Property manager Keith Gilbert somehow managed to grab inordinate attention in Seattle's Roosevelt neighborhood even before his arrest Tuesday...
Property manager Keith Gilbert somehow managed to grab inordinate attention in Seattle’s Roosevelt neighborhood even before his arrest Tuesday on federal weapons charges.
A key to Gilbert’s influence in the neighborhood was his relationship with Hugh and Drake Sisley, two brothers who own dozens of properties in the area. The relationship has since soured, but the influence remains, neighbors say.
“The guy should have been a nobody, he should have been run out of town on a rail,” said Pat Strosahl, former president of the Roosevelt Neighborhood Association. “But they gave him a position of responsibility and allowed his thuggishness to essentially represent them.”
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On Tuesday, Gilbert, 65, was arrested for allegedly selling two machine guns to an informant working for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and for being a felon in possession of a firearm. Federal agents also removed dozens of weapons and ammunition from his home.
Also Tuesday, Gilbert’s friend and neighbor, William D. Heinrich, 50, was arrested and charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Meanwhile, authorities arrested two more men — John Hejna and Alen J. Long — in a related case involving the sale of plastic explosives. A third man in that case, Barton Carter, is still at large.
Authorities said the arrests do not appear to be related to any plots.
Upon Gilbert’s arrest, neighbors cheered. And they wondered what took authorities so long. Gilbert met the Sisleys about 15 years ago, when Hugh Sisley needed help managing his properties, according to Sisley’s lawyer, David Vogel. The Sisley brothers owned three full blocks of the neighborhood, mostly single-family homes converted into multi-family units.
Hugh Sisley didn’t return calls yesterday.
Gilbert’s credentials were unorthodox, to say the least. He had a 1965 conviction for possessing 1,400 pounds of stolen dynamite, with which he had planned to blow up a stage where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was making a speech. In the 1980s, Gilbert was convicted in Idaho on charges related to sending hate mail to an adoption agency that placed black children with white families.
He became a devotee of Aryan Nations leader Richard Butler, although the two had a falling-out and Gilbert formed his own white-supremacist organization, the Socialist Nationalist Aryan People’s Party.
In prison, Gilbert honed his skills as a jailhouse lawyer — which held a certain appeal for Hugh Sisley, Vogel said. Sisley saw himself as providing low-income housing that wasn’t otherwise available in the neighborhood, and, as such, upkeep wasn’t necessarily going to be part of the deal.
According to former Seattle City Attorney Mark Sidran, the Sisleys became “legendary” for their run-down properties and resisted all efforts to bring them up to code.
Hugh Sisley saw in Gilbert a fellow outsider, someone who could help him fight off the encroachment of government into their business affairs, Vogel said.
Drake Sisley described Gilbert as “ornery,” a man who was surprisingly good at navigating cyberspace and finding valuable bits of information about zoning codes and building laws. “He’s not stupid, he’s obnoxious,” Drake Sisley said. “He’s an in-your-face kind of guy.”
The combination of dozens of run-down properties and Gilbert’s criminal background caused no end of trouble, Sidran said. “Gilbert introduced a level of fear and intimidation into the relationships with tenants and with the neighbors,” Sidran said. Gilbert would “yell in the middle of the back porch and just raise hell” if someone let a housing inspector into one of the Sisleys’ properties, said Sonny Warner, who lived in a property Gilbert managed.
Gilbert walks with a limp, keeps his beard unruly and wears his hair long and straggly.
Acquaintances comment on his bad teeth, his confrontational personality and his racist beliefs. Other descriptions are even worse.
Neighbors say Gilbert’s image was solidified by his walking around with a German shepherd and carrying a pistol.
Sometimes the intimidation was done through the courts. Gilbert sued tenants, building inspectors, city officials and neighbors, sometimes for millions of dollars. In one federal lawsuit, he claimed his constitutional rights had been violated when a city inspector stepped on his front porch. In another, he accused an inspector of breaking and entering, even though the inspector was invited in by a tenant. Another time, he claimed the city was carrying out “class warfare” in its inspection process.
Gilbert filed so many frivolous claims that U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein barred him from suing any city officials without her explicit permission. He then filed a lawsuit against her.
A similar prohibition was filed in Idaho a decade earlier.
Although the frivolous claims were ultimately dismissed, the strategy could be costly and stressful to those he sued.
Meanwhile, Hugh Sisley began to realize “he was making a lot of enemies” thanks to Gilbert, Vogel said. He also began to suspect he wasn’t getting all the money he was due from Gilbert.
Drake Sisley had similar thoughts: “When he was taking care of my properties, he shoveled the problems aside, combined them and multiplied them.”
The brothers in recent years have backed away from their relationship with Gilbert, Vogel and Drake Sisley said.
According to court papers, a man who lived near Gilbert agreed to wear a recording device and buy weapons from Gilbert as part of a federal investigation into his activities. The informant, who is not identified in court papers, was Hugh Sisley’s tenant, a man Sisley knew and trusted, according to Vogel.
“He [Hugh Sisley] finally realized Keith was taking advantage of him,” Vogel said.
Gilbert remains in federal custody, charged with selling automatic weapons to an undercover informant and being a felon in possession of a firearm. The charges carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Maureen O’Hagan: 206-464-2562