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Raid Puts End to Transients’ Nest Hidden in Trees Along Freeway

Times Staff Writer

Until this week, a hidden squatters’ community flourished in a vest-pocket jungle next to the slow lane of the nation’s busiest freeway.

“It looked more like a Viet Cong village than a tent city,” Los Angeles Detective David L. Peery said Thursday.

Wednesday, state highway workers and law-enforcement officers raided the overgrown half-mile-long stand of pine trees, palms and manzanita between the Ventura Freeway and a flood-control channel in Sherman Oaks .

For months, commuters stuck in traffic between the Van Nuys Boulevard off-ramp and Hazeltine Avenue were unaware that 15 to 20 transient men and possibly a woman were living under the trees. Their makeshift quarters included a bunker-like hole and a hammock fashioned from a volleyball net.

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Three Men Found at Site

“A couple of the (California Highway Patrol) officers were Vietnam vets like me, and as we walked through, we joked about watching out for punji sticks and looking out for booby traps,” Peery said as tree-masked freeway traffic roared by.

Peery said only three men were at the site when authorities arrived. The three, all of whom were arrested on suspicion of trespassing, are Geoffrey Brancato, 20, Steven Harmon, 29, and Dale Becker, 25.

They were told to leave a month ago, Peery said. At that time, several said they were alcoholics, he said. On Thursday the area still was littered with empty bottles of Thunderbird, generic-beer cans, mattresses, plastic forks, milk cartons, a pair of weathered corduroy trousers and other signs of habitation.

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Rolls of toilet paper hung from trees. A syringe was found in the crotch of a tree, but no drugs were found, Perry said.

Chain Saws Coming

California Department of Transportation workers filled a six-foot-deep hole that had contained a rubber-raft bed and pantry shelves stocked with dry milk, Spam and corned-beef hash. They tore down a handmade tent waterproofed with trash bags and carried off most of its contents, including several boxes of paperback books.

Authorities plan to take measures to discourage the settlers from returning.

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“We’ve arranged with Caltrans to come in with their chain saws and cut all that down so you can see the area from the freeway,” Perry said. “They don’t usually congregate where they can be seen.”

A recent increase in neighborhood burglaries was a consideration in the decision to evict the settlers, although no one from the freeway “village” has been charged with burglary, said Peery, who heads the burglary section at the Van Nuys Division.

Garden Hoses Disappear

“We were getting a lot of burglaries where food was taken,” he said. “We figured, ‘Who else is going to take food but these transient types?’ ”

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Perry said garden hoses were disappearing from yards, perhaps stolen for the encampment’s sophisticated water-delivery system. Hoses were linked to draw water from the sprinkling system with which the state waters its plants along the highway.

A 37-year-old man who said he had been living by the highway for 16 months said it was idyllic until undesirables ruined the neighborhood.

“Recently we had a bunch of people move in here with long criminal records, and the place went all to hell,” he said. He identified himself as a Vietnam veteran with a history of alcoholism and mental illness.

‘Had a Whole Library’

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After the raid, the man moved his mattress, chair and other possessions into a flood-control tunnel. He expects to be evicted from there, too.

“I had a whole library there, but yesterday they cleaned me out,” he said Thursday. “I just saved a few paperbacks and my Spanish-English dictionary.

“I don’t need food stamps, and I don’t need government intervention in my life. I smoke a little pot, and I booze it up, but I’m self-reliant.

“Some bums don’t live in the bushes because it requires work. You’ve got to find things, like a mattress or a chair, and, once you’ve scrounged them, you’ve got to put them together. Here you’ve got to be your own supply sergeant.”

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He doesn’t know where he will go, but said he will miss life in the bushes.

“The noise from the freeway helps me sleep,” he said.


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