The Bough Breaks

When fourteen trees fall in St. Peters, who picks up the tab?

Timothy Griffey

On an unseasonably warm afternoon in late January, Steve Nunn and a few buddies got out their chain saws and set to work cutting down fourteen scraggly white pine trees in Nunn's backyard in St. Peters. That's when the trouble began. And it has yet to subside, even now, three months after the death of the 33-year-old father of three.

Steve and his wife, Carrie, had grown tired of the trees that pressed against the outside of the cyclone fence and towered over the red swing set. They threw off too much shade. Grass wouldn't grow; mud was everywhere. What with the scant sunshine, the above-ground pool the Nunns had installed two years ago barely got used.

And so the trees came down.

Then a St. Peters developer named Timothy Griffey made a memorable appearance on the doorstep of the Nunns' modest white house on Heather Valley Circle. The 46-year-old Griffey is completing a 112-home development called Penny Lane, part of which abuts the Nunns' property.

The Nunns, he said, had cut down his trees.

Though the trees were on the other side of the fence, Carrie had a surveyor's report from back when she and Steve bought the house. According to Topos Surveying & Engineering Corporation in Florissant, the Nunns' property line extended ten feet beyond the fence. Additionally, while the small cluster of pines screened the Nunns' view of Penny Lane (and vice versa), it was isolated. Aside from the cyclone fence, the backyards on Heather Valley Circle weren't separated from Griffey's land.

Griffey wasn't having any of it.

"He was yelling and screaming at the top of his lungs, saying things like, 'What possessed you to do such a stupid thing?'" Carrie Nunn recounts. "Steve didn't say much. He's pretty laid-back. Like he always did, he figured I'd handle it."

Hearing the commotion, next-door neighbor Alan Riley came over. "He was way, way out of line. If he talked that way to my wife, well, he'd be out on the street," says Riley, an aircraft mechanic for the Air National Guard. "I had to tell him he was talking to a lady."

Griffey offers a vastly different recollection of the January 29 encounter. "I am a gentleman and a professional," he says. "I am not an irate person and I wasn't that day. They were extremely abusive to me and extremely rude when I told them the trees were on my property. They basically thumbed their noses at me."

The developer retreated and called St. Peters police. Within the hour two squad cars had arrived and a veritable crime scene enveloped Heather Valley Circle. According to the police report, Officer Douglas Ziegemeier snapped photos while Officer Derek Lang conducted interviews. Yellow police tape was draped around the fallen pines.

In a supplemental report dated May 10, Lang wrote, "I have not found that Nunn had intentions of causing damage to property of other [and] this case should be considered unfounded."

Says Nunn: "They were very professional, but I could tell they couldn't really believe they were called out for something like this."

The next day Griffey hired a nursery, Baxter Gardens West, to assess the damage. The O'Fallon-based company estimated that removal and replacement of the fourteen trees would cost $20,634.

"This was so blatant that I still can't believe it," says Griffey. "It was malicious. Why would anyone chop down trees between their property and a big development?"

Early on a summer evening, Carrie Nunn arrives at the home she and the high-school sweetheart she wed fourteen years ago bought for $135,000 in 2001. She has just spent another day managing the office of a heating and cooling firm in Normandy, where, she says, "I make about $30,000." She is joined by neighbor and friend Alan Riley. Tapping tangerine-painted nails on the dining-room table, Nunn describes how Steve was a bit overweight but in good health, and that he passed a physical early last year with flying colors. "He was a good man," adds Riley.

Things are quiet for a time, punctuated only by the burbling murmur of an aquarium and an occasional chirp from Joey, the Nunns' pet parakeet. The conversation drifts to April 16, Easter Sunday. "We assumed everything was all over — that he [Griffey] had dropped it," Carrie says. "We didn't even talk about it anymore."

Easter morning found the Nunn clan at Family of Christ Fellowship, the nondenominational church they'd attended practically from the day they departed the Hill for St. Peters. The young machinist served as the church's Web master, part-time janitor and occasional usher. "I remember him moving chairs around that morning, getting things ready," says Riley. After church, everyone went to brunch and then it was off with the kids to Mid-Rivers Mall to see Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector. Following a late dinner at Buffalo Wild Wings, the family returned to Heather Valley Circle.

"We went to bed," the 33-year-old Nunn recalls, her eyes misting. "And sometime in the middle of the night, Steve died of a massive heart attack. We didn't even know he was sick. He had hypertensive cardiovascular heart disease that had gone undetected."

The day before the cremation, Nunn came home to find a letter from Griffey's personal attorney, Dwayne A. Johnson, stating that the Nunns had ten days to respond to Griffey's demand for $61,903 — three times the amount of Baxter Gardens' damage assessment, as state law provides.

Steve Nunn left behind a $10,000 life insurance policy. His cremation and funeral, says Nunn, cost $7,100.

At the end of April, Riley and Robert Grams, pastor of Family of Christ Fellowship, each dispatched letters to Johnson, imploring him to let the matter drop.

"Being a young family, they barely scraped by [and] it took of both of their incomes for them to meet their living expenses...," wrote Riley. "As a newly widowed mother of three with financial problems this legal suit is too much for her to deal with."

Grams says he argued in his letter that "love and compassion is what Carrie deserves now — not legal action." Adds the pastor: "This is such a minor thing for a big developer but a major thing for a woman trying to raise her children. It's disgusting."

On June 6 Johnson filed a civil suit in St. Charles County court. He says he never received any letters and was unaware of Steve Nunn's death until contacted by the Riverfront Times for this story.

"The bottom line is that she's never filed any response," Johnson says of Carrie Nunn. "I haven't heard hide nor hair from her. The fact that she's a widow — I don't want to sound callous, but the fact is that this woman did something, whether it's a mistake or not. Are we going to dismiss this because of this [death]? No. She's not destitute."

Timothy Griffey says that until the RFT called, he didn't know about the letters or Nunn's death.

"This is the first I heard," he says. "I am certainly very sorry to hear about this. I don't know why [Carrie Nunn] didn't tell me."

Adds Griffey: "Again, I'm sorry to hear this. This could change things."

The developer, however, declines to elaborate on how.

The case is slated to be heard in St. Charles County Circuit Court on July 25. "I don't have an attorney," says Carrie Nunn. "I have no money for that, none at all."

"I'm sorry about her personal life," says attorney Dwayne Johnson. "But all I know is my guy is out twenty grand in trees."

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