Lawsuit tied to fatal N. Philly boarding house blaze adds to landlord's legal, financial woes

A relative of three people who died in a March fire at an illegal North Philadelphia boarding house is suing their landlord, claiming his negligence and unsafe conditions at the property ultimately led to their deaths.

But if they hope to collect a monetary judgment against Tyrone Duren or his company, Granite Hill Properties, they’ll have to get in line.

Since the March 20 blaze – which killed Alita Johnson, 25; her son Haashim, 3; and her stepfather, Horace McCouellem, 63 – Duren has been besieged by investigations, tax liens, fines, and the threatened forfeiture of many of the properties he owns in the city.

As recently as last week, Duren told a court in San Diego – where federal investigators have alleged that he used his property rental business to launder stolen drug money – that his financial outlook is dire.

“Since that fire,” he wrote in a court filing Friday, “the City of Philadelphia has attempted to shut down all of my commercial properties and many tenants have simply refused to pay [rent] based on the publicity associated with the fire.”

Still, Duren admitted in the document, he has been using his credit card to charge up to $9,000 a month to finance his life at what federal prosecutors have described as his “lavishly furnished,” $700,000 house outside San Diego.

Duren, 47, a former U.S. Department of Homeland Security agent, and his criminal attorney, John D. Kirby, did not return requests for comment Monday. Calls to phone numbers listed for Granite Hill, which owns 28 rental properties in poverty-stricken neighborhoods across North and Southwest Philadelphia, went unanswered.

In her civil suit, filed earlier this month in Common Pleas Court, Tamika Johnson – Alita Johnson’s sister and the administrator of her estate – asks a jury to award her more than $100,000 in damages.

The complaint cites many of the same faults city officials flagged in their investigation earlier this year into the circumstances that led to the fire at 1855 N. 21st St.

Among them: Granite Hill had not obtained a proper license to rent out the rowhouse to multiple tenants, and Duren had failed to install required fire escapes and smoke detectors that might have alerted the tenants to the blaze.

“By the time [the three victims] had realized that a fire had started, it was too late to escape the building,” Tamika Johnson’s attorney, Thomas A. Lynam III, wrote in their filing. “Ms. Johnson called 911 … and remained on the line with the dispatcher for approximately 10 minutes, begging for rescue of her family [as they] huddled in the unit’s bathroom shower stall in a desperate effort to avoid the encroaching flames and smoke.”

Their bodies were found three days after firefighters cleared the scene – and only after family members requested that they return to the rowhouse’s charred remains in search of their missing relatives.

But even as city officials investigated how they might have missed the Johnsons, they vowed to fully investigate Duren and his business for fostering an environment that ultimately led to tragedy.

Philadelphia Properties Owned by Tyrone Duren

March’s fatal fire at a boarding house in North Philadelphia occurred at 1855 N. 21st St., one of at least 28 city properties owned by Granite Hill Properties LLC or US Holding LLC, two management companies owned by Tyrone Duren and his family.
Click on the map for more information.
SOURCE: Office of Property Assessment; analysis by MICHELE TRANQUILLI
Staff Graphic

A city spokesman said that officials met with prosecutors in March to recommend criminal charges against Duren and his business. The District Attorney’s Office would not say Monday whether it was moving ahead with its own investigation.

Meanwhile, the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections – after visiting all 28 city properties owned by Duren, Granite Hill, and its associated entities in the wake of the fire – said it had found nine more properties operating as unlicensed rooming houses, four of which, like the North 21st Street house, lacked proper smoke alarms.

Code violations were found at all of the sites owned by Duren, department spokeswoman Karen Guss said Monday. Inspectors were initially denied entry to 10 of Granite Hill’s rental homes and are circling back for a second attempt to inspect those properties.

Still, the greatest legal threat Duren faces is in California, where he is scheduled to go on trial in September on charges of conspiracy, money laundering, bank fraud, tax evasion, and lying to federal investigators.

Prosecutors in that case allege that Duren, while working as a federal agent, stole unknowable sums from drug traffickers caught in Southern California as far back as 2013 and used the money to fund lavish trips for his family to Canada, the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos Islands, the Cayman Islands, Russia, Israel, and Europe.

They also believe that some of the drug money was used to finance Granite Hill’s purchase of distressed buildings in Philadelphia, although investigators admit they have been unable to fully untangle the web of holding companies, multiple LLCs, and more than 25 bank accounts through which Duren and Granite Hill have moved their assets over the last several years – including one account opened in Croatia after Duren learned of the federal probe.

Although Duren appears to have access to hundreds of thousands of dollars, prosecutors said in recent court filings that they haven’t been able to trace that money to any legitimate source.

Duren has denied the allegations, maintaining that all of his money was earned as income from either his rental business or his latest career move as a “semi-professional” poker player.

Yet, in an affidavit filed Friday, Duren laid out a financial picture that suggested he may run out of money long before the Johnson family’s lawsuit can end up before a jury.

The federal government has seized nine of Granite Hill’s properties in Philadelphia and is seeking an additional $2 million in forfeiture should he be convicted. The company owes an additional $500,000 in mortgage payments while 12 of its buildings remain vacant, he said.

Since Duren was charged, monthly rent collections have plummeted from their peak of $60,000 a month in 2015 to less than a quarter of that sum, “putting me squarely in the red each month by some $15,000,” his affidavit states.

It was not clear Monday whether Duren had retained a lawyer to represent him in the Johnson family’s lawsuit. A judge has not set a date for an initial hearing in the case.