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Landlord's Empire Is Far-Flung, Problem-Plagued

Safety: After years of battles with government agencies, Sam Menlo has begun spending millions to fix up some properties.

December 30, 2001|KIMI YOSHINO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Case files bulge with the bureaucratic legacy of Sam Menlo's life as a landlord: code violations, thousands of them, at rental units beset with everything from vermin and mold to wretched plumbing.

With a real estate empire spanning Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino and Orange counties, Menlo has a 30-year track record of skirmishes with city and state agencies, capped last fall with a sentence to live for a time in his own filthy Anaheim complex.

Now 73, in failing health and with a possible jail sentence hanging over his head, Menlo is spending millions of dollars to fix up several of his apartment properties, including the decrepit Ridgewood Gardens in Anaheim where he was forced to stay briefly last year.

City inspectors report that Menlo's renovations are nearly complete. Bureaucrats and neighbors who have battled Menlo for years are watching his progress with interest and more than a little skepticism.

They wonder: is Sam Menlo finally cleaning up his act?

A Fateful Meeting

Michael Burke first met Menlo four years ago.

A four-alarm blaze at Ridgewood Gardens had left 17 families homeless and revealed wretched, filthy conditions.

Inspectors found the place crawling with cockroaches and rats. Vagrants had taken up residence in abandoned apartments littered with hypodermic needles. Some units were so moldy that mushrooms sprouted from the ceiling. The city cited Menlo with 112 building code violations, and charged him with 34 criminal counts of violating city codes. He pleaded no contest to three counts and was given probation--and an order to fix things fast.

Burke, a deputy city attorney, was in charge of seeing the fix-up through to conclusion. He eventually would become the public official who would pursue Menlo most vigorously.

In that first meeting, Menlo impressed Burke by coming to his office full of apologies and armed with a multipage "Menlo Plan of Action" that detailed reforms from trimming trees to scrubbing hallways with detergent.

"He convinces you that he is going to take charge," Burke said. It seemed a simple administrative matter, easily resolved.

As weeks dragged on with no detergent, no tree trimmers, Burke dug into the Anaheim files on Menlo. He found old city letters demanding change. He found other Menlo plans of action dating to the 1980s.

Burke heard about similar problems with Menlo and Century Quality Management in Fullerton and Los Angeles. Then a city attorney in Pico Rivera gave Burke a bit of professional advice that changed his entire outlook.

He told Burke to research Menlo's history. And what Burke uncovered during a simple database check stunned him.

Menlo was no small-time landlord without the means to fix up the place. He was an extremely wealthy man--and one continually in trouble with cities throughout the region.

"I suspected that he probably had problems," Burke said. "I didn't realize that he had so many."

Menlo declined to be interviewed. But even his attorneys concede the long history of filth, broken plumbing, moldy walls and vermin infestations at many of his holdings.

They paint a picture of a landlord who has been victimized by bad tenants and apartment managers. If anything, Menlo is a micromanager, attorney Kevin Mello says, demanding that he personally approve repairs as minor as a broken garbage disposal. With as many units as he owns, that's bound to lead to delays. Menlo owns his land through a family trust for which he is the trustee/conservator, and he is president and manager of Century Quality Management, the company that rents and manages the apartments.

State, County Cite Nursing Home Problems

Among the more troubling incidents Burke discovered in his research through old newspaper articles were the episodes at Menlo's nursing homes.

Menlo, as owner and operator of the homes, battled Los Angeles County and the state Department of Health Services for eight years during the 1970s over more than 2,000 health code violations and 78 counts of criminal neglect at his nursing homes.

Investigators found patients lying in beds full of excrement and urine and one patient with bedsores infested by maggots.

More than 20 years later, the case still stands out in the mind of Los Angeles County probation officer Gordon Smith, now retired.

"It was more repugnant than almost anything I had seen up to that time," Smith said.

The state revoked nine nursing home licenses. Menlo pleaded guilty to 25 misdemeanors but served no jail time. He paid a $75,000 fine and devoted 250 hours to community service.

Just a few years later, the state was after him again, this time for problems at his board-and-care homes for the elderly.

In 1986, state officials shut down an adult residential facility in Lynwood; it was the most drastic action they could take. The Department of Social Services also ordered Menlo to relocate patients at another home in Gardena.

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