Over the past month, a Columbia man posing as a social worker has jammed disabled veterans into a Woodrow Street house with no water or electricity and had them “living in filthy conditions,” Melrose Heights neighbors and city police testified Monday at a bond hearing.
Conditions were so bad that seven “vulnerable adults” under the care of the man, Mitchell Smith, had to be taken into emergency protective custody Sunday by the S.C. Department of Social Services, police said. Vulnerable adults are those who cannot care for themselves due to age or physical or mental impairment.
The vulnerable adults came from two houses Smith rented, one at 2727 Gervais St. and the other a duplex at 1131 and 1133 Woodrow Street.
Smith, 45, who lives at the Gervais Street address, has been charged with posing as a social worker. The charge is a misdemeanor punishable by a $1,000 fine or a year in jail, according to state law.
“Your honor, puppies at my house live better than his clients,” Columbia police Investigator Steve Narewski told city Chief Judge Dana Turner.
Smith is also the subject of investigations by state and federal agencies based on his treatment of vulnerable adults in his care, Narewski said.
According to a police incident report, Smith “was collecting money from all the victims and was claiming to be their ‘social worker.’ The subject maintained all the victims’ money, food and any identification they had,” the incident report said.
Narewski said: “There is a distinct possibility he’s going to be facing some exploitation of vulnerable adult charges in the near future.”
At Monday’s hearing at the Alvin Glenn Detention Center, Turner set a $100,000 surety bond for Smith. That means Smith or a bail bondsman had to post a $10,000 cash guarantee before he could leave jail.
Before bond was set, Smith told the judge he had been working to correct problems with the property and that his main goal is to help the homeless.
“This is what I do – I go out and I help people,” Smith said. He said he has a 2007 master’s degree in social work from the University of South Carolina and is trained to house people who need housing. A USC spokesman confirmed Smith received such a degree.
“I kind of help out with homeless people, place them in housing, put them in homes and stuff. That’s probably why I’m here now, because I put them in the wrong neighborhood,” Smith said. He was not represented by a lawyer at the hearing.
Police declined to comment further on the case.
Several key questions remained unanswered:
How did Smith round up these vulnerable people and start to care for them?
How much money did Smith receive each month from his tenants, who were said to get monthly government checks?
How did police and DSS determine that the people under Smith’s care were “vulnerable adults”?
In the court hearing, Narewski also said that city housing inspections determined that an illegal number of people were living at the Woodrow Street house. Under city zoning laws, no more than three unrelated people can live in a dwelling.
Neighbors told the judge that Smith had turned their street into an inhospitable place where strange men had fights in the yard, frightening children by day and, by night, making loud noise.
In their statements to the judge, neighbors said they were particularly concerned about the potential menace to numerous children posed by Smith’s tenants.
An elementary school bus unloads children each afternoon right across from the Woodrow Street duplex, neighbors said. A day care center and a Montessori preschool and kindergarten are located within a block. Numerous children live on the street as well, neighbors said.
As for conditions at the house, the power was off, the water was off and tenants had to wash their clothes in the tub because there was no washer or dryer, police told the judge.
Kevin Kaminski, secretary of the Melrose Heights Neighborhood Association, told the judge, “Since Mr. Smith took over management of the Woodrow property; there’s been general anxiety in the neighborhood ... these men, wandering around the neighborhood during the day, asking for cigarettes and approaching children.”
City police have to guard the bus stop “to make sure the children are dropped off safely,” Kaminski said. “We are concerned if Mr Smith is released, he will do this either at another property in our neighborhood or in another neighborhood. We just don’t want that to happen.”
Raleigh Joye, a neighbor who lives across from the Woodrow Street duplex, told the judge the people at the house appear to “have serious mental issues, substance abuse and medical attention that was not provided ... they were wandering into people’s yards, scaring the daylights out of peoples’ small children. They were just really not cared for.”
Joye added: “These people needed supervision, they needed help, and they got nothing. They were living, like the officer said, in filth, with very little food and supervision from Mr. Smith.”
Neighbor Erica Ferrell Jones told the judge that neighbors have seen Smith’s tenants fighting with each other. Another had a seizure in the yard, and another was “hallucinating and walking around.”
The suspect, Smith, told the judge he had had other houses for veterans but none where conditions were like the Woodrow Street house. “The conditions in the house, I admit, they were probably kind of more than what I am used to ... but I was trying to get the house together.”
Smith was supposed to provide food for the men. He said he “kept the refrigerator locked at all times, because one person would go in there and eat up everything out of the refrigerator....so we had one person who would go in there and try to prepare a meal.”
Judge Turner asked Smith about a dozen or so criminal charges in his past – from fraudulent checks to drug possession – and Smith said that he had been the victim of identity theft by his brother, who used crack cocaine.
Smith’s ex-wife, who did not give her name, said she would take Smith in if the judge let him out in her custody.
“Mitch has a huge heart. He’s a great heart. This is really unfortunate,” said the woman, who said she is a licensed administrator for a residential care facility. “He has a heart for homeless veterans and substance abuse folks, people he can relate to. It’s really unfortunate the community does not welcome these people with open arms. ... He’s a disabled veteran himself.”
Turner did not show much sympathy for Smith. When he told her he had a master’s degree in social work, she replied, “If that’s the case then, you know the right way to do it.”
After she set bond, Smith asked, “Isn’t that kind of high for this kind of charge? I’m not a flight risk.”
Turner said, “That’s a pretty high bond, I agree. I’m leaving it.”
If Turner makes bond, the judge said, he is not to have any contact with Melrose Heights neighbors or his former tenants.