Palisades Rathouse Case Settled Out of Court | Features | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly
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Palisades Rathouse Case Settled Out of Court 

Exterminated rodents filled van top to bottom

Wednesday, Dec 31 2008
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To the dismay of courtroom journalists, Denham vs. Barthel has been settled out of court. Instead, we can now only guess how jurors would have reacted to the macabre tale of Pacific Palisades homeownership gone really wrong.

Within the first full day of moving into their $1.8 million Pacific Palisades home last October, Scott and Elizabeth Denham realized that they had a rat problem. Within a week they realized their neighbors had a rat problem, too. Then the couple discovered that the neighbors — 78-year-old twin sisters Margaret and Marjorie Barthel — had been purposefully and lovingly feeding rats, nurturing an exponentially multiplying population of rats on the Westside, which experts believe ranged from tens of thousands to as many as a half-million of the furry creatures.

The Denhams soon also learned that Los Angeles County’s Health Department had known about the rat infestation for years and had no plans to end the bizarre, health-threatening situation — even after vermin inspectors spotted rats roaming freely inside the reclusive twins’ home in the ritzy beachside suburb. In fact, as L.A. Weekly reported in “Rathouse of the Palisades,” the rats had tunneled their way through the floors of almost every room in the sisters’ home and had even hollowed out their furniture.

Scott Denham, who filed his lawsuit against the sisters late last year and sought a permanent injunction against their rat-feeding ways, tells the Weekly, “All [the injunction] says is you have to keep your property rat-free. For most people, that’s pretty basic. We didn’t want to give up until we got to that point.”

Just last month, the Denhams and the Barthels resolved the year-old suit. The complete terms of the settlement were kept secret. However, Scott Denham and his new lawyer, Joan Kenegos, say that one of the major factors contributing to the rat colony — a thick hedge that acted as a “rat highway” — was cut down, as stipulated in the agreement. “The Denhams took on a problem that no one else would,” Kenegos says. “They did something important for the public good. I think that’s very unusual.”

The Denhams would not say how much they received for the damage to their property’s value and their family’s emotional well-being, which had to be considerable. In one among countless close encounters, six rats feasted on leftover Halloween treats in the Denhams’ infant’s stroller. Luckily, it was empty at the time.

“Any money we got pretty much went to legal bills,” Scott Denham says.

A year ago, a judge ordered the sisters to exterminate the rats. Gary James, the mop-up man who came in after the extermination, told the Weekly that the Barthels’ home was filled with hundreds — if not thousands — of rat carcasses. “I have a 10-foot-long cargo van,” James said in August. “Two-thirds of the van was packed with [dead] rodents, from top to bottom and side to side.”

Since the extermination, Denham says neither he nor his wife has seen a rat, a fact that allows the family — finally — to use a backyard in one of the United States’ most desirable neighborhoods, once off-limits to their young children.

“We spend a heckuva lot of time in the backyard now with the kids,” he says. “There’s still some sort of residual odor outside.”

And one more thing, Denham adds: “Alex, my son, still refuses to watch Ratatouille!”

From: “Rathouse of the Palisades” by Max Taves

After plunking down $1.8 million, the Denhams moved ... on Friday, October 12, last year. He, Liz and the movers worked fast against the encroaching dark, and the next morning, Scott started sorting through boxes in his backyard.

“I’m standing out there with my 4-year-old son, and there’s this giant rat standing about four feet away from us,” he recalls. “Just looking at us in broad daylight, as if it were a pet.”...

When told, Liz didn’t believe him, saying, “I’m sure it was a squirrel or something.” But later that day, several friends stopped by to see the new place, and one of them reported that, just outside, she’d spotted a big rat. A little later, when the Denhams’ real estate agent, Elizabeth Stein, and her husband, Jim, came over, Jim immediately spotted two rats crawling through the grass. He announced: “You guys have a major problem.” ...

[Scott] hadn’t paid much attention to the house next door. But now, he noticed, “You couldn’t see in any of the windows. I don’t know if it was tarp, but it wasn’t just curtains. It was blacked out. You couldn’t see in the house. The front door was rotted.”

When he crept closer, the odor — “a urine stench” — was “unbearable.” By the end of their first long weekend in the Palisades, Liz was stressed out, peering at shadows. The more she peered, the more rats she saw. Standing in her own master bedroom, she found herself at eye level with a group of rats who clearly had a routine, slipping methodically in and out of drains and cracks on her neighbors’ outside wall.

She saw three rats squeeze out of a roof drain in a precision, shoulder-to-shoulder group, Ratatouille-style. Another rat pack traveled along the dusty, reeking hedge on the property line. The hedge was a rat highway, and it swayed under its commuters’ weight.

Liz knocked on her neighbors’ rotting front door, but no one answered. They soon learned from other neighbors that the owners were 78-year-old twins Margaret and Marjorie Barthel, who rarely left the house — and never at the same time. When one of them did go out ..., she wore heavy clothes, a wide-brimmed hat and large glasses as she pushed a shopping basket from Ralphs. It was always filled with large bags — of dog food. They haven’t owned dogs for years. ...

Although the full dimensions of the environmental and health damage done by the peculiar pair are unknown, experts contacted by L.A. Weekly estimate that the ladies’ actions may have added tens of thousands, even 500,000, new rats to L.A.’s Westside.

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