By Mary Battiata
Sunday, May 22, 2005
The word was, Perry Brooks's bull -- all 2,000 fence-bending pounds of him -- was loose again. And the word, as is sometimes the case in a small farming town, was right.
On that Saturday, Wick Coleman, a farmer and friend, had seen Brooks cruising the edge of the Food Lion parking lot in his old, gold pickup, where the lot bordered Brooks's fields. He had his head out the window, and he looked worried, Coleman said. One of Brooks's beagles was along for the ride, and it peered out the passenger window, as if it were searching, too.
There was nothing new about this. At 74, Brooks was retired from full-time farming. He'd sold most of his cattle, and his remaining herd of 20 didn't seem enough to keep the herd's bull at home. From time to time, the bull, a black-and-white mongrel known as a "hundred-percenter" for its breeding prowess, would throw its front legs up against the pasture fence and slowly rock it to the ground. Free at last, it would lumber off in search of fresh female companionship.
Over the years, Brooks's wandering herd had become a source of entertainment among some of his neighbors around Bowling Green, Va., an hour-and-a-half drive south of Washington.
"Perry would call and say, 'I've lost a cow, would you keep an eye out for it?'" said Frances Hurt, a neighbor. "It was a riot. We'd call each other and say: 'Where's Perry's cow today? Is he in your yard?' 'No, is he in yours?'"
Once the prodigal had been located, Brooks's habit was to fire up his truck and go retrieve it, loading it into the back or just tapping it home on foot with the aid of an old hoe-handle and whoever was around to help. That could be a sight to behold. Brooks was worn and bent as an old tree root by decades of hard labor. In recent years, he'd endured open-heart surgery and two hip replacements and had crushed his right hand in a front-end loader. To keep his hip from popping out of joint, he sometimes wore a complicated plastic brace over his dungarees. In combination with the tattered clothing he favored, it gave him the look of Jed Clampett crossed with the Tin Man from "The Wizard of Oz."
But this time, on the third weekend in April 2004, Brooks's bull had crossed into the 675-acre purebred cattle operation of Brooks's neighbor and longtime nemesis, John F. Ames.
Ames, 60, a Richmond lawyer and CPA turned part-time cattle breeder, had spent more than a decade developing a large herd of prized, pedigreed Black Angus cattle. In the years since he'd come to Caroline County, Ames had acquired a reputation as an exacting and ambitious cattleman, a demanding, somewhat aloof figure. Most people who knew him in Caroline were keenly aware that he'd filed more than a dozen lawsuits (and threatened more) against neighbors and business associates since taking over Holly Hill Farm. That reputation for litigiousness left many of his fellow townspeople wanting to keep clear of him.
The bad blood between Perry Brooks and John Ames, however, was in a class all its own. The sheriff's department policed it, the newspapers covered it, the local court was openly weary of it, and the families of at least one of the men had learned to tiptoe around it. The feud had even led Ames to apply for a permit to carry a concealed weapon. In his application, Ames told the court that he needed the gun, a Czech-made 9mm semiautomatic pistol, because he carried large amounts of cash for business, but also because he was afraid of his neighbor.
The feud started like this: In 1989, about four years after he'd arrived in Caroline, Ames sent each of his neighbors a registered letter announcing his plans to build a new fence. He informed them that, under an 1887 fence law, they would be required to pay for half of whatever section of it ran along their shared property line. Some neighbors would be on the hook for $6,000, some for $12,000. Perry Brooks's share would be more than $45,000.
The first reaction among the neighbors -- several of them retired schoolteachers and nurses living on Social Security and pensions, who kept no livestock -- was consternation. "What kind of a person moves to a small town and starts suing his neighbors?" said Hurt, whose elderly mother, aunt and cousin all received bills.
Each neighbor wrote to Ames, formally declining to participate. When that didn't end it, the neighbors banded together and hired a lawyer to challenge the fence law. They also asked their state delegate to take the matter up with the General
Assembly. But the legislature declined to get involved. A lower court sided with the neighbors, but Ames appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court, and he won. Two of the justices dissented, saying that the fence law amounted to "economic favoritism" for large landowners and was "woefully lacking" in protection for their neighbors. But the majority found the law to be constitutional.
Eventually, all of Ames's neighbors paid up, except for one. "Perry was the only one who refused to roll over and play dead," said Brooks's friend Paul Orlett.
Brooks's defiance earned him some admiration around Bowling Green and surrounding Caroline County, but it would prove costly. As the fence matter and related lawsuits proceeded, Brooks and Ames went to war. There were two battlegrounds. One was the courtroom, where Ames had the upper hand. He sued Brooks to collect his $45,000, and eventually a lien was placed on Brooks's farm. Brooks, in turn, sued Ames, claiming that Ames's property line was in error. Down along the disputed border, a second battle was waged, with shouting, shotguns, security guards and even a detention on the premises with handcuffs. These incidents spawned more lawsuits -- Brooks sued Ames for $2 million, and Ames sued back for $8 million, each alleging trespass and claiming emotional distress.
But a top-of-the-line fence was built, at the not-modest price of $22.20 a foot (more than three times the average cost of such a barrier, according to Tommy Tabor, a Virginia fence builder who has consulted on fencing materials for experts at Virginia Tech).
John Ames's new fence was just over five feet high, with nine strands of smooth, high-tensile wire stretched between posts sunk three feet into the ground. There were two additional strands of old-fashioned barbed wire, one of which was capable of being electrified.
High-tensile wire is made to withstand several times the amount of pressure that regular barbed wire can take. Struck head-on, by a bull or a truck, it is supposed to stretch, not break. But the new fence did not contain Perry Brooks's bull. At least twice before, in 1994 and again in 1995, the bull got through. (Generally, farmers and fence builders say, only an electric fence is guaranteed to restrain a bull.) On its second outing, the bull mounted at least one of Ames's purebred heifers, and Ames sued Brooks for more than $450,000, for costs and "intentional disregard" of the law. The lawsuit also alleged that Brooks had cut or damaged the fence on at least five occasions.
However relaxed some of Brooks's neighbors were about his wandering herd, the law treats bull trespass seriously, as do cattle breeders, for whom control of the herd bloodlines is crucial. Virginia's fence law gives those trespassed upon the right to demand a minimum of $500 for damage, board and veterinary costs, such as testing for contagious disease. In cases of repeated trespass, the courts have allowed the aggrieved neighbor to take the offending animal to market and sell it in the name of its negligent owner.
After the second trespass, Brooks was ordered by the court to put up a $500 bond against future trespass. But the larger issues of the $45,000 for the 3,600 feet of fence, and the several-million-dollar lawsuits, were unresolved. And there were signs that everyone's patience was fraying. In 1995, six years into the feud, an exasperated substitute judge (the local judges had recused themselves from the matter) ordered Perry Brooks to stay off Holly Hill Farm and had the old farmer put up a $2,000 bond to help enforce the ban. The judge also admonished both men. "The parties are hereby cautioned by the Court to maintain peace and order between their persons and properties," warned Circuit Court Judge L. Cleaves Manning. The words "No Contact!" are handwritten in the margin of the order.
But on the morning of Monday, April 19, 2004, for reasons that his family and friends can only speculate about, Perry Brooks decided to flout the court order, go onto Ames's property and bring the bull home himself. He asked his wife, Evelyn, to go along, but she refused. His son-in-law was unavailable. So was Wick Coleman, his son-in-law's uncle, who, like a number of farmers in Caroline, worked a second job on the railroad.
In the end, Brooks recruited Michael Beasley, a farmhand who lived in a trailer on a far corner of Brooks's farm, and Paul Orlett, a retired Marine infantryman and fishing buddy of 30 years. Orlett looked after his 2 1/2-year-old grandson during the week. Having no one to leave the boy with that morning, Orlett brought him along.
The three men and the child drove over to Holly Hill Farm using a path that ran between the two properties alongside the CSX railroad tracks. They arrived at a paddock where the bull had been penned. Brooks and Beasley got out, and Orlett slid into the driver's seat. He turned the truck around and drove about 50 feet back in the direction from which they'd come.
Brooks was carrying an old, gray stick, about four feet long, that he used to guide his cattle. The plan was that Brooks and Beasley would walk behind the bull and drive it forward, while Orlett would lead the way in the truck.
Brooks and Beasley had just let the bull out of the pen, Beasley testified later, when Ames "pulled up fast in his truck." He was wearing his gun under his suit. He got out of the truck and confronted the men, Beasley told Orlett later, saying: "Put the bull back in the pen." Brooks drew his stick back by his ear in reply, Beasley testified. The entire confrontation lasted no more than 10 seconds, he said. Brooks never said a word.
"He didn't get a chance," Beasley said.
Ames opened fire with a pistol. He shot six times, according to Beasley's testimony. The first shot, Beasley said, hit Brooks in the face. It entered Brooks's right cheek, according to the coroner, hitting his palate and exiting left, between his upper and lower jaw. Five more shots followed, hitting Brooks in the torso, piercing his heart and spinal cord. Two bullets hit the back of his upper right arm.
In the moments that followed, according to later court testimony, Ames walked to his truck and put the pistol on the seat beside a Winchester rifle. He picked up his cell phone and made several calls, including one to the sheriff's department, which in turn notified the state police. When the law arrived, Ames said only this: "I'm not making a statement. He's over there if you want to try to help him."
What would you have done?
That is the question that has rattled around Bowling Green in the year since the shooting. What would you have done, if you'd gone to bed one night master of your domain and awakened the next morning to find a registered letter in the mailbox, informing you that you owed $45,000 to pay for your neighbor's new fence?
And if you did not pay up, your neighbor was entitled to slap a lien on your property. This, even though your neighbor had three times your acreage and many times your cattle. And one more thing: Your neighbor was a lawyer, which meant that you would be fighting on his battlefield. (During the feud, Ames often served as his own attorney.)
Where was the justice? According to his friends, and his daughter Kim Brooks, that's what Perry Brooks wanted to know.
Brooks's instinct was to fight. His opening volley was a handwritten note, formal in tone, dated January 25, 1989. "Dear Sir: In response to your letter of Jan. 3, at the present time my finances do not permit me to participate in the fencing project. However, at some future date, if the need for the fence arises, I will be more than glad to participate.
Sincerely yours, O. Perry Brooks."
By 1993, four years into the feud, Brooks's stance had hardened. "Dear Sir," he wrote his neighbor. "I wish to inform you that nobody from holly hill farm [sic] is allowed on my property. This includes you, your wife, your sons or daughters, your farm hands. Anybody associated with you is forbidden." He signed the letter "O. Perry Brooks, owner."
Brooks's friends -- Bobby Lakin, Wick Coleman -- and others say that at its core, the feud was not so much about money or class differences (though those played a role), but something more intangible and fundamental. It was about respect.
"He didn't treat my father as a human being, as an equal, as someone you would talk to," said Kim Brooks.
During the trial over the disputed boundary line, Perry Brooks was asked if it was true that he had once fired a shotgun in the general direction of John Ames. Yes, Brooks testified. And was it true that he had done so in part to "needle" John Ames? Yes, Brooks said again. And why did he want to do that, Ames's attorney asked him.
"I think he needed it," Brooks replied. "Let him know somebody else was around besides hisself!"
Perry Brooks and John Ames met, according to Brooks family accounts and court testimony, at a public auction for Holly Hill Farm in June 1985. Holly Hill, a former plantation turned dairy farm, had fallen onto hard times. The auction was not a bankruptcy sale, but the widow of the owner was selling by agreement with the farm's creditors. Farmers around the county were in attendance that day. Ames, visiting from Richmond, approached Brooks to ask if there were any problems with the property. Brooks, Ames testified later, said no. The property was sold to Ames for about $442,000. Ames added the word "Corporation" to the farm name. Farm stationery listed Ames as vice president and his wife as president and treasurer.
According to testimony by both Ames and Brooks, they met again in January 1989 near their shared property line. Brooks had received the registered letter from Ames but had not yet formally replied. They talked about the cost of the fence, fencing materials and the need to keep their herds separated. At some point, Ames reportedly remarked on the beauty of Brooks's land and said that his own cattle "sure would look pretty on it." The two men dickered. Ames offered to swap the fence bill in exchange for some of Brooks's land. Brooks said no. Brooks suggested Ames just tie in this new fence to the 100 yards of Brooks's existing fence. Ames said he would agree, but only if they put the deal on paper and filed it at the courthouse. Brooks said no.
Brooks also told his neighbor that Ames's proposed fence line was in error. It included a 1.87-acre triangle of land that actually belonged to him, Brooks said, by virtue of an old plat drawn up after the Civil War. That map, which used landmarks such as old sycamore stumps and white pine trees, gave him clear possession of that triangle of land, he asserted. In addition, he and the previous owner of Holly Hill Farm had made a handshake deal about the triangle years ago.
No, Ames replied, he had more recent legal surveys showing the land was his. The meeting ended with Brooks storming off, according to testimony.
At least three times in the months that followed, Brooks drove his tractor down to the disputed boundary line and nudged the new fence down, Ames alleged. He picked up posts and even a gate and carted them back to his barn, saying the materials and the new fence were over his property line and so belonged to him. On one of those occasions, Ames called out to him and demanded that he stop. Ames later testified that he had reminded Brooks then that they had talked about fencing the disputed section. Brooks replied, in so many words, that he didn't care.
On another occasion, Brooks showed up at the offending fence line with a single-barrel shotgun.
"What you got there?" Orlett said Ames shouted over to Brooks that day, a query that Brooks heard as a taunt.
"I'll show you," Brooks reportedly called back, and he discharged the shotgun in the air, according to court and other accounts. No one was hit, but Ames was frightened enough to take cover behind a tree, and later contended in a lawsuit that he believed Brooks had been aiming at him; the incident caused him "severe emotional distress."
The feud reached a new intensity in March 1989, when Brooks drove down to the fence and found himself face to face with a 6-foot-3 security guard. The guard, a former Army Ranger, was carrying a .357 magnum. The two men scuffled, and Brooks's face was bruised. The guard testified later that his gun had hit Brooks while the guard was trying to kick Brooks's shotgun out of reach. Brooks said the guard had pistol-whipped him. The guard handcuffed Brooks and took him up to the main house, where Ames was in view. On seeing him, according to Ames's subsequent complaint, Brooks began to bellow, shouting that he was going to come back and "kill everyone on the place."
(Both Brooks's widow, Evelyn, and John Ames declined to comment on any aspect of the feud. Evelyn Brooks has filed a $10.3 million wrongful death suit against Ames, which is scheduled to be heard in civil court after the murder trial in September. In turn, Ames filed an $11.3 million countersuit, accusing Evelyn Brooks, her daughter Jacqueline Coleman, son-in-law Matthew Coleman and three John Does of a series of crimes including trespass, infliction of emotional distress, assault and battery, conspiracy, fraud, obstruction of justice, breaking court orders and "terrorism." Ames later dropped the terrorism count after questioning by a judge and then dropped Evelyn Brooks from the suit entirely.)
Brooks was detained for a while, then uncuffed when he complained of chest pains, according to court records and Kim Brooks. He was arrested by sheriff's deputies and charged with trespassing. At the county jail, he was taken to the medical ward, then transferred to a hospital in Richmond, where he stayed for a week.
After that, Brooks told daughter Kim and others that he "wanted the war to be over." Kim Brooks, a nurse, remembers talking with her father at the time.
"I scolded him," she said. "I told him: 'What's this I'm hearing about shotguns? I don't ever want to hear about you murdering someone. You made us go to church all our lives, and then you act like this?'" Kim Brooks remembers that her father was contrite and made no further assaults on the fence.
The ground war at the fence line was subsiding, but the bull's wanderlust was not.
The fence that separates Holly Hill Farm from the Brooks farm is a door through time. On one side is John Ames's Farm Corporation, with its spreadsheets and cold-storage tanks for bull semen and calf embryos. On the other is Perry Brooks's 246 acres, which, by choice and temperament, he husbanded with methods and tools that in some cases harked back to Colonial times.
Like many farmers in Caroline County, Brooks was cash poor and land rich. Caroline is the last truly rural redoubt on the booming Interstate 95 corridor between Washington and Richmond, but, in recent years, housing subdivisions have begun to appear. The paper value of Brooks's land soared, but he rarely had more than $1,000 cash to his name. He lived on $400 a month in Social Security income, rent from a small second house on the property, and what he raised selling his vegetables at the farmers' markets in Northern Virginia. Most of his farm equipment was rattletrap and bore the marks of his welder's torch. He spruced up for church on Sunday but otherwise often dressed in tattered clothes.
"Perry was a little rough around the edges, but he had a heart of gold. He'd do anything for you," said McGann Saphir, a Virginia farm extension agent for Caroline County.
Brooks may have been a character, but he was nobody's fool. He could be fierce, and he was notably stubborn. "With Perry, it was, 'I may not always be right, but I'm never wrong,'" said friend Orlett.
Except for two years in Korea during that war, Brooks had lived in Caroline his whole life, as had his father before him. He was the youngest of several children. His mother suffered bouts of severe depression and was hospitalized for it several times. She once tried to drown herself in a creek, according to family members. Perry was cared for by his oldest sister, Ellen. When Ellen married and moved away, responsibility for his mother's care fell to him.
In his own old age, Brooks had leased all but 10 acres of his land to his son-in-law, Matthew Coleman, to farm. The chores that remained to him he carried out less by brawn than canny use of gravity. "He could do what he needed to do. It might take him three times as long, but he would get it done," said Kim Brooks.
In his earlier years, he sawed his own boards with a sawmill he kept in the woods. He salted herring and smoked ham with a smoker he'd built himself. He hung beef in linen bags for aging. His two daughters learned to run a grader and feed the livestock -- 50 head of cattle, as well as pigs and chickens. They gathered eggs, weeded the watermelon patch. When the combine harvested the corn, the children walked the rows after, picking up scrap to grind into feed. "Nothing was wasted," Kim Brooks remembered. "He was very old-school that way."
Slaughtering day at the Brooks farm was typical. Neighbors and family all helped, in exchange for meat. "It was a big mess, but we made a party of it," said Kim Brooks. "We worked all day, and then at night there would be a barbecue, with hamburgers."
None of it was very profitable. "We were all half-busted half of the time," said Bobby Lakin, Brooks's friend and Bible study teacher, who gave up farming in favor of the electrician's trade. "Perry could've sold the whole place and been a millionaire. All farmers could sell out. But that's not your purpose in life. Perry liked farming."
In semi-retirement, Brooks's chief pleasures remained what they'd always been: rabbit hunting with his beagles and daytrips for fishing in Deltaville, two hours southeast, where the Rappahannock River meets Chesapeake Bay. In winter, when farm chores eased, said Lakin, Brooks liked to sit around the fire, "smoking a pipe, laughing and talking."
Still, he could square off like a bull, taunting and unyielding, when he thought he'd been wronged. Several days before he died, Brooks drove his truck over to the second house on his property to have it out with a tenant who was several months behind on the rent, according to the tenant. The tenant had recently moved his daughter's family into the house over Brooks's objections. Brooks was suing for the back rent. The tenant in turn claimed that Brooks owed him almost as much money for improvements the tenant had made to the property.
Brooks drove down the driveway and blocked the tenant's car as the man returned from work. As the two men began to shout from their car windows, the tenant's wife and teenage daughter emerged from the house, cell phones in hand, screaming and threatening to call the sheriff. The women surrounded Brooks's truck, and the tenant jumped out of his car, he said in an interview. Brooks, outnumbered and still behind the wheel, began to back up slowly. As he did, the women, standing behind his truck, redoubled their screaming. One jumped onto the back bumper, and the other was flung clear by her husband. The dispatcher at the sheriff's department, mindful of the fence feud and not sure what was going on over at Brooks's farm, sent several deputies.
When the law arrived, the incident was over. The women complained of leg pain but drove themselves to the hospital, where no injuries were diagnosed, according to hospital records.
Brooks was arrested, however, charged with hit and run and held for two days in the county jail. On his bail form, he listed his total cash assets at less than $1,000, put the value of his land at $1 million and asked for a court-appointed lawyer. Kim Brooks said her father sounded abashed when she spoke to him after his release. "He said, 'Can I just stay in jail?'" His daughter said she thought he sounded tired and unlike himself. "I remember thinking, if they could just keep him in jail for two weeks, everything would be okay."
If Perry Brooks was old-fashioned by temperament and financial necessity, John Ames's money and ambition put his farm on the cutting edge of 21st-century animal science. Many novice Angus breeders bail out after their first five years. But Ames beat the odds. He hired full-time farm managers and built an Angus herd that some experts rate in the top 20 percent for quality, nationwide. His bull calves have brought as much as $35,000 at sale.
Ames, by all accounts, is a hands-on cattleman, rising at 4 a.m. most days to see to his herd, then leaving for his law and CPA offices in Richmond around 9. He shovels feed in winter and helps dip the cattle against ticks in summer.
He was no greenhorn when he took up the country life at Holly Hill. As a child, Ames said in an interview, he spent time at his grandparents' 500-acre working farm near Newport News. His grandparents migrated to the city to work for the Navy during the Second World War, he said. Ames's father made his living as a lawyer and accountant, but the family lived on an 86-acre estate near Yorktown.
Although some in Bowling Green see Ames as a powerful squire on the hill, in reality he seems less powerful than powerfully aspiring. His college was Norfolk's Old Dominion University, known as a commuter school. His solo law practice is in a small gray house in a suburban office park on the outskirts of Richmond. His mother's house in Virginia Beach was collateral for his $100,000 bail on the murder charge.
Ames kept a low profile in Bowling Green. He was seen at the barbershop and the post office, but seldom elsewhere. He is not a member of the local bar association, and lawyers and others in the town's small professional class say they have had little contact with him. The same is true at the Virginia Angus Association, where several former board members and employees, as well as several breeders, say Ames was seldom seen at association meetings or social events. Part of that, one association official said, might have been a simple time crunch. Ames was conducting three professions simultaneously, leaving little time, perhaps, for socializing. But an additional factor in his seeming isolation may be found in the files of the clerk's office in Caroline County Circuit Court, where thousands of pages of filings document the ongoing saga of John F. Ames, Esq. v. the world.
In 2002, Ames sued the giant CSX Corp. for more than $6 million, accusing the railroad of breaching his property line and damaging his fields. The case is pending. In 1999, he sued a Midwestern cattle operation, Profit Maker Bulls. The case was settled out of court. In 1997, Ames sued the Frederick, Md., company that serviced his farm silo for $100,000, accusing it of breach of contract and other offenses. That suit is pending. In 2001, he sued a former client for $87,000 in unpaid fees and other damages.
Other times, Ames just made threats. In the mid-1990s, he threatened to sue the Virginia Angus Association over a disagreement about sales commissions, according to several association officials. In the early '90s, a state employee with business at the farm accidentally ran over one of the Ameses' dogs while leaving the property. Ames, who was not home at the time, responded by telephoning the man late at night several times over a period of a few weeks to berate him, the state employee said, stopping only when the man threatened to call the police with a complaint of harassment. Ames demanded $100,000 in damages. The man's personal insurance company paid a couple thousand dollars to settle the matter. (Ames did not return phone calls requesting comment on this incident or any lawsuits he has filed.)
Sometimes Ames was the one being sued. In 1990, one of his neighbors took him to court when he refused to stop using their property as a shortcut to some of his fields. He lost. He was sued by a leading cattle magazine, Angus Topics, for refusing to pay an advertising bill. He sued back, but the magazine prevailed.
In 1997, Ames was charged with reckless driving, obstruction of justice and assault after a state trooper, who stopped him for making an illegal turn while driving his tractor, alleged that Ames had driven the tractor straight at him. The charges were dismissed in a plea bargain after Ames agreed to do community service.
Most of the several dozen people interviewed for this story -- cattle breeders, former Ames employees, fellow lawyers, business associates, state and local officials -- declined to comment about Ames publicly, saying they feared being sued.
A few associates, however, defended him. "With John Ames, it's like this," said Tom Burke, a Midwest cattle auctioneer who is conducting a sale for Ames at Holly Hill Farm next month. "If you do what you say you are going to do, and you don't take any shortcuts and you don't make excuses, then everything will be fine. But if you do take those shortcuts, well, then you are going to be in for a long afternoon."
Farm life, perhaps, offered a respite from those pressures.
"You can't sue a cow," said Saphir, the extension agent, who knew both men. "They obey orders, and they don't challenge you.
"Now a bull, a bull is a different story," Saphir added. "A bull is untamable. If a bull wants to go somewhere, it'll go." That, he speculated, could be part of a deeper, psychological truth behind the shooting death of Perry Brooks. "Here [Ames] is, this hugely respected Angus breeder, and some guy's mangy old bull comes over and breeds with two or three of your heifers? . . . It's like your daughter got raped."
J. Benjamin Dick, Ames's co-counsel in the upcoming murder trial, said people underestimate the threat that Perry Brooks posed. Brooks was old, Dick said, but don't be fooled. He was strong, with forearms "like Popeye."
"I think Perry Brooks was at the farm that morning to do great harm -- there's no doubt in my mind," said Dick.
In the aftermath of the shooting, before lawyers and the county prosecutor had been allowed to examine the physical evidence in the case, Dick said that Brooks had gone to Holly Hill Farm on the morning of April 19 armed with an electric cattle prod. But after a preliminary hearing at which the rumored cattle prod turned out to be what Dick described later as a "half-broomstick," he seemed to backtrack.
"It's a tough case," he said. "No doubt about it, it's a tough case."
In Robert Frost's poem "Mending Wall," the narrator laments a farmer who wants to build a fence between the narrator's apple orchard and the farmer's stand of pine. A fence is hardly necessary, Frost's narrator thinks. After all:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
But in the poem, the laconic New
England farmer seems to know better: "He only says, 'Good fences make good Neighbors.'" But fences create conflict, too.
"Fences, it's always fences," said Cora Jordan, a lawyer and author of an authoritative guide to the area of jurisprudence known as neighbor law. Complaints about noise are the most common problem between neighbors, she said, but fence conflicts are the most likely to spiral into physical violence. "Judges can't stand these cases," Jordan said. "Lawyers don't want to take them, and law enforcement doesn't want any part of it."
"I get lots of phone calls about fences," agreed Leon Geyer, a law professor specializing in agricultural law and environmental economics at Virginia Tech. "It's a very hot subject." Since Brooks's death, Geyer has been in demand by farmers eager to educate themselves about the intricacies of Virginia's fence law.
Most states require that cattle owners fence in their livestock. Virginia is one of only three states, with Arkansas and Oregon, where responsibility for fencing changes by county, Geyer said. In some rural counties in the commonwealth, the burden is on farmers to fence the neighbor's cattle out. Elsewhere, as in Caroline, cattle farmers bear the responsibility to fence their herds in. In both settings, however, the fence law, until recently, dictated that the cost of fencing would be shared. In January, Virginia's General Assembly, chastened by the Brooks slaying, amended the fence law to exempt landowners without livestock from the burden of paying for a neighbor's cattle fence. The change would not have affected Brooks, a cattle owner.
(In most of Virginia's suburban counties, the "pay half" provision is superseded by local regulations, Geyer said. But in other parts of the country, according to Jordan, even suburban neighbors often are liable for the construction and maintenance costs of their shared fence lines.) Some state legislatures have tried to head off problems by writing laws that dictate fence wire gauges and post diameters. Virginia's law does not do this.
Every neighbor dispute is different, Jordan said, but often the two principals in a long-running feud are "two extremely stubborn people," neither of whom is willing to take a first step that professional mediators call "unilateral deescalation."
Translation? "Choosing to do nothing when it is your turn to do something extremely nasty," Jordan said.
It was embryo-flushing day at Holly Hill Farm, and John Ames had agreed to let me on the property for a visit. Ames had declined all media contact since the shooting, but in a brief conversation about cattle breeding outside the courtroom before his preliminary hearing, his lead attorney, Richmond defense lawyer Craig S. Cooley, by his side, Ames had volunteered that he thought the cattle business was on the eve of a revolutionary leap forward, a day when cattle breeders might produce enough cattle, at a low enough price, to end world hunger. If there was one thing that bothered him, Ames added, it was the thought of children starving in a world of abundance.
He also had an unusual, wired energy that day. John Ames is small-boned, of medium height -- 5 feet 10 inches, according to court records -- but he has the lean build of a marathon runner and appears younger than his 60 years. His skin that day was ruddy from outdoor work, and his salt-and-pepper hair was shorn close to the scalp. His bright blue eyes blazed with an expression both inquiring and imperious, and his voice had the mild twang of his native Tidewater.
With Cooley's blessing, Ames was willing to allow the visit, on one condition: There were to be no questions about the shooting, the feud or Perry Brooks.
Holly Hill Farm is a big piece of real estate. Its rolling hills run alongside Route 207, just outside the town limits of Bowling Green, for a good mile and a half, until the property ends at the low-lying highway bridge that spans the Mattaponi River. The farm's main entrance is flanked by two formal brick pillars, and the long driveway -- a half-mile or so -- is paved in rough-cut gray gravel. The drive cuts through a sweeping bowl of open pasture. In the fields, large, ink-black rectangles of cattle stand motionless except for an occasional shake of a massive, ear-tagged head. Up at the house, the only sign of life is one red horse in a paddock and the sound of barking dogs coming from behind the house's tall front windows and thick white columns.
On the first of two visits, Ames appeared in a long-sleeved dress shirt and suit trousers, having come straight from his office in Richmond. He led a tour of the barn area, and talked about his love of farming. "Once it gets in your blood, it never leaves you. And you have to do it for love," he added, chuckling, "because there's no money in it." He opened a gate and called to four of his prize-winning cows. "Come on, girls," he said, and stopped to scratch one on the back.
Ames's specialty is bankruptcy law, which tends to attract people who enjoy crunching numbers. During my visits, he displayed a keen command of the statistical side of his cattle operation, explaining the intricate spreadsheets by which serious breeders track data such as intra-muscular fat ratios and weight gain. He rattled off his top cows' eight-digit identification numbers with the ease of a man reciting his phone number, and in a small workroom, he unscrewed liquid nitrogen tanks where bull semen was stored in plastic straws as narrow as swizzle sticks, each painted with tiny numbers.
On the table there was a DNA sample kit that would take tissue scrapings from the ears of two of Ames's best females and be mailed to a lab in Iowa for storage until the price of cloning comes down. Artificial insemination is commonplace in the cattle business. DNA sampling for future cloning, however, is not, and the kit identifies Ames as a serious player in the breeding game, as does the practice of treating genetically desirable cows with fertility drugs so they produce multiple, rather than single, embryos.
On the morning of my second visit, dozens of such embryos were to be "flushed" from four cows with the help of saline solution, plastic tubes and a fertility specialist vet who was driving down from Pennsylvania. The embryos were to be stored briefly, until they could be implanted into recipient cows that would gestate them to birth. As he waited for the vet, Ames, his hair unbrushed, looked cheerful and relaxed. He was dressed in worn bluejeans, scuffed boots and an old red sweater. Once the vet arrived, the two men, with the help of a farmhand, began herding the cows, one by one, into a metal squeeze chute. For the next several hours, as the vet worked, Ames kept up a stream of cheerful conversation about his visits with some of the cattle industry's top scientists and his contacts with senior executives at the country's largest meatpacking plants.
At one point, with the vet's right arm buried up to the shoulder in a cow's reproductive canal, and Ames's own arms draped with plastic tubes attached to sacs of saline solution, Ames explained the packing industry's plans for "vertical integration," for expanding its business from the slaughter and packing to include cattle breeding. "We want to take 'em from squeal to meal!'" Ames said approvingly, quoting an executive from Smithfield Foods.
Throughout the morning, he told stories about successful cattle shows, mentioning a man who, when I telephoned him later, painted a bleaker picture. "John had a couple of [cattle] sales in the past where nobody showed up," said John Hausner, a herd manager who has worked for Ames in the past. "Obviously, he's made somebody mad. I felt sorry for the man."
As Ames and the vet worked, I looked across a green field and saw a large silo, a small ranch house and some paddock fence. Is that where Brooks and Ames faced off? Or was it there, on the gravel drive outside this barn? Standing there, trying to get my bearings, I felt the full force of what had happened. It was everywhere and nowhere -- the idea that right there on that ground, where a white cat perched on a stall post, where the cows shifted and clanked in their chutes with hypodermic needles planted in their backs, as the vet remarked on the unexpected difficulty of the morning's work, Perry Brooks was shot dead at close range by his neighbor.
Paul Orlett believes his friend was aiming to avoid confrontation on the morning he died. "[Ames] told Perry's people to come over there before 9 a.m., with $500 to bail out the bull, but Perry said: 'Hell no, we'll wait 'til 10. He'll be gone to Richmond by then.'"
This echoed an earlier episode, when Brooks, learning that his bull was over at Holly Hill Farm, called the farm manager in the middle of the night and suggested the two of them free the bull. "No need to tell the boss," Brooks advised. When the manager refused the offer, Brooks hung up.
Brooks did not appear to regard this new expedition as risky, Orlett recalled. "Perry said he was going to go get the bull and then come back and work in his greenhouse."
But the farmhand, Michael Beasley, had misgivings. "I didn't want to go," Beasley testified later. "But I didn't try to talk him out of it, because it wasn't any use."
Ames's wife may have been more vocal. The weekend before the shooting, when Matthew Coleman phoned Holly Hill Farm to arrange the bull's pickup, Jeanne Ames said, "Don't let [Brooks] come up here with you," according to Ames attorney Benjamin Dick.
Brooks waited for Orlett under the old farm bell that once belonged to his father. At Holly Hill Farm, meanwhile, Jeanne Ames left for Richmond, but John Ames waited. He went to retrieve his mail, Dick said. And he waited some more. Dick said Ames, seeing an unfamiliar vehicle, went down to the barn area to investigate, and that Brooks, when told to put the bull back, "shook his stick" at Ames.
Frances Hurt was sitting in her small ranch house a few fields over at the time. It was spring; the forsythia bushes were blooming, and the air was so sweet that she'd flung open all the windows and doors. She was puzzled when she heard the shots. Hunting season had been over for months. She counted six shots in all, in a distinct pattern: one shot -- pop -- followed by a pause, and then five more, in quick succession -- pop-pop-pop-pop-pop.
"I thought: What in the world? Who is shooting a gun at 10:15 in the morning?"
Beasley testified later that Ames's first shot had knocked Brooks to the ground. Ames fired five more times.
Orlett was sitting at the wheel of Brooks's truck, his grandson beside him. At the shots, he looked in the rearview mirror and saw Brooks curled in a fetal position on the gravel. "I could tell by the way Perry was laying that he was dead," Orlett said later. "Two tours in the infantry in Vietnam, I've seen a lot of dead people."
When Orlett looked back again, he saw Ames with his gun up beside his ear. "It looked like he was reloading," Orlett testified. Then he saw Ames using a cell phone.
Beasley was walking slowly back toward the truck, his head in his hands, "moaning and groaning something awful," Orlett said. Beasley climbed in and asked, "What are we going to do?" Orlett said.
"We're going to get the hell out of here," Orlett replied.
Beasley later told police that Ames had shot Brooks once in the face, and then, after Brooks was on the ground, stood, firing down "four or five" more times into Brooks's right side.
Within minutes, the Rev. Kevin James, minister at Brooks's church and a volunteer firefighter, got a call from the firehouse about the shooting. He heard the address -- Holly Hill Farm, Route 207 -- and felt only dread. "I just knew. I said, 'One of those two guys is dead.'"
Kim Brooks, who lives in Oakland, Calif., would get a call from her sister, Jacqueline. Kim had stayed home from work that day, feeling ill and unsettled. "My sister told me John Ames had shot my father and he hadn't made it back," she said.
At Brooks's wake, the crowd of mourners was larger than expected, and the service, scheduled to end at 9 p.m., stretched on until well after 10.
Ames was charged with first-degree murder, which carries a maximum life sentence, and a second felony count of using a firearm in commission of a felony. He hired Cooley, whose recent accomplishments include delivering Lee Boyd Malvo, the younger defendant in the Washington sniper case, from the death penalty.
Ames's lawyers have called the shooting a case of simple self-defense. Ames, said co-counsel Dick, was in mortal fear for his life. After all, Brooks was trespassing in violation of a court order and had once fired a shotgun in Ames's direction.
The trial date is set for September 12, in Bowling Green. But Cooley has asked the court for a change of venue, saying he believes it will be hard to find an impartial jury in Caroline County, where most people "have taken sides on this one." The court has put off a decision until after jury selection begins.
Dick said his client has not had an easy time of it since the shooting. "John is not going around gloating. He has nightmares and sleepless nights," Dick said, adding that Ames fired reflexively at Brooks when he saw the farmer raise his stick. "All John saw was the anger in [Brooks's] eyes. John was in the Army for four years, you know, and the Army trains you to shoot if you're being attacked."
Evelyn Brooks has been selling off her husband's farm equipment and remaining livestock, in part to help stave off legal action from one of the lawyers who represented Brooks in the fence lawsuits. Ames has a cattle sale scheduled for next month, and he recently told one associate that he is shopping for a calf for his young granddaughter, to get her started in the cattle business.
Matthew and Wick Coleman retrieved the bull a few days after the shooting. A rumor flew around Bowling Green that the bull had been found with a broken penis, that someone at Holly Hill Farm had swung a hammer at it. With its elements of cruelty and violence, the grisly report seemed to resonate in a community stunned that a disagreement over a fence had ended in death. But Wick Coleman said there was no evidence of any such assault. Rather, the bull's penis sheath, which runs under more than half of its belly, was badly bruised, consistent, perhaps, with a leap over a partially downed fence. In any case, the bull was taken directly from Holly Hill Farm to the slaughterhouse in Fredericksburg, where it was sold for meat.
Mary Battiata is a staff writer for the Magazine. She will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.