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Homeless Man's Chance at a Fresh Start Falters With Arrest on Suspicion of Theft

November 19, 1994|MARY F. POLS and DWAYNE BRAY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

On Monday, Pack-Rat stood before the Ventura City Council, an example of how, with a little help from his friends--including Councilman Jim Monahan--a homeless man could hope for a better life.

On Thursday, the self-proclaimed "Chief of the Ventura River Bottom" found himself in jail, accused of robbing a local business of 67 compact discs and a small amount of cash on Aug. 31.

Ray Mahala, better known as Pack-Rat for his trash-can-picking prowess, had left the river bottom last week to move into the home of a Ventura couple who wanted to give him a second chance.

But his stay there proved brief. A photograph of the 55-year-old man accompanying a news article about his good fortune prompted an Ojai music store owner to point an accusatory finger at Pack-Rat.

Blue Sky Music owner Sal Lucido told police he recognized Pack-Rat as the man who had sold him 61 stolen discs on Sept. 1, the day after they were taken from the Advanced Rubber Stamp Co. on Front Street in Ventura.

Police said Lucido had been unable to identify anyone from a lineup of suspects in September. But on Nov. 12, he contacted Detective Greg Irvine again.

"Hey Greg, I know who the guy is," Lucido told the detective. "His picture is in the paper."

"I've never had a case like this," Irvine added. "It's a twist of fate."

Pack-Rat is scheduled to be arraigned Monday, with bail set at $5,000.

In an interview at the Ventura County Jail, Pack-Rat proclaimed his innocence and said that until last month he had never even been to Ojai, let alone Blue Sky Music. He suggested that maybe someone was out to get him because of his brief moment in the limelight.

"It's a shock. I didn't do anything, but I got blamed for doing it," he said dressed in his blue jail coveralls instead of his customary head-to-toe leather garb.

*

"I became a great star overnight, and now you're going to blame me because you've seen my picture in the paper?" Pack-Rat said, moving around uneasily in his seat. "If this happened in August, and now it's November, something's wrong here.

"I guess somebody don't like me that well," he continued. "They were jealous I got out of the river bottom. The more I got to the top, the more enemies I got."

Despite the arrest, his benefactors still believe in him. He may have been in possession of stolen property unknowingly, they say.

"Those who know him very well said he is as honest as the day is long," said Monahan, who accepted two gifts of gratitude from Pack-Rat at Monday's meeting--a peace pipe and walking cane--for helping him find a home.

"Whether he stole it or not is not really clear yet. When you are in a homeless situation, many things end up in trash cans or thrown out or traded. In their situation they are not going to check and see whether something is good or bad or stolen."

Mariano (Junior) Garcia, the man most responsible for getting Pack-Rat out of the river bottom and into the home of Ventura resident Mark Conroy, said he believes in his innocence.

"He's not guilty," said Garcia, founder of the Ventura-based assistance organization Helping Hand. "I don't think he could have done it. He could have been given something that was stolen and turned around and sold it.

*

Garcia said the Conroys will stand by Pack-Rat as well.

"They said, 'He is still going to stay with us, absolutely,' " he said. "There is no way they are going to kick him out because of that."

Garcia said he will contribute to Pack-Rat's bail if necessary.

"Whatever it takes to get him out of there, because he is a model citizen," he said.

What's especially frustrating, Pack-Rat said, is that everything had been going so well for him with his new home and new life. He had his own bedroom and access to a television and the kitchen, where he prepared his own meals.

When not in the house, he said, he spent time in the large back yard, getting the soil ready for a garden come spring.

Now, until his legal problems are resolved, he shares a room with about 16 other men at the jail.

"It will work out," he said. "If it don't work out, then I'll end up losing everything I have worked so hard to get."

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