A Newport Beach grade school teacher who bred snakes as a hobby was arrested Wednesday on animal cruelty charges after authorities discovered more than 400 ball pythons — some alive, many dead — scattered throughout his cluttered home.
Animal control officers said it took much of the day to conduct a room-by-room search of the five-bedroom home in a Santa Ana neighborhood where residents had complained for months about the foul smell drifting from the home.
Wearing gas masks and holding Tasers, investigators discovered 404 nonvenomous snakes — more than half of them dead — in clear plastic containers with labels reading "pastel reaper," "cinny ghost" and "orange belly." Authorities said nearly 50 rats and mice roamed freely inside the home.
"I got rats everywhere," one officer said in a police video that shows investigators entering the home.
Many of the dead snakes were still in plastic containers and there was no evidence of food or water in any of the cages, said Sondra Berg, Santa Ana Police Department animal services supervisor. Four of the bedrooms were filled with racks, each holding 30 to 40 snakes.
William Buchman, a sixth-grade teacher at Mariners Elementary School, is identified on various reptile collector websites as a ball python breeder who was using a process known as morphing to achieve different patterns on the snakes.
But at some point, Buchman appears to have gone from a hobbyist to a hoarder, Berg said.
"It's pretty sad," Berg said. "Hoarding is pretty much a mental condition. They need help."
Authorities said that Buchman's mother died in 2011, and that her death appeared to have affected him profoundly.
Residents in the tidy Santa Ana neighborhood on Fernwood Drive said that Buchman was pleasant but that the smell from the house had become overwhelming.
"We thought someone was dead," said Forest Long Sr., 62, who lives next door. "We couldn't open up the bedroom windows. My wife started to gag and throw up."
Last year, Buchman, a Baltimore Ravens fan who lived alone, came over to watch the Super Bowl with neighbors, said Forest Long III, 18. But the snake breeder seemed to become reclusive after that.
He said a white van would sometimes pull up and deliver cages packed with mice.
Animal control officers visited the home about a year ago, but didn't observe any of the conditions they saw Wednesday. Reports from neighbors prompted further investigation.
Buchman, they said, started to leave his car at a nearby park and walk home to avoid investigators.
Jason Haywood, president of Southern California Herpetology Assn. and Rescue, who was helping transport the snakes to a veterinarian in Yorba Linda, said that once the surviving snakes are treated, they will be placed in homes, classrooms and zoos.
Haywood said some of the snakes are valuable, such as the white and yellow phantom butter ball python he spotted in the home. He estimated that it was worth $5,000.
Sam S. Makki, director of Reptile Rescue Orange County, said he was called on to help with the pythons but that the scene inside the home was depressing.
"Animals are awesome and it can be a rewarding experience," Makki said. "But don't bite off more than you can chew."