World War III comes to Rocklin
Straight and lesbian neighbors battle in court after a sprinkler incident escalates
The oppressive courthouse in Colfax was decorated with green paint, green-striped curtains and nubby green seat cushions that held the tiny room firmly in the 1950s—years in which even the concept of illegal hate crimes against gays and lesbians was unheard of in Placer County.
In spite of his surroundings, by August 2003, Judge Joseph W. O’Flaherty was prepared to bring Placer County’s Superior Court into the 21st century. “These people get picked on a lot. … I gotta tell you,” he’d warned the attorneys after hearing about the alleged harassment of a lesbian couple in Rocklin, “I don’t like this at all.”
Both sides had requested temporary restraining orders, and the cases were being heard together. Defense attorney Julie Werthman called her client, Sherri Bailey, to the stand. Bailey, in a hipper version of a brown business suit, used her sweetest voice to explain how a dispute over a sprinkler head placed too close to the property line had set off what the judge had referred to as “World War III” between herself and her straight neighbors.
On June 10, said Bailey, “I came home and saw that the lawn had been cut up, like with a shovel.” She referred to it as a “shark bite” taken out of her lawn.
Her next-door neighbor, Roman Rodriguez, denied any knowledge of the damage, according to Bailey’s testimony. But because the gouge exposed a sprinkler head that was on his side of the property line and was over-watering his lawn, he demanded she move it. Bailey refused, preferring to wait for the builder to correct the problem, but she testified that Rodriguez threatened to make her life a living hell if she didn’t.
According to Bailey’s court testimony, Rodriguez was as good as his word. Bailey testified that Rodriguez began terrorizing her family and vandalizing her property. She accused him in court of throwing dog feces over the fence into her backyard, throwing a rock at her house, chiseling holes into the mortar of her swimming pool’s waterfall, breaking a poolside table and pouring acid into the pool.
A representative of Professional Pools would only confirm, in a separate interview, that the water held a higher-than-usual concentration of an acidic chemical regularly used in swimming-pool maintenance.
The morning after the pool was vandalized, according to Bailey’s testimony, Rodriguez yelled out to her, “How’s the pool, dyke?”
Bailey also testified that Rodriguez said inappropriate things to her daughter, including “Where’s your dyke mommy? … Are you going to grow up to be a dyke like your mommy?”
Bailey said in court that she started calling the cops on a regular basis and making multiple police reports.
After being visited by law enforcement multiple times, Rodriguez and his girlfriend, Kathleen Fry, sought to prove that Bailey was the aggressor, serving her with a temporary restraining order in late July.
Rodriguez’s brother delivered the order, and Bailey testified that he threatened her: “The next time your kids see you,” he reportedly whispered, “it will be your face with the word ‘missing’ over it in the post office.”
In cross-examination, Rodriquez’s attorney, Sandra Stanley, repeatedly asked who was around to witness Rodriguez’s comments or to view the vandalism of Bailey’s property. Bailey admitted that except for minor incidents, she, her partner and her children were the only witnesses.
Bailey’s testimony, even without corroboration, was powerful, and it came at the end of three days of sporadic testimony. Rodriguez had already denied all wrongdoing. He’d never been in Bailey’s backyard, he’d testified, had never vandalized her pool or the waterfall, had never pitched dog feces over the fence, had never referred to Bailey as a dyke. Never, not even privately. And no, he told the courtroom, he had nothing against gays and lesbians.
According to Rodriguez’s testimony, Bailey and her girlfriend, Lola Franco, had instigated all the fighting. They constantly taunted him whenever they saw him, referring to him over and over again as “a little man” with a “two-inch penis”; Bailey had broken into screaming fits for no reason over the sprinkler head, Rodriguez testified, and had filed a number of false police reports in an attempt to harass Rodriguez and Fry.
Three witnesses backed up his testimony, testifying that Bailey regularly insulted Rodriguez and that Franco threatened Fry, telling her to come outside so that Franco could kick her ass. One of these witnesses worked for Rodriguez, one was a friend and neighbor, and the third was Rodriguez’s co-worker. Though all three men had witnessed separate incidents, they concentrated on one insult from Bailey: little man, little penis.
“Did you ever hear Mr. Rodriguez call the defendants dykes?” Stanley asked each witness. No, each replied, never. “Ever hear Mr. Rodriguez make any derogatory remarks regarding Ms. Bailey’s sexuality?” Again, no.
Fry, petite, blond and well-dressed in miniskirted suits, had testified that she was terrified to leave her house by herself, and that Bailey had called her trashy and referred to Fry’s little girl as “your Keebler elf, fat-ass, piece of shit.”
Bailey denied this when she took the stand, claiming that she had made the comment, but she’d been referring to Fry.
“I wish to God I hadn’t,” Bailey said, contritely.
Bailey’s testimony differed from Fry’s and Rodriguez’s in that she admitted to saying nasty things that might have escalated already-simmering arguments. In contrast, when Werthman had asked Rodriguez why Bailey might have screamed and yelled at him, he seemed puzzled.
“No clue,” he said. “To get back at me because I was right?”
In closing arguments, Stanley pointed to the fact that Bailey had only one witness, while Rodriguez had presented three, all of whom, she said, were credible. She also asserted that the police reports were false. “There have been no complaints filed, no arrests,” she said. “[The defendants] showed no proof of acid in the pool or damage to the house. They could produce no proof that Rodriguez had ever gone into their backyard.
“I believe Ms. Bailey has a mental problem,” Stanley continued, to the shock of the defendants.
Sitting above the feuding neighbors, O’Flaherty watched the proceedings with little expression. He worked in a traditionally conservative county that rarely handled cases of discrimination against gays and lesbians.
“There have been no controversial or notorious cases involving homosexuality in Placer County that I know of,” O’Flaherty said in a separate interview. But from the beginning, the judge had warned the attorneys that he had strong feelings about such discrimination.
“They’re the ones who get picked on the most,” he repeated by phone, mentioning that in his personal life, he knew “people who still harbor these discriminatory feelings.”
Bailey had found that Placer County was unfamiliar with court cases about sexual preference and could not provide her with any assistance when the situation began to escalate. Bailey had gone to Sacramento’s Lambda Community Center to find Marghe Covino, who helped her navigate the court process.
In interviews, Covino referred to Placer County as “the home of the militia” “The forces of the Christian right,” she’d said, “are slowly taking over in Placer County. Sacramento doesn’t know it’s being surrounded.”
O’Flaherty gave little indication of how he would rule as both sides rested.
“This is a credibility issue,” he told the courtroom. “I agree with the defense. I think this is another incident where people are picked on for their sexual preferences.” He added that he wouldn’t be surprised if Bailey and Franco did react with a little anger in the continuing altercations.
“This may be a prelude to civil action,” he told the plaintiffs, and Fry covered her eyes for a moment. Bailey was nodding, tears falling onto her chest as the judge spoke.
O’Flaherty ordered a three-year restraining order and told Rodriguez not to come within 25 yards of Bailey and her family in public, and not to set foot onto their property.
“I find these people to be pretty much blameless,” he said, watching Bailey. Then he told Rodriguez and Fry that they would be paying for all attorney’s fees, which would equal at least $8,000, based on court testimony.
Rodriguez and Fry maintained their innocence as they left the courtroom but declined requests to speak further about the case. Their attorney, however, said in a separate interview that she planned to write a letter to the judicial commission asking for an evaluation of the judge’s mental state.
“My clients deny that they ever said any of this,” Stanley said. “I believe this judge is crazy.”
Bailey sat in the passenger seat of a sport-utility vehicle after winning her case and cried. “I feel sad,” she said. “Even though we won, we lost so much.” Asked to elaborate, she shook her head, examining her own feelings. “My innocence,” she said.
Maybe Placer County lost a little of its innocence, as well. Harassment against gays and lesbians may not be common in the Placer County courts, but when it gets to Judge O’Flaherty’s courtroom, he won’t pretend he’s still living in the 1950s.