Torn-out memorial bench for suicide victim opens up old wounds, new rift in Strawberry

Former Tiburon resident John Brooks kneels beside the cement footings for two benches atop Strawberry Vista, overlooking Mount Tamalpais and Richardson Bay, in late November. Installed days later by the Strawberry Recreation District, one bench will be dedicated to John and Erika Brooks’ teenage daughter, Casey, who jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge in 2008. They replace the memorial bench torn down by a neighbor who says it drew rowdy teens, lewd behavior and significant litter, including broken bottles and condoms. (Elliot Karlan / For The Ark)

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the Jan. 1, 2016, edition of The Ark. It earned first place for Best Non-Profile Feature Story and second place for Best Writing in the California Newspaper Publishers Association’s 2016 Better Newspapers Contest.


By DEIRDRE McCROHAN
dmccrohan@thearknewspaper

On a small slice of land atop Strawberry Vista, at the bend of a hiking trail above Inez Place, park benches allow passersby to sit and take in the serenity and expansive views of the Richardson and San Francisco bays. The site was a favorite hangout of Tiburon teen Casey Brooks and her friends until she died in January 2008 after jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge. Today, the site is the source of a bitter dispute between her parents, John and Erika Brooks, and the vista’s neighboring property owner.

Shortly after Casey’s death, friends offered to raise money for a memorial bench to be built and installed at the lookout, shepherding it through the Strawberry Recreation District’s approval process, because the trail is on district land. In summer 2008, the bench — created by a childhood friend of Casey’s as an Eagle Scout project — was installed and dedicated to the late 17-year-old, replacing one of several older benches at the site that have been there for decades.

But last summer, that neighboring property owner, Kelly Neil of Inez Place, delivered what remained of the memorial bench — the plaque dedicated to Casey — to the Strawberry Recreation District office.

He admits he yanked the bench out of its concrete footings and took it apart.

Neil argues that the bench was on his 12-acre property, which abuts the district-owned open space near the Strawberry Vista water tank above his street. He said he didn’t do anything when the bench was first placed there, but then it became an “attractive nuisance,” drawing teens, transients and adults up to no good to the site.

“For me, the problem is the kids going there smoking and drinking and making noise,” Neil says. “I’ve probably called the sheriff two dozen times myself. I moved here in 2003. It got noticeable in 2007. It’s a pretty constant thing now.”

Neighbor Kelly Neil saysthe old bench, pictured, it drew rowdy teens, lewd behavior and significant litter, including broken bottles and condoms. (Kelly Neil photo)

Neil says he has walked up on couples having sex on the bench, has found used condoms around the area and cigarette butts, broken beer bottles and other trash. He says his dog stepped on a glass shard and that his vet bill was $1,000. He’s fed up, he says, adding that he’s had three friends who died by suicide and that he understands the sadness — but he doesn’t necessarily want the constant reminder of those tragedies.

A land survey taken by the recreation district after the bench was removed shows that it was indeed placed 4 feet into Neil’s property. However, district officials assert that Neil didn’t know that for sure until after the survey was completed, and that “the manner in which Mr. Neil is addressing this issue is inappropriate on many levels.”

Shortly after Thanksgiving, two new benches were installed on district property, although the new memorial bench has not been rededicated. The district sent Neil a bill for more than $6,000 to cover the costs, a bill that he is contesting with the assistance of legal counsel.

The controversy has kicked up a hornet’s nest of high feeling on both sides — Neil and his neighbors, the Brookses and their friends — much of it played out during public comment at recreation district board meetings and in messages posted to the online community network Nextdoor Strawberry.

“What kind of person tears apart a memorial bench for a dead teenager?” John Brooks said in an interview. “Mr. Neil dropped a dirty bomb into the whole conversation. He completely poisoned the atmosphere. For my wife and I, he opened a wound that had started to heal.”

Brooks, now a Fairfax resident after previously living in Tiburon’s Bel Aire neighborhood, recently completed his memoir, “The Girl Behind the Door: A Father’s Quest to Understand His Daughter’s Suicide,” and he maintains a website devoted to Casey, as well as the Facebook landmark page for her memorial bench.

“Ripping out the bench will not stop the public from coming up to the park,” Brooks says, noting that there are two issues: property rights and “hooliganism.” Although the property rights issue has been settled, he says, now that the old bench is gone and the new ones are on district property, a dispute remains about whether the benches belong at all.

“I totally agree that Strawberry Vista … should be a sanctuary, should be clean and should not be a magnet for hooligans,” he says. “I’m very sympathetic to the possibility there is trouble up there. But I’ve been up there numerous times and the rec district sends its crew up there regularly, and we compare notes. We’re just not seeing the activity (Neil) notes.”

Strawberry Recreation District Executive Director Leanne Kreuzer declined to comment for the record, saying the matter was in litigation, and referred to a statement from the district’s board of directors posted on Nextdoor.

In that statement, the board alleges that Neil also removed a bench from the district property a few years ago and that it asked him to “refrain from damaging or removing public property in the future.”

The district asserts that the Marin County Sheriff’s Office has no complaints on record about the benches from anyone other then Neil, although its statement on Nextdoor acknowledged that district maintenance staff find evidence of “misuse” about two to four times a year.

In its defense, the district board also asserted that, before it allowed the placement of the memorial bench in 2008, the Brooks family contacted and received the support of all of the adjacent homeowners, and that it held public meetings but no one stepped forward to oppose it.

But at least one other resident disputes these claims.

In a letter he posted to Nextdoor, Neil’s Inez Place neighbor Joe Sherer — a member of the Strawberry Design Review Board — said he understands Neil’s frustration, claiming that he’s also spoken to and met with sheriff’s deputies dozens of times to complain about the misuse of the hill.

The Sheriff’s Office did not return calls for verification by The Ark’s press deadline, but several other Inez Place neighbors said they, too, have called authorities about unsavory activities on the hill.

Sherer also said that he’s not aware of any neighbors in support of the bench.

“I own the property over which nearly everyone crosses to reach the bench, and I was never approached by anyone asking if they could install a bench on the hill,” he wrote. “So the bench proponent back in 2008, at minimum, did not ask the property owner or the easement owner if they could install a bench.”

He said he thinks Neil should be the one doing the billing.

“It seems like the (recreation district) is retaliating against the Neil family for removing the bench,” Sherer said. “I am sorry if their feelings are hurt, but since all of the adjacent neighbors don’t want the bench, it hardly seems like acting with ‘professional decorum’ to spend community funds on lawyers, closed-door sessions, surveys and adding unnecessary liability.”

At the district’s Dec. 15 meeting, people sympathetic to both the Neil and Brooks positions showed up to speak during the public comment period but, because the matter was not on the agenda, the district board was not legally allowed to engage in discussion about it.

In addition to Sherer’s support online, two Inez Place neighbors backed Neil at the meeting.

“The difference is stark,” said John Haddick. “There was an instant drop off of the parties at Water Tank Hill when the benches were removed. Cars stopped coming up the hill at night. It has been such a relief to have the benches gone. How often should we call the sheriff because of disorderly teenagers?”

Ido Leffler said he’s lived on the street for seven years.

“We frequent the hill every morning with our three children,” he said. “When the benches were there, there were condoms and glass everywhere. We bought a panic button and called the sheriff numerous times. When the benches were gone, we have a totally different point of view.

“Those benches are a party zone,” he said.

However, several more neighbors turned out in support of the Brooks family, though none from Inez Place.

“We are appalled that the rule of law has been upended,” said Bill Petrocelli of Ricardo Road. “If memorial benches have been destroyed, this matter belongs in the court.”

“As a friend of John and Erika Brooks, I have been horrified by (Kelly) Neil’s lack of compassion, sensitivity and understanding — and I feel he owes them, and Casey’s precious memory, a public apology,” said Sandra Macleod White. “I’m sure Mr. Neil would be outraged if someone destroyed his family’s gravesite. This was Casey’s gravesite.”

“My son Roger, a Redwood High graduate, is the young man who built the bench as an Eagle Scout in 2008,” said Roger Krakow Sr. of Corte Madera. “I would like to see his effort respected.”

Erika Brooks, Casey’s mother, looked at Neil across the room and addressed him directly.

“What did you have in mind to give us in exchange after destroying our daughter’s memorial bench?” she said. “Your heartless action has given me countless sleepless nights.”

For now, the benches will stay in place, and the Brookses are planning a memorial dedication service.

The recreation district said it has requested that the sheriff’s department make extra patrols, particularly at night. It has also posted new signs closing the park sunset to sunrise in hopes of solving any problems on the hill.

The issue will be brought back for public discussion in late spring or early summer.

Michelle Aschwald contributed to this report. Deirdre McCrohan has reported on Tiburon local government and community issues for more than 25 years. Reach her at 415–944–4634.

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