Scientology Crime Syndicate

From the Washington Post:

Next Door to Trouble

By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 29, 2000; Page A01

He stood outside and watched his next-door neighbor's moving van sail out of sight. Bye-bye, Belfields! Now he could disconnect the closed-circuit TV he installed to monitor their moves. He could put the videotapes, court documents and other evidence of more than four years of feuding into a big Tupperware container, then into a closet.

"They're gone," Carl Adams says now. "Good riddance." The Belfields are just as tickled to be done with the Adamses. The sheriff is thrilled his deputies won't have to make another peacekeeping visit to Green Woods Lane, which would be at least the 19th. The judge is relieved there won't be an 11th court appearance.

"The Belfields and the Adamses have taken over and become the Hatfields and the McCoys of Charles County," Judge Gary Gasparovic had said from the Charles County District Court bench.

Only the intensity made this over-the-fence spat unique.

An entire street in Upper Marlboro recently took up sides in a dispute that started as a swing-set tiff between 10-year-olds. Some neighbors in Anne Arundel County fought over who stole a wheelbarrow. In Rockville, "They're arguing about plant life," about whose leaves fell onto whose property, said Maile Beers-Arthur, the city's human rights and community mediation administrator.

Overall numbers are hard to come by, but many law enforcement officials, judges and community mediators believe such petty neighbor-vs.-neighbor squabbles are on the rise, a kind of yard rage to go with road rage.

Fairfax County police handled 11 percent more civil disputes--most of them neighborhood tiffs--last year than in 1997. In the District, a community mediation service operated by Superior Court delved into 516 complaints last fiscal year, up from 352 the year before. The mediation center run by the office of the Anne Arundel state's attorney estimates that 25 percent of its 600 annual cases are residential quarrels, and the number is growing, said Nancy Hirshman, the center's director.

Because population is increasing, it's not surprising that unneighborly bickering is, too. But several experts believe that more than simply a greater number of households is behind the rise in disputes.

Craig Coletta, coordinator of the National Association for Community Mediation, said traditional neighborhoods, in which residents know each other and a block elder might resolve budding disputes, are less and less common as the spread of new suburbs continues. Fairfax County police Lt. Col. Suzanne Devlin, who has a master's degree in conflict resolution, blames more stressful lives and greater transience, which leads to less familiarity among neighbors.

"We all know that people don't get along as they used to. We don't have the same level of tolerance and restraint in our communities," Devlin said. "We have road rage and people beating each other up at the drop of a hat over nothing. . . . I think [neighbor disputes] are growing exponentially." On Green Woods Lane in Charles County, where the Belfield and Adams families took up residence, most residents were new seven years ago, because most of the houses were. The lane is east of Waldorf, only about 35 miles from the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, but with a feel of being half a world away. The route to it passes tobacco and corn fields, rain-gray barns, a sign that says "free manure."

The nine homes have aluminum siding and satellite dishes, and most were custom built for folks seeking a rural refuge, a resident said. "Everybody built their own house on their own piece of land in their own beautiful Shangri-La," said the resident, who, like others, did not want to be identified to avoid being immersed further in the Belfield-Adams dispute.

In August 1993, Robert Belfield, his wife and their two sons moved from St. Mary's County into a tan split-level with green shutters on three acres. A firefighter, Belfield, 40, grew up in Prince George's County and has lived for more than a decade in Southern Maryland, where he fishes and crabs in the summer and hunts in the winter.

If Belfield is Old Southern Maryland, Carl Adams, 35, is New Southern Maryland, an engineer who works for a defense contractor. Adams, his wife and their two sons took up residence on Green Woods Lane two weeks after the Belfields did, moving from Front Royal, Va.

In the first years, the families were cordial. But one afternoon in February 1996, Carl and Leasa Adams, 36, were outside with their children when they heard gunshots, Carl said. Next door, they saw Robert Belfield's son Bryan, now 17, shooting at milk cartons with a .22-caliber rifle, he said.

"My wife freaked out," Adams said. "We got the kids inside." Because the boy's parents did not appear to be at home, Adams said, he called the police. The sheriff's deputy who happened to respond turned out to be Robert Belfield's brother, Donald, who checked the Belfields' gun rack with another officer and reported no weapon had been fired. Donald declined to be interviewed, but Robert Belfield said of the alleged incident, "It just didn't happen."

Adams's decision to summon the police rather than work out any issues neighbor to neighbor began a series of charges and countercharges, 911 calls and dates in court. There were numerous incidents in 1996, a few the next year, none the next and then a renewed outbreak in 1999 that spilled into this year.

Whether the problem stemmed from a clash of personalities or a cultural chasm between the families, there didn't seem to be an easy end.

"When people are in conflict, communication stops," Hirshman said, speaking of disputes generally. "Everything that happens becomes suspect. Then you have whole neighborhoods taking sides. That's the bad part about it." Police records show that the Belfields called the authorities 18 times, mostly in 1996 and 1999. Belfield later estimated in court that he'd spoken with police on more than 30 occasions, his neighbor 10.

"Neighbor made faces and stuck his tongue out at [caller's] kids," says one 911 record.

"Neighbor throwing rocks at his home," says another.

"Neighbors videotaping children and harassing them," says a third. "He'd charge me," Belfield said, "and then I'd charge him. It was a get-back thing."

Sheriff Frederick E. Davis said he could not begin to estimate how many hours his deputies spent responding to calls, issuing criminal summonses and waiting to testify in court. "It's taxing on everybody," Davis said of the feud. "It affects everybody in the system: the state's attorney's office, police, judges."

As time went on, the Belfields' legal fees rose to $20,000, they said. Adams, who had to defend himself in court more often, said he spent $65,000. In one case, he pleaded guilty to disturbing the peace, the only conviction in the feud. Adams was put on probation; the sentence was dismissed three months later.

At one point in 1996, Adams was videotaped grabbing his crotch and making an obscene finger gesture toward Belfield's camera. Not long after, Adams took his family to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., leaving a stereo on, tuned to a rock music station and placed near an open window facing the Belfields' home. He did so for security reasons, Adams said. Depending on which side is consulted, the decibel level was either intolerable or not. As time went on, the block parties and pot-luck suppers on Green Woods Lane ceased because neighbors didn't want to be dragged into the feud. More than once, a second neighbor said, "I would see Bob drive by, and Carl would stand in his yard and watch him. He'd see Bob give him the finger, and he'd give him the finger back."

Often, such fights wind up in mediation. Fairfax County is launching a pilot program in which volunteers from the Northern Virginia Mediation Service will work out of a police station in the Mount Vernon area to help solve disputes. In Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties, the state's attorney's offices have in-house mediation programs to defer prosecution of quarrelsome neighbors and other warring factions.

The Maryland Alternative Dispute Resolution Commission--led by the state's chief judge--recommended this year that each county in the state have a community mediation center. Only nine counties have such a center now, and Charles County is not one of them. So the courts were where the Adamses and Belfields often found themselves, including last December, when the Belfields sought a peace order--a new kind of restraining order--charging that Adams had followed one of their sons with a video camera.

At the hearing, Judge Gasparovic said that Belfield showed a "lack of credibility" when he said he had never screeched his tires in front of the Adamses' house. Belfield corrected himself, saying he had burned rubber because he had been startled when Adams launched a spit globule that landed on the side of his car.

It was at the same hearing that Gasparovic learned Adams had installed a closed-circuit television system with cameras facing the road. "I guess the next thing will be the Belfields can put in trip wires and flares and people are living in almost an armed camp," Gasparovic said.

Ultimately, the judge granted Belfield's request for a peace order, because witnesses testified Adams had, in fact, followed Belfield's son. He also ordered both sides to take a course in anger management, although not together. Beyond those steps, Gasparovic said, "I really do not know what to do. I do not know what is going to have any effect on solving this, other than one or both of the parties selling their house."

Which is what happened.

On Christmas Eve, not long after the court hearing, Adams slapped his neighbor with a $7.1 million lawsuit alleging that Belfield filed so many charges to get Adams to move, causing "severe emotional distress and fear," among other things.

That's when the Belfields began thinking about moving. "Mentally, we can't take it no more," Belfield said. "Poke a fork in us: We're done." In May, the Belfields put their house on the market. On Sept. 8, it sold, leaving the Belfields with a $5,000 loss.

"My wife thought this would be a dream place, but it turned out to be a nightmare," Belfield said recently.

They packed up their faded floral sofa, their pots and pans, the lawn furniture they quit sitting on because they said Adams was throwing rocks at their house, which Adams said is not true. They moved to a new house in rural Welcome, some 20 miles across Charles County.

To this day, neither side accepts responsibility for what happened, each blaming the other. Perhaps Gasparovic put it best, at the December hearing: "There have been a lot of blind spots developed by everybody in this case. There have been character witnesses who said what a truthful person Mr. Adams is . . . and I'm sure that's probably correct, when he's not dealing with the Belfields. The Belfields probably could bring in people who would say the same thing about them. They are decent people not given to this sort of activity, except when you're dealing with the Adamses."

No longer together, the families are happy, although Adams's lawsuit is pending.

"I'm doing great now," Belfield said. "You would not believe, seven years, what my family went through." He faults the sheriff's office and the state's attorney's office for not taking the charges against the Adamses seriously, which both offices said is not the case.

"Everybody's relieved," Adams said. "You can sense it. There was a big sigh of relief gone through the neighborhood."

Capt. Joseph Montminy, of the county sheriff's office, said he hopes he has seen the last of Belfield vs. Adams. Their feud may have been one of the worst he's seen, he said, but "we've got plenty more to take their place."


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