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Rehab ranch's operator is jailed over living conditions

Dan De Vaul has repeatedly ignored the county's efforts to bring his facility up to code, judge says in ordering a 90-day sentence. Sunny Acres houses up to 70 homeless addicts near San Luis Obispo.

November 24, 2009|By Catherine Saillant
  • San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Deputy Noah Martin puts Dan De Vaul in handcuffs after his sentencing. De Vaul, 66, the founder of a self-styled rehabilitation farm, had turned down probation in favor of a 90-day jail term.
San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Deputy Noah Martin puts Dan De Vaul… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)

If San Luis Obispo County rancher Dan De Vaul was daring the courts to take action against him after a jury convicted him on two counts of illegally housing homeless addicts, he got his response Monday.

Superior Court Judge John Trice ordered the 66-year-operator of Sunny Acres, a self-styled rehab program for some of the Central Coast's toughest cases, to serve 90 days in jail. He was also fined $1,000.

Trice said he had little choice because De Vaul has repeatedly refused to bring the living arrangements at his ranch up to code despite the offers of county officials to help him. On Monday, he even refused an offer of probation.

"This is not about the homeless," Trice said. "This is about a landowner's refusal to comply with law and with land restrictions in the county."

A defiant De Vaul stretched out his arms and let deputies place handcuffs on him before being led out of the San Luis Obispo courtroom. About 30 of his supporters, some of them Sunny Acres residents, stood and applauded as De Vaul was taken into custody.

"Thank you, Dan!" they shouted. Some broke into tears.

A jury in September convicted De Vaul on two misdemeanor charges of violating health and safety codes at Sunny Acres, finding that an illegally built stucco barracks posed a fire danger to De Vaul's clients. The convictions culminated years of attempts by county officials to get De Vaul to fix up his property.

The rancher has operated a sober-living program for eight years, housing up to 70 people in mobile homes, tents, garden sheds and an aging Victorian home. Most of the living arrangements are unsafe and unsanitary, county code enforcement officials have said.

De Vaul has also stored mounds of tires and dozens of passenger and commercial vehicles on his property, tearing some apart for scrap. Neighbors have complained about the eyesore.

In an interview before Monday's sentencing, De Vaul said he was prepared to go to jail because accepting probation would mean he could no longer provide shelter for about 30 people who still reside at his 72-acre ranch, set among rolling hills west of the city limits.

"The first condition of probation is obey all laws," he said. "I'm proud to go to jail for housing the homeless."

At the sentencing, attorney Jeff Stulberg argued that the county was unfairly singling out De Vaul for punishment. But prosecutor Craig VanRooyen said De Vaul had a long pattern of ignoring safety problems at his ranch.

Before it was shut down by county officials last year, the stucco dormitory had unsafe electrical wiring, including an exposed line that ran along the ceiling of a shower, according to the prosecutor.

"Was the county supposed to turn a blind eye because those people are needy?" VanRooyen said.

Darcene Clayton, 55, said De Vaul's program was a haven for people trying to kick drug and alcohol addictions who had nowhere else to live. De Vaul has said that he charges a nominal rent for some and provides free shelter to those who can't pay.

Clayton, a recovering addict, said she's been offered an apartment in the year she's stayed at the ranch.

"I choose to stay there to fight the fight with Mr. De Vaul," she said.

Trice said he doesn't doubt De Vaul's good intentions. But the rancher's conduct over the years "can only be viewed as irresponsible and arrogant," the judge said.

It was unclear Monday whether the Sunny Acres residents would be allowed to remain on the property during De Vaul's incarceration. No-entry signs are posted on many of the structures, including a dairy barn that De Vaul has lived in for years.

"Everything is status quo for now," said Luther Akers, who is managing the ranch in De Vaul's absence. "But it won't be the same without him."

catherine.saillant @latimes.com

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