The troubles in the Essex Place neighborhood began shortly after Edward Cagney Mathews moved into the Mount Laurel development about two years ago:
Threats, slashed tires, busted windows, cars vandalized with BB guns and smeared with animal feces. Racist graffiti was painted on a wooden fence near the home of the homeowners association board president. Other elderly Black residents who served on the board also became targets.
Mathews, who neighbors say clashed with just about everybody, was twice fined $500 in the past year by the association for what it deemed “unbecoming conduct” — harassing one resident and stalking another. Residents installed security cameras and complained repeatedly to the police, but there was never sufficient evidence to charge Mathews with a crime, authorities said.
Then came the separate incidents on July 2 that made national headlines. His racist rant, captured on video, went viral. He taunted people to “come see me” and dozens showed up three days later and protested for hours outside his condo until he was arrested on bias intimidation and trespassing charges.
Frustrated that their complaints went unheeded for so long, neighbors in the close-knit community 17 miles east of Philadelphia are now seeking to ensure he can’t return. They have petitioned the homeowners association to remove Mathews, saying they feel unsafe.
“It’s time for him to go. He’s caused enough trouble,” said Barbara Guillory, 50, a special-education teacher who signed the petition.
The association says it lacks jurisdiction to evict him, but the issue could soon be rendered moot. Mathews, a 45-year-old construction worker, remained jailed Friday under a new raft of charges, including stalking and criminal mischief, over past interactions with his neighbors. Superior Court Judge Terrence Cook has set a detention hearing for Tuesday to determine if he should be free before trial. He could release Mathews but bar him from returning to the development that had been his home since 2019.
It’s unclear if Mathews has retained a lawyer, and his only response to the allegations so far came in an interview with The Inquirer during the protest, when he said he had been drunk during his racist tirade, apologized for his conduct, and blamed it on his long-running dispute with the homeowners’ association.
A police cruiser has been stationed outside Mathews’ home on Gramercy Way since Monday’s protest. Windows smashed by water bottles hurled by protesters have been boarded up with plywood.
The fallout from last weekend’s incidents is still rippling. The county Prosecutor’s Office has launched a review into how police handled past complaints about Mathews. Several residents and activists have asked for an inquiry by the department’s internal affairs unit. Mayor Stephen Steglik has called for a federal hate-crime investigation and wants the township to create a diversity and inclusion board comprised of residents.
Marcus Sibley, president of the Southern Burlington County chapter of the NAACP, said the widespread interest in the case reflects “a national response to the wanton disregard for Black life.”
“We’re sick and tired of the trauma that we have to deal with,” he said, “because racists don’t want us to have a good quality of life.”
Residents and activists say Mount Laurel police have been slow to act on their complaints. They say a police officer was present during one of the altercations and heard Mathews use racial slurs and call Black residents “monkeys,” but his only response was to tell Mathews to leave the area.
(Mount Laurel Police Chief Stephen Riedener did not respond to several phone messages. In a statement earlier this week, Riedener said Mathews was sent to his residence to deescalate the altercation. He also said police had previously tried to get a warrant to arrest Mathews but a judge refused to approve it.)
“No community should be held in fear like this,” said State Sen. Troy Singleton, (D., Burlington). “We have to do more, so folks don’t feel there is a safe place for them to spew that kind of hate.”
Complaints build up
The condo that Mathews and his then-wife Shannon Schwartzhoff purchased for $177,000 two years ago is in a racially diverse development, opened in 2001 and filled with retirees and young families in the township’s Larchmont section.
Shortly after Mathews moved in, he complained to the homeowners association about a costly repair unit needed for his air conditioning, said Gary Zangerle, the association’s attorney. More complaints followed and Mathews accused the association of mishandling funds and demanded to see its financial books, the lawyer said.
A frequent target of Mathews’ wrath became the board’s three Black members: Verlyn Gibbons, LeRon Brown, and Maxine Perry Ortiz.
After the abuse so frustrated Ortiz, the board secretary, that she sold her condo and moved out last fall, Mathews sent an email to neighbors that said, “one down and a few to go,” Zangerle said.
“It’s a very sad situation that many of us went through,” said Ortiz, 75.
The charges against Mathews include allegations of a pattern of harassment, racial threats, and slurs against Gibbons and Brown. Longtime residents, both declined to comment.
Mathews was often seen walking his two mixed-breed dogs, especially late at night. During the day, he would meet up with neighbors in a dog park across from his condo, where he often would talk association politics.
“He was very much into the politics of what was going on around here,” said Michael Quaranta, 52, a resident. “He was too into it.”
Zangerle said the five-member association board amended its governing rules in 2020 to add a personal conduct provision — one specifically prompted by Mathews’ ongoing conduct. The board found him guilty of harassing Gibbons and fined him $500, which was paid. He was also barred from running for a seat on the board.
Another $500 fine was imposed on Mathews for a prior incident involving Brown, according to Zangerle. He has also been fined $1,500 in connection with the incidents last week.
“Our plan was every time he did something, we were going to fine him,” Zangerle said. “If he didn’t pay it, we were going to foreclose on his unit.”
In his interview with The Inquirer earlier this week, Mathews apologized for the rant captured on video and said it stemmed from the long-running housing dispute involving the homeowners association.
“Let me be clear: That is no excuse for what I said, but I lost my temper,” he said.
The turning point occurred after Mathews was captured on video July 2 trying to force his way inside the home of Brown, the association’s president. Brown’s wife, Denise, who is white, called the police, and a neighbor, Etchu Brandon Tambe, rushed to her aid.
Tambe was aware of the tension between Mathews and the elderly couple, although he had not personally clashed with Mathews. His wife, Marilyn, recorded the encounter as the 5-foot-10, 170-pound Mathews spit at, chest-bumped, and tried to lick the younger man, while also spewing racial slurs.
“Learn your law. It’s not Africa,” Mathews told him. Tambe stood his ground.
After it was posted on social media, the video quickly went viral, shared by, among others, comedian D.L. Hughley.
In an interview, the Cameroon-born Tambe, 25, an aerial porter in the Air Force at Joint Base Dix-McGuire-Lakehurst in Wrightstown, told The Inquirer he acted on adrenaline to try to defuse the situation until the police arrived.
“It was just the right thing to do,” said Tambe, who moved to the neighborhood about nine months ago. “In that moment, it wasn’t about me.”
That same day, Mathews allegedly harassed Gibbons, too, approaching her door, cursing, and using racial slurs. Police were called and said video from the scene shows Mathews thrusting his hips in a lewd gesture and laughing.
Mathews initially was given a summons and released, but he was arrested days later after prosecutors viewed the viral video and other evidence, and after he dared others to come for him.
On Monday, as the protest outside his condo swelled, officers escorted Mathews through a wall of more than 150 people. Some pelted Mathews and police with plastic bottles and a Black Lives Matter flagpole. “I live in this town. I’m not going to be bullied out of here,” said one, Aliya Robinson, 43.
And the list of allegations could grow. Jazmyn Suszynski, 26, who is biracial, said she had similar dealings with Mathews in 2017 in another development a few miles away. Mathews, she said, kicked in her door after complaining about the noise inside. She said she contacted police multiple times but her case was ultimately dismissed.
“It’s just sad that my case wasn’t taken seriously,” she said in an interview. “It might have prevented these kinds of scenarios.”
On Thursday, she recounted her complaints once again, this time to a representative from the Prosecutor’s Office.