A group of feisty Woodbridge residents who decided they weren't going to put up with a troublesome neighbor have used a little-known tool to win a series of court judgments.
Seven residents have been awarded $7,500 each plus $75 in court costs against Juanita Herrera, who lived in a house on Mokelumne Street until she moved out in early December.
The residents claimed in small-claims court documents filed in Lodi that Herrera and members of her family have been a nuisance, had loud parties, littered and threatened some of the neighbors.
"They take the joy away from owning your own home," Woodbridge resident Karen Soliz said.
Contacted at her Mokelumne Street residence in early December, Herrera said she didn't want to discuss for publication the issues raised by her neighbors. However, she accused her neighbors of lying about her and her family. Herrera says she is moving from her Mokelumne Street residence because of the stress that Soliz and other neighbors inflicted on her.
In a letter to Soliz dated Jan. 26, 2009 that is included in the court file, Herrera apologized for problems that took place at her house. However, she said that her children were blamed for actions they did not commit.
Soliz said that Herrera was invited to participate in mediation talks with Soliz and her neighbors, but Herrera didn't follow through.
Herrera didn't attend any of the three hearings in small-claims court, so she forfeited six of the cases filed against her at this time.
The cases are part of a little-known program called "Safe Streets Now," which began in 1989 in Oakland thanks to a woman named Molly Wetzel. It is a process that empowers community members to address public nuisance problems through civil action.
Many communities are traumatized by public nuisances such as drug trafficking, gang activity, crime and violence stemming from a specific property, according to the Institute for Public Strategies in Chula Vista, a national leader in utilizing the Safe Streets Now program.
"When a problem property is ignored, neighborhood residents often witness and endure encroaching blight, declining property values and a lost sense of security," according to the institute's website.
In Woodbridge, Soliz and neighbors Valente Lopez, Adilma Lopez, Georgina Scarbrough, Jamie Scarbrough, Alejaudrina Soto and Marlen Lopez were each awarded $7,500 plus $75 in court costs. Other cases are pending.
Soliz said it was stressful on her to go through the Molly Wetzel process because attorneys are not involved in small-claims court cases. She had to meticulously document in writing every call she made to the Sheriff's office about activity from the Herrera house, invite her to mediation, file a lawsuit in small-claims court and personally serve her with a complaint ordering her to appear in court.
"It's hard for me to confront people," Soliz said. "I have to step outside of myself, but I'm glad I did it. If you can make a difference, it's your obligation to do it."
Soliz said that she is satisfied they used the Molly Wetzel program. For example, shortly before she went to small-claims court for a September hearing, Soliz said she had a dead kitten thrown in her yard. She said she also found pornographic materials and soiled women's underwear in her yard.
Contacted in her driveway in early December, Herrera said she didn't want to talk about the situation and didn't want anything about the alleged incidents reported in the newspaper.
The Herrera family moved into her house on Mokelumne Street in 2001 through what was then known as the Lodi chapter of Habitat for Humanity.
Homes through Habitat for Humanity are targeted for families in a substandard housing situation who cannot afford to buy property. Families must have enough income to make no-interest mortgage payments back to Habitat for Humanity. Families must invest at least 500 hours of sweat equity on their property.
Soliz heard about the Molly Wetzel Safe Streets Now program through Bill Hughes, abatement coordinator for the San Joaquin County Sheriff's Office, who addresses nuisance issues in unincorporated county areas.
"I gave them the tools to address the problem," Hughes said. "All the information I gave them is public information. It's a very good tool for law enforcement and the community."
Soliz used those tools by spreading the word to her Woodbridge neighbors.
"When we got together, everybody had so many stories," said Marlen Lopez, who moved to another Woodbridge neighborhood with her 3-year-old son about a year ago to get away from the Herrera house.
Lopez's case is a bit different from her former neighbors because it involves domestic squabbles with the Herreras.
"The family harassed me everywhere," Lopez said. "I couldn't play in the park with my son without being harassed. They're just basically bullies."
Lopez said she had to go to small-claims court three times because her papers weren't served to Herrera properly. She finally prevailed in her case on Nov. 22.
Hughes said he learned about the Safe Streets Now process when he attended community policing school, a program of the California Highway Patrol, where he previously worked.
Woodbridge isn't the first community in San Joaquin County to use the Molly Wetzel program, Hughes said. It was used more than 10 years ago at the old Stardust Motel in Stockton, a few other locations in San Joaquin County and a dirt bike operation in Tracy.
There are 29 cities in six states that empower residents and property owners to reclaim their neighborhoods from drug dealing, gang activity and other nuisance conditions, according to the city of Long Beach's website.
Long Beach is part of the Safe Streets Now program and even conducts training sessions for its residents.
Contact reporter Ross Farrow at firstname.lastname@example.org.