OAKDALE -- A dispute between two neighbors has turned into a nightmare that has dragged on for nearly three years, cost a local school district more than $240,000 and may end the career of a veteran teacher charged with firing a gun.
A resolution could come soon. The teacher's criminal trial is set for Sept. 18.
The story involves husband and wife and longtime Beyer High School teachers Debi Bonsack, 58, and Ralph Bradley Keith, 55, and Oakdale chiropractor Theodore Jasper Cummins, 44. It began in 2008 after Cummins bought nearly 4 acres of vacant land on Orange Blossom Road next to Bonsack and Keith's 8-acre property.
That stretch of Orange Blossom is along the north bank of the Stanislaus River and features large home sites, often with big houses set back from the narrow, two-lane road. Barns, horses and cattle dot the landscape.
Cummins planned to build a home there. In spring 2008, he cut down trees and started to fill in an approximately 1-acre wetland on his property. But he didn't have a permit, and Bonsack complained.
The Army Corps of Engineers investigated, found Cummins did not have a permit and has referred the case to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for potential enforcement.
"At this point, he has not cooperated with us, and that's why we referred this to the EPA," said John Prettyman, a Corps public affairs specialist.
Things boiled over Oct. 23, 2009, with threats, gunshots and Keith's arrest.
Prosecutors say the dispute that day centered on a fence. Cummins had hired a surveyor to check his fence lines. The wire fence he shares with Bonsack and Keith encroached a few feet into Cummins' property, according to prosecutors' trial brief filed with the court.
Cummins hired a fence builder. On Oct. 22, 2009, the fence builder called the Sheriff's Department over a dispute with Bonsack over the new fence. A deputy advised Bonsack to pursue civil remedies.
On the morning of Oct. 23, the fence builder returned to find his fence posts vandalized and the surveyor's markers pulled up. According to the trial brief, the fence builder told another deputy that Keith had threatened to rip out the fence with his tractor.
On the evening of Oct. 23, according to the trial brief, Cummins saw Keith pulling out fence posts. The two exchanged heated words. Cummins claims Keith threatened to kill him. But Keith claims Cummins threatened him with a length of pipe.
Shots are fired
The two men's accounts of what happened next diverge sharply.
Cummins claims he was on his cell phone talking to his fence builder when two bullets flew by him and landed nearby, according to the trial brief. He ran for cover and called 911.
Keith claimed he retrieved his rifle at least several minutes after the confrontation with Cummins and fired it twice at a stray cat in a tree behind his house, which was at least 300 feet away from Cummins and in the opposite direction, according to court records.
But under the questioning of a deputy, Keith admitted he fired his rifle to scare Cummins, according to court records.
Deputies were not able to find shell casings from where Keith said he fired his gun at the cat and from where they suspect he fired at Cummins.
Keith, who is not in custody, declined to comment, on the advice of his attorney, Kirk McAllister of Modesto. But in one of the many e-mails Bonsack has sent to the media and others regarding this case, she defended her husband.
"Three years ago, after calling the sheriffs four times for protection against this man, he came after my husband, on our property, swinging a pipe at him," Bonsack wrote in a June e-mail to U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein.
"Several minutes later, my husband, Ralph Bradley Keith, fired a gun in the opposite direction of him, in hopes the noise would ward him off. Mr. Cummins was standing 300 feet away."
Beyond a brief comment, Cummins also declined to be interviewed. "Everything is pretty much right there in the (court) file," he said. "The guy tried to kill me, and he's going to go to prison. I'm a witness in the case, so doing an interview could jeopardize the case."
Deputies arrested Keith, but prosecutors claim he did not initially cooperate. When a 911 dispatcher called Keith at his home, he told the dispatcher he was angry and did not want to be bothered because he was eating dinner. When he came out of his house, deputies say he was at first agitated and failed to obey commands.
Keith is scheduled to go on trial Sept. 18, nearly three years since he was arrested. Prosecutors have charged him with the felonies of assault with a firearm, negligent discharge of a firearm, threatening to commit a crime and vandalism, as well as misdemeanor resisting arrest.
Teaching job in limbo
Keith is an adaptive physical education instructor for special education students at Beyer High; he's been a teacher for more than a quarter century. His job has been in limbo for nearly three years.
Modesto City Schools placed him on paid administrative leave Nov. 17, 2009. A district spokeswoman said Keith will remain on leave until his case is resolved.
"The Education Code provides that an employee will be summarily dismissed if convicted of a serious and violent felony," spokeswoman Becky Fortuna wrote in an e-mail. "Mr. Keith has not been convicted, but the district has been closely monitoring this matter and there have been a number of continuances that has delayed completion."
Assistant District Attorney Carol Shipley said it is not uncommon for a criminal case to take three years to reach trial. In this case, there have been motions filed by the defense requesting more time to find witnesses and additional evidence, and for further negotiations.
Modesto City Schools says Keith is paid $88,969 annually. The district has paid him about $245,000 since putting him on leave.
"He was an excellent teacher," said Bonsack, who teaches art. "He does not want to be on paid leave."
Bonsack said the dispute is not about the fence, though she claims Cummins vandalized their fence several times and her husband repaired it each time. She said the real issue is that Cummins has harassed them for reporting him for filling in his wetland. "We were set up," she said. "He was angry with us because he lost the right to build on his property."
Spotlight on Cummins
McAllister, Keith's defense attorney, wants to put the spotlight on Cummins during the trial.
He has filed a motion asking the judge to let him introduce Cummins' 1986 burglary conviction, for which he was sentenced to 300 days in jail, and his 1991 conviction for assaulting two men at the Stanislaus County Fair, for which he was sentenced to 60 days in jail.
Prosecutors say these convictions should not be introduced because they happened long ago and Cummins has since acquired the education and training to become a successful chiropractor.
In court records, McAllister also writes that Cummins has subjected Keith and his family to a campaign of harassment and intimidation. The allegations include that Cummins shot at Keith and Bonsack's barn, cut the gas line to their recreational vehicle, poisoned the fish in their 500-gallon tank in their barn, spent hours staring at them from his property, entered their home while they were gone and frequently followed Keith in his car.
Bonsack and Keith have installed security cameras on their property and hired a live-in groundsman.
The defense claims these allegations, coupled with the two convictions, show Cummins has a pattern of being the aggressor and that they raise doubts about his credibility. Prosecutors want none of the allegations introduced at trial. They say they are unfounded and irrelevant.
The trial brief also shows that Cummins has been the victim of vandalism. For instance, several of the exterior lights at his home were vandalized. He also has filed a harassment claim against Bonsack in civil court.
Allegations against officers
Bonsack and Keith are angry with the Sheriff's Department. They claim Cummins has gotten preferential treatment because his sister and brother-in-law are deputies. Bonsack said the deputies who arrested her husband were rude and mistreated them.
Bonsack claims that one sheriff's deputy followed Keith in his car for about a year after Keith's arrest. No matter where Keith drove, Bonsack claims, the same deputy followed him.
Sheriff Adam Christianson said all of these claims are baseless. But a county civil grand jury report issued this summer found the Sheriff's Department did not "thoroughly and completely investigate violations" of the restraining order Bonsack had issued against Cummins in 2010. The sheriff disagreed with the grand jury's findings.
Bonsack and Keith expected to live out their final decades at their Orange Blossom Road home. Their 8-acre spread includes a 1906 farmhouse they restored and a 19th-century barn that until recently housed Bonsack's art gallery. But now the property is for sale, and the couple say they want to get as far away from Stanislaus County as they can.
Cummins may share some of their feelings. There also is a "For sale" sign on his property.
Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2316.