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Sign Feud May End in 'For Sale'

Woman who accused neighbors of poisoning her plants fights to keep home after being sued.

January 08, 2006|Christine Hanley | Times Staff Writer

One by one, her beloved plants started to die.

First, a cherry tree. Then some petunias. A rose bush. Her tomato plants. A raspberry guava.

Catherine Sara Cass suspected that her garden was being poisoned by the couple next door. So she planted protest signs in her frontyard, spicing them up with her own brand of sarcasm: "Milosevic lives next door" -- a reference to the former Yugoslav president now charged with genocide.

Jim Wallace and his wife were not amused, but they let things slide. Finally, after years of putting up with the signs, they asked Cass to please stop, or, they warned, they would sue.

And that's what happened.

Now Cass, 78, stands to lose the home she has lived in since 1961.

An Orange County judge recently agreed that Cass is a nuisance and has defamed the Wallaces and another neighbor. She was ordered to pay them $320,000 in damages. And neighbors now are fighting for the right to sell Cass' property -- her only asset -- to collect their award.

The drawn-out dispute has divided the Santa Ana neighborhood known as Park Santiago. Some say Cass is a harmless, reclusive woman whose right to free speech and feelings are being trampled.

Others say Cass had it coming.

Cass, to no one's surprise, is digging in her heels. She is appealing the decision, has filed a complaint against the judge, and said she plans to sue her neighbors for elder abuse. She also has put up a new sign: "We have no holiday. They had the sheriff put a levy on our family home of 44 years."

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The tree-lined streets of Park Santiago provide a refuge from the nearby freeway and railroad tracks that frame the neighborhood. Residents say it's not necessarily a tightknit community, but certainly a friendly place.

Cass was raising two teenagers on her own when she bought her modest ranch-style home on Fairmont Avenue for $18,000. She worked at engineering labs and city parks to pay the mortgage, filing for bankruptcy at one point to hang onto her home.

"Looking back, she really had to scrape by," said her son David, 55. "But ... she was always able to keep the wolf from the door."

He and his sister had moved away by the time Jim Wallace and his wife moved in. They bought a two-story home, restored it and raised two daughters.

By the early 1980s, Cass began to suspect someone was spraying deadly chemicals on the potted plants and trees on the side of the property she shares with the Wallaces. She said she even sent a cutting to the county agricultural commissioner to see what the experts thought. The report was inconclusive, she said, but to her it was evidence enough.

At first, she replaced the dead plants. But as the years went by, the cost took up more of her Social Security income. So out came the signs.

"When a woman wants to protest, signs become the way to do it. You hear about it. You read about it. So you think it will be effective," she said.

At first, she said, her messages were simple: "Someone's poisoning my plants." But when no one took interest in her plight, her signs took on a sharper edge.

"You sicko! If you get your jollies from killing our plants, kill your own! Hands off ours; and stay out!"

"More plants killed by our 2 sadistic neighbors."

"Why did you poison-spray our baby peach tree? Plant killer! Sadist!"

Cass said she checked with officials at City Hall to see whether she could post such signs and was told yes, she had the right to free speech.

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The Wallaces say they have no idea why Cass came up with the notion that they were killing her plants. They said they suspect that the plants, many of which seemed to wither from lack of watering, died a natural death.

Still, they said they ignored Cass' signs, hoping their neighbor would realize that they were not to blame. They also said that they put up with a barking dog and loud music that never seemed to cease. As time passed, they said they began to fret that the front-lawn campaign might take a toll of their property's value.

Their children had grown and they were thinking of downsizing, but because of disclosure laws, the Wallaces said they would have to let potential buyers know about their history with Cass.

The couple said they attempted to reason with Cass. But when they tried to approach her, they said, she would spit on the ground, turn around and retreat inside her home.

They dropped a letter in her mailbox in the summer of 2003, asking her to stop. She didn't. Six months later, their attorney sent a letter threatening to take her to court. Again, no luck.

"It's really intentional, malicious behavior over a long period of time. And we really just couldn't take it anymore," said Jim Wallace.

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