Down Highway 98 in eastern Durham County, beyond Holloway Street's fast-food joints and gas stations, tucked inside a trim subdivision built around a lake, at the tip of a tidy cul-de-sac with immaculate lawns, two next-door neighbors are having a spat.
The feud is over three shrubs. Ligustrums. Two feet tall. No more than $80 each. Now dead. The quarrel began in late 2010 and it escalated. One neighbor believes the shrubs were unfairly planted. The other says they were illegally destroyed. The battleground stretches along a single property line, give or take 18 inches.
Since the initial lawsuit, the case has been heard by an arbitrator, three magistrates, two district judges, one superior court judge and a jury. Last week it was taken up by the State Court of Appeals, which, unlike the state and federal supreme courts, must hear any case—even two neighbors' scrum about shrubs—that makes it up the legal food chain.
The subdivision, Grove Park, brands itself as "a premier lake and golf course community," with homes that range in price from $120,000–$300,000, plus a horseshoe court, pool and fitness center. In November 2010, Christine Chamberlain, 53, a master gardener, stay-at-home mom and charter school founder, who has lived in Grove Park for 11 years, noticed that her next-door neighbor, Anthony Waraksa, 74, the Grove Park Community Watch coordinator, had hired landscapers to plant several Ligustrums in his yard. He intended to use the shrubs to mark the shared property line, which had been determined by a surveyor.
To aid the landscapers during the Ligustrum plantings, Waraksa, a retired CEO for a medical tech company who serves on Duke Medical Center's Institutional Review Board, ran a string between two points to mark his interpretation of the property line.
When Chamberlain saw the string, she disagreed with Waraksa's assessment. She also believed his landscapers had damaged a portion of her berm, which sat partially below the string. However, Waraksa believed the berm intruded on his property.
With a measuring tape, Chamberlain calculated the distance between Waraksa's house and the edge of the string. Convinced Waraksa was 18 inches off the mark, she moved the string and left a note. "Mr. Waraksa," it read, "Please refrain from further hedge planting until a dispute is resolved regarding the property line."
The next day, Chamberlain discovered the string had been moved back, and a note from Waraksa. "Chamberlain," it read, "You are welcome to have your own survey done ... We are proceeding with our plantings. I caution you not to interfere with our workmen."
Eventually, the landscapers planted the Ligustrums. Chamberlain now says she wrote several notes to Waraksa, asking him to move the shrubs because she believes they encroach on her property. Waraksa says he doesn't recall receiving any notes.
In February 2011, three months after they were planted, Chamberlain grabbed a shovel and dug up the Ligustrums. She left them on Waraksa's property, where they died.
Waraksa filed a complaint in small claims court. Chamberlain filed a counterclaim, aditting to digging up the Ligustrums but alleging that Waraksa had trespassed and destroyed her dog fence in the process.
The case went before an arbitrator, who ruled in Waraksa's favor. The judge ordered Chamberlain to pay $1,900 in plant and labor costs. (That amount ncluded allegations about other trees that were later dismissed.)
Chamberlain refused to pay. Waraksa pressed criminal charges. In December 2011, a magistrate charged Chamberlain with injury to real property, alleging that she willfully damaged the shrubs.
But in the paperwork, the date of the dig was off by two months. When the case went before a district court last summer, the judge noticed the discrepancy. Whether or not it played a role in his decision is unclear, but he threw the case out.
Waraksa filed another complaint. Another summons was issued.Last November the case went before a second district judge, who found Chamberlain guilty of destroying the Ligustrums and ordered her to pay Waraksa $240 in restitution. Chamberlain appealed the case to superior court.
This past March, a jury was convened, and after a two-day trial, found Chamberlain guilty. She was ordered to pay $480 in restitution and given 12 months' probation. That's when she took her case to the State Court of Appeals.
Chamberlain and Waraksa do not particularly like each other. If they see each other outside, they don't speak.
Waraksa says the legal system has validated his claims: "She does not have the right to destroy somebody else's property. In this particular case there is no question about where the shrubs were. She's entitled to her opinion, but not to different facts."
Chamberlain says her fight is a matter of principle. She believes the appellate court will exonerate her. She also says the case constitutes double jeopardy and should be dismissed. She says if she had to do it all over again, she would have reacted the same way.
"What more can you do if someone is ignoring you?" she said. "I had to fix my berm and these bushes were in the way."
Since the incident, Chamberlain hired her own surveyor and set down stones to mark where she believes the property line should be.
She also claims Waraksa does not properly care for his remaining shrubs: "They need to be trimmed," she says.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Triple homicide."