Cindy and Steve Wilkinson have operated Fantasy Balloon Flight for 30 years.… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )
Reporting from Indio -- Nearly every winter sunrise for decades, hot air balloons floated above the Coachella Valley. People on the ground would wave and admire the chromatic airships, while the passengers would gaze down at the date palm groves, the sere desert floor, the plum shadows on the San Jacintos.
Then the Marrellis came to town.
They bought an 80-acre parcel in 1999, double-fenced it and planted it with thousands of olive trees. When the trees were grown and provided a screen, they started building a compound in the style of a "Moorish fortress castle": two sprawling buildings and a bell tower, surrounded by 24-foot-high walls — four feet thick — with turrets on each corner and a deep moat at the entrance.
In a business plan marked "personal and confidential" contained in a court file, they called it Oasis Ranch and stressed the need for privacy, exclusivity and security at what they described as a "getaway" and a "retreat."
Neighbors never met John and Carol Marrelli — who lived on a hillside estate in Del Mar, according to voter registration records — and knew little of the castle; the trees hid all but the barrel-tiled roof of the tower.
Only later would they learn how much the family disliked having hot air balloons fly overhead.
Cindy Wilkinson, who owns Fantasy Balloon Flights with her husband, got her first cease-and-desist letter on Nov. 20, 2007.
Attorneys for the Marrellis alleged that her balloons were flying too low over Oasis Ranch, violating Federal Aviation Administration rules and creating a "public nuisance" and an "invasion of privacy" amounting to "harassment."
"If that was not enough, we received a phone call from our construction superintendent (the ranch is under construction) who indicated that a worker nearly plunged to his death from the 55' tower … when he was startled by one of your balloons flying dangerously close to the property," according to the letter.
The attorney asked that the balloons stop floating over the property at all — even though they had a right to fly at 500 feet or less while taking off or landing — or face "immediate legal action."
Oasis Ranch sits in the middle of the La Quinta cove, a flat area of calm winds between two rocky spines of the San Jacintos. It is the prime ballooning area of the valley, with plenty of empty spots to take off and land, and polo grounds that host annual balloon festivals.
"It's pretty much the worst spot to be if you don't like balloons," said pilot John Hennigan, who has flown the area since 1991.
Wilkinson said she had never received such a complaint in 26 years of offering balloon rides in the Coachella Valley.
She wrote back to the Marrellis' attorney, disputing the interpretation of FAA rules but agreeing to cooperate.
"Hot air balloons have been flying in the area for the past 40 years," she wrote. "Now that you have brought to my attention that you do not like the balloons so strongly … we will try to avoid the property, and will instruct other balloonists to avoid the area also."
It seemed like no big deal to her. The property was just one among hundreds in a vast green and brown checkerboard of farms and scattered homes.
The Wilkinsons received repeat letters in March 2008. By then, several other balloonists had received similar notices, including the company Hennigan worked for.
Then came the lawsuit. Filed March 27, 2009, against four operators, it would ultimately target every balloon company and pilot in the valley, alleging that they were still flying low over the property and making loud noises. It sought a permanent injunction against any overflights, as well as unspecified damages and attorney fees.
The Marrellis also filed complaints with the FAA, which investigated and found no violations.
Most of the balloonists were already suffering from the recession. Hennigan had just started his own company. "I could barely afford the propane, much less lawyers," he said. After the lawsuit, he sold his equipment and took a pilot's job in Temecula.
Denni Barrett and his wife, Shiho Seki, refused to abandon one of the three major hot air balloon markets in Southern California (along with Del Mar and Temecula). He hired an attorney to deal with all the motions, objections, hearings and depositions.
Cindy and Steve Wilkinson fought the suit on their own.
"Every day it seemed like something was coming over the fax that I had to deal with," Cindy said. "I was in depositions for 41/2 days. And I have never even flown over the property."
The Marellis' companies, JCM Farming Inc. and Equity Ag Financial, added more balloonists to the lawsuit, as well as two real estate firms that advertised on the balloons. The Wilkinsons said they couldn't get pilots to fly for them.
"Nobody can afford to fight these people," Cindy Wilkinson said. "They know if they come out and fly, they could lose everything."