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Palisades Rathouse: Unchallenged by Health Officials, Elderly Twins Fed Local Vermin Population

Illustration by Chris Rahn

Last October 25 was the kind of community-council meeting that made news in Pacific Palisades. A smooth-talking, overperfumed lobbyist for a global gas company was there explaining that a proposed gas terminal some 28 miles off the coast would pose no harm to the denizens. A local woman disagreed, leaving in tears. An LAPD vice cop — a Sergeant Crump — showed up in an undercover “drug-dealer hippie” getup, and, to an audience with mouths agape, reported that teenagers in the squeaky-clean Palisades had been buying booze and drugs by a local Mobile station.

Illustration by Chris Rahn

 

Max Taves

Horror house: The day the mop-up man arrived, exterminators removed multiple bags of dead rats.

Max Taves

Palisades kids avoided 1018 Fiske and its rotting front door at Halloween.

Somewhere in the presentations, the local code-enforcement fetishists had their say. Susan Oakley made an impassioned plea: “There’s flagrant violations!” The owner of Subway was using signs to promote sandwiches. The new CVS drugstore had neon lights — not allowed.

On a rare day like this, when the audience is almost as big as the 22-member council, the minutiae can go forever. But it’s a tidy, rule-obeying bunch. When the clock strikes 9 p.m., the librarian turns the lights off and everyone must leave promptly.

First-timer Scott Denham fidgeted as his chance to speak approached, then barely got to be heard. He sprang from his seat at about one minute before 9, speaking rapidly to beat the librarian’s stopwatchlike closing procedure.

At 34, Denham stood out as being at least 30 years younger than almost everyone else in the room. He began, “Hi, my name is Scott Denham. I just moved in to the Palisades with my wife and two young children. ... [Twenty seconds left.] I’m here because we have a major, major rodent problem. There’s an infestation on my neighbor’s property. It’s spilling over, and it’s posing a serious health risk to my family. ... [Ten seconds left.] I need your help. We’re not getting any help from the city or the county. ...”

It turned 9 p.m. Blank stares. What’s this guy talking about? Some council members started stacking chairs. Taking pity on Denham, an aide to Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl who was sitting in the back, and who is assigned to the Palisades, stepped in, telling Denham, “I got it. We’re on it.”

The evening’s minutes would later recall this extremely brief exchange between Rosendahl’s aide and Denham with a great deal of added — and, it turns out, ridiculously optimistic — political flourish: “[Rosendahl’s deputy] reported that the Councilman’s Office has contacted the appropriate agencies in the City and the issue is being addressed as expeditiously as possible.”

Had Denham been given more than the time of day that night, he would have told them a tale beyond belief about one of the richest enclaves in the United States. His sweet old neighbor ladies, identical twins, had spent years fanatically feeding the Palisades’ rat population. 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.

Chris Conlan, a longtime inspector with San Diego County Vector Control, says, “That number could be monstrous. You could get numbers approaching hundreds of thousands of rats. It’s impossible to quantify.” The case gives pause to the seen-everything-twice Animal Care and Control department in New York. “That’s definitely one for the books for us!” declares Richard Gentles, of that city’s huge animal-control bureaucracy. “This is the first time I’ve heard of someone living with that many rats. We don’t have problems to that level.”

The agency charged with stopping them — the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health — visited repeatedly, saw rats through the windows of the sisters’ home and did virtually nothing to end the threat to the public, the neighbors or the sisters themselves. Nor did the office of City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo act without weeks of foot-dragging and buck-passing.

 

Now, sisters Marjorie and Margaret Barthel are in court, facing a lawsuit filed by neighbors Scott and Liz Denham. The Denhams were forced to exact their own form of vermin justice in the civil courts after discovering that multiple agencies, from Los Angeles County to City Hall, allowed a Westside rat boom to reel out of control — until the Denhams acted to put a stop to it. While the scenes were straight out of Willard, the message is that in Los Angeles, much of local government is broken.


The small beachside town of the Palisades, which is really just a far-western neighborhood of the city of Los Angeles, flanks Sunset Boulevard beginning at the termini of Malibu, Santa Monica and Brentwood. Residents divide their 27,000-person suburb into several zones that real estate agents use as marketing tools: The Riviera and the Huntington have big, expensive homes on large lots. The Highlands has the most expensive tract homes you’ll ever find. Britney Spears bought a home there last year. Castellammare is a Mediterranean-inspired seaside bluff. Marquez has old hillside homes with great views.

And the Alphabets — the original Palisades — has older, relatively more affordable homes on cozy lots along narrow streets. It’s also walking distance from the town center, “the Village.”

The distinct Palisades neighborhoods are unified by a strong theme that agents peddle and residents embrace: normalcy. A small diner in the Village renamed itself Mayberry last year, and residents fondly think of the town as Mayberry by the Sea. There’s only one full-time LAPD squad car assigned, and people boast that they recognize one another on the street.

But normal it’s not. The average income is more than $200,000 per household, putting the Palisades in the top 0.001 percent of American zip codes in terms of wealth. Its community council refuses to join the City of Los Angeles Neighborhood Council system because its members don’t like the financial-disclosure requirements — or the granting of voting rights to outsiders under the city’s broad definition of “stakeholders,” which includes nonresidents, like shop clerks.

A sun-bleached shirt hanging in the window of the local chamber of commerce sums up residents’ self-satisfaction. It reads: “If you’re rich, you live in Beverly Hills; if you’re famous, you live in Malibu; and if you’re lucky, you live in Pacific Palisades.”

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Scott and Liz Denham haven’t bought their shirts yet. Last year, when they were expecting the birth of their daughter, Sage, and searching for a home, they settled on the Palisades. Scott visited every property on the Palisades market for nine months, until a Tuesday morning almost exactly a year ago, when he saw the house at 1014 Fiske Street.

 

In desperation, the Denhams posted this grainy YouTube video of Rathouse.

Ted Soqui

“Whoa! That’s something a person doesn’t forget.” —Rat Busters' Louis Rico

The two-story 2,000-square-foot home was perfect. Scott works as an urban planner for CIM Group, a huge development firm, and Liz works part-time for a TV station. Former New Yorkers, Scott surfs and Liz is athletic and unpretentious. The New England–feel “country antique” house of dark-wood floors was only part of the attraction. Fiske is one of the “Alphabet streets,” and that means “you can walk to all these stores and restaurants,” Scott said recently, sitting in the Santa Monica office of his lawyer, Barak Lurie.

“It’s 100 percent centered on family. It’s a neighborhood where there are kids on every block. For us, it was an ideal place.”

Each Alphabet street is named, in alphabetical order, for Methodist bishops, and was first settled in the 1920s. Mostly built in the ’40s and ’50s, these staid homes go for over $1 million, even a 900-square-foot bungalow. You can walk from them to a couple of public and private schools for overachievers and more than a few churches. You might run into Jamie Lee Curtis, Jennifer Garner, Ben Affleck, Steven Spielberg or dozens of other A-listers who live in more exclusive areas but shop at Gelson’s and boutiques nearby.

Scott and Liz saw the house on Fiske Street about eight times before they closed escrow, sometimes visiting it with inspectors. Says Scott, sitting next to his lawyer, “It looked like any other neighborhood on the Alphabet streets.” His lawyer, Lurie, adds, “That’s the whole problem with a failure to disclose.”

 

The seller, whom Denham is also now suing, was actress Natalie Garner, who lived there for about two years before listing it through Sotheby’s International Realty. Garner, an attractive brunette with three IMDB credits to her name — she was in Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo — was never around when Scott and Liz visited. But her dog was. The dog was kept in the hedge-bordered driveway between Garner’s home and the neighbors’, and the driveway and hedge reeked of what Scott thought at the time was particularly strong-smelling dog urine.

After plunking down $1.8 million, the Denhams moved into 1014 Fiske 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.”

Scott had dealt with rats during a job he had in New York inspecting apartment units. But the Palisades rat was somehow different. It showed a lack of fear that gave Scott the willies. Then, another rat appeared. It seemed far too much at ease, slowly making its way through some boxes in the garage. Scott “kind of climbed up on the boxes — off the ground — and sort of watched this thing just nonchalantly walk around inside my garage and onto my yard.”

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.” On the Steins’ recommendation, they promptly called an exterminator, Rat Busters, which couldn’t come until Tuesday.

Before long, the clues pointed next door — to 1018 Fiske, a Spanish Colonial–inspired stucco. “You start to realize that, as you go to that property, ‘Wait a minute. Something isn’t right here,’” says Scott. He 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 (and many people could not tell them apart), 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.

For Tom Hofer, who grew up one house away during the 1960s and ’70s, the house holds a special, scary place in his childhood memories. “That was the house that you just didn’t walk up to on Halloween,” he says.

Siegrid Hofer — Tom’s mother, still lives there and is used to holding her nose as she walks past the stench. “At one time,” Siegrid tells the Weekly, “they had dozens of dogs and cats in their house. Now, they consider rats pets.”

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Neither Barthel sister returned repeated calls from the Weekly. All quotes from the sisters in this article are from recent court depositions. As best as can be surmised, the Barthels’ unhealthy love for animals can be traced to their poor childhood in Michigan. In court documents, Marjorie recalls one significant event when the family dog ate a roast her mother was cooking on the back porch. The next day, the dog “repaid” the poor family with a pheasant it caught.

 

As adults, at least on the surface, they seemed to have lived normal lives. Marjorie worked for 20-plus years as a manager at Southern California Edison and volunteered for the Gloria Gray Pet Haven Show, which gave her access to a constant stream of animals in need, and many of them ended up at 1018 Fiske. Margaret was a longtime Redondo Beach schoolteacher.

After a neighbor, George Kunz, continually complained about their owning at least 10 cats and five dogs, the sisters moved away from the Palisades in 1983 to a 20-acre parcel in Santa Ynez. Marjorie became a full-time steward of their new “wildlife sanctuary” while Margaret kept teaching, supporting her sister and the menagerie at Santa Ynez. But in 2002, the two sisters returned to the Palisades, and feeding feral animals, including rats, became an obsession.

By Monday morning, their fourth day on Fiske, the Denhams had heard only bits of this story. But it was enough. The moment Los Angeles County government opened for business that day, the Denhams were on the phone to the Vector Management Program, a smalldivision of Public Health, a $2 billion agency. When Liz Denham finally reached a live person, she was hysterical: The kids can’t play outside. Rats are all over the neighbors’ house. We’re scared. Please help us.

The response from health bureaucrats, says Scott, was apathy. “They basically said, ‘Yeah, we’ll be out there — within the next two weeks.” But Scott had been on the county Public Health Department Web site, which warns that rats carry plague and typhus and can infect humans with either, through bites or fleas, or contact with their urine, feces or nests. In fact, in 2006, the department caught a rodent carrying the bubonic plague. In large red letters, the county Web site warns parents to keep children away from dead rats.

Louis Rico, owner of Rat Busters, arrived the very next day, Tuesday, and he didn’t exactly need a Thomas Guide or GPS to find his way. Rico had, he admitted to the Denhams, worked for the previous owner, Natalie Garner, in 2005, soon after she moved in. What the exterminator told them gave them pause:The Denhams shouldn’t expect cooperation from the two ladies next door.

Rico has spent a quarter-century killing undesirable domestic animals throughout Los Angeles. Eight years ago, he decided to specialize where the real money is: killing rats and mice in mostly expensive spots like the Palisades, Brentwood, Beverly Hills and Sherman Oaks, which all share characteristics rodents love. They are close to the hills, offer thick vegetation and easy access to water, and come with house pets whose food rodents pilfer. But of all these areas, the Palisades is among the most alluring to rats, he says. It’s lush, and its garbage cans are brimming.

On the Alphabet streets, Rico has a virtual monopoly of 50 clients — none so memorable as Natalie Garner. Rico recalled in his court deposition that when he first met Garner, in July 2005, she was frantic, telling him, “I’m seeing hundreds of rodents outside my house.” But despite Rat Busters’ efforts, when Rico visited the property a second time, he saw twice as many rats.

The rat exterminator soon cracked the code,a discovery that would make most Angelenos’ skin crawl. The exploding rat population was being purposely fed. Rico, peeking through the overgrown hedge, spotted rats eating and drinking from pie tins full of dog food and milk. To his shock, sisters Margaret and Marjorie stood there, observing approvingly.

“They were standing there watching them,” Rico tells L.A. Weekly. “I was like, ‘Whoa!’ That’s something a person doesn’t forget. I have never seen it before, and I have never seen it since. That’s something you never forget.”

But Rico, afraid of getting in the middle of an ugly Palisades homeowner war, did not tell the Denhams these facts. Nor did he tell them that in late 2006, Garner insisted he remove his bait stations because the Barthel sisters were furious over the rat poisonings and the possible threat to other animals. How dare Garner slaughter their beautiful brood?

“The sellers disclosed nothing” of this, said the Denhams’ real estate agent, Elizabeth Stein, late last year, referring to Garner and uppercrust Sotheby’s International Realty.

A week after Rat Busters responded, when the Denhams had lived there about two weeks, two county vector-control inspectors — Amy Okohira and Briccio Malaguit — finally arrived at the Barthel home. They didn’t exactly need MapQuest to find the house either.

 

Okohira and other health inspectors, it turned out, had been to the house many times. Nobody knows how many times, because in Los Angeles County, the Vector Management Program throws away all such records after two years, says Terrance Powell, director of the department’s militaristically-named Special Operations Bureau.

“We don’t erase stuff,” Powell tells L.A. Weekly. “We just don’t have room. We throw it away. Consider this: We do more than half a million inspections a year of various types. Where do you think we would keep that kind of bulk [of] records?”

Digitally? “Well, that’s a good one. That could work,” Powell concedes.

Still, two surviving county records from 2004 obtained by L.A. Weekly fortuitously avoided the shredder — records the county failed to release for several months, and which the Denhams never knew existed.

The complaints are both chilling and infuriating. One reads: “Rats coming from senior citizen twins’ [house].” Two months later, it gets more alarming: “Rats in the neighbors’ house. They feed them and state they cannot kill these rodents. Please talk to other neighbor on the opposite side of [redacted]. Please call him ...”

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In the first record from 2004, Okohira reported seeing a lone rat on the Barthels’ ramshackle roof, but noted that the house’s walls had a lot of “rub marks.” Rats have dirty fur; when they move along walls and through cracks, they leave behind oily, sootlike smudges. The Barthels’ outside walls were covered in greasy rat-fur smears — evidence of a huge infestation.

Inspector Okohira warned the sisters, who ventured outside to meet her, that they were in violation of the health code. But as the Barthels had often done with county inspectors in the past, they easily got rid of them by claiming they had already contacted a pest-control company.

Several days after the county “inspection,” something happened that unhinged Liz Denham. The morning after Halloween, the Denhams’ maid caught six rats eating leftover crumbs — in their 4-month-old’s stroller.

The baby was safe elsewhere. The stroller had been left out in the yard. But the incident badly rattled Liz. Although the Denhams were careful to spell out R-A-T, 4-year-old Alex soon caught on that something was wrong with mommy and daddy’s new house. Alex’s new preschool teacher kept journals of each child, and Scott Denham recalls how the teacher wrote that Alex kept repeating: “My mommy and daddy are scared. I’m afraid [rats] are going to eat my toys.”

Denham can barely stand thinking about it. “The kid just moved from a new city. He doesn’t know anybody, and this is what he’s telling his teacher in the first week of school!” He became something of an unofficial lobbyist, trying to find a Los Angeles city or county bureaucrat who gave a damn. He never found one.

“My wife and I are very nice people normally,” Scott recalled last year to the Weekly. “But here we are cursing and threatening people with lawsuits. I’ve turned into this negative and angry person. ... Who is protecting us?”

Before he went before civic leaders at the Palisades Community Council last October, where their concerns focused on a drugstore sign, Denham had called many city and county departments and politicians — including County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky’s office and Councilman Bill Rosendahl’s office — multiple times. He demanded that the local newspaper, the Palisadian-Post, write about the rat epidemic, then abruptly demanded that the paper not print the story until he and Liz had exhausted their options.

After two or three weeks of knocking on the Barthels’ rotting door and calling them constantly, Liz finally spoke with the sister seen as the leader, Margaret, by phone. The two warring neighbors have very different accounts of what was said. But Scott recalls that it “led to the point of Liz saying, ‘If you guys don’t get rid of the rats, then we’re going to file a lawsuit, because we have no choice.’” Then, “Margaret said something to the effect of ‘Don’t bother because we’re just going to sell the house and get out of here.’”

But Barthel family friend Rene Robinson, who became their ambassador to the outside, says Liz Denham had scared the helpless sisters by threatening lawsuits, county inspections and publicity. Margaret, a former Redondo schoolteacher, is “extremely sensitive” to publicity — a fact, according to Robinson, that the Denhams were willing to exploit. Scott even videotaped the rats and posted the amateurish but skin-crawling images on YouTube.



 

In an e-mail to Robinson, Liz clearly played hardball, threatening actions that had no hope of success:

“The article [in the Palisadian-Post] WILL print this Thursday. It is going to name their names, address and will have pictures. I will be working tirelessly to get inside that house via the Health Department, City Attorney and Building and Safety — who will at that point potentially red-tag and obviously shut down [Margaret’s nonpermitted guesthouse]. This could all obviously be avoided should they sell but if not — we will stop at nothing to solve this problem, which according to Margaret has been going on since 1984. This is simply a battle they can NOT win.”

The posturing had its effect, says Robinson. “[The sisters] were seriously believing everything these women [Liz Denham and her real estate agent, Elizabeth Stein] were saying as far as red-tagging their house and [that] they[’d] be thrown out and they’d have to leave.”

Robinson alleges that Liz, focused on the threat to 4-year-old Alex and newborn Sage, “had told me she didn’t care if — and these are her words — she didn’t care if, when they tore the house down, if the ladies were inside it or not.” Robinson calls this a “real case of elder abuse.”

The Denhams deny Robinson’s claim but acknowledge that the twins’ unwillingness to kill the rats left them unnerved, frantic and angry. Consensually or not, the Barthels decided to sell, and, oddly, they used the Denhams’ agent, Elizabeth Stein — with stipulations: When Stein had documents for the sisters to sign, she was to knock on their decayed front door and slip the paperwork underneath. Sometimes, Stein said, she would deliver papers under the door, drive around the block, knock, and signed paperwork would come sliding back out.

“My conversations with them have been enormously bizarre,” Stein told the Weekly. “They’re mentally ill. ... You wouldn’t believe the things they’ve told me — like, ‘Your children will rise up and kill you!’”

Marjorie herself has been happy, during court proceedings, to relate disquieting things she’s said to Stein: “I asked her if she was Jewish. ... I preached the Gospel for one half hour. ... After I spoke and preached the Gospel, the lord preaching it through me, her attitude completely changed.” One day, when Scott asked whether the sisters were afraid of being attacked by rats, Marjorie replied, “No, I have the blood of Jesus on my house every night.”

Even if Jesus isn’t on the case, the sisters have faced little threat from authorities. For ignoring the law, county health-code section 8.04.705 assesses only “a fee up to $285.00.” When inspectors Okohira and Malaguit returned in early November last year, the sisters didn’t even bother stepping outside.

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As the egregiously ineffective inspectors knocked on the front and side doors and called out the sisters’ names, records show, they could hear the sisters moving around inside. As they peered in the window, the inspectors saw a rat — right at home inside the Barthel home. Yet it would take another week — and a second sighting inside — before the county Health Services Department thought to call the county’s Adult Protective Services. Even then, records show, the listless Inspector Okohira didn’t send the required report to Protective Services for a full week.

It’s hard to imagine a case more appropriate for Adult Protective Services than two elderly women drowning in biblical prophecy who live with packs of probably diseased rats. Yet there’s no record that Adult Protective Services ever sent anyone, even when City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo’s office finally — and ineffectively — stepped in.

Eventually, Barthel family friend Robinson and her husband came with chain saws one day. They cut down large, overgrown, rat-friendly thickets of birds of paradise, and, Robinson admits to the Weekly, “It was bad. It was infested.”

According to the meager records that portray only a fraction of what unfolded, county inspectors returned a week later and saw another rat through the window. Margaret refused to allow the inspectors, who had no search warrant, inside. The resulting county health report was a testament to how poorly the county dealt with the unchecked rat boom: Neither inspector knew the rats had chewed through the wood floors of the kitchen, living room and bedroom, allowing themselves free rein from a basement crawling with them, as the Weekly learned from court documents.

Fulfilling the aphorism “Location, location, location,” in spite of 1018 Fiske’s enormous problems, once the sisters put it on the market last November, it quickly attracted two prospective buyers, for an asking price of around $1.2 million. If the sisters seemed crazy, they were also shrewd: They asked that a developer interested in buying the property sign a contract, swearing that he would not testify in court about what he saw in the house, says Denham lawyer Barak Lurie.

 

By early December, however, the developer was too weirded out by the house, and pulled out. And the Barthels were visited by an angel. “You know why I didn’t sell the house?” recounts Margaret in her deposition. “I’ll tell you why. At the last minute, an angel appeared in the name of my nephew [Richard Otto], who said, ‘You want to stay here? I know what it means to you. I will take it over. I’ll pay it. I’ll get it done for you.’ And he did.”

Otto offered to front the extensive renovation costs if the sisters would sign papers transferring their $1.2 million property to a trust he would inherit once they died. The sisters say they took the offer, reluctantly. It was far more important to Marjorie and Margaret that they continue to do the lord’s work, hastening the second coming of Christ one rat at a time. Marjorie says shetold Liz, “If you’re afraid of a few rats, read the Book of Revelation.”

Nobody who knows the Barthels — not their nephew Jeff Luks, to whom the Weekly spoke, not friend Rene Robinson, not their former lawyer, Adam Rossman — can say what strain of Christianity they follow. Perhaps just a really paradoxical interpretation of the Though Shalt Not Kill commandment. (Paradoxical because the sisters aren’t vegetarians. They love chicken.)

“To ask them to kill animals is to ask them to do the worst possible thing you could do,” says Elizabeth Stein. Robinson tries to explain what the two women believe in sympathetic terms: “They really have a very strong feeling as far as all creatures are pretty much fair and have a right to live and exist. It’s their religious belief not to harm anything — God’s creatures.”

Naturally, the exterminator is less sympathetic. “I’m a Christian,” says Rico. “I go to church all the time, okay? People like that make us look bad. You know what I mean?”

“It sounds like animal hoarding,” says medical expert Dr. Emanuel Maidenberg, of UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, 30 seconds into a conversation about the Barthels. “It’s a form of hoarding. Some people will collect unnecessary items of any kind, and some people will collect animals.” The psychiatrist and expert on obsessive-compulsive disorder isn’t diagnosing anybody, but the signs are there: Lots of animals. Legal problems with animals. And the “We’re protecting them” defense.

Veterinarian and epidemiologist Gary Patronek, who coined the term “animal hoarding” and pioneered research into the malady, says such women “are living in their own little world that they’ve constructed, and these animals are serving an important role in that world. ... These animals provide something very different than what they do for a typical pet owner.”

Lest there be any doubt, the Barthel sisters were using animals to fill their own voids. “I’ve never had children, never gotten married,” Marjorie says. “And they had been such a source of comfort. They’re a therapy. ... And it’s just their ... unconditional love, their savage loyalty and their sweet forgiveness are traits that human beings could really, really follow and adopt.”

The roof rat, or black rat, is the more agile cousin of the Norway rat, and its deftness is clearly on display in Denham’s YouTube video. “That group might be a family,” says Dirk Van Vuren, a wildlife biologist at UC Davis, while watching six well-fed rats scurrying around the Barthels’ home. Van Vuren narrates the action for the Weekly: The rats “want something to eat, and they’re not all going to fit in that house. They are somewhat territorial, and it could be time for them to disperse. It’s probably time to venture into the neighbor’s yard.”

The UC Davis biologist resists estimating how many extra rats the sisters’ activities have produced on the Westside, saying only that it’s been “well into the thousands,” just since 2002.

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But scientists at the National Pest Management Association were willing to try. The number of wild rats the Barthels bred in one year — if they began with a single male and a single female — is, by the association’s calculations, 2,258. That number of rats would be capable of devouring 10,931 pounds of food and excreting 56,400 rat droppings.

 

But the sisters fed the rats for much longer than a year. They did so from the time they returned from Santa Ynez in 2002 until late 2007 — not to mention possible rat-feeding during the decades that Margaret continued teaching in Redondo to support their refuge in Santa Ynez.

Theoretically, during a second year, 2,258 rats in the Palisades could grow “a thousand-fold,” to more than two million rats, says Greg Baumann of the association. That’s only a mathematical figure, because the food needed to sustain two million rats would be impossibly huge, and cats were in the area.

But, estimating conservatively, the two sisters added tens of thousands of rats to L.A.’s tony Westside. And perhaps far, far more.

Last November, the Denhams, who have never filed a lawsuit before, sued the sisters. They demanded $500,000 and a mandatory injunction requiring that the sisters have the rats exterminated. They also sued Natalie Garner, Sotheby’s agent Barbara Boyle and her boss, Frances Symons Jr., for failing to disclose the rat house next door.

By December, City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo’s office had taken up the case — finally. But prosecutor Susan Strick’s visit to the site followed a familiar government pattern in buckling to the Barthels. She and an LAPD officer came, they knocked, and the sisters conquered. Strick tells the Weekly she saw a rat through the window and asked to go inside, but the sisters refused her entry.

Strick also alerted Adult Protective Services last November, but Strick passively tells L.A. Weekly that by the spring of 2008, she “never got a report back.” By the time the City Attorney took the sisters to court in late December for defying county health codes, City Hall’s move was moot — a judge in Beverly Hills had already issued a temporary injunction arising from the Denham lawsuit.

Days before the Beverly Hills ruling, the sisters hired American Pest Control to tent the house. A crew wearing facemasks and hazmat suits emerged pale-faced and sober, as if they had just witnessed the aftermath of a biohazard spill — which, in a way, they had. Scott Denham says they hauled several large garbage bags heavy with dead rats from the bedrooms, kitchen, attic, basement and guesthouse, as the Denhams took photos.

City prosecutor Strick never pressed charges, but the case is open for another year. Disconcertingly, Vector Management’s Gail VanGordon has no regrets about the county’s or city’s incredible inaction. “Most of the time, we’re invited inside,” VanGordon tells the Weekly. “They wouldn’t let anyone inside, and we’re strictly informed about the laws of privacy. We can’t step on our tiptoes to look over a brick wall. That’s a violation of privacy. It would be thrown out of court.” She adds, “We’re not social workers.”

That’s absolute nonsense, says Madeline Bernstein, president of Los Angeles’ Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The former prosecutor says that while the City Attorney’s Office and Vector Management may have lacked grounds to push for a criminal search warrant, clearly “there are lower-level search [warrants] that would apply in this area.” Bernstein called the city and county failures in the case “amazing. It’s like a monumental crack that these women are falling through.”

Ultimately, former owner Garner and Sotheby’s settled out of court after the Denhams’ lone witness, Louis Rico, was deposed. His testimony about Garner’s and Sotheby’s failure to disclose was damning.

Garner, who lives in a sprawling Brentwood mansion with Welcome to Mooseport producer Basil Iwanyk, paid the Denhams $115,000. Sotheby’s paid $15,000 for the deception by its agents, Boyle and Symons. In June, Garner audaciously tried to sue the Barthels too, demanding that they pay the $115,000 because they caused the rat boom. A judge threw out her suit.

Apparently, spawning a massive rat population on L.A.’s Westside doesn’t disqualify homeowners’-insurance policies with State Farm. State Farm is bankrolling the Barthels’ legal defense, setting in motion preparations for a bizarre yet entertaining trial, probably this year. Attempts by the two sides to reach a settlement were stymied by the Barthels’ unnerving request: The Denhams would have to withdraw their demand for a permanent injunction — whose only stipulation is that the sisters not harbor rats.

“Since 1958, we’ve had rats,” Marjorie told Barak Lurie during her deposition in May. “I’ve lived with rats since 1958, honey.... When I got the house in [1958], that’s the day I started feeding all the animals. And I fed them as long as I lived there.”

Reach the writer at maxtaves@gmail.com.


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