'This Is Bloody War'

A five-month feud between roommates some 150 years in the making

Twice, she sneaked into the kitchen in the middle of the night and moved all of his food and utensils to another room.

He locked her out of the house when she left to walk her precious young Maltese, Mandy.

She draped sheets over furniture, piled boxes at his bedroom door and, in a handwritten note, declared the living room a storage area not to be used.

Illustration by James McHugh.
Illustration by James McHugh.

He aimed a floodlight at her bedroom door.

She insisted they divide the house in boundaries reminiscent of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

He drilled screws to seal 13 of her kitchen cabinets and drawers.

She called the police to claim he'd shaken his fists in her face and threatened to kill her.

He hid the key to a storage unit containing her furniture.

She hired a locksmith to open the security lock he'd installed on his bedroom door.

He followed her around the house with a tape recorder and a camera.

She yanked on his T-shirt.

He placed light bulbs underneath sofa pillows.

Can you imagine the make-up sex?

Kidding.

This wasn't a young couple's spat. It happened, in fact, at Leisure World in retirement-rich Laguna Woods. For two platonic friends—Rubalee Bookout, 80, and Ove Nielsen, 72—this domestic hell, as colorfully recorded in court documents and testimony, was the real OC.

But it wasn't just at home that the two retired real-estate agents performed. They took their show on the road. Last summer, inside Judge Thomas H. Schulte's Orange County courtroom, the following exchange occurred:

Bookout's lawyer: Isn't it true, Mr. Nielsen, that you called the police alleging that Ms. Bookout had threatened you with a barbecue fork?

Nielsen, on the witness stand: That's true.

Isn't it true that that never happened?

I called the police because she did it.

The assertion disturbed someone in the courtroom.

"He is lying!" blurted Ms. Bookout. She has a different memory, of course. Her story didn't include a barbecue fork or threat of violence.

"I was sitting in the living room when, suddenly, four or five police officers jumped into the front room," Bookout testified. "I said, 'My word! What is going on?'"

Good question, Rubalee.

Bookout and Nielsen met in December 2005 at a Dana Point singles club. She was living in a San Juan Capistrano mobile home. He was living on his boat docked in the harbor. They hit it off as friends. She offered to let him move into a spare bedroom in her trailer for $300 per month. They dreamed—well, at least in one version of the story—of buying a home together and, in early 2006, found an Avenida Sevilla unit in Laguna Woods.

According to court records, the community required new owners to have at least $100,000 in assets and income of $36,000 per year. By themselves, neither qualified. But combined, the duo offered papers purporting to meet the minimum financial standards.

(There was some question about the honesty of the papers in Schulte's mind. At one point during a hearing, the judge accused them both of fabricating numbers to buy into Leisure World. They insisted that had not been the case.)

Bookout paid the full purchase price of $155,000, but she later admitted in court that she'd placed Nielsen's name on the property title to qualify for the home. She claimed he was merely doing her a favor in exchange for a comfortable place to live. In Nielsen's mind, the title made him half-owner.

As soon as they moved into the house in April 2006, arguments erupted, probably because they were at such fundamental odds about their relationship. She quickly said he was deceitful and asked him to move out. He questioned her sanity and said he wasn't moving. The ensuing bickering, frat house-style stunts and open hostility prompted Bookout to invoke California's Elder Abuse Act and, three days after the barbecue fork affair, request a restraining order.

To Nielsen, the June 2006 legal actions were nothing but greedy ploys because, he said, "at no time did I intend to cause her irreparable injury, assault or threaten to assault her."

"She won the race to the courthouse and filed a claim against me and is attempting to have me involuntarily restrained from my residence," he wrote to the judge. It was, in his view, "a savvy attempt to gain sole rights to the jointly held property interest."

Nielsen said he could explain away her accusations: The light bulbs under pillows wasn't intentional; how was he to know he locked her out if he didn't know she failed to take a house key when she walked her dog? And sure, he used a floodlight inside the house, but it "was never placed directly at her."

He even had an answer about sealing the kitchen cabinets with screws. "That was done to prevent her from emptying out my property," he testified. "It was a preventative act."

Schulte wasn't amused.

"If I don't have an elder-abuse case, I'm going to have one in one month," he told the duo's lawyers in open court. "They hate one another. They can't stand one another's guts anymore. If we have them living in the same house, locking up cabinets, keeping things from one another, locking one another out of the unit when the one's out taking the dog for a walk—that kind of thing. We can't have elderly people, both of them at risk living in this environment. This is a bloody war. How would you like to be 80 years old living like that?"

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