Beneath picturesque surface, a neighborhood at war
Paradise is subjective, of course, but a good case could be made for Old Rexhame Terrace.
MARSHFIELD — Ames Avenue, which cuts a couple hundred blissful yards through a seaside neighborhood here, is an inviting stretch of quiet road. Bordered by woods and overlooking the ocean, it makes a lazy turn east, passing a few serene houses before dissolving into greenery, dunes, and, somewhere beyond, the hypnotic tumble of surf.
It’s the kind of place a visitor might be drawn to stroll on the way to the glimmering beach. The kind of pastoral setting where even a hint of discord would be difficult to imagine.
On an autumn day in 2015, however, when two women encountered each other during their afternoon walks, this quiet spit of road would serve as the backdrop for an improbable — and allegedly violent — confrontation.
At first glance, they would seem unlikely combatants. Though they’d never met, save for a quick glance from a distance, Barbara Bennett, 68, and Kathy Lavrentios, 56, had plenty in common. Both led comfortable lives. Both loved animals, particularly dogs. And both had been drawn to this beachfront neighborhood, a small private community known as Rexhame Terrace, by the promise of a peaceful respite.
But beneath the picturesque surface, conflict has long simmered here. For decades, an invisible boundary has sliced through the area, dividing a privileged few from the rest while sowing resentment that, in recent years, has regularly spilled into daily neighborhood life.
Now, as the two women came face-to-face, that resentment once again bubbled to the surface.
Lavrentios, who had only recently moved to the area, asked Bennett whether she was headed to the nearby beach. In response, Bennett — a longtime area resident who served as secretary of the Terrace neighborhood association — allegedly told Lavrentios to turn around.
You’re not allowed to be here, she said.
I have every right, Lavrentios countered.
For a moment, that appeared to be the end of it, as both women continued on their way. But suddenly, Lavrentios would later say, Bennett stopped, wheeled, and dropped the leashes of the two dogs she was walking, a pair of stocky pitbull mixes.
The dogs charged. Lavrentios crumpled to the ground. And amid the melee of teeth and fur that followed — as Lavrentios’s frantic screams for help went unheeded — Bennett allegedly stood calmly by, at one point uttering a chilling decree: You need to be taught a lesson.
This is the story, anyway, that Lavrentios told police. Not everyone here believes it.
Whatever happened on that secluded stretch of road, though, the folks who know this neighborhood best say there is a deeper reason behind it, one etched into the heart of this place and rooted in two centuries of its history.
A place of brooding beauty
Paradise is subjective, of course, but a good case could be made for Old Rexhame Terrace, a few dozen acres of mansion-sized homes and tasteful summer camps, tucked between woods and the beach. Resplendent with natural riches, it was a place prized by the natives who once lived in the area and the settlers who overtook it.
“Eden” is how the historian Marcia Thomas once described it; even in the dead of winter, or the clutches of an unforgiving nor’easter, the place holds a kind of brooding beauty.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, it has been a place long coveted by the wealthy and genteel. Its first known owner was a man named Joseph Beadle, one of the area’s earliest settlers, and in the centuries that followed, it would enjoy an elite lineage, passed between a small handful of prominent families whose names still adorn the neighborhood street signs today: Winslow, Kent, Ames.
No family would play a larger role in shaping the land’s future, however, than the Thomas clan. It was Briggs Thomas, a major in the Continental Army, who would go to court in the 1830s to argue that, in addition to his farmland, he also had rights to the adjacent beach. And it was Thomas’s granddaughter who would later draft plans for a restricted beachfront community on the land — a place, assured an early promotional flier, “more beautiful than any stage setting.”
Indeed, by the early 1900s, the neighborhood’s earliest residents had begun constructing a seaside refuge, dotting the land with manses on big, grassy plots, all within steps of a quarter-mile stretch of breathtaking — and, their deeds seemed to assure them, private — beach.
Rexhame, the community would come to be called, is after Marshfield’s old town name. King’s Hamlet.
For the fortunate few who would come to call it home, Terrace life brought luxury: access to the pristine tennis courts and Sunday-night vespers and, later, to the neighborhood’s annual clam bake and cocktail parties.
But it also came with an understanding. To hold a deed on Old Rexhame Terrace was to lay claim to a piece of history, a patch of land whose chain of ownership could be traced back nearly to the Mayflower. They were stewards of the land, charged with preserving it, protecting it. With shielding it from outside forces.
And it was this understanding that would come to define life on the Terrace, a creed cultivated, ingrained, and ultimately passed down through the course of the next century.
“It’s a responsibility,” explains Charles Pesko, the current president of the Rexhame Terrace neighborhood association. “We all inherit that. We all buy into the whole concept.
“This land is sacred.”
The outsider makes it in
The first time Joe McDonald was chased from Rexhame Terrace, he was just a boy, 10 or 11 maybe.
War in Korea raged. The color TV had just been introduced. In the summertime, he often traveled to Marshfield, visiting relatives who lived near the Terrace but not on it — a distinction, he would come to learn, that mattered. During one such visit, he found himself padding through the Terrace toward the water, making it as far as the end of Winslow Street before an elderly man burst from his nearby house and onto the porch, screaming, “This is private property! You can’t come down here!”
If the encounter left him unsettled, however, it did little to stifle his infatuation with the place. As a teenager, and later as a young adult, McDonald would regularly return to the Terrace, wandering the streets at dusk, admiring the large, lavish homes, and imagining what it might be like to occupy one.
It was an absurd notion, of course. Even if by some miracle he could scrape together enough money to afford it, McDonald — at the time an assistant food service director for a local rehab center — was not what you might call typical Terrace material. Says McDonald, now a 77-year-old grandfather who favors suspenders and chinos: “I was a blue-collar beer-drinker, and they were tennis and cocktail people.”
But in 1972, in a stroke of luck too fortuitous to ignore, McDonald heard about a three-story farmhouse on Waterman Avenue in the Terrace that had recently come on the market.
Within weeks, he was strolling into the Plymouth Five Cents Savings Bank in Marshfield, gamely talking his way into a loan, and not long after, he moved his wife and three young children onto a quiet street near the beach — officially becoming, after years as an outsider, part of the neighborhood.
For the residents of Rexhame, accepting McDonald was one thing. But now hordes were coming. New highway access to the South Shore from Boston had literally paved the way. The mostly empty farmland surrounding the Terrace was quickly developed, packed with modest homes occupied by middle- and working-class families — families suddenly swarming the nearby beach by way of the easiest available route, down the Terrace ways. The public Rexhame Beach wasn’t far away, but this one was nicer and easily reachable on foot.
McDonald befriended many of the new arrivals; in his mind, the beach — as it always had been — was for everyone and if families wanted to walk down his street to get there, he certainly wasn’t going to stop them.
It was not an opinion shared by other owners on the Terrace.
Many in the neighborhood resented the newcomers. They blamed them for leaving trash on the beach and for trampling the dunes, and they did their best, in the years that followed, to keep them out. They put up “No Trespassing” signs and let foliage grow thick, creating a barrier to the water. They flooded police with complaints — going so far, in the late 1980s and early ’90s, to hire security details to stand guard on the roads leading to the beach, turning away anyone from outside the Terrace.
Says Christine Monaco, who grew up in the neighborhood just outside the Terrace and remembers being told by her parents to steer clear of it, “I just really came to the realization that if I wanted to go down there, I was going to get somebody screaming at me.”
By the time George and Brenda Johnson arrived in the area in the winter of ’94, purchasing a modest cottage just off the Terrace, the animosity was palpable. A middle-class couple from Brookline, the Johnsons had been drawn to the idea of a summer home near the water, and they’d quickly taken to the place. George grew tomatoes in a garden out back, Brenda handled the housekeeping, and most summer mornings they’d gather their beach chairs and a radio and make the short jaunt through the Terrace to the beach, staying all day.
Though aware of the ongoing beach dispute, they’d mostly managed to avoid it. They’d been assured by the home’s previous owner that the property — though not on the Terrace — came with beach rights. And while others had faced pushback when they attempted to cut through Terrace property on the way to the water, the Johnsons, who had befriended McDonald and a few other Terrace residents, came and went as they pleased.
“I kind of pooh-poohed it,” George Johnson says of the feuding. “I figured in this day and age, who’s worrying about people going down and sitting on the beach?”
One day in ’98, however, he arrived home to find an envelope waiting on the doorstep.
He tore it open, reading with disbelief.
Residents of Rexhame Terrace, he was being informed, had filed a trespassing lawsuit against the Johnsons. It also named a dozen or so of their neighbors, others who lived just outside the Terrace line.
To those behind the suit, it was nothing personal, just a necessary step in proving, once and for all, that they owned both the beach and the roads leading to it.
To nearly everyone else, however, it was a declaration of war.
A dark, unneighborly turn
In the years following the lawsuit, tensions that had long simmered beneath the surface spilled into the open.
Once-friendly neighbors, finding themselves on opposite sides of the fence, refused to speak. Public shouting matches erupted. Petty disputes escalated.
Police grew accustomed to pulling into the Terrace, responding to the various instances of vandalism many believed were tied to the suit. Once, the rock wall outside a Terrace home was spray-painted with a phallic symbol. Another time, police ordered extra patrols in the area after a Terrace family — plaintiffs in the trespassing case — woke to find their phone and Internet cables cut.
Those behind the suit insisted they had no choice but to sue — that they were painted into a corner when the town informed them in the mid-1990s it would no longer enforce trespassing laws in the area until Terrace residents could prove, with a court judgment, that the land was in fact theirs.
“It forced us to file a lawsuit, basically,” says Bill Mostyn, a retired corporate lawyer and one of the plaintiffs in the trespassing case. “No one wanted to do that, but we had to do it.”
For the most part, the division broke along Terrace lines — those on the Terrace insisting the beach was private, those outside arguing it was public.
There was, however, one notable exception.
Shortly after the trespassing suit was filed, Terrace representatives approached McDonald about contributing to the legal fund. When McDonald refused — saying he had no interest in keeping families from the beach — he was stripped of the beach shares bestowed upon members, essentially booting him from the club.
In response, Terrace residents say, McDonald embarked on a quest to make their lives as miserable as possible, inviting the public to use the street he lived on to access the beach — a move, those on the Terrace claim, that brought streams of outsiders onto the Terrace — while perpetuating the insider-vs.-outsider narrative to the point that some on the Terrace stopped identifying where they lived for fear of being publicly ostracized.
Says one longtime Terrace resident, “People would say, ‘Oh, you’re the people who throw women and children off the beach.’ ”
In court, meanwhile, things were no less contentious.
What had begun as a seemingly minor trespassing dispute had mushroomed into a mammoth, multifaceted case aimed at determining who, exactly, owned the beach and the Terrace roads leading to it.
Attorneys scrambled to obtain 400-year-old property deeds. Land cases from the 1800s were exhumed and scrutinized. At one point, both the state and the town of Marshfield were involved – each aligned against the Terrace.
Over the 16 years it would slog through the court system, the case would be heard by three different judges, accrue nearly 600 exhibits, and rack up — by one estimate — hundreds of thousands in legal fees.
It stretched so long, in fact, that three of the original trespassing defendants passed away during litigation.
Finally, on New Year’s Eve 2014 — nearly two decades after its original filing — Justice Harry Grossman of the Massachusetts land court rendered a judgment in the case.
Tracing the land’s history of ownership back nearly four centuries — and paying particular attention to the fact that the court ruled against Briggs Thomas’s claims to the beach in the 1800s — Grossman ruled that while four of the five Terrace roads were indeed private, the beach itself belonged to the town and was therefore open to the public.
Residents responded to the news in their typically understated fashion.
Those outside the Terrace, claiming victory, rejoiced in “I-told-you-so’’ splendor.
Those behind the lawsuit quickly appealed.
And it was around this time that Barbara Bennett, the secretary of the Rexhame Terrace Association, fastened leashes around a pair of pit bulls one afternoon and headed out for a walk.
‘Fear someone may be killed’
Jonathan Smith was mowing his lawn when he saw the woman approaching, staggering toward him from nearby Ames Avenue.
She was hysterical, he’d later say, crying out for help, and as he ushered her onto his front porch, she began to relay a harrowing tale. She’d been out walking when a woman she didn’t know released a pair of pit bulls. The dogs had knocked her to the ground, went for the necks of her two smaller dogs, Roxy and Henry. During the worst of it, Lavrentios said, she’d wondered whether she’d make it out alive.
Police took it all down; in an eight-page, single-spaced report that reads like something out of Whitey Bulger’s case file, Marshfield police officer Stephen Mulligan noted that Bennett had had several similar run-ins and referred to herself as the “The Enforcer.”
“Due to the fact that Bennett patrols the streets of Rexhame Terrace . . . and intimidates the public and [there is] a fear someone may be killed or seriously injured if she is not stopped,” Mulligan wrote, “I respectfully request a warrant be issued.”
Prosecutors concurred: In April 2016, Bennett was arraigned on two felony counts of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon — the dogs, which don’t actually belong to Bennett. She was watching them for a friend.
As Phillip Tavares, the Marshfield police chief, told a local paper at the time, “You can’t release dogs after people that you don’t agree with.”
But, as with most matters on the Terrace, it’s not quite that simple.
On multiple levels, the case against Bennett appears less than air tight. From the start, she denied that anything close to Lavrentios’s account actually occurred; in her version, it was one of Lavrentios’s dogs that was off-leash and rushed the dogs she was walking. There were no witnesses to corroborate either account. And Smith, the neighbor who encountered Lavrentios immediately afterward, later described her behavior in the moment as “so irrational.”
Then, there’s this: In an alleged attack so vicious it purportedly left Lavrentios fearing for her life, neither she nor her dogs sustained a single bite or scratch. (She later told police she was diagnosed with a cervical strain as a result of the struggle.)
What exactly happened, then, on that remote Terrace road overlooking the ocean? And why is a widow facing the prospect of up to five years of jail time for an incident that resulted in no serious injuries?
Those on the Terrace have a theory.
“Payback,” says Mostyn, one of the plaintiffs in the trespassing case.
In the months after news of the incident rippled through town, many on the Terrace have come to view Lavrentios as a dramatic opportunist who, upon her arrival, quickly aligned herself with those on the opposite side. Additionally, they wonder whether McDonald — a friend of Lavrentios who also happens to be the father of the Plymouth County sheriff — played a part. Some speculate that he used the incident, and his influence, to carry out a personal vendetta.
Both McDonald and Lavrentios deny targeting Bennett in any way, dismissing such talk as fantasy. But rumblings among Terrace residents persist.
“They’re just using this to basically torture this little old lady,” Mostyn says. “It’s really a shame.”
Authorities have shown no signs of backing down in their case against Bennett; at a status hearing in June, prosecutors pressed forward with charges, with the next hearing scheduled for later this month.
And so a feud that has already spanned generations marches on.
Walk the streets of Rexhame Terrace today, and you’ll find plenty of evidence it’s alive and well. The homes now outfitted with security cameras. The way residents half-joke, during neighborhood get-togethers, about selling off their property and getting out of Dodge.
And not so very long ago, a group of Terrace residents paid to have a large metal gate erected at the end of Kent Avenue, one of the roads deemed private, preventing anyone without a five-digit code from accessing the beach. Dubbed the “Hate Gate” by some, it has twice been ripped from its hinges.
Stationed on his front porch one recent afternoon, Ken O’Donoghue, 68, could only shake his head at the neighborhood’s current state of affairs.
A third-generation Terrace resident who spent his childhood summers swimming at the nearby beach, he’s had a front-row seat to the ongoing drama.
He’s watched as relations have deteriorated, seen the toll it’s taken on residents.
And at this point, he has determined, there is only one thing capable of putting an end to it all.
“Generations,” he says, “have to die off.”