Joseph Donick Jr.'s boat ramp sits at the end of a narrow gravel path overgrown with grass and littered with cigarette butts. Land records in St. Mary's County indicate that the path is 24 feet wide, but where it reaches the tranquil waters of Tanner Creek, which flows into the Chesapeake Bay, it is no more than half that width.
Either way, it is not much to die over.
But Donick, a part-time Methodist minister and former county employee, is dead, his widow is stricken, and no one in the tiny Southern Maryland community of Scotland Beach can believe the lingering dispute over who could use the boat ramp would end like this.
Donick fell during a confrontation with a neighbor over the ramp and died soon after at a hospital. Police are looking into the circumstances of his death but note that he had a heart ailment. No one has been charged.
"It's all so unnecessary," said Janet Donick. "This is just unreal. Who cares about 20 feet of land? My husband's gone because of it."
Exactly when the dispute began remains unclear, but at some point in the late 1990s, Donick's neighbors began to complain that he was parking his Chevrolet pickup truck in front of the water access they considered a public right of way. The ramp, built in 1942, sits between the house that Donick, 57, and his wife were renting and the site of their former house -- damaged by Hurricane Isabel -- that is now being rebuilt into a large four-story waterfront home.
Eight neighbors took the Donicks to court over the issue in 2003. At the time, court documents show, the Donicks maintained that they had been deeded the ramp and were upset that a neighbor's "high school son and his friends used our yard for jet skiing parties, parking in private yards and driveways, drinking beer and smoking, playing loud music, throwing trash around and carrying on late at night."
St. Mary's Circuit Court sided with the neighbors last year and ordered the ramp open to the public. "The lawsuit said we were not to obstruct the right of way," said Janet Donick. "That's what the law said, so we did not."
But on a gray, drizzling Saturday afternoon three weeks ago, neighbor Robert Hendrix, 68, and his wife drove the short distance to Donick's rental home to take digital photos of wood pilings that were partially blocking the ramp.
Janet Donick said the 20-foot-long pilings to rebuild their pier were not far enough across the lane to prevent a boat from being launched and were to be moved as soon as the builder came back.
She was inside when the Hendrixes and a small group of other neighbors arrived carrying umbrellas against the wind and rain. Joseph Donick rushed onto his porch and started arguing with the neighbors.
As the discussion grew heated, Hendrix climbed the four concrete porch steps. Janet Donick, still inside, said she saw her husband and Hendrix grappling with each other, pushed up against the house door.
Lt. Daniel Alioto, of the county police department's bureau of criminal investigations, said: "He and Mr. Donick get into a heated argument that leads to this gentleman approaching and physically assaulting Mr. Donick. I know there was physical contact, including Mr. Donick being shoved and falling backwards down several steps."
Hendrix declined to comment.
After the fall, Janet Donick raced outside in bare feet.
"I'm bleeding," Joseph Donick told his wife, showing the hand that had been cut in the fall. "Call the police."
Janet Donick went inside to get bandages. Hendrix and his wife drove home. A few minutes later, Donick's friend Dickie Barnes drove up.
"I knew it wasn't good when I got there," Barnes said. Donick was sprawled in the wet grass. "His eyes was all rolled back in his head."
Janet Donick knelt by her husband's side. "I had to be with him. I had to be holding him. I had to be there," she said. "But we never got a response out of him."
She rode in the ambulance to St. Mary's Hospital in Leonardtown, where her husband was pronounced dead.
Alioto said that it was unlikely that Donick died specifically from the fall. Three months after the Donicks married in July 1993, Joseph Donick had open-heart surgery. Every two or three months since then, his wife said, Donick saw his cardiologist. Alioto said heart problems probably caused his death. An autopsy report is not available yet, and no charges have been filed.
"I think everyone involved regrets what happened," Alioto said.
St. Mary's County State's Attorney Richard D. Fritz (R) said his office is reviewing the case and plans to bring it before a grand jury next month. He said he believes the facts justify a charge. Although Donick probably would not have died if he had been fit and healthy, Fritz said, the confrontation probably aggravated his health problems and led to his death.
"Unfortunately he paid the ultimate price for that which bothered him most in life," Fritz said, alluding to Donick's feelings about the boat ramp dispute.
Neighbors describe Hendrix as someone who cares about his community, hosts potlucks and crab feasts and offered his home for hot meals and showers to those who were left in the dark after Hurricane Isabel.
"All of us have been upset and torn apart by this. I feel extremely sorry for Joe's wife, Janet, but I also feel awful" for Hendrix, said Marty Redmond, 72, who considers himself a friend to both families. "I could never, never say this is his fault."
Donick was raised in Warren, Pa., studied theater in college, worked as a recreation therapist for the mentally ill and eventually moved to Southern Maryland to help plan St. Mary's County's 350th anniversary celebration.
He retired from his position as the county's substance-abuse prevention coordinator in 2003 and took classes to become ordained while preaching at two churches. Donick fell in love with Scotland Beach, his wife said, where the geese and mallards swam past his porch.
He had once built custom homes and was designing their new house to accommodate his wife's multiple sclerosis. The plans include an elevator and doors wide enough in case she someday needs a wheelchair.
"I don't know how long I'll be able to live in it without him," Janet Donick said. "But I will finish it for him, and I'll be there for him, thinking somehow he'll be with me."
A struggle occurred Oct. 8 atop these steps at the home of Joseph Donick. Later, Donick was declared dead at St. Mary's Hospital.