Updated at 10:45 p.m. Dec. 29, 2012
RAMONA, CA—Deborah Cooney was valedictorian at West Boylston High School in Massachusetts, an economics graduate of Brown University and a vice president of Peoples Savings Bank in Worcester, MA, for 10 years.
But after being laid off during an ownership change in the mid-1990s, she decided to pursue her dream of becoming a professional musician.
She moved to San Diego.
Under the stage name Celeste, she played piano and sang at the Queen Mary, Ritz Carlton, Century Plaza Hotel and “lots of resorts, bars and dives all over the world.”
Cooney, now 50, lived in La Jolla for almost a year (when not performing on a Caribbean cruise) and later moved to North Clairemont, where she opened a studio and took in piano and voice students.
But in April 2011, she was suddenly pained by a high-pitched ringing in her ears.
“I remember the exact moment the tinnitus started,” Cooney said Friday. “I was just relaxing in my house in between [teaching] sessions. And all of a sudden it was like somebody turned something on.”
She suspects it was triggered by a bank of 100-plus wireless smart meters installed at a nearby apartment complex.
The miseries multiplied, she said via telephone from her home in rural West Virginia.
“I couldn’t stand the house anymore,” Cooney said. “I couldn’t sleep in the house. I couldn’t eat any of the food in the house … it got so radiated it got me sick. … I was eating out. I was trying to sleep on the beach.”
Her beloved cat died.
Mimi was a purebred Himalayan adopted in 2003, whose “behavior completely flipped,” Cooney said. The feline went from being an indoor “queen of the house” to one who stayed outdoors and eventually ran away, only to return “completely dehydrated, having heart palpitations … the same things I was suffering from.”
“She came back because she realized there was no place to go,” Cooney said. “Our whole neighborhood was radiated.”
Finally—on Aug. 24, 2011—Cooney decided she couldn’t sleep, work or live in her own house, so “I think I’d better just leave.”
She piled some dresses into her 2003 Hyundai Accent, left her “significant other” Frisbee champion boyfriend and drove 2,600 miles from Chateau Drive to the National Radio Quiet Zone in West Virginia.
Nine days ago, she went one more step—filing a $120 million lawsuit against San Diego Gas & Electric Co., smart-meter maker Itron, state Attorney General Kamala Harris, the state Public Utilities Commission and its president, Michael Peevey, and others.
The suit, filed in San Francisco federal court, could be a first of its kind.
[Cooney] could feel the immediate effects of radiation when she walked in the front door, experiencing a pins-and-needles feeling all over her skin, muscle contractions, stiffness, and pain, ataxia, dehydration, etc. Plaintiff felt a shock to her heart … at exactly 1:00, 5:00, and 9:00, as if something was being transmitted every four hours, on the hour. The shock would initiate cascading heart attack symptoms: chest pain, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, nausea, circulatory problems, edema, numbness and an impending sense of doom.
Acting as her own attorney, Cooney in her 12,000-word civil suit [attached] blames SDG&E and others for the loss of her ability to live in California and their failure to protect her from harm.
“The smart grid completely destroyed [my life] plan” of buying a home, solar panels and a plug-in electric car, she said in a phone interview.
Now, she says, “I’m having a hell of a time surviving and paying the bills. … I’m not happy here. I want to be in California—and I can’t because of the smart grid.”
She says she lives in a 10-by-20-foot rented cabin with no electricity and drives 8 miles to use a small home to shower, cook and use the phone and computer.
The suit is being reviewed by SDG&E, according to utility spokeswoman Erin Coller, who issued a preliminary response Friday night. [See attached PDF.]
“SDG&E is committed to addressing customer concerns about the safety of its services and equipment,” Coller said in part. “SDG&E supports the California Public Utilities Commission decision of giving residential customers a choice in what type of electric meters they want at their home through the smart meter opt-out program.”
Terrie Prosper, director of the PUC’s public information office, told Patch: “We do not comment on pending litigation.”
Cooney is no stranger to legal action. After an August 2008 altercation with a lifeguard at La Jolla Cove, she was sent to the county mental hospital. A staff psychiatrist found nothing wrong with her and granted her release, but Cooney sued over a 20-hour involuntary detention.
Her suit against the city and county of San Diego and lifeguard John Kerr eventually was dismissed, which a state appellate court affirmed. But Cooney won settlements or judgments in several other cases involving her former attorneys, a landlord, a tenant and a doctor who testified in her detention case.
But the experience of bringing the city and state suit “honed” her skills and “really set me up to do this federal case,” she said.
In fact, she refiled claims against the city and county and will decide by February whether to bring another suit in the La Jolla Cove case, saying she was wrongfully denied a jury trial.
“I’m not a person who really wants to sue people,” she said of the 2008 case. “I made the decision to stand up for my legal rights.”
Cooney calls San Diego a “very, very corrupt place”—worse even than New Orleans. (She once lived in the French Quarter, she says.)
“Now with the smart grid encroaching everywhere, there’s almost no place to live anymore,” she said. “It’s catastrophic.”
Cooney takes inspiration from Ralph Nader, who she backed for president several times, and calls herself an activist.
“I want everybody to be happy and healthy” with “constitutional rights honored and the environment protected,” Cooney says. So she filed the 49-page federal suit to get the attention of what she calls the government-industrial complex.
“The more you let the abusers get away with this stuff, the bigger and badder the abuse becomes,” she told Patch. “The more lawsuits we can hit them with, the less profitable it is to hurt us. … When you are dealing with corporations and the government-industrial complex, the only thing they notice is profit. That’s the only language they speak.”
She readily acknowledges she doesn’t expect to win $120 million, “but the reality is my damages are well beyond [that]. … I’m just conservatively saying $100 million, but really it’s worth billions. It’s worth trillions.”
Cooney—who prefers “natural medicine” to Western medicine—says she put a “number on [the suit] that I thought was sufficiently high enough to get the defendants’ attention and get people’s attention to the catastrophic losses that not only me but a lot of people are suffering. That number doesn’t come anywhere near what the actual damages are.”
She says she’s already made two settlement offers to the defendants. Both were rejected, she says.
“Whereas I am willing to be reasonable and just settle, they are not willing to be reasonable,” she said.
Cooney is part of a pipeline of several hundred “radiation refugees” ending up in an area of West Virginia protected from cell phone towers. She’s renting her cabin from Diane Schou—who calls herself a victim of electromagnetic hypersensitivity, or EHS.
Schou, who moved to Green Bank from Iowa, was profiled 15 months ago by the BBC, and was quoted as saying: “Living here allows me to be more of a normal person. I can be outdoors. I don’t have to stay hidden in a Faraday Cage.”
But even though cell phone towers are banned and even the local library lacks Wi-Fi, smart meters have invaded, Cooney says.
“They’ve completely dropped the ball on smart meters,” she says. “I can’t stand it here either.”
She says she visited her father in New Jersey over Christmas—“and there are no smart meters anywhere around them. …. I felt great there—all analog meters. I was thinking: Maybe I should move to New Jersey—of all places. Like who wants to live in New Jersey, right?”
Returning to Green Bank, Cooney found the first snow on the ground, and “except for the main highway, they don’t shovel or plow anything around here. … It’s a backward place. I really don’t like it here. … I’m just kind of stuck here for now.”
Cooney longs to return to the Golden State—“I moved to California and built a life there for a reason”—but would do so only through an injunction against smart meters.
She expects a vicious fight when the case comes before Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero—although Cooney says she may request a federal judge.
“The defendants in this case are probably going to use dirty tricks and disobey the law and probably are going to malign me,” she said in a laughter-punctuated interview.
“That’s what defendants usually do—especially when a plaintiff has a good solid case against them.”
No matter the outcome, Cooney has already declared victory: “I’ve created a huge problem for these people who are trying to get away with murder, and it costs them a lot of money in defending [the lawsuit]. So I’ve already won in that I’ve created a huge impact here.
“I hope that I’m a role model and that other people … will file similar lawsuits.”