TAMPA — One text included a photo of a hooded Klansman, arms outstretched in front of a burning cross. Others used explicit racist language.
According to a lawsuit filed by the city of Tampa, those texts were among a series of missives outlining a plan by an apartment property manager to falsely portray resident Shelquen Washington, mother of three young children, as a bad parent and tenant who deserved to be evicted.
The suit alleges that when property manager Vincent Lambert sent the Klansmen text to the complex’s maintenance man in early 2018, the maintenance man asked if Lambert was the one in the white robe and hood.
Lambert didn’t answer directly, the suit says, but instead wrote, “it’s a secret organization ... ya know. Have to kill you after.”
The text is one of many containing explicit racist language and revealing a plan to build a case for eviction against Washington by accusing her of drug dealing, neglecting her children and other bad behavior, according to the lawsuit filed late last year by the city of Tampa against Lambert and Christian Podedworney, the owner of the four-unit complex in North Tampa.
Lambert and Podedworney are white. Washington is black.
Lambert said Thursday that the texts were fabrications. He said the maintenance man, Christopher Stout, was upset about getting fired for performance issues.
Washington scoffs at that claim.
“Who’s going to make a fake page with your picture?” she said Thursday in an East Tampa apartment where she now lives with her children.
When Stout showed her the texts, Washington said, she was overcome with emotion.
“I just cried and cried,” said the 31-year-old who had just moved from Myrtle Beach, S.C., when she first crossed paths with Lambert. She remembers thinking: “What did I do wrong?"
She said Stout apologized for his own use of racial epithets in the texts. Both Washington and Lambert said Stout is now dead, but Washington says his decision to help her still resonates.
“God bless his soul,” she said.
Lambert said legal proceedings will prove he didn’t send any racist texts.
“The stuff is shocking. It’s just shock value. There is all this evidence of why she was kicked out,” Lambert said.
Lambert and Podedworney filed reports with the Florida Department of Children and Families and the Tampa Housing Authority in an effort to evict Washington from her apartment on 4907 Temple Heights Road shortly after she moved into her unit in November 2017, according to the suit.
Washington said Lambert began his campaign after she rejected his advances, which included informing her that he would not mind “having his first piece of dark meat," the suit alleges.
“She is saying you hate someone, but you want to be with them?” Lambert said in a phone interview. “Those are just two polar opposite accusations.”
Podedworney, the property owner, said he fired Lambert after the city began its human rights investigation, which led to its decision to sue.
“Based upon that information, I cannot work with somebody who cannot perform the tasks. I didn’t want to create a hostile environment where there are issues,” Podedworney said Thursday. “I want to be the best I can be and make sure I provide the best environment for my tenants.”
Podedworney said Lambert, who owned his own property management company, had worked for him for about four years without previous incidents. He said other tenants had called about Washington.
“The facts speaks for themselves when several people tell you the same thing,” Podedworney said.
Podedworney, who lives in New York, said he has owned property in that state and Florida since 2008 without any incidents. He said he visits Tampa about once a year and isn’t involved with daily operations at his properties.
“My track record speaks for itself," he said.
Court records show CTP Financial, the property firm owned by Podedworney, and Lambert evicted at least four other residents from Podedworney’s properties for non-payment of rent.
A move to evict Washington failed in August 2018 when a Hillsborough County judge found in her favor. After Podedworney and Lambert declined to renew her lease, Washington left the apartment that November.
Meanwhile, Washington filed a housing discrimination complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in May. The federal agency forwarded her complaint to the city’s Office of Human Rights, which found in her favor in October.
The city filed the suit in Hillsborough Circuit Court in December. On Monday, the Miami-based Disability Independence Group joined the suit on Washington’s behalf, arguing in part that Lambert deliberately locked the gate to a playground as part of his efforts to dislodge her.
Washington has a 7-year-old daughter who has a mental disability and often wanders. The enclosed playground in back of the apartment had been part of the reason why she decided to rent there.
About a month ago, Washington moved into her new apartment on East Hillsborough Avenue. Her new complex has several playgrounds where she feels safe taking her daughter, Laon’iah. And most of the children in the complex attend the same elementary school, which has helped ease the transition.
“I love it,” Washington said.
Times staff writer Christopher O’Donnell contributed to this report.