nailed over its windows, the report said.
Dalton faced a misdemeanor count of occupying a vacant and placarded property.
‘Can you do leniency?’
What happened was “a failure on the part of the system,” Judge Herman Sloan said Oct. 22 in Atlanta municipal court. Sloan, who monitored Dalton’s stay at House of Cherith, said people in Dalton’s position need aftercare, he said.
This time, Dalton’s sentences would total one year: six months each for the September and October counts of occupying a vacant property, stacked end to end. She would serve them at the House of Cherith, which was so eager to take Dalton back that her social worker appeared at the hearing.
Sloan said he wasn’t doing this to punish her, but to give her more time in treatment. Plus, the residents of Ashview Heights would get a break.
Dalton was shaken.
“Can you do leniency?” she asked. “That’s the longest I’ve ever done in my life.”
Dalton was expected to enter treatment within days of her sentencing, but she remained in jail nearly six weeks later. The center had run out of beds, her attorney Tunde Ezekiel told Judge Sloan during a Dec. 5 hearing. Dalton stood next to him in handcuffs, holding a Bible.
Ezekiel called seven treatment centers personally and found no alternatives, he told Sloan. As a conflict attorney, he works separately from the city’s public defenders office and its team of social workers.
“Seven?” Sloan asked.
“Yes,” Ezekiel confirmed. Some had no space. Others had drug treatment, but no housing. He was waiting to hear back from three of them.
“Okaayyy,” Sloan replied. He asked Dalton if she understood.
“I do hear what’s going on,” she said. “I’m just being patient, I guess.”
She told Sloan she spent her time in jail reading the Bible and working as a helper to her jailers.
“I know what you want,” she said. Dalton’s next status hearing is on Jan. 9.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.