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Unsuspecting Landlady Thrust Into Drug War : Landlady Was a Casualty of War on Drugs

February 19, 1990|SHAWN HUBLER and VICTOR MERINA | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A year and a half ago, Marge Andrews put her La Habra Heights home up for rent. It was a big place--$2,500 a month--with a tennis court and weeping willow trees. Within days, a tenant had come forward, a Sacramento businessman named William Black Jr. He signed a six-month lease, and the 61-year-old grandmother handed him the keys, unaware she had just been drawn into the local war on drugs.

Three months later, Andrews dropped by her three-bedroom home and found the aftermath of a three-quarter-ton cocaine raid. The house was deserted, door locks had been smashed and someone had dug a concrete vault the size of a wine celler under the bathroom downstairs. Outside, her 50-year-old trees had been stripped bare.

When she complained, Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies told her that a cadre of Colombian drug dealers had been living in her home, and Black--a law enforcement operative--had set them up for arrest.

Andrews' story illustrates how the cocaine wars in Southern California have reached even the most tranquil corners of suburbia, thrusting unsuspecting citizens into the fray. Each year, drug traffickers rent several hundred homes in Los Angeles County to store cocaine before distribution, said Curt Hazell, head of the district attorney's major narcotics unit.

The dealers typically are drawn to quiet residential communities like La Habra Heights because, Hazell said, "their whole M.O. is to be low key."

Although narcotics officers make frequent drug raids--the sheriff's major narcotics teams alone conducted 1,426 such raids last year--damage complaints from homeowners and tenants are relatively rare.

The county counsel's office estimates that 25 claims a year are filed against the county for damage done in narcotics raids on homes from South-Central Los Angeles to Diamond Bar to Malibu. And the county normally pays no more than $25,000 a year to repair homes where narcotics squads have kicked in doors or done other damage.

In November, however, Andrews won a settlement of $137,500, one of the largest such payments by the county in recent years.

Behind the settlement, Andrews said, is a story so bizarre that "when I tell people about it, they look at me like, 'uh-oh--Marge has gone round the bend."

Even for a sting, the raid on Andrews' house had unusual intrigue--and ironies. A sheriff's operative rented the house. Two of the narcotics officers involved in the case are now targets of a larger investigation into alleged skimming of seized drug money. And a neighbor who allowed deputies to use his home for surveillance now fears for his life and claims that he was a gunman's target.

Andrews says no homeowner should become an unwitting participant in the battle against cocaine cartels.

"I'm definitely against drugs," she said. "But they can't just say, 'Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead' and drag innocent citizens along in the wake."

The house sits on an acre and a half of rustic land in the foothills between La Habra and Whittier. Built in 1958, it was just three months old when the Andrews family moved in.

"I loved that house. I never wanted to sell it," Andrews said. She raised a son and a daughter and kept two dogs and a horse there. On a clear day, she said, you could see Santa Catalina Island. Even when her children left home, she stayed.

Her son, Calvin Andrews, 38, of San Luis Obispo, said, "After my parents divorced eight years ago, I tried to get my mother to move many times, but it was her tie to the past."

But eventually, to be close to her children, Andrews did buy a second home. In the summer of 1988, she set up housekeeping in the Northern California community of Fairfield and put a "For Lease" sign outside the house on West Road.

A man soon contacted Andrews' real estate agent, introducing himself as William Black.

"He was a very nice young man, in his early 30s, well groomed, curly dark hair," recalled the agent, former La Habra Heights Mayor Glenda Tuppan.

Black said he was in the janitorial supplies business and was just separating from his wife, according to Tuppan. He was looking for a house where he could bring his children.

"There was no reason not to believe him," Tuppan said, adding that one of Andrews' neighbors had even vouched for Black.

Officials acknowledged later that the neighbor was a longtime friend of the department who had once donated a battering ram for narcotics raids.

At Andrews' insistence, Tuppan ran a credit check. Black's record consisted of a checking account with $50,000 in it, an American Express card and a driver's license that traced back to a post office box.

"Of course, now I know that anybody can get set up with a credit record like that," Andrews said. But at the time, she said, she had no reason to question it.

Nor was she suspicious when Black paid her the first three months' rent in cash. Nor when he mentioned that he would like to trim the trees back from the tennis court a bit, and that he would not need help from the Andrews' regular handyman.

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