Simple Title Search Could Have Saved Two Lives
Carmel Valley, California, is a beautiful place. I was fortunate
enough to spend a year in nearby Monterey in the early 1990's. Sadly,
last year it made headlines for a tragic double homicide that could
probably have been prevented with a simple title search. A neighborly
property dispute escalated to gun fire when a boulder was placed at the
end of driveway blocking a carport. The alleged murderer is now on
trial and the prosecution is attempting to admit a tardily performed
title search into evidence.
In January 2007 John Kenney, the shooter, attempted to end a long
standing property line dispute with his neighbors, Elizabeth and Mel
Grimes, by placing a large boulder on a 10-by 4-foot of dirt partially
blocking the VW bus of the Grimes'. Kenney claimed that he set the
boulder there, at his attorney's advice, to protect his property
rights. Expecting trouble, he called the Sheriff's office on the
day it was delivered. The Sheriff's deputies arrived as the delivery
truck was leaving and when it appeared that the delivery was made
without incident, they left the scene.
defense has claimed that Kenney may have been acting in self-defense.
Elizabeth Grimes told a police dispatcher that her husband was trying
to break the boulder with a sledge hammer. If Mel Grimes was wielding a
sledge hammer during a heated argument, Kenney may have felt
In a separate civil suit, which was later dismissed, Kenney sued the
estate of the late Grimes for allegedly vandalizing his property and
attacking him while he took pictures of them trespassing. Elizabeth was
said to have grabbed a camera that was hanging around his neck. As
further evidence that Kenney had a legitimate fear of the Grimes, the
defense sought to introduce Elizabeth's blood alcohol level of .06 at
the time of the shooting. There was also evidence that a witness had
heard Elizabeth yell at her husband to "leave him alone."
The 911 tape paints a very different picture, however. Elizabeth
could be heard clearly begging the operator to send help. Kenney is
heard telling Grimes to "Get off my property," to which she replied,
"You shut up. Get out of our lives." The prosecution also claimed
that Kenney could be heard saying "Welcome, Elizabeth. Welcome to
Then, there was a rustling noise followed by two gun shots and
someone moaning. Elizabeth was screaming, then two more shots. The 911
call ended with the couple exchanging their final "I love you" to each
other, then a fifth shot. Clearly a tragedy.
The murder case against Kenney has been plagued by delays. With all
of the media attention, the defense had been seeking a change of venue.
Because Mel Grimes was a prominent local attorney the defense has tried
to have the judges and prosecutor recused because they knew the victim
well. Finding impartial jurors has also been quite challenging. The
last delay came when the prosecutor was removed for health reasons and
the charges were dismissed and refiled with a new prosecutor.
The most recent news came when a title search, complete just a
couple weeks ago, revealed that the Grimes had an easement across the
disputed land, about the size of surfboard. According to an article
Monterey County's The Herald, Grimes' Access to Land Legal,
the parties knew of the easement.
Prosecutor Berkley Brannon said a "simple title search" on Kenney's
property showed the Grimeses had a right to cross the rectangular
piece of land to get to their carport, which they had done for years.
He said the search, completed two weeks ago, also showed
Kenney's real estate agent had inquired about the easement and that
Kenney signed documents signaling his knowledge when he closed escrow
on the Hitchcock Canyon Road property in 1999.
Brannon said he'd not yet received the results of a title search on
the Grimeses' neighboring property, but believed they would have known
about it as well. Mel Grimes brought the property in 1995.
If true, he said, it could explain why they ignored repeated
demands by Kenney and his attorney at the Fenton & Keller law firm to
stay off the property.
What is not clear, and what he's not been able to ask because of
attorney-client privilege, Brannon said, is why that attorney did not
order his own $500 title search before concluding that the disputed
land belonged to Kenney and recommending he place a barrier on it.
Another attorney who represented Kenney, Nick Cvietkovich, told The
Herald that a lawyer at Fenton & Keller instructed Kenney that if he
did not erect a barrier, the Grimeses could claim a "prescriptive
easement" to the land at the top of their shared driveway.
A spokesperson for Fenton & Keller said that he could not comment
because of the ongoing attorney-client privilege. Of course, the
defense is attempting to have the title search excluded from evidence as
"None of this has anything to do with my client's property," he
said. "It has to do with him being attacked."
The judge has not yet ruled on the admissibility of the title search.
I have agree with the prosecutor. Why would Kenney's lawyers have
advised him to place the boulder on the disputed land without first
doing a title search to make sure that he was within his rights to do
so? Had they conducted a title search, and advised Kenney that the
Grimeses were within their rights to use that land, Kenney may not have
been happy about it, but the situation might not have escalated into
such a deadly feud.
Furthermore, Grimes was an attorney and, even if he was unaware of
the easement, he most certainly knew how to go about finding out whether
his use of the property was legal. Why didn't he respond to Fenton &
Keller with a letter explaining that he had an easement? That also
could have de-escalated the situation.
It would seem that the first step in any boundary dispute between
neighbors would be to obtain a proper title search to determine the
parties legal rights. In this case, it came way too late and may have
needlessly contributed to two deaths.
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About the Author
Robert A. Franco has been in the title industry for nearly
20 years in the
state of Ohio. The owner of
a full service abstracting and title company, and the founder and
president of Source of Title,
Franco has dedicated much of his professional career to the
land records industry.