Seldom is the legal rule of innocent until proven guilty so ignored by the public as in cases of ethnic and racial hate crimes. The charges are toxic enough to begin corroding the accused immediately, and for a crime that is enormously difficult to prove--was he a black victim, or a victim because he was black?--the allegations alone can tarnish a defendant permanently. Burglars, embezzlers, even murderers can become tangled in circumstance and thus eligible for reform; haters remain haters.

Eight months ago the Aronson family filed a lawsuit in federal court charging their Evergreen neighbors, William and Dee Quigley, with conspiring to harass them out of the neighborhood because they are Jewish. Three days later the Jefferson County district attorney charged the Quigleys and their neighbor Joy Mudd with ten separate crimes under the state's seven-year-old hate laws.

Although the civil suit first brought this family feud to the public's attention, it was the DA's criminal charges that gave credibility to the Aronsons' claim that the Quigleys were vicious anti-Semites. "We are gratified that an independent body examining the evidence has determined that the Aronsons have correctly reported what occurred," Stuart Kritzer, one of the Aronsons' attorneys, announced to a crowd of cameras.

The DA's ethnic-intimidation case hung on a frame of evidence constructed solely of tape recordings of the Quigleys' private cellular-phone conversations that the Aronsons had secretly made using a scanner. When bits of the transcripts became public, they were both stomach-churning and sad.

The Quigleys and Joy Mudd reportedly discussed their Jewish neighbors using terrible ethnic slurs, including graphic references to the Holocaust. Saul Rosenthal, the director of the Colorado Anti-Defamation League who became a spokesman for the Aronsons, called the incident "one of the most astonishing cases of anti-Semitic harassment our office has ever confronted."

But what seemed so straightforward then is vastly more complicated than has been reported. (Because the Aronsons' case is still pending, as is another civil suit the Quigleys brought against Rosenthal for slander, the families and their attorneys, as well as Rosenthal, declined to be interviewed for this story.) The Quigleys' low regard for their neighbors was scarcely one-sided; the two families had been at each other's throats for months. They traded petty dog-control charges and sniped about each other's children. They fought over landscaping.

And both families volleyed verbal insults that would make a prison guard blush. While the Quigleys chose to use words offensive to Jews--though in private conversations and never directly to the Aronsons--it is now apparent they did so because they disliked the Aronsons, and the Aronsons happened to be Jewish. It may have been distasteful, but it wasn't criminal.

In other words, Jefferson County District Attorney David Thomas told Westword, "it was a basic garden-variety neighborhood dispute. There were hard feelings on both sides. The ethnic part of it came as an outgrowth, not a cause of it." Last month the DA's criminal case dissolved into a single traffic infraction against William Quigley; the two families still live on the same block.

It is remarkable and tragic that such a common, small-minded spat became grist for charges of ethnic hatred and the near-universal condemnation of the Quigleys as people who hate Jews. What is even more remarkable, though, is that the institutions that exist to sort out such serious charges--law enforcement agencies, the ADL, the media--were so eager to latch on to the Aronson/Quigley feud and make it their own.

Worse, the district attorney's office made a series of poor judgment calls that wrongly tarred the Aronsons' neighbors as criminals, and it apparently did so under pressure from the ADL to charge the Quigleys with hate crimes. And instead of collecting its own evidence, the DA's investigation relied strictly on materials provided by the Aronsons that in some cases were misleading--and, in the case of Joy Mudd, horrendously wrong.

After stumbling through a rocky career road in the movie business, William Quigley, now 45 years old, was hired as vice-president in charge of marketing and new business for Englewood-based United Artists. In 1993 he and his wife, Dee, and their three children were the first people to move into a fancy Evergreen development called The Ridge, where home prices average around $450,000.

The Aronsons--Mitchell, 39, his wife, Candice, 43, and their four children--moved two doors down in August 1994. Before he arrived in Colorado, Mitchell had helped his father run the family graphics-and-printing business on New York City's lower East Side. Candice was one of two children from a family that had made considerable money in the bicycle business.

The two families seemed to get along at first. The Quigleys hosted the Aronsons for dinner at least twice soon after they moved in. But within two months relations between them had deteriorated, and by the fall of 1994 both families had begun using county law enforcement agencies to gain advantage against the other.

Jefferson County Animal Control records show that in the fall of 1994, each family filed a complaint against the other's dog. Later, several clashes between the families' children further divided the new neighbors. In late October the Quigleys called the sheriff's department and alleged that the Aronsons had stolen some landscaping rocks from their yard (charges were never brought).

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