The Terrorist

Call the cops! Call the fire department! Tony Cantu and the Epernay subdivision are at it again.

The room smells of the laundry soap that still pebbles the kitchen table. The shuttered blinds display the smeared stains of a child's handiwork, but the Terrorist of Epernay doesn't dare raise them. He knows the face he will see on the other side. It will be his own, thick and resolute, but with an Osama beard and a turban covering his wavy hair. Next to this image, on the posterboard display facing out from his neighbor's window a few feet away, will be his face again. This time his square cheeks are lost in the infamous wildman tangle of Saddam Hussein's fugitive-period beard. Below these, his face again -- skillfully merged with that of tarnished pop icon Michael Jackson.

He cracks a soft drink and moves past the kitchen windows. The other blinds -- like those all over the two-bedroom town home -- are also down. He moves slowly past the carpeted steps, taking a pull on his soda. He checks his watch. He checks the cell phone strapped to his hip and places some rehabbed computer cards on the table. Then he checks the computer screen to see if it's safe to go outside.

Ensconced in a pile of keyboards, circuitry and unused monitors, the display relays images from a network of surveillance cameras snapping images every half-second around the perimeter of his home. It looks like his next-door neighbor Wade McKinney is away at work. No one is milling about the back drive, a wide cul-de-sac shared by a dozen residents of this west Houston neighborhood. Of course, none of this means it's clear out there.

The years of feuding have affected Tony Cantu and 
wife Elsa, shown here with one-year-old Cecilia.
Daniel Kramer
The years of feuding have affected Tony Cantu and wife Elsa, shown here with one-year-old Cecilia.
Cantu holds the cement he drilled from the septic line, 
while video surveillance operates behind him.
Daniel Kramer
Cantu holds the cement he drilled from the septic line, while video surveillance operates behind him.

Before the 44-year-old chemical engineer pulls out of the garage, he'll check for roofing nails behind his tires. In the past few months the so-called Terrorist of Epernay, a.k.a. Tony Cantu, has accrued more than 20 flats. Once, he and his wife counted as many as three nails puncturing the tread of a newly purchased tire. Neighbors have followed his wife while she ran errands or deposited the children at school.

At night, tired of all the crank calls, the Cantus unplug their phones. Their water hose has been slashed; their cars keyed and towed. They have been threatened and insulted. The images of Cantu as Osama bin Laden were mailed with association literature to the 157 homeowners of Epernay, a planned community named for the French hub of the Champagne trade. Others were posted on the community Web site, where Cantu is likewise ridiculed and referred to as "the Tumor" and a "pathetic POS." As if the collective harassment weren't clear enough, anonymous letters (including information about where the Cantu children attend school and where they sleep) spell it out more plainly: "Why don't you just get the hell out?"

On the association's Web site, Epernay is described as "warm" and "friendly" and "quiet." These aren't the adjectives the Cantus would have chosen. But things were settling down back in March when Cantu took his 31-year-old wife and three children to Monterrey, Mexico, to visit his dying father.

It'd been weeks since their last flat tire, and they'd even won a long-standing legal dispute against the association to get their skylight replaced. There seemed to be a modicum of justice in this world after all, Cantu recalls.

But that, of course, turned out to be just wishful thinking.

A decade ago, Tony Cantu was the hero of Epernay. Not only was he known as a humanitarian who worked with Pastors for Peace to bring relief to impoverished families in Chiapas, Mexico, but this stubborn personality's exposure of past board members' mismanagement helped inch the association back onto better financial footing after an era of questionable dealings.

Since that time, Cantu has earned a doctorate in chemical engineering from the University of Houston and has become a fixture at area Republican Party fund-raisers. Photos on his personal AOL Web site show him tuxedoed with his petite wife posing alongside the likes of Tom DeLay, Rick Perry and Phil Gramm. When factions within the city were pushing the council to adopt resolutions opposing a preemptive strike against Iraq, Cantu was one of the few conservatives who stood to object. "It's out of order," the Houston Chronicle quoted him as saying. "This is the wrong venue to consider issues that are out of your control. You should do that on your own time."

But neither his community watchdog credentials nor his party affiliation has aided him in weathering the deteriorating mood of his neighbors on the board of the homeowners association, who he says are conspiring against him with the police.

It seems that despite all the good he does, Tony Cantu has a habit of alienating people. And in talking to him and his neighbors, a pattern emerges: He gets crosswise with someone, hot words are exchanged, and things just escalate from there, generally ending with either his or a neighbor's filing of a police report.

Though the current contest with his neighbors has proved to be Cantu's most challenging conflict, Wade McKinney was not the first in Epernay to go at it with Tony Cantu. That honor goes to Jack Seeman, a 52-year-old part-time minister who once upon a time brought Elsa Cantu a gift of tortillas and cheese. Tony Cantu took offense and began filming Seeman's comings and goings.

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