Heidi Sullivan was so distraught over her uncle's actions that she took him to court -- and won $3 million.
It started three years ago, when her father died unexpectedly. Hours after his death, she said, her uncle and other family members rummaged through her father's western Baltimore County home. Determined to keep her from taking over the property, they changed the locks the day of the funeral, according to trial testimony.
Later, according to testimony, the uncle repeatedly threatened Mrs. Sullivan and filed a complaint that resulted in her husband's being jailed on a phony assault charge. The Sullivans also found the driveway to the house barricaded with 20 tons of stone, topped with two severed deer heads, according to testimony.
On March 31, a Baltimore County Circuit Court jury awarded Mrs. Sullivan and her husband $3 million from her uncle for malicious prosecution, invasion of privacy and false imprisonment.
Her uncle, Henry L. Cole Jr., 43, a wealthy western Baltimore County landowner, investor and former real estate broker, has filed one motion for a new trial and another to reduce the verdict as excessive.
Meanwhile, the case has raised questions about why the state's attorney's office prosecuted Mrs. Sullivan's husband when Mr. Cole's assault accusations were contradicted by the original police report and discredited by a later police investigation.
All of this over a four-bedroom brick ranch-style house in western Baltimore County that now is unoccupied, vandalized and boarded up.
"I'm pleased at the verdict," said Mrs. Sullivan's husband, David, 29. "The money, too, but just mainly to prove that you can't really get away with that kind of crazy stuff."
Mr. Cole has declined to comment on the advice of his lawyers. His attorney in the civil case, Robert A. Brocato, said, "We were shocked by the size of the verdict and certainly plan to follow through with a vigorous appeal. A lot of the things that were alleged in this trial were very much disputed, and the fact that the jury accepted it as true does not make it true."
Mr. Brocato noted that although the jury chose not to believe Mr. Cole, he denied the Sullivans' allegations in his testimony.
The house at the heart of it all sits next to Mr. Cole's estate off Chapeldale Road and was owned by Mrs. Sullivan's father, Matthew M. Potochnik. Mr. Potochnik received title to the house in a divorce settlement with his former wife, the sister of Mr. Cole's wife.
Mr. Cole is the former owner of Cross Country Realty and an Owings Mills investment firm, according to the testimony, and owns real estate including shopping centers, and expensive homes in western Baltimore County and in Florida. A police officer testified that Mr. Cole boasted of being worth $15 million to $20 million.
"But he wanted this little house right in the middle of his domain," said Mr. Sullivan, who lives with his wife in the Carroll County community of Finksburg.
This is what happened, according to the civil suit and cases in two other counties stemming from the incidents:
When Mrs. Sullivan, then 20, refused to yield to her uncle's pressure to withdraw as executor of her father's estate, she began to receive telephone death threats, according to Barry C. Steel, the lawyer who represented Mr. Sullivan in the civil suit.
Police and telephone company records linked some of the calls to Mr. Cole, who was arrested on multiple telephone misuse charges and one harassment count and in May 1992 was immediately ordered by a Carroll County court commissioner to leave his niece alone.
The next day, in one of three call to Mrs. Sullivan's workplace, the caller said, "Don't expect Heidi in to work, because she's dead."
Mrs. Sullivan testified that she tearfully answered one call, recognized her uncle's voice and pleaded with him to stop. Mr. Sullivan decided to confront Mr. Cole at his office in Owings Mills on May 20, 1992.
Mr. Sullivan testified that when he asked Mr. Cole to stop calling, Mr. Cole started punching. The two traded a few blows before officers were called to the scene.
Police reported the incident as a fistfight. Police said officers arrested Mr. Cole on a disorderly conduct charge when he
"started yelling profanity at suspect Sullivan about his wife" and "just kept on yelling and cursing" when police ordered him to calm down. The charge was later dropped.
The next day, Mr. Cole complained to police that Mr. Sullivan had threatened him with a gun during the incident. Mr. Sullivan was arrested and charged with attempted murder, assault, battery and multiple handgun charges, although the original police report and witnesses had stated that no one involved had a firearm.
Mr. Sullivan was released several hours later on bail, but Mr. Cole began a series of 20 telephone complaints to police in an effort to get Mr. Sullivan's bail revoked.