RAPID CITY – A grandmother has been evicted from her house after nearly four years of living in Lakota Homes; due to a fire she had no responsibility for.
During the early morning hours of August 4, 2019, Connie Hopkins and her family were traveling back from Pine Ridge following the Oglala Nation Powwow. Upon arriving at her house in Lakota Homes in North Rapid, Hopkins smelled smoke. She originally thought it was a neighbor’s house, but soon found it was her own house. As she entered, the home was filled with smoke up to her knees.
Hopkins immediately had a family member call 911 as she entered the house with a water hose and went towards the room where the smoke was originating from. She was attempting to put out any flames she may have found. According to the grandmother, the fire department had arrived and contained the small fire located in one of the bedrooms of the house.
The family was away from the house for a “day and a half” while attending the powwow in Pine Ridge Village. During the time she was away, her granddaughter (11-years old) who was staying in a nearby residence had been coming in to feed the dog; she was chosen for this task because of her close relationship with the family pet. The granddaughter was staying in a home less than a block away, according to Hopkins.
During the fire investigation, Hopkins said her granddaughter was asked about the fire by officials from the fire department. The girl had admitted to lighting a “tall skinny candle” in the bedroom, but had later recanted that story; telling her grandmother that she was nervous and scared when talking to the officials. The granddaughter had stated she had put out the candle at about 9 p.m. on the night of August 3 and had returned to the residence she was staying at. Hopkins got home around 2 a.m. the following morning to find the back room had been on fire.
“I asked her a few days later, ‘Have you thought about this, about everything that happened, something that you remember?’ and she said, ‘I didn’t burn a candle, grandma’,” said Hopkins. “’I was scared. Besides when Fred said this was a meth lab; I’m only eleven years old. I don’t do drugs. I don’t even know nothing about that stuff.’” She said her granddaughter again stated she was scared when talking to the fire officials and answering all the questions.
Hopkins does not believe the cause of the fire was due to a candle that was allegedly lit and extinguished hours earlier and believes it may have been started from another source. She claims there was a cell phone in the room which may have exploded from being plugged in that may have started the fire. However the fire had started, Hopkins does not believe she is responsible for the fire and feels the eviction notice and sequence of notices she has received from Lakota Homes is necessary.
The fire has displaced Connie Hopkins and the four grandchildren she is raising in the home. Red Cross had housed the family in a motel room for a few days, but that soon ended and now the kids and grandmother are staying “here and there” with family and friends. Despite this, she still manages to get the kids on the bus for school in the morning. The home has been deemed uninhabitable due to smoke and fire damage.
Hopkins is being held responsible for the fire which caused $30,000 in damages. She did not have renters insurance. On August 12, Hopkins had received a Termination of Tenancy letter from Lakota Homes Property Manager, Fred Eisenbraun on behalf of the Integrity Management Company located in Waterville, IA.
The letter provided two reasons for the termination:
1. Member Guide Violation of Page 24, Section IV. I: “Parents or guardians are responsible for the conduct of their children and adolescent guests at all times.”
2. Occupancy Agreement Violation of Article 23: You are in material non-compliance with the Lease… (a) disrupt the livability of the project; (b) adversely affect the health or safety of any person or the right any tenant to the quiet enjoyment to the leased premises and related project facilities.
The letter had given Hopkins ten days to discuss the termination (August 23, 2019).Hopkins had sought out legal help in the matter regarding the fire and termination of tenancy, but was denied services by the Dakota Plains Legal Services.
Hopkins claims to have had a good relationship with Property Manager, Fred Eisenbraun, but was surprised when the former-police officer had allegedly told the grandmother that he suspected the bedroom was being used as a meth lab, according to Hopkins. The grandmother stated that she, nor her grandchildren ages 4-11, are not involved with meth use or production.
Following the termination letter, a South Dakota Notice of Belief of Abandonment notice had been posted on the door of the Lakota Homes residence. Although Hopkins and the children had not been living in the home, she had come periodically to check on things and had been taking valuable and irreplaceable items out of the home. This was in fear of having them stolen, including a sacred pipe and other ceremonial items. This is why Hopkins believes she received the abandonment notice.
The abandonment notice had stated the “real property will be deemed abandoned within the meaning of South Dakota Civil Code and your lease will terminate on 09.20.19.” The notice provided a 30 day timeframe to respond.
Finally, on August 22, Hopkins had received a letter from the Integrity Management Company confirming an agreement between the company and Hopkins which confirms the grandmother would agree to the following terms:
1. You are voluntarily vacating the premises to avoid eviction proceedings.
2. You will not be charged rent for any portion of the period from August 4th forward.
3. You will receive a clean landlord reference providing only dates of occupancy and confirmation you remitted monthly payments timely.
4. You will not be held responsible for the $10,000 deductible the property incurred as a result of the fire at your residence.
5. You will remove personal belongings… surrender possession by no later than Wednesday, August 28th 2019 on or before 5:00 p.m.
Under any other circumstance, these terms would be agreeable. But Connie Hopkins still feels this fire was not her fault. She does not believe in the findings of the fire officials, and would like an opportunity to continue to live at Lakota Homes. She has been struggling since the fire and has continued to have hard times trying to provide for her grandchildren. She lives on a fixed income and has been reaching out to the community and her tribal government for assistance. She has received very little in donations, but has been grateful for those who have helped.
Hopkins said she had no history of complaints while living at Lakota Homes. Her granddaughter who is being held responsible for this fire has no history of playing with matches or lighters.
“I feel that somebody will be able to step up and help and represent me to fight this. Because this is a lot. I live in Lakota Homes because I am on a certain income. I feel like I’m not guilty on this,” said Hopkins. “I came back at almost 2:30 that night. I could hear alarms going off. I started walking up the stairs and the here comes the smoke, almost to my knees.”
“I went up and had to come back out. I saw the hose laying there. I grabbed it and ran up to the room. When I peaked in, I crawled in the room and looked to the right. I seen like a foot of fire. I pointed the hose in that area and sprayed in a circle. I tried to get the flame out,” she said. She thought her granddaughter was on the bed, so she went to the bed and started to feel around for her. The granddaughter was not in the home.
This unfortunate fire has left a family displaced. Accusations have allegedly been hurled at Connie Hopkins and her family. She has been looking for help in several forms; legally, financially and emotionally. She does not have the finances to secure a new home in the near future. She continues to use the address of the empty house for her children to take the bus to school.
(Contact Richie Richards at firstname.lastname@example.org)