By all accounts, 88-year-old Neal Garrett of Glendale is determined to hang on to two things--his real estate and his privacy.
This week, the self-described "old hermit" found himself in a fierce battle to keep both intact.
On one front, Garrett was successful.
The frail, white-haired loner's testimony helped persuade a judge to order Sunland real estate agent Abranham A. Hovik, 49, to stand trial on charges that he tried to steal Garrett's land. Authorities say Hovik forged deeds in an attempt to steal 35 parcels worth more than $5 million.
On the second front, Garrett had less luck. The unusual theft allegations thrust the reclusive resident into the public eye, throwing a spotlight on his lifestyle and his vast land holdings.
In Glendale Municipal Court on Monday, he had to identify the lots he owns and answer questions about his health and his memory. He said he owns 120 pieces of land, mainly in Los Angeles County. Most are vacant.
At one point, he told Judge Barbara Lee Burke that he wanted his name and photograph kept out of the newspapers. When a prosecutor said she was concerned about Garrett's safety, Burke ordered a Times photographer not to take the man's picture.
The preliminary hearing ended when the judge ordered Hovik to stand trial in Pasadena Superior Court on forgery and grand theft charges.
But outside the courtroom, tongues were still wagging within Glendale's close-knit real estate community.
Among agents and developers, Garrett and his land have been a source of fascination and speculation. On the telephone and over restaurant meals, they talked this week about the theft allegations and traded stories about their brief encounters with Garrett.
Although he owns many valuable lots, the agents said he has stubbornly refused to sell any of them.
"I've met him a time or two, but I've never gotten to know him," said Al La Chasse, a retired Glendale real estate broker. "He owns spot lots here, there and everywhere. He was pretty persistent in just collecting lots.
"I don't remember him being in organized real estate. At realtor meetings, every now and then somebody would stumble into talking about him. . . . He bought it all directly from the owners--that's the story that goes around. I've never heard of a realtor who was successful in selling him a lot. And I've never known him to list a lot for sale."
Authorities who investigated the land-theft case said Garrett has no immediate family and few close friends.
"I have my doubts that Neal really lets people get close to him," said Ben Bass, a longtime Glendale real estate agent. "I suspect that he wants it to be the way it is. I don't think he wants to get mixed up with a lot of people--or maybe anybody."
Authorities believe that Hovik, in his alleged attempt to steal the land, was counting on Garrett's low profile and his insistence upon managing more than 100 parcels by himself. If Garrett had died without discovering the properties were transferred to Hovik, "no one would have ever known," Deputy Dist. Atty. Leslie Kenyon said.
Glendale Police Detective Ruth Feldman said Hovik, an employee of Help-U-Sell of La Crescenta & Sunland Tujunga, is suspected of forging quitclaim and grant deeds, then recording them with the county. These documents indicated that Garrett was giving his lots to Hovik as gifts.
Garrett testified, however, that the signatures on these deeds were not his.
A notary public's signature and stamp appear on each document. A notary witnesses a signature and verifies the identity of the person who signed. Feldman testified that the two notaries whose stamps appeared on Garrett's deeds denied that they had handled the documents. The notaries had both been affiliated with Help-U-Sell, and their stamps could have been removed from their desks and used by someone else, the detective said.
Garrett's reputation for refusing to sell his land proved to be Hovik's undoing, investigators said.
Real estate broker Rick Barnes testified that Hovik in April had tried to interest him in buying a parcel in Sylmar. "He had it listed for sale," Barnes said. "He didn't say whose property it was." Barnes researched the site through a Glendale title company. A title company employee who had done work for Garrett knew that it was Garrett's land and that he would not sell it. She later found records of an ownership change and became suspicious. She alerted Garrett, who called police.
During the preliminary hearing, Garrett said he did not recognize the defendant in the courtroom. But when Deputy Public Defender Albert Feldman asked Garrett how he knew that he owned each parcel on the disputed deeds, the elderly man answered firmly.
"I read the descriptions, and I pictured where they are," Garrett said. "I recognized the assessor's numbers that appear on my tax bills. I visualized every parcel as it was presented to me."