Bill Gross harassed neighbor with ‘Gilligan’s Island’ song, judge rules
Bill Gross and his partner claimed it was only their love of “Gilligan’s Island” that prompted them to play the show’s theme song on repeat, but an Orange County judge had another take Wednesday, ruling that blaring the song on repeat constituted a form of harassment.
Bringing to an end a high-profile trial that stemmed from complaints over an ornate lawn sculpture, Superior Court Judge Kimberly Knill ordered the billionaire bond investor and his partner, Amy Schwartz, to not violate the noise provisions of the Laguna Beach municipal code or play music on their outdoor speakers when they are not in the yard or pool area of their seaside estate.
“People have an expectation, rightfully so, that their home is their oasis and safe place,” said Knill, who cited multiple instances of music being played so loudly it could be heard inside neighbor Mark Towfiq’s home despite concrete construction and half-inch-thick, dual-pane windows.
She also ruled that Gross, the retired co-founder of Pimco, had failed to prove that Towfiq had invaded his privacy — denying Gross’ competing request for a civil harassment order.
Even in Southern California, where feuds between rich and famous neighbors are something of a staple, the fight that broke out between the wealthy tech entrepreneur and the even wealthier bond investor attracted attention. It featured the kind of legal firepower more typical of high-stakes litigation than a dispute between neighbors, with each party employing a battery of attorneys, including quick-on-their-feet trial litigators who questioned 11 witnesses.
The decision followed a trial for dueling civil harassment orders that started Nov. 9 and concluded last week after nine days of testimony and closing arguments, including a break when Gross, 76, and Schwartz, 51, were potentially exposed to the coronavirus.
One side claimed harassment by loud music after complaining about netting put up to protect the sculpture; the other side alleged invasion of privacy by a neighbor they accused of being a peeping Tom.
Chase Scolnick, the trial attorney for Towfiq and his wife, said that he was pleased with the decision. “No amount of money or PR spin can hide the truth here. Our clients have been living a nightmare,” he said.
Jill Basinger, the trial attorney for Gross and Schwartz, said she was disappointed by the judge’s decision, but maintained it was “not some sort of censure of either Bill Gross or Amy Schwartz,” who have worked with the Laguna Beach planning department to secure permits for the sculpture.
“This order merely directs them to continue doing what they already do: follow the law,” she said in her emailed statement.
Gross also issued a statement that, although “disappointed in the outcome,” he would abide by the terms of the decision, though he complained the “case never should have gotten to this point” — saying he had made offers to settle. He said he would “continue to dance the night away, ‘Gilligan’s Island’ forever.”
The blue blown-glass lawn sculpture by artist Dale Chihuly, whose work adorns the Bellagio Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, was installed by Gross and Schwartz last year near the property line they share with Towfiq and his wife on a stretch of South Coast Highway.
Towfiq testified that although the 22-foot-long installation featuring swimming marlin, fishing globes and cobalt-colored reeds “wasn’t necessarily our style,” he and his wife, Carol Nakahara, weren’t bothered by it. However, he said they were far less pleased when their neighbors in April erected a 12-foot-high netting structure to protect the sculpture during tree trimming and stormy weather — yet it rarely came down. Nakahara, on the stand, called it “legitimately like a big soccer net.”
Towfiq said he tried multiple times to resolve the issue, texting Schwartz, contacting the couple’s property manager and even sending a letter. He said he ultimately felt “helpless” and decided to complain to the city, which issued Gross a July 28 notice of violation stating the sculpture and netting structure lacked permits. The next weekend, Towfiq testified, the noise harassment began. “I immediately connected the two,” he said.
A dispute between bond king Bill Gross and a neighbor over an outdoor sculpture has devolved into police calls to their Laguna Beach mansions.
A portion of the trial was spent on the noise complaints, including the allegation that Gross and Schwartz played the theme song to “Gilligan’s Island” on a loop at all hours. Towfiq testified it was “almost like PTSD.”
In support of the accusations, Towfiq’s attorney called to the stand Laguna Beach police officers, who testified that they heard loud music coming from the property while responding to noise complaints. One of the officers and a city code enforcement official also testified that Gross and Schwartz said they would lower the music if Towfiq dropped his complaint about the sculpture.
Towfiq’s lawyers highlighted a text from Gross responding to their client’s request to turn down the music: “Peace on all fronts or well just have nightly concerts big boy.” Gross testified that the text referred to Towfiq’s picture-taking, behavior that the bond investor described as “peeping.” Knill ruled the explanation was not “plausible.”
Gross’ legal team tried to poke holes in the noise harassment claims, calling in an audio expert to cast doubt about the accuracy of Towfiq’s iPhone recordings since volume controls can be manipulated. “Yes. It is true. Mr. Gross and Ms. Schwartz play music. They play music at night. They like music,” Basinger argued.
She said that the only recording evidence presented at trial of the “Gilligan’s Island” theme song and loud music being played past 9 p.m. occurred the weekend after the city notice was received. She argued that was only because the couple had recently learned the TV show was special to them. Schwartz testified the couple discovered that the opening credits to “Gilligan’s Island” featured a scene shot in Newport Beach that was identical to a view from another home they have there.
In her ruling, however, Knill cited repeated instances of loud music being played that she found to be harassing, even when it was played during the day. She discounted the expert’s testimony about the accuracy of the iPhone, noting the recordings captured music that could be heard on the Towfiq property.
In attempting to prove Towfiq had an obsession with Gross and Schwartz, Basinger cited questions Towfiq had asked the neighbor selling the home and a real estate agent about the couple before they moved in. But when she queried Towfiq about those inquiries, she got an answer repeated in news reports as distant as Britain. Towfiq testified that he was warned by the neighbor that “I wouldn’t want an angry billionaire with a short fuse living next to me.” Towfiq said he had been aware of media coverage of the billionaire’s nasty divorce and an unpleasant departure from Pimco.
Before Gross took the stand, he published an open letter calling for an end to the trial and all other legal proceedings between the two sides, saying they should both donate their expected fees to area COVID-19 relief organizations. “In the midst of this terrible global tragedy, a portion of the media is transfixed by … a man who plays the theme song to a 1960s sitcom, and another who records him doing so,” the letter stated.
Towfiq’s lead attorney, Jennifer Keller, rejected it, contending that Gross was “losing the trial badly” and wanted to “stem the tide of negative press.” She added that if Gross really wanted to end it, he should pay for Towfiq’s legal fees and apologize for the “awful lies” spread about him. But when the trial resumed, the opposing side doubled down, with Gross testifying he and Schwartz had nicknamed their neighbor “Peeping Mark.”
Schwartz, a former professional tennis player, testified that she witnessed Towfiq invading her privacy numerous times by recording her when she was swimming. “I’m scared. I feel violated. I feel afraid. I’m in a bikini or less,” she said.
There was no photographic evidence submitted to support her assertion, and Knill found that the recordings were made to document the noise violations. However, her ruling did not technically apply to Schwartz’s allegations, since she never filed her own request for a civil harassment order.
Still, the judge said she found Schwartz’s demeanor on the witness stand regarding the noise dispute to be “evasive and defensive” and gave “little if any weight to her testimony.”
She did, however, admonish Towfiq for an incident that occurred Aug. 15, when he recorded Gross near their property line while his neighbor was dressed in minimal clothing. She said the video may have constituted an invasion of privacy but wasn’t sufficient to support a civil harassment order.
After Knill’s decision, Towfiq’s legal team sought to have the judge order Gross to pay their client’s attorney’s fees, but the judge asked for a separate motion on that request.
Though his attempt to settle the case fell through, Gross announced Dec. 10 that he had donated $500,000 to Orange County relief organizations. A spokesman said the figure amounted to what the billionaire had spent on the dispute, including separate lawsuits the two sides have filed that have yet to be heard.
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