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U.S. judge tours Duroville to see conditions firsthand

Authorities want the Coachella Valley trailer park to be closed unless many repairs are made.

December 21, 2007|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

THERMAL, CALIF. — Flanked by federal marshals toting assault rifles and pepper-ball guns, U.S. District Judge Stephen Larson wandered the muddy roads of Duroville on Thursday as inspectors pointed out dangerous electrical connections, cramped conditions and leaking propane tanks inside the troubled mobile home park.

The judge, wearing sunglasses and a beige trench coat, moved from one battered trailer to the next as he assessed whether conditions were so bad that the park on the Torres Martinez Indian Reservation should be shut down. He said he would make a decision early next month.

The normally teeming park, home to as many as 6,000 people, seemed deserted. Aside from one family, the only signs of life were wild dogs barking incessantly at the entourage.

"It seems buttoned up," Larson said, scanning the bleak, densely packed warren of homes. "Were the tenants told to stay inside?"

"The tenants were made aware of your inspection and they are staying inside," replied attorney J. Scott Zundel, who represents park owner Harvey Duro.

Chris Wiggins, an inspector hired by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, showed Larson hundreds of tangled wires running over the road and through the mud.

"You can see the substandard conditions; there is electricity going all over the place," said Wiggins, wearing light-blue booties over his shoes to keep off possible toxins in the soil. "It's a tremendous fire hazard."

He noted the dangerous location of propane tanks underneath trailers.

"We have put a soapy mixture on propane tanks here and some have bubbled, which means they are leaking," Wiggins said.

Alex Gregg with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection told Larson that flames could jump rapidly from trailer to trailer, causing massive loss of life. A fire in May burned six trailers and forced the evacuation of 120 families. Another fire burned a home two weeks ago.

Larson's visit, rare for a federal judge, followed a hearing last week in Riverside at which lawyers for the U.S. attorney's office asked that Duro be forced to make immediate repairs or close the park. The government said he ignored warnings to fix his sewage, plumbing and electrical systems and that conditions at the park now threatened the safety of the mostly Latino farmworkers living there.

Zundel said that if the park were a given a list of repairs it would make them. If it couldn't afford to make the fixes, he said, Duroville will close. The U.S. attorney's office provided a repair list Wednesday.

But Larson, fearful of rendering thousands of impoverished people homeless, wanted to see the place for himself.

The judge arrived in a motorcade of 11 vehicles, with a heavily armed security detail. He brought a court reporter and held a walking public hearing with people sworn in along the way.

The judge listened more than he talked. He stopped once and stared hard at a beat-up mobile home sitting on a cracked concrete foundation with a family of snarling dogs lurking underneath.

Across the road was a foul-smelling sewage pond collecting waste from the trailers.

Asked if he wanted to see more, Larson shook his head.

"I think I got a good sense of it," he said.

Zundel spoke up.

"I just wanted to say that none of these trailers are owned by the park. We provide the sites only," he said.

Wiggins, the inspector for the Indian Affairs agency, said the park was obliged to provide the infrastructure for the trailers.

"The water, sewer and gas need to be there so when they bring the trailer to the park, everything is in place," he said.

Duroville got its start in 1999 after Riverside County began cracking down on hundreds of illegal trailer parks throughout the Coachella Valley. Many residents, fearing eviction, towed their trailers onto the reservation, where county and state building and safety codes didn't apply.

Following the lead of other tribal members, Duro, who sits on the Torres Martinez tribal council, turned his 40-acre patch into Desert Mobile Home Park. He named the streets after family members, and it became known simply as Duroville. With about 300 trailers, it is the largest of four parks on the reservation.

Despite conditions described by the government as "Third World," there is real concern about what would happen to the residents if it closed. Most pay about $275 a month for rent and earn minimum wage or less in the fields.

"I would be on the street with the drug dealers if it closed," said 50-year-old Adolfo Bacilo, who has lived in the park seven years and like many is a Purepecha, an indigenous Indian from the Mexican state of Michoacan. "I don't have any money, and they will allow me to wait three or four months to pay rent," he said of Duroville's management.

Farmworker advocates deplore the living conditions but say it is better to repair the trailer park than close it.

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