Calvin Gray dances atop his horse outside a Willowbrook stable on Thursday.… (Christina House, For the…)
When Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies began searching for the cause of a fire that killed three horses and a goat last month, they joined a number of other investigators who have been called to the property in Willowbrook over the last five years.
County employees have issued more than 100 citations for alleged animal abuse, unlicensed buildings, drug possession and other violations. Forty-nine of them deal with crimes that allegedly occurred at the property, including 27 drug-related offenses and two assaults.
In 2007, prosecutors threatened to file criminal charges against property owners Nickolas J. Tokaruk and the Tokaruk Family Trust for alleged zoning and safety issues.
"Many of these animals are kept in conditions which are at the least unsafe, and in the extreme, illegal and inhumane," Assistant Dist. Atty. Tina L. Hansen wrote the owners. "The structures on the property ... are all illegal and must be removed and / or legalized."
Tokaruk could not be reached for comment.
Prosecutors ultimately did not file charges because the property, which is in an unincorporated commercial zone, was improved. But other complaints quickly followed, records show.
The June blaze drew pointed criticism from the Los Angles County Board of Supervisors, who voted to impose new regulations on the 1.5-acre facility.Mark Ridley-Thomas, the supervisor whose district includes the stable, said the property had been allowed to "degenerate." He accused Tokaruk of doing the "minimum necessary to keep county code enforcement at bay."
All horses are supposed to be evacuated by Sunday. Since the order was given, more than 130 animals have been moved to other ranches. By the end of the week, only 20 horses and 13 chickens and roosters remained.
Some officials say the stable's checkered history shows how budding problems can sometimes slip through the cracks of the nation's largest county bureaucracy, where progress can move at a snail's pace until an embarrassing public incident prompts action.
"There's horrible building issues, horrible sanitation issues," said Jacqueline Green, a county animal care and control officer who visited the scene last week. "Since we started coming here regularly about a year ago... conditions have improved 1,000%, but they're still not anywhere close to being good enough. The fire just drew attention to the higher-ups."
Ridley-Thomas accused county administrators of letting the stable owners game the system: "People are paid to enforce the code," he said. "Otherwise, they are jeopardizing the public safety and contributing to the deterioration of the quality of life for constituents who deserve better."
For many people who boarded their horses at the stable near the intersection of West 131st Street and Athens Way, the facility is an affordable option, albeit one that is next to a Rio Gentlemen's strip club and freight railroad tracks. Horse owners reported paying up to $120 a month to stable their horses, which is far below what it would cost to keep their animals at many other facilities.
The stables sit on a raised patch of land that contains plywood structures, a few riding areas and swarms of flies attracted to the manure. The burned carcass of a chicken killed during the fire lies on the ground near one stall.
Famous Manor, a 42-year-old truck driver, comes to the stables every morning to care for his two horses, Smoke and Pepper.
"I have no idea where I'd take them if we have to leave," Manor said earlier in the week. "Most of us don't have much money. Most of us can't afford to keep horses anywhere else."
But not everybody has been as conscientious with their animals as Manor, according to records.
The county's Department of Animal Care and Control has issued at least 70 violations to horse owners. "The Department observed animals to be housed in deplorable conditions," according to one department memo.
In 2010, animal control employees received an anonymous tip that three horses had been abandoned. When inspectors visited the stables in November, they found six horses and one pony in poor condition.
"They had protruding hip bones and ribs showing. The stalls had a combination of manure and mud and appeared to have not been cleaned for months.... the smell of rotting fecal matter and urine was overpowering," according to a report.
In that instance, inspectors found out that the horses' owner had been sent to jail about six months earlier and nobody had been caring for the animals for some time.
The horses were later impounded.
County Nuisance Abatement Team employees have inspected the property at least seven times in the last five years, and issued citations to the landowners for exposed wiring, illegal plumbing and structures constructed without a building permit. Inspectors also found trash, abandoned vehicles and people living in trailers on the property.
"It's just a very offensive set of circumstances," Ridley-Thomas said.
The property owners have agreed to tear down the stables and rebuild them, according to county officials and stable workers.
"We're coming back, and I'm going to be part of the build-up. The conditions aren't great here so we're going to fix them completely," said Gregory Jackson, a manager at the stables. "We'll keep it nice and clean, as it should be."