When Joe Mullin heard a hissing sound coming from the parking lot behind his apartment on May 4, he didn’t think much of it. Mullin was spending a typical night in his one-bedroom at 1755 N St. NW—watching television with the sound off, listening to the radio, sitting at his living room table. About 10 seconds later, he heard the same sound—pfffttt!—through his open window. This time, the noise registered with the 45-year-old Corcoran art student and Vietnam vet—it was another tire slashing. “Holy shit,” Mullin thought. “I made the connection right there. Son of a bitch.”

Mullin raced down the narrow hallway into the lot. Outside, he says, he spotted his landlord, Morton Bender, and a business associate getting into their cars. The burly Mullin lashed out, “You fucking prick!” Two tires had been punctured.

The rear parking lot was a novel place for Mullin to confront Bender. Over the past five years, the two have confined their fights to Landlord and Tenant court. Since purchasing the apartment building in 1988, Bender has sought to convert it to office space—a move that would entail ousting Mullin and the other remaining tenant, Georgette Miller. Both tenants adore the building’s Old World touches and refuse to move out of their own free will. (See “Downtown Ghost Town,” 3/5/96.)

The conversion would have taken place years ago if not for Mullin’s resourcefulness. Equipped with his manual Royal typewriter, Mullin has crafted dozens of landlord-tenant appeals, briefs, and motions that seize on D.C. laws governing property conversions. Although Mullin’s avenues for recourse are narrowing, he has cost Bender thousands in forgone revenues and legal fees.

Mullin says his nemesis began to show the strain of battle early last winter. He blames Bender for spray-painting “GO” on his 1965 Volkswagen Bug, prompting parking-enforcement drones to ticket cars parked on private property behind the building, and slashing the tires of Miller and a friend in March. The May 4 incident, Mullin says, only strengthens his case.

After Mullin confronted him, Bender sped away. Mullin says Richard Vermillan, Bender’s associate, jerked his 1997 Cadillac Seville into reverse, nearly hitting him. According to Mullin and Miller, who witnessed the confrontation, Mullin leapt on the car’s trunk to protect himself and to prevent Vermillan from fleeing. Vermillan, however, managed to buck Mullin and take off. Miller called the cops, who arrived in about 10 minutes.

Officers from the Metropolitan Police Department refused to write up Vermillan for the incident but did file a report on the slashings. (Third District police officers failed to produce a copy of the report when asked by a Washington City Paper reporter.)

On May 8, Mullin awoke at 6 a.m. to a knock on the door. A few 3rd District officers had come to arrest him for allegedly assaulting Vermillan with a knife. Mullin claimed he had never brandished a knife, and the charges were downgraded to simple assault and destruction of property. (Vermillan claimed that Mullin inflicted $1,500 in damages on his Cadillac, according to the crime report.) Sgt. Dale Sollars, a 3rd District supervisor who reviewed the incident, says, “The person who calls the police first is [usually] the victim. Why [Vermillan] wasn’t arrested I don’t know.” Sollars says there are no suspects and no witnesses in the tire slashings.

Bender denies any wrongdoing and admits only hemming in the tenants’ cars with his own. “I own the property,” he explains. “I park where I want to park.” Bender says he didn’t slash anyone’s tires.

The arrest came amid other bad news for Mullin. At the end of April, the District’s rental housing commission dismissed one of Mullin’s appeals. And on May 21, the D.C. Court of Appeals affirmed a previous order by the Landlord and Tenant court authorizing Bender attorney Mark Brodsky to evict Mullin.

Ten minutes before Brodsky and crew were ready to evict Mullin on June 2, the tenacious tenant filed for bankruptcy and got a stay on his eviction. The ploy, says Brodsky, is “another abuse of the system by someone who has masterfully and dutifully and willfully perverted the system that is supposed to protect tenants.”

That very system, says Mullin, was designed to protect him: “I’m not going to give up now. It’s just the beginning, man….I’m still here, aren’t I?”CP