Well-Meaning Neighbors Can't Ignore Consequences of Addiction
For years, a West Collingswood neighborhood knew that Michael Richards was "off," but didn't say anything. Now he hopes jail time can help him straighten out.
In the end, Collingswood resident Michael Richards would probably say he’d finally done one wrong thing too many.
To his neighbors, the 33-year-old was known as a harmless hard-luck case who offered up a variety of stories when he asked for hand-outs. To borough police, he was a “frequent flyer” who was often bailed out of trouble by his loving family.
But after an early-morning jaunt June 24, in which Richards burglarized two homes on Comly and Grant avenues and struck a utility pole in a car he’d stolen from his father, everybody had had enough.
Unable to meet the $40,000, full-cash bail necessary to keep himself out of jail, Richards was remanded to the Camden County correctional facility on multiple charges, including theft, burglary and fleeing the scene of a motor vehicle accident.
What troubles residents of his West Collingswood neighborhood, however, is that they saw things leading up to a moment like this for years, but didn’t know what to do about it.
Richards was an addict, simply. He wasn’t violent, but he was far from lawful. And although people were willing to look the other way, it turned out the help he was given—in the forms of breaks, forgiveness and general goodwill—wasn’t what he needed.
'Story after story'
“His mother died, then his mother was sick, then he needed to catch the train,” said Grant Avenue resident Rick Jankowski, whom Richards frequently approached for money. "Story after story."
Jankowski said he did offer Richards food once when he was approached after a trip to the grocery store. Richards declined.
Another time, Richards asked for money to buy his daughter an inhaler. When Jankowski told him, “I think I have some of that medicine,” Richards begged off.
“You think he’s harmless,” Jankowski said, “and then all of a sudden it’s not harmless any more.”
Jankowski said it was clear to him that his neighbor wanted to use the money to support a habit, but that “unfortunately, it’s not my business.”
Sam Seidel, whose Grant Avenue residence was among those burgled, said Richards had knocked on his door a couple weeks before the incident.
“He had a hard-luck story,” Seidel said. “Last time I told him, ‘Look, I don’t want you here no more.’”
On the morning of June 24, Seidel said, the street was lined with the cars of families attending worship at the RCCC Victory House church across from his house. Seidel was in the bathroom when he heard noises on the first floor of his home.
“I called out, ‘Who the hell’s in here?’” he said. “Nobody answered.”
Seidel, who is elderly, said he had been prescribed anti-inflammatory drugs after a hip surgery. Those went missing in the burglary, as did a plate he said contained about $17 in loose change.
“Two years ago, I never thought about locking my doors,” he said. “I don’t even put the car in the driveway anymore so I can have a security light on it.”
Brian Smith, who lives on nearby Comly Avenue, said he first encountered Richards while walking with his daughter, Cameron, on nearby Cattell Avenue.
“As soon as you saw him, you could tell he had some issues,” Smith said. “He started this really long conversation. He said he’d been caught many times with a DWI.”
Smith said he came home and told his wife, Melanie, “Don’t walk our daughter over there.”
Melanie Smith said there are people like Richards in every town, but that absent of some public involvement, the community doesn’t know how to handle them.
“If we’re having enough respect to not call the cops, then he needs to reciprocate,” she said. “If not, then you have to involve the authorities.”
“You want to be cautious, because he lives in the neighborhood, but also get some intervention.”
'He really regrets what he did'
Amanda Dougherty is Richards’ girlfriend of 11 years. They’ve dated since she was 17, and they have two children together, ages 5 and 2.
Dougherty said that jail time might be the only thing that could save Richards, if only because he’s been unable to use crack-cocaine since being locked up.
“He terrorized the town,” she said. “He terrorized his mother, his father.
“He’s sober now and he really regrets what he did. He realizes that people work hard for their things,” she said.
Dougherty said the family made several attempts to help Richards clean up, from rehab programs to kicking him out of the house. At one point, he was drug-free for a year. But when Richards' mother died in April, she said, that’s when he lost the will to fight for his sobriety.
“It’s a shame, but he is a good person,” Dougherty said. “He’s a good father when he’s sober. I feel bad for him. I feel bad for everybody he’s done stuff to.”
Dougherty said that Richards told her he wants to be held accountable for his actions, and that he will not challenge any of the charges against him in court. She said Richards is enrolled in substance counseling and GED programs in jail, and hopes that the experience will make him “a more productive citizen.”
“Even he said this is good for him; [that] this is what he needs,” she said.
Dougherty said the ordeal has been difficult to explain to her young children, but that Richards spoke to them and told them that he “was bad and had to go away.”
“I love him,” she said. “I told him I’m not going anywhere. But if this doesn’t work, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”