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The 'Wingnut' Way 

Jim Mahoney wants you to think he's a little crazy -- in fact, he's counting on it. That, at least, begins to explain the bizarre mannequins populating his front yard.

The thing that got him riled up: A new condo development -- which he's calls the "Greene Latrine," among other things -- obscured his view of the iconic St. John's Cathedral on Spokane's South Hill.

"I want anyone and everyone who thinks of moving in there to wonder what kind of wingnut lives across the street," says Mahoney, a 56-year-old social worker who counsels foster care kids. He adds, "If I was living next to me, I would put up a fence."

To raise his "wingnut" profile, Mahoney has hung signs suggesting the neighborhood has a dangerous radon problem. He's taped dollar bills to a poster board soliciting names for the condo project ("The Botox Box" and "The Leaning Tower of Shit" made the list.) He started a "barbecue" to smoke out an open house at the condo. And most recently, he armed mannequins with toy guns and plastic ammunition.

To the developers and the agent selling the condos, his behavior has gone from annoying to plain scary, and last week they filed for a restraining order against him. In the petition to the court, realtor Marianne Guenther says Mahoney once called and threatened to decimate her and her business.

She writes: "We are afraid of what he will do next."

"I'm Screwed"

It all began last fall when work started on the Cathedral Point Condos (their proper name) in the 1200 block of South Division Street. The project was to expand the existing structure from three to four floors and add an elevator shaft on the south side of building -- further obscuring Mahoney's view of the church across Grand Boulevard.

Mahoney says he had thought the developers were going to keep the condos in line with neighborhood aesthetics and standards, but as work progressed, he contacted city planners complaining about the project's size. "If any of us had known how this thing would turn out to be we would have turned out to your office in a flash," he wrote officials.

The city did stop work at the site briefly in October because the building measured about 45 feet tall -- five feet taller than zoning allowed, according to copies of correspondence between the Mahoneys and the city. But after contractors promised to berm around the building, bringing it in compliance, work resumed. (The 40-foot limit, by the way, is measured to the eaves and not the roofline, meaning the building can actually be taller.)

Developer Jeremy Tangen says the project is in adherence with plans approved by the city, adding that developers never heard any complaints directly from Mahoney before construction or after it began. "He had never made any contact with us, only through the signs [in his yard] and throwing garbage in the street."

For his part, Mahoney says he quickly realized he could nothing to stop construction. "I'm screwed," he recalls thinking. "And date rape takes a while to get over ... Date rape is like PTSD. It takes a while to fully realize the enormity and impact, not unlike -- and I'm not in anyway comparing myself to the poor little Catholic kids raped by adult priests -- but excuse me, it takes a little while to come to the terms with the fact that you've been screwed by people who used to be your friends, colleagues and associates."

Eventually, he says, he began to take action, first planting signs in his yard warning of radon in the area. "You can't unf--- yourself, OK. But what you can do is realize how much energy in an asymmetrical conflict are you prepared to put out," says Mahoney, citing Saul Alinsky's book, Rules for Radicals. "You have to pick the smallest -- perhaps most insignificant part of the organization that you're dealing with -- and be relentless."

The Call

Guenther says Mahoney called her last fall after the city dismissed his objections and left her a voice message saying he would "decimate" her. Guenther called police. She no longer has the message -- her phone automatically deletes voice mail after 30 days -- but says she has several witnesses who heard it. "I was scared," she recalls.

"I don't think I would say it," Mahoney says of the threat to decimate, adding, "The true meaning of decimate, in Roman times, was every tenth soldier got killed. Nine survived. That's what decimate was ... ."

Asked to clarify that comment, Mahoney adds with a laugh, "It's not total. It's an asymmetrical conflict always in adherence with the law."

Guenther called police a second time on May 30. She and Tangen were hosting an open house at the condos. Meanwhile, across the street, Mahoney was having a BBQ in his front yard.

In Mahoney's telling, he was smoking ribs over a fire while listening to Hawaiian music. At the same time, he says he was also dropping lit fuses into holes in his lawn to get rid of field mice that had burrowed beneath the grass. "I'm multitasking," he recalls.

In Tangen and Guenther's telling, Mahoney, wearing fake dreadlocks, screamed at people as they went to the open house and blasted his music. His fire was set in tinfoil in his yard and it spread, sending plumes of smoke into the condos. Police arrived and talked with Mahoney, but he was not arrested and officers did not file a report of the incident.

Legal Lines

For a while, tensions seemed to subside, say Tangen and Guenther. But then, about three weeks ago, they returned. Mahoney gave one child mannequin a toy assault rifle and draped a pregnant one with plastic bullets. His signs also refer to Guenther by name.

"The thing that concerns us now is it's a very personal attack," Tangen says. "It's gotten 10 times worse. ... It's escalated to a police situation."

Besides the personal nature of Mahoney's protest, Guenther worries that his behavior may hurt the condo development, which she is proud to be associated with. "We have a phenomenal project with one of the best views of the city," she says. Two of the four units are sold, but a few potential buyers have cited concerns about living across from Mahoney.

"If someone's teetering on the edge, that might have some effect," Tangen says of Mahoney's yard display. "I think he's harmless, but then I hear messages like he leaves [Guenther]."

Gonzaga law professor David K. DeWolf says it's difficult to nail down the legal questions involved in part because several facts in the case are disputed. "Your right to swing your arms leaves off where my nose begins," he says, "but in this case, it's hard to know where the nose is located.

"The developer has a right to be free from threats ... . On the other hand, to the extent [Mahoney] is expressing an idea or in some way addressing a public policy issue ... than there is some First Amendment protection."

As long as Mahoney stays within the law, he will be allowed to make a nuisance of himself, DeWolf predicts. In a free society, people can picket in front of a business, for example. "You realize that the law can't fully protect you from the disintegration of a relationship into something that is pretty much a nightmare."

A restraining order, like the one Guenther and Tangen are seeking, can provide some relief while respecting people's rights, DeWolf says. "You can create a sort of bubble around the potential victim that offers meaningful protection but still leaves the defendant free to roam the wide, wide world."

Restitution?

Mahoney says he has broken no laws and doesn't intend to. The mannequins are a "low-cal" protest -- they take little or no maintenance to disseminate his message. "They work 24-7," he says. In the future, he says he may host Wednesday night hoedowns in his yard or offer free clothes-drying for his poorer neighbors.

"You're going to lose if you try to make the major effort," he says. "I'm just going to do this for 20 years."

Tangen, however, says he mostly ignores Mahoney because it's unclear what would satisfy him. Mahoney doesn't seem interested in talking or negotiation, Tangen says. As far as he can tell, no concession -- except for dismantling the entire condo -- would pacify him. "I don't know what the best solution would be for him," Tangen says. "That's what confuses me the most."

Mahoney says he's not looking for restitution. What's done can't be undone. Instead, he wants to serve as a reminder of the "violated social contract" with developers and of "the failure on the part of the officials to do what we pay them to do.

"My thinking doesn't go beyond my front yard," he says. "It is my ... silent and essentially powerless holding out the hand of 'What now?' And that's all it is. That's all it's meant to be, because you can't make me whole."

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