`Peeping Tom' videos lead to $250,000 verdict

Judge calls hidden cameras a `home invasion' in Baltimore County civil lawsuit

October 27, 2005|By JENNIFER MCMENAMIN | JENNIFER MCMENAMIN,SUN REPORTER

For about four months, Glynis E. Neale had in her bedroom a 27-inch Sylvania television that she bought from a friend.

Unknown to her, the TV - as well as a clock radio that she said the friend had given her months earlier as a gift - contained hidden cameras and transmitters. From a curtained van parked down the street from her Owings Mills home, police would later say, her friend was watching - and videotaping - her.

Not satisfied with the "Peeping Tom" conviction that earned Anthony E. O'Neal a 30-day jail sentence, Neale filed a civil lawsuit. Yesterday, she won a $250,000 judgment against O'Neal from a Baltimore County judge who called the surreptitious surveillance a "home invasion" in "the age of high technology."

"We need to send a message," Circuit Judge Lawrence R. Daniels said in court, "not only to Mr. O'Neal, but to anyone else who would pervert the benefits of technology for such a base and lustful purpose."

Asked by her lawyer yesterday in court how she reacted to finding the cameras, Neale buried her face in her hands, struggling to compose herself. After a long pause - and a delivery of tissues from the judge's clerk - the 41-year-old woman took a deep breath and wiped her eyes.

"I just feel violated. Embarrassed," she said. "I'm still trying to deal with it. I'm still thinking there are cameras in my home."

The woman's lawyer, David Daneman, said that he does not expect his client to be able to fully collect on the judgment. But pursuing the civil suit, he said, was the only way Neale believed she might find peace.

The defendant, a 44-year-old auto body shop owner, was not in court yesterday and did not have a lawyer there on his behalf. Attempts to reach O'Neal yesterday were unsuccessful.

State laws have changed in recent years as technology has advanced in surveillance equipment, which is increasingly used by people to keep tabs on everything from their nannies and house sitters to their vehicles parked outside their homes.

Kim Detrick, District Court division chief of the Baltimore County state's attorney's office, said that in the past few years her office has prosecuted two to three cases a year of illegal video surveillance, a crime they had not seen before.

"Prior to that, we had people peeping in windows and bathrooms," she said. "But not with cameras."

A law that took effect in October 2004, Detrick said, increased the maximum penalty to one year in jail and a $2,500 fine for camera surveillance intended to watch an individual in a private residence.

Mark Kim, owner of Spy Camera Specialist, an Internet and mail-order retailer in upstate New York, said he had no competitors when he began doing business seven years ago. Today, the Internet teems with retailers selling tiny wireless cameras and videotaping devices hidden in alarm clocks, air purifiers and outdoor floodlights.

"Overall, there's a huge increase in the number of cameras sold to the public," he said. Although most customers seek cameras to watch their nannies, he said, he fields an occasional call from "a sicko" - or from the FBI or police investigating use of a product for less wholesome purposes.

More than two years after a phone call from her friend's wife alerted her to the presence of cameras hidden in her bedroom, Neale still struggles to discuss the ordeal. She declined to comment after yesterday's hearing.

In court, she testified that the news came in September 2003, when O'Neal's wife told her she had found videotapes in her husband's truck of the Owings Mills woman in her bedroom. As proof of what she'd seen, the wife described the room.

"I felt sick to my stomach," Neale told the judge. "I started searching."

Police later confirmed her discovery: small cameras and transmitters that had short-range transmission capabilities of 500 feet to 1,000 feet in the speaker of her television set and in the clock radio, charging documents show.

Investigators also found in their own records reports of phone calls from Neale and her neighbors about a suspicious van spotted repeatedly in the area.

On one occasion, police found O'Neal in the van, and, on another, a caller provided a tag number that matched a van registered to his sister, according to charging documents.

"Due to the frequent sightings of the described van near Ms. Neale's residence, it is believed that this van contains equipment that was used to intercept and record the transmissions from these cameras," police wrote in court documents. O'Neal was convicted in July 2004.

O'Neal has all but ignored the civil suit. Beyond completing a two-page, fill-in-the-blank answer to the civil complaint last December, he has not responded to other mailings in the case, according to court documents.

Phone numbers at his residence in the Gwynn Oak area of Baltimore County and his Baltimore business have been disconnected. A cell phone number that O'Neal listed on a court record was answered by someone who said he did not know the man. The lawyer who represented him in his criminal case had not heard from him in more than a year and knew nothing about the civil matter. And O'Neal did not respond yesterday to calls to a pager number offered by a relative.

Daniels, the judge, said it was appropriate to grant Neale's request for $100,000 in punitive damages and $150,000 in compensatory damages.

"She has to wake up every morning in that same bedroom and has to wonder: `Is someone watching?'" the judge said.

The case revealed "how vulnerable we all are to this type of home invasion," Daniels said. "One in which we are actually spied upon in our everyday personal routine."

jennifer.mcmenamin @baltsun.com

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