Update: This story has been updated to include comments from Nassau County police.
When Valley Streamer Jennifer McLeggan said she found a dead squirrel on her front lawn last week, that was the last straw.
The body, she said she believes, was placed there as the latest in roughly three years of what she said may be racially motivated harassment tactics deployed by a trio of nearby white neighbors on Sapir Street. After discovering the squirrel while mowing her lawn, McLeggan, who is Black, taped a sign to her front door outlining her struggles with the three.
It was intended as evidence, she said, in case things took a darker turn.
“What’s next after dead squirrels?” she wondered. “I don’t want to deal with what’s next.”
With it came an outpouring of sympathy from neighbors and others who saw the post, with dozens visiting McLeggan throughout the weekend. Some offered protection, while others said they would pitch in to help her with yard work. A protest is planned for Thursday on the street. But until recently, the single mother had been largely alone.
The problems began when she moved into the house in 2017, she said. She got a good deal on it, and said it needed work. Soon, however, came visits by village code enforcement about issues including overgrown shrubbery; trees that had grown too large and too close to the home; litter such as dog feces on her lawn, even though Mcleggan did not own a dog; and an improperly installed fence put up at the request of the same neighbors whom she suspected had filed the complaints against her.
Pregnant at the time with her daughter, Immaculate, McLeggan did her best, trimming the hedges and hiring crews to chop the trees down at great cost, but visits by code inspectors continued, as well as tense confrontations with the neighbors. At one point, she said, one threatened to call child protective services to take Immaculate — now two and a half years old — away. In particular, she was fearful of a pellet gun rifle she had seen the neighbors playing with in their back yard. Visits by Nassau County police went nowhere, she said.
Finally, she installed cameras on the exterior of her home at the suggestion of other neighbors, who said they had similar experiences upon moving onto the street, and armed with video evidence, McLeggan successfully took the neighbors to small-claims court, winning $5,000 in damages in a July 2019 judgment by Nassau County Judge Gary Carlton.
The videos showed the neighbors walking out of the home late at night and dropping items onto McLeggan’s lawn. After that, things quieted down for a while, until she discovered the squirrel.
Syrrea, another neighbor on Sapir, who did not give her last name out of fear of harassment, said McLeggan’s experience with the neighbors followed a pattern that closely mirrored her own, particularly regarding code enforcement.
She has lived on the block since 2008, she said, with inspectors coming early and often for small infractions. Most of the time her family got off with a warning, but it was clear to her, she said, that the same neighbors were filing the complaints.
Syrrea too has had a dead squirrel appear in her yard, and although she said she was unsure where it had come from, she said she had seen one of the neighbors in their yard drowning squirrels they had captured in traps, and placing the bodies in garbage bags. Additionally, she said, a pellet from the rifle had traveled through her back yard at one point while she was gardening.
Considering the frequency of confrontations between McLeggan and the neighbors, including the visits by law enforcement, she said it was inevitable the situation would reach a boiling point, although when and in what manner was unclear.
“I knew it would come to a head because of the way everything was escalating,” she said.
Police and officials respond
On Tuesday, Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder held a news conference in order he said, to “ratchet down” tensions surrounding the dispute. He identified McLeggan’s neighbors as a man in his 80s, along with his son and son’s girlfriend, both in their 50s.
Between McLeggan and the three, police had been called to the homes 45 times since she had moved onto the block in what Ryder described as “an ongoing dispute” between them. Although none of the calls, he said, resulted in actionable complaints, after the latest confrontation, police took statements from both parties, but had yet to interview the son, whom he said had fled “for fear of his safety.”
The father, he said, according to the interview, was “not looking for a problem with his neighbors.”
Ryder confirmed the presence of the pellet guns — a rifle and a pistol — being used to shoot targets in the neighbors’ back yard. So far, he said, there was no evidence the guns were used to kill squirrels; however, police had received complaints by other neighbors on Sapir of dead squirrels found on their properties, which he said were being investigated by the Department of Environmental Conservation.
He said the Nassau County District Attorney was investigating allegations that the neighbors and village code enforcement were working in concert, but noted that regarding the dispute over the fence, the village “did the right thing,” and declined to issue a ticket to McLeggan.
Additionally, village code enforcement, Ryder said, had received complaints of a dead squirrel in McLeggan’s and another nearby neighbor’s garbage, and in that case too had declined to issue a ticket.
Other allegations, Ryder said, had been largely resolved in the 2019 civil case judgment.
“At this time we do not have any evidence of any bias,” he said, “but that does not mean that it’s not there.”
Responding to an inquiry, Deputy Village Clerk James Hunter issued a statement.
“When our code enforcement, Building Department and public safety officers are alerted to violations of village codes and ordinances, all necessary enforcement steps are taken to ensure the peace and tranquility of our neighborhoods for all our citizens,” he said.
“In the particular and disturbing current case that has captured our attention, village officials have been in regular communication with the Nassau County Police Department, under whose jurisdiction allegations of criminal behavior fall.”
On Twitter, Mayor Ed Fare also said the village is working with law enforcement agencies to investigate the matter. “We will continue to closely monitor the situation,” he said.
McLeggan works two jobs as a nurse, often taking night shifts at a nursing home in Far Rockaway, and supervisory shifts at nursing homes elsewhere. But after the efforts she made to maintain her property and bring it up to code, she said she was tired, and latest incident had pushed her over the edge.
“You see me trying, and you still want to harass me?” she said.
“I did everything in life that I was supposed to do,” she said. “I went to school, I studied, I pay my taxes here, I pay my mortgage on time. I pay all my bills, and it’s still not enough, and I don’t think that’s fair. It’s not fair to me to come home from work and have to deal with that.”