GAINESVILLE, Ga. – Citing a sliver of civil rights-era legislation more commonly used as protection against discriminatory landlords, a black couple is suing their former neighbor and a north Georgia city they say failed to stop him from harassing them.
Gregory and Sophia Bonds say the slurs and threats began the day they moved into the brick ranch rental home in a well-kept neighborhood in Gainesville, northeast of Atlanta, back in February 2012.
Roy Turner Jr., the white neighbor who worked for the city's solid waste department, verbally assaulted them whenever he saw them outside, including sometimes while he was working, the couple contends. He also sometimes walked and made sounds like an ape when he saw them, the Bonds family asserts in a lawsuit filed last month against Turner and the city.
Turner told The Associated Press he wasn't aware of the lawsuit but that he never threatened anyone.
"I said 'porch monkey,'" he said with a chuckle. "That's just a joking-around term."
Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunagan said he couldn't comment on pending litigation.
The lawsuit details more than a dozen specific instances of alleged harassment. Gregory Bonds said the final straw came in May: The family had company and Turner came out into his yard with a baseball bat and began hitting a tree aggressively and yelling more slurs. The family moved the next month.
They cite a provision of the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 and a nearly identical section of Georgia law that says it's illegal to coerce, intimidate, threaten or interfere with someone who is exercising or enjoying any right guaranteed by that law. Conceived to protect against violent actions such as cross burnings, bombs or other physical attacks, it also applies to verbal attacks, said Robert Schwemm, a law professor at the University of Kentucky who has decades of experience with the Fair Housing Act.
"It's specifically a separate section of the statute that was designed to apply to people who were not housing providers — neighbors and others," Schwemm said.
That provision isn't used very often against neighbors in the modern era, Schwemm said. He's aware of one or two cases a year but said there are likely others he doesn't hear about.
Schwemm said he's never heard of a case that sought to hold a municipality accountable for a neighbor's actions.
Gregory and Sophia Bonds had saved money to move out of an apartment into a house so their three teenage children would have a yard for the first time and would have more space to invite their friends over, their lawyer Ashley Bell said. Turner's behavior violated fair housing statutes that bar discrimination on the basis of a variety of factors when people are renting, buying or seeking financing for housing, the lawsuit says.
The city's knowledge of Turner's actions, many of which occurred while he was a city employee, and its failure to curb them make it liable for them, the family argues.
City records show some steps were taken against Turner, but the Bonds family says it wasn't enough.
Sophia Bonds first called police in March 2012, about a month after they moved in, and told an officer Turner regularly hurled racial slurs at them. She said she was afraid of him, according to a police report. Turner told the officer he wouldn't use words like that because he was a city employee, the report says.
A month later, on April 19, 2012, Turner and Gregory Bonds exchanged words outside before Turner went into his house and reappeared at his back door with a loaded rifle that he pointed at Gregory Bonds, the couple told police.
After a standoff lasting several hours, officers entered the home and forcibly removed Turner, using a stun gun on him when he refused to obey their commands, police reports say.
Turner pleaded guilty a month later to a misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge. The judge ordered him to pay a $200 fine and to serve 12 months on probation with extra conditions: no violence or insults toward the Bonds family, no weapons on his property and no drinking or possessing hard liquor.
The Bonds family was frustrated that Turner only faced a misdemeanor charge, said Bell, their lawyer. Hall County Solicitor General Stephanie Woodard, whose office prosecuted Turner, said she understood that frustration.
"I was greatly outraged at the behavior that Roy Turner exhibited and at the behavior that this family and their children endured," she said, adding that her office can only prosecute misdemeanors and the district attorney had declined to bring felony charges.
Turner was in a car crash in the 1970s that left him with a traumatic brain injury that caused mental impairment and altered his behavior, said Dunagan, the mayor, who grew up with Turner and said he never knew him to be violent. A group of friends watches out for Turner and helps him live as independently as possible, two of them told Woodard before Turner's sentencing.
Woodard detected some cognitive disconnect when speaking to Turner, but she said she still believed Turner was capable of controlling himself.
Woodard said she believes the city's police handled him properly, sending in a SWAT team and using force to arrest him.
Turner landed back in court for probation violations several times. After his probation officer said Turner continued to insult the Bonds family, the judge ordered him not to drink or possess any alcohol, to submit to random alcohol testing, to allow police to enter his home randomly to make sure there were no guns and to have no contact with the Bonds family, court records show.
Turner had worked for the city's solid waste department since October 1992. In recent years, he worked as a garbage collector and had a string of run-ins with customers and co-workers, according to city personnel records. There's a record in his personnel file of a call from Sophia Bonds a few days after his arrest asking that Turner not work the route that included her house.
The city suspended him following his arrest in April 2012. After he was sentenced to probation, he was allowed to return to work but was warned not to have arguments or to use derogatory language.
After numerous confrontations with co-workers and the public, Turner was fired Oct. 23.