WAR OF THE WORDS
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).
But the detonating moment of the dispute came on October 20. That's when William Quigley allegedly pointed his car at Candice Aronson while she was parked near her mailbox and roared toward her, frightening her. That incident set off a chain of improbable events that led to the Quigleys being criminally charged as Jew-haters.
The sheriff's deputy called to the scene on that day interviewed both William Quigley (who claimed he "crept" by Candice in his car) and Candice Aronson (who misidentified William's car, claiming he zoomed at her in his blue Chevy Suburban when he was driving a red BMW). "Based on the statements of all involved, and the layout of this private road, no traffic violations can be substantiated, no further action will be taken," the deputy's report concluded.
It was hardly the end of the matter, though. That same day the Aronsons called Rosenthal at the Anti-Defamation League to ask for help. By then they had already begun taping the Quigleys' cellular telephone conversations with each other, with neighbors, and with out-of-state friends and relatives.
After speaking with the Aronsons, Rosenthal referred the couple--whom he described as "very, very frightened, very scared"--to Gary Lozow, an attorney who has served as chairman of the ADL and who helped write the state's ethnic-intimidation statutes. He met with the Aronsons the next day.
Lozow also is a friend of Jefferson County's chief deputy district attorney, Mark Pautler: They lived next to each other in Southmoor Park, and their children went to school together. On Sunday, October 23, Lozow paged Pautler at home and told him about the Aronson/Quigley case. The prosecutor later explained in a deposition that "he was contacting me because he knew me best at the district attorney's office."
Pautler told Lozow to give the Aronsons his phone number. He also informed District Attorney Thomas of the call, and the DA phoned Lozow to discuss the state's wiretapping statutes and how they might apply to the Aronsons.
The following day, the Aronsons called Pautler at the Jefferson County District Attorney's office, and he agreed to meet with them on Tuesday. After a fifteen-to-twenty-minute meeting, the Aronsons turned over three tapes of conversations between the Quigleys and their friends.
Coincidentally, that was the same day--October 25, 1994--that a federal law went into effect making such eavesdropping illegal. Yet no one at the DA's office seems to have advised the Aronsons of this. To the contrary, Thomas says both he and Pautler told the family that, in their opinion, such taping was entirely legal, and the Aronsons continued feeding tapes to Pautler through mid-November.
The Quigleys were not the only ones who, unbeknownst to them, were being listened in on by the DA's office. At one point the Aronsons handed in a tape that recorded two neighborhood kids discussing how to rip off a local convenience store; that tape was turned over to the sheriff's department.
Another tape alluding to an alleged drug deal in the neighborhood was given to a sheriff's department narcotics investigator. Sergeant Richard Webb, who describes the assignment as "unusual," says he never got around to an investigation because other law enforcement officers were already handling the Aronson/Quigley case. He says he thinks the drug tapes were made before October 25, and thus legal. "It may hold up in court," he adds, "but it sure wreaked havoc in the neighborhood."
On November 17 Pautler turned over the Aronsons' case to a veteran sheriff's department investigator named Donald Olin. But instead of asking him to conduct a full-blown investigation of the Aronsons' charges, Olin says Pautler simply asked him for what is called an "administrative filing."
"The DA already felt the elements of the crime were there," Olin recalls. "So I was just told to review the stuff and send back a cover sheet."
As a result, Olin's investigation was cursory. He interviewed no one, although he says he had a couple of short conversations with the Aronsons. One occurred just as Olin was sitting down to listen to the tapes. Candice Aronson called and said that her attorneys had prepared transcripts of the Quigleys' conversations--they now took up twelve tapes--and that she would send them over.
And even then, Olin seemed to ignore parts of the transcribed conversations. For instance, the typewritten pages contained numerous references to the bitter and ongoing dispute between the two families and even references to incidents in which the Quigleys felt they were victims of the Aronsons. But those never made it into the investigator's page-and-a-half report, which detailed only the Quigleys' slurs against the Aronsons.
Olin says he's not sure why he didn't include mentions of the neighborhood disputes or the Quigleys' gripes about the Aronsons. "It just wasn't done," he says.
Between October and December, the Anti-Defamation League made certain the district attorney's office knew of its interest in the Aronson/Quigley case. DA Thomas vigorously denies that the organization pressured his office into generating criminal charges against the Quigleys. Yet, if the ADL didn't have a direct influence, it appears to have enjoyed remarkable timing.
For example, Pautler has acknowledged that, in addition to Lozow's initial phone call, he also was contacted by Bobbie Towbin, an ADL staffer. "She advised that she was interested in the Aronson matter, wanted to know the status of it," he recalled in a deposition. "I think there was an inquiry as to when we might be finished, and I said I had no idea."
Coincidence or not, Towbin's call came just days before Pautler decided to turn over the tapes to the sheriff's department for review in preparation of filing charges against the Quigleys.
Thomas says he also received a call from an ADL official, in this case Saul Rosenthal, although he can't recall the exact date. When the district attorney returned Rosenthal's call, he wasn't in, and Thomas spoke to Towbin instead.
Finally, Pautler says he received one more phone call from the ADL, this time from Lozow, the attorney. Pautler wasn't in, and Lozow left a voice message. "It was something in the nature of he wanted to know what was going on, and he was getting impatient," the deputy district attorney recalled in a deposition.
The ADL also exhibited superb timing when it helped the Aronsons file their civil lawsuit against their neighbors on December 6. Despite having had three weeks to read the transcripts of the Quigleys' phone calls and return his findings to the district attorney, Olin chose to give his report to DA Thomas just one day later, on December 7.
That, of course, was the same day mention of the Aronsons' lawsuit first appeared in the news and the same day that Rosenthal and the Aronsons held a press conference to answer questions about the case. Olin says that the timing was coincidental and that he was under no pressure to finish his report.
Two days later, Thomas filed charges against the Quigleys and Joy Mudd, even though no one from his office had ever met with the Quigleys or their lawyers. Pautler says he made a couple of appointments to meet with the family's lawyer but had to cancel them. And once the Aronsons' civil lawsuit was filed, he told The Denver Post, "I didn't see any reason to meet with them."
Thomas says the timing of the criminal charges had nothing to do with the explosion of publicity surrounding the Aronsons' press conference. "It was just coincidence," he says. "We do things here on our own time line."
Don Mudd recalls how his family learned that his wife, Joy, was being charged with the crime of harassing the Aronsons because they were Jewish. "It's kind of bizarre," he begins.
"On the morning of December 9, a local Evergreen attorney, who we'd used to purchase our house, called Joy and said he understood that felony charges had been filed against her, and did she want him to represent her? She said, `I don't know what you're talking about,' and hung up the phone."
Later that evening, Don, who'd just found a new job on the East Coast and was waiting for Joy and their young son to join him, received a phone call in his hotel room from his wife. "She was hysterical," he says. "Our six-year-old boy had just seen her picture on the evening news and said, `Mom, you're on television.'"
According to Olin's report, which was made public that day, the Aronsons had taped Joy discussing distasteful activities with Dee Quigley. The two women "agree[d] that the side of the Aronsons' home should be painted to represent a large oven," Olin's report read. "There is also a conversation indicating that lamp shades and bars of soap should be thrown into the Aronsons' yard to give them the hint."
A preliminary hearing on the charges against Joy Mudd--three separate counts of conspiracy to commit ethnic intimidation--was scheduled for January 20. The Mudds returned to Evergreen on January 17. A handwritten note was tacked onto their door. It said that Joy needn't bother coming to the hearing; the charges against her had been dropped.
Don called the DA's office and asked for an explanation. They sent over a detective, John Newhouse. He and the Mudds met over the family's kitchen table in Evergreen.
"He said that had he been the investigator on this case charges would never have been filed," Don recalls. "He said, `This is the weakest case I've ever seen in my 21 years on the force.' He said that there had been a great deal of pressure to file charges, that it was a high-visibility case. Then he said that they discovered that the person Mrs. Quigley was talking to, that they had identified as my wife, was in fact someone else thousands of miles away.
"I was in tears. I said, `Do you have any idea what you've put my family through?' Newhouse just said the charges would be dismissed."
Newhouse was on vacation last week and was unavailable for comment. But Thomas acknowledges that the reason he had to drop the charges was that Joy Mudd was misidentified on the Aronsons' transcripts.
While Don was back in Colorado, he and his family attempted to go out to dinner in Denver. "It was just amazing the stares and dirty looks we got," he says. The next week the family left the state for good. "I don't ever care to come back to Colorado again; Colorado doesn't exist in my mind anymore," he says.
Before hanging up the phone he adds, "Do not, I repeat, do not indicate where Joy or I am living. I do not want to put her through this again."
The public fallout from the criminal charges started almost immediately. The Quigleys began receiving threats and hired a personal security guard. On one occasion their attorney, Jay Horowitz, called the police bomb squad to his office.
Meanwhile, newspapers seized on the story. Excerpts of the Aronsons' transcripts appeared in front-page articles. On December 11, a Denver Post columnist wrote a story under the declaratory headline "In Evergreen, There's Hate in the Air--Again."
A week after the district attorney brought criminal charges against the Quigleys the Rocky Mountain News found a building contractor who supposedly had heard Dee Quigley call some of his workers insulting ethnic names. "Mitchell and Candice Aronson may not be the first to run afoul of Evergreen's Quigley family," the story began.
The weekly Evergreen paper had a field day. In its first issue after the civil lawsuit was filed, the Canyon Courier ran no fewer than three opinion columns about the dispute (headlined "No Time for Defensiveness, We're All Bigots," "Anti-Semitism? We Should Not Be Surprised" and "Evergreen Still Has a Long Way to Go"), as well as an editorial cartoon. Subsequent issues included an interview with a Jewish civil-rights leader ("Why Do We Hate?") and voluminous letters to the editor denouncing the Quigleys.
On December 13, the Post ran an editorial that said, in part: "Rarely do people become as sickly obsessed about the habits of their neighbors as the upscale residents of The Ridge who allegedly sought to intimidate Mitchell and Candice Aronson. Most folks accept even the most irksome differences as part of the price of living in a civilized society, and then get on with their daily lives. It's a shame that the defendants in this case apparently chose to do otherwise.
"But the fact that they apparently did only emphasizes the need for Colorado's hate-crimes statutes."
Colorado's ethnic-intimidation laws were passed in 1988, in response to the murder of Alan Berg, a Jewish radio talk-show host, several years earlier. The statutes are legal turbochargers, meant to enhance existing laws: A person charged with intimidation based on his victim's race faces a stiffer penalty than someone who harasses indiscriminately.
Although most states have passed some sort of hate law, they are extremely difficult to prove, and Thomas says he has used them just once before in Jefferson County. "It is a statute that we are not very familiar with," he adds. Still, Thomas says that when he decided to file charges against the Quigleys and Joy Mudd, he was confident that the hate laws were appropriate.
"I believed that there were words and conduct, particularly words, that would place a person in fear of imminent lawless action--threats directed at the Aronsons that were racially motivated," Thomas recalls. "There was probable cause to think that ethnic intimidation existed. You have to act, and that's what we did here."
The ethnic-intimidation law, he adds, "requires some subjectivity." For example, because a person can be criminally charged simply for his words, prosecutors needed to carefully consider the seriousness of intent, the tone and the context of the conversations.
Yet all of that was missing from the transcripts prepared for law enforcement agencies by the Aronsons. For starters, the written records didn't provide emotional nuance. And because the Aronsons had been highly selective about what they released (in one instance a hundred-minute conversation had been boiled down to fewer than five minutes of tape), the context in which much of the Quigleys' conversation occurred was absent.
Once the Quigleys and Joy Mudd were charged with ethnic intimidation, the case was assigned to Steve Jensen, a deputy DA. Unlike Olin at the sheriff's department, he slowly began listening to the tapes directly instead of reading the Aronsons' transcripts. Thomas says Jensen spent nearly a hundred hours reviewing the tapes over the following weeks.
As he drove back and forth to work each day, listening to the Quigleys' phone conversations, Jensen began to discover that there was a vast gulf between reading what the Quigleys said and listening to it. "After he reviewed the tapes," Thomas remembers, "he told me he was concerned about whether he could prove the ethnic-intimidation charges beyond a reasonable doubt."
The Quigleys' lawyer pointed out the difference between the tapes and the transcripts in a legal filing in the civil lawsuit. Addressing what he termed the "Holocaust comments," Horowitz discussed the conversation Dee Quigley had with a friend when they discussed throwing lampshades and soap bars onto the Aronsons' lawn and painting an oven door on their house.
"Throughout the forty seconds or so of conversation, the speakers are laughing," Horowitz argued. "Any objective listener--not intent upon building a case against the Quigleys--would understand that [they] were joking, albeit doing so by using ugly Holocaust terms.
"The context makes it clear that this conversation was a venting of feelings between close friends. The speakers clearly are not planning or plotting to do anything."
The Quigleys also have challenged how their private conversations ended up on tape in the first place. The Aronsons claim that they stumbled onto the idea of eavesdropping the same day as the car incident, October 20, through a set of fortuitous coincidences: Their scanner happened to be on, Dee Quigley happened to be making a cellular call to her husband, and the Aronsons happened to have a tape recorder handy.
The Quigleys dispute that, charging that the Aronsons planned to set them up by instigating unneighborly confrontations and then attempting to document them on film or tape.
That has never been proved. Yet the Aronsons appear to have had a working knowledge of recording equipment and a history of eavesdropping on their neighbors that at least raises doubts about their claims as to how they happened to tune in to the Quigleys.
Candice Aronson's father is Sherwood Ross, a member of the family that founded Ross Bicycles. Although the company was enormously successful for a time, it declared bankruptcy several years ago and has since been sold.
In 1993, after a 43-year marriage, Sherwood Ross's wife, Barbara--Candice's mother--died of cancer. A week later Candice and her father opened a joint account with Barbara's estate. In June 1994, according to a lawsuit filed in Florida, Candice ordered the account frozen.
Sherwood Ross's name did not surface in Colorado until early this year. That's when the Quigleys listed him as a witness prepared to testify against Candice Aronson's character in her criminal case against the Quigleys.
Because of the contentious family lawsuit filed in Florida, Sherwood Ross's willingness to question his daughter's credibility in a Colorado court should be viewed skeptically. But he also was prepared to testify that Mitchell Aronson had told him the couple liked to listen in on their neighbors' conversations when they lived on New York City's upper East Side.
Unfortunately for the Quigleys and Joy Mudd, Thomas learned all of this late. On January 20, six weeks after he'd accused the three of ten separate hate crimes, Thomas announced he was dropping the charges. "Our office had no business to continue to pursue the charges," Deputy DA Jensen explained to reporters later that day.
"It turns out that [the Quigleys'] intent was not racially and ethnically motivated," Thomas says now. "This was a neighborhood dispute, and some of the comments were made in a humorous vein. When that kind of doubt exists, we have an obligation, ethically, to drop the charges. Listening to the tapes, you got nuances, emotional stuff that doesn't come across in the transcripts.
"Obviously, in hindsight, you could call this a mistake in the way we handled the evidence," he says, adding that it might have been a "better practice" to listen to the tapes rather than rely on the transcripts prepared by the Aronsons. "But it was a matter of `Why duplicate something that's already been done?'"
The DA's action left only one of the original charges remaining. That was the felony-menacing count that William Quigley faced for allegedly threatening Candice Aronson with his car, the initial incident that set off the entire sequence of events. If convicted, Quigley faced three years in prison and a $100,000 fine.
On July 14, however, the Jefferson County District Attorney's office announced that it had struck a deal. Instead of being tried for the relatively serious crime of menacing Candice Aronson, William Quigley, while admitting no guilt, agreed to accept a charge of reckless driving. On July 17 he paid a $330 fine to settle the misdemeanor traffic violation.
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