Richland rape victim fights for tenants' rights

By Paula Horton, Tri-City HeraldJanuary 13, 2013 

RICHLAND -- Three years after being brutally beaten and raped in her south Richland apartment, Dana Widrig is taking on a new fight to protect other tenants statewide.

Widrig lived alone in a two-bedroom apartment at The Villas at Meadow Springs when a maintenance worker at the complex took a key from the manager's office, opened her door and attacked her.

The now 51-year-old Seattle woman said she took all the steps to stay safe in her apartment -- her door always was locked and she never let anybody inside if they didn't call before stopping by.

"Yet at 4 a.m. in the morning, somebody let himself in with a key that he had," she said.

Widrig's attacker, Cody Joseph Kloepper, was convicted in 2011. And she sued the owner of the Gage Boulevard apartment complex for negligence and settled the civil case this week for an undisclosed amount of money.

But while it may have been easier to try to put the attack behind her and stay anonymous -- she previously has not been named under a Herald policy not to identify sexual assault victims -- Widrig is ready to go public as she pushes for a change in the state's Landlord-Tenant Act.

"I can't walk away from it," she told the Herald. "There's too much risk out there. There are so many people in these complexes that are paying a lot of money who don't even know their keys are at risk.

"What happened to me could happen to them, easily."

Widrig plans to share her story with legislators in Olympia in the coming weeks in hopes they'll find a way to require apartment complexes and property managers to keep duplicate keys secured.

The current law requires landlords provide an adequate lock to the tenant, but doesn't specify what that is, said Tri-City lawyer Kristin McKennon. McKennon and Jay Flynn, of Flynn Merriman McKennon in Kennewick, represented Widrig in her civil case.

The act also says that landlords have the right to have a duplicate key to the apartment -- tenants can't say no -- but there's nothing that requires them to have a system in place to ensure that duplicate is safe.

"That is the crux of the problem and what led to Dana's victimization in this case," McKennon said.

Early in the morning on Dec. 5, 2009, Kloepper used his master key to get into the manager's office and to access a lock box that held keys to all 286 units at The Villas.

During the trial, the manager said employees were supposed to fill out a log each time they took a key and returned it, but there would be no record of the access if the log wasn't filled out.

Kloepper, now 35, admitted getting a key out of the box, but denied it was to Widrig's apartment. He said he took a key to a vacant apartment in a different building and slept there overnight.

But when Widrig woke up and went to the kitchen to make coffee, Kloepper snuck up behind her and began beating her with the metal bar.

She ended up needing 43 stitches in her head and suffered a shattered arm and wrist. She has said her arms and hands are slightly, yet permanently, disabled.

Kloepper is serving a minimum 24 1/2 years in prison for first-degree assault, first-degree burglary and first-degree rape with a deadly weapon, but he could spend the rest of his life in prison. He's maintained his innocence and has an appeal pending. He is currently at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell.

Widrig, who works for Fluor and moved to Seattle after she was released from a Spokane hospital, said she's "doing really well," but noted the attack changed her life "pretty drastically."

"I have a lot more empathy for people and I have more compassion to try to get this thing fixed," she said. "I couldn't just go through the lawsuit and call it good."

Her lawsuit against The Villas, its property management company, Riverstone Residential Group, and the company hired to manage the complex, HSC Real Estate, claimed they were negligent in hiring Kloepper, in his supervision and in providing security for residents.

The terms of the settlement does not require the companies to admit any wrongdoing, the lawyers said, but they said the judge ruled that it is "implicit in the definition of an adequate lock that you've got to do something to protect that key."

McKennon said there are industry standards that say what should be done, but very few states include a requirement in the Landlord-Tenant Act about what must be done.

"We're hoping for something as simple as saying landlords have a duty to protect any additional key," McKennon said. "What Dana really wants is something to change so tenants are protected."

Widrig said apartment complex owners should do the right thing to keep duplicate keys secured without requiring a change in the law, but she intends to keep advocating for a change until something is done.

"People have a right to live safely in their apartments. People like Cody Kloepper should be deterred from having access to keys to 286 apartments. How that happens, I don't know," she said. "The Legislature should be involved. We need to get experts involved and hopefully we will come up with the best solution."

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