The crew carried out bags of his clothing, then his bed, velour couch and 36-inch television. They dumped it all on the grass while Somora Proctor stood a few feet away, under the watchful eye of a Prince George's County sheriff's deputy, calling his mother on his cell phone.
Maybe she would have the $714 that he needed to keep from being evicted from his apartment. "Thought I had until Monday," said Proctor, whose financial problems started when he lost a construction job last year.
In fact, he had only a few minutes -- and the deputy, Shayne Moore, wasn't wasting any time, not with several more doors to knock on at the Bristol Pines apartments, a complex across from Andrews Air Force Base.
"Let's go," Moore called out, prodding the crew along in the heat as a maintenance man changed the lock on the front door. "Guess I'll go to a motel," Proctor said, as the deputies marched on, leaving him alone with his pile of belongings.
Evictions are occurring with greater frequency in Prince George's, where authorities removed more tenants last year than any other locale in the Washington area. Even as the regional economy surged, the county executed 3,520 evictions, an 18 percent increase, while the number of removals in Montgomery County and the District declined.
Tenant advocates say that Maryland law allows landlords to remove residents with unusual speed and ease, particularly when compared with more tenant-friendly environs such as New York City. To Prince George's landlords, the laws are lenient, allowing tenants too many opportunities to withhold rent until the last moment.
The pace of evictions in Prince George's is also a reminder that a county known nationally as a haven of black wealth remains home to a large population of struggling families, many of them residing in the glut of garden apartments that sprung up a generation ago in blue-collar neighborhoods bordering the District.
"It doesn't bode well to hear about so many evictions in a county that's supposed to be so affluent," said Eugene Grant, a Seat Pleasant community activist. "While others are enjoying a more robust economy, this tells you that there are still people at the lowest rungs of our community who are not."
The workload generated by evictions inevitably ends up with the deputies, who delivered 119,605 nonpayment notices last year, or more than 300 a day. The sheriff's office plans to expand its eviction team from eight deputies to 12 by the end of the year, hoping to reduce the average of 45 days it takes from issuance of an eviction order to removal of a tenant. "The landlords keep yelling at us about it," said Lt. Daniel Pallia, who oversees the unit.
The pressure is obvious in the way that the deputies push the eviction crews -- "Burning daylight!" Moore shouted as the movers lumbered up and down the stairs in the swelter. The potential for danger is also evident: arriving at a shuttered apartment door, the deputies invariably draw their .40-caliber handguns. "You never know what's behind the door," Moore said.
Their days are populated by weeping tenants, many of them forced to bunk with relatives or neighbors; impatient landlords grousing about lost rent; and eviction workers -- some of whom have themselves fallen off the edges of the economy -- who do the heavy lifting. A bearded man who helped clear apartments in Oxon Hill one afternoon said he had been recruited that morning from a Southeast soup kitchen. Several men on another team were hired in front of a liquor store on Central Avenue.
Moore, 34, a police officer in Memphis and the District before joining the sheriff's department, brings a world-weary humor to an otherwise grim task. "Ready to make 'em homeless?" he'll say to colleagues. He views himself as a messenger for the legal system, though he said it's not always easy to remain detached, as when he recently evicted a family with five children.
In most cases, the tenant is gone when the deputies arrive, often leaving behind nothing more than the half-eaten cake they found on a kitchen counter in Temple Hills. On other occasions they walk in on a lifetime of belongings. "Oh, God," Moore said, opening the door of an apartment and finding rooms and hallways filled with a thicket of furniture, golf clubs, records and books.
The dreaded occasions are when tenants arrive while the eviction is underway, as was the case when the owner of a construction company showed up with $601 in cash to keep her Capitol Heights office. Stacks of home siding and furniture were piled outside.
"I'm sure you guys have better things to do," the owner told the deputies, disappearing into rear of the office where she knelt and sobbed.
"I've heard it so many times before," said Cpl. William Harvey, walking off to his cruiser while Moore tried to console the woman.
Bristol Pines is typical of the garden apartments built in Prince George's during the 1960s and '70s. At one time, the complexes drew low-level federal workers seeking cheap housing outside the District. As that generation moved on, they often were replaced by poorer and less stable families.
It was the volume of evictions at the apartment complexes that prompted the County Council to pass legislation in 2001 barring landlords from dumping tenants' belongings on public streets. "I took pictures of it myself -- it drove me crazy," said council member Peter A. Shapiro (D-Brentwood), the bill's sponsor.
On a recent afternoon at Bristol Pines, Moore knocked on a door that was answered by two women, neither of whom spoke English. The leaseholder, they said, was at her job at Bojangles. "Unless she's got $808, we're going to throw her out right now," Moore said, peering over his wire-rimmed glasses.
Moments later, the tenant, Paula Urbina, sprinted across the parking lot, wearing a Bojangles smock and trailed by her two thigh-high sons. "Today?" she asked in halting English, breathless as she handed over the cash.
Moore walked across the complex to the apartment of Somora Proctor, 27, whose financial problems started soon after he moved to the complex 11 months earlier. For a time he managed to subsist on unemployment checks after losing his job. But once the benefits ran out, he began falling behind on his rent. He knew he was in danger of being evicted, though he learned only at 10 a.m. that day that the sheriff's deputies were on their way.
Proctor, who wears a diamond stud in his ear, called his mother, hoping he could charge his back rent on her bank card. But she was $300 short. He spent the next few nights at an EconoLodge on Branch Avenue. "I wanted to stay where I was," he said.
Proctor's eviction was among the nearly 300 that the deputies are averaging every month, a pace they expect will increase as the unit expands.
In contrast, the Montgomery sheriff's office processed 736 evictions in 2003, down from 835 the year before. In the District, the U.S. Marshals Service executed 2,403 evictions in 2003, a decline from 2,767.
In Fairfax, evictions jumped from 328 in 1999 to 1,109 last year, an increase that officials attribute to a change in the law that allows Virginia landlords to evict tenants by changing the locks on their doors.
Landlords and tenant advocates alike say that Maryland's laws are flawed. Tenant advocates say the law facilitates a rush to evict by allowing landlords to sue without first notifying tenants that they're behind in their rent.
The court's $9 filing fee -- far lower than what is charged in such cities as New York, Cleveland and Los Angeles -- "encourages landlords to use the court as a collection agency," said Kim Propeak, advocacy director for CASA Maryland, a community organization that assists Latinos.
By contrast, she said, in New York, "where tenant organizers are an influential force and many judges are reluctant to sign eviction orders, it can take up to eight months for landlords to remove residents."
Yet, Prince George's landlords argue that the system helps tenants by granting them at least three chances over 12 months to keep their apartment if they pay up when the deputies arrive. The six-week backlog, which can be extended when rain and freezing temperatures postpone evictions, often deprives landlords of at least two months of rental income.
"If you're a landlord in Maryland, the law is set up most favorably for the tenant," said Michael Winer, an attorney for Southern Management Co., one of the county's largest property owners.
The sheriffs brought a handful of five-week-old evictions to a complex of townhouses in Kentland late last month, where the manager estimated that 70 percent of the 115 leaseholders were behind on rent.
No one was home at one apartment, but Moore corralled a growling Rottweiler into a bedroom. The tenants, Fred Durant and Nadine Branch, were at work. Durant's son, DeWayne, 14, arrived as the crew carried out their couch, big-screen TV and fish tank. The youngster slumped in a chair on the lawn wiping away tears while a clutch of kids sat on a stoop laughing at the spectacle.
After being alerted by a neighbor, Durant and Branch showed up a few minutes later. "Why is all our stuff out here?" Branch shouted, before lying down on the floor, crying as she insisted that they had paid April's rent.
The complex's manager, Jacqueline Wert, said there was no record of a payment, though she said they could reclaim their place if they paid $540. The couple returned with the cash a few hours later, then spent the early evening moving back in, complaining of damaged furniture, shattered picture frames and a missing cell phone. "Can you believe this?" Durant asked.
Around the corner, Tiffany Gladden, eight months pregnant, answered the door, while a little girl and a baby wearing a diaper played on the stairs behind her. Gladden's sister, the leaseholder, owed $840, an amount that Moore said he needed to collect or he would evict the occupants.
"She says she paid," Gladden said after speaking to her sister on the phone, then disappearing upstairs to look for the receipt.
A few moments passed. "We can't give you much more time," Moore shouted from the doorway.
The baby on the stairs started to cry. Wert's shoulders sagged. It had been a long and tiring afternoon. "Tell your sister she needs to bring in her money tomorrow," Wert called out.
"Yeah," Moore said. "Tell her I'm going to come here Saturday at 7 a.m."
The deputies turned and walked away, leaving Gladden to search for the receipt.