Hot Potato

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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