There Goes the Neighborhood
On a crisp November night, a steady flow of cars filled the parking lot at the Newton Free Library at the corner of Homer and Walnut streets. This is no ordinary library. Three stories high, it cost $15 million to build and is now the most used library in the state, doubling as a cultural hub for performances by Boston Symphony Orchestra musicians, readings by U.S. poet laureates, and lectures featuring brilliant Harvard scientists. On this night, the crowd arrived for a talk the library had put together on racism. These were polite gatherings at which sophisticated men and women would raise their hands, a moderator would field their questions, and thoughtful debate would follow. The series was called “I'm Not a Racist, Am I?”; this event involved watching a video, followed by a discussion and, of course, refreshments.
But something else happened that night. It wasn't part of the event, and it happened so fast that anyone who noticed would simply have dismissed it as odd behavior. A cup was pulled out of the trash, a plastic cup someone had sipped from seconds earlier that still had their saliva on the rim and fingerprints on the sides.
This cup was about to begin a long international journey. It was driven that night back to a well-disguised office off Beacon Street in Brookline that belonged to a private investigator. And not just any private dick: Jay Groob, a slick-dressing, sharp-talking, 49-year-old Little League coach and father of two, was named investigator of the year in 2002 by the Council of International Investigators. He's made his living as a super snoop, tailing suspects, faking his identity, spying through binoculars Â— anything to put together his latest puzzle. For this puzzle, Groob needed the cup because it contained the DNA of a man he was certain was the suspect he was prowling for. And Groob knew that if he was right, it would set off pandemonium the likes of which Newton has never seen. Protests, resignations, lawsuits Â— they were all sure to follow. “It would be,” one resident says, “the biggest story in Newton history.”
Groob, a Newton resident himself, knew this, which is why he handled the cup like a priceless gem. Careful to not smudge it, he sealed it in a FedEx box and sent it to a Toronto lab, where workers were just as careful, using rubber gloves to avoid tainting it. It was at this lab that the saliva from the much-traveled plastic cup would be tested to see if it matched the saliva that had licked closed three plain white envelopes months earlier, envelopes now sitting in Groob's desk. If the spit matched, he had his man.
Where to begin? With the hate mail from those white envelopes that screamed, “Gay liberal Jewish elite?” The BB-gun pellets and shattered windows? The threatening postcard one resident got? The FBI's involvement? What about the mayor's curious call tipping off a newspaper to a scandal most mayors would fight desperately to keep out of print? Or the messages sprayed onto a high school wall? So much nastiness for an idyllic suburb that only a few years ago was named the safest city of its size in the United States. “I've never seen Newton like this,” says James Epstein, a Newton lawyer. “It's done tremendous damage. The town will never be the same.”
The story began far more civilly, on January 31, 2002. That evening, inside the red-brick, white-steepled Newton City Hall, the mayor, a nattily dressed man named David Cohen, with a stiff walk and neatly parted black hair, told the Board of Aldermen that the city was facing a budget crisis and needed to pass a tax override. Under state law, no town can increase its property tax rate by more than 2.5 percent without getting the approval of the voters. Cohen wanted $11.5 million, a 7 percent increase. He insisted it was necessary, that it would save police, fire, and teaching jobs from being cut, and that the few hundred dollars more in taxes residents would pay was a worthy sacrifice. “I understand how hard people work for their money,” Cohen said, “and I don't take this decision lightly.”
But in a city like Newton, where a $400,000 house is a bargain, and where people buy century-old Victorians just so they can tear them down and build bigger ones, Cohen should have known that forking over a few extra bucks in taxes was hardly going to set off a feud. In a city like Newton, only one subject can turn lawn-mowing, minivan-driving, recipe-sharing neighbors into middle-aged delinquents who launch into shouting matches, shoot out car windows, rip up signs, and use each other's homes as target practice with paintball guns.
Back in the 1960s, Time magazine declared that Newton had what it called “probably the most creative school system in the country.” Today the district spends more than $8,500 per student per year, among the most in the state, and pays its teachers an average of more than $53,000 Â— among the highest salaries. At least half a dozen of its administrators make more than $100,000 a year. The reason the city spends all this money, Cohen says proudly, is that “Newton is the best school system in the area.” Its neighbors in Brookline, Weston, Concord, Sudbury, and Lexington would likely argue that, but there is no arguing that in Newton, test scores are high, class sizes are small, virtually nobody drops out, and almost everybody goes to college. It's not perfect Â— Newton's ratio of one computer for every seven students falls short of what the state recommends Â— but the Department of Education still tapped a Newton elementary school teacher as its 2002 teacher of the year. Field trips aren't brown-bag lunches to the Museum of Science. They're 20-hour flights to China for an exchange program. These are the reasons parents with pockets full of money flock to Newton Â— and the people who run the town know it.
What they also know is that any time they're facing a budget crunch, all they have to do is paint a bleak picture of the schools becoming Â— horrors! Â— ordinary, and parents will throw money at them like bachelors at a Vegas strip club. That's what Superintendent Jeffrey Young did in the days after Cohen's announcement. Cohen had pledged to spend $8.5 million of the override total on Newton's schools Â— “For our children, for our community, for our country,” he begged, “I ask you to support our schools through this override.” But because residents just two years earlier had approved a plan to fix the city's two high schools, which could cost a whopping $95 million, many were reluctant to pony up again so soon.
That's when Young piped in, ranting about “paperbacks bound with duct tape,” outdated textbooks, and microscopes worthy of a museum collection. “It's not the Newton I know,” Young said at the time. “It's not the Newton you know. It's not the Newton everybody knows.” Open your wallets, he was saying, or your schools crumble into mediocrity. But some were skeptical, pointing back at Young himself, the highest-paid superintendent in the western suburbs, whose $178,811 salary last year exceeded that of even the head of the Boston public schools.
“There was a time we were thought of on a top national level,” says Tom Mountain, a columnist for the Newton Tab with three kids in Newton's schools, who has been one of the most outspoken critics of the override. “I think that time has passed.”
Them's fightin' words. In fact, if Young's words did anything after Cohen's request, it was to pit the city's north (generally working-class Irish and Italian) and south (rich and largely Jewish) sides against each other like a pair of heavyweight boxers.
In this corner, the champion, the Newton Taxpayers Association. Weighing in with a modest war chest of about $18,000, it is a small but proud group whose members can make Rush Limbaugh look moderate and who helped defeat past override attempts in Newton. The mission this time: proving that $11.5 million would be wasted money and that Newton's schools were deteriorating not because of a budget crunch, but because of overpaid, liberal-minded leaders so focused on teaching black history, sex education, and gay rights that they had lost touch with mainstream education. “We're just a bunch of people who are out here paying the tax bills and think they're too high,” Len Mead, who was head of the Taxpayers Association, said at the time.
Mead still refers to the mayor and school officials as “those sons of bitches.” His successor as president, Brian Camenker, a father of two, is less animated but possibly Newton's most polarizing figure. While Mead pounds his fist on the table complaining about salaries, Camenker and Mountain sit calmly, griping about what they say is a politically correct agenda those schools are obsessed with teaching. “They have a left-wing, neo-Marxist, multicultural ideology left over from the '60s that evolved from Woodstock,” says Mountain.
And in this corner, the challenger, the Committee to Keep Newton Safe and Strong. Tipping the fundraising scales at around $125,000, its members brush off the gadflies as a bunch of right-wing blowhards. Their mission: Save our schools, whatever the cost. Leading their charge was Cohen, a former state representative whose words the Safe and Strong crowd would echo. “Are we going to maintain our top-quality schools, or are we going to retrench and accept a second-tier school system?” James Mahoney, head of Safe and Strong, asked days after Cohen's request for the override.
The vote was set for April 30, 2002. A clean fight it was not.
The challenger came out swinging when half a dozen signs Mead's group had posted around town were vandalized or disappeared. The signs were blunt Â— “No Tax Override” Â— with small American flags. The ones that weren't pounded into lawns were held up by volunteers, and drivers would either honk and wave or flash thumbs-down as they passed. Mead says five signs disappeared from his front lawn in succession. “Those sons of bitches,” he says.
Then the assault turned personal. Because Michael Mozill was treasurer of the Newton Taxpayers, his address Â— 45 Greenough Street Â— appeared on all the group's signs like a big bull's-eye. At around 2 a.m. on January 21, Mozill and his wife were sleeping when somebody took aim. “I remember hearing a noise at the bedroom window that sounded like ice falling,” he says. “I got out of bed, groggy, and I didn't see anything.” In the morning he found paintball stains on his Jeep Cherokee parked in his driveway, and a hole in a window where a paintball had smashed the glass. “My son was a junior at Newton North High,” Mozill says. “I figured it had to be kids.”
Until it happened again in March. A hole in his Cherokee from what he assumes was a BB gun. “There was no question then in my mind it wasn't kiddie vandalism,” he says. “Neighbors who used to be civil were screaming at each other.” The police put his suspicions in their report: “Complainant feels this occurred as a result of his being the treasurer of the political campaign of the override.”
That's when the champions started swinging back. When school opened at Newton North High on Monday, March 25, teachers and students found the number “$103,356.60” spray-painted in orange and white 15 times on the building Â— a reference to the salary of principal Jennifer Huntington. Also painted was this: “Spend money on education, not red tape.”
“It was just a vote over an override,” says Jay Babcock, a Newton police officer. “People took it to an extreme. It pitted friends against friends.” He says young officers who supported the override, thinking it might save their jobs, wound up bickering with relatives who didn't want their taxes raised. “One guy's uncle stopped talking to him for a couple weeks,” Babcock says.
By late March, thousands of lawns in Newton had an opinion Â— either a red-and-white “No More Wa$te” sign or a red, white, and blue “Keep Newton Safe & Strong” placard. Mailboxes were stuffed, too. Layoffs, the mayor warned in one flier, were inevitable if the override failed. Hogwash, said another Â— the city has plenty of money to survive. Polls of residents showed split opinions as April 30 neared.
Then came the knockout punch.
Saturday, April 27, 2002, was a gloriously sunny day. Red Sox pitcher Derek Lowe threw a no-hitter, and the Bruins were fighting in the playoffs. Then Newton's mail arrived and a number of residents, most of them Jewish and on the south side, opened a white envelope addressed to “Resident” and stamped in red, “IMPORTANT TAX INFORMATION.”
Inside was a single page. The banner at the top said: “Newton Taxpayers Minuteman Association.” Beneath that, it read: “NO MORE WASTE! NO TAX OVERRIDE! STOP THE OVERRIDE! SAY NO TO THE GAY LIBERAL JEWISH ELITE!”
The text began: “If you're like us, you're sick and tired of the big-spending alliance of gays, Jewish liberals, and other elitists that's been running this town and its schools for way too long. You're also tired of shelling out your hard-earned money to pay for six-figure salaries for public officials who never know how to say NO to the labor union hacks and who … coddle so-called 'special needs' kids and disruptive blacks and other minority students who aren't even from Newton.” It closed, “So please vote on April 30.”
The Newton Police Department's phones immediately started ringing. Joshua Elkin called. “He found the letter very disturbing,” his complaint reads. Susan Dansker and Carol Halberstadt called. “Both parties found the letter very disturbing and would like it investigated,” a report says.
Then it got even weirder. Instead of trying to keep the lid on a story about anti-Semitism on his streets, Mayor Cohen, who is Jewish, called the Boston Globe Â— and had a copy of the letter faxed over. (Asked who faxed it for him, he says, “I don't remember.”)
His call was like lighting a match in a fireworks factory. The Globe reporter called Len Mead, whose group was the Newton Taxpayers Association. Motto: “Newton's 21st Century Minute Men Ready to Fight Higher Taxes.”
Was this letter his doing? Mead, just back from the Bruins playoff game, told the reporter he'd never seen any letter, and that his group wasn't called the “Newton Taxpayers Minuteman Association.” The story ran the next day, Sunday, under the headline, “Flier fans Newton tax debate: 'Gays' and 'Jewish liberals' attacked.” “Whoever did this is attempting to make it look like it's coming from us,” Mead was quoted as saying. “It's not what we do.” Mahoney, from the Safe and Strong group, said: “It's the opposite of what Newton is all about.” The Reverend Howard Haywood, a lifelong Newton resident, wondered if the flier might backfire. “People might get angry and go vote for it,” he suggested.
Which seemed to be the exact purpose of the letter. It was worded so carefully, with phrases lifted straight from the Newton Taxpayers campaign fliers, that on a quick glance anyone might have simply linked it to that group, decided they wanted nothing to do with anti-Semitic rhetoric, and voted for the override. And that's just what happened.
After three days of press conferences and accusations, April 30 arrived, and in a huge turnout of more than 27,000 voters, the override passed by a slim 709 ballots. The south side of town, where the flier was distributed, voted strongly in favor; the north side was mostly opposed. The letter “was designed to sway the election, and it worked,” Mead says. “These sons of bitches. They say we'll fire your teachers and close your library, then they tell the kids to tell your parents to vote for this override.”
“I knew it was going to be a close win or a big defeat,” Cohen says, sitting in his office with an American flag on his gray suit's lapel and a sign taped to his window that says, 'NO HATE.'”
But as he basked in the victory, Cohen's interest in finding out who mailed the letter all but vanished. When asked now, a year later, why it's not important to find out who among his residents disseminated an anti-Semitic message to try to influence a critical vote, Cohen says, “In one sense, I do want to know. But I'm not going to tell my police chief to investigate.”
“There were a few people who acted irresponsibly,” he says. “There is much more that brings us together than divides us.” Epstein, who is affiliated with Newton Taxpayers, has his own theory. “If you're on the 'yes' side, you don't want to know because it could be somebody in your camp. David Cohen has no vested interest in finding out.”
The mayor may not care, but Mead, Camenker, and Mountain still do, and when the police and FBI refused to investigate, saying the letter doesn't qualify as hate language, they hired a private eye. “I can smell a cover-up,” Jay Groob says sitting in his Brookline office, “and this was a cover-up.”
“If we find out,” Mead predicts, “all of City Hall will come crashing down.”
Cohen shrugs his shoulders at the implication. “For a year they've been making this ridiculous claim, but they haven't produced one shred of evidence.” Asked if the letter was his handiwork, he quickly says it wasn't, then adds: “I think the people who the letter defamed put it out.”
No way, says Mead.
Groob, meanwhile, is developing a profile of who may have sent the letter, whittling a list to five suspects Â— none of whom he'll name. The DNA from the envelopes in which the letters were mailed has now been confirmed to be a male's, which is how Groob wound up at the library, waiting for his suspect to throw a cup in the trash.
When that sample was tested against the DNA on the envelopes, it didn't match. “I thought we were going to be heroes,” Groob says. Adds Mead: “We were shattered.” The hunt continues. “Maybe he'll blow his nose in a Kleenex,” Mead says of the next suspect on the list.
Or maybe they already have his DNA.
Two days after the election, a postcard of Texas landed in Mead's mailbox. “Now that you've lost and shown your true colors in the ugly fight, relocation appears to be the obvious solution. I'm recommending Texas Â— it's just your kind of place. Thanks!”
Mead did move. Fed up with Newton, he settled in Westborough. But he kept that postcard. More tests are planned. Behind that stamp, after all, lies the sender's saliva.