When Harry Domas moved into this well-kept Peoria suburb more than a decade ago, his only next-door neighbor seemed ideal.
“He said ‘I’m going to be the best neighbor you ever had,'” Harry said.
During a recent interview, Harry stood on the driveway of the property he once owned. Straddling the border of the properties are identical mailboxes next to each other.
Harry pointed to them and reminisced about his neighbor, Ernie.
“Shortly after I moved in, he gave me a call on his way to Home Depot and he said, ‘I’m going to get us a couple mailboxes for us.' He came back with these, and they are still here, matching mailboxes,” Harry said, then shifting into a tone of sarcasm, “because he’s going to be the best neighbor ever.”
Today, it is fair to say that Harry—and others in the neighborhood—feel their once congenial neighbor is actually the worst neighbor ever. At least, he is the worst they’ve ever encountered.
“He’s a nutcase. He has harassed the neighborhood for many years,” Harry said.
Harry moved away earlier this year and sold his house for a loss. He has spent several thousand dollars on legal bills while defending himself in city court for an assault charge he claims is bogus. He refused to accept a plea deal from the city and he is prepared to take the case to trial.
“It destroyed our sense of community”
The gracious new neighbor who initially welcomed Domas with open arms 13 years ago is Earnest “Ernie” Leas. Neighbors knew Ernie as the retired firefighter who readily lent a hand to others.
At one time, Ernie’s wife lived with him in the house. The couple had a good rapport with everyone. There was a sense of community on this street near 75th Avenue and Cactus Road. People took pride in maintaining their lawns and landscaping.
But around 2011, Ernie’s relationship with Harry and with the entire neighborhood began to erode. Harry recalls a turning point when he temporarily rented out the home and installed cable on the property. Crews dug up the sidewalk in order to lay cable underground.
According to Harry, Ernie confronted him and berated him. He should have gotten satellite TV, he told Domas.
During the ensuing years, Ernie seemed to turn against others on the street and do strange things.
He became reclusive. He turned on a weed blower for hours on end adjacent to the fence of Harry’s house, perhaps as a way to harass Harry.
“Sometimes he would take a break. Then he would turn it on again for hours more,” Harry said.
In 2016, a large obscene gesture was painted on Ernie’s garage door. Neighbors said it was the work of Ernie, intended to provoke everyone else.
Later, Ernie painted elaborate graffiti over his entire house featuring phrases “Menopause Manor,” “Overkill,” and “Pound Sand." It was loud and colorful and artistic. It appeared to be the work of a professional.
Neighbors complained to the city, but it was not a violation of city code. They also complained about loud noises emanating from the home at odd hours of day, as if the noises were on a recorded loop.
“He would have these really high-pitched screeching sounds, I can’t explain how, but really bad,” Harry said.
Ernie installed more than a dozen surveillance cameras on his house, pointing in all directions. One neighbor accused Ernie of taking photos of his young daughter.
Then, last year, the exterior of Ernie’s house was transformed again into an array of bright, fluorescent colorful stripes. They are painted up and down the walls, garage and windows.
The “rainbow house,” as some referred to it, garnered publicity on local TV stations and social media. A November 1, 2017 news story on AZCentral was titled, “Meet Ernie Leas, the man with the rainbow-striped house.”
In the story, Ernie proudly described the house as a work of art done by a downtown Phoenix artist. He said the feedback he received from neighbors was positive and that the design was still evolving.
“Now it’s back to like a clean sheet of paper until I come up with some new ideas,” Ernie said in the video. “One person asked me if I was making a statement and I told her, ‘Well, I am not aware that I am making a statement.'”
To outsiders, the paint job appeared amusing and whimsical. But to neighbors who knew Ernie Leas, it represented just one aspect of bizarre behavior by an unpredictable individual.
“I think he’s just lonely. I think he’s just a very sad man inside,” said Mary Ellen Hawke, who lives diagonally across the street from Ernie. “It (the behavior) just destroyed our sense of community and I think he feels he’s harassing us.”
Ernie didn’t stop with his house. He parked old trucks on the street directly in front of other people’s homes. At various times, he has parked two pickups, an out-of-commission ice cream van and a sun-worn ambulance that appears from another era. For the past fourteen months, the ambulance has been parked in front of Mary Ellen’s house.
“At least I know where my house is now, when I have people come over I just tell them it’s the house with the ambulance,” Mary Ellen said, smiling.
12 News made repeated attempts to contact Ernie Leas for this story. Leas immediately went inside his home when 12 News asked to speak with him last week.
Mary Ellen and others are baffled by their neighbor.
“Ernie was a friend,” Mary Ellen said. “We used to go over and talk with him, he was really nice. He gave me a tree.”
Over the years, attempts at reconciliation were rejected, Mary Ellen said. At one point, Mary Ellen’s husband brought Ernie brownies and was turned away with shouts of profanity.
Other neighbors wanted nothing to do with Ernie and moved away.
“The man next door had a wonderful family. But he couldn’t handle it. He told me he had to leave before he did something he would regret,” Mary Ellen said.
Complaint to the City of Peoria
Last year, Mary Ellen wrote a letter to Peoria City Mayor Cathy Carlat, explaining the graffiti and the vehicles.
“I have lost three of the best neighbors because there is no repercussion for this man … there has to be a code out there that does not allow vehicles to be parked on the street endlessly,” she wrote in the September 2017 email. She later added: “I pray for him and forgive him over and over but something should be done.”
According to a reply email the same month, Mayor Carlat sympathized with Mary Ellen.
“Living in a neighborhood that makes us proud and happy to live in is very important to me, so I fully understand your frustrations and how disappointing this must be,” Carlat wrote.
Carlat explained there was nothing that could be done. Ernie was protected by the First Amendment to paint his house. The city had a neighborhood mediation service to resolve disputes, but that was not an option.
“Unfortunately, we need a willing homeowner ready to work with their neighbors on a resolution and it doesn’t appear this is the case,” Carlat wrote.
Carlat directed the city’s Code Enforcement Department to investigate the vehicles parked in the street. Neighbors said the vehicles should be considered “abandoned.” Clearly it is a violation, they thought.
But last week, a spokesperson for the City of Peoria told 12 News the investigation cleared Ernie of wrongdoing. He was not violating any law by parking the bus and ambulance on the street because he moved the vehicles periodically.
“Both vehicles were reported as abandoned. An investigation was conducted and notice given to the owner,” said Peoria spokeswoman Jen Stein. “He provided proof of current registration and moved the vehicles every 48 hours or less and the case was closed.”
Tensions between Harry and Ernie boiled over in the late afternoon of Nov. 19th, 2017. It was just a couple weeks after the media attention over Ernie’s rainbow house.
Ernie parked his truck in front of Harry’s house. He then walked nonchalantly in front of Harrys’ driveway toward his own house.
A surveillance video, possibly recorded by a fixed camera on Ernie’s house or by someone operating a camera manually, captures the chain of events. A hedge between the two men’s properties blocks the view of some aspects of the incident.
After Ernie walks by, a shirtless Harry emerges from his garage. He yells at Ernie to move his truck. Ernie yells back. The men shout back and forth. At one point, Harry can be seen physically attempting to coerce Ernie toward his truck. The two men end up on Harry’s driveway and Ernie stumbles to the ground.
While lying on his back, Ernie appears to be trying to make a phone call. Harry grabs the phone and throws it against the pavement. There is more yelling. The men walk out of view of the camera again and Ernie can be heard yelling over and over for help.
Ernie emerges once again in the camera’s view, the side of his face bloodied. Harry’s brother Dennis, a witness to the altercation, would later claim to police he watched Ernie gauge the side of his face with his keys to create the wound. But Ernie clearly sounds distressed and is heard yelling from behind the hedges when the two men cannot be seen that he is being assaulted.
Neighbors appear frantic as they rush to the argument and try to calm the men down.
Harry claimed self-defense, saying Ernie raised his fist with his keys ready to strike. Harry also told police he thought the phone might be a weapon.
“I never pushed him. I never swung at him. I never hit him. I was only trying to keep him at bay from doing more harm to either of us,” Harry said.
Manuel Saldivar, a neighbor who witnessed the altercation, was interviewed by officers. In the report, Saldivar said he watched Harry push Ernie, but not enough to create the reaction that it did.
“Leas appeared to employ some theatrics and begun to act like he was going to ‘Fake Fall’ a couple of times,” Saldivar said in the police report.
Ernie did not cooperate with the officers or the fire department, according to police reports. Police declined to charge anyone and it appeared the situation might have been over.
The surveillance video
About two weeks later, Ernie appeared at the Peoria Police department joined with his attorney, Kevin L. Burns.
In a new report filed that day, Ernie claimed Harry pushed him after an attempt to take his car keys from his hand. Ernie also claimed Harry pinned him to the ground as he called for help from the neighbors.
“Ernest felt as though he would be killed if someone did not step in to help him,” the police report said.
Ernie told police the reason he didn’t initially provide officers a statement on scene was because he was not in the right state of mind. He also stated he lost a thousand-dollar gold chain and a ring during the altercation, not to mention his iPhone, which was now broken.
The report notes that Ernie claimed several serious injuries as a result of the incident, including “a possible concussion, and subdermal hematoma,” but Ernie refused to sign the necessary documents to confirm the claims.
Ernie also provided officers with a surveillance video of the incident.
“Harry can be seen pulling Earnest by the arm and pushing him by the back of the neck, throwing Earnest to the ground on Harry’s driveway,” the officer writes in his report. “Harry continues to yell at Earnest to move the truck, give up the keys. Harry then grabs Earnest’s phone … and throws it to the ground causing it to break.”
Several days later, officers arrested Harry and charged him with assault, criminal damage and disorderly conduct.
Harry has rejected a plea deal offered by the City of Peoria. It would have allowed him to pay a fine and put the incident behind him, Harry said.
Instead he alleges he is the victim of unfair treatment by the City of Peoria and the courts and that Ernie is getting favorable treatment because of his background as a firefighter.
“I’m totally convinced that the entire City of Peoria is nothing but corrupt,” Harry said.
When challenged with the fact that he lost his temper and confronted Ernie, as the video portrays, Harry says the video doesn’t tell the entire story because it has been edited.
“He left out the important parts that would incriminate him,” Harry said, regarding the video.
Harry even submitted expert testimony to court stating the video is not in its original form.
“After testing and analysis it can be concluded that the video file is not consistent with a CCTTV/DVR surveillance system original and is a video evidence rerecorded,” the signed declaration states.
“That should be a red flag right there,” Harry said.
In July, Harry filed a motion to have the case dismissed. The motion was denied.
He is scheduled to be in court later this month for a pre-trial hearing.
As Harry’s legal battle plays out in court, Mary Ellen remains in the neighborhood and says she is determined not to allow someone else dictate her well-being. Last week when Ernie briefly walked onto his driveway while 12 News was present, Mary Ellen was standing in her yard.
“Hi Ernie, Merry Christmas!” she yelled in a polite voice. Ernie didn’t respond. When Ernie appeared to notice a 12 News camera on the street, he quickly walked inside.
Later, Mary Ellen said she wants the city to do something more.
“In spite of how wonderful Peoria is, Peoria needs to look over their code enforcements. I think, if this was in front of the mayor’s house, or in front of a councilman’s house, do you think it would be there for 14 months? I highly doubt it,” she said.