DULUTH -- Leaders with a Gwinnett-based ministry for troubled men claim a landlord locked them out of their Duluth thrift store and stole $65,000 worth of donated merchandise -- the lifeblood of their business -- behind their backs.
The owner of the 3560 Buford Highway property, Charles Richards, 73, counters that the charges stem from "a sham" he fell victim to.
Richards, a Florida resident, and another tenant named Alan Polson, 47, who manages a transmission shop next door, were arrested last week on felony theft by taking charges. Both were released on bond hours later.
Arrest warrants and a Duluth police report state that Richards and Polson acted to lock out the operators of Meet the Need Thrift Store, and then sold thousands of dollars worth of furniture, electronics, clothing and other items without permission.
The ministry's executive director, Jane Alvarez, said the items included solid cherry furniture worth $2,700 and some 15,000 pieces of clothing, totaling more than $65,000. The ministry operates three homes in Gwinnett for men struggling with homelessness and addiction, and has branched into the thrift store business in recent years, she said.
The thrift store had occupied the Duluth location for about six months, where Alvarez said rent was $2,700 per month.
Richards, the property owner, said the ministry paid only one month's rent and abandoned the space.
"I can't rent it with a bunch of junk in there, and I told some people to get rid of some junk," said Richards from his Florida home Thursday.
Alvarez said the thrift store sold $7,800 in merchandise its first month, but then hemorrhaged sales when the city of Duluth enforced ordinances that limited the advertising signs and "waivers" that could be used on the property.
"Once the city cracked down ... our sales just dropped to nothing," she said.
Alvarez said the ministry was in the process of moving the thrift store to a Lawrenceville location when the locks were changed. She reported to Duluth police on Aug. 22 that Richards' friend, Polson, was selling her merchandise at a store "closeout sale."
An officer found "large neon green signs" advertising a sale at the property. When questioned, Polson told police, "he was doing what the landlord asked him to do," the report states.
The officer suggested that Polson close the doors and put the signs away before initiating an investigation. Numbers for Polson found in phone records were disconnected.
Richards said he was unaware that merchandise was being sold. He drove up from Florida to sort matters out and was advised by police on Sept. 10 to turn himself in, he said.
By the time she was able to access the property, Alvarez said 80 percent of the merchandise was gone.
"We were trying to get our things out of there and get (Richards) paid," she said. "There will definitely be a civil action. We're still trying to get an attorney to help us."
Any landlord seeking to evict a tenant is required by law to file a dispossessory action and have the tenant served. Only a sheriff's agency can execute an eviction order after it's issued by a court, said Sheriff's Department spokesman Lt. Sean Smith.
Smith said he's not aware of anything in the law that permits landlords to lock tenants out.
Richards acknowledges that he erred in not filing a dispossessory action. The Buford Highway properties are the only ones he owns in Gwinnett, he said. The property was bought a decade ago with proceeds he received from the state, which bought his automobile recycling yard for a road project at Buford Highway and Pleasant Hill Road.
"We hadn't run into this before," he said. "I learned a valuable lesson."