How a neighborhood cat problem in Rootstown spiraled into a year-long ongoing court battle

Image of a man standing on his lawn giving the middle finger toward his neighbor's house while holding a caged animal
Tim Brown captured footage of his neighbor, Ryan Watson, giving the middle finger toward his surveillance camera while holding what appears to be a trapped feral cat. Submitted image

In April 2021, Tim and Stacy Brown found bags of cat feces on the front porch of their house in Rootstown. They set up a camera and, according to a police report, observed their neighbor, Ryan Watson, leaving the bags. 

Brown and his wife were accustomed to the presence of stray cats in the neighborhood, and he said his wife had been feeding them for years, and none of his neighbors had a problem with it. They’ve lived in this part of Rootstown for decades, where they raised their two children.

Watson had moved into the house next to the Browns in November 2020, and soon after began seeing piles of the cat feces on his lawn and flower bed that border the Browns’ property, he said.

“I moved here, literally unknowing to the situation of what was going on next door. I had piles of cat shit in my flower bed,” Watson said. “I couldn’t leave my garage door open without having a cat try to get in.”

Watson said he blames the Browns for the cat feces, and that by feeding them they encouraged feral cats to roam the neighborhood. He said he retaliated by calling the Browns names and making gestures toward their security cameras. 

This tipped off a series of back and forth reactions: Watson would do or say something the Browns perceived as threatening, and Brown would call the sheriff’s office. This has now gone on for over a year, resulting in several court dates, visits from sheriff’s deputies and even a disorderly conduct charge for Watson. Brown said the incidents have been so frustrating for his family that his two children had to get their own apartment and distance themselves from the neighborhood.

The story illustrates the risks of homeownership and the limitations of the justice system to resolve even the most aggravating neighborly squabbles. Most of the time, homeowners are stuck with who they live next to, and moving isn’t always an option. 

A recent shooting in Windham Township exemplifies the potentially high stakes of such disputes. After a feud between neighbors over a septic problem, Cora Baughman, 66, attempted to confront her neighbor with a gun, said the neighbor and the Portage County Sheriff’s Office. A deputy arrived and killed her.

Brown said he’s consulted with neighbors, sheriff’s deputies and even former Brimfield Police Chief David Oliver, who’s now a private investigator. Still, Brown said, nothing has changed about his situation, prompting him to contact reporters, hoping to put pressure on law enforcement.

Every time deputies respond to one of his calls, Brown said, they’ve given only warnings to Watson and excuses for why he can’t be charged with anything. Brown said what he really wants is Watson behind bars, but he — and Oliver — fears law enforcement won’t react until it’s something much worse than cat poop.

“The current trend for police in the United States has been reactionary, and it’s unfortunate because it appears to me this is a prime situation for an officer who’s well versed in negotiation, or community policing, or anything of that nature, to be able to meet with these two,” Oliver said. “To try to tamp this down before you have to be reactionary and you’re responding to an assault call.”

To feed or not to feed the cats?

After the first feces incident last April, Brown called sheriff’s deputies to their house on Hattrick Road. One of the deputies told the Browns that by feeding the feral cats they were “harboring them as pets,” advising them to try and keep the cats on their property, according to an incident report. They warned both parties to keep to themselves. 

Similar situations happened a few times over the course of April, Brown said. He took a video of what appeared to be someone with a shovel full of something walking onto his front porch and then leaving the porch with an empty shovel a few moments later VIDEO.

“He actually brought a shovelful over, opened our front door, put it in between our doors,” Brown said. “Then tried to bash a cat on our deck with a shovel VIDEO, went back home, got another load and brought it back.”

After this, Brown bought several more cameras and positioned them around his house, pointing in the direction of Watson’s property. 

Watson called the sheriff’s office and told them he didn’t feel comfortable with the cameras pointed at his house, so the sheriffs warned the Browns and they moved the cameras. They now face the boundary between the two properties, with a small portion of the side of Watson’s home and shed in view.

Watson said he started to trap the cats on his property and tried to give them to the Portage Animal Protective League. According to the police report, the APL told Watson they had no room in their shelter to house the cats. Brown’s surveillance video suggests that Watson then kept the cats in his shed VIDEO.

“He was taking them and putting them in his barn for three days,” Brown said. “Well, it was 90 degrees outside. So me and a neighbor called the humane officer and she was appalled until she went to the sheriff’s department and talked to them and then she failed to respond at all.”

Watson said he did cage the cats but declined to comment on what he did with them afterward. Chalan Lowry, executive director of the Portage APL, said in an email that when the humane agent investigated they found “no evidence of any abuse or killing.” 

Legal remedies

According to police reports and Brown’s videos, Watson was then seen “flipping off” the cameras on several occasions VIDEO.

“I made some gestures towards the cameras, I flipped them the bird, you know, gave them the middle finger,” Watson said. “So what I did was what I believe any other person who cares about their property or cares about a situation would do.”

Brown said he then applied for a civil stalking protection order at the end of April. In the official court transcript, Magistrate Chad Hawks told Watson the order would not be granted on the grounds that Watson was not aware that his gestures “would cause a certain result; the result being the paralyzing fear the Petitioners have experienced and their general anxiety,” adding that if Watson’s conduct continued now that he’s aware of its result, a protection order could be granted in the future.

Later that June, Brown said he caught Watson again throwing what he said appeared to be cat feces onto their property and giving the middle finger to their cameras. By this time, the Browns had stopped leaving food and water out for the cats, and they tried to file criminal charges against Watson for knowingly causing them fear and anxiety. 

“I went down to the sheriff’s office and said, ‘Look, I’m not leaving here until he’s charged with something,’” Brown said. “All they would charge him with was littering so that all went to court.”

Watson pleaded guilty to a charge of discarding litter and had to pay a fine of $150, according to court records. Brown said the deputies told him that because no trespassing was involved, he and his wife could not get a protection order. This was two months after Watson was seen on video approaching Brown’s front door, in April.

In July, Watson said he tried finding the property line VIDEO that separated his house from the Browns’. He got the help of a friend who lived in the neighborhood and owned a metal detector, Jo Bowman.

“We tried marking the property line,” Watson said. “Tim and Stacy Brown didn’t care about marking the property line — they haven’t cared about a fucking thing except for making my life a living fucking hell. They said that this unknown person should have a trespass charge, and I trespassed by proxy is what Tim Brown said in court.”

The Browns went to the sheriff’s office to get another protective order, which was granted — but only for six months. They also tried filing trespassing charges against Watson and Bowman but the office told them they couldn’t, Brown said.

“I mean, he’s done everything right on the cameras, even after being warned by the sheriff not to do it. Soon as they leave, he’ll go right out and flip us off,” Brown said. “So this has been going, and going, and going and whatever he does, the sheriff just says, ‘Sorry, there’s nothing we can do, but don’t do it back.’”

The decision not to prosecute

Lt. Harry Muir from Portage County Sheriff’s Office said it wasn’t so much the office’s decision as it was the prosecutors’.

“At one point, Sgt. [Bryan] Pratt put all the incidents together that we had with him and reviewed them all with a prosecuting attorney, and they declined to file it,” Muir said. “They declined to prosecute on any other cases other than the one that was already in existence.”

Oliver said there are a variety of reasons police wait for situations to escalate before taking action, but the biggest is attitude and culture. He said that especially in recent years, the public opinion toward police caused officers to be more wary of taking proactive action, and instead will only try to address a crime after it has been committed. This could lead to circumstances becoming much more dire, and even violent, than if there hadn’t been some kind of earlier mediation or intervention, he said.

The Portage County Court of Common Pleas offers a mediation service. Their website describes mediation as “alternative dispute resolution in which a neutral third person helps the parties and their attorneys reach a voluntary, mutually acceptable resolution of their dispute.”

The county mediator, Benito Antognoli, declined to comment for this story, saying it would be inappropriate to discuss Brown and Watson’s case now, should it ever appear before him in the future. 

Moving out

In February, Brown had another interaction with Watson outside his home while he was clearing snow off his car. In the video, Watson yells various slurs toward Brown, including the n-word VIDEO.

“I saw Tim Brown out there, and he was cleaning off his car. I called him every name in the book. I did. I told that to the sheriff,” Watson said. “And Tim brought this ‘video evidence’ that he has, and it doesn’t say anything, and nobody got charged with anything this time.”

Brown said the sheriff’s office would not file disorderly conduct or menacing charges against Watson for this event, “based on lack of evidence.”

“Lt. Muir once asked me what I expected them to do, and I replied that I expect them to treat this as if it was happening at his house and family or one of his officers or a judge,” Brown said. “I am sure they would find charges that would fit.”

In April, a year after the original complaint, Brown got another protection order against Watson. He said Watson violated it almost immediately, and that Watson said in court he would be moving out of the rental home in Rootstown in order to avoid jail time. Brown said Watson did actually move out of the house, in May. 

There was a hearing last week in the case against Watson on a charge of violating the protection order. The case continues.

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Wyatt Loy is a reporter with the Collaborative News Lab @ Kent State University, producing local news coverage in partnership with The Portager.

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