Opportunity Center security lax after assault, man says | August 30, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto Weekly

News - August 30, 2013

Opportunity Center security lax after assault, man says

Female victim in July 19 attack is paralyzed, in hospital

by Sue Dremann

A Palo Alto woman who was beaten July 19 at the Opportunity Center for formerly homeless people is largely paralyzed, according to her companion.

Vivian "Venus" Sarmago, 60, was allegedly punched and kicked at least 20 times by a drunken man while she was talking on her cell phone around 11:30 a.m. in the hallway outside her 33 Encina Ave. apartment, according to police. Her longtime companion, Lonnie Gullette, said she is making slow progress and is at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. She might not walk again, he added.

Gullette said he is frustrated about what he believes is inadequate security at the housing facility, which is located between Town and Country Village and the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. People who do not live there are not prevented from entering the building at all hours, he said.

"Nobody even stops anybody. They sneak in and out all night long. There are drug deliveries right out front," he said.

Charities Housing Development Corporation, which manages the residential center, did not return requests for comment.

Vanessa Cooper, a spokeswoman for the Housing Authority, which owns the housing development, said staff and a security guard are on duty "24/7."

"Visitors are required to check in, and we are making sure people are clear about the rules about having guests," she said.

When Sarmago was attacked, there was no security guard in the building, Gullette said. A guard is present at the building from 4 p.m. to 8 a.m. after the office closes, but he often does not check identification. There are security cameras, but they aren't monitored during the day, he said.

Since the assault, a new security person is on the site during the day. Gullette said the danger hasn't changed, however.

"He still checks no one. It's still just as lax as it can be," Gullette said.

Palo Alto police spokesman Lt. Zach Perron said the attack on Sarmago was well outside the norm of what police typically see at the center.

From July 1, 2012, to Aug. 15, 2013, police responded to 254 calls for service at the Opportunity Center. Of those, 37 resulted in police reports with 19 arrests.

There were five cases of simple battery, four of domestic violence, five outstanding warrants and a range of other cases, including one sex crime, according to Perron.

"We do go to a lot of calls at the Opportunity Center. That's not surprising to us, due to the number of people there who are in a highly transitional point of their lives. It would be difficult for us to compare the number of calls there to any other location in town due to the Opportunity Center's unique nature.

"Disturbance calls and mental health-related calls are probably the most common. 'Disturbance calls' is a general category, but includes active fights, verbal altercations, noise complaints, etc. There are also warrant arrests, theft calls, parking complaints, and a smattering of pretty much everything else one would expect from a facility that houses and/or provides services to that many people," Perron said.

But he added the department has a good working relationship with Opportunity Center staff and residents.

"They routinely contact us if there's a need for officers at their facility, and staff assists in our investigations whenever possible. The staff does a good job of involving police early, so that we can try to handle things at the lowest possible level and keep the peace," he said.

Michael Rowe Guilford, 46, of San Jose was arrested in the Sarmago case and charged with assault with a deadly weapon.

Guilford, who is not a resident, was staying with a friend at the center. He had allegedly gotten into an argument with another woman and blamed Sarmago for alerting the manager, according to Gullette.

Sarmago, meanwhile, remains paralyzed on her left side, Gullette said.

His voice shook during a recent interview, recalling her outgoing personality.

Now, he said, "the fear in her eyes — I sit there and I hold her hand and she squeezes my hand. I'm just so upset."

Philip Dah, program director for the Opportunity Center, referred an inquiry to the Housing Authority of Santa Clara County. A spokesperson for the nonprofit InnVision Shelter Network, which provides walk-in services at the Opportunity Center, said the nonprofit is not connected to the housing portion of the facility.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at sdremann@paweekly.com.