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'Octomania' grips La Habra neighborhood

March 19, 2009|Jessica Garrison and Kimi Yoshino

The cars keep coming to Madonna Lane in La Habra. Just about every 90 seconds, the looky-loos pull into the tiny cul-de-sac to take a quick glance at the house where the town's newest and most famous resident -- octuplets mom Nadya Suleman -- has decided to live. Sometimes they snap pictures. Sometimes they just make a U-turn and drive off. Mission accomplished.

At 2051 Madonna Lane, the newest ground zero of the paparazzi universe, the scene got so chaotic Tuesday night that more than 200 residents called police to complain about the noisy helicopters circling above and Suleman herself dialed 911.

"The paparazzi is trying to break down the garage door and they're swarming the whole area," she told a dispatcher. "This is not safe for any of the kids."

Neighbors frustrated with the attention erected a barricade Sunday in an attempt to block street access only to have police make them take it down.

By Wednesday, with the first two of her octuplets safely at home, the frenzy had quieted, but just a little. The cars and pedestrians were still coming. And the paparazzi and media still gathered outside, cramming the street with their cars and satellite TV trucks.

La Habra is a working-class suburb on the northern tip of Orange County -- a city so off the beaten track that it's one of Southern California's few cities not traversed by a freeway.

But then Suleman moved to town and people are having no trouble finding Madonna Lane.

There's Gloria Allred, the celebrity attorney reportedly forced to leave Suleman's house Tuesday night after police received a call from the nanny. There's the out-of-work contractor and the wannabe rapper looking to drum up free publicity by mugging for the cameras. Then there's the paparazzi, jumping on Suleman's SUV, damaging her garage door and harassing neighbors.

"The protesters, the media, the looky-loos, hopefully it blows over because this is awful," said Tom Cosentino, whose girlfriend lives in the house adjacent to Suleman's.

Before Suleman moved in last week, the quiet community had so little going on that a photo of the La Habra City Little League made the front page of the bimonthly local newspaper.

But now, La Habra officials are busy holding "operational meetings" to figure out how best to handle the madness, said police spokeswoman Cindy Knapp.

Police also contacted Suleman's neighbors to reassure them that they would help address any problems.

Most people came and quickly left after satisfying their curiosity, including Whittier residents Irene Prochison, 80, and Sunny Kramer, 73, who said they were outraged by the media attention to Suleman.

"I'm sick of reading about it," Kramer said, adding that she still had to come and see it for herself. "We're curious like anyone else."

Others looked to capitalize on the media attention. A local restaurant dropped off take-out menus with the paparazzi. Comedian Eric Schwartz, also known as rapper Smooth-E, arrived Tuesday claiming to be "the real Octodad," carrying a turkey baster and test tubes full of a white liquid.

Contractor Steve Rezes, who said work is very slow, brought a sign advertising his business in hopes that people would see him on television.

"I'm here trying to promote myself to get work," he said. "Times are tough."

One neighbor said she was told by La Habra police that a protest -- completely unrelated to Suleman and her octuplets -- would be staged in the neighborhood in an attempt to grab easy media coverage from the gathered press corps.

For all the chaos, though, Suleman also has brought a sense of excitement to a town perhaps best known as being the home of the West Coast's first Krispy Kreme doughnut shop, though that store closed in 2006.

"This is the craziest this neighborhood has ever seen," said Mark Mimoso, 55, who has lived in the area for more than 30 years. "It has been quiet, and now we have cars driving by just because they know Octomom has moved in. Lots of crazies."

The drama inside the house proved equally strange.

The Whittier Daily News reported that police went to the house Tuesday night after the nanny called to say she needed help forcing out an unwanted guest, who turned out to be attorney Allred.

On Wednesday, Allred said that when police arrived, the nanny denied calling them.

"After speaking with me, the officers left and I remained in the house," said Allred, who helped negotiate 24-hour nursing care for the octuplets by the group Angels in Waiting. "Later, I spoke to Nadya. She said she wanted me to remain in the house. And I did."

At City Hall, Mayor Tom Beamish said he had received a few dozen complaint calls. Most residents, at least for now, were being patient and understanding, he said.

On Whittier's Sunrise Drive, where Suleman previously lived, calm has returned after nearly two months of frenzy. Aaron Valdez, 38, stood in his frontyard Wednesday afternoon, smiling.

Whittier City Manager Steve Helvey, with no more need for diplomacy, voiced the town's sentiment: "We're pleased that she's gone."

The only downside of her leaving, he joked, is "the big check we had to send to La Habra to take her."


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