HOUSE OF PAIN
Tyler Perry's property dispute creates drama
By D.L. BENNETT
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 09/26/07
Related story: How did it get to this mess?
Fifteen years ago, when Tyler Perry was broke and lost, he found comfort in driving his run-down Hyundai Excel past the grand mansions on Paces Ferry Road.
Moreton Rolleston, 89, has refused to stop
filing lawsuits over his former property,
even after being jailed.
It took more than a decade, but Perry became a success.
His plays, movies, television show and book have grossed more than $100 million.
He signed a $200 million deal
to produce a sitcom for TBS.
And now he's keeping that long-ago promise to himself.
He's building his dream home on a 17-acre tract he purchased off Paces Ferry along the Chattahoochee River.
The 30,000-square-foot French Provincial mansion
should be ready by Thanksgiving.
But Perry's purchase of the property in 2005 has pulled him into a drama more bizarre than any play he's written
or movie he's produced.
The story spans more than 20 years
. It pits new Atlanta against old.
It includes a legal case with landmark judgments, multiple cases in four jurisdictions, jail sentences, fines, threats of other sanctions, countless court hours and millions of dollars in legal fees.
Perry's antagonist is Moreton Rolleston Jr., an 89-year-old Atlanta lawyer and businessman whose family home of 40 years was demolished by the entertainment mogul to make way for his own grand mansion.
Rolleston continues to try to regain the Buckhead property despite a series of rulings that have seen him jailed, fined and threatened with disbarment.
Just this month, Rolleston showed up at the property with police cars in tow seeking to remove Perry's construction crews from the property, contending he still is the rightful owner.
"At this point,"
Perry said, "I just don't know what to do to get rid of this guy."
Rolleston was admitted to the Georgia Bar in 1941, when Atlanta was not much more than a big Southern town and William B. Hartsfield was in his early years as mayor.
The lawyer did well as the owner of the Heart of Atlanta hotel at 255 Courtland St. The hotel opened in 1956 as the swankiest place to stay between New York and Miami.
He also became known as a segregationist
. Rolleston suggested Atlanta schools could avoid desegregation by selling school buildings to private corporations, which then would be free of federal dictates. He followed the same course in business, refusing to accept black patrons at his hotel.
His 1964 federal lawsuit arguing that the federal government could not force the Heart of Atlanta hotel to integrate went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and ended up being a landmark civil rights law.
Rolleston lost the case and sold the two-story hotel for $11.1 million — an amount cited as a record at the time. In 1973, it was demolished to make room for the Downtown Hilton Hotel.
More than a decade later, Rolleston forced his way into the bankruptcy proceedings of Eastern Airlines when he filed a petition in court seeking to force its sale to the highest bidder. His son was an Eastern pilot.
Perry, 37, had a hardscrabble childhood in New Orleans. Physical and emotional abuse by his father was commonplace and he was molested by a neighbor, he said.
"The things I went through as a kid were horrendous," Perry said in a 2004 interview with Ebony magazine.
He left for Atlanta in 1992 hoping to find fortune.
Perry kept his feelings in a journal that he turned into his first stage play. He pulled together $12,000 and put on his first play — "I Know I've Been Changed" — hoping to see 1,200 people on opening night at the 14th Street Playhouse.
Instead, it drew 30 the opening weekend. The flop left Perry broke and briefly homeless.
It took him six years working odd jobs from bill collector to used car salesman to scrape together enough cash to try again.
In 1998, the production of the same play was a hit, selling out the House of Blues in Atlanta and eventually the Fox Theatre.
Perry parlayed that success into a series of plays, a book, movies and a sitcom called "House of Payne."
2035 Garraux Road
What binds both men is a 17-acre piece of property Rolleston calls 2035 Garraux Road — the address he used when he lived there from 1962 to 2003.
Perry refuses to use Rolleston's black iron gate at the entrance to the property on Garraux Road. Instead, he uses a lengthy driveway from Paces Ferry Road.
The land sits along the Chattahoochee River where Vinings in Cobb bleeds into Buckhead in Fulton — right across from The Lovett School complex. The heavily wooded tract has towering trees and sweeping views from its highest points.
Rolleston bought the property more than 40 years ago, and in 1962 built his family home — a five-bedroom granite masterpiece with a large pool and pool house. It was designed by Atlanta architect John Cherry, a longtime friend.
Perry bought the land for $9 million in October 2005
, tore down Rolleston's home and began to build a 30,000-square-foot mansion in its place.
That purchase dropped Perry into a dispute that had by then already lasted 20 years.
"This is the home I said would be my last home in Georgia," Perry said recently as he led a tour of the mansion.
A 22-year losing battle
Rolleston was 67 when the first suit was filed in 1985. He has fought the case through courts in Cobb, Fulton and Glynn counties as well as federal court. When he's lost, he's appealed.
Rolleston has sued lawyers, sheriffs and even a judge.
He's filed for bankruptcy, only to have that rejected by the courts.
When asked about the case recently, he agreed to meet with a reporter, then changed his mind. Rolleston said he didn't want to "try this case in the media."
"My lawsuits speak for themselves," Rolleston said.
Along the way, he's been scolded by judges, fined, threatened with disbarment and even briefly jailed.
In 2001, the state won a ruling that was supposed to block Rolleston from using the courts to fight over ownership of the property. Still he continues to file suits.
"I thought when he went to jail [for contempt in 2005 for filing a suit against a judge's order], that would be the end of it," Perry said. "Who wants to go to jail at 87? This time I was pretty shocked."
Even Perry offers Rolleston grudging respect for his tenacity.
"It's that same drive that got me here," Perry said.
Rolleston has been under a court order called a bill of peace to stop filing lawsuits claiming he owns the Buckhead property since 2001.
Still, he's sued Perry three times.
Nine months after Perry bought the property, Rolleston filed a federal suit against him challenging the sale and seeking damages for tearing down Rolleston's former home.
A uniformed sheriff's deputy served Perry with the lawsuit while he was at the Wal-Mart on Gresham Road in south Fulton for a book signing of "Don't Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings: Madea's Uninhibited Commentaries on Love and Life."
Perry and Rolleston finally came together in October when Fulton Superior Court Judge Chris Brasher hauled Rolleston into court on a contempt charge and asked him to dismiss a federal suit against Perry.
A month later, Rolleston filed a similar suit in Fulton Superior Court. In December, Brasher jailed Rolleston to force him to drop the cases. He dropped the cases and was released within a day
On Aug. 2, Rolleston filed another suit. A few days later Brasher dismissed it without even allowing deputies to serve Perry. This month, he tried to get police to remove Perry's work crews from the site, claiming he owned the property.
Perry can't help but wonder if it will ever really be over.
Like anyone else, he just wants to enjoy the symbol of his success, a treat he feels he's earned after starting out with nothing and coming so far.
"This is about like standing between two different worlds. I feel like I can live here. I can be here. This speaks to the possibility of anybody being able to do it. That's why I love it so much."