Troubles in Eden
Smith was disappointed. She believed she had successfully communicated to Jones the unique needs of a wildcrafted farm. She had trimmed the overhanging trees, the only violation she believed could potentially affect anyone else. But someone in her neighborhood had been complaining.
“We wanted to have a mutually beneficial relationship,” she lamented. “We’re not lazy. We’re not neglectful. We’re super-dedicated.”
The Garden residents wrote letters to the city, justifying the need for tall grasses and bags of leaves. They asked for a listing of specific laws forbidding the grass and trash bags piled next to the house. Code compliance never responded.
The violation notices kept arriving. Its code permits the city to levy a fine of up to $200 per violation per day.
Bill Birk, who lives two houses down, was OK with the Garden’s rearranged lawn. “They don’t cause any problems,” he said. “They stay to themselves.”
Jones, Lucas, and perhaps another neighbor disagreed. In February 2013 Arlington Code Compliance held a neighborhood meeting about “problem properties” but did not inform anyone at the Garden of Eden. Smith, Eaker, and Alrutz would have been happy to have their neighbors, even those in the new subdivision, over for dinner and to hear about sustainable gardening practices.
The demands arriving in the mail grew more hostile. City officials threatened to show up at the garden and “abate” the violations in three days if all problems were not corrected.
Smith responded by requesting a hearing on the nuisance allegations, and code officials set it for two days after getting her letter. Smith did not attend. She felt that 36 hours’ notice wasn’t enough to prepare her responses. She called Lucas and explained she did not agree with the timing or format. The hearing proceeded without her.
Feeling railroaded, Smith and Eaker sent letters to Arlington Mayor Robert Cluck and Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson. They pleaded for help. No one answered. The violations total crossed the $10,000 mark. Even if they had agreed to being at fault and been willing to pay, they couldn’t afford the fines.
In addition, Smith, as the property owner, was charged with several misdemeanors. She requested another hearing but found the process to be impersonal and fruitless. A city employee who would not give his name and knew nothing of the dispute “rubber-stamped” the documents she brought and wouldn’t discuss the disagreement, she says. She felt that the city cared only about collecting her money.
On one side, the city of Arlington has rules about grass length, siding on houses, and requiring that citizens have hot water in their homes.
On the other side, the Garden of Eden residents have established a more ecologically minded life, in which living in symbiosis with the earth is more important than having uniformly mowed grass. And they didn’t anticipate how serious the city was about enforcing its rules.
An apparent clash of paradigms was coming to a head.
Arlington’s ordinance defines a nuisance as “a condition which substantially interferes with the use and enjoyment of land by causing unreasonable discomfort or annoyance to persons of ordinary sensibilities.”
By the beginning of 2013, the Garden of Eden was turning into a bit of a hippie commune. Chickens moved into a coop, and visitors set up tents in the yard for extended stays. A partially buried SUV was outfitted to serve as an informal motel room for future travelers.
The free-spirited, polyamorous gardeners apparently had stepped over the line, in the eyes of someone with “ordinary sensibilities.”
Jones wrote up a lengthy affidavit detailing all the garden’s code violations, to back up his request for a warrant to enable the city to come in and mow.
What Jones saw as unclean premises and “nuisance” outside storage, the Gardeners saw as necessary adjuncts to a permaculture garden. Jones called the bags of leaves and other items “unwholesome,” but without many of those, the gardeners could not compost soil.
The Gardeners didn’t dispute that tree limbs had been hanging over the road, but they had trimmed them months earlier and written asking for further instructions.
As for the high weeds and grass, in the Gardeners’ view, the real nuisance would have been the fields of dead crops during the summer had the grasses been cut.
While the Code Compliance Department alleged that the garden was improper land use and a home-based business, the Garden folks saw it as the future of the world’s food supply and a far better use of the land than growing imported, decorative grass species that needed frequent mowing.
Arlington called the Uber Dank café a prohibited food establishment; residents claim it was an informal gathering of friends.
Jones’ affidavit repeatedly refers to a missing piece of siding on the house. To Smith, the house is hers, and she can repair the siding whenever she wants.
A municipal judge signed the affidavit just before the end of the business day on Thursday, Aug. 1. The abatement process was under way.
While code officials were worrying about tall weeds in the garden, Arlington police were worrying about a more potent type of weed. According to the affidavit of an undercover narcotics officer, a confidential source had said that Eaker was in possession of a few ounces of marijuana and that the plant was being grown in the garden.
It may have seemed only logical to police to make the leap to the idea of a full-blown marijuana operation — shacked-up hippie types living alternative lifestyles on three acres? C’mon. Evidence to back up their guesses, however, seems to have dissipated like smoke.
Two days before the approval of the nuisance abatement warrant, a narcotics detective identified only as M. Perez filed an extensive affidavit backing up a request for a very different warrant.
According to the affidavit, Perez had sent two undercover Arlington officers to spy on the suspected traffickers, who, as advertised, gave free tours of the organic garden and conducted workshops on permaculture farming.
The undercover officers never saw anything illegal, but Perez pressed on, discovering an “Uber Dank High Vibe Cuisine” deal discussed on the garden’s website. According to the affidavit, “uber dank is also slang for high quality marijuana,” and, “Some people consume marijuana by baking it into food.”
Arlington invited the Texas Department of Public Safety to conduct aerial surveillance at the Garden. A pilot, considered an expert marijuana-spotter, flew over the garden in a helicopter on July 30. He saw taller plants growing around smaller ones. The leaves were indeed green, and from 400 feet in the air, he concluded that Perez’ source was correct.
A visiting gardener came into the house on Mansfield Cardinal Road that day with a strange story of having seen a helicopter and a drone hovering over the plants. He was sure about the drone, having seen pictures of the $200,000 Leptron Avenger unmanned aerial vehicles purchased by the Arlington Police Department with a grant from the Department of Homeland Security. The police have denied using one of their drones to spy on the Garden’s sweet potatoes.
Based on the aerial flyby and the informant, Perez’ affidavit predicted that officers would find a full-scale marijuana operation where weed was grown, processed, and packaged, with detailed records kept, and probably lots of money, electronics and jewelry.
The affidavit also stated that traffickers routinely conceal money in foreign bank accounts and real estate shell corporations.
Arlington Municipal Judge Kathleen Weisskopf found the premise reasonable. People who use sawdust instead of toilet paper might also set up foreign shell corporations. She signed the wildly speculative (and ultimately un-factual) warrant two hours before another judge rubber-stamped the far more thorough code violation and abatement warrant.
The criminal affidavit painted a picture of more than a marijuana business, however. In June, the informant told detectives that Eaker was also collecting weapons. And so Perez asked for and got permission to make the search into a no-knock raid.
The officer wrote that that the chain- link fence at the front of the property could create a “fatal funnel,” enabling the supposedly armed Gardeners to pick off Arlington police officers and code abatement professionals with their rifles.
Shellie Smith is incredulous when she discusses the accusations in the search warrant, especially an imaginary fatal funnel. “The whole place is open,” she said, referring to the hundreds of yards of wide-open space beyond the meditating Buddha and the culinary herbs.
Early on the morning after both warrants had been signed, the four dozen or so Arlington enforcement troops, mostly police officers, stormed through the chain-link fence, past the “no trespassing” sign, and into the Garden property.
The only inhabitant to see them coming was Eaker, who had woken up early. He called a friend to say that a SWAT team was at the house. He said later that he greeted officers by telling them that two young children were upstairs sleeping and that no one in the house was armed.
Officers handcuffed him, then woke and handcuffed everyone in the house by 7:35 a.m. An armed guard stood watch over the babies while other officers led the adults, one by one, downstairs at gunpoint.
“This guy comes into my room, and he grabs me and tells me he’s not going to hurt me,” Smith said. “He’s telling me … ‘I’m just going to secure the area.’ And I’m thinking, ‘I don’t feel secure. You’re doing a really sucky job.’ ”
Eaker, Smith, and Alrutz were sent to kneel near a rack of clothing. Two live-in garden helpers and two visitors also knelt on the floor under the watchful eyes of the heavily armed officers.
Having never seen the warrant, Smith believed the raid was connected to the code dispute. She had no idea the garden was under investigation as a drug outpost.
Eaker said he “brought everybody into a state of peace” before being taken away in handcuffs. He was jailed briefly over alleged unpaid parking tickets, though he says he has no memory or evidence of said tickets. He says he was kidnapped, forcibly removed from his home without a warrant or due process of law.
Arlington police, in a press release, said the Gardeners were detained for “20 or 30 minutes.” Residents say they have proof that it was more like an hour and a half or two hours. Eaker made a documented phone call at the beginning of the raid, and one of the visitors had set an alarm on his phone for 9:30 — and it went off while they were still handcuffed.
During the in-home detainment, Smith and her friends repeatedly asked for warrants and identification of the officers. They were rebuffed at every request and shouted at to be quiet, Smith says. Police eventually removed the handcuffs and told the detainees they were free to participate in the abatement but not to leave.
Despite an extensive search, police found no evidence of a drug trafficking operation. Or any marijuana use at all.
City workers spent the next eight hours mowing the lawn, though they got tired and did not finish. They also piled and hauled away more than 20,000 pounds of stuff they considered trash, including an old piano.
They sent Smith a bill for more than $5,000 for their services on that day.
“How could they think that?” Smith said with incredulity about the botched investigation. “If they had helicopters, undercover agents, unmanned drones, then their intelligence is so bad they need not be using it.”
The Gardeners filed a formal complaint with the Arlington Police Department’s internal investigations team. They were promised a reply in 10 days. Two months later, they received a letter stating that no wrongdoing had occurred.
Surprisingly, Smith doesn’t really sound angry when she talks about being held at gunpoint in her own home over uncut grass and unfounded allegations. She sounds more concerned about the blackberry, okra, and tomatillo plants the Code Compliance crew destroyed. She would also like to continue having friends over for dinner but worries that Arlington might charge her with another misdemeanor.
Terry Nelson is a retired federal customs and border protection agent and also a board member of LEAP, or Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, an organization that is critical of this country’s long-running drug war.
“I don’t know how the chief of police can justify that,” Nelson said, referring to the 10-hour raid. He also said that confidential informants are “notoriously incorrect.”
“You don’t use heavy-handed tactics,” he continued, after noting his belief that Arlington usually has a fine police department.
“What we’ve got today is people wanting to be police officers instead of peace officers. A peace officer goes in and tries to fix the problem with a minimal amount of opportunity for violence.”
Matt Simpson, policy strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, wouldn’t comment on the specifics of the case. But, he said, “A 10-hour raid seems like a problem. All Texans have some baseline expectation that we’ll be left alone if we’re not doing anything criminal and that law enforcement and other public safety officials will use our tax dollars in a way that makes sense.”
Last fall, Alrutz launched a “Go Fund Me” campaign to help pay for legal costs, both for Smith’s defense and for suing the Arlington Police Department. The Gardeners hint that sufficient legal resources have been offered, but as of this writing, they haven’t raised the $15,000 minimum needed for legal representation. They have opted against suing the city.
They are instead planning to publicly forgive Arlington Code Compliance and police via packets of organic seeds, recipes, and a conciliatory handwritten letter Smith delivered to city offices on Feb. 27.
“We are taking this opportunity to beautify our space, remedy any/all logical nuisances, provide a visual buffer and facilitate a more rapid transition to truly exemplify the vision of the Garden of Eden,” she wrote in the letter.
“No amount of animosity, anger, or retribution will aid in the resolution of any conflict,” she wrote, and, “Though we are different in many ways, it is our diversity that brings richness to life’s experience.
“I take responsibility … for the part I have played in the misunderstandings,” the letter says, before proposing “a peaceful resolution, face-to-face communication, with a true desire to clarify any confusion and allay all fear and misconceptions.”
Suing “feels like war,” Eaker said last week. “And we are wanting to live a life of peace.”
Eaker estimates that they can feed at least 100 people from the three-and-a-half-acre former lawn. He explains that if only one percent of the people in this country did something similar, we could potentially transform our food supply, our way of life, and our overall health.
“Everything that we’re doing, from my perspective, is gracious, is benevolent. It’s supportive for our fellow men and women,” he said.
The Arlington Police Department declined to comment on this incident or their investigation and internal review processes. Lt. Christopher Cook wrote in an e-mail that this story was “very old.”
Though this incident has been covered from the Ron Paul radio show to the United Kingdom’s Daily Mail, little has changed.
For Shellie Smith, the tale isn’t old news — it’s ongoing. Her jury trial on the misdemeanors is set for March 13. And she still owes more than $20,000 in fines.
She is hoping her letter will be effective and cooler heads will prevail.
As for the officers who held her at gunpoint for several hours, Smith had plenty of time to speak to them on a human-to-human level. She says they told her they were just doing their jobs, had to feed their families, and didn’t know why exactly they were there.
“I’m not harming anybody with what I’m doing,” she says she told them, hoping for legitimate empathy for what she was enduring. “You know you can put your gun down. You can bring your family here, and we’ll feed them. You can come eat at our table. It’s free.”
So far, none of them have taken her up on the offer. She says it still stands.
Local author and freelance writer Caroline Collier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.