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Calling Mr. Clean : Dennis Bogard's mission? To force Los Angeles' pack rats to clear out their nests.

October 06, 1995|KELLY DAVID | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Inching his way along steep, winding roads in the hills northwest of Hollywood, Dennis Bogard looks intently for a house he knows is invisible from the road.

Suddenly he stops his Fire Department cruiser, jumps out and bolts into a wild lot of trees and brush between two neatly manicured lawns.

"They always live like this," he says, pushing away branches and vines. "Cul-de-sacs or at the end of streets where nobody will find them."

Hunching his way through a tunnel of overgrowth, he marches up concrete steps past an assortment of rusted-out relics, pausing halfway to observe a patio cluttered with battered porch furniture, old hubcaps, chipped lawn statues and weathered paint cans. Near the top, he doubles over to squeeze under a fallen tree cloaked in ivy.

If not for his nerdy uniform of black wool pants, button-down white shirt and black clodhoppers, the lanky six-footer could be an urban version of Indiana Jones--an archeologist plumbing the depths of the suburban jungle for clues.

Only it is not treasure he seeks.

Officially known as the city's hazardous refuse abatement coordinator, Bogard's task is to free of garbage the dirtiest homes in Los Angeles. The people who live in them, otherwise known as pack rats, range from reclusive oddballs to whacked-out drug addicts who cram their homes so full of garbage, they wind up sleeping outdoors. Some are thought to suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The job of policing these trash addicts didn't formally exist until Bogard, a former paramedic and borderline pack rat, created it, making Los Angeles one of the few cities in the nation with a Pack Rat Unit.

On a recent day, the unit--a man, a 1980 Ford Paramount and a cardboard box of manila envelopes containing photographic evidence of trashy caboodle--makes five house calls. One of them is to the well-hidden home of a woman in her 70s, a pack rat fingered by neighbors who complained that her trash is attracting vermin.

Although Bogard hasn't been inside her home, he draws on an arsenal of clues, collected during the past year of scouting out such hoarders, to guess what is inside.

"The curtains are drawn," he says. "That's a sure sign of a pack rat. They cover up their windows to hide their trash."

A cluttered front porch is another tip-off, and this pack rat's is barely navigable. Sidestepping dirty mattresses, rusty box springs, a bucket of murky water and waterlogged boxes, Bogard calls out: "Fire Department. Fire Department. Hellooo."

Answered by silence, he is on his way to the back of the house when he runs head-on into the homeowner. Shoeless and shabbily dressed in purple sweat pants and a black sweater, she doesn't wait to find out what this uniformed intruder wants. With long white hair flying and a half-eaten syrupy waffle in hand, she ducks beneath the tree and is gone.

The pack rat has good reason to flee. The 15-day grace period Bogard gave her to clean up expired five days ago. When a written notice of a violation is ignored, a hearing with the city attorney and then a court date will usually be set, although few hoarders show up. But Bogard, hoping to coax his clients into compliance, often softens the deadline. If they make even a small effort, he backs off.

This woman, though, has evaded him on four visits. This may be the last courtesy call before Bogard returns with armed police escorts to sift piece by piece through her belongings, keeping family photographs and important documents and tossing the useless remains. If she ignores the bill for the cost of the cleanup, the city can put a lien on taxes or Social Security checks.

Many pack rats are recluses, without electricity or running water. They don't have or don't answer their phones. Most ignore written notices. "Citing them is like citing a 6-year-old child," says Roylene Walker, a city social worker for homebound seniors. "Paperwork down the drain."

Unless the state declares a pack rat mentally incompetent, only the Fire Department can enter property without a warrant for a forced cleanup. No one took such pains to avoid these cleanups until Bogard, 49, appeared on the scene a year ago. His misfortune--a neck injury suffered when a heavy patient being lifted into a helicopter crashed down on his head--proved a blessing for the city agencies struggling to keep tabs on its worst pack rats.

Like most cities, Los Angeles lacked the manpower to pursue all but the most serious cases. And the firefighters counted it among the most vile duty one could draw. "We got involved only when there was no way out of it," says Mike Theul, the officer who used to handle the pack rats.

But Bogard, reassigned to a light-duty post, loved it from the start. Never mind the stench, dirt and fungi that make most cleanup workers physically sick, the hours spent listening to excuses, the painful process of seizing property--Bogard believes he's doing more than preventing fires and appeasing neighbors.

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