The feud, like many between neighbours do, began with a backyard spat.
As tech entrepreneur Mark Towfiq tells it, the first offense was the netting. The couple next door had put up an unsightly white structure - not unlike a giant soccer goal - right outside his window, blocking his view of the California coastline.
His neighbour, billionaire bond investor Bill Gross, alleges that the fight started several months earlier, when Mr Towfiq's Laguna Beach home was loaned out to film the HBO series "Ballers." TV crew trucks, Mr Gross said, had cut off access to his own seaside residence from the coastal highway.
Yet after tensions between the two wealthy homeowners escalated into an explosive court battle - complete with harassment complaints, allegations of spying, and notably, the theme song to "Gilligan's Island" - Mr Gross proposed Monday that they call the whole thing off and donate the remainder of their legal fees to charity.
In the throes of a trial at Orange County Superior Court, Mr Towfiq is not having it.
"Make no mistake: this is not an offer to settle," Mr Towfiq's attorney, Jennifer Keller, said in a statement to The Washington Post. "This is a desperate stunt to stem the tide of negative press the public exposure of Mr Gross's actions has produced."
Neither Mr Gross nor his lawyer immediately responded to a request for comment late Monday night.
A year and a half ago, relations between the wealthy neighbours seemed to be cordial. When Mr Gross hired singer-songwriter Kenny Loggins to hold a private backyard concert for his girlfriend's 50th birthday last year, Mr Towfiq texted a thank-you for the show, according to Bloomberg News. Gross, the co-founder of the investment management firm Pimco, also put up a $1 million blown-glass sculpture in his backyard in 2019 - outside Mr Towfiq's window - without any trouble from next door.
But then that installation, made by artist Dale Chihuly, somehow suffered $50,000 in damages. (Mr Gross and his girlfriend, former tennis pro Amy Schwartz, would later claim it was caused by a thrown rock, the Los Angeles Times reported, while Mr Towfiq and his wife said something likely fell on the artwork.)
In any case, Mr Gross was quick to act: In April, he installed a protective netting over the nearly 10-foot-tall cobalt sculpture. Mr Towfiq, whose pricey cliffside view was now partially obstructed, filed a complaint with Laguna Beach officials, claiming that the netting and artwork had gone up without a permit, the Times reported.
That's when things really heated up.
Mr Gross and Ms Schwartz tried to harass Mr Towfiq, the tech entrepreneur said, by incessantly blasting rap songs, Mariachi music, and the "Gilligan's Island" theme as a pressure tactic for him to drop the complaint. Mr Towfiq and his wife could allegedly hear the tunes through cement walls and double pane windows.
Meanwhile, Mr Gross accused Mr Towfiq of acting like a "peeping Tom" and spying on him and Ms Schwartz, according to Bloomberg. During the trial, a lawyer for the billionaire said Mr Towfiq had filmed them and engaged in "stalker-like" behaviour - not to mention, blocking his driveway access during the week-long "Ballers" shoot.
By the fall, both men were seeking restraining orders and had filed lawsuits, prompting a trial this month. But following at least several days of testimony, Mr Gross released an open letter Monday calling for a stop to the unneighbourly feud - even though he and Ms Schwartz are expected to soon take the stand.
He wrote that the Laguna Beach fight was sucking away both public attention and court resources during the coronavirus pandemic, while in-person court proceedings were unnecessarily exposing lawyers to the virus. (Court hearings were abruptly halted on Monday when the billionaire's lawyer said Mr Gross and Ms Schwartz had been exposed to someone who tested positive for the coronavirus on an aeroplane.)
"I strongly believe in my case and my concerns about invasion of privacy, but at the end of the day the lawsuits are about videotaping and music," he wrote in the letter. "The absurdity would be laughable even to me if I wasn't a direct participant."
A well-known philanthropist, Mr Gross also suggested that past and future legal expenses be donated to food banks and other charities in Orange County.
Yet Ms Keller, Mr Towfiq's lawyer, countered that Mr Gross was making a thinly veiled attempt to distract from his actions and ultimately avoid cross-examination during the trial - rather than protect those in the courtroom from the virus.
"If billionaire Gross is so eager to contribute to people who are hurting, he is welcome to do so at any time," she said. "It is unfortunate that he is using the need all around us right now as a transparent PR tool."
The Washington Post
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