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August 28, 2018

Montgomery County family faces tough decision: keep dealing with 'menacing' neighbor or move out

They claim the 38-year-old man across the street has harassed them with racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic slurs and actions

Feuds Bad Neighbors
08282018_Schwenksville_neighbor Photo courtesy/Pam Brown Margolis

Schwenksville resident Pam Brown Margolis claimed her family has been subject to years of harassment from a neighbor, seen here giving her the middle finger as she drives past him on the street.

Fox Heath is a bucolic suburban development in Schwenksville, Montgomery County. At first glance, it offers residents an escape from the hectic day-to-day rigors of the world beyond its rolling hills and narrow streets where the neighborhood children play.

For one family, though, this arcadian nook has become a veritable hell on earth. Living here now requires semi-regular calls to the nearby State Police barracks, court appearances and constant looks over their shoulders as they walk the dog or drive out of the development.

To hear the mixed-race family – and court records – tell it, their problems all center on a man who lives a few houses down the block.

Fearful frustration started fomenting about six years ago with anti-gay chalk drawings in the driveway directed at their son. 

It continues today as they await a September court hearing on alleged racial slurs yelled at them.

In between those two incidents, they say they’ve been menaced by a neighbor who toes a line that tends to skirt police intervention but nonetheless has them on edge. It’s gotten to the point that they’re thinking about moving out and seeking help from anybody who can provide it. 

“Police have been very responsive for the most part,” said Pam Brown Margolis on behalf of her husband Howard, son Charles and daughter Angelica. “We are very frustrated by the lack of resolution after six years, but we know they are doing what they can.”

Recently, Margolis has made pleas on social media that refer to the neighbor by the name "Crazy."

"Crazy is well known as a troublemaker in the community and to the local magistrate," she wrote in one such post. "It is as if Crazy knows what he can get away with and pushes the boundaries to avoiding serious legal trouble.

But “what they can” do and what the family hopes they’ll do is not the same thing.

“This is a neighborhood where people don’t lock their cars. I just can’t not do anything anymore. It’s not OK,” Margolis said. “We are the victims but can do nothing, yet he is free to behave as he chooses. Ethnic intimidation is harassment and a punishable crime. I want him to leave us alone or face jail time.”

The family now faces a life-altering decision: Should they stay put and just deal with an increasingly uncomfortable situation, or pack up and move away?

'THERE'S SOMETHING WEIRD IN THE DRIVEWAY'

Charles Brown came out to his family as gay when he turned 18. Less than two years later, his sister came into his bedroom saying “there’s something weird in the driveway.”

When he walked downstairs to check it out, he remembers his parents speaking in hushed tones. Somebody drew something, he recalled them saying, and it’s directed toward you.

“I went outside and saw this weird cryptic message. It was all these symbols for males and females,” he said. “I don’t know how to articulate it better than stick figures saying two men or two women together is bad but one man and one woman together is good.

“It wasn’t overly threatening, but the message was clear and it made me feel really unsettled.”

SchwenksvillePhoto Courtesy of Pam Brown Margolis/for PhillyVoice

The Brown-Margolis family.


Making matters more confusing was that Charles said he’d never really interacted before with Matthew Rutkowski, the 38-year-old neighbor who they suspected of drawing it.

“I didn’t know this guy, didn’t know he existed. I hadn’t done anything to incite him,” Charles said. “It was confusing, a feeling of ‘what the heck is happening right now?’ Ever since then, I’ve had a feeling of unease.”

That marked the first time the Margolis family called the State Police barracks in Skippack for help. Charges in that case were dropped. (They think the matter was deprioritized when, around the same time, Rutkowski fatally struck a 16-year-old bicyclist in nearby Limerick. He was not charged with any wrongdoing in that matter.)

“He hadn’t bothered us up until that point,” Pam said. “The judge told him to leave Charles alone and he came over to apologize even though he wasn’t supposed to be on our property.”

They, and other neighbors, have not been left alone, though.

Rutkowski’s records from Magisterial and Common Pleas Courts bear that out. Guilty of noise violations in 2011. Guilty pleas on disorderly conduct and drug paraphernalia charges in 2012. Guilty pleas to harassment charges in 2012 and 2014. Guilty pleas to motor vehicle offenses in 2010, 2011 and 2014.

But Pam said court records don’t tell the full story, explaining why “everybody living within a door or two of him has moved out.” After all, microaggressions don’t always result in criminal charges being filed.

An African-American, she said Rutkowski’s called her a "n*****" on numerous occasions and labeled her white Jewish husband a “n***** lover.” He has allegedly filmed (or held a phone like he was recording) Angelica getting into her car several times in a "creepy" fashion, Pam said.

“He's followed us out of the subdivision on our respective ways to work in the mornings. He's parked his car in the middle of the street blocking our way,” she said. “He has spat at us. He left piles of dog poop on our driveway, twice. He flips us the bird anytime he passes us. He walks down the driveway with his big intimidating dog and yells at my husband. He's said, 'We don't want you living here anymore.' When you see him, you just know something is going to happen.”

These interactions often result in calls to police.

“When a trooper is sent out we must explain our current situation and rehash prior involvements, which is draining," she said. “I’ve been advised not to act against our neighbor and I feel as if I have no support nor recourse. 

"The police can do little until one of us is physically harmed, which I prefer to avoid. Our (homeowner's association) can’t help us. Every time the police come, when they leave, neighbors will come over and tell us their stories about him.”

Schwenksville Brian Hickey/PhillyVoice

A look up a street in the Fox Heath development in Schwenksville, Montgomery County. Off in the distance to the left is the Margolis home while Matthew Rutkowski's white pick-up truck can be seen on the right.

BACK TO COURT NEXT MONTH

Despite the litany of allegations, reports filed by the family have only resulted in court cases three times. (The Margolises said they don't call police every time, like when he gives them the middle finger while they are driving through the neighborhood.)

In the first, charges related to the homophobic chalk drawings were dismissed.

The second came in June 2017 when Rutkowski allegedly called Howard Margolis a "Jewish n***** lover” when he was walking the family dog Bailey – a deaf, 14-year-old Bichon poodle mix rescue – past his house. That incident resulted in a harassment charge being filed.

At a summary trial in November, Magistrate District Judge Albert J. Augustine ordered Rutkowski to have no contact with the family for six months. When the terms of that agreement were satisfied, the charges were dismissed this May.

Things remained quiet until the Fourth of July when, according to Pam, the neighbor yelled an ethnic slur at her as she walked past his house. She didn’t report that to police.

“We just started looking at homes. I can’t take it anymore." – Pam Brown Margolis

Then came Saturday, August 11.

“I can’t walk the dog without my husband anymore since my head’s always on a swivel,” she said. “We were walking Bailey past (Rutkowski's) house and he was in the driveway. He didn’t say anything but he had his phone out like he was filming us.”

They continued their walk. Rutkowski got into his car and drove around the block to catch up with them, the Margolises said.

“He yelled something at me but all I heard was gibberish. Pam would swear on our children that he dropped the ‘N word,’” Howard said. “Knowing that it got him in so much trouble before, I’d think he’d know better than to throw the ‘N word’ but she’s firm in her conviction that that’s what she heard. Why is he yelling anything at us in the first place?”

According to an incident report provided by Corporal Thomas Falcon, criminal investigation unit supervisor of the State Police Troop K barracks in Philadelphia, the couple reported that the suspect drove his truck past them as they were walking their dog.

"He yelled a derogatory word out the window at the victim," the report states. "There is a history between the accused and the victim for similar incidents. Due to the history, the accused was charged with Persistent Disorderly Conduct and Harassment."

State police did not have details of previous encounters readily available and referred questions about the latter to the Magisterial Court.

Rutkowski, who identifies as self-employed on a Facebook page with regular Bible verse updates, is scheduled for a September 26 preliminary hearing on charges including harassment (follow in a public place and lewd, threatening language) and disorderly conduct (obscene language, gestures).

Scott McIntosh, the Royersford attorney who represented Rutkowski in last year's matter, declined to comment on that, or the current, case. 

He reached out to Rutkowski seeking his client's permission to speak on Monday morning, but PhillyVoice did not hear back.

Calls to several phone numbers associated with Rutkowski's name and address went unreturned on Monday afternoon.

08282018_Fox_Heath_Schwenksville_BingSource/Bing Maps

State police have responded several times to the Fox Heath subdivision in Schwenksville.

WHAT'S NEXT?

Sitting at her dining room table, Pam Margolis is frustrated and resigned to the fact that things may very well never change in the community where they moved in 2005 to raise their children; the youngest will soon graduate college.

They’ve taken their concerns to HOA meetings to little avail. "The association reps said all they can do is assess fines and if he pays them, they move on," Howard explained.

Facing an empty-nest situation, moving wouldn’t be all that unexpected even without all the neighborhood drama. Still, Pam said she doesn’t want it to seem like she’s fleeing like the other families.

She’s particularly worried about the Muslim family with young children who just moved in next door to Rutkowski, thinking they might get chased out like the mixed-race family who lived there before.

“We just started looking at homes. I can’t take it anymore. The last incident was the final straw,” she said. “Everyone says it’s a shame that you have to move away from a beautiful neighborhood, but they don’t know the whole story.”

“I’m still very uncomfortable going home,” said Charles, who said he feels safer at Temple University due to the nervousness created by the conflict in Schwenksville. 

“That’s the house I grew up in. It felt like such a bizarre scenario. It ushered in a feeling that he can get away with anything he does," he continued. "It’s clearly not going to change for our benefit. It’s a Catch-22.”

“He does things that, taken by themselves, don’t seem all that menacing or unusal, until you add them all up." – Howard Margolis

For his part, Howard said he’s “tried to ignore it as best we can until it gets out of hand, which is when we end up filing charges.” He’s also worried about the reaction to going public with the story.

“He does things that, taken by themselves, don’t seem all that menacing or unusal, until you add them all up,” he explained on the phone last week.

He recalled a recent occasion when Rutkowski stood outside with his pit bull, seemingly filming Howard as he walked the family dog.

“I let my dog putter around for a couple minutes, but he was still there in the middle of the street,” he recalled. “His dog was wagging its tail, so I said, ‘That’s a great-looking dog. What a shame it got stuck with you.' He said ‘f*** you' or whatever his nonsense is.

“Within a few days, he was inside screaming about my ‘fa***t dog' and our 'f***ing n***** family.’ That tipped the scales to a whole new world of ethnic intimidation." 

At the November 2017 hearing, Howard said Rutkowski's attorney asked him if he'd consider community service instead of jail time. 

"I said, 'I don’t care what he does. I just want him to leave us alone,'” he said.

Pam has reached out to elected and law enforcement officials with a plea for help, but is inclined to think a potential move is the direction they're heading.

“(The kids) have said they’re not coming home to visit if this doesn’t get under control. As a mother, that’s the last thing I want to hear,” she said. “I was here first. We’re upstanding citizens. We are the victims here. We need help, and I just don’t understand why nobody can help us. 

"Why won’t they help me?”


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