Scrapyard scrape roils residential neighborhood
Neighbors of a man who regularly operates heavy machinery and dumps soil and scrap on his residential property say they have been forced to flee Jefferson Parish because Code Enforcement officials can’t stop him.
The parish has opened 20 Code Enforcement cases against Thomas Centanni since 2005, all citing him for keeping scrap and heavy industrial equipment, such as back hoes, stump grinders, bobcats, boats and junk vehicles, in the yard and the broken-down shed behind his home in Metairie.
Centanni and his wife Tracey own a lot in Kenner where they also keep piles of debris and heavy equipment. But that is a commercial property near the airport, not the neighborhood of modest ranch houses off West Metairie Road where surveillance videos have captured Centanni and various workers using the noisy machinery day and night.
It’s unclear why Centanni keeps doing such industrial work at his residential property. He told WWL-TV he is disabled, doesn’t have a job and “never owned a business.”
Next-door neighbor Woodrow Mulkey said he filed only two code enforcement complaints against Centanni over the last seven years, but claims he has, along with his live-in girlfriend, felt “terrorized” and “harassed” by Centanni in a series of incidents this year.
The neighbor who owns the house on the other side of Centanni, Donna Nevels, reports similar problems dating back decades, saying she was forced to move to Slidell in 2000 because Centanni was using heavy equipment in the wee hours of the morning and parish officials could not get him to stop.
“This was a nice little neighborhood until he came” in the late 1990s, Nevels said. “The parish has to do something to make him not do it in the middle of the neighborhood.”
“I have been stressed by this neighbor for years,” Mulkey said. “He tries to intimidate. But it’s not the fear of my neighbor that’s the last straw that makes me want to leave; that makes me have to sell my family home. It’s because I’m afraid, because of everything I’ve seen, of Jefferson Parish.”
Mulkey’s observations about the parish’s Code Enforcement Office started in earnest back in July 2010, when Centanni had unknown men staying in his backyard shed.
“There was a hearse in my front yard. And they were moving a dead body from my neighbor’s yard through my yard because they couldn’t get through my neighbor’s yard,” Mulkey said. “I said, ‘What’s going on?’ And they told me it was a guy named Bill, and he’d been back in that shed, for a while, in the summertime. It wasn’t pretty.”
Mulkey said Centanni had knocked down the fence between their two lots, but that didn’t cause Mulkey to file any formal complaints. The dead body was the last straw, though. That was the first time Mulkey reported Centanni to Jefferson Parish Code Enforcement.
“My neighbor found out that I reported him, through Jefferson Parish,” Mulkey said. “And I wound up with several citations on my door.”
Mulkey disputes some of the findings against him, but he admitted having a contractor do some repairs after Hurricane Katrina without the proper permits. That work included porch steps without the required handrails. He fixed that and a few other issues, including the grade of his backyard.
While looking at his own backyard with a code inspector in 2010, Mulkey asked if the parish would ever do anything about the scrap and equipment in Centanni’s backyard. Mulkey secretly recorded the inspector, who can be heard saying, “Before you open a can of worms, this is leaning to the back, you know that, don't you? … I want this to stop, I really do. This is as much a pain in the ass for me as it is for you and for him.”
For the next several years, Mulkey said he gave up and tried to ignore Centanni’s activities, even when his house shook from pile-driving or a car being dropped in a heap.
That all changed when Mulkey’s girlfriend, Pam McLellan, moved in last year. By the spring of 2017, McLellan said she couldn’t ignore what was happening next door. Fed up by the noise, she took photographs of the equipment and junk in Centanni’s yard in April, and sent them to the Jefferson Parish Attorney’s Office.
Surveillance video from the outside of Mulkey’s house also captured the action. One video shows a bucket truck working in Centanni’s yard at about 2:00 a.m. on May 14.
The nighttime work only intensified two weeks later during the Memorial Day weekend.
“We never slept a wink for three days,” McLellan said.
Things were looking up when McLellan received a certified letter from the parish about her complaint. But she said she was crestfallen when she opened it; it was a summons marked as “Jefferson Parish v. Thomas Centanni, Tracey Centanni and Pam McLellan” – naming McLellan as a defendant, rather than keeping her as the anonymous complainant.
Code Enforcement and the Parish Attorney’s Office blamed each other for what they later acknowledged was a mistake, and McLellan’s name was removed from the case records. But at that point, Centanni knew McLellan’s name.
“Four days from court, I was fixing breakfast, washing dishes and I look out and he’s pressure washing. … And then, all of a sudden, he begins to write my name,” McLellan recalled.
Police reports include photographs of Centanni apparently using a pressure washer to spell out P-A-M next to a crude drawing of a woman’s face on the fence.
Photographs and surveillance video also show a mannequin of the Grim Reaper positioned by the face as if it were grabbing it. At another point in a surveillance video, Centanni stands in front of the image of the face and thrusts his hips toward it several times.
Those incidents were cited in court records as a judge issued a temporary restraining order forbidding Centanni from interacting with McLellan.
In response to the Code Enforcement complaint against Centanni, the Bureau of Administrative Adjudication ordered Centanni to remove all the heavy equipment from his property.
But surveillance video taken from Mulkey’s property appears to show Centanni and others moving some of the equipment into his shed before a parish contractor came and cleared the lot on July 14. The parish attorney says the contractor cleared Centanni’s lot for free because its contract provides “no charge” for clearing debris from residential lots, even repeat offenders.
In October, the parish sued Thomas and Tracey Centanni for the third time since 2013 for failing to comply with the Bureau of Administrative Adjudication’s orders to clean the property and stop using heavy equipment. Follow-up inspections in August and October found the Centannis were still in violation, according to 1st Parish Court records.
“And so, he knows he has free rein and he’s actually stepped it up a notch, with the sanding and the priming and the painting that’s now affecting our health, and our well-being,” McLellan said.
WWL-TV tried to interview Centanni outside his home. His wife told him not to talk. Thomas Centanni approached the reporter anyway to comment.
“I’ll tell you this, though, they’re both going to go to jail for this crap,” Centanni said, apparently referring to Mulkey and McLellan. Tracey Centanni shooed him away again by yelling, “Tommy, no comment!”
Mulkey and McLellan said after they complained several times at public council meetings, they began having trouble dealing with Jefferson Parish officials. The couple used their cell phones to record employees at the parish Environmental Office calling security to remove them from the building, even though Mulkey and McLellan contend they were sitting quietly waiting to see someone about dust and dirt Centanni was blowing onto their property.
Code inspectors posted a notice on Mulkey’s door in August for “excessive light or glare” from the flood lights pointing toward Centanni’s property. On another day, two inspectors showed up asking to enter Mulkey’s house to check if he was doing work inside. Mulkey recorded the encounter, denied he was doing any work and refused to let the inspectors in.
Mulkey’s use of his cellphone video camera and surveillance system has proven useful in gathering evidence against Centanni, but it’s also rubbed parish officials the wrong way. In October, Mulkey went out on the street to record a parish official in front of Nevels’ house, theorizing he was somehow helping Centanni.
The code enforcement officer, Edgar Lane, told Mulkey to stop videoing him and filed a criminal complaint against Mulkey. In the police report, Lane alleged Mulkey approached him, “refused to back away and kept advancing toward him in an aggressive manner.” Lane also alleged Mulkey blocked his truck from leaving, forcing the parish employee to back up to get away.
But surveillance and cellphone videos provided by Mulkey appear to show Mulkey never got close to Lane while videoing him from his own property and the street and didn’t block his truck, but rather stood aside and recorded the truck as it drove away without stopping.
Mulkey was charged with a misdemeanor count of interference with a code enforcement officer and has a January court date.
McLellan says Jefferson Parish President Mike Yenni met with her and Mulkey personally and told the code enforcement director, Amy Vallot, to address the problem. But Yenni said Vallot can only do so much under the law.
“We’ve had many conversations about it,” Yenni said. “Again, my code director, Amy Vallot … is doing everything she can in the confines of the law.”
Asked about Mulkey’s claims that the code inspectors are now targeting him, Yenni said: “No retribution whatsoever. I don’t operate like that, I’ve never operated like that, we don’t do selective code enforcement.”
In November, Mulkey sold the home, which once belonged to his grandmother. He is now living in another parish and vows not to live in Jefferson Parish again.
“Jefferson Parish is a dragon,” Mulkey said. “My neighbor is a dangerous lizard. I can’t fight a dragon.”