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By Sean Pendergast
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The Wests and the Andersons used to be friends. Well, maybe not friends, but neighborly. They mingled at the same parties for years.
But by 2003 the gloves were off.
The Wests and many other residents of Woodwind Lakes conspired to silence Paul Anderson in an attempt to protect property values and prevent any more environmental testing, according to e-mails obtained by the Press.
Even the subdivision's property manager got in on the action.
"Is there some type of suit we can file to shut [Paul Anderson] up?" Patti Roy of Sterling Association Services, Inc. wrote in an e-mail dated March 10, 2004 to several residents. Homeowners association attorney Russel Holt e-mailed Roy back an hour later: "Maybe we should file a lawsuit against Anderson for injunctive relief...However, I hate for him to go public with the fact that we filed a lawsuit to stop environmental testing in the neighborhood -- this may fit right into his ploy."
On April 14, 2004, Marianne West sent out a mass e-mail to residents. "If you're like me," she wrote, "you're disturbed by the large number of homes for sale in our neighborhood, especially the ones that have been on the market for several months. The environmental issue is having a detrimental impact on our home values and home sales. Some realtors have decided not to show homes in WWL, and many homeowners have had to lower their prices."
One week later, West and several allies formed a new committee intended "to preserve WWL home values (especially in the context of the environmental issue)," according to minutes taken during the first meeting.
The minutes did not show, however, that Paul Anderson was the main topic of discussion. "They spent an hour slandering the crap out of Paul Anderson, saying this was all his creation, that nothing was wrong and they must stop Paul before he destroys everybody's property values," recalls homeowner Tanner Garth, a trial lawyer who serves as co-counsel in multiple pending lawsuits regarding Woodwind Lakes.
On May 8, 2004, leaders of the homeowners' committee e-mailed several northwest realtors, downplaying recent negative media attention and touting the subdivision as "an exquisite waterfront and wooded community similar to The Woodlands and close-in to most everything...Prices are steadily rising...It's easy to see why so many families choose Woodwind Lakes for their retreat and home."
But life at Woodwind Lakes was getting increasingly dark.
On October 2, 2004, Paul Anderson was heading toward his new neighbor Frank Oidtmann's house to discuss the environmental contamination issues. They had talked earlier and Oidtmann expressed some interest in learning more, Anderson says. Apparently Oidtmann had changed his mind.
"Fuck you!" Oidtmann allegedly shouted at Anderson, cocking a shotgun and aiming it at him in front of several witnesses on the cul-de-sac. According to Anderson, Oidtmann continued to point the gun at him even as he lifted his hands above his head and slowly back-pedaled into the street, an account supported by Harris County Precinct 4 deputy constable Bob Hall, who has patrolled Woodwind Lakes since its inception.
The Andersons increasingly feared for their safety. They canceled their land phone due to incessant crank calls. Every night they kept the dog inside, activated the alarm and double-checked that all windows and doors were bolted.
"You know, everybody in the neighborhood hates your husband," women at bunco parties told Cheryl Anderson. Paul Anderson would ride his mountain bike through the neighborhood and somebody he didn't even know would yell, "Anderson, you're a dickwad!"
Kent Shell has overseen development of more than a dozen Houston-area subdivisions. But the 61-year-old president of Lakeland Development Company made the unwise decision not to investigate the entire property slated to become Woodwind Lakes prior to its purchase in the early 1990s.
In 1991, Shell hired Vazquez Environmental Services, Inc. to conduct a preliminary site assessment on 95 acres, which concluded that no toxic or hazardous wastes existed within one mile. Shell did not bother to explore the area where the processing plant, compressor station and refinery once sat. "This resulted in the acquisition of the property without knowledge of the gas plant activities," Shell explained years later in a letter to the RRC.
Fairbanks Oil Field changed ownership a couple times when several investors under the name Woodwind Lakes Partnership bought it for an unknown sum in the early 1990s from the Resolution Trust Corporation, the U.S. asset management company that sold off real estate and mortgage loans of failed savings and loan associations. The densely wooded property had been abandoned for decades.
Shell ran through numerous environmental consulting firms during the next few years, inviting speculation later on that he was more concerned with getting the site approved by the state than ensuring its safety -- claims strongly supported by the owner of at least one environmental company contracted by Shell at that time.
In 1993, Shell retained Earth Technology Corporation, which notified the RRC that abandoned petroleum pipelines crisscrossed much of the property. Using historical aerial photographs, Earth Technology identified 15 so-called "areas of concern" where contamination most likely occurred.
In a letter dated December 6, 1993, Earth Technology advised Shell to conduct an extensive soil and groundwater assessment "considering the residential development nearby and the intended development of this property." Shell rejected the advice and hired another company.