Neighbors' dispute escalates into all-out legal war
A neighbors' dispute that began with a wrecked motorcycle has escalated into a saga of police investigations, allegations of dog poisoning, ruined careers and the disbanding of the Sultan Police Department.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Gayle and Ray Harvie were at Disneyland when they learned a troubled neighbor had stolen, and then crashed, their new $12,000 Yamaha motorcycle.
The 18-year-old thief was fine, but the Harvies, who'd raised three boys themselves, thought he needed to be taught a lesson. They called police and pressed charges.
When his mother, Caroline Pepperell, and Ray Harvie spoke a few days later, Harvie insisted she or her son pay for the damage. Pepperell refused. They hung up.
That was the last conversation between the Harvies and Caroline Pepperell for nearly six years. In that time, their dispute metastasized into a saga involving three separate police investigations, a dead dog, Adolf Hitler's secretary and allegations of forgery and organized crime. It led to the conviction of a decorated cop, the disbanding of the Sultan Police Department and, in March, a $79,146 judgment after a four-day jury trial.
The feud has wreaked havoc on all their lives. Pepperell was fired from her job and faces possible bankruptcy. The Harvies have spent at least $300,000 pursuing Pepperell, while Gayle Harvie has been treated for anxiety and panic attacks, according to court documents.
The only thing they agree on is: The dispute has spun out of hand. "Completely ridiculous," said Pepperell, 50. "Like a battle scenario, where you are never comfortable in your own home," said Ray Harvie, 52.
After all that, the families still live next door to each other, separated by a white rail fence, but one now monitored by dozens of video cameras.
Poison and suspicion
The Harvies' 3,200-square-foot gated home sits among more modest houses — including Pepperell's yellow manufactured home — on a 4-acre plot in the woods southwest of Monroe. The Harvies own a successful concrete-design firm and proudly note one of their three sons is a scout for the Los Angeles Angels.
They like big dogs, especially purebred Tibetan mastiffs, a breed of thick-haired guard dogs that can be 170 pounds or more. Even in the rural setting, their eight mastiffs have prompted noise complaints from neighbors, as well as one dog-bite report.
But it was the July 1, 2005, motorcycle theft that lit the fuse. One evening, a month after the theft, Gayle Harvie noticed her 6-month-old, 62-pound mastiff, Sunbear Lu Lu, staggering around the garage, frothing at the mouth.
Gayle Harvie said she "drove like a crazy woman" to get the dog to a veterinarian, who diagnosed an unspecified toxin. Sunbear went into cardiac arrest. The Harvies had her euthanized.
They initially feared the dog had nibbled a poisonous plant or gotten into a barrel of chemicals. But the next evening, a second mastiff, Valentina, also began staggering. That dog was saved.
Tests on both dogs — Sunbear's stomach contents and Valentina's blood — showed the presence of pentobarbital, a regulated barbiturate used to euthanize animals and, more recently, in lethal injections. Traces also were found in the Harvies' backyard pond and on a favored dog toy, a plush purple dinosaur.
Convinced it was no accident, Gayle Harvie again called police and installed a $60,000 surveillance system. A four-month Snohomish County sheriff's investigation closed without concluding who had poisoned the dogs.
A police scandal
For some, the story could have ended there.
But Gayle Harvie, 54, instead hired a private detective and began filing one public-record request after another, digging into Pepperell's background.
Harvie learned her neighbor had worked as an animal-control officer in Mountlake Terrace, where she became familiar with pentobarbital, but was fired in 1994 for misusing a secure law-enforcement database called ACCESS more than 200 times.
Harvie barraged the Sultan Police Department, where Pepperell worked as secretary to Chief Fred Walser, seeking evidence of her suspicion Pepperell again had misused ACCESS, this time to monitor Harvie's calls to police. According to later testimony, Walser, a towering man with 40 years' experience as a cop, told Sultan's city attorney he checked and found Pepperell hadn't run Harvie's name.
Gayle Harvie persisted. In her fifth request to Sultan, she demanded a copy of the entire hard drive from Pepperell's work computer. Daunted by the complexity of the request and unable to shake Gayle Harvie, Sultan asked Washington State Patrol (WSP) for a formal internal-affairs investigation.
That led to a cascade of troubling revelations. First, the WSP computer-forensics team arrived in Sultan and found Walser had tipped Pepperell in advance, a breach of investigative protocol, a WSP detective said later.
Then the detective learned Walser, months prior, had received a printout showing Pepperell indeed had run Harvie's name through ACCESS. That contradicted statements by the police chief to the WSP detective and the city attorney, Cheryl Beyer.
"I started thinking, 'Oh God, what have I just stumbled into? What did Walser know, and what was going on?' " Beyer said later during a deposition.
Pepperell was fired. She regained her job after an administrative hearing, but she was fired again for allegedly mishandling money. After her last dismissal, she settled with the city for $15,000 and agreed not to sue, according to court documents.
Walser became the subject of an internal-affairs probe and a criminal investigation, handled by Everett police because the chief used to work for WSP. In May 2007, nearly 15 months after Harvie inquired about the ACCESS issue, Walser pulled the incriminating printout from his desk drawer during a meeting with then-Mayor Ben Tolson. "If I screwed up, I screwed up," Walser said, according to the 880-page Everett police report.
Walser resigned and in 2008 pleaded guilty to lying to a public official, a gross misdemeanor. Later that year, Walser, running as a Democrat, lost an election for state Senate.
Walser, in an interview, said he regrets pleading guilty and he described the WSP and Everett police investigations as substandard. Sultan, he said, sided with the Harvies for fear they'd sue. "Gayle Harvie has literally run Carole into the ground. This is David versus Goliath," he said.
A year after the scandal, Sultan disbanded its police force and hired the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office to take over its policing.
Tolson, the former mayor and an Assembly of God minister, said the scandal cost Sultan as least $250,000 and was a "significant factor" in doing away with the city police force, which Walser confirmed.
Tolson said he's still baffled by it all, especially Walser's conduct. "People do silly things to protect themselves," Tolson said.
Neighbors at war
Meanwhile, the dispute between neighbors became open war. The Harvies and Pepperell accused each other of vandalism and harassment ranging from dumped garbage and a Super-Glued gate lock, to shots from pellet and potato guns.
At Echo Lake's neighborhood grocery store, "Wanted" posters appeared on the community bulletin board. One, posted by the Harvies, warned neighbors that Nick Pepperell, the son, was a burglar. Another, which Caroline Pepperell denied posting, accused the Harvies of having "an extensive history of organized crime" around Echo Lake.
Other neighbors got involved. One pressed a noise complaint against the Harvies' dogs to the Snohomish County hearing examiner, presenting nearly 100 DVDs of barking dogs. The hearing examiner ruled in the Harvies' favor, finding evidence Pepperell and other neighbors had incited the dogs to bark.
The Harvies and Pepperell sued and countersued each other in Snohomish County, with the Harvies accusing Pepperell of poisoning their dogs. Pepperell, who also goes by the last name Feldmann, claimed "severe public humiliation," said she was unable to get another job and, in a strange twist, accused the Harvies of convincing her own son, the motorcycle thief, to steal documents from her home.
The case went through years of discovery, including at least a dozen depositions. Just before going to trial in March, the Harvies offered to settle for no money if Pepperell agreed to a permanent restraining order, which likely would have required her to move. She declined.
"Why should you be forced to sell, just because that's what your neighbor wants?" Pepperell said recently. "I didn't do anything wrong."
Acting as her own attorney, she argued Gayle Harvie poisoned her own dogs and doctored lab reports. Pepperell called an expert, a retired WSP crime-lab director, to testify about inconsistencies in the toxicology tests. Pepperell also cross-examined Gayle Harvie herself, the only time they've spoken since the motorcycle theft.
"When you know everything Gayle Harvie has done for the last six years is based on a lie, you somewhat feel pity for her," Pepperell said later.
She was overmatched by the Harvies' attorney, David Nold, a Bellevue litigator who also represents developer Kemper Freeman. A witness for the Harvies testified Pepperell once had suggested drowning kittens in a river. Another established that Sultan police obtained a pharmacy license months before the dog poisoning, suggesting Pepperell, who handled the license, had opportunity to obtain pentobarbital.
At the end of the trial, Nold played a documentary film, called "Blind Spot," about Hitler's secretary and involving the Nazi dictator's dog being killed with poison. Pepperell once had rented the film and scribbled notes, including "dominate the neighbor," Nold said.
The jury deliberated a day and a half before finding Pepperell was responsible and awarding the Harvies $66,300.
At a hearing in Everett earlier this month, Pepperell demanded a mistrial be declared. Instead, Snohomish County Superior Court Judge David Kurtz added nearly $13,000 to her judgment but denied the Harvies' request for a permanent injunction against Pepperell.
"This is not a good woman," Nold said of Pepperell during the hearing. "She is living in a fantasy world."
As Pepperell left the courthouse, she spotted Gayle Harvie in the hall, turned and walked the other way.
The case is far from over. Nold said he will pursue Pepperell even into Bankruptcy Court. Walser is suing Sultan for wrongful termination and he filed a bar complaint against Sultan's city attorneys. Pepperell is planning to appeal.
Gayle Harvie said she would move if the housing market improves. "There's a lesson here," she said. "The next time I go to move, I'm going to research my neighborhood a little more."
Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or firstname.lastname@example.org
The Morning Memo
The Morning Memo jump starts your day with weather, traffic and news
The Seattle Times photographs
Purchase The Seattle Times images
Career Center Blog