‘Gilligan’s Island’ harassment case ends with suspended jail sentence for Bill Gross
An Orange County judge held billionaire Bill Gross and his wife in contempt of court Friday for once again blaring music that bothered their Laguna Beach neighbors — ordering them jailed for five days but then immediately suspending the sentence.
Citing the pandemic, which has disrupted the county’s jail system, Superior Court Judge Kimberly Knill said the retired bond investor and his wife, former professional tennis player Amy Schwartz Gross, could perform community service in lieu of two days of jail, with the other three days suspended if the two do not violate the restraining order for one year.
The judge barred the couple from playing outdoor music at their home at any time. They also were fined $1,000 each.
After a trial last December in which Knill ruled that the Grosses had harassed their neighbors in the tony Rockledge Beach neighborhood, the judge issued a three-year restraining order against the couple, who were married in April. She found that the couple had violated the restraining order one evening this past July by disturbing the peace with loud outdoor music.
In making her latest ruling, Knill said she found the couple’s testimony about what happened that night was directly controverted by the evidence presented in court. That included refusing requests from police to turn down the music.
“There was a colossal disconnect between the Grosses’ self-serving testimony and their professed desire to comply with the court orders — and their actions in defying them. What the court viewed on the videos is nothing short of unadorned contempt,” she said.
The couple’s trial attorney, Patty Glaser, told Knill she planned to appeal the ruling, and the judge stayed the sentence for 30 days to give her time to do so.
Gross, 77, issued a written statement calling the sentence a “travesty of justice and a black mark on the Orange County judicial system.”
Chase Scolnick, attorney for the neighbors, Mark Towfiq and his wife, said afterward that his clients were “pleased with today’s result.”
“We hope the court’s order will finally cause Bill and Amy Gross to modify their behavior so our clients can live in peace, which is all they ever wanted,” Scolnick added.
The decision was the latest development in a feud that started in 2019, when Gross put a $1-million lawn sculpture by glass artist Dale Chihuly on his property and installed netting to protect it.
Towfiq, his next-door neighbor on a stretch of luxurious beachfront homes, complained that the 12-foot netting blocked his ocean view. After fruitless attempts to resolve the issue, Towfiq complained to the city, which issued a citation because the sculpture and netting lacked a permit.
Towfiq and his wife testified during a trial last December that the Grosses retaliated by playing music on an outdoor system — including the “Gilligan’s Island” theme song on a loop — that penetrated their home’s concrete walls and half-inch-thick, dual-pane windows. He submitted as evidence an iPhone recording of the music.
The Grosses responded by alleging that Towfiq was obsessed with Bill Gross, the world-famous co-founder of Newport Beach bond house Pimco, as evidenced by his regular videotaping, which Towfiq defended as necessary to document the harassment.
Knill sided with Towfiq and ruled that the music constituted harassment. She issued a three-year restraining order that required the Grosses not to violate the noise provisions of the Laguna Beach municipal code and to play music on the outdoor system only when they themselves are outside.
Towfiq over the summer filed court papers alleging that Gross violated the order on July 7. Towfiq said he and his wife were watching TV after 9 p.m. when they heard music coming from the billionaire’s property. Towfiq called Laguna Beach police, who responded to the scene but did not issue a citation; he asked the judge to fine the couple and sentence them to five days in jail.
Gross and his wife pleaded not guilty to violating the restraining order. An attorney for the couple accused the Towfiqs of attempting to “weaponize” the restraining order, saying police were called within minutes of the music being heard.
The hearing over the new allegations began with an unusual site visit by the judge to the South Coast Highway homes, where she listened inside Towfiq’s home while the Gross sound system was played at multiple volume levels.
In support of Towfiq’s allegation, his attorneys submitted videos from his iPhone, home security cameras and the body cameras of the two police officers who responded to the scene. Towfiq also alleged in court papers that his neighbors had left up sun umbrellas that blocked his view, similarly to the netting, and asked the judge to order them taken down.
Knill called the umbrella accusation “petty” in her ruling Friday.
During the hearing, Amy Gross testified that she felt she was a victim of the feud, afraid to go into her backyard and deciding not to have her wedding reception at the house, which Gross purchased in 2018 for $32 million, according to the Orange County Register.
Attorneys for Gross argued in court papers that jailing the couple if they were held in contempt of court was “draconian” and “not in the best interests of Orange County.”
They cited Gross’ long philanthropic history in the county and suggested that he could rearrange or remove some of the speakers, or a sound monitor could be installed. Glaser told Knill in court that if Gross were found guilty of violating the restraining order, a fine or community service would be an appropriate punishment.
Gross announced in December that he had donated $500,000 to Orange County relief organizations. A spokesman said the figure amounted to what the billionaire had spent on the dispute, including separate lawsuits the two sides have filed.
While feuds between rich neighbors are not uncommon in Southern California, the Gross-Towfiq dispute has drawn media attention for its origin over an expensive piece of artwork — and the role of the iconic TV theme song, which the couple testified was one of their favorites.
After the harassment ruling in December, Gross said he was “disappointed” by the outcome but would “continue to dance the night away, ‘Gilligan’s Island’ forever.”
This time, in his statement after the verdict, he alleged Knill was biased against him because he had poked fun at the judge in a public investment outlook after the first trial.
The Orange County district attorney’s office declined to press criminal charges in the case.
Bloomberg News contributed to this report.