Tom Cadwell and others living in five old motorhomes on vacant private land off B Street are still mourning the loss of their friend, Jose Delgado-Diaz.
He was fatally stabbed following a fire on the property Oct. 10, according to the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office. Her body was found more than four hours later behind a nearby adult entertainment club.
“We miss him,” Cadwell said Monday. “It’s always a sensitive subject.”
Two RVs and a pickup truck burned during the blaze, which Stratmoor Hills Fire Chief Shawn Bittle said could have consumed 20 or 30 homes because the lot ends in a residential area south of Colorado Springs.
Adding to community grief is that they were described as a homeless camp, Cadwell said.
They refuse to be called homeless, he said, because they have been identified by firefighters, law enforcement and the media.
“We’re not homeless,” Cadwell said. “It degrades us in a way.”
Residents have jobs or earn income selling scrap metal, for example, said Cadwell, owner of Cadwell’s Home Repair LLC.
Some have college degrees, he said, and just because they don’t live in traditional homes doesn’t mean they don’t have rights.
“We’re here to try to make it work,” he said. “We are also human. We deserve this chance to get back on our feet.
But the inhabitants are no longer sure of their fate.
People live there legally and aren’t considered squatters or trespassers because Greg Lee, one of two people charged in Delgado-Diaz’s death, had permission from the Savers Trust to live there and allowed others to sublet, said Mindy Madden, strategic services manager for the county’s code enforcement.
Lee was asking $100 a month in rent, Cadwell said.
However, living on the property without running water, bathrooms or electrical hookups and in unlicensed RVs violates local residential codes, Madden said.
“Because of the looks of how people assume it’s a homeless camp, but it’s not,” said Kevin Mastin, acting director of planning and Community Development of El Paso County.
Cadwell said he moved into the property two years ago with Delgado-Diaz, and the couple were misled by a man who told them he owned the property. He does not have.
Their plan was to build small houses. Instead, another man, Lee, decided to buy the 1.4 acre piece of land in the Stratmoor Hills neighborhood which borders a stream and carry out the development plan for a housing estate.
Lee had made a deposit on the land, said Joe Brinkerhoff, managing director of current owner Durango-based Savers Trust.
Lee and another resident are now in jail without bail and face first-degree murder charges.
Bittle, the fire chief, told El Paso County commissioners last week that the fire was suspected to be arson and that the Delgado-Diaz murder occurred “when a member of the homeless camp murdered the person they thought started the fire”.
Sheriff’s deputies arrested Lee on October 12 and Gabriel Clark was arrested on October 21.
Brinkerhoff, whose trust owns multistate real estate, said he allowed Lee to stay on the land, but had a contract that said no one else could live on the property.
“Greg (Lee) told me he was going to clean it up,” said Brinkerhoff, a Republican who wanted to bid for a seat in Colorado House District 59 in 2018, but a snafu with paperwork got him. prevented from continuing his campaign.
In addition to burned vehicles, the grounds are littered with abandoned furniture such as sofas and chairs, other household items and trash.
Bittle told county commissioners last week that firefighters discovered raw sewage, abandoned vehicles, large cabins, flammable liquids such as gasoline used to run generators and other toxic contaminants during the fight against the fire of October 10.
Cadwell says he knows the trash has gotten out of control and he hauls at least one load a day. His goal is to get a dumpster.
Code enforcement opened a county code violation case in May 2021, Madden said, and the fire occurred while the county was following civil, not criminal, legal process.
Savers Trust did not respond to a contempt citation and a deliberation hearing is scheduled for Nov. 10, which would be followed by the setting of a trial date, County Administrator Bret Waters said.
It’s typical procedure for code violations, Madden said.
“The owner wants to comply, generally,” she said. “In this case, the owner has been complacent and unwilling to take responsibility.”
Brinkerhoff said he was trying to find a compromise with county officials.
“I’m trying to find someone to help me in this situation,” he said. “I want to solve problems and keep neighbors happy.”
The owners’ campers are too old to rent space at an RV park, Cadwell said.
“We try to build each other up and be good for the community, not bring it down,” he said.
Bittle said law enforcement has been dispatched to the site nearly 70 times and his fire protection district has responded to incidents more than three dozen times over the past two years.
He called the situation a danger to public safety and said he wanted county officials to do something about it.
“We can’t go to this property without a court order to clean it up,” Madden said.