The spectacle that took place two weeks ago at the home of Charlotte Parkhurst, a.k.a. the Mulch Lady, was awe-inspiring.
An army of city officials--representing code enforcement, streets, sanitation, fire, and neighborhood services--occupied the 7200 block of Eccles drive in Pleasant Grove as part of a five-day blitzkrieg designed to annihilate Parkhurst's mulch pile.
Armed with a fleet of dump trucks, Bobcats, and one gigantic backhoe, dozens of city workers spent eight hours a day tearing out and hauling off what neighbors estimated to be some 170 loads of wood chips, tree limbs, dirt, and other debris. The pile, the city says, amounted to an illegal dump that presented a fire hazard and potential flooding problems.
As the Dallas Observer reported earlier this year, ("Funny Girl," January 22), the pile also spawned a particularly nasty, homophobic-driven feud between Parkhurst and her gay neighbors that neither code inspectors nor Dallas police officers have been able to resolve for nearly a year.
Not surprisingly, the stubborn, combative Parkhurst did not stand idly by as the city made off with her mulch.
By midweek, Parkhurst finally lost her composure and allegedly threatened to blow off the head of a city employee, prompting her to be admitted as an outpatient to a Timberlawn Mental Health System hospital for the duration of the dig-out.
Some people, like Dallas City Council member Larry Duncan, who backed the operation, praise the city for finally taking action to resolve the public nuisance. But others, including a neighbor whose property the city was supposedly protecting by removing the mulch, say city officials overstepped their authority: The mulch is gone, but so is most of Parkhurst's one-acre yard.
What was once a pile of debris on a hill is now a V-shaped ravine that contains loose dirt and the exposed roots of dying trees, which neighbors say poses more of a run-off threat than the pile did at its most bloated.
If the city can do this to Charlotte Parkhurst, whose stubbornness is largely to blame for the civic battle, some neighbors say they can only wonder whom the next target will be.
"It's like the Gestapo. They just came out there with revenge, that's what it looks like," says Shirley Turnipseed, who lives directly below Parkhurst. "That thing [the ravine] is like a canyon out there. It's shocking. Nobody's yard should have a pit in it like that."
Three days into the operation, Duane Parkhurst stands in his front yard and gawks at the activity surrounding him. Hours earlier, a city ambulance carried Charlotte Parkhurst off to Timberlawn. In her place, Duane holds down the fort, making sure that the five security cameras he has hidden in his yard are rolling.
On one side of the house, a backhoe stands precariously at the edge of the mulch pile, finally back in operation after it accidentally slid down the hill and nearly toppled on its side.
The machine's long crane lowers its head into the mulch, bites out a load, and swivels back around to the rear of a dump truck--one of dozens of city vehicles that are crawling along Eccles Drive.
On the opposite side of the house, a pair of Bobcats ramble over the Parkhurst property, extracting smaller loads of mulch that surround an above-ground swimming pool. Three emus watch the action lazily from inside a large outdoor pen that occupies the back corner of the Parkhurst lot.
Clusters of city employees stand about the house, watching the action with blank expressions remarkably similar to those of the emus. Other employees roam the street with walkie-talkies in their hands, cell phones to their ears, and beepers on their hips.
One of the men is Gary Middleton, a city employee who was supposedly overseeing the operation and who was the target of Charlotte Parkhurst's earlier threat. But Middleton, like the other city employees present, declines to discuss the threat or the details of the operation.
"I'm not authorized to speak with the press," says Middleton, who directs all questions to code enforcement boss Ramiro Lopez.
Lopez ordered his employees not to discuss the matter with reporters. Later, he refused to respond to repeated requests for comment.
The city began the operation on April 27, after it obtained a search warrant from a city magistrate who authorized the city to seize the mulch pile because it constituted illegally dumped solid waste. Last February, the city had ordered Parkhurst to cease her landscaping project and to remove her mulch pile. Parkhurst ignored the orders.
"This isn't funny anymore," Duane Parkhurst says, shouting over the sound of engines groaning and beeping. "They're like Gestapos. It's just like it's 1939."
Parkhurst's neighbor, James, tucks his thumb in the shoulder strap of his overalls and offers his explanation of the situation.
"All it's over is a bunch of mulch that that bald-headed faggot didn't like," say James, who asked that his last name not be used because he's afraid the city will retaliate against him.
The person James is referring to is Mike Rhoads, the Parkhursts' next-door neighbor, who Charlotte Parkhurst is convinced is part of a gay conspiracy to take over her house. As part of the dig, the city also removed mulch from Rhoads' property, though Rhoads has maintained that Parkhurst dumped the debris there without his permission.
Duncan says the city has finally lived up to his promise to have the city remove the mulch pile.
"The city is finally taking action," says Duncan, who spoke briefly with the Observer recently and then subsequently referred questions to Dallas City Attorney Sam Lindsay.
Although Duncan previously told the Observer that he wanted the city to put a lien on Parkhurst's property in an attempt to force her to pay for the dig, Lindsay says the city will pay for the operation.
"I am not seeking any lien against anybody's property. The city does not have any intent to take this lady's house," Lindsay says. "The whole purpose of having this removed was because the city thought it [the pile] was in violation of a Texas health and safety code."
Lindsay says he does not know how much material was removed from the two properties or how much the operation cost.
Although the city evidently will foot the bill for the dig, Rhoads says he will be prepared to file civil suit if the city attempts to leave him with the tab.
"As far as them putting a levy against my house, when everyone knows she did it, it's totally insane," Rhoads says.
Although Rhoads is pleased that the city is finally taking action, even he is beginning to have second thoughts about the decision to remove the mulch with such extreme force.
"I'm sure six years from now it [the pile] would have been OK," Rhoads says. "It's just a joke, and she's costing me lots of money."
Although she has never had a problem with the mulch pile, Shirley Turnipseed says she is now afraid that the loose dirt that looms on the hill above her house will come tumbling down on her.
"I find it mind-boggling. Did you notice how close it [the edge of the ravine] is to her house? My stars, a hard rain just might wash it away," Turnipseed says. "If they can do this to her, they can do it to anybody. I just guarantee it. Pretty soon we'll all be under some restraint."
Thus far, Turnipseed says she has stayed out of the mulch dispute. Soon, however, she believes she may be forced to enter the fray.
"If I start having a problem down there, they [city officials] are going to start hearing from me," Turnipseed says. "I can't have that dirt washing down on my yard."
A gas fire burns gently in a fireplace inside the Timberlawn psychiatric institute in East Dallas, where the soothing ambiance is a world apart from the activity on Eccles Drive.
Dressed in a soft denim shirt and jeans, Charlotte Parkhurst takes a seat on a couch in front of the fireplace. Tears well in her blue eyes.
"I can't believe this is happening," Parkhurst says, wiping away a tear.
It's true, she adds, that she threatened Middleton, but Parkhurst says she didn't mean it. For two days, Parkhurst says, she tried to get the workers to explain what they were doing, but no one would say anything.
"He wasn't answering me, so I says, 'I bet if I went and said, 'I'm gonna blow your head off,' you'd respond," Parkhurst says, hours later. "I really didn't mean it the way it sounded. I was just so upset. Then I started going berserk. The social worker said she wanted to take me to the hospital. They thought I was suicidal."
City Attorney Lindsay says he doesn't have any of the details about the alleged threat, but he says Parkhurst called 911 and a city ambulance responded. While en route to Parkland hospital, Lindsay says, Parkhurst asked to be taken to Timberlawn.
Parkhurst says she didn't object to the ride. In March, she says, she voluntarily checked into another hospital for a week to get help for depression. After that, she sought treatment from a Timberlawn doctor, whom she was supposed to see anyway.
"I told Duane, 'I've got to get some help. All I do is cry. I'm upset,'" Parkhurst says.
On normal days, Parkhurst is able to quickly rattle off the details of her various encounters with city officials--like the one she had shortly before the dig began that only further confused the situation.
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"I don't blame her for being upset. I don't understand it. We shouldn't even be out here," says the employee, according to a tape recording of the conversation that Parkhurst later played.
At this moment, however, Parkhurst has forgotten all about the conversation and other contradictory statements she says she has heard from sympathetic city employees. The medications she has been given have wiped her out.
The doctors, Parkhurst says, are suggesting that she shouldn't think about the city or her mulch. Parkhurst says she is trying.
"I can't win," she says. "I'm going to be sitting alone at the top of the hill with nothing around me.