Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Property dispute involves gunshots, run for office

By Dan Nienaber, Mankato Free Press

Dispute lingers in court system

A woman hoping to fill a seat on the Mankato Township Board has been in a property dispute with a neighbor that has lingered in court for months and escalated, more than once, to the point of gunfire.

At first glance, the scenic acreage south of Mankato where Caroline Wood and John Enger live seems like the type of place that would naturally encourage peace and harmony. Both of their houses are tucked into a hillside along the west side of Highway 66. Directly across the highway, people can be seen enjoying the Red Jacket Trail as they walk, jog and bike along the popular path. Mount Kato and the bluffs behind Indian Lake provide a colorful backdrop for that scene.

Enger and his wife, Danette, built their house about 30 years ago. Wood and her husband, Russell, moved into their house in 2008. The initial source of their many disagreements is a 40-foot easement, set aside in the middle 1990s when Highway 66 was improved, that provides a driveway to the Engers’ house.

The easement travels parallel to the highway across the Woods’ front yard. The Engers’ original driveway was removed when the highway was changed because sight lines made it hard to see for passing motorists.

Wood has also reported problems with the Engers’ dogs, including one that lost one of its front legs in July after it was shot in the chest by Wood. She has already spent about $20,000 in attorneys fees alone for the property dispute, which

hasn’t gotten her very far in court.

Enger said he’s concerned Wood is hoping to replace Howard Drummer Jr. on the Township Board so she can bring her dispute to a different forum.

“I’d be real concerned — for anyone living in this township — if she becomes our supervisor,” he said. “The rules tend to be pretty lax here. She complains about everything and has done everything she can do to make me afraid to enjoy my property. I’m afraid that’s what she’d turn this township into. That’s what she’s tried to do to me.”

According to a harassment claim filed by Wood, she received a medical discharge from the Air Force due to post traumatic stress and other health issues. She said she moved to Mankato because her husband, who grew up in the area, is still on active duty. He will be returning from Iraq next week and retiring soon, Wood said in an e-mail Wednesday.

She said she’s a qualified township board candidate because of her experience as an Air Force air traffic controller. Wood, 34, also has served as the manager of the Mankato Farmer’s Market this year.

“I believe in integrity, service before self and excellence in all I do,” Wood said in the e-mail. “My lack of direct civilian supervisor experience may cause hesitation, but I hope my prior military experience, positive energy, fresh perspective, and love of Mankato will lead to some support.”

Deputies have been called to the Wood and Enger residences “numerous times” since the property dispute started about two years ago, said Capt. Rich Murry of the Blue Earth County Sheriff’s Department. Reasons for the calls have included complaints about the use of the driveway, fences that have been built too close to the easement and gunshots. Reports from the dog shooting in July have been turned over to the county attorney’s office and could result in criminal charges.

It is illegal to shoot a stray dog on your property unless you are in fear for your safety or it is chasing wildlife such as deer, Murry said. He also said there had not been a problem at the two houses, or Enger’s house alone, before Wood moved in.

Enger said Brownie, his Thai ridge back (or Asian black lab) dog, was lured on to the Woods’ property before it was shot by Caroline Wood. Enger also said another dog that was living with him temporarily “fainted dead away” after both Wood and her husband fired numerous rifle shots near that dog during an earlier incident.

Here is how Wood describes what happened in July in a 92-paragraph affidavit she filed in September accusing Enger of contempt of court:

“On July 9, 2010, I saw the Enger’s pit bull dog enter our property when it was unsupervised and unrestrained. I waited to see if the dog would return home. Instead it proceeded into our yard.

“I therefore went outside with a 9mm handgun I had acquired because of a recommendation from law enforcement and my first attorney. I pointed the gun into the hillside one handed to fire a shot to scare the dog into going back home. At that moment the dog began to run and noticed me, at which point it charged toward me.

“I then took a two handed grip and fired the gun one time. I believe I hit the dog. The dog then returned home and I went inside to call law enforcement. I did not fire out of anything but fear. Once the dog was not a threat, I immediately went into the house.”

In the same affidavit, Wood claims Enger owes her more than $31,000 for what she has spent to protect herself since becoming his neighbor. That figure includes the attorney fees, the cost of audio and video surveillance equipment and more than $1,000 she paid to a private investigation firm to sweep her house for electronic bugging devices she suspected had been placed inside her house by Enger.

Update October 26, 2010 8:46pm - The following article is by Dan Nienaber, The Free Press:
Township candidate facing charges for shooting dog

A Mankato Township board candidate who has been in a long property dispute is now facing a felony charge for shooting her neighbor’s dog.

Caroline Ruth Wood, 44, also was in civil court Tuesday asking a judge to find her neighbor, John Enger, in contempt of court. Enger responded with his own motion asking the court limit when and where Wood can use her firearms.

Judge Kurt Johnson said he thought the situation had been settled with an order he issued in December. He was clearly surprised that the dispute had escalated to gunfire on July 9, which is when Wood admits to using a handgun to shoot Brownie, Enger’s Thai ridge back (or Asian black lab).

“She shot the dog?” Johnson asked at one point during Tuesday’s hearing. “Ms. Wood shot the dog?”

Enger and Wood, who have adjoining yards on Highway 66 across from Mount Kato, have been in a property dispute since Wood moved into her house about two years ago. She is not happy about a driveway that the county had acquired for Enger in the 1990s when Highway 66 was improved. It runs along her front yard, parallel to the highway.

The original driveway Enger put in when he built his house 30 years ago had to be moved because it had poor sight lines for passing motorists. His house is now above a retaining wall that prevents him from having a driveway on his own property.

Wood filed a lawsuit in June 2009 initially questioning whether Enger’s driveway easement was valid. Her attorney conceded early on that there was clearly a 40-foot easement that had been sold to the county by a previous owner.

Wood has also accused Enger of not doing enough to keep his dogs off her property. She said she’s concerned for her safety and the safety of her small service dog, which she brought into the courtroom with her Tuesday.

After scaring the dogs away with gunfire during previous incidents, she used a 9mm handgun to shoot Brownie. The dog survived a direct hit to the chest, but lost one of its front legs. As a result of that incident, a felony charge of mistreating animals and a misdemeanor charge of reckless use of a dangerous weapon were filed against Wood last week.

She called 911 to report she shot the dog, which she described as a pit bull, at about 4:30 p.m. on July 9. When a deputy arrived, she told him she grabbed her gun after she saw Enger’s dog in her yard. She said she stood in her doorway, yelled at the dog, then shot one round when it came toward her, according to the criminal complaint.

“(Wood) was asked that, if she was standing in the doorway at the time she shot the pit bull, why she didn’t just close the door instead of shooting it,” the complaint said. “(Wood) claims she was scared and feared her two dogs would get out and get attacked by the pit bull. (She) was advised that she could have closed the door and called 911.”

The deputy also interviewed a witness, Ben DeMars, who reported he was sitting with Enger on Enger’s patio when he heard one gunshot and a “yelp” from the dog. DeMars said he did not hear Wood yell at the dog or call for help before the gun was fired.

An empty shell casing also was found about 26 feet away from Wood’s front door. If the casing had been ejected from the gun in the location where Wood said she was standing, it would have gone toward the house, the deputy told her. He also said it was unlikely the casing would have flown that far when it was ejected from the gun.

When the deputy returned to interview Wood again four days later, she told him she wasn’t sure where she was standing when she shot the dog, the complaint said.

Wood described the incident in detail in an affidavit she filed with the civil suit in September. She was requesting Enger be found in contempt of court for not following an earlier order to keep his dogs on a leash while on the easement. She also claimed to have photographs and video of Enger’s dogs being walked on the easement without a leash.

Wood only produced two photographs during Tuesday’s hearing. Johnson said neither showed anything conclusive.

Enger’s attorney, Daniel Bellig, told Johnson the July incident and Wood’s inability to show any proof of her civil claims suggest she isn’t acting reasonably. That’s a concern for Enger and his wife, Bellig said.

“It just is not safe for my clients out there,” he said. “Law enforcement doesn’t want to come out anymore. They’re fed up.

“The situation is getting out of hand and, considering what happened in July, it’s getting dangerous.”

Johnson said he thought the dispute was settled, but would consider the motions. Wood is scheduled to make her first court appearance for the criminal charges on Nov. 18.

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