Thursday, May 1, 2008
Drive inland down Carmel Valley Road, and the landscape shifts from coastal chi-chi to suddenly country. Green hills stretch out, dotted with oaks and wildflowers and contentedly munching cows. The roads get narrower and curvier, flanked by vineyards and ranches.
A right turn about halfway down the road leads to downtown Cachagua: two trailer parks and a store that offers the only food, booze, cigarettes and entertainment for 10 twisty country miles.
On a toasty April afternoon, Grandma DeeDee holds court on the back patio of the Cachagua General Store. At 82, DeeDee – who says no one may know her real name until it’s printed in her obituary – calls herself “the godmother of the whole damn country.” At least, she’s the matriarch of Jensen Camp Mobile Home Park just across Cachugua Creek.
Seated next to DeeDee is Grant Risdon, a 65-year-old local legend who plays the castanets (sometimes with rhythm, always with gusto) and sketches exquisite Civil War-era scenes featuring Native Americans and moons. Lately, Risdon’s been camping behind the store: in the creek when it’s dry, in the bocce ball court when it’s not. He often can be found loafing on the porch with Coors and a smoke, leching and telling stories so funny it doesn’t matter if they’re entirely true.
DeeDee is a three-decade devotee of The Young and the Restless, and she delights in drama. Cachagua is full of it – tales involving chickens, horses, pistols, motorcycles, drugs, alcohol, feuds, raunch and wholesome fun. Store co-owner Mike Jones offers a bullet-hole tour with a tinge of pride.
If Jensen Camp were a soap opera, Risdon says authoritatively, it would be called As the Creek Turns. A stone’s toss from the table, Cachagua Creek gurgles. It likely will dry up by May, as it does most years; over the next few weeks, locals will help rescue the trapped steelhead for release in the Carmel River.
“WHEN PEOPLE SEE JENSEN CAMP, THEY SAY, ‘GOD, SOMEBODY’S GOT TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT THIS.’ ”
If that’s a metaphor for life at Jensen Camp, it works: A series of recent bad turns leaves the 50-year-old trailer park facing extinction unless it gets some help.
The camp’s well water is contaminated with excess fluoride. The owners, facing mounting debt and possible jail time over code violations, are trying to sell the property. One maverick county enforcement officer has made it his mission to shut down the camp, alleging it’s wracked with drug and alcohol problems, domestic abuse and unsafe living conditions. Whether by the courts or by a new landlord, DeeDee and some 100 other residents soon could be kicked out.
Risdon takes a puff and leans sideways: “You’re witnessing the life and death of the camp.”
Life in the sticks
Jensen Camp is roughly 30 trailers, shacks and modular homes spread over 10 dusty acres, bounded on one side by the spindly creek. Unlit dirt roads snake through the property, softened by shedding sycamore trees.
Debbie and Brad Baker shovel dirt into an open septic trench marked with orange construction cones. Sewage has been backing into their home, Debbie explains, so she and her husband are making repairs in exchange for this month’s rent.
The Bakers have lived at the camp for 28 years, raising two sons in what they consider their slice of paradise. Their home is furnished with Brad’s carpentry. Outside, a pair of speakers nestles into a nook in a dead tree. A creekside table holds a few rocks Debbie plans to use to build a fountain.
As a caregiver for seniors, Debbie makes the hour-long commute down Carmel Valley Road to the Monterey Peninsula every work day. “It’s a nice ride home,” she says. “I pass the [Carmel Valley] Village and just go, ‘Yes! Homeward bound.’ ”
But one family’s oasis is another’s slum.
Ashley Rider and her father, Chuck, lost their housing in Seaside two years ago, when Ashley’s grandmother moved into an assisted-living facility and her home was put up for sale. Chuck is camp co-owner Tosha Djirbandee’s uncle, and he is disabled with terminal health problems. So Djirbandee and her husband, Javier “Harvey” Guzman, set them up with a trailer for $300 per month, including water and electricity.
When the Riders moved in, 21-year-old Ashley and her dad found the trailer without sinks, cabinets, doors, windows, heat or electricity. Black mold was growing on the walls. The camp had no garbage service; Ashley claims the landlords were burying the trash. She says she’s fallen through the trailer’s floor twice, and her father was hospitalized for respiratory problems caused by the mold.
The Riders did what they could – stapled sheets on the ceiling to stop leaks, used a propane heater for warmth – but Ashley says Guzman and Djirbandee did nothing to help. So last September, she called authorities to complain, spurring inspections that found code violations in more than half the camp’s units.
“Basically we’re the whistleblowers, so now everybody hates us out here,” Ashley says glumly. “If I had a place today I’d be gone in a heartbeat. We really have nowhere else to go.”
She chokes up. “I owe my dad the best life possible. He’s the only family I have. It’s not fair for him to live like this for the few years he has left.”
Ashley and Chuck stopped paying rent last September. The state tagged the trailer as uninhabitable in December. The Riders are still there.
Rebel with a cause
Technically, County Enforcement Officer Phil Hickenbottom says, Jensen Camp shouldn’t be his problem. The state Department of Housing and Community Development is responsible for the mobile home park’s permitting, code enforcement, and health and safety issues. County agencies oversee garbage and water services, and the sheriff’s department deals with abandoned vehicles and crime.
“The state has 100 percent control over the park, but – how can I put this so it doesn’t look bad? – the state is sort of a paper tiger,” Hickenbottom says, his purple shades pushed up into a gray crew cut.
Same goes for the Monterey County Health Department, which didn’t respond to Jensen Camp well water samples showing dangerous fluoride levels between 1995 and 2003. “When you go seven years with polluted water, the government’s not doing its job,” Hickenbottom says.
The officer describes himself as an “experiment,” departing from the official distribution of power to enforce code violations at the county’s mobile home parks, two of them in Cachagua. “When people see Jensen Camp, they say, ‘God, somebody’s got to do something about this,’ ” he says, flipping through photos he recently submitted to the district attorney. “I’m that somebody.”
Hickenbottom found that 16 of the camp’s homes had code violations: additions built without permits, hazardous wood-burning stoves, broken and boarded-up windows, plastic coverings on roofs, leaks in floors and ceilings, rusted and rotted exteriors, moldy walls, bad plumbing, exposed wires, low-pressure water, lack of hot water and heating, missing doors, trashed yards, falling fences, and a precariously positioned propane tank. He claims the camp’s water storage tank is too small, and the existing hydrants too weak, to protect the community during a fire.
He notes that the sheriff’s department has responded to more than 40 calls from Jensen Camp in the past three years; recent reports have involved burglary, assault, vandalism, drug use, weapons possession and threats.
But the camp’s tenants, who have compared notes, see some of Hickenbottom’s objections as picky – even heartless.
Debbie Baker had words with him over her washing machine – which was discharging what she says was biodegradable soap onto the dirt while the septic system was out of order. Hickenbottom also brought up the 30-year-old cabin on her son’s property, which he said was built without a permit.
“I don’t think it’s right that he’s able to just walk into people’s yards without the landlord,” Baker says. “He was threatening people. He was way outta line.”
The officer also confronted Toddy Spring, a builder and welder who lives at the camp with his 12-year-old son. Hickenbottom objected to a wood-burning stove in his trailer; Spring retorted that he needs the stove to keep his kid warm in the mornings because the trailer has no electric heat.
“WE’RE HILLBILLIES OUT HERE. WE’RE NOT WHITE TRASH, BUT THE WAY HE WAS TALKING TO ME, HE MADE ME FEEL LIKE WHITE TRASH.”
“He handled his job very shystery,” Spring says of Hickenbottom. “We’re hillbillies out here. We’re not white trash, but the way he was talking to me, he made me feel like white trash.”
Even DeeDee got a visit from Hickenbottom, who questioned an addition to her home and called the local SPCA about a geriatric horse in her yard. (SPCA staff took the horse with DeeDee’s reluctant permission.) Yet DeeDee is one of the few tenants who gives him any credit: “People are scared of him, but he was nice to me.”
As for the store, Hickenbottom made quick enemies of the mercurial staff by walking in and saying he smelled dead rats. (He later realized it was the compost pile out back.) Jones, who is obsessive over his store’s cleanliness and says it has a near-perfect health-inspection record, started referring to Hickenbottom as “Officer Cocksucker.”
The enforcement officer insists he isn’t trying to be a bully. Instead, he sees his role as humane: supporting the tenants’ right to domestic tranquility – even if that means shutting down the camp. “What’re you gonna do with the poor people?” he asks rhetorically. “Well, those people are paying rent. They can pay rent in a place that’s not a death trap.”
The dark side of fluoride
Compounding the code violations is a bigger crisis: a water supply that has been contaminated with dangerously high levels of fluoride for at least 13 years.
Jensen Camp well water samples taken in 1995, 1999 and 2002 yielded fluoride concentrations three to four times the state maximum for drinking water. Both the county health department and the camp’s then-owner, Rick Pinch, had the data – but allegedly did nothing about it for eight years.
In October 2002, one of the Jensen Camp residents visited the health department to complain about the yellow water. “It was noticed that the fluoride was higher than the allowed level, and so we immediately went out and got confirmation samples,” says Cheryl Sandoval, an environmental health specialist with the county health department.
The next April, Pinch and the county finally reached an agreement to fix the water system. But Sandoval says Pinch never followed through. The camp’s residents continued to drink the contaminated water.
In August 2003 Pinch sold the property to two of his tenants, Guzman and Djirbandee, who allege he never came clean about the fluoride. Pinch maintains he did disclose the problem. A judge agreed with Guzman and Djirbandee, awarding them almost $800,000, plus attorney and court fees, in a fraud lawsuit against Pinch.
Pinch says he has given Guzman $350,000 and can’t afford any more. Guzman says the money is not enough to repair the water system.
“NONE OF US WOULD KNOW WHERE TO GO.”
In 2004 Guzman, Djirbandee and 79 tenants filed another lawsuit against Pinch and the county. “Plaintiffs unknowingly consumed contaminated drinking water from at least November 1995, resulting in pain and suffering and injuries to their bodies and nervous systems, skeletal systems and other injuries not yet identified,” their legal complaint reads.
Guzman’s 6-year-old daughter broke an arm that wouldn’t heal through six casts; all four of his girls have dental problems. Debbie Baker says her youngest son’s baby teeth flaked off when he was little; he now has below-average bone density. Other families have similar stories of dental and bone problems, which are linked to excess fluoride exposure, and are seeking punitive damages.
A Monterey County Superior Court judge dismissed the suit against the county in April 2006. In September 2007, the 6th District Court of Appeals overturned the ruling, allowing the suit to proceed. The county has appealed that ruling, and the case is now headed to the state Supreme Court.
Meanwhile the contamination persists.
The county health department has ordered Guzman and Djirbandee to repair the water system, alleging the camp’s wells still are out of compliance.
In the meantime, the owners are required to supply tenants with drinking water from a clean source. Whether that’s been happening isn’t clear. Guzman, pointing to the pile of empty water jugs outside his house, says he delivers about 150 gallons of filtered water to the camp two to three times a week. His Carmel Valley attorney, Richard Rosenthal, backs him up: “When Mr. Guzman first found out what the problem with the water was, he notified everybody and has been providing them with potable water since.”
But Spring says he and the other tenants often go a week without potable water. Jones takes it even further, saying his store sells about 50 gallons of drinking water to Jensen Camp tenants every week. “He hasn’t delivered water in – Lord, a year.”
Javier Guzman wears the strained smile of a young father in debt. Last fall he moved his pregnant wife and their four young daughters from Jensen Camp into a rented ranch near Arroyo Seco, a half-hour drive away, because life had gotten too stressful at the trailer park. “People were just constantly harassing us. I got shot at,” he says, sitting at his living room table. One of his daughters runs past in a blue dress, strands of brown hair slipping out of long braids. “I had to get my family out of there.”
Some of the tenants assume he has money, Guzman says, when he is going through bankruptcy. They think he’s choosing not to fix the camp’s eroding infrastructure, when he says he has no cash for repairs. A few of the tenants are even withholding rent, which Guzman says runs from $475 to $650 a month.
But tenant Toddy Spring thinks it’s time for the owners to take some responsibility. Beyond the issues with his own trailer – he complains about problems with the flooring and power – Spring wants Guzman and Djirbandee to provide more safety and security at the camp, and a bridge over the creek for when the water gets high. He also wants a gate to protect his son from people who do drunken donuts on the camp’s dirt road, a classic hillbilly trick that involves driving in circles, then hitting the gas so the rear tires lose traction and the car spins.
“What bothers me most is the negligence,” Spring says of Guzman, sitting on the front porch of the General Store. “There’s a lot of things he should’ve done, and he hasn’t been doing it. He hasn’t done anything to protect us. All they do is come around and collect rent.”
In protest, Spring hasn’t paid his rent for four months. He expects to be evicted soon.
It’s not only the camp’s residents who are pressuring Guzman and Djirbandee. In December, the sheriff’s department sent a notice ordering them to rectify a host of violations within 30 days. The 11-item list includes abandoned vehicles, non-permitted structures, an unsafe drinking water source, insufficient trash removal, unpaved roads and an inadequate fire protection system.
Guzman says he and the tenants have worked together to make the necessary improvements. “The park is clean,” he insists.
Hickenbottom flatly disagrees: “The camp has not been repaired.”
The contradictions between the officer and the camp owner are a pattern. Guzman says he had all the camp’s unregistered vehicles towed at his expense; Hickenbottom says the county paid for the towing. Guzman says the officer’s crackdown on code violations is retaliation for the camp’s lawsuit against the county; Hickenbottom scoffs at the notion. Guzman says Hickenbottom told his tenants to withhold rent; the officer denies it.
“I’ve had tenants calling me, saying they’re suicidal and they’re afraid they’re going to lose their place. It’s a lot of pressure on me,” Guzman says. “I feel like the sheriffs are being the biggest bullies.”
He bows his head. “I’m selling the property just to get out of it,” he says. “Just to keep some dignity.”
No place like home
Jensen Camp wouldn’t be complete without its wandering peacocks, hens and roosters that crow all day. Rumor has it that the 1995 flood, which took out a church next to the store and sent tenants scuttling to DeeDee’s place on higher ground, carried in the birds.
No one loves them more than DeeDee, who feeds them organic lettuce and shoots at bobcats prowling too close. “My animals, they come first in my life,” she says. “I’m an old country girl. If something bothers my chickens, they’re gonna get it.”
MORE THAN HALF THE CAMP’S HOMES HAD CODE VIOLATIONS.
The patron saint of fowl also has a special role as Jensen Camp’s living history: DeeDee says her father, Ed Tomasini, and uncle, Tony Jensen, bought the camp in the 1950s. DeeDee’s parents brought in the first trailer, her father built the store, and her aunt Mildred Jensen built the attached bar. “It was a lovely place when we got it. We had the best water in the whole valley,” she says with an ironic grin.
In the early days of the ’50s and ’60s, DeeDee says, the bar could get pretty rowdy. “They’d ride horses in the bar and shoot pistols at the bartender’s feet,” she says, eliciting guffaws from Risdon.
It was only after the 1995 flood, DeeDee says, that the camp’s water “went kaput.” A few years later, people started losing their teeth.
Now, as the fluoride lawsuit slogs forward and the landlords butt heads with the law, tenants wonder what’s next. They know the camp is for sale, but they don’t know who will buy it or what will happen to them. “Nobody ever tells us anything,” DeeDee says.
She doesn’t even want to think about being kicked out: “None of us would know where to go.”
Up in the air
In February, Hickenbottom filed papers with the district attorney’s office recommending 71 counts of health and safety code violations and public nuisance charges against Guzman and Djirbandee. He asks the Monterey County Superior Court to close the camp, remove all of its structures and relocate the residents within 60 days. He also wants a judge to give the county, rather than the state, the authority to oversee Jensen Camp.
On April 8, the distric attorney filed two public nuisance charges against Guzman and Djirbandee. The couple will be arraigned April 30 at the courthouse in Salinas, according to Chief Assistant District Attorney Terry Spitz. If convicted of the misdemeanors, he says, the couple could face up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
The ongoing fluoride contamination is a potentially more serious offense. The county health department’s compliance order concludes that Guzman and Djirbandee violated the California Safe Drinking Water Act and other laws by failing to provide tenants with drinking water that meets state standards. The document orders them to fix their faulty wells and storage tank, develop a plan for a permanent safe drinking water source, and have it in place by mid-June.
“We gave them a compliance order with deadlines, and they missed deadlines in March,” Sandoval says. “We are following up with enforcement action.”
Guzman says he hasn’t seen the order and knows nothing about it.
Hickenbottom, meanwhile, has washed his hands of Jensen Camp’s problems. “I’m done,” he says – adding, for the record, that he hasn’t cited or evicted any of the tenants. “The idea of code enforcement is not to get rid of housing. No one will be kicked out. Not by the sheriff’s department.”
That reflects a conscious decision to stop pressuring the tenants to make costly repairs, he says: “This time we are not going after them criminally. The court will probably order the camp closed.”
The Cachagua General Store, which sits on the same parcel as Jensen Camp, also could be subject to court orders. But Jones isn’t worried, saying he has 25 years left on a 30-year lease. His concern is the camp’s residents. “Without Jensen Camp, the only other place to go is Princess Camp,” he says, referring to the trailer park about a quarter mile up the road.
A new owner also could decide the camp’s fate. Guzman won’t disclose the asking price, but he says he bought the property for $750,000 in 2003. Responsibility to deal with existing code violations and fluoride contamination would transfer to the new owner, Hickenbottom says.
The property is zoned for light commercial development, according to the county planning department, which means a new owner could build shops or farm Christmas trees, among other options. Or – because the property was a trailer park before the zoning – the buyer could let the tenants stay.
That’s what Monterey County Supervisor Dave Potter hopes will happen.
Potter, who represents the Cachagua area, blames Guzman and Djirbandee for the camp’s problems. He also frowns on Hickenbottom’s “heavy-handed” approach. The tenants, in his view, are the victims. “I’m certainly not asking for the camp to be shut down. I want the problem to be fixed,” he says. “These people are one step away from being homeless.”
He hopes to work with county agencies to improve life at Jensen Camp. The water problem and the substandard conditions can be rectified, he says, possibly using state grants. “If the state’s not going to do something, I think we should be a catalyst,” he says. “The last thing I want is to see these people bounced. They’re not criminals – they’re just financially challenged individuals who have had a tough go in life.”
Time might be past
For decades, Cachagua’s character has been defined by the fierce independence of low-income people who choose to live almost off the map. But today, the valley is being gentrified – fast. A drive down the country road reveals humble homes next to multimillion-dollar estates, chipped wooden fences opposite elaborate wrought-iron gates. Even in Cachagua, a housing development near Jensen Camp has drawn in professionals and second-home owners.
Looking at Jensen Camp, Hickenbottom sees the skirmishes, the addictions, the desperation provoked by poverty and mental instability. Others, however, see a sense of community rare on the developing coast: The mariachi music and classic rock that blast through the camp on Friday nights. The gourmet Monday-night dinners and bluegrass jams at the store, whose owners feed the hungry and homeless. The stories lively with local characters and history.
“Cachagua is literally the end of the road,” Jones wrote on his store blog last December. “We have old people who have been here for 80 years, hardworking, multiple-job-holding Latinos and Latinas who have been here for decades, and the hardworking descendants of the hardworking old people paying their bills, living in aluminum, paying four-dollar gas to drive old vehicles to town to work every day in the freezing cold.
“And Monterey County is trying to put them all under a bridge.”
In her tumble-down trailer, Ashley Rider waits miserably for change. “It’s got to get worse before it gets better. I don’t want other people here to go through what we’re going through,” she says. “I think Harvey and Tosha should go to jail for what they’ve done.”
Debbie Baker, on the other hand, just wants to hold on to the relative peace she’s found in her three decades at the camp. “Everything’s good – as long as the county will leave us alone for a while,” she says. “We love it here and we hope to stay here.”
DeeDee seems the most calm about the camp’s uncertain future. She doesn’t talk about going anywhere. She just shrugs, as if she’s sure she’ll be at Jensen Camp until the neighbors know her real name.