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Trouble on the Hill

A feud between neighbors turns a quiet canyon road into a deadly battleground. How could a fight over a tiny plot of land escalate to this?
/ Source: Dateline NBC

It's at the heart of everything holy, the core of the message, a single phrase: Love thy neighbor. To which we might add, woe to him or her who learns to hate instead - as you're about to discover. 

Once upon a time, in a paradise by the golden Pacific, up a quiet private road among the canyons of Carmel, lived three fine people.  And they were bright and loved and likeable and accomplished. The idealistic engineer. The crusading defense attorney. The caring nurse. Who could imagine what these three neighbors were capable of?  Love thy neighbor? There would be blood.

911 call:

John Kenney: Get off my property.

Elizabeth Grimes: Don't tell me to get off your property.

John Kenney: I will tell you to get off it.

Elizabeth Grimes: You're on my property every time you back up.

John Kenney: Get off this property.

Elizabeth Grimes: Please send the sheriff. Hurry.

The private driveway was leafy, secluded, quiet. Over a bridge it went, then wound past and under the old oak and sycamore up the side of the canyon. And here, second from the top, were two - call them grown-up hippies - two soul mates: Mel and Elizabeth.  The Grimes. It was kismet that they found one another after two failed marriages each, and Mel who brought Elizabeth up here to his uniquely funky utopia, love among the rustling leaves, to the tune of wild birds and wind chimes.

Tom Ellington-Wills: And they were just really happy.  It was crazy.  It was-- seeing them together constantly, always holding hands.

Tom Ellington-Wills is Elizabeth's son. He instantly liked his mother's new suitor when she introduced them.

Tom Ellington-Wills: He was just a really cool, mellow guy.  You know?  And-- and had a real good head on his shoulders.

Mel grew up on a surf board in the Monterey Bay, became a defense attorney.  Ran marathons, got involved with the Monterey blues festival.  

Tom Ellington-Wills: My mom was a paralegal at a-- at a law firm that was directly next door to his law firm.  He would-- constantly ask my mom out on a date. And he said, "Hey, I've got two tickets to the Santana concert.  Do you want to go?" And my mom loves Santana, so she really couldn't say no at that point.  So they went.  And they were together since that-- since that date.

Within a year, they got married.

Tom Ellington-Wills: You know, they truly lived each day.  Were always gone; were always on vacation, doin'-- doin' things like that. I was definitely jealous, goin' to (laughs) school, always finding out that they were going somewhere like Costa Rica or somewhere in the Caribbean, or goin' to Hawaii.

Elizabeth and Mel, and up here on their private hillside they dressed their overgrown love nest in bits of whimsy.

Tom Ellington-Wills: Our house was the funkiest house, I think, I'd ever seen. 

They planted discarded surfboards, upended to grow like flowers among the odd mismatched sculptures, the signs, the bird houses, those wind chimes… the carcass of a small ancient sailboat. An unbuttoned labor of love, in a way, and influenced, though not always tastefully, by those who's need for mel's legal services was as urgent as their wallets were empty.

Tom Ellington-Wills: "Hey, I can't afford to pay your legal f-- fee, but can I build a deck?  Or can I build a-- you know, whatever?  Can I do s-- you know, what--

Keith Morrison: And that would be okay with him?

Tom Ellington-Wills: "How can I work it out?"  And he'd be like, "Sure, no problem.  I could use a deck off this end of the house.  Or, you know, a-- a free-standing unit over here; one bedroom over here."  I mean, the house, the way it's laid out was really funky. 

Keith Morrison: So this is not a straight-laced or-- or-- a strictly ordered guy?

Tom Ellington-Wills: Yeah.  No, not at all.  He was a cruiser.

Mel had been cruising freestyle ten years up here when his new neighbor moved in. Seemed friendly enough.  And certainly he was an impressive man, the neighbor: His name was John Kenney, a 65-year-old oil exploration scientist with a PhD from MIT.  A Korean War vet, a former college professor, a world traveling consultant. Kenney soon fit right in, joined a local church, befriended downhill neighbors, and got involved in local conservation efforts.

Segolene Kenney: He just loves Carmel Valley. And when you see-- wild spaces like that, you want to preserve them.

Segolene Kenney is John Kenney's daughter. Though you can probably tell from her accent that she is not a California girl. Fascinating, isn't it, how fate can dictate the shape of a life. And that is part of our story, too.

It was serendipity as much as anything that produced the conditions, the distance, the isolation without which none of this would have happened. John Kenney happened to be at a conference in New York years ago. He met a woman there, a doctor, a European doctor, and since John Kenney could do his work anywhere, that's how he became John Kenney of Nancy, France.

Here in this ancient city, Kenney and his wife Marie-Helen - the gynecologist - raised their two adopted daughters.  Who, in their way, adored him.

Segolene Kenney: Well, my father is a wonderful man.  He has risen us the best way he could. He's tender.  He is calm.  He's funny.

As the girls grew through their teenage years in France with their mother, Kenney divided his time between Nancy and his little piece of American paradise, his house in Carmel Valley. With its wonderful view, its essential serenity.

Segolene Kenney: He is a peaceful man.

And right down to the sorted sizes of the logs for the fireplace, its perfect order. Yes, that order. At the end of the road, at the top of the hill, order and chaos were about meet.

Up on the canyonside here in California's Carmel Valley, pristine order moved in beside cluttered whimsy.  It was 1999.  And, for a moment, all was quiet.

Every story has a beginning of course, and every war an original cause, and in the case of this story, this war, that would be this bridge, which in the year 2000 was in desperate need of repair. The neighbors decided if they didn't do something pretty soon, a car would fall through the boards here to the creek bed below and so they set about deciding what to do. And perhaps somebody should have warned them then about the law of unintended consequences. But, as we say, the bridge is where it began.

According to Segolene Kenney, her father wanted to hire a company to fix the bridge. But Mel Grimes offered to repair it himself so Kenney agreed to wait.

Segolene Kenney: And so, several weeks later, still the bridge was not fixed.

Frustrated, John Kenney took matters into his own hands and hired a company to make the repairs. He assumed the fee would be equally split.

Segolene Kenney: And-- and Mel didn't pay his fee. He said, "Well, no.  I didn't agree."  And-- and, "No, I-- I don't care." And so, they had to go to court for this.  But my dad won.

But now the irritant was planted, and began to grow. 

Christine Williams: Jack was one of those people that really was sensitive to the surroundings around him. 

Christine and Kim Williams attended the same church as John Kenney, they called him Jack.

Christine Williams: I think one of the things that kind of was difficult for him was, every time he would come out of his house to go to his car, which was at the other end of this house, and facing the Grimes property, he was-- he would look at their house, which was pretty funky, and a lot of-- you know, things that weren't real neat and tidy and aesthetically beautiful at all.

Tom Ellington-Wills: To some, it was garbage.  But to them, it was just unique and neat and funky.  You know, they were up on the hill, on their-- and on their own, doin' their own thing.  No one could see, you know.  (laughs)

No one, that is, except the man who so loved order, John Kenney.

Tom Ellington-Wills: I just don't think he-- he liked looking out the window and seeing all the cars and all the funky yard stuff. 

Well, it wasn't just that, as Kenney told his daughter.

Segolene Kenney: Mel was dumping garbage and branches and all kinds of stuff on his property.  But also on the--  in the garden of others.  And this was causing a fire hazard.  And this was dangerous for the valley.

Tom Ellington-Wills: I only got to hear from my mom, like, "Oh, you know, now this neighbor's becoming a nightmare."

In 2003, a new neighbor moved in a little farther down the hill: Joyce Scampa.

Joyce Scampa: Mr. Kenney wanted us to take sides. He would call me to run profiles and get maps for him to distinguish exactly where the property lines were.

Joyce is a real estate broker, so she had access to property records. And she and her husband were friends of the Grimes. But:

Joyce Scampa: We did not want to get involved in any kind of a feud between neighbors. And we really really asked not to hear any of the problems. 

Kenney and the grimes both went to local authorities, tattling on each other's violations of local building ordinances. Even though they couldn't even see from their own properties some of the illegal add-ons of the other. Such as a detached studio tucked in behind the grimes house.

Tom Ellington-Wills: It was a meditation room for my mom. It was surrounded by all like oak trees that over 100 years old.  And my mom just really found peace in that corner of the property and really wanted somethin' to just kinda get away, listen to her music, read a book, you know, that kind of stuff.

And, such as, the lovely sunroom, invisible to the Grimes, which Kenney added to give him a better view of the Pristine Valley.

Segolene Kenney: But Mel - as a vengeance-- vengeance, he contacted the Sheriff.  And said that my father didn't have the permit to build the veranda.  It was just a vengeance, you know, because they had troubles.

Mel Grimes hired an attorney: Andy Swartz.

Andy Swartz: Over the year, from April of '04 to about April '05 it began escalating as different issues arose. They wrote letters to each other-- which were also escalating in tone. And-- ultimately Kenney asking the Grimeses to lock his dogs up and not let them run loose. 

And when something awful happened to the animals, the Grimes - though there was no evidence - suspected Kenney.

Andy Swartz: Mr. And Mrs. Grimes' home was burglarized.  Three of his cats disappeared. The Grimeses' dog was poisoned.

Elizabeth confided in a new friend, Elyse Battey.

Elyse Battey: When I first met Elizabeth she told me she had this real crazy, hostile neighbor.

Whenever Elyse went to visit, she said, Elizabeth warned her: Never cross John Kenney's driveway.

Elyse Battey: She was frightened of him because he would make claims, or say things to her in the driveway. She would pull up and it would upset her. And that would frighten her. What would happen next? Would it only be a verbal confrontation? Could it sometime be something else?

Tom remembered the advice his parents received from one of their attorneys.

Tom Ellington-Wills: "You know, I've dealt with cases like this.  The best advice I can give you, if you guys can do it, is just pack up and leave.  Just move. You-- you never know what this could escalate into.

Eventually, the growing conflict found a focus: the property line that separated kenney from the Grimes. It ran right along there. The road, of course, was an easement, legally it had to be shared. But then there was this tiny spit of land, 4 feet wide, maybe 10 long. Technically, as you can see, it's kenney's property.  But it's on grime's side of the road, Grimes had to cross it to get to his carport.

In june, 2005, Kenney planted a garden to keep the grimes off the strip of ground...which of course meant they wouldn't be able to use their carport.

A few hours later, he would claim, he was backing out of his driveway, and saw grimes driving back and forth over the new garden he'd just planted, destroying it.  Then, he claimed, elizabeth charged his car, up in his own driveway, and blocked him in.

Kenney pulled out his camera - and snapped this picture of Elizabeth.

Then, again his story, she assaulted him, and yanked his camera strap so hard that his head slammed against the door frame of the car.

Joyce Scampa: After that episode, things really really accelerated with the hatred, the spewing of words and the fear. And I would say the fear was something that we thought was overly emphasizes but in fact it was real.

And the cold war was now hot.

The feud between John Kenney and his neighbors, Mel and Elizabeth Grimes, had reached a boiling point.  Now, there had been a physical altercation. Kenney went to the hospital after the camera strap tussle. Hospital records indicate he suffered a cervical strain, a concussion and a contusion to his forehead. He was given a soft cervical collar for comfort. He went to church the next day. Parishioners said they noticed a visible difference.

Kim Williams: He showed up with a neck brace and a cane.  And his-- gait was definitely different.  About how he was able to walk.  He was more hesitant in his speech, even.  And I think quite traumatized by the whole incident.

Christine Williams: We were concerned, and asked what happened. He said, "Well, Elizabeth reached into my car, and grabbed my camera, which had a strap on it, and pulled it-- against my neck, and hit-- you know, pulled me into the car.  And, you know, assaulted-- assaulted me."

Church friends urged him to go back to the hospital. In addition to the concussion, he was now also diagnosed with signs of post traumatic stress disorder. The Grimes had their own story of what happened.  Elizabeth said it was Kenney who lunged at her from inside his car, causing her to trip and become entangled with his camera strap. Each side took out a restraining order on the other.

Two days later -- much to Kenney's surprise and humiliation -- Elizabeth showed up at his weekly men's bible class at the church, and aired - for everyone to hear - the dirty laundry. Asked Kenney's fellow churchmen to pray for them. Kenney was mortified. And Elizabeth's son saw his mother change.

Tom Ellington-Wills: I remember, growing up, my mom was always like, "Have faith in people.  Trust people.  Love people.  People are good.  You know, the world is great."

And now, what did she say?

Tom Ellington-Wills: "Don't trust people, son.  People are mean.  People are out to get you."  You know, just-- it-- it was a whole different outlook on life.

John Kenney was also a changed man. Soon after the church incident, his daughters went to spend the summer with him. He asked them not to talk to the grimes but he wouldn't say why. They asked about his neck brace.   He said he fell in his garden.

Keith Morrison: So, what was he like, then?

Segolene Kenney: He was not talkative.  He was--

Keith Morrison: Not his usual funny, happy, self?

Segolene Kenney: No.  No.  No.  He was-- tired, even I-- I would say exhausted. He was anxious. Yeah, he was scared.

Meanwhile, her father's nemesis, Mel Grimes, had his own reasons to be afraid, quite apart from the dispute with John Kenney. Suddenly, the marathon runner encountered serious heart trouble.

Tom Ellington-Wills: It kinda just hit him like a freight train one day.  He would walk up the staircase in the house and just like, his heartbeat just became real irregular.

Operations followed.  He stopped running. His doctors told him, avoid stress. Instead, the neighbors escalated their feud.  They went public at a meeting of the Monterey County planning commission. Dueling statements.  Mel Grimes went first.

Mel Grimes: The one thing that I do regret more than anything else is the trauma that it has caused my wife over the last two years to go through this. She's had periods of time where she's simply vomited, cried, couldn't sleep.

John Kenney: None of us and none of you either would tolerate a neighbor building something or trashing something or doing anything which damaged the value of your own property and the enjoyment of your own property.

Wars between countries or neighbors have their own escalating grammar and such was the case here, through one issue after another as it got worse and worse and worse. And the old engineer Mr. Kenney would look out of his window there across the hillside and see what he considered to be the dogpatch development of his neighbor, the lawyer, Mr. Grimes. And the grimes for their part looked back at Kenney's house and saw an inflexible and angry old man. But conflicts like this eventually have to settle on something concrete, something tangible and so the war between the neighbors focused on one little piece of ground right there just at the edge of the pavement. A piece of land no bigger than a surfboard really. And that was the stage for the battle to come.

John Kenney, remember, tried to grow a garden on that patch of dirt - as a way to block use of it to get to their carport. And that didn't work. So now he turned to lawyers.

The best and cheapest option, Kenney's attorneys advised, was to place a rock, a very large rock on that little strip in front of the carport. Kenney prepared.  He hired a security consultant, the Monterey County sheriff agreed to stand by when the rock was put in place. Then, a pause. 

In October 2006, a family emergency sent Kenney back to France. He spent the holidays there with his wife and daughters.

Keith Morrison: What was he like that-- at that time?

Segolene Kenney: The same he was in Carmel.

Keith Morrison: He-- he was nervous, anxious, not very happy?

Segolene Kenney: Not nervous.  Scared of something.

Keith Morrison: Scared?

Segolene Kenney: Yeah.  He didn't want to go back.

The grimes were away too, that season.

Tom Ellington-Wills: They were out of town, exactly.  They were in Hawaii. 

So, for once, peace on that troubled hillside. And then, January, 2007.  Kenny, back from France.  The grimes back from hawaii. The climax.

Elizabeth Grimes:  Get off -- He's got a gun.

John Kenney came back from Europe in January 2007.  It was time to launch his plan to end the war with his neighbors. Once home, Kenney went to this nursery and bought a barrier rock -- a one-ton boulder. He e-mailed his attorney with orders to call the sheriff for a civil stand-by. His rock was delivered at 3 p.m. on Jan. 29, 2007.

His security consultant and attorney were on hand when it arrived in case things became volatile.  The promised sheriff's deputy didn't show. But nothing happened.  Mel and Elizabeth Grimes were not home yet.

Tom Ellington-Wills: He was coming from work from Salinas out where the courthouse is.  And she was on the peninsula.

Up on the hill, the lawyer and the consultant gave Kenney strict orders: Stay in the house, call 911 at any sign of trouble.  And then they left. Kenney's family said he felt abandoned, dismayed. He was 72.  Frightened.  Alone. The Grimes were on their way.

Tom Ellington-Wills: They met for a-- a light dinner, and then they drove home and--

Keith Morrison: Texting each other along the way--

Tom Ellington-Wills: Yeah, exactly.  Yeah, the "I love you and can't wait to see-- you know, can't wait to get home." 

At 5:30, the Grimes, in their separate cars, arrived at the top of the hill. Mel first. He saw the boulder. Ran to his tool shed.  Got a shovel and sledgehammer. Elizabeth arrived.  Saw Mel with his heart condition swinging the sledgehammer.  She grabbed the cordless house phone.

911 phone call:

911 Dispatcher:  911.

Elizabeth Grimes: Yeah, we have an emergency at 82 Hitchcock Canyon Road in Carmel Valley.

911 Dispatcher: What's the problem?

Elizabeth Grimes: Um, our neighbor has blocked our driveway.  My husband, who doesn't have a good heart, is out there trying to break down with a sledgehammer.

911 Dispatcher: OK.  This is 82 Hitchcock Road?

Elizabeth Grimes: Yes.  It's Southbank--

911 Dispatcher: And he's blocked--

Elizabeth Grimes: In Carmel Valley.

911 Dispatcher: He has blocked the driveway with what?

Elizabeth Grimes: With a big, huge boulder so that we can't get our cars out.  We share a mutual driveway.

911 Dispatcher: Where is the neighbor at?

Elizabeth Grimes: He's in his house.  Please, please, hurry.

911 Dispatcher: How old is your husband?

Elizabeth Grimes: My husband is 58.  He can't do this.  He was just at the hospital today.  This guy is crazy.  I have to hang-up to help him.

Then, striking sounds are heard on the 911 call. Grimes is hitting the boulder. His wife tells him, “Stop.”

Elizabeth Grimes:  Mel, don't touch it.  Let the police come.

911 Dispatcher: Does your--

Elizabeth Grimes:  Don't you do that, Mel.

Mel Grimes: Shut up.

Elizabeth Grimes: Don't, Mel.

911 Dispatcher: What is he doing?

Elizabeth Grimes: What is that going to do?

Mel Grimes: Nothing.

Then they argue about whether Elizabeth should go up to Kenney's house.

Elizabeth Grimes:  All right, Mel, stop it or I'll go there.

Mel Grimes: No, you're not.

Elizabeth Grimes: I'm going to his house.

Mel Grimes: No, you're not.

Elizabeth Grimes: Uh, I don't care, Mel.

911: Hello?

Elizabeth Grimes: Leave it alone. Leave it alone.

911: Can I speak to your husband?

Elizabeth Grimes:  No.  My husband is, like, so pissed off.

911: Where is he at right now?

Elizabeth Grimes: He's got a sledgehammer and he's trying to break this boulder down.

911: So, he's back in the driveway hitting the boulder?

Elizabeth Grimes: Yes.

911: OK. And the other male is in the--

Elizabeth Grimes: In the house.

But not for long.  Kenney emerges.  Walks down his driveway, toward the Grimes - and the boulder. Elizabeth confronts him.

Elizabeth Grimes: Here he is now. Get out of our lives.

John Kenney: Get off my property.

Elizabeth Grimes: Don't tell me to get off your property.

John Kenney: I will tell you to get off it.

Elizabeth Grimes: You're on my property every time you back up.

John Kenney: Get off this property.

Elizabeth Grimes: Please send the Sheriff.  Hurry.

911: OK.

Elizabeth Grimes: Thank you.

911: There's another dispatcher--

Elizabeth Grimes: Thank you.

911: Starting them.

Elizabeth Grimes: Thank you.  The Sheriff is coming.

John Kenney:  Don't walk over my property.

Elizabeth Grimes: Oh, shut-up, you fat a------. Mel, a policeman is coming.

Mel Grimes: Good.

John Kenney:  Leave that alone.

Elizabeth Grimes:  Please send someone.

And then the horror, and a warning: What you're about to hear is disturbing.

Elizabeth Grimes: Get off. He's got a gun.

John Kenney: Yeah, help.

(Gunshot heard)

Elizabeth Grimes: Mel, I love you.

Mel Grimes: I love you.

911:  Hello?  Hello?

Down the hill, Kim Williams heard the gunshots, remembered Kenney's feud and headed up the canyon road.

Kim Williams: It was like, "This can't be happening."  But, you know, the reality was Mel was dead, and he was lying on the ground there.  And Elizabeth was near death.

Elizabeth's friend, Elyse Battey, was on her way home, heard the sirens, saw the helicopter arrive.

Elyse Battey: I had no idea that the person we watched from this location being unloaded from the ambulance and put into a helicopter was in fact my best friend. I watched and witnessed this event. Whoever it was to me at that point, it was horribly horrific and it really shattered the safety we felt in Carmel Valley.

Elizabeth Grimes died in route to a trauma center. Her son, Tom, answered a knock at the door.  And tried to listen to what the policeman said.

Tom Ellington-Wills: "I really have some bad news for you."  And-- I'm like, "What's goin' on?"  And he's "Oh, your dad's dead." And then he said, "And your mom is dead, too." And-- I just-- I mean I-- I fell to the ground.  I just-- you know I'm thinking, "Car accident."  I'm thinking, you know, "How could they both go? You know, they just got back from Hawaii. It must be a car accident." And as soon as-- I'll never forget it-- as soon as the sheriff told my wife, or told us, that my mom was dead too, that she looked at me and said, "Oh my God, the neighbor."

Nine time zones away in Nancy, France, John Kenney's wife, a gynecologist was in the midst of a consultation when she got a telephone call. Her John Kenney involved in a murder? Incomprehensible. She told her daughters the news when she got home.

Segolene Kenney: And I just said, "It can't be.  This is terrible.  It-- it can't be."

Keith Morrison: How do you process a thing like that?

Segolene Kenney: I immediately said to myself that my dad had-- as an honest man, has felt in danger.  And that he had to do it for him to stay alive.

He was arrested, of course.  Right outside his house.

Kim Williams: I saw Jack being escorted from his driveway. His head was hung.  He was slumped over.  He just looked like the world had come to an end.

John Kenney, the brilliant petroleum engineer, the law and order man, was charged with first degree murder.  There would be a trial, and he would take the witness stand to  explain why he killed his neighbors.

Judge: Ladies and gentlemen, good morning. We are on the record in the case of People vs. Kenney...

John Kenney went on trial in August 2008 for the murder of the neighbors he had learned to so thoroughly despise. That he pulled the trigger, and took their lives, was not in question. But was it first degree, premeditated murder?  Or was it self-defense by a frightened, elderly man? The only surviving witness, of course, was Kenney himself. And he was about to tell the jury his version of the story...

The judge would not allow Kenney's face to be recorded on camera while he testified.  But he was recorded on audio tape.

John Kenney: I was in a high state of fear.  I was alone and vulnerable.

He was upstairs making dinner, he said, when he heard a rapping sound. Though he wasn't wearing his hearing aid, the sound seemed to come from this sliding glass door facing his driveway. Panic.  He went to his bedroom and grabbed his pistol. He opened his door, and saw Elizabeth Grimes on his deck. He said she swore at him; he told her to get off his property.

He tried to shoo her away. He took a step forward and she took a step back- back and forth all the way down his driveway. Then he saw Mel Grimes.

John Kenney: He was standing next to the barrier rock, in his business clothes, with a sledgehammer in his hand, in a frenzy, striking the -- my barrier rock.

And now, from the witness stand, Kenney made a stunning claim.  He was attacked.

John Kenney: I said, "Stop that.  Get off my property."  I think I only got halfway through it when Elizabeth Grimes came up behind me and slammed me in the back of the head. I seemed to recall that just after she did it, she started screaming, as if she were being attacked.

And then, the heart of Kenney's case: he accused Mel Grimes of charging him with that deadly sledgehammer raised like a battering ram.

John Kenney: It was at that moment I realized, they have entrapped me. When I drew my pistol, I did not intend to kill anybody.  That was my lifeline to get out of there. He slammed right into me.  The sledgehammer hit a grazing blow on my left upper arm.  I was grappling with him for a minute -- get away from me. At the same time, when he -- at the same moment, he pulled the sledgehammer back for a second strike, I cracked him across the front of the face with the, with the pistol.

Then he pulled the trigger.

John Kenney: Well, it knocked him off his pins to my left.  I fired once at him, once at her, paused for a moment, and once at him, and, then, there was a scary situation, and there's a longer pause between the third and fourth shot, and it hit her, again, apparently. Oh, my God.  It happened so fast.  This was a pandemonium.  I was acting half on instinct and self-preservation.  I wasn't thinking much of anything.  I wasn't thinking of anything, except to save my life.

Kenney admitted he fired at the grimes four times.  A fifth shot, he claimed, was a simple accident, and the bullet went into the ground.

John Kenney: I think -- my hands were shaking so badly that my thumb slipped off the hammer, and the gun fired, and that -- the receiver came back and ripped a big gash in my thumb.

Why did he fire that gun?   Military training, he said. 

John Kenney: First, I was being attacked by multiple -- two -- more than one person.  My training in the army had been, being attacked by multiple assailants, take them all down:  One, two, three, four.

And that, he said, was self-defense. After Kenney finished his story, the prosecutor asked him a question: Does he feel any remorse?

John Kenney: Since "remorse" -- I hate to sound like a school teacher, but as you know, "remorse" is sadness attributable to a sense of guilt ... I feel terrible about everything that happened, but I do not feel remorse, because I do not feel guilt.

Nor did Kenney feel any guilt or remorse right after the incident, claimed the prosecutor, at least he certainly didn't seem to when he placed his own 911 call.  Here, minutes after shooting his neighbors, said the prosecutor, Kenney expresses concern only for himself.

911: 911. What's your emergency?

John Kenney: Yes. Um, I'm at 80 Southbank Road.

911: Yes, sir.

John Kenney:  I have an emergency.

911: What type of emergency?

John Kenney:  I've been assaulted, again, by two people.

911: You've been assaulted?

John Kenney:  Yes, I have and battered.

911: Are you injured?

John Kenney:  Yes.

911: Do you need an ambulance?

John Kenney:  No.

911: OK.  Who assaulted you?

John Kenney:  Mel Grimes, Jr.

911: And how do you know these people, sir?

John Kenney:  They're my next door neighbors.

911: OK.  And what did they do to you?

John Kenney:  Well, they rushed at me and tried to assault me.

911: For what?  What's going on?

John Kenney:  Um, that's as much as I--I think I should say right now.

911: No.  You need to give me as much information as possible so I can let the officers know that are responding, sir.

John Kenney:  Uh--

911: Why did your neighbors do this?

John Kenney:  Oh, my God, sir, I really can't tell.  I hope you'll come out here please.

911: Sir, I need some information. Hello?

And at his trial he was consistent: it wasn't he who started it, said Kenney; it wasn't his fault. And if that were the only story the jury heard. But it wasn't. After all, when Elizabeth Grimes called 911 from her driveway that fateful afternoon, the whole incident, the climax of that long war, was recorded through her telephone. And now the entire tape was played in open court. Every disturbing moment.

Elizabeth Grimes: He's got a gun.

John Kenney:  Yeah, help.

Both were shot twice. A bullet hit Elizabeth in the back. So the jury heard the shots, heard them die.  Heard their last words to each other: “I love you.” And they heard this last fifth shot, almost 15 seconds after the fourth.

Mel Grimes: I love you.

911: Hello? Hello?

What was that?  Kenney said the gun slipped. Prosecutor Berkley Brannon countered that it was in fact proof that this was not a question of self-defense.

Berkley Brannon: The defendant shot Elizabeth Grimes while she was down on the ground, helpless. It was a coup de gras shot.

Or was it, as defense attorney Daniel Olmos told the jury, something else entirely?

Daniel Olmos: DO NOT let the prosecution convince you that this case is about a patch of dirt. This case is about a 72-year-old man who feared for his life.

Berkley Brannon: He thinks it's a struggle between good and evil. He wanted to be in control.

If Kenney's attitude were on trial, it seemed, he would surely lose.  But the law doesn't measure attitude.  It measures justice.

The jury in the trial of John Kenney, accused of murdering his next door neighbors, had a disturbing duty.  To consider evidence, yes, but as part of that job, to listen to an audio tape of two people dying. Over and over, they heard it, the sounds teased into something like clarity, enhanced to allow the jury to comprehend what happened here. The jury foreman told us what he thought.

Michael Jones: Mrs. Grimes is on the phone with the phone to her ear, and-- saying, "Mel, the sheriff's coming." And we can hear Mr. Grimes say, "Good."  Two seconds later she's attacked.  Or-- or there's-- there's an altercation.  It seems incredulous that she's gonna say, "The sheriff's coming," know she's got 911 on the phone, and then all of a sudden she's gonna launch into an attack of him. I think he-- he attacked her.  Knocked the phone out of her hand.  Mr. Grimes died trying to defend his wife.

For the jurors, the case boiled down to two things: the 911 tape, and ...

Michael Jones: He shot a woman in the back.  He shot a defenseless woman in the back.  He hides this gun under his belt, he goes down there, and he knows the reaction he's gonna get from-- he's too smart not to know this.  And then, of course, he shoots Mrs. Grimes in the back.  That was about as irrefutable as it gets.  You didn't have to shoot that woman. 

And so they were unanimous.  

Court Clerk Sally Lopez: We the jury find the defendant John Franklin Kenney guilty ...

Kenney was convicted of second degree murder for killing Mel Grimes and first degree murder for killing Elizabeth, because the jury decided he shot her when she was down.

At his sentencing, John Kenney said he had not broken God's Sixth Commandment, "Thou shalt not kill."  Many of his friends stood by him.

Kim Williams: We don't know what actually happened up there.  We know what Jack says happened.  And we have no reason to disbelieve him.

Christine Williams: There's another side to Jack than just what was shown in court and what was shown in the newspapers.  That he's a real person; he's a-- a brilliant person.  He's a good friend and good father and husband.

Prosecutor Berkley Brannon says he doesn't doubt the statements made by Kenney's friends and family.

Berkley Brannon: He's led-- a fruitful life.  And-- he threw it away.

So he did.  But still, said the prosecutor, the man doesn't seem to get it.

Berkley Brannon: I think he honestly does not feel remorse.  And I think that this perspective comes from a certitude that whatever he did, it was right and fine and justified.

John Kenney was sentenced to life - no chance ever of parole. An imprisoned, sole living survivor of a petty feud that turned into an unnecessary war. 

Tom Ellington-Wills: To know that the rest of your life you'll spend in a cell and you won't be able to experience the beauty of life anymore?  That's-- that's what I hope for. (voice breaking) I just want him to, you know, regret-- the rest of his life. Living the rest of his life in prison, to me, is-- is justice--

Kenney's daughter and wife were in court to hear the verdict. And then they went back to their town in France.  And all they had to take with them was their memory.

Segolene Kenney: I can understand the emotional distress and the-- the pain of the Grimes's family.  But we are also very much suffering.

Keith Morrison: If you have a message for him now, what would that be?

Segolene Kenney: I'm okay.

Keith Morrison: And it takes some doing to be okay, doesn't it?  

Around Carmel Valley, more than a few once testy neighbors have been a little friendlier lately.

Kim Williams: I can't tell you how many people have commented that they've mended fences.

And up at the top of that winding, leafy road, up among the oak and the sycamore, the earthly possessions of those two doomed lives are scattered, abandoned, among the whimsical keepsakes of a house no one lives in. And across the road, outside that other stark and empty place, buckets of firewood the old engineer had so carefully sorted according to size, are still lined up just so.

And the neighborhood is quiet, like a tomb.