July 27, 2010— -- A Florida judge has ordered neighbors to hold monthly potluck dinners in an attempt to improve their relationships and end a long-running feud that turned violent earlier this year.
Given the history between these two neighbors, the supposed-to-be peaceful potlucks may turn into dinners reminiscent of a Three Stooges pie fight, or worse.
"I know if I have to go I will have a police escort," neighbor Julie Penland told ABCNews.com.
Last January, Tony Alli and Jose Linares of Caron Road in Tampa began throwing punches - not pies - as the conflict reached a boiling point.
Linares had complained for years that Alli played his music so loud it was disruptive, and Linares repeatedly called police on his neighbor. Finally, one night last winter, Linares confronted Alli, and a fight broke out.
When it was over, Linares was face down in a puddle, and Alli was charged with first-degree battery, a misdemeanor.
A jury found Alli guilty and Judge Paul Huey of the Hillsborough County Circuit Court sentenced him to 6 months probation, 50 hours of community service, and half a year of neighborhood get-togethers.
Before handing down the unusual sentence, Huey made a Biblical reference. The ten plus minute speech he gave is available on the St. Petersburg Times' website, courtesy of the Hillsborough County Criminal Court.
"Love your neighbor as yourself," Huey said. "Jesus said that a long time ago."
In a speech that sounded like a cross between a sermon and a father scolding his children, Huey described the feud as both "unbelievable" and "comical." Those words might also be applied to the final portion of the sentence, which requires Alli to organize a neighborhood get together each month of his 6 month probation.
"I can't make you like each other, you know. I wish I could," the judge said.
"I want you all to get together once a month, and you can do it however you want. Once a month, at a different house, you have a get-together...and just whatever, have a potluck, just do something," he said.
"And who knows? Maybe we'll have a little United Nations, maybe we'll start a better little part of the world in one place."
The feud appears to have started almost 10 years ago when Linares called in a complaint about Alli's septic tank, which had burst and was close to the border of their properties. As a result of that phone call, Alli was forced to fix the tank. But the county also discovered that Linares had installed his well in the wrong location, and told him he had to move it. Another neighbor, Julie Penland, said Alli never paid to clean up the waste left on Linares' property.
"There really wasn't anything friendly after that." Mina Morgan, Alli's attorney, told ABCNews.com.
Man Calls Police on Neighbor for Loud Music
Pretty soon, Linares started calling the authorities on Alli for playing his Indian music too loud. Linares testified in court that he never spoke with Alli about the music or asked him to turn it down. Penland said she and Linares had stood near the border of his property and yelled, asking him to turn it down. Alli told a different story, according to his attorney, saying that Linares yelled obscenities at him all the time.
The houses are both on large plots of land, and they are not too close to each other, according to Morgan. She said Linares lives in a mobile home, which could have been a factor.
"He could probably hear a lot of things you couldn't hear in say, a brick house," she said.
Penland, who lives on the other side of Linares' house, complained about the noise as well. She testified as part of the proceedings and told ABCNews.com that she has called police many times about the issue.
"We're frustrated with the boom of the bass," Penland said.
"Its getting to the point where they're upsetting other people."
The tense relationship finally exploded the evening of January 22, 2010. According to Penland, Alli had been playing his music that night and Linares came outside to say something about it. She joined Linares near the border of the property. Morgan said Alli was waiting outside for a friend when Linares confronted him.
What happened next depends on who tells the story. Both men have said the other started the fight. Alli punched Linares in the face and he ended up unconscious, on the ground in a large puddle. Penland said she turned Linares over and opened his airway because he had swallowed some water and was having trouble breathing. According to Morgan, Linares claimed Alli broke his nose.
Alli called 9-1-1 and explained what happened. He was charged with first degree battery, which is a misdemeanor.
Prejudice May Be a Factor in Decade-Long Feud
Morgan thinks there is more to the feud than simply loud music.
"The Alli's think that these people don't like them because they're...they're…darker skinned and a different culture. That may or may not be why, but that's just the impression they've gotten over the years," Morgan said.
Judge Huey alluded to the possible role of racial prejudice in his explanation of the sentence.
"This is how prejudice starts and this is how it continues, if that's what's there," he said. "We all bleed red blood and we all live in America so lets do our best."
Penland disagreed. "It's not about race. I'm Italian, Jose is Cuban," she said.
Morgan is hopeful that the unusual sentence will have the desired effect.
"I've not seen a sentence like this before, ever," she said. "It's got a chance of making things better out there."
The Alli's plan to hold the first potluck Saturday August 14 at their home.
"They'll do the first one to show good faith," Morgan said. "(Linares) will get a written invitation and it will be a sincere invitation."
Morgan said she will be there with brownies to share. She hopes Linares and his family come, too, and perhaps the feud will finally end.
Penland isn't nearly as optimistic that a potluck is the solution.
"I'm going to make an effort to do what the judge wants," she said, but added she wanted a "neutral law enforcement officer" to accompany her so that someone is watching out for her interests.
Syed Ahmed, the state assistant attorney who prosecuted the case, did not return a call for comment. Attempts to reach Linares and Alli were unsuccessful.