Neighbors' 7-year feud results in 13th criminal case
By By Melissa Harris
Dec 06, 2006 | 3:00 AM
The dispute between the neighbors started seven years ago, but no one can say precisely when it spiraled out of control.
The families have blamed their counterparts on the other side of the pine-studded property line for everything from near-miss car accidents to being followed while on errands and videotaped while doing yard work. Profanities and obscene gestures have been exchanged, as have a plethora of lawsuits and criminal complaints, requiring more than 100 visits to the street by Howard County police.
And, of course, there are the lawn chairs. Once arrayed like white plastic sentries on the border between the Cerny and Elliott family homes on Swift Current Way, a cul-de-sac in Columbia's Village of River Hill, the chairs have become a flash point of their own.
The Elliotts view the chairs, placed 30 feet from their front door in the far corner of the Cernys' property, as a provocation. One judge hearing a dispute between the families referred to the line of chairs as a monument to the neighbors' "evergreen animosity."
Tomorrow, the combatants return to court in their 13th criminal case. Timothy Cerny, 47, faces a second-degree assault charge for allegedly spitting on David Elliott, 47, during an April screaming match that Elliott caught on videotape, according to court records.
The prior 12 cases consisted of charges including harassment, failing to comply with court orders and second-degree assault. None has resulted in a conviction, and most haven't even been prosecuted.
The feud, which has involved numerous state and local agencies, has become so costly that a judge once suggested the county end it by simply buying one of their approximately $750,000 homes.
"They're the modern day Hatfields and McCoys," said Capt. Kevin A. Burnett, who supervises police in the southern half of the county and who, along with the county's police chief, was subpoenaed in one of the Cernys' lawsuits against the Elliotts.
"They'll do anything to aggravate one another," Burnett said. "I'm shocked no one has gotten up and moved. Now it's turned into a contest of wills."
Burnett has listed the Cerny and Elliott homes on a short list of "hot spots," requiring specially assigned personnel, on a white board in his office alongside village centers and public housing projects.
And after Timothy Cerny filed a complaint claiming police bruised his wrists when he was arrested on an alleged violation of a peace order - for the lawn chairs - police began sending a supervisor and patrol officer to all calls involving the Cernys or the Elliotts.
Burnett also began personally handling their complaints over the phone and ordered patrol officers to cease responding to "nuisance complaints," such as reports of one neighbor staring at the other.
Both parties have also applied for 13 peace orders - meant to stop the other from threatening or harassing the applicant - since 1999, according to court records.
All told, police have responded 63 times to the Elliott home and 41 times to the Cerny home since 1999, according to police records, which do not include complaints that were handled over the phone.
After responding to dozens of calls, the county police decided they would not send officers to the homes "unless there is an allegation of criminal behavior - assault, theft, shooting," said Burnett, whose officers have been cursed at by Timothy Cerny, according to court documents.
Nevertheless, police still regularly respond to calls - nine times this year. "You have to take it seriously because something small might set one or the other off, but at the same time, it's frustrating to respond," Burnett said.
River Hill is an unlikely setting for such rancor. It is the ninth and final of Columbia's planned communities, all crafted to promote serenity.
Swift Current Way is a small street with 11 homes and 22 children, ending in a cul-de-sac that encircles a well-groomed island.
Animosity between the two families emerged even before construction of their nearly identical, 3,352-square-foot homes was completed seven years ago.
In 1999, the Elliotts learned from the developer's sales manager that the Cernys were building their house closer to the street to make room for a possible backyard pool.
Given the tight arrangement of the lots, the Cernys' backyard is immediately in front of the Elliotts' home. The Elliotts live on a so-called "flag lot," named for its narrow entrance and wide rear, meaning that the Cernys' backyard appears to be the Elliotts' front yard.
The conflict over the proposed pool began immediately.
"He [David Elliott] says to me right off the bat, before even an introduction, 'I heard a rumor about you. I heard you had your house sited for a pool. Why would you want a pool when there's one right down the street?'" said Timothy Cerny, who works as a financial adviser, often from home. "Everything I do in my backyard they object to."
The Elliotts declined to comment for this article.
Strict covenants govern property in Columbia, and approval of a pool would require a sign-off from the River Hill Community Association and the support of the Cernys' neighbors.
River Hill Village Manager Susan Smith declined to comment for this article, but court records show numerous letters from the community association citing the Cernys for covenant violations. The association called the plastic lawn chairs placed along the property line "an unapproved structure" and it cited the Cernys for replanting pine trees without approval.
"The worst moment was when my 7-year-old said to me, 'Daddy, can we go ride bikes tonight or do we have to wait for the police to come?'" Timothy Cerny said.
After that, the Cernys quietly put their house up for sale. Shortly after an offer from a potential buyer fell through in 2001, the feud took its nastiest turn and the Cernys decided to stay.
In August 2002, a "concerned neighbor" using a fictitious name and e-mail account wrote the Department of Social Services alleging that the Cernys were abusing and neglecting their daughter, who attends an elite private school and is enrolled in numerous extracurricular activities.
A social worker was sent to the home and the three family members were subjected to interviews and an investigation, which they called "terrifying" and "humiliating."
"The lowest form of life goes after a child," said Timothy Cerny, whose wife, Barbara, 47, a marketing consultant, started to cry as she recalled the experience.
Social Services found the allegations to be unfounded, and the Cernys began to go after the anonymous writer.
At first, they filed suit against "John and Jane Doe" in 2002 but later amended the complaint to name the Elliotts. The Cernys also tried to file perjury charges against another neighbor, Audrey Miller, after she stated in court that she knew who wrote the e-mail but then retracted that statement in a deposition.
Miller has since moved from Swift Current Way and declined to comment for this article.
In 2004, Howard County Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney threw out the case against the Elliotts after the Cernys, who subpoenaed Microsoft and hired a computer expert to trace the e-mail, were unable to identify the author. In a written opinion, the judge said the 2002 suit had been motivated by no more than the Cernys' "unconfirmed mere suspicion" of the Elliotts' involvement.
Sweeney declined to comment for this article.
In 2004, Barbara Cerny sued David Elliott for defamation and invasion of privacy, seeking $1 million in damages. In August 2006, Sweeney ruled against her.
When that case came to trial, David Elliott said that he did not know who wrote the e-mail and condemned its message.
"I think it's a very bad act to do," he testified. "We do not know who did it, and maybe if they would understand that, it would help to start" the healing process, he said. "We do not know who did it. I wish I did because it cost me so much in legal fees that I would go after that individual. It's a - it's a - it's a terrible act, whoever did it."
Donna Elliott, a public school teacher, and Barbara Cerny have both said in court documents or during interviews that they are afraid of the other's husband.
David Elliott, who a neighbor said works as a college basketball referee, testified in August that he and his wife had been repeatedly subjected to threats by the Cernys, quoting them as saying, "We're going to make you pay" or "We're going to get you."
He said Timothy Cerny would repeatedly scream the chorus to Queen's "We Are the Champions" whenever the Elliotts were outdoors, according to a separate complaint filed by Donna Elliott.
The police, after being called so frequently, have grown exasperated with both parties.
"[David Elliott] has made two reports for the infamous, harassing four white plastic chairs," Sgt. Lisa Myers wrote in an e-mail to Burnett, which the Cernys provided to The Sun. Burnett confirmed its authenticity. "Mr. Elliott was extremely condescending and refused to provide the needed information ... It is becoming a test of patience to maintain a professional demeanor when dealing with him ... Elliott is really skirting the line of abusing police service."
One neighbor, who requested anonymity for fear of being sued, called the feud an "egregious waste of money and time for the county." Other neighbors agreed, but none was willing to be identified because of the threat of litigation.
Citing the ongoing assault case against Timothy Cerny, Howard County State's Attorney Timothy J. McCrone also declined to comment for this article.
But internal e-mails - obtained by the Cernys during discovery in the 2004 defamation case - indicate that prosecutors have no patience for their complaints. One e-mail referred to Timothy Cerny as a "nut case" and spoke of David Elliott's "buffoonery," which together "made a bad situation worse."
In Sweeney's dismissal of the defamation case, the judge added a footnote to his opinion: "The casual reader ... unfamiliar with this dispute may do a double-take and inquire: 'What is that about?' The court can only caution: 'Don't ask.'"