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Fannie Ivy house-hunted for only a year before she bought her three-bedroom rowhouse in southeast Washington. But really, she’d been waiting for that home all her life. “You know when you have that certain feeling,” Ivy says. “I said to myself, ‘Fannie, this is the house.’”

It’s an unassuming white home, tucked in among a string of others on a quiet block of Massachusetts Avenue. The paint looks newer than that on some of the neighboring houses, but it still peels around the windows, which are covered with bars. But Ivy says the skylight inside reminds her of the house where she grew up in Northwest. Besides, she’s wanted a house ever since she got married—and then divorced. She and her kids always lived in apartments, spreading themselves out in a few rooms of a shared building. She had to dip into her retirement fund from her job as a researcher to come up with the $5,000 down payment for the house. Then she moved four of her six kids and a granddaughter into the house, converting the porch into a fourth bedroom. Her oldest son James took the basement.

Not since Aug. 14, though, have Ivy or her kids entered the house without a police escort. They’ve been advised not to, Ivy says, by customs agents and other government officials who used the house that day to bust local drug dealers.

The day before the bust, Ivy’s 20-year-old daughter, Christina Dews, called from Charlotte, N.C., to say she’d been arrested by U.S. Customs agents for bringing cocaine into the country from Jamaica. The bad news got even uglier the following day, when federal agents showed up with Dews and used Ivy’s house to arrest Dews’ contacts, who lived in the neighborhood.

After the bust, Ivy says, officials told her the house—and anyone in it—were potential targets for bitter dealers who blamed Dews for ratting them out. Ivy and her kids haven’t slept in the house since. “I’m very frightened to lay my head in that house,” Ivy says. “It’s hurting me, real bad.”

The government is pretty quiet about Ivy’s situation, and most inquiries are usually directed to Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Best, who is prosecuting Dews and her cohorts. Best says there is nothing—legally—stopping Ivy from returning to her house. But Ivy says officials have warned her repeatedly that her house may now be a target for vengeful local drug lords. She says they’ve advised her not to return without the police, who usually draw their guns before entering.

Best wouldn’t comment on the safety of the house but points out that Ivy declined offers to join the witness protection program or to move to a temporary residence. He adds that officials offered Ivy a police escort when she re-entered the house, but they did not require it. Layne Lathram, a spokesperson for the U.S. Customs Department, can say little about Ivy’s house because it’s part of an ongoing investigation. “Cases like these are very fluid,” she says.

But Ivy and her lawyer, Joseph Peter Drennan, aren’t satisfied with the hush-hush bureaucratese. They plan to file several claims against customs, requesting up to $600,000 in compensation for the loss of property and emotional distress to her and her family. “[Ivy’s] a person who was working hard and playing by the rules,” Drennan says. “But because of the operation of her government, she doesn’t have a place to put her head at night. It’s sort of the war on drugs run amok.”

Ivy is no stranger to loss. She lost a husband and a 13-year marriage when the two divorced in 1983. James was killed two years ago by a stray bullet in a neighborhood shooting. Doctors said another son, Joseph, had mental and physical disabilities too severe for Ivy’s care and transferred him to a Boston hospital in 1990. Before she lost her home this fall, Ivy lost her daughter Christina to drugs.

“I was very hurt and very angry,” Ivy says. Her voice breaks into a near-sob, as it does often—on the subway, in her lawyer’s office, even on voice-mail messages. To look at her, you’d think she was all good cheer and sunshine. Her coal-black eyes are bright and greeting, her smile warm. Her embrace (which she gives even to near-strangers) is a firm and friendly one. But when she opens her mouth to speak, especially about her children or her home, the amiability gives way to raw, unfiltered pain. The result is a semipermanent whimper, a voice strained by years of heartbreak.

Ivy says she didn’t know Dews was involved in drugs until her arrest in August. Dews had told her mother she was going to Jamaica with a friend who’d won an island getaway. But when the two tried to re-enter the country during a layover in Charlotte, they were pulled out of the customs line and strip-searched. Customs agents found “a significant quantity” of cocaine on Dews’ person, according to her lawyer, James Rudasill. Dews told Ivy that the agents had then struck a deal, promising lesser charges if she would help them nab her buyers.

After the rest of the bust went down at Ivy’s house, agents put Dews in the witness protection program (along with Ivy’s other daughter, Kenita, who had met some of the dealers). Dews is still awaiting trial, charged with conspiracy to import a controlled substance. She faces 10 years to life imprisonment, Rudasill says. He confirms that agents agreed to lesser charges in exchange for Dews’ cooperation but says those decreased charges are still an “unresolved question.” Rudasill also says that the idea to use Ivy’s house for the sting operation came from customs agents. Dews had planned to page her contacts whenever she got in town, but wasn’t intending to call them to her mother’s house until the agents instructed her to do so, Rudasill says. And while agreements like Dews’ are “quite common,” he adds, agents usually choose public backdrops for arrests, not private residences.

Ivy’s lawyer Drennan is particularly bothered by the decision to use Ivy’s home. As far as he can see, the operation was a government-hatched idea, and agents are now responsible for whatever danger shrouds Ivy’s house. “They thought it would be easier to set up a sting operation in a private residence than a hotel room,” Drennan says. “But if Mrs. Ivy lived on M Street in Georgetown, I don’t think they would have used a private residence.”

And while there may be no legal document preventing Ivy from returning, she still feels unsafe doing so, especially if law enforcement has suggested that she should do so with gun-toting cops at her side. “[Agents] may not have explicitly ordered her not to go back,” Drennan says, “but if you put the question thus, if it were you, would you move back? They know what the score is.”

Agents also failed to get Ivy’s permission for the sting and didn’t produce any official documents or court orders authorizing their procedure, Drennan says. As far as he’s concerned, the entire “rogue operation” was botched from the get-go. He says Ivy’s 18-year-old son Kevin came home from a neighborhood basketball game only to find the agents and his sister in the midst of the sting. Ivy had told them he was down the street shooting hoops, but agents insisted there was no time to wait, Drennan says. When Kevin finally showed up, Drennan says agents had him wait on the porch while the arrests took place.

“I find it hard to believe that anything they’ve done would fit with any approved parameters,” Drennan says. “And if it does, that’s even more frightening.”

Customs spokesperson Lathram insists that agents followed all necessary rules and regulations when using Ivy’s house. Of course, exactly what those rules and regulations are she cannot say, because that would jeopardize the ongoing investigation. Lathram denies that agents “seized” Ivy’s house in order to execute the bust. “The term is a very specific and legal term,” she says. “It would mean she no longer has the title to her house. I do not believe it applies in this case.”

“Obviously, I’ve been briefed on the case and I know more than I’m telling you,” Lathram says. “But that’s all I can say.” Before getting off the phone, she says, for the second time in a five-minute conversation, “Customs makes every effort to ensure the safety of innocent parties.”

Since August, Ivy has returned to her house only five times—to gather belongings, clean out the fridge, and unplug her appliances. Customs agents put Ivy and her kids up in hotels for three nights after the operation. Then Ivy stayed with her oldest daughter, Stephanie, and five grandchildren. The arrangement was too cramped, though, so now she’s living with a church friend in a house in Northeast. Her remaining kids and granddaughter are spread out over the area. At least once, she says, she has considered moving into a shelter just so that she can have her family together.

In September, officials from the Justice Department responded to Ivy’s incessant appeals, agreeing to pay the security deposit and first month’s rent for an apartment. Ivy plans to move into a three-bedroom apartment in Maryland, but she still isn’t happy. The deal won’t cover her $952 monthly mortgage payment, which she hasn’t paid since August. And anyway, an apartment…well, it just isn’t the same, Ivy says: “I need my own place. That house is my heart.” CP