The South Berkeley drug wars came to Small Claims Court in Berkeley this week, with opposing witnesses arguing whether an aging Oregon Street homeowner was the knowing matriarch of a drug-dealing family or the elderly victim of abusive children.
In the case, Paul Rauber, et. al v. Lenora Moore, 15 neighbors of Moore, the longtime owner of a home near the corner of Oregon and California streets, are suing the 75-year-old woman in small claims court for damages of $5,000 apiece relating to allegations of drug activity in the vicinity of the home by several of Moore’s children and grandchildren.
In a three-hour hearing, Court Commissioner John Rantzman took testimony from witnesses from both sides, and then adjourned the hearing until Nov. 3 to hear testimony from plaintiffs and the defendant in the case.
While small claims court was traditionally designed for plaintiffs and defendants to present their cases without having to rely on outside counsel, both sides in Rauber v. Moore are relying heavily on outside assistance.
The plaintiff neighbors were assisted in drawing up their legal papers for the case by the Oakland-based nonprofit organization Neighborhood Solutions, while Moore was assisted in court by East Bay Community Law Center’s Leo Stegman, who said he is working with Moore on his own and not in connection with the law center. Stegman, in fact, acted as Moore’s de facto attorney, making her opening statement, arguing motions, and providing rebuttal to the plaintiffs’ witnesses.
Stegman did not contest the contention by five plaintiffs’ witnesses—including two Berkeley police officers—that the South Berkeley neighborhood surrounding Moore’s house is a hotbed of drug activity. Stegman also did not contest the plaintiffs’ contention that restraining orders taken out by Moore last spring—shortly after the filing of the Small Claims lawsuit—have not been effective in keeping Moore’s children and grandchildren away from the house.
In the most emotional testimony, Phyllis Brooks Schaefer, the 70-year-old co-owner of a house near Moore’s, in which her daughter lives, talked about the fear of visiting the area.
“My daughter does not have the use of her house,” Schaefer said, at one point breaking up in tears. “If she wants to enjoy friends, she has to bring them to my condo [in a nearby neighborhood]. Visiting her, I quickly learned the signs of drug dealing, much of it emanating from Moore’s house. There’s constant shouting, hitting, cars coming up constantly and drug deals going on. My daughter can no longer use the front room of the house because the large window facing out on the street makes it too dangerous. When I visit her, I cannot park in certain areas. My daughter was physically attacked in her house by a man who was associated with [Mrs. Moore’s house]. The thought of this fills me with terror. Home owners and renters should not have to live in fear of this kind of violence.”
The two officers—Jim Marangoni and former task force member Mike Durban—testified that several persons arrested for drug dealing near Moore’s house were either children or grandchildren of Moore’s, and that an October, 2004 search warrant raid of Moore’s premises netted the arrest of three of Moore’s offspring for cocaine, heroin, and firearm possession. Durban called Moore’s house “a safe haven; that’s where they actually keep the drugs.”
But Stegman argued that Moore had no control over her adult children, and that she was as much a victim of the drug dealing and violence as the other neighbors.
Wilma Jean Morris, the niece of Moore’s invalid husband, told the court that she was assisting Moore in keeping some of the children away from the house, but it was a difficult job.
“I got things in order there but keeping it in order, I can’t do it all the time,” she said.
“When those children see me coming, they scatter,” she added, clapping her hands together sharply and then waving them apart like a crowd disappearing. “They’re disrespectful to their mother and father. I have put out quite a few of them. I’ve told them they have to come through me. But I can’t be there all the time, and they come back when I’m not there.”
Morris said that the Moore house “is not the only house with drug activity on that street.”
Answering charges by Stegman that the neighbors were only interested in getting Moore to sell her house, one of the plaintiffs, Marion Mabel, said after the hearing that “we don’t want to get rid of Mrs. Moore and her husband. We just don’t want the drug dealing to go on.”
For her part, Moore said outside the courtroom that she would like to see the court commissioner “help to get some of these things settled. I want him to understand that I’m doing my best to take care of this.”l