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Lawyer for shantytown residents pokes holes in government's case

April 08, 2009|David Kelly
  • Hundreds of wild dogs live in a squalid trailer park known as Duroville on the Torres Martinez Indian Reservation in Riverside County. U.S. prosecutors say the park, home to up to 4,000 poor farmworkers, is operating without a lease.
Hundreds of wild dogs live in a squalid trailer park known as Duroville on… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

The government's case against Duroville, a vast Riverside County shantytown that is home to up to 4,000 poor farmworkers, got off to a rocky start Tuesday when the credibility of its witnesses came under attack on the first day of a trial expected to determine whether the park closes.

Chandra Gehri Spencer, a lawyer for the tenants, said that Duroville began taking shape on the Torres Martinez Indian Reservation in 2000 and that the Bureau of Indian Affairs did nothing to stop it.

She asked James Fletcher, superintendent of the bureau's Southern California office, how many other trailer parks besides Duroville had no leases to operate on Indian land. He said there were four.

"Would it surprise you to know that there are in excess of 50 parks on tribal lands without leases?" she asked.

Fletcher seemed stunned.

"I have just one person who works on these lease-compliance issues," he said quietly.

One of the government's primary complaints against Duroville is that it is operating without a lease. But Spencer and others trying to keep the park open so it can be rehabilitated contend that the Bureau of Indian Affairs has unfairly singled it out for harsh treatment.

The government called code enforcement expert Christine Wiggins to the stand. She was hired by the bureau to conduct an inspection of Duroville in 2007 and 2008. Her report, based on inspecting 30 trailers the first time and six the second, showed a number of problems with the sewage system, electrical wiring and the storage of propane tanks.

She returned to the park Monday and testified that she found sewage pipes leaking, bare wires and a large gap in a fence surrounding a sewage pond. On top of that, she said garbage containers didn't have lids and that piles of debris represented serious fire hazards.

But under questioning by Spencer, Wiggins acknowledged that she had no previous experience inspecting mobile home parks.

U.S. District Judge Stephen Larson is expected to hear evidence all week and decide whether to close the park or rehabilitate it.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Leon Weidman told the court Tuesday that the evidence will show Duroville threatens the health and safety of its residents, and, despite efforts over the last year to make changes, the threats remain.

"The park is still not up to code, and the cost of repairs will likely be prohibitive," he said. "The only alternative at this point is to close the park. It is unpermitted, unsafe and substandard."

Over the last year, Larson has tried to get the government to offer alternative housing for the park's residents, most of whom are Latino.

Riverside County came forward recently with a plan for a 398-space, low-income mobile home park a few miles from Duroville, but the first phase won't be complete until August 2010 and substantial funding is needed for the second phase.

Mark Adams, the federally appointed receiver for Duroville, believes it can be saved without evicting the tenants.

"That would be the largest forced eviction perhaps in California history," he said. "The only thing that compares is the Japanese internment."

Adams said he hopes some federal stimulus money will come to the reservation. "We would love to see some of that money go toward fixing up Duroville," he said.

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david.kelly@latimes.com

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