Sign of the times The mere mention of Jineen McWherter's name makes the blood boil in Alton "A.J." Hotchkiss' veins.
For two years now, Hotchkiss and his wife, Lenore Hotchkiss, have been the targets of successive "spite signs" next to Highway 24 in Florissant Canyon, in Teller County west of Colorado Springs. Jineen McWherter, a one-time candidate for county assessor, and her husband, Jack, erected the signs on their property.
"We regret doing business with A.J. & Lenore Hotchkiss Realty," the current, bright red 16-by-20-foot sign announces to the thousands of motorists passing each day.
Originally inspired by a real-estate deal that went bad between the McWherters and the Hotchkisses, the signs have been at the center of a feud that has spawned lawsuits, countersuits and a criminal investigation.
And A.J. Hotchkiss doesn't mince words in describing how he feels about it all or about Jineen McWherter, in particular.
"She's just a pain in the ass," he fumes when the topic is brought up. "She is nothing but a no-good bitch."
Ran into complications
Four years ago, the McWherters asked A.J. Hotchkiss, a neighbor and real-estate agent, to sell a 31-acre piece of vacant land for them. As the McWherters tell the story, Hotchkiss found a buyer -- but on the day of closing, the deal ran into complications relating to money that the McWherters owed to the land's previous owner.
The McWherters say they asked the prospective buyer for a brief extension on the closing to try to negotiate with the previous owner and that the buyer agreed.
But by the time the extension was up, the McWherters say, the buyer had backed out upon realizing that the property came with an easement that would allow the McWherters access across the lot. The McWherters say they had told Hotchkiss about the easement and that he never informed the buyer about it.
Hotchkiss, on the other hand, says the buyer knew about the easement all along. The McWherters simply backed out of the sale, Hotchkiss maintains.
A series of lawsuits and countersuits followed, in which the courts largely ruled against the McWherters. Hotchkiss sued for his lost commission on the sale and won a judgment against the McWherters. And the prospective buyer sued for breach of contract, winning a $10,000 award.
The McWherters blame their losses on incompetence on the part of their attorney. In fact, the judge in one of the cases found their attorney's work to be so poor that he asked the state's Office of Regulation Counsel, which oversees attorneys, to investigate. The office wound up suspending the attorney from practicing law, and the McWherters recently sued him.
Blaming Hotchkiss Realty for the bungled deal, the McWherters decided to take an unusual step. In December 2001, they erected a 16-by-12-foot plywood sign on their land next to Highway 24. The sign read, "We regret doing business with Hotchkiss Realty."
Six months later, the sign disappeared. A lock on a gate to the land had been cut, and tire tracks suggested a truck had been used to haul the sign away.
The disappearance triggered an investigation by the Teller County Sheriff's office. A deputy at the time, James Mitchell, interviewed the man with the most obvious motive -- Hotchkiss. Hotchkiss was the Florissant fire chief at the time and had ready access to fire trucks outfitted with bolt cutters. But though Mitchell examined tread patterns on the fire trucks, he couldn't match them with the tracks at the crime scene. Hotchkiss denied any involvement in the sign's disappearance, and Mitchell never found the evidence to charge anyone.
The disappearance, however, only strengthened the McWherters' resolve.
"I decided it was time to put up a bigger sign," Jack McWherter said.
To hold up the new sign, Jack McWherter sank two 14-inch-diameter telephone poles 4 feet into the ground, poured concrete around them and reinforced the poles with steel rebar.
Cloaks of darkness
The sign became an election issue when Jineen McWherter decided to run last year as a Democratic candidate for county assessor. Hotckiss' wife, Lenore, wrote a letter to Teller County residents comparing the McWherters, who are not identified on the sign, to "those Klu [sic] Klux Klan members who parade around in hoods, terrorizing from the cloaks of darkness."
McWherter failed to win office, losing to the incumbent assessor, Republican Al Jordan. But the sign still stands in the canyon.
"This sign is going to stand as long as we can make it stand," Jineen McWherter declared.
A.J. Hotchkiss, who told the Independent he has no idea who removed the original sign, says the new one continues to frustrate him and his real-estate business.
"It hurts me, because there's no reason for that, except that they're whacked out," Hotchkiss said of the McWherters' persistence. "Who the hell are these degenerate no-goods?"
-- Terje Langeland