OC's Most Annoying Neighbor
Meet Catherine Cass, one-woman reducer of property values

It may come as a shock to some in Orange County, but Santa Ana contains wonderful neighborhoods full of beautiful older houses, tranquil streets, and residents obsessed with neat lawns and home-improvement projects. One of these areas is located near Interstate 5, east of Main Street near MainPlace Mall. Residents here include lawyers, doctors, bankers, college professors and architects.

And Orange County's most annoying neighbor.

This month, a state Court of Appeal told Catherine Cass to shut up, quit whining and pay neighbors on either side of her house $320,000 in compensatory and punitive damages for being a nuisance and posting defamatory signs.

How could an 80-year-old woman who describes herself as "a quiet, gentle and considerate person" who loves plants and animals earn that whopping sanction?

A three-justice panel didn't buy Cass' sweet granny act.

"For over two decades, Cass has been engaged in a campaign of harassing and tormenting her neighbors on either side of her house (James and Rebecca Wallace, and Gloria Suess, respectively)," wrote Justice Kathleen O'Leary in an opinion. "Cass blares loud music directed at her neighbors' houses and makes other loud noises throughout the night, and when they use their back yards, to disrupt them. She has placed signs in her front yard, for neighbors and visitors to the Wallaces' or Suess' homes to see, accusing them of intentionally poisoning her plants and trees, abusing elderly and disabled persons, being anti-Semitic, being terrorists and comparing each of them to Slobodan Milosevic."

The appellate court concluded that Cass has "an unjustified angry and hostile hatred" for her neighbors.

In a March 14 handwritten letter to the justices, Cass protested, saying she was "stunned" that they could naively accept the "pseudo-reality" of her "abusive neighbors."

"I don't make noise," she wrote. "I am a single, non-partying, non-drinking quiet lady."

But during a 2005 superior-court trial, Cass' neighbors described their living hell. Suess testified that Cass had been making loud noises "day and night" since 1989: screams and moans or screams followed by bizarre laughter, blaring polka music in the middle of the night, and incessant pounding on floors and walls with a heavy stick.

The Wallaces testified they were forced to endure the same noises and added that Cass routinely walked her dogs to their front yard, stopped for them to defecate, and then left the mess. When they'd see her outside, she'd spit or make faces, they claimed.

Both neighbors say Cass also regularly placed signs in her front yard. Messages included "Stop poison-spraying our plants puff head," "Our neighbors are killing our plants. Help us kill theirs," "We charge our two neighbors with discrimination because of our ethnic background" and "Plant killer! Sadist!"

Cass didn't dispute the signs, but she explained that polka music was the only cure for leg pain worse than giving birth. She'd play a small transistor radio near her body for "few minutes," she said, and her aches miraculously disappeared.

It was a tale that probably didn't impress the court.

Real-estate experts say Cass single-handedly reduced the values of her neighbors' homes by 5 to 20 percent. State law requires homeowners to advise potential buyers of nuisances. The requirement made the homes "unsellable at fair market value," Cass's neighbors argued. Both a Superior Court judge and the appellate court agreed and calculated that fact into the damages.

Despite the legal rebukes, the final chapter of this tale probably hasn't been written. Cass' final question to the court: If she stops making obnoxious noises, can she continue to post obnoxious signs in her front yard? The justices, surely wary, replied: The First Amendment protects free speech.

I recently drove to Cass' single-story, circa-1942 Fairmont Avenue home to see if she'd moan, scream and beat on the walls for me. I can't tell you how many plants my brown thumb has killed.

But no bizarre signs were posted. No blaring polka music, either. Perhaps she was napping in preparation for late-night antics.

Despite the quiet, I chickened out. Her house is surrounded by a chainlink fence. Near a flag pole waving Old Glory sat a dog that looked to have its owner's personality.

DNA WARS
Prosecutors are none too happy with what they consider unfair challenges to their efforts to control their own DNA databases and analyses following OC Weekly revelations that a deputy district attorney had demanded the Orange County Sheriff's Department crime lab link an innocent man to a robbery case (see "CSI Games," March 14).

Gary R. Jackson, a longtime senior forensic specialist for the sheriff's department, said the incident underscored concerns about maintaining the integrity of DNA analysis. Jackson, who now teaches crime-scene investigation at Santa Ana College and Fullerton College, took aim at District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, wondering "how much damage" the DA could do manipulating forensic analysis in criminal cases.

In response, Rackauckas refuses to concede that his office has ever sought tainted DNA results. "Scientists—no matter who they work for—should be independent," he tells me. As for prosecutors gaining increasing control over DNA analyses in recent years, "I think that's a good thing for Orange County," he said.

According to the third-term DA, his offices' forensic projects—which include attempting to gain DNA profiles for as many local criminal suspects as possible—have an obvious upside: more crimes will be solved, "whether the evidence exonerates or convicts a suspect."

Sources in the DA's office insist the sheriff's crime lab is often tardy in completing forensic work before trials.

THRIFTY CONGRESSMAN
Representative Ed Royce might need a booster seat to see over the steering wheel when he drives, but don't think you can teach him anything about finances. The Fullerton Republican reported that his campaign committee earned bank interest of nearly $25,000 in the last three months of 2007. Extrapolate the figure, and Royce's campaigns easily could be hauling in $150,000 in interest during each election cycle. Potential challengers must be in awe.

IT'S YOUR MONEY, BUT THE GOVERNMENT SPENDS IT
Though it acknowledges a "severe" budget crisis, the Placentia City Council voted in January to rubber-stamp a staff idea to drastically increase the pay of a city administrator who was threatening to retire. Robert Dominguez had been paid $77 per hour and given more than $35,000 per year in perks such as a $6,000 car allowance, while he watched his city waddle into scandal after scandal. Now he'll get what he calls a bargain $95-per-hour deal. Until his replacement can be hired, he'll take home $760 per day, plus free gas, at taxpayer expense. How out of whack is that? It's $571 more per month than Newport Beach Police Chief John Klein makes.

rscottmoxley@ocweekly.com

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