In Llano, in the middle of the Southern California high desert, a bewhiskered Jacques Dupuis stands in front of what was once his home. His laid-back second wife, Marcelle, her long, silver hair blowing in the breeze, takes a drag on her Marlboro Red as they walk inside and, in thick French Canadian accents, recount the day in 2007 when the government came calling. "That's the seat I have to offer you," she tells a visitor, motioning to the exposed, dusty wooden floor planks in what was once a cozy cabin where Jacques spent much of his life, raising his daughter with his first wife.
On Oct. 17, 2007, Marcelle opened the door to a loud knock. Her heart jumped when she found a man backed by two armed county agents in bulletproof vests. She was alone in the cabin, a dot in the vast open space of the Antelope Valley, without a neighbor for more than half a mile. She feared that something had happened to her daughter, who was visiting from Montreal.
The men demanded her driver's license, telling her, "This building is not permitted — everything must go." Normally sassy, Marcelle handed over her ID — even her green card, just in case. Stepping out, she realized that her 1,000-square-foot cabin was surrounded by men with drawn guns. "You have no right to be here," one informed her. Baffled and shaking with fear, she called her daughter — please come right away.
As her ordeal wore on, she heard one agent, looking inside their comfortable cabin, say to another: "This one's a real shame — this is a real nice one."
A "shame" because the authorities eventually would enact some of the most powerful rules imaginable against rural residents: the order to bring the home up to current codes or dismantle the 26-year-old cabin, leaving only bare ground.
"They wouldn't let me grandfather in the water tank," Jacques Dupuis says. "It is so heart-wrenching because there was a way to salvage this, but they wouldn't work with me. It was, 'Tear it down. Period.' "
In order to clear the title on their land, the Dupuises are spending what would have been peaceful retirement days dismantling every board and nail of their home — by hand — because they can't afford to hire a crew.
Tough code enforcement has been ramped up in these unincorporated areas of L.A. County, leaving the iconoclasts who chose to live in distant sectors of the Antelope Valley frightened, confused and livid. They point the finger at the Board of Supervisors' Nuisance Abatement Teams, known as NAT, instituted in 2006 by Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich in his sprawling Fifth District. The teams' mission: "to abate the more difficult code violations and public nuisance conditions on private property."
L.A. Weekly found in a six-week investigation that county inspectors and armed DA investigators also are pursuing victimless misdemeanors and code violations, with sometimes tragic results. The government can define land on which residents have lived for years as "vacant" if their cabins, homes and mobile homes are on parcels where the land use hasn't been legally established. Some have been jailed for defying the officials in downtown Los Angeles, while others have lost their savings and belongings trying to meet the county's "final zoning enforcement orders." Los Angeles County has left some residents, who appeared to be doing no harm, homeless.
Some top county officials insist that nothing new is unfolding. Michael Noyes, deputy in charge of code enforcement for Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, says, "We've had a unit in the office through the '70s and '80s." But key members of the county NAT team say that "definitely, yes," a major focus on unincorporated areas was launched in 2006. Cooley declined to comment through his media spokesman.
Many residents insist a clearing-out is under way in these 2,200 square miles of arid land an hour north of L.A., a mountain-ringed valley at the western tip of the Mojave Desert named for elegant pronghorn herds that were all but wiped out by an 1884-94 drought. Their anxiety has prompted conspiracy theories about whether the county has its own plans for their land.
The crackdown has the strong backing of Antonovich, whose spokesman, Tony Bell, says of its critics, "I've probably ruined your story because you want to say it's a horrible thing going on. ... We have gotten a very, very positive response from the community."
Not everyone. Oscar Castaneda, pastor of Lancaster's historic adobe Sanctuary Seventh-day Adventist Church, built in 1934 and featured in Kill Bill, recalls the day he says he was ordered to "freeze" in front of his mobile home on isolated land where his only neighbors are rattlesnakes. Decades ago, Castaneda says the county gave him verbal approval to live there in a mobile home. He told the NAT team, which began photographing his spread: "Listen, I've been living over here for 22 years. And nobody has come over here to bother me."