Sunday, June 24, 2007

A hard, notorious fall
ends in death by the railroad tracks

Robert Sumbry ran Atlanta's agency that provided housing for the poor in the 1980s. But after he became homeless, no one believed his stories of what he had once been.

Delores Young knew one of Sumbry's tenants who complained in the 1980s. Bonnie Owens, a nearly blind woman, was threatened with eviction for coming forward, she said. "I feel bad," said Young, about how Sumbry had died. "But when you do people wrong in life, bad things happen to you."

Fulton County Medical Examiner's case 07-0989 looked open and shut: Life expectancy is not good for 63-year-old alcoholic diabetics on the street.

But the life and death of a former Atlanta city official was anything but simple. Robert F. Sumbry apparently never recovered from a hard, notorious fall that sent him to federal prison and forever altered his life.

At the same time the agency he ran was making more than 1,500 units habitable for poor families, he was buying his own houses to rent out to poor people and threatened to evict them if they didn't pay more than Section 8 allowed. Mary Bennett, an epileptic who could not read, was one such tenant. Her family complained to Atlanta Legal Aid.

The legal aid case led to a federal investigation. The sympathetic victims
-- working mothers, the elderly, the sick -- made the case dramatic and put it on the top of the evening news. One victim had her heat cut off and huddled with her children by the fireplace. "When [she] refused to pay any more, he gave her 10 days to get out of her house and threw her furniture after her," the prosecutor told the judge as Sumbry was being sentenced after pleading guilty to three fraud counts.

Sumbry, then 44, got five years.

Broken by prison, he ended up on the street, where he died.

Read the Atlanta Journal-Constitution story here.


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