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California and the West

Woman Pleads Not Guilty to Letting House Become a Hazard

January 21, 1998|JULIO V. CANO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WESTMINSTER — Elena Zagustin, the central figure in a decade-long neighborhood feud over the condition of her Huntington Harbour home, pleaded not guilty Tuesday to 92 misdemeanor counts of neglecting the property.

At her arraignment in Municipal Court in Westminster, Zagustin, acting as her own attorney, also filed motions to dismiss the prosecutor and move the case to Los Angeles County.

Last week, the Cal State Long Beach engineering professor was ordered to vacate her home in the upscale Huntington Beach neighborhood and was charged with violating fire, housing and municipal ordinances. Neighbors have complained about human waste stored in buckets inside the house, rodent and insect infestation, and strong unpleasant odors.

About half the criminal charges stem from accumulation of garbage and debris, unsanitary conditions, improper use of extension cords, inadequate plumbing and blocked room entrances. Huntington Beach city officials ordered Zagustin to vacate the home after determining that she had no hot or cold water. If she reestablishes running water, Zagustin could be allowed to return.

But neighbors say she has been back to the home since the order was issued.

"She's been breaking in and living there. She is not abiding by the order," said David Flynn, a neighbor who has spearheaded a legal battle to have the U.S. Marshals Service foreclose on the home and have it demolished. The neighbors have sued in civil court and won close to $290,000 in the past, but failed to collect on the monetary judgments.

"I am not living there," Zagustin said. "I can go in from time to time. I only go to feed my two cats and collect some papers."

Municipal Court Commissioner Martin G. Engquist told Zagustin on Tuesday that she has until Feb. 9 to file additional motions. That is the date set for a pretrial hearing.

Zagustin, 61, has previously faced civil and criminal action over the condition of the house. Over the years, there have been lawsuits, countersuits and motions that she has filed to delay cases against her, according to neighbors and Deputy City Atty. Jennifer McGrath.

In an unusual move this month, an Orange County Superior Court judge restricted Zagustin's ability to file legal motions, ruling her to be a "vexatious litigant." As a result, Zagustin must now seek court approval for any legal action she takes in the housing matter.

Away from a swarm of television cameras, she said that neighbors are persecuting her and that she had done her best to keep up her home.

"It's been stressful. This is all being done because of hate toward me," said Zagustin, a Russian immigrant. "I am complying with the codes. My property has been cleaned up."

Zagustin said her motions are attempts to move the case to a "fairer" court in Los Angeles County, dismiss McGrath because she is allegedly conspiring with neighbors, and dismiss the case because it is an illegal prosecution.

Although Zagustin may be fined and spend time in jail, Huntington Beach officials said their main goal is to have her comply with city codes. If convicted on all counts, she could face as much as $46,000 in fines and a maximum of 40 years in prison.

City officials have conducted three inspections on the home on Morse Circle since November and found many code violations, authorities said.

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