'The whole thing is horrific': West Haven apartment complex promises increased security after alleged sexual assault of elderly woman

The Surfside 200 public housing complex, located on Oak Street in West Haven.

The Surfside 200 public housing complex, located on Oak Street in West Haven.

Ben Lambert / Hearst Connecticut Media

WEST HAVEN — In the wake of the alleged sexual assault of a 74-year-old resident, those living in the city’s Surfside apartments are angry and fearful, and a housing authority official said some immediate changes would be implemented, including increased security.

But residents of the building at 200 Oak St. — apartments for seniors, the disabled and others — say it’s too little too late, as they have been complaining of lax security for years.

“This is the worst of the worst that’s happened here,” resident Richard Deso said of the alleged assault. “Everybody wants security here 24/7.”

Deso claimed residents had to fight for the approximately 20 hours per week of security they have had in the last eight months.

Security is being increased at the building and future safety measures are in the works, said Savin Rock Communities/Housing Authority Executive Director John Counter.

“The whole thing is horrific,” he said of the alleged sexual assault. “I’ve got an 82-year-old mother and an 89-year-old father. I can’t imagine the trauma of getting whipped around by a ...strongman.”

Counter said security guards are being increased from 20-30 hours a week to 40-60 hours per week, and additional safety measures are being reviewed.

The beefed-up security will, for now, be paid for through a previously awarded emergency services grant, Counter said.

The Surfside 200 public housing complex, located on Oak Street in West Haven.

The Surfside 200 public housing complex, located on Oak Street in West Haven.

Ben Lambert / Hearst Connecticut Media

Residents are planning an outdoor meeting at 3:30 p.m. Saturday to air complaints among themselves so they can present as a united front in the call for changes.

Resident Bea Faulkner said residents have “diligently been requesting security” - even writing to Gov. Ned Lamont.

“We’ve done everything we can possibly think of to get attention. ... We’ve been treated like a bunch of orphans with leprosy,” she said. “To have this happen (the alleged sexual assault) is like the icing on the cake. Enough is enough.”

Nancy Denman (left) and Richard Deso (center) talk about the issues facing residents at the Surfside apartments in West Haven. At right is another Surfside resident Ernie Zyjewski, on April 29, 2021.

Nancy Denman (left) and Richard Deso (center) talk about the issues facing residents at the Surfside apartments in West Haven. At right is another Surfside resident Ernie Zyjewski, on April 29, 2021.

Arnold Gold / Hearst Connecticut Media

Faulkner and other residents claim the security is inadequate. Residents say crimes have been committed by people visiting or sneaking into stairwells to sleep.

The sexual assault victim is hospitalized and police said she may have suffered a heart attack as a result of the incident.

Residents didn’t know the victim well, as she just recently moved in, but said many know who she is because she often walked her dog.

Counter said everything will be done to rehouse the victim to her satisfaction, even if it means being moved to another housing authority setting.

The suspect, Giani Morales, 27, of Massachusetts is being held in lieu of $1.25 million bail per order of a judge in Milford who oversaw Morales’ arraignment.

“This is one of the most appalling scenarios that I have read in a police report in the 25-plus years that I have been a judge,” Judge Maureen Dennis told Morales in court.

Morales is charged with first-degree sexual assault, home invasion, first-degree burglary, third-degree assault of an elderly person and third-degree assault.

Giani Morales

Giani Morales

Contributed photo

According to a police report, Morales allegedly exposed himself to the woman while near the building’s elevators, then pushed her inside her apartment and assaulted her. The woman was hospitalized after the incident, potentially having suffered a heart attack, according to Assistant State’s Attorney Alanna Paul.

Morales allegedly pushed the victim into her apartment as she opened the door, the report said.

The woman told police that Morales raped her inside the apartment after she tried to fight him off.

The report said police found Morales passed out inside the woman’s home, where he was taken into custody.

Detective Anthony Simone wrote in his report, “At this time it is unknown where Giani Morales, who is from Massachusetts, is staying and why or how he was in the building ... which is a secured building where only residents and guests are allowed.”

“The defendant would not have any reason to be at that location,” Assistant State’s Attorney Alanna Paul said in court.

Police are seeking to determine how Morales got into the building, Sgt. Patrick Buturla said in a release.

Frances Trapani has lived at the Surfside apartments for almost a decade. She’s afraid; she places a stool in front of her door each night, hoping to ward off trouble.

“I’m afraid, and we shouldn’t have to live life like that,” said Trapani. “Nobody cares what’s going one with the tenants here.”

Linda Tracy (left) talks about the issues facing residents at the Surfside apartments in West Haven where she has lived for 21 years. Surfside residents in the background are Nancy Denman (center) and Richard Deso (right), on April 29, 2021.

Linda Tracy (left) talks about the issues facing residents at the Surfside apartments in West Haven where she has lived for 21 years. Surfside residents in the background are Nancy Denman (center) and Richard Deso (right), on April 29, 2021.

Arnold Gold / Hearst Connecticut Media

Residents gathered outside Thursday said there have been instances of interlopers entering the building.

They called for a continuous security presence at the complex, a check-in system, and an upgrade past traditional keys for the front door, among other measures, and expressed their concern and fear.

Lisa White said she has lived in the building for more than eight years, but only began to feel unsafe in the last year or so. A person had been stabbed there, she said, and there had been an assault in a common area.

The building management did what they could, she said, but greater investment is needed. She suggested security cameras in the common area and armed guards, among other possibilities.

“Enough is enough,” said White. “We need help.”

Surfside apartments in West Haven photographed on April 29, 2021.

Surfside apartments in West Haven photographed on April 29, 2021.

Arnold Gold / Hearst Connecticut Media

Kathy, a resident of the building for more than five years who declined to share her last name, said she was generally unafraid. She developed situational awareness in her professional life; she doesn’t trust people easily. But other folks are more fearful.

“I don’t scare easy, but this sort of stuff makes me nervous for others,” she said.

Anne Marie Anderson said she lives on the floor, where the alleged sexual assault took place. She heard voices, but otherwise nothing obviously amiss.

The public housing complex once was only for seniors, she and others said, and, although it was opened up to others in recent years, there still are many elderly residents.

While some measures may be taken after the assault, she voiced doubt that they would last.

Ernie Zyjewski said he has lived in the complex for nearly 14 years, and it was more peaceful when he first came in. Now, he and his partner keep their door locked and stay upstairs, concerned about what might happen.

“I hope they get security here,” said Zyjewski. “For Pete’s sake, it’s in rotten shape.”

Linda Tracey said she was grateful to live in the area; she grew up nearby. She said she has been there 21 years. But the assault and lack of security there was “scary”; she and others recently offered to accompany a 95-year-old woman into the building.

“The majority (of people here) are decent,” said Tracey. “Just give us a decent place to live in.”

Of the gathering planned for Saturday, Deso said some are scared to speak, but they have the freedom to express themselves and rights as tenants.

“We are not taken seriously. We are not taken seriously,” said Deso. “This was the last straw — we need something done now. ... This ends now.”

Deso and Nancy Denman said the building could be a very nice place to live, noting that the beach is a short walk away.

Denman said there had been greater camaraderie a decade ago, when she first moved in. In the recent past, coronavirus-related measures had made it more difficult for residents to get together to voice their concerns and fight for improvements, she said.

“It’s just so disappointing,” said Denman. “We all need help right now.”

Reporter Ben Lambert contributed to this story.

william.lambert@hearstmediact.com