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Lifestyles Clash in Topanga Canyon

Conflict: Shanty-dwelling woodcutter irks affluent neighbors in new homes. Complaint leads to his arrest on drug charges that he denies.

December 09, 1999|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For years the old hippie living in a shack next to the creek had been a concern to newcomers in Topanga.

James W. Hancock's shanty and his junk pile on Old Topanga Canyon Road near the area's new $700,000 homes were bad enough.

But there also was the parade of visitors in and out of Hancock's place--often scruffy and frightening-looking to moms in sport utility vehicles delivering their children to nearby Topanga Elementary School.

There were dark rumors of drug use at the shack, located down the hill from the school's back playground. Stories abounded about how the owner of the property had tried without success to evict Hancock and his friends and how the noisy firewood-chopping business disturbed people.

All that was naturally a topic of conversation at the gathering that David Carlat attended up the road from Hancock's place a few months ago.

Don't worry, Carlat, a Hollywood political consultant, told his host. A phone call ought to be all it takes to remedy things.

Carlat says he made that call when he returned to his Los Angeles home miles from the canyon. And two weeks later, Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies swooped in on Hancock's shack and arrested him on drug and firearms charges.

That's why the 65-year-old Hancock is scheduled to be in Malibu Superior Court this morning to find out if he may soon be exchanging his one-room cabin for a prison cell.

Hancock denies the drug charges. He claims that the third of an ounce of methamphetamines that authorities found during their Sept. 30 raid belongs to one of those acquaintances who come and go at his place--free-spirited people like him whom he occasionally helps out.

Bearded and burly, Hancock is a familiar figure in the rustic canyon between Malibu and the San Fernando Valley that for decades was known for its eccentrics and live-and-let-live environment.

But Topanga doubled in population in the last 10 years as professionals built large homes and moved in. Attitudes also changed.

Local legend has it that Hancock was driving his truck through the canyon in 1979 when its motor conked out, stranding him alongside Old Topanga Canyon Road. It was a sign to Hancock that he should stay. So he did, settling in next to the stream.

Hancock says he worked out an agreement with the property's owner to stay on the three-quarter-acre site until it was sold, in exchange for cleaning up the place and and keeping brush cleared.

Except for a 1990 drug possession conviction, Hancock contends that he has had few run-ins with canyon residents or the law.

The 1990 incident involved drugs someone else stashed among his piles of junk, said Hancock. He said he pleaded guilty in exchange for probation after being pressured by prosecutors.

"I wanted to clear things up quickly," he said. "I wasn't into drugs--I was 40 years old before I even smoked a joint. That should tell you something."

Hancock said, and authorities confirmed, that the weapon found during the September raid was an antique musket. He said the musket contained neither the black powder nor the lead ball needed to fire; the ammunition discovered in a junk drawer was several unusable "oddball bullets," he said.

Hancock acknowledged that he has been scrutinized by building and safety officials. Records indicate they determined earlier this year that part of his site was zoned for commercial use and the other as agricultural. So he could keep his wood business, just moving into a enclosed area.

Hancock also confirmed an ongoing dispute with landlord Robert Harris, a movie soundman who has lived in Topanga for 30 years.

Harris went to court to evict Hancock in 1996. But a Santa Monica judge ruled that Hancock could stay until Harris received "a bona fide" offer to sell the land. Hancock then would be allowed to match that offer and buy it himself if he wanted, according to court documents.

Last fall Harris notified Hancock that he was selling the site for $150,000. Hiring an attorney, Hancock disputed the eviction order, arguing that the land was worth only $40,000 and that the purchase offer was a ploy to kick him out. In April, another Santa Monica judge agreed with Hancock.

Then came the September canyon party attended by Carlat.

"I have a sense of how the system works. I've done this for 30 years," he said of his political consulting work.

Carlat won't say whom he called, except that "I spoke to about as high as you can get in the Sheriff's Department."

He didn't stop after the raid, either. Prosecutors analyzed the case and decided not to additionally charge Hancock with selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a school because his shack was on private land not open to the public. Carlat responded.

He notified the media of the proximity of the school to Hancock's shack, reporting that a dirt path through the woods had been found that linked the two. He coordinated a petition campaign at the school urging full prosecution of Hancock. He put in calls to the county Board of Supervisors and the state Assembly.

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