Tuesday, May 11, 2004

The problem with having a lawyer as your neighbor

MICHELLE BOORSTEIN WASHINGTON POST - It took 16 years of mutual threats, warrants, multiple lawsuits - including two that reached the Virginia Supreme Court - but the furious dispute between neighbors John Frederick Ames and Oliver 'Perry' Brooks is over. Rural Caroline County is abuzz but not entirely surprised by the shooting Monday morning that left Brooks, a 74-year-old farmer, dead and Ames, a 59-year-old lawyer and cattle breeder, charged with first-degree murder. The two men had been at odds since they became neighbors in 1988, when Ames bought the 675-acre estate next door to Brooks. . .

The Ames-Brooks feud went on so long that Sheriff Tony Lippa has asked the Virginia State Police to take over the case, saying he knew both men too well. The feud started as soon as Ames bought historic Holly Hill, where he tends to his bulls at dawn before he goes to his law office. He built an elaborate fence and charged six adjoining neighbors half its $45,000 cost, citing an 1887 law that allows landowners to build a barrier and compels neighbors to pay 'a just proportion.' Although the Circuit Court agreed with Brooks and five others that they should not have to pay, the Supreme Court said in 1991 that the law and a 1970 amendment sided with Ames.

'My mother was just devastated. It wiped her out, took every penny she had,' said Frances Hurt, 65, whose family used to own Holly Hill Farm before it was subdivided and some of it was sold. Hurt lives on an eight-acre parcel that borders Ames's driveway. She moved there when her mother died in 1995 -- a death she said was accelerated by stress over Ames's suit.

Ames was once convicted of reckless driving for aiming his tractor at a state trooper who directed him to get off the main road, though his record was cleared after he did community service. Commonwealth's Attorney Harvey Latney recused himself in Ames's traffic case because he said he knows the lawyer too well, Dick said. Latney did not return calls for comment on this case. . .

All the neighbors made payments for the fence, except Brooks, who refused to pay. Dick said Brooks bulldozed portions of the fence in the mid-1990s and fired a shotgun at Ames, prompting the lawyer to hire a security guard who ended up in a fight with Brooks and testified in Circuit Court about it. . .

For the next decade, state police and the sheriff's office responded to complaints from both sides, typically involving Brooks's bull. Dick said the bull would go onto Ames's property, and Ames would keep it until authorities came to help take it home and then charge Brooks for its bed and board.

Last weekend, according to state police and court records, Brooks's bull plowed through the fence again. Keeping it off Ames's property 'is real important,' Dick said, because Ames's breeding business could be harmed if his cows mated 'outside of the lineage.'

Ames's wife, Jeanne, received a call from next door saying Brooks himself wanted to pick up the bull Monday, Dick said. But she told the caller that Brooks should not come -- each man was barred from the other's property by court order -- and John Ames asked that a sheriff's deputy come to deal with the handoff, Dick said. Ames also demanded -- as usual -- $500 for caring for the animal for two days.

State police said Brooks went over to Holly Hill in the late morning, as Ames was about to leave for his office in Richmond, according to Dick. What happened next is unclear. Sheriff's deputies, responding to a call from the Ames home about 11 a.m., found Brooks dead by a utility shed.

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