Nine months before the City of St. Louis took legal action against Dara Daugherty and her associates' wide-ranging "illegal rooming house" scheme, attorney Ryan Gavin took Daugherty to court with similar allegations — and won a $1.8 million judgment against her.
Gavin filed the lawsuit against Daugherty and one of her LLCs in April of 2023 on behalf of James Cole, who had rented a room from Daugherty in the Benton Park West neighborhood. Cole, a laborer, paid Daugherty $500 a month to stay at a property that had been condemned by the city and later described as "a haven for illegal drug use and criminal activity.”
Cole ended up being stabbed on site by another tenant. The lawsuit filed by Gavin alleged that Daugherty failed to provide her renters with "safe and inhabitable premise" in which to live, that she didn't provide repairs or maintenance or do any due diligence in screening renters and that all this amounted to negligence.
In the process of writing and researching that lawsuit, Gavin and just one other staffer at his firm uncovered much of what the city would later reveal in its bombshell suit, filed by its Affirmative Litigation Unit nine months later.
Gavin found out that Daugherty had bought many foreclosed properties on the cheap and that, without taking out a mortgage or maintaining insurance, she operated them as rooming houses.
"Dara was not afraid to sue people to evict them from her property. And some of those tenants had counterclaims, I think even had some pictures, if not just descriptions of the conditions they were living in, at other properties" he says. "At that point, this is starting to look like a pattern. That was kind of what when pieces were being put together."
The suit argued that Daugherty's lack of oversight and care for the property made it attractive to "dangerous persons who were likely to, and in fact did, commit criminal and harmful acts on the premises." Daugherty knew or should have known this, the suit says.
Gavin says the city also knew about Daugherty's operation and he wonders why it took so long to take action. Cole was stabbed in April 2021. The police report written up shortly thereafter states plainly that the house on Jefferson was operating as a rooming house. Police had been called there 40 times in the year preceding the double stabbing.
"The police were definitely very well aware of Dara and the problems at her properties. Why the police and the city counselor and whoever else didn't act, I don't know," he says.
The tenant who stabbed Cole in the Benton Park West home, James Gibson, sliced Cole's arm and slashed his abdomen, causing Cole to suffer a "partial disembowelment," according to a police report. Another man on the premises was stabbed as well. He too suffered a partial disembowelment, but was able to communicate with police when they arrived on the scene.
That same report lists Daugherty as a witness, saying that she was the one who called 911 and was present when police arrived.
Cole was transported to Saint Louis University Hospital, underwent surgery and was released after 17 days.
"He still receives physical therapy," Gavin says. "And really the problem for him is that he's a laborer. The loss of use of his right hand really ended his time at work."
Gavin says that after Cole suffered those injuries, Daugherty helped him apply for rental assistance through the State Assistance For Housing Relief program, also known as SAFHR. The federally funded, state-administered program was designed to help people affected by the COVID-19 pandemic to pay their rent, but the RFT reported earlier this week that it was not an uncommon way for Daugherty to receive payments for housing units the city had condemned.
"That money did go straight to her," Gavin says of Cole's SAFHR benefits.
Photos from the police report show a house in disarray, with trash strewn about alongside mattresses on the floor. Unplugged window units and space heaters sit on the floor, cardboard moving boxes stacked atop them. The city says that in 2022 two people died there.
The city's Building Division cited the property for collapsed walls, a collapsed roof, "rotten interior structures, and failing to maintain the premises in a safe and sanitary condition," among other code violations.
In September, ruling on Gavin's lawsuit, St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Michael Stelzer hit Daugherty and her LLC with a judgment of more than $1.8 million. Court records suggest neither Daugherty nor her attorney bothered to mount a defense. The judgment written by Stelzer says that she "didn't file responsive pleadings or otherwise defend."
It's unclear how much of that money Cole will be able to collect. Gavin says he is actively working on that now.
"We know that she has properties and so we're looking into whether or not we can collect through those properties," he says.