BOWLING GREEN, Va. — Lawyer and part-time cattle farmer John F. Ames got off on the wrong foot with his new neighbors in the 1980s when he invoked a 17th-century law to compel them to pay for part of the fence around his 675-acre estate.
“In a small town, that’s not the thing to do — move in and start badgering people who have lived here all their lives,” said Frances Hurt, whose mother feared Mr. Ames would find a way to take her house if she didn’t meet his demand. She grudgingly paid.
Another neighbor, Oliver Perry Brooks, was less accommodating. He never paid, despite a 1991 state Supreme Court ruling siding with Mr. Ames. He also periodically cut or removed portions of the fence, fueling a bitter feud that ended with Mr. Ames’ arrest in the April shooting death of Mr. Brooks, 74.
“Robert Frost said good fences make good neighbors. Not in this case,” said J. Benjamin Dick, an attorney who will argue self-defense in Mr. Ames’ trial for first-degree murder. A trial date has not been set.
The bad blood between Mr. Ames, 59, and Mr. Brooks had been common knowledge for years among the 23,800 residents of rural Caroline County between Richmond and Fredericksburg.
“You could pick a name out of the Caroline phone book and ask them if they knew John Ames and Perry Brooks didn’t like each other, and they could tell you tales,” said Mrs. Hurt, who still lives next door to Mr. Ames’ sprawling Holly Hill Farm.
Court records stretching back several years also tell the story of a seething mutual animosity that seemed to worsen every time the fence was damaged or Mr. Brooks’ bull, which was not certified disease-free, barged through the barrier and mingled with Mr. Ames’ Black Angus herd.
On at least two occasions, Mr. Ames charged for the feeding and care of Mr. Brooks’ trespassing livestock, as allowed by state law. In January 2003, he sued Mr. Brooks for $3,560 to pay for damage to the fence and for boarding a heifer and three calves that pushed through the weakened area.
The lawsuit accused Mr. Brooks of pushing over fence posts on at least three occasions and cutting fence wires at least six times, calling the actions “mean-spirited, malicious, willful and vindictive.”
In his response, Mr. Brooks acknowledged “having at times in the past removed parts of the fence,” but disputed the number of incidents claimed by Mr. Ames. The case was settled for $1,278.
John J. Billingsley, a Prince George’s County attorney who represented Mr. Brooks in two civil cases, said Mr. Ames “threw everything he could” into the complaints, painting a one-sided picture of his former client.
“You could always count on what Mr. Brooks told you,” Mr. Billingsley said. “He was always very nice to me. I didn’t find him cantankerous.”
The final confrontation between the two men came April 19, when Mr. Brooks ventured onto Mr. Ames’ property to again retrieve his bull. Mr. Dick said Mr. Ames was forced to defend himself when Mr. Brooks “came at him with a sizable stick or cattle prod.”
Said Mr. Dick: “It was a question of who was going to be the last person standing.”
Next door, Frances Hurt heard the shots — “one, then a hesitation, then five in a row,” she said. “I had no idea what had happened. My first thought was, ‘That’s odd, it’s not hunting season.’”
Mr. Ames dialed 911, and sheriff’s deputies were there within minutes. Mr. Brooks was found dead near a shed. Mr. Ames was arrested and charged with first-degree murder and using a firearm in a felony. He spent two nights in jail before being freed on $100,000 bond, secured by his mother’s house in Virginia Beach.
This was the second high-profile shooting death in just over six months in the normally serene county. Donna Lee Blanton is charged with first-degree murder in the Oct. 16 death of her husband, State Police 1st Sgt. Taylor V. Blanton.
Mrs. Blanton, unlike Mr. Ames, was denied bond. Some Caroline residents worry privately that Mr. Ames, who practices bankruptcy law in Richmond, will get preferential treatment because of his wealth and professional status.
Caroline County Commonwealth’s Attorney Harvey Latney declined to comment on the case, which has been a favorite topic of conversation among local residents.
“The acrimonious relationship between the two principals was so well known in the community that there was a real strong reaction to the ultimate playing out of it,” said Carolyn Roth, a retired psychology professor who volunteers at the Bowling Green Visitors Center across the street from the county courthouse.