One week ago, Lauri Jutila walked out the back of his Mid-City apartment building and found a sprawling heap of construction waste in the alley: floor tile, trash bags, wood planks and other construction debris stretching more than 100 feet.
By Friday, the 55-year-old retired mortgage banker had gotten a face-to-face apology from a worker who admitted to leaving behind the pile of garbage.
What happened over the course of that week is a tale about how L.A. can work, if residents get engaged in the problems that are right outside their doorstep.
For years, officials have struggled to enforce the city's illegal dumping laws, letting culprits off the hook as they leave blight in their wake. The issue came to a head last week, with budget officials giving lawmakers an array of proposals for tackling the garbage that lines the city's curbs, sidewalks and alleys.
One recent memo said that inadequate enforcement not only makes things messier but also contributes to the city's "culture of political disengagement."
So here's that rarest of rare birds: a trash dumping story with something of a happy ending — one that shows exactly how an engaged public can be critical to solving neighborhood problems.
Jutila, a squeaky wheel in the neighborhood for two decades, called an aide to council President Herb Wesson soon after he found the sprawling pile. But he also combed through the rubble, searching for envelopes or other items that might explain where the trash came from. That's when two boxes, mixed in with the broken plaster and mangled wire mesh, caught his eye.
A name on one box was immediately recognizable: Barry Zito, major league baseball player. The other didn't ring any bells. But both mailing labels listed the same address on Sunset Plaza Drive in the Hollywood Hills. That narrow and winding road, perched high above the city, has million-dollar views and no shortage of construction projects.
Zito sold the Hollywood Hills house for nearly $3.4 million last year. But the real estate listing is still online, complete with photographs. To Jutila's eye, the flooring materials left in the alley looked an awful lot like the ones pictured in the listing. He quickly concluded that rubble from the house in the hills had found its way to his block in the flats.
"My neighborhood is not a trash can," he said. "That's why it matters. I just don't put up with it."
Aviv Tuchman, whose law office abuts the alley, also got involved. Like Jutila, he was disturbed that the alley had become impassable for the ambulance drivers who serve the nearby convalescent home. And the pile, he said, isn't the kind of thing that should greet clients who arrive at his rear parking lot.
"It's disgusting. It's been here all week," he said.
Tuchman said the day he spotted the pile he called Steven Spreafico, the real estate agent who represented the new buyer of the Hollywood Hills house. The lawyer said he also sent photos of the mailing labels to Spreafico, who in turn said he forwarded the messages to his former client.
A day later, Jutila walked back to the alley to check on the pile. No one had cleaned it up. But the mailing labels on the boxes were gone. Somebody had cut the addresses off the boxes with a razor blade, Jutila said. "I thought that was pretty funny, since we'd already taken pictures of it," he added.
On Wednesday, Charlie Gambetta, who identified himself as the owner of the Sunset Plaza Drive property, made a call to Tuchman's law office to say he was looking into the situation. The following morning, a city sanitation crew with shovels, a trash hauler and a street sweeper arrived to clean up the mess.
As workers dug into the pile, Tuchman got a call from a man named Ryan, who worked on the Sunset Plaza Drive job and announced he was heading over. Ryan, who would not give The Times his last name, showed up an hour later, telling Tuchman he was sick to his stomach over what had happened and had come to "fix things."
Ryan brought with him Max Cederquist, who identified himself as the person hired to haul the construction debris from Sunset Plaza Drive. Cederquist, he said, was supposed to have taken the trash to the dump but didn't.
Cederquist went on to offer his own mea culpas and explanations.
Standing in the alley, he told The Times his trailer had blown a tire late Sunday night as he was hauling debris from the job in Hollywood. Cederquist said he got rid of the extra weight in an effort to get his truck back to Orange County, where he lives. He said he did not come back to retrieve the debris he discarded — but planned to later in the week.
"I just want to make it right. I know I messed up," he said. "It was a poor decision on my behalf."
Ryan said he told an official with the Bureau of Sanitation, which spent $953 to clean the alley last week, that Cederquist would provide reimbursement for any costs. Gambetta, in an interview, described the situation as a "bona fide accident" and said those who were involved took proper responsibility.
"Everybody showed up and admitted to everything," he said.
Jutila, for his part, was not persuaded. If the parties had taken responsibility, they would have cleaned up the mess Monday, before the real estate agent and others starting getting complaint calls, he said.
"I do not think they would have come back if we hadn't pursued it," Jutila added. "I think they were well on their way to trying to cover their tracks. And I don't believe the story about the truck breaking down."
A sanitation bureau spokeswoman said the alley incident will be reported to City Atty. Mike Feuer, who recently launched a strike force to target dumping problems in nine parts of the city, including Mid-City.
Since his announcement, Feuer has filed two enforcement cases and has three more planned in the coming weeks. More than a dozen incidents are under investigation, spokesman Rob Wilcox said.
City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana, who released last week's trash report, said the persistent efforts of Jutila and Tuchman were "very unusual." But Santana said he hoped the renewed focus on trash would spur more residents to alert the city about dumping.
"We want [them] to be the eyes and ears of the city," he said.