By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Now he's building a prefab home — with permits — but the couple is no longer living together due to the resulting, intense stress. He's now homeless — "playing musical chairs," is how he puts it — and on probation for defying the county's cleanup orders.
About the time in 2006 that the Emeterios were targeted, Chip and Amalia Romary were pulled over in their vehicle in Palmdale. The man he thought was a traffic cop issued him a curious ticket, Chip Romary says: A citation for illegal land use. "I received a traffic ticket for illegal land use. Illegal land use. A traffic ticket."
Their story helped fuel a growing fear that the county government is tracking people using inordinate resources and invasive techniques. "I bought a piece of property, 6 and a half acres," Romary says of the land under contention, "a wonderful piece of property. It was my life. It was everything that I wanted. It had a foundation, had water, had septic. I inherited a mobile home from my grandparents" in which he and Amalia lived.
"I showed up in court not knowing what this was all about, and they said, 'You are illegally living on your land.' Now, how that's possible, I don't know."
Romary focuses much of his wrath on prosecutor Campbell, whom he blames for his four-day stint in jail. "My life is now a nightmare," he says. "The courthouse is so corrupt, it's like a mob."
In 2006 and 2007, these and other stories began to be heard along the Sierra Highway, at parties and at the used goods and mercantile Trading Post on Pearblossom Highway in Littlerock. Tow-truck driver Richard Mesny was in trouble for storing numerous inoperable cars on his land; Lawrence Hansen, a retired electrician and former shop teacher, was under orders to remove "trash, junk and debris" that he says were his tools and construction materials.
Among those talking were the Dupuises. Jacques Dupuis had built their Llano cabin amidst the Joshua trees to code in 1984, but obtained insufficient permits and faced extensive red tape in getting his paperwork approved. An experienced builder, he recently worked as general superintendent on the "adaptive reuse" of a 17-story high-rise in downtown L.A., transforming it from offices to condos. So Dupuis figured he could get "after the fact" permits, which are granted to many who build to code in Southern California.
But codes have dramatically changed. The water well the county now required — the Dupuises use a tank supplied by a water truck — could cost $85,000 and wasn't guaranteed to produce water. The county also aggressively acted to force them to remove a cargo container — which can be seen only by passing hawks.
But Oscar Gomez, a zoning official on a county NAT team that took the Weekly on a ride-along in June, says such violations "bring the property value down. ... There are actually people that own all the property around them, even if they haven't built there yet."
The Dupuises couldn't afford an attorney with experience in this type of criminal law, and they lost to the county on the cargo container issue. They sued the county to remove from their records the land-use violations caused by their lack of a well. But the suit was dismissed.
Reacting to multiple reports such as the Dupuises', of being confronted by teams with guns, NAT team members who took the Weekly on the ride-along laughed and shook their heads. John Yacovone, a DA investigator, says, "We've heard those stories, too. It's not the way we work. We don't approach with our guns drawn."
But the stories are widespread and persistent. In November 2006, Fred and Linda Kirpsie, an off-the-grid family living atop a 4,000-foot mountain, were wondering how county officials "found" their cluster of aging mobile homes and huge scrap-metal collection, at the end of four-wheel-drive-only Kirpsie Road. Did they use Google Earth? Helicopters?
Despite their extreme lifestyle, the Kirpsies had lived on "Kirpsie Mountain" for 32 years, and Fred penned "Ore Car Update," a gold-mining column, for the Acton/Agua Dulce News. But in late 2006, when the Kirpsies returned home from a chore, their mentally disabled adult son, Paul, told them the authorities had visited.
The Kirpsies claim an armed team wearing black flak jackets pulled up in black SUVs and told Paul that his family had "no right to be here." The NAT team returned multiple times to issue orders to remove great heaps of items from the property.
"It's not an illegal lifestyle," Kirpsie says. "This is our happiness."
Criminally prosecuted, the Kirpsies agreed in March to a plea deal in which they will clear their land of every item, thus avoiding jail, says Guild of the Littlerock Town Council. They are moving to a mining town in Nevada.
But some don't have the resources to start over. Joey Gallo, a disabled veteran on a $985 monthly pension, like the Kirpsies and Dupuises, says he also was approached by an armed NAT team. They returned several times, each time ratcheting up the citations against him, he says.
"I said, 'Well, look, we've complied. We've taken the trash away ... we picked all the weeds away. And the place looked really nice and clean.' And they said, 'OK, now the motor home has to go. It can't be here. And the sheds have to go.' "