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California and the West

Jury Convicts Professor of Trash Violations

November 03, 1998|GREG HERNANDEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WESTMINSTER — In a verdict that could end a decade-long legal battle with neighbors, a jury Monday convicted a Cal State Long Beach professor of 69 health and safety violations at her home.

Elena Zagustin's neighbors have complained for years about her Huntington Harbour home, which they say is filled with accumulated rubbish, human waste stored in buckets, and rodents and insects.

The duration and intensity of the standoff between Zagustin and her neighbors--and what each considers their right to live undisturbed by the other--has gained notoriety. It was featured earlier this year on a CBS "48 Hours" segment about feuding neighbors.

Zagustin, 61, a professor of civil engineering, could be punished with a $500 fine and with six months in jail for each count when she is sentenced Dec. 17. She had acted as her own lawyer during the trial. After her conviction, which came after six hours of deliberations, Orange County Municipal Judge Robert H. Gallivan suggested that Zagustin obtain an attorney before her sentencing.

"It's not fair," Zagustin said in the courtroom after the verdict was read.

Zagustin originally had been charged with 95 code violations for allegedly threatening the health and safety of her neighbors by letting trash accumulate and overloading extension cords. Jurors acquitted Zagustin on nine counts, and some counts had been dismissed before the trial began last week in West Municipal Court.

Jurors were shown photos of the inside of Zagustin's house and said they were stunned.

"I wondered how anybody could live that way," said juror Andre Jones of Stanton. "I think a person should be able to live any way they want to inside their house, but the way she was living became a . . . hazard."

Zagustin is expected to appeal the verdicts, which signify the greatest number of counts that she has ever been convicted of in the several times that the city has brought her to court. But city officials and residents said they hope their long nightmare is over.

"We're elated about the outcome," said City Atty. Gail Hutton. "She needs to have a strong lesson and that probably means a lot more than paying money. It would seem that some jail time might be an appropriate punishment to make her recognize that this can't go on and on."

Some neighbors involved in the civil lawsuits against Zagustin were in court for Monday's verdicts.

"It's been a long journey to get this far," said Zagustin's next-door neighbor, Beverly Goulette. "It's been a real nightmare for us. I didn't think it was going to take 10-15 years. She is a very smart and educated woman, and she's been able to get away with a lot for a long time. This is a big victory for the whole neighborhood."

Zagustin was ordered to stop living in the house by city officials last January when it was learned that she did not have running water inside. Neighbors contend that she continues to be seen inside the home, and the city said it is investigating.

Zagustin's neighbors on Morse Circle also have been involved in a long legal battle with Zagustin over the condition of her home and have succeeded in winning close to $300,000 in civil court cases.

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