Los Angeles City Atty. James K. Hahn alighted from his car Tuesday at a slum building in Cypress Park to announce a crackdown on the landlord for allowing drug dealers to flourish there. A podium with a government seal awaited Hahn at curbside, and news cameras were ready for what was expected to be a carefully orchestrated event.
But suddenly the scene exploded--first as police grabbed a 14-year-old tenant after he pulled a switchblade on an alleged drug dealer outside the building, and again minutes later when police hauled the alleged dealer's mother from a car after a city official saw her openly shooting up with a needle.
Things don't change much on downtrodden Idell Street, even with a horde of television cameras, a dozen police officers and the city's top prosecutor on the premises.
Police said the battered brick building at 2612 Idell St., owned by twice-convicted Cypress Park slumlord Guillermo H. Gonzalez and his wife, Nereyda, has been the scene of 52 drug arrests and dozens of prostitution arrests since mid-1987.
"Nothing will stop, because this is little T. J.," said one woman as she wavered unsteadily on the sidewalk, clearly under the influence of alcohol or drugs. "This is like the worst street in Tijuana."
Hahn's seeking of a civil injunction Tuesday allows the city to empty and seal up the building if Gonzalez continues to allow drug dealers to control it--a situation that city and police officials both said is transforming many poor neighborhoods into drug battle zones.
"Once we file this case, if (the landlord) doesn't do something . . . about the trafficking, we can close this place down for a year," Hahn said. "We don't want to do that, because people are living here."
But the city attorney said he will close the building if the landlord fails to act.
The crackdown is part of Hahn's yearlong narcotics abatement program against landlords, which has resulted in the cleanup of 18 drug havens in Los Angeles. But, Hahn said, "there are 200 more (havens) identified by the LAPD around the city."
On Idell Street alone, there was plenty of cleaning up to do. As Hahn talked, a news crew found a used syringe and needle a few feet from where children play in the dirt.
And, despite the heavy police presence Tuesday, the alleged dealer walked away unscathed, softly laughing at the gathering of officials.
But he did receive a verbal thrashing from Romana Carachure, 47, who stood on the curb, bitterly cursing him as a police car drove away with her arrested son, Rodrigo.
An eighth-grader at Burbank Junior High, Rodrigo had brandished the knife "only to protect me from that drug man," the mother said, weeping.
Several witnesses said the alleged dealer was terrorizing Carachure for more than an hour before Hahn and the cameras appeared on the scene.
Police did not respond to a 911 call placed earlier by the family, residents maintained, so the boy was driven to pull the knife.
Hahn expressed optimism that Gonzalez, the owner, will clear out dealers and put up required security lights and fencing. He said wayward landlords normally respond to his civil action--in part because the city gives them an excuse to challenge dealers whom they normally fear.
But landlords also comply because the city can wipe out the all-important cash flow from rents, he said.
The building on Idell Street is the size of an eight-unit apartment complex, but has been cut into 29 tiny rooms, each housing one family. At $95 to $110 a week per family, Hahn said, the building brings in "among the highest per-square-foot rent in Los Angeles." At that rate, Gonzalez is collecting about $11,600 per month from families in the rat-infested structure.
The 29 families share a single, filthy kitchen. Tiny closets in the hallways--equipped with shower heads and drains--serve as showers, kitchen sinks and even toilets.
"Sometimes you clean out tortillas, or dishes so you can shower, or sometimes it is (excrement) in the shower," one resident said.
Gonzalez, who has already spent 45 days in jail for a conviction as a slumlord on other buildings, faces a separate trial this month on criminal violations brought by Hahn for the conditions at Idell Street. The landlord could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Richard Silva, 30, who lives nearby, said he used to buy drugs at the apartment house before going straight. He wished Hahn luck, but added that "the only thing I think will change the way they live is God. . . . These people are in a kind of bondage."