Hot Potato

In August 2005, Nathan Thinnes sold his house. It must have been a relief.

Coming home from work one evening, just days before the closing, Thinnes heard his dog whimpering in the backyard of his small home near Arcadia. You can see Camelback Mountain from the yard, but Nathan Thinnes wasn't outside to enjoy the view.

As he would later tell police, Thinnes found his dog hiding under some bushes, with several potatoes laying on the ground nearby. As he stood there, another potato sailed over the fence.

A police report details what happened next.

Thinnes called out, "Who's there?"

His next-door neighbor, 46-year-old Candy Tatum, answered, "Me, you f---ing pussy."

Thinnes asked, "Have you been throwing things at my dog again?"

Tatum answered, "Yep, what are you going to do about it, you f---ing chickensh-t?"

Thinnes saw Tatum, standing in her backyard, a potato in her hand. She threw it. This one almost hit Thinnes; he yelled at her to stop. She threw another one, yelling, "Next time, stay out of my freezer, you f---ing little pussy."

Thinnes ran with his dog into the house, just as another potato flew into the air, landing on the roof.

Like many officers in his precinct, Officer Donald Garcia was not at all surprised to be dispatched to East Montecito. But usually, the 911 calls came from the potato-thrower herself, Candy Tatum. The police tallied 701 calls from Tatum in 2004.

Officer Garcia counted 10 potatoes in Thinnes' backyard and then arrested Tatum for disorderly conduct. (Another police report states that on a separate occasion, Tatum answered her front door with a shotgun in hand.) Court records have been destroyed, but it appears that the potato case never made it to court.

Tatum screamed and yelled as Garcia cuffed her and dragged her to his squad car. "I am sorry if I hit [Nathan] with a potato," Tatum said, again accusing Thinnes of stealing from her freezer.

Garcia documented that an angry but cooperative Thinnes told him that "this type of activity has been going on since he moved in. Nathan was completely frustrated with Candy's action and demanded that she be arrested because her actions alarmed and disturbed him. Nathan was also furious that Candy had been torturing his dog."

Six days later, Thinnes closed on the sale of his house and moved to a home a few miles away. Two years later, that August 2005 police report has come back to haunt him.

So has the seller-disclosure paperwork, a legal requirement in Arizona. In it, the seller is asked, "Are you aware if the property is subject to any present or proposed effects of any of the following? (Check all that apply) . . . Neighborhood noise . . . Nuisances . . . Other."

Nathan Thinnes had answered, "No."

No one would say that Glenn Melton got a smoking deal on Nathan Thinnes' house. Melton, the chief operating officer for Realty Executives, paid $297,000 for the 1,000-square-foot house. His stepdaughter, Kelly, soon moved in. Two years later, the house has dipped in value by $35,000. But that's not what's making the Meltons unhappy, they insist. They say Thinnes should have told them about Candy Tatum.

Thinnes, who also is in the real estate business, as a commercial broker for Grubb & Ellis, says Melton has buyer's remorse because the market has tanked. In any case, these two have spent more than $40,000 in a lawsuit that could ultimately set a new precedent for Arizona home sellers, a case that has the attention of national mental health advocates. The question at hand: Should a seller be required to diagnose his neighbor's mental health?

If Melton wins, Thinnes could be forced to buy the house back for the original price and pay an unspecified amount for emotional damages.

In a lawsuit that reads like a script from a Seinfeld episode or maybe a Crazy Cat Lady scene from The Simpsons, Melton accuses Thinnes of acting with "an evil mind, malice, and a reckless disregard" because he didn't disclose that Tatum sometimes wanders the street muttering to herself, and that she once threw a brick through a neighbor's window.

Melton contends that his stepdaughter is living in dire danger, but after two years, Kelly still lives at the house. (And not with her stepdad, who has his own 3,000-square-foot home in Scottsdale.)

Parts of the case are entertaining, à la Seinfeld. But here's where it's made for public television: This case could break legal ground. Mental health experts warn that if Melton wins, Arizona sellers could be expected to disclose their personal opinions on a neighbor's mental health — a first in the country.

"This would open a Pandora's box," says Ron Honberg, director of legal affairs for the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Arlington, Virginia. "This could create a very, very dangerous precedent."

At press time, the case was making its way through Maricopa County Superior Court.

Melton says Thinnes intentionally left the neighborhood nuisance/noise disclosure box unchecked to deceive him. To Melton, the issues are noise, nuisance, and honesty, not mental diagnosis.

In a hearing last month, Thinnes' attorney argued that Melton has nothing more than buyer's remorse and is prejudiced against his neighbor. The judge ruled not to dismiss Melton's case.

Now Thinnes has asked for another round of mediation.

It's not unusual to drive down East Montecito and find Candy Tatum, barefoot in the street, talking to herself. Sometimes she shouts at other people, even when there's no one there. She's lived here for 23 years.

Like many 1950s Phoenix neighborhoods, East Montecito is freckled with high-dollar remodels, neighbored by all-original brick ranch homes. The home Melton bought from Thinnes has been renovated, with a fresh coat of paint and a modern interior. A Mercedes sits in the driveway.

A few feet away, in Tatum's drive, the back of an old Chevy pickup is packed with garbage, an uprooted bush, and Christmas lights. Long, brown grass grows up through a pool-chair in the middle of the front yard.

"Many neighbors are deathly afraid," says one neighbor of 20 years who asked not to be named. "The cops have been called out here so many times they don't even come anymore. She's harmless now, though. She hasn't acted up in ages."

Another neighbor who asked not to identified says Tatum is entertaining and loud but has never bothered him or his wife.

Experts interviewed for this story say this is the first buyer-seller lawsuit they've heard of involving the purported mental state of a neighbor.

The issue at hand is not whether Candy Tatum is mentally ill, says Richard Keyt, who has practiced real estate law in Arizona for 27 years. (He has had nothing to do with the Thinnes/Melton lawsuit.) It's whether or not she's a nuisance.

Disclosure lawsuits in Arizona hinge on the words "material fact." A suing buyer must prove the seller failed to disclose a material fact about the property, and "material" isn't limited to building materials. For example, if someone died in the home or if a neighbor was a convicted child molester, both would be material facts.

Under Arizona legal precedent, such material facts are just as relevant as lead paint or a leaky roof. So, Keyt says, a neighbor who's been a known nuisance for 20-plus years isn't much of a leap.

Keyt emphasizes that in the end, a jury decides whether a given problem is material or not. "We don't really know what material means until the jury says. If there was precedent, I could tell you. There's not."

In the end, he says, it may well come down to personalities. "If your neighbor has bad tendencies or is a major problem neighbor, I think that would be material fact that the seller should disclose," Keyt says. "It could get gray, though. What if the neighbor's only a problem to the seller? If this conduct is consistent, though, that would seem to me to be a material fact."

Six days after Candy Tatum was arrested for throwing potatoes, Glenn Melton closed on Thinnes' home. Kelly moved in, alone. According to Melton, she soon noticed regular occurrences of screaming and cursing from her neighbor. (Kelly could not be reached for comment.)

A year later, Melton learned just how notorious Tatum is in the Phoenix police precinct that serves the neighborhood. He and Thinnes entered mediation.

When Melton later learned that Thinnes himself had Tatum arrested just one week before closing, he was furious. "He maintained that he'd never heard of this, and it turns out he told the arresting officer that she's been threatening him and terrorizing his dog and that this behavior had been going on since he moved in five years ago. He lied," Melton says.

Thinnes says he never lied during the confidential mediation with Melton. He and his lawyer argue that Melton had 10 days of due diligence under Arizona law, when, after purchasing the home, they could have talked to neighbors and researched police reports.

On the advice of his attorneys, Melton decided to sue.

"I'm not looking to make legal history here," he says. "It's not really a convoluted point or philosophical issue. It's just that the guy had been there for five years. He says in his own words that she'd been driving him crazy, and he had the chance to unload the house on an unsuspecting young woman, and he did."

Melton describes himself as an old-school, shake-on-it-and-take-your-word-for-it businessman. He says he took the word of Thinnes, a salesman who lands commissions on multimillion-dollar properties.

"The fact is, we can't sell the house because we would now have to disclose the nuisance, and [Thinnes] should have disclosed it, too," Melton says.

He says the issue of Tatum's behavior, and whether it constitutes mental illness, is a straw man distraction by Thinnes and his attorneys. "Our position is that it doesn't matter if she's mentally ill or a Nazi or a member of the jackhammer society, the initial cause of the behavior doesn't matter to us. It's the behavior itself."

And that behavior, Melton says, is unacceptable. "It's unnerving if Candy's knocking on the door in the middle of the night and saying people are out there to get you. It's also concerning if she keeps weapons in the house and has thrown stuff through other people's windows," he says. "You wonder, could it be some night that she actually acts out something more aggressive?"

Ron Honberg, NAMI's legal affairs director, has seen just about every kind of lawsuit relating to mentally ill neighbors, but he says he's never seen anything quite like Melton's case against Thinnes.

"I think this is an absolute first," he says. "To me, this is the ultimate in hypocrisy. Property values have dropped uniformly. This is NIMBYism at its worse. NIMBY stands for Not In My Back Yard. The term was originally coined during desegregation. Now people say, 'I'm all for people with disabilities living in neighborhoods, just not in mine.'"

While neighbors and police reports confirm Tatum once threw a brick through a window, there is no evidence that she has actually harmed a person in the two decades she's lived on Montecito. (Nor has anyone in a position of authority offered a diagnosis for Tatum.)

Tatum's hundreds of calls to police deal with imagined attackers who are out to get her. In one call, Tatum reported that her sister was shooting poison at her mom's legs. In another, she claimed that she'd been followed and people were on her roof, interrupting her phone calls.

"I think the focal point of a lawsuit should be on a person's behavior, not their psychiatric state. I think we've all had experiences with neighbors who behaved inappropriately or disturbingly," Honberg says. "Most of those disruptions have nothing to do with mental illness."

Honberg also acknowledged a father's natural concern for a daughter's safety. "For the father, the expectation of safety for his daughter is legitimate. If [Tatum]'s a legitimate threat, that's one thing. But I have to question if she meets the definition of being a legitimate threat."

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Candy Tatum answers the door at her house. She says she doesn't much care for the neighborhood on East Montecito. "I have never liked it here. I believe people in the neighborhood live in glass houses and throw stones."

Inside, Tatum's house is dark. The kitchen linoleum appears to be original, circa 1954. Two birds squawk in their cage and, in the backyard, a dog barks.

Tatum is barefoot, with a short, graying ponytail on top, buzz cut underneath, and a cigarette in hand. She explains the history of the neighborhood, including the friendly math teacher who lived next door before Nathan Thinnes moved there.

"In 1999, Nathan bought it, and he was telling everybody he was this big-shot real estate guy, and he was just a punk," she says. She adds that her new neighbor Kelly is friendly enough.

Tatum lives with her mother, Tommie Lawson Tatum, who is 87 and apparently hard of hearing. She enters the room and insists that the interview stop. Candy raises her voice and resists.

Candy walks out the front door, and about 15 feet away, Glenn Melton's son, Jeff Melton, is carrying a box from his vintage Mercedes into the garage next door.

With Tatum out of earshot, Jeff later explains, "She just talks to people that aren't there basically."

Has Tatum ever done anything violent?

"Not that I've experienced, no, nothing like that. A lot of her yelling and screaming at people that aren't there," Jeff Melton says.

Has she ever come onto your property?

"No, the most that she'll do is maybe come over and water the plants if she sees they need watering," he adds. "Other than that, no, she stays on her own property."

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John Dickerson
Contact: John Dickerson