Homeowners association members face violence

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Associated Press

Posted on September 17, 2012 at 9:00 PM

Updated Monday, Sep 17 at 9:01 PM

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Disagreements that boil over into shouting matches, finger-pointing and even fistfights are often part of neighborhood homeowners association meetings, but the kind of violence that erupted in Louisville leaving two dead is uncommon.

Mahmoud Yousef Hindi, 55, of Louisville pleaded not guilty to two murder charges and other counts Monday in Jefferson Circuit Court and said he needs a public defender. Prosecutors have said they are considering seeking the death penalty against the Jordanian-trained doctor accused of opening fire at a homeowners meeting earlier this month, killing two members of the board.

Authorities have not pinpointed what exactly caused the outburst on Sept. 6 in a community church. Police did say that Hindi angrily had confronted the Spring Creek Homeowners Association over a fence it said didn't meet its height or design requirements in the upscale neighborhood of Louisville. The group also objected to his driveway.

Frustration over such unpopular decisions can erupt and become deadly.

"I have never seen a situation where emotions become so raw," said David F. Feingold, an attorney who represents homeowners associations in the San Francisco Bay area. "It's like carrying around nitroglycerin. You just have to handle it very carefully."

In Arizona, a man was convicted of murdering two women when he opened fire at a homeowners meeting in 2000. Richard Glassel, who was sentenced to death, had run-ins with his HOA over an awning and air-conditioning units.

In Chicago, a man was convicted of murder in the 2004 shooting death of a 75-year-old woman who was a board member of his condominium association. Another woman was wounded. The shooter, Zdislaw Kuchlewski, had been evicted from his condo, the result of more than a year's dispute with his condo association's board over infractions of building rules.

The man said at his trial that he was distraught over his eviction but did not plot the attack.

The problem is that homeowners don't always buy into the group concept of an association, one expert said.

"They feel that my home is my castle and I should be able to do what I want," said Evan McKenzie, an associate professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

There are approximately 300,000 homeowners associations in the United States, according to HOA-USA.com, a website that tracks and provides advice to associations nationwide. That number represents over 40 million households, and 70 percent of associations are managed by elected volunteers, the group says. And the job is not for everyone, with people not wanting to get involved in judging their neighbors' property.

McKenzie pointed to a more than 20-year-old statewide review of HOAs and condo associations in California that showed that more than 40 percent of board members surveyed say they had been threatened with violence.

"If they serve on the board for a couple of years, it's not at all unusual that a board member would be threatened or would at least feel threatened," McKenzie said. "Because people get really angry about this stuff."

Killed in the Louisville shooting were 73-year-old David Merritt and 69-year-old Marvin Fisher, who were on the homeowner's association board, according to papers filed with the Kentucky Secretary of State office. Merritt was the president. Hindi also faces seven counts of first-degree wanton endangerment as several other people were at the meeting.

He was being held on no bond. Ryane Conroy, an assistant Commonwealth's Attorney, said prosecutors are still considering whether to seek the death penalty. She said prosecutors want to keep Hindi in jail before his trial because they believe he could try to leave the state.

Hindi walked into the brief hearing wearing a blue jail jumpsuit and his hands cuffed. He said just one thing when asked by Judge Fred Cowan if he owned a home. He shook his head and said, "No. It's not mine, it's my kids'."

Hindi, a doctor who is no longer licensed, said he does not have enough savings to hire an attorney.

Attorneys who appeared for him at his initial hearing said there is another side to the story and that they looked forward to their day in court.

Hindi complained bitterly about his neighbors and an attorney for the association who sought to have the fence removed because of zoning violations, according to court records.

In a letter Hindi sent on Aug. 25, 2011, which The Associated Press obtained as a public record, Hindi ranted about several neighbors in the upscale community of $300,000 homes with manicured lawns and identical mailboxes. The homeowner's association bylaws, posted on its website, include restrictions on the height, type and placement of fences; grass-cutting regulations (not to exceed 6 inches); and a requirement that every house have at least a two-car garage.

The association's attorney said Hindi wrote several letters about his disputes with the group.

In one, he cited the Quran, the theory of creationism, and the idea that America has moved to Communism. He also threatened to form his own homeowners association and accused neighbors of stealing his "no trespassing signs" during the dispute over the fence.

Who would want to subject themselves to such friction by being part of a homeowners' board? Some are genuinely drawn by the opportunity to volunteer, McKenzie said. But others relish the chance to wield influence over the neighborhood.

"Associations are seen as the bad guys," Feingold said. "They've got a rap for being overreaching and overbearing. In America, we have 'My home is my castle.' You're really challenging that proposition."

Local and state governments generally offer little or no help to the boards.

"They just say, 'Have an election, pick some directors and then you guys do it. And oh, by the way, the legislature just drafted another 25 laws you're supposed to obey.' And nobody teaches them how to do it," McKenzie said.

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Associated Press writer Janet Cappiello contributed to this report.

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