GROVELAND — In the end, it was simply a case of the “very difficult neighbor,” according to prosecutors who pored over details related to the case involving Paul Birkhauser, who was charged with disturbing the peace in a quiet part of town last June.
Birkhauser, 66, had his day in Haverhill District Court on Tuesday, where he was arraigned on one count of disturbing the peace before Judge Patricia Dowling.
Birkhauser was not arrested in connection with the crime, but appeared before a court magistrate several months ago to determine if there was probable cause to bring the case before a judge. A second charge of disorderly conduct brought against Birkhauser did not advance beyond the magistrate’s hearing, according to court officials.
Appearing alongside his attorney, Neil F. Faigel, Birkhauser admitted to following Julia Santos of Groveland during an incident that went viral on social media and made court officials wonder if the case was racially motivated. Birkhauser is white and Santos is Black.
By pleading guilty, Birkhauser’s case was continued without a finding for six months. He must write a letter of apology to Santos, 21, Dowling ruled.
“We first thought it might be a racial incident, but then we came to realize he’s more of that ‘very difficult neighbor’ (person),” Assistant District Attorney John DePaulo said in court Tuesday.
According to DePaulo, Birkhauser has a “non-criminal history” that made him known to Groveland police prior to last summer’s incident.
“We looked at his history and he’s been the neighbor to till his lawn when the next door neighbors are having a gathering,” DePaulo said. “The Groveland police know him as that difficult person — a ‘this is my land,’ type of guy. At this point, we don’t think of this as a racial incident and I think the family would agree with me.”
Santos said she was followed by Birkhauser June 29 after responding to a classified ad on Facebook. She videotaped her conversation with Birkhauser on Nora Lane in Groveland. That he video went viral on social media.
According to a police report, Birkhauser called Groveland’s dispatch line that same night to tell them about the incident. He told police that his seeing a “suspicious vehicle” in his neighborhood led to what he described as “all just a big misunderstanding.”
Birkhauser told police he was leaving his home on Juniper Terrace when he saw a car drive past him in the opposite direction, according to the report. That car, driven by Santos, “did not look like they knew where they were,” the report said. He then told police, according to the report, he followed that car out of his neighborhood and onto Nora Lane.
The video Santos posted to social media shows her explaining to the man later identified as Birkhauser that she just picked up free dog food after responding to a community Facebook page and was driving home. Santos publicly identifies Birkhauser by name in the post.
In the video, after he pulled up to her car and stopped, Santos explained she picked up dog food at a house in Groveland. She then said she stopped driving “cause I’m, quite frankly, I don’t feel safe right now” because he was following her.
Birkhauser responded, “I don’t feel safe with you driving around my neighborhood.”
According to the police report, Birkhauser told police Santos made a comment about “the only reason you are harassing me is because I’m Black.”
Birkhauser then replied, “I don’t know what color you are,'” according to the report.
When Santos said she is Black, Birkhauser said he “(has) nothing wrong with that” and was following Santos “because you were up our street,” according to the report.
According to the police report, the commotion led one neighbor to come outside her home and wonder why Santos was being “harassed,” while another resident said traffic was blocked so he could not leave his own home.
In her own interview with police, Santos said she feared for her safety with Birkhauser following her. Santos told police she “(had) never felt the level of fear when the man stopped behind me,” according to the report, and said she started filming in an attempt to get him to leave her alone.
Speaking to The Eagle-Tribune after the hearing, Santos said she believed Birkhauser’s punishment is fair.
“I’m very happy with how it came out,” Santos said. “I was told the punishment was a ‘reach’ for this type of charge, so I’m glad it stuck.”
Birkhauser’s attorney said his client apologized to Santos during the magistrate’s hearing, is remorseful and realizes his error in judgment.
“He realizes he made a mistake,” Faigel said.