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.
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.
According to Cantu, Seeman was following Elsa, ducking behind fences and peeking around corners at her. Another time Seeman followed his wife to and from their children's school, he says. Cantu went to see Seeman and told him to "mind his own business."
In a police complaint Seeman filed on October 3, 1999, Seeman said that during this conversation Cantu showed him his concealed handgun license and placed his hand on the butt of a pistol sticking out of his pants.
Things didn't stop there. Seeman filed a series of five police complaints, alleging Cantu started trying to run him over. Seeman moved out of Epernay in January. "The closest he's gotten is a half-inch to my right knee and literally knocking things out of my hand," Seeman said. Calling the allegations "ridiculous," Cantu wrote them off to what he said was Seeman's senility.
Seeman granted only a brief interview to the Houston Press, saying that he really shouldn't talk about these matters since he may be asked to testify in an upcoming case against Cantu. But he couldn't resist suggesting darker doings and days. "Those police reports don't even scratch the surface," he says. "I could tell you a story about an assault rifle, too. The one reason Wade and I are still alive is that when we saw him on his roof, I said, 'Hi, Tony.' This was about 11 o'clock at night. It was a mighty, mighty big clip on that assault rifle, too." (Cantu says, sure, he was on the roof with an assault rifle -- investigating possible prowlers, not looking to pick off pedestrians below.)
Seeman insists he called the police about the nocturnal scare, but city attorneys refused to release the 911 tapes that could corroborate it, insisting the tapes -- along with the report of Cantu's recent arrest -- were protected from public disclosure because of their relationship to a pending case of felony criminal mischief against Cantu.
Whatever one chooses to believe about Seeman's allegations of Cantu as a potential rooftop sniper, neighbors generally support the notion that Tony Cantu can be an asshole. In a casual conversation he'll go out of his way to inform you, for instance, that spending $80 on a glass of wine is no big deal to him. Or that he only lives in his $120,000 town home to save money. Should you catch him driving his wife's family wagon, he's the type who can't resist telling you about the BMW he left garaged at home. And in his dispute with the Epernay homeowners association, his swagger had been growing unbearable.
In cantankerous e-mails to one board member he pumped his own 180 IQ, later insisting his checking account was larger than the balance of the association's general fund. Cantu dismisses his neighbors as basically rednecks one and all. Others, he suggests, are "Neanderthals." But the words seem to cut both ways. He says that one time McKinney called him a "stupid Mexican" in front of his children. For an uncomfortable minute he stiffens to still the tears. His children, he says, began asking questions after that. "They said, 'Are we Mexican, Daddy? Where do we come from?'
"I've been in the United States since 1984, and I've never been racially discriminated [against]. Then to have it happen in front of a five-year-old girl."
The not-so-neighborly loathing fuels more than hurt feelings: It drives a pattern of complaint that has police and fire units responding to the 1300 block of Chardonnay with regrettable regularity.
Since 2001, police have logged more than 15 complaint calls from Cantu and his neighbors, including reports of three eggings, two stalkings, one attempted assault, five attempted assaults (vehicular), two counts of vandalism, two threats to life, two cases of harassment and one assault by water hose.
The Houston Fire Department gets regular calls to the neighborhood as well.
Although no homes have burned, the fire department has roused full crews with lights blazing several times to the 1300 block of Chardonnay since January 2004. Cantu reported his neighbor Craig DeHaan, the board member over "architectural control" and the source of the Cantu-terrorist images, twice in July 2004 for barbecuing on the back patio. The first day, the crew wrote it off as a false call. The next day DeHaan was warned not to cook so close to the wood fence.
A year later Cantu called a third time. The full red-and-blue parade again flashed to the scene. Problem was, the barbecue in question was two days past. Cantu apparently just wanted someone to share his digital snapshots with and to file another complaint.
"Upon further investigation E75 found out that there is problems between 1361 and 3 different neighbors," the log reads. "I explained to the owner of 1361 [Cantu] that since they had not used the pit tonight that there was nothing I could do."
Houston Fire Department Inspector Kenneth Jordan says the feud is getting expensive. Each company response costs several thousand dollars in equipment use and manpower, he says. "It's causing a problem. It's causing problems when he calls and they have to pull the box alarm and they have the whole company out here converging on that location That's wasting taxpayers' money."
The fight that would take things to the next level began when Wade McKinney, a felon many times over who is struggling, he says, to keep his life on the straight and narrow, moved in to 1363 Chardonnay, next door to Cantu.
McKinney's 20-year criminal record, stretching from 1967 to 1987, wasn't community property at first. His string of convictions and prison time for stolen cars, cocaine possession, theft and forgery came to light only after Cantu dug it up and mass-mailed it to the entire community following McKinney's appointment as board secretary. For this act, if nothing else, Cantu earned the admiration of Derrick Parkhill, a former Epernay resident who only recently sold out and moved away in disgust. For him, McKinney's appointment was the final straw. Parkhill had fought the board (which he and some others in the community referred to as the "Four Horsemen") to modernize the bylaws and do a better job of repairing the neighborhood's "third-world" roadways.
When a seat opened up, Parkhill, who holds a master's degree in business administration, volunteered along with two others. Another in the picking pot was a retired businessman who had recently sold his private engineering company. Then there was McKinney, a six-time felon. The group chose McKinney, a running buddy of the board, according to Parkhill.
By this point, McKinney was already deeply tangled up with Cantu.
The two had started at each other almost immediately. With his boat filling the garage, McKinney began parking his truck outside of it -- illegally, according to association bylaws, Cantu insists. And so the ever-rational engineer began leaving sticky notes on McKinney's windshield. "Please do not block my garage," he wrote. The newcomer's diplomatic response was to ball up the stickies and toss them at the back of Cantu's home.
It was inevitable that these parking patterns would one day inconvenience Cantu's wife. The five-foot, 90-pound woman was too afraid to approach McKinney directly. Instead, she called her husband at work and Cantu drove the six miles back home to confront the man. A year later he still blusters, "What kind of inconsiderate pig would block my wife's garage while I'm at work?"
Cantu says McKinney suggested he tell his wife to ask him to move the truck when she needed to get out. Cantu responded with something like "I'm sorry. We don't have to ask your permission to get out of our house."
McKinney says that it was after one of these discussions that Cantu took a swing at him. "One day he came out and just blew up, said his wife couldn't get out and I was impeding his egress," McKinney says. "I got in my truck. He just come charging out there and I jumped in my truck and he started beating on my window trying to break out the window and told me I was going to stop and I was going to talk to him. And I just said, 'I don't have to talk to you.' " Instead, McKinney tattled. He called the police.
Cantu countered that it was McKinney who had pushed him, to which McKinney upped the ante by alleging Cantu had threatened to kill him. And so on. Finally, Cantu offered his video footage to lay the whole thing to rest, perhaps alerting McKinney and others in the neighborhood for the first time that they were living their lives on camera. The officer declined to see the footage, and no action was taken. But it wasn't long before McKinney had his own video camera installed facing out his back fence.
Over the next few weeks, the police responded three times to neighbors complaining of eggs mysteriously exploding against their homes. Then, on January 22, the police were out yet again, this time to debrief a hosed McKinney.
Tony Cantu's video shows Elsa Cantu loading her children into the back of the car. Cantu is walking around the vehicle with a hose. He had just finished washing the car with his kids, he says, and was preparing to top off the radiator fluid. Throughout this apparently tranquil scene, hands are gesturing behind McKinney's gate. Because of the position of the camera, McKinney's body remains mostly hidden. However, it is apparent these hands are not happy. They crack into the fence repeatedly and several times shoot the finger at the Cantu family en masse.
As Cantu returns the hose to the garage, he disappears momentarily. It is at this point that McKinney alleges he was maliciously and intentionally squirted with the hose. The complaint resulted in a misdemeanor assault charge against Cantu. The pair were ordered to appear in court in July to resolve the matter, but the court lost the paperwork and the dispute was tabled.
Throughout these flashpoints, Cantu says, he was unable to get the association to fulfill its obligations to him as a homeowner. In this he was not alone. But while other residents say they took it upon themselves to power-wash their vinyl siding, for instance, a job that bylaws stipulate the association must fulfill, Cantu let his home turn a mossy green.
He was also involved in a long-standing dispute over a leaky skylight that he said was causing water damage in his home. Cantu insisted the association replace it. The association inspected the skylight and denied there was a problem.
The night before they were all to appear in court to settle the matter, February 28, property manager Dan Broussard had Elsa Cantu's car towed from the common parking area and refused to tell her where it had been taken. Broussard, like almost all of Cantu's neighbors, failed to return numerous phone calls to discuss the events, but another neighbor not involved in the conflict says Cantu is not crazy to suggest a conspiracy is afoot, and adds she doesn't want to be quoted directly since she's trying to sell her home and get away.
The Cantus recovered their car later that afternoon, paying $180 to the towing company. Later that evening, Cantu was changing the oil in his Volvo, getting ready for the trip to Monterrey. He was replacing the car's oil with the gently worn oil drained from his garaged Beemer. As he crossed the McKinneys' driveway toward the common area where his car was now parked, the gallon milk jug in which he was carrying the used oil slipped in his hands. As much as a pint hit the ground, he says. His video shows him treating the area with liquid soap and spraying it down with a hose.
That wasn't good enough for Wade and Rebeccah McKinney. They called both the police and the fire department when they discovered the spill. While the police left without incident, the fire department treated the area with a chemical dispersant and hosed everything down again late that night. Three months later, this spill would be the basis for Cantu's arrest. The charge: felony criminal mischief resulting in damages between $1,500 and $20,000. According to Cantu, McKinney told him: "You don't know who we are. We have police friends, and we are going to fuck you up."
Cantu has built a convincing case for what happened next. Hours after he won the suit to get his skylight replaced, Cantu and his family finished packing their bags for Monterrey. Outside, their roof-mounted camera records someone unloading what appear to be bags of cement in the parking lot. While his family gathered round his dying father, persons unknown were gathering on the Cantus' roof with a slurry of cement.
On their return to the States, Cantu stopped to visit a client in San Antonio. His wife and children drove on home. Arriving home on Sunday, March 6, they found the toilets on the ground floor weren't flushing right. The next day a plumber came but couldn't riddle the septic puzzle. By that night nothing was draining and the upstairs toilets began to back up. Elsa washed the children in the tub and used a wet-vac to suck out the dirty water and spit it out the second-story window onto the small front yard.
The following day, a different plumber investigated. This one had the sense to check the outside lines. There he found the very solid source of the clog. He called Tony Cantu, who on Tuesday was consulting with a chemical plant in McAllen. He took the call from the company's control room. According to Cantu, the plumber said, "Sir, somebody's really trying to hurt you, because all the plumbing system in your house is gone -- it's plugged with concrete."
Alejandro Irigoyen of Monterrey Plumbing didn't remember the March house call well. But Cantu says Irigoyen at the time was able to track the vandals' path and even explained how the cement had been mixed on the front patio and carried onto the roof. None of the activity was caught on tape, however, because of the low light and the position of the cameras, Cantu says.
Cantu walked from the control room in stunned silence. "I just literally had to sit down on the floor. I was so upset that I thought I was going to have a heart attack. I mean, I literally felt my heart pumping. I was so enraged and so angry and so -- how can I explain? -- so upset, that my whole system was very upset. I just had to sit on the ground."
Thirty minutes later, Cantu went back inside to tell his client he had to return to Houston. He instructed his wife to check into a hotel, and he took the rest of the week off.
For several days he tore Sheetrock from the walls and pulled out sections of pipe then drilled them clear. Instead of doing a full repair, Cantu left the cement plug on the roof intact for fear that a clear line would only inspire another assault. During this time, he also called the cops. The officer refused to enter the house to view the damage and refused to dust for prints. When Cantu offered his video evidence of the bags being unloaded the night before his trip, the officer said it was only circumstantial. Anyway, how did they know Cantu hadn't done the damage himself, the officer asked. The call was logged at HPD as a "repeat call" in which Cantu reported being harassed by neighbors with "letters and other things." There was no mention of cement or sewer lines. No investigation was launched, but in late August Cantu issued a $5,000 reward for information.
Another month ticked by, and Cantu was leaving to see his lawyer. He'd grabbed the computer cards for a client. He'd checked the video display. The constant surveillance was taking a toll on everyone. Yesterday, the McKinney's 17-year-old son had gotten into the business, shoving a camcorder into the faces of Cantu's children as they played. When Elsa Cantu went to investigate, the boy switched targets, pushing the lens toward her instead. Cantu burned the footage from his hard drive onto a CD. He was taking the disc to his lawyer now. He was confident the evidence he was accumulating would end this harassment once and for all. Then his family could leave. Then there would be peace.
As Cantu walked out the door to his car, the McKinneys' surveillance camera tracked his steps. He maneuvered down the short street and turned left. He noticed a squad car pull around behind him. Then, just as he began to apply his brakes for a stop sign, an unmarked red van turned into him on the one-way street, blocking him grill to grill. He was pulled from the car and cuffed. As he walked back to the police car, he figured McKinney had had him framed for something. The cryptic warning about "police friends" ran through his mind again.
"What is this for?" he protested. "You cannot just arrest me!"
"Well, they claim you destroyed property," an officer responded.
"Where? Where is the damage?" Cantu asked. Cantu says an officer walked back to the area only to lift his arms and shrug. The shared circular drive was spotless. The ornamental trees were respectably round; the bushes cropped neatly square. In fact, barring the mossy glow of the Cantus' abode, the neighborhood looked immaculate.
The McKinneys' complaint filed on April 11 states that Cantu's oil spill of February 28 was more than an innocent slip of the wrist. According to the complaint, McKinney had seen Cantu pouring something over his flowerbed, driveway and garage door. And that something smelled bad enough for his wife to phone the police.
While Cantu's distraught wife paced in the street, property manager Broussard was snapping pictures of Cantu's misfortune, chuckling to himself. When he saw Elsa, he walked past her and said, "This is so funny," she recalls.
Despite the thundering threats volleyed back and forth and the claims and counterclaims, nobody on Chardonnay has been hurt, yet. It's been a war fought by insult and intimidation with -- for the most part -- all parties seeking to live out their grudges in as legal a fashion as possible.
Certainly, for 57-year-old Wade McKinney, on probation until 2012, there's motivation to keep the fight a clean one. Though he admits freely he hasn't always played things straight, he insists he is a new man. While his criminal record is sizable, it does appear to end with his release to a halfway house in 1991.
"I have a past," he says in a nasally tone. "I finally saw the light. I turned my life around."
These days, notwithstanding his conflicts with an ex-wife and Cantu, McKinney is enjoying a life devoid of stolen cars and white lines. He says he takes pride in his family, his home and his job. And when it comes to Cantu's accusations, he says he's innocent of them all.
"You know, I've never done anything," he insists. "The man has swung at me. He's jumped on me. He's tried to break the windows out of my truck. He's pulled up my neighbor's plants He's tried to run over our cats. He's tried to run over the neighbor's cats. He's tried to run over the neighbor and her dogs. I mean, it's just on and on and on. And we've got several witnesses, and it's not just me."
Poor social skills and aggressive driving aside, Cantu doesn't appear to be a terrorist. One neighbor who asked not be identified in this story ("I get along with my neighbors. I want to keep it that way.") put it as tactfully as she could when she tagged him "overly excitable." But, as the saying goes, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you.
Assistant District Attorney Robyn Spalding wouldn't discuss the case specifically, other than to say it is "unique" and has a long history. She denied Cantu's claims that she may be conspiring with McKinney and the police to nail him on trumped-up charges, although Cantu says she has wrongly shared with McKinney documentation he provided.
"Unlike advocates in other areas, I have a duty just to see that justice is done," Spalding says. "That means my duty is to determine what needs to happen with the case based on the evidence I'm not Wade McKinney's attorney. I don't represent Wade McKinney. I represent the state of Texas."
But Cantu claims Spalding has withheld some of the most crucial evidence: his camera work. The day she brought the charges against Cantu to the grand jury, Cantu says, he brought video footage to her showing his original oil spill, his cleanup attempt and what appears to be his neighbors months later planting evidence. Spalding, he claims, reneged on her promise to allow both Cantu and McKinney to address the grand jury. She told jury members only that Cantu believed McKinney's photographs to be fakes, not that he had evidence of his own to offer, Cantu says.
But Cantu's political connections may not be all for naught. As the case against him inches along toward trial, Cantu managed to secure a late meeting with Harris County District Attorney (and fellow Republican) Chuck Rosenthal. Rosenthal says he agreed to assign an investigator to look at Cantu's complaints -- specifically the damages done to his home's septic system.
Cantu recently hired a private investigator to ferret out any truth behind a tip suggesting the McKinneys and the police are coordinating their campaign against him through a local Baptist minister. So he and the investigator spend their Sundays camped out in a hotel across the street from the house of worship, photographing license plates and watching churchgoers in their Sunday best move across the street.
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Soil tests also seem to be confirming Cantu's assertions of a setup. Lab results provided by Environmental Science Corp. report most chemicals tested for in McKinney's gardens, which technically belong to the association, were below detectable limits.
While Cantu's lawyer failed to return repeated calls for comment, McKinney says he wanted to pursue charges of a terroristic threat against Cantu, something the D.A.'s office refused to touch. "He's literally, in this neighborhood, in this community, he's considered a terrorist," McKinney says. "In his mind he thinks he's doing the neighborhood good, but everybody's petrified of this man."
Be it fear or loathing, Cantu is not concerned. He says he won't leave Epernay until he has proved himself in court and exacted revenge on his neighbors, the association and the district attorney's office for pursuing what he considers false charges.
Returning to his home in sun-dappled Epernay, Cantu is calm. The BMW's motor hums happily as the landscape rushes by. Then he turns and says matter-of-factly: "I would not give up unless they kill me, you know."