Jessie Washington called last weekend to share the news that she had killed a snake that slithered into her yard from an abandoned house next door. She beat it to death with a broomstick. She whacked it so hard that the stick broke.
I mention this because Washington is 88 years old.
No 88-year-old woman should be doing this. Washington says she has no choice. She is one of many victims, although indirectly, of the biggest housing thief in Fort Worth history.
Norris Fisher is serving a 20-year prison sentence for stealing more than 140 properties in Tarrant County, most of them in Fort Worth. He was sentenced in April. But the mess he left lives on.
Scattered throughout the region are property owners or their heirs who struggle to regain ownership of properties stolen in an elaborate scheme that involved forged signatures, usually of dead people, and the buying and selling of properties that were often empty.
The house next door to Washington's in Fort Worth's Lake Como neighborhood is one of many. But you can't see the house anymore. The outside vegetation rises to the roofline.
I first wrote about this abandoned house last year. After that, Fort Worth Code Compliance cleaned up some of the mess in the back yard. But there's only so much that department can do. The legal mess of proper ownership must be untangled.
Until that happens, though, the Jessie Washingtons of the region who live beside these stolen properties must put up with blight.
Code Compliance officials say this house is a perfect example of why the City Council needs to enact a nuisance-vegetation ordinance.
Code Compliance Director Brandon Bennett explains, "Vegetation increases the deterioration of the structure, is blight and provides concealment for transients and children at play."
An ordinance, he says, would force owners of the abandoned properties to trim bushes and trees.
Bennett says city staffers expect to bring up such an ordinance to the council this summer.
The cost to taxpayers would be zero, he says, because all the personnel to handle the new chores are already in place.
An ordinance already lets the city regulate high grass and weeds, but it does not address living trees, shrubs and other growth.
A 2010 city report states that excessive vegetation around a property hinders emergency responders in the event of fire or crime. Bushes that cover sidewalk areas also allow for ambushes of crime victims or force pedestrians to the street.
Code Compliance receives hundreds of complaints a year about nuisance vegetation, but without an ordinance, no action can be taken.
"Removing and trimming nuisance vegetation on abandoned properties, with and without structures, can be the difference between a safe and clean environment and one that attracts the criminal element," the report concludes.
But the city has to deal with another problem, too: how to get the stolen properties back in the hands of their rightful owners.
That's a legal nightmare.
The heir to the empty house beside Washington's doesn't have the money to pay for a lawyer to help him. (Actually, Fisher stole two properties from this family.)
City and county officials say they are trying to round up a posse of lawyers who are willing to donate legal help to return the properties to their rightful owners.
Fisher perpetrated the housing crime of the century. Now the Fort Worth legal community is being asked to step up and help make things right. Many of the victims cannot afford the legal help that it will take.
Lawyers interested in doing pro bono work should contact the point man for this big project: Stephen T. Meeks, managing partner of the Fort Worth office of the tax-collecting law firm Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson.
I know at least one 88-year-old varmint-killing woman who would be most grateful.
The Watchdog column appears Fridays and Sundays.
Dave Lieber, 817-390-7043