Thursday, April 23, 2009

How I Spent My 49th Birthday

A number of people have asked for more details on my desire to spend almost my entire birthday in a federal court room.

For the past four years or so, we have had a neighbor behind us, but one lot over, who has been an extreme nuisance. I knew there was a woman living there when we moved here 11 years ago but a guy showed up on the scene about 4-5 years ago and was living there. That was the start of a downward spiral which, we are hoping, ended yesterday for good.

After he moved in, their property appearance began to deteriorate. Because I can't really see their property except for a garage door from my back patio, I really didn't know what was going on until I walked around the block a few years ago. It was as if their house was a giant magnet for any metal objects drifting through the city: old cars, old bicycles, scrap metal, etc. It was really more than the eye could behold in a quick glance.

I was never brave enough to walk over there and take decent pictures from the street, but I did find a poor quality "street scene" using maps from a well-known technology behemoth, and I managed to improve the picture quality slightly to give you a very rough idea. Trust me when I say it's far worse if you could have seen it live, and these photos could be 3 years old.

Notice the car hauler. Very convenient for bringing in more non-functional vehicles to the front yard! Assuming that wasn't also a non-functioning piece of junk itself!

It was always a work in progress. The guy built a treehouse in the front yard and tried to create various sculptures around the mail box. It is no exaggeration whatsoever to describe it as a junkyard.

Then the music began to creep in. As most of you know, I have no issues with music. Hell, I live for it! Always have. But when it comes to another person's choices in music being played outside at a loud volume for hours at a time, that tends to take a toll on my patience.

It started with a radio and a few CDs while he was working in the yard -- i.e. rearranging junk or adding to the junk. On rare occasions I'd hear country music; most of the time it was rock or rap, and Eminem comes to mind.

Then JF (I'm using his initials instead of referring to him as the "guy") acquired a set of drums and it was obvious he'd never had a lesson a day in his life. Instead of practicing IN the house as most normal people would do, he set this up outside and/or in the garage depending on the weather. As if that wasn't irritating enough, the amplifier came along so that more of the neighborhood could hear his free concerts. Little did I know at the time, this was likely his very thought!

By this time I was rather certain he had to be doing drugs. First, he didn't appear to have any visible means of support as in employment. He was home most of the time, and when he was home he was playing. Soon, a friend or two started showing up and there were other instruments in the mix. The "band" was in development! And the noise was hideous. While junk was being sucked in, talent seemed to be on the run.

No hour of the day or night was off-limits. The drums could be heard in pre-dawn darkness and it might extend off and on throughout the day and into the evening. There was also a perceptible ebb and flow of energy and enthusiasm and I was finally able to pinpoint when the methamphetamine was kicking in. I didn't have visible proof of drug use, but after years of hearing a neighbor it's not hard to arrive at that conclusion.

We had lived here over 10 years without having any contact with any of our neighbors. And I'm fine with that. I live a private life and this being Texas, I never felt compelled to go around the neighborhood saying "Hi, we're you're Queer neighbors." That was particularly true in the first few years when it was technically illegal in this state for my partner and I to make love.

Then last August something very odd happened. I was sitting here at my desk, probably doing what I'm doing right now, when txrad came in to announce with some excitement, "Come here! There are goats on our patio!"

He was not hallucinating. We finally met our next-door neighbors when they came over to retrieve the goats and needless to say, the conversation turned to JF who lived directly behind these neighbors. All of my suspicions were confirmed and a whole lot more.

We learned that JF had married the woman who lived rather quietly in the house before he came on the scene, and that he was considerably younger than her. This is particularly funny because I really hadn't seen JF up close and when I would walk or drive by his house I avoided eye contact if he happened to be in the yard. Because of his behavior, I was under the assumption he was in his early 20s. It wasn't until yesterday that I learned he was 49 years old.

It was also confirmed by our neighbor that he was a psychopath, a criminal, and a drug user. He was also an informant for the sheriff's department in our fair and liberal oasis in central Texas, which is why they wouldn't lay a finger on him. In fact, they had done all they could to clear his criminal records.

Between August and the end of 2008, armed with much more information on JF and his history, I began paying closer attention to his activities which were getting increasingly distressing to me, not that the prior four years hadn't taken a toll on my psyche. To this day when I hear any kind of noise outside while sitting at my desk, I find it jarring. Even as I'm typing this, I hear an occasional thump-thump-thump from street construction going on nearby, and it gives me the heebie-jeebies. My mind always leaps to the conclusion that JF is baaack.

Deep in my heart I had -- dare I use this word as an atheist -- prayed (in some sense) that he and his wife would lose the house. It was inconceivable to me they would move out voluntarily, and I could not understand how they had the money to even pay the annual property taxes. In fact, for most of these years I wasn't even aware there was a wife over there. I just assumed it was JF having one long continuous drug-fueled party.

Around the time of the presidential election we found a letter in our mailbox which was addressed to our goat-owning neighbors. I walked it over there and had another very long chat with the neighbor concerning politics, Obama, and yes, JF. There were more developments. JF had been picked up on a weapons charge and if convicted, would serve time in a federal prison.

I asked about the goats, as I hadn't heard them in awhile, and I was told some heartbreaking news. Thanks to a hole in the fence separating JF's yard from the goats, JF's pit bulls came through and killed the goats. I was sickened.

Shortly thereafter, my prayers/dreams, whatever you want to call it, came true. The wife, having gotten several loans against her house to pay JF's legal fees and suddenly was facing a foreclosure. By January the house was vacant, the yard had been cleaned up, and I wrongly assumed I'd never have to be within earshot of JF again. Alas, this is the problem with assumptions.

On April 15, after more than four months of neighborly silence, I received a private Facebook message from our neighbor next door concerning JF. She started by saying "I have some disturbing news regarding JF."

My heart was already thumping. She explained that due to his lack of "official" criminal activity recently, thanks largely to our efficient sheriff's department, JF would probably not face more than 30-37 months on the federal weapons charge -- a considerably lighter sentence than he would otherwise receive.

She went on to say that JF's wife had moved back into our neighborhood and was renting a house one block over from us. Alarm bells were now going off in my head.

The sentencing hearing was schedule for April 22 at 9:00 AM. Great! My birthday. And she asked me if txrad and I would please go to the hearing with them. She had previously told me about the experience when she and her partner testified at the trial and it was not fun. But I mulled this over and decided I'd go. It was an agonizing and stressful week but by Tuesday evening I was actually rather excited, although at least 75% of my excitement was due to the fact that all this would soon be over!

At 8:06 AM, txrad and I were in the car heading to the downtown court house for the 9 AM sentencing hearing. We arrived shortly before 9 and met up with our neighbors. Many of our neighbors were unwilling to attend out of fear. One couple from our neighborhood was at the court house yesterday morning but were unable to stay throughout the afternoon until the actual sentencing took place. Thankfully, a number of them who did not attend were willing to write a letter to the judge explaining their experiences.

After sitting through two hours of a sentencing involving a young woman from Mexico with a heroin conviction, we learned there were about 6 or 7 more cases ahead of us before we'd get to the JF sentencing. The agony would be prolonged.

txrad and I came home, had lunch, and I did a bit of office work before we headed back downtown just before 2 PM. It was well after 3 PM when the JF sentencing hearing began. And oh my, it was worth the wait!

JF and his lawyer spoke first to the judge and although I had been given a preview of what they were going to say in his defense, to hear it coming from JF and his attorney just made my blood start to boil.

JF was made out to be an asset to the community, a guy who has aided law enforcement "for free" for years, and helped rid our streets of drugs and bad guys. When the issue of the junkyard came up, his claim was that he filled his yard with old bicycles, go-karts, and other trash to attract teenagers and thus be in a position to help them with their lives because, as he put it, he really cares about the kids. (This would be a recurring theme in his own personal statements to the judge.)

At this point I was mentally arranging letters of the alphabet in my head: B.U.L.L.S.H.I.T.

One of my neighbors had already asked me if I was going to make a statement to the judge and I told her I didn't think I would. Suddenly I was having a change of heart.

Then JF's wife went to make her statement. This is where things really bordered on the surreal. As tears welled up in her eyes, she explained to the judge how ridiculous these charges were, reiterating what an asset he was to the community and then turning to point at us nasty neighbors, adding that she could not understand why these neighbors are trying to tear him down. I am paraphrasing because I was not taking notes, but this is a very close approximation of what she said.

And then she went on with her tirade and said he was such an asset that he had managed to rid a nearby street of Satan worshippers, then she had to stop due to excessive crying. It was at precisely this point where I had a revelation. JF, who had already struck me as being very Charles Manson-esque, had such a grip on this woman that she had become as deranged and delusional as he was. I could not help but wonder if the judge was thinking the same.

Next up to speak before the judge were our two neighbors who brought up a variety of excellent points involving the amount of filth and trash in the yard, the number of dumpsters required to haul it off and the resulting rodent problems. And the issue of the pygmy goats.

My heart was pounding in my chest as I approached the judge. My thoughts had blurred into a nebulous train wreck and I was so nervous I wasn't sure if I could squeeze a word out of my mouth. I could feel the eyes of JF and his wife burning into my back as I told the judge my name. I explained that I had worked from my home for 4 of the past 5 years and therefore had spent a lot of time observing and hearing all the activity from JF's property. I mentioned the "music" and that no hours were safe from the onslaught, and that on occasion it was so loud it would rattle my windows and reverberate through my house. Between the music and other "disturbances" it was driving me crazy.

I very truthfully informed the judge that there were many times when I was so frustrated I simply wanted to put my house on the market and move, but that any open house put on by the realtor would have come with an unwanted band. I concluded by saying if JF ever returns to our neighborhood, I feel I would have no choice but to move away. I said "thank you" and returned to my uncomfortable wooden court room bench, catching the swollen red eyes of JF's wife in the process.

JF and lawyer again approached the judge for their rebuttal. Now that I had mentioned the music issue JF felt compelled to explain that it was his intention to create a Christian rock band -- again, to help set all the corrupted teenagers who might pass by on a path to righteousness. Good grief, I was so embarrassed. Of course that was their intention. It was at that point I remembered JF and his bandmates screaming the word "faggot" into a microphone. Pardon my error.

The judge was now ready to render a good and fair ass-whuppin' sentence to our fine upstanding asset to the community. He took his sweet time about it, bringing up a multitude of prior convictions....driving with license suspended, violation of a protective order, theft, evading arrest, escaping from custody, driving with license suspended, unauthorized use of a vehicle, criminal trespass, assault/family violence, driving with license suspended, theft, driving with license suspended, (see any kind of trends here?) trespass of a habitation, possession of meth with intent to distribute. But hey, he was doing it for the sake of "the kids."

JF, turns out, has been in jail about 50 times, but NEVER, as strange as it seems given his history, been sentenced and sent to a federal facility until yesterday.

The judge, in an amazing understatement, said to JF, "You obviously have a disrespect for the law." And if I recall correctly he added something along the lines of, "...and a sense you are above the law."

After giving JF a verbal reaming, in a polite judge sorta way, he then proceeded to sentence JF, not to the "advisory sentencing guideline" for criminal possession of a firearm in the 33-37 month range, but to 60 months! Five years in a house he will not be allowed to trash.

As the prosecutor told me, it's rare for a judge to deviate upward from the established sentencing guidelines, and without a doubt she feels our presence and desire to speak out as neighbors helped cement the deal which puts this man out of our midst for five years, and on probation for three more, during which time he cannot touch drugs or alcohol without being returned to prison.

But remember, he's "tender-hearted," per his wife's testimony. My favorite mug shot is the 3rd row down, 5th photo over. No doubt he had just wrapped up a Jesus Loves You seminar with some area youngsters before being apprehended.

If you think this is frightening, be thankful you didn't have to hear him speak in his defense. At least he's gone; I feel safer in that regard. I find it disturbing that his wife, who clearly drinks from the same well of contaminants, is a block over from us. We'll all have to watch our backs.

All that aside, this was the best and most uniquely memorable birthday I have ever experienced. My neighbors and I were a part of justice being served.

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