Since Robert Winemiller moved to Kagel Canyon in 1930, he has amassed a lifetime of junk, including more than 70 car hulks, a row of broken-down refrigerators and several makeshift trailers that he says are empty. But neighbors say those trailers are home to either squatters or illegal tenants.
In the past decade, the tranquillity of this narrow canyon above Lake View Terrace and its spectacular view have attracted civilization in the form of bigger, fancier houses whose inhabitants find Winemiller’s life style repulsive.
These new canyon dwellers said that eight years of repeated complaints to Los Angeles County officials and pleas to county Supervisor Mike Antonovich have produced few results. After it became obvious that the county was not going to act, they said, more junk and more trailers with people inside appeared.
For instance, they said, look at the cluster of sheds Jerry Overlock hauled into the canyon three years ago, just over the hill from Winemiller’s property.
In an effort to crack down on Kagel Canyon squatters, county bulldozers crushed two of Overlock’s sheds in September, 1987. The county told Overlock to tear down two more sheds and remove two trailers. But now five campers and trailers sit on the property.
‘Don’t Like City Life’
Officials said that Overlock, who is not listed as the owner of the property on county tax records, is illegally residing on the property. Zoning laws call for structures to be 900 square feet or larger in the area, which excludes trailers. And health laws prohibit dwellings, including trailers, that do not have septic tanks.
One afternoon last week, Overlock was stretched out, reading inside one of the camper shells, but he refused to discuss why he was still living in Kagel Canyon.
Don Howard, who lives with his girlfriend in a camper shell on Winemiller’s land, was more forthcoming. Howard said he had been in the canyon about two years, and before that, in a similar community near Newhall.
“I don’t like city life. . . . It’s pretty mellow up here. Nobody really bothers anybody else,” he said, his comments contradicting tattoos on his upper arms that said “Born to Raise Hell” and “Rebel.”
Surrounded by the scrap metal he cashes in for pocket money, Howard said he works off most of his $150-a-month rent by helping Winemiller, 70, clean up the property. Electricity comes to his camper by extension cord from one of Winemiller’s two houses. Water comes through a hose attached to a holding tank Howard has rigged up nearby.
Don Wolfe, a superintendent in the county’s Public Works Department, likened the conflicts in Kagel Canyon to those witnessed several years ago across the San Fernando Valley in Topanga Canyon.
“You get rural areas that started out with the original people there who are of a different breed and then it starts to urbanize, and then you get people who care about that,” he said. “It’s a cultural shock between the old-timers and the newcomers. It’s hard to get them to change and basically urbanize.”
While to Wolfe the old-timers in the area are “a different breed” and to Winemiller’s attorney, Christopher A. Sutton, they are “hillbillies . . . almost hermits,” to neighbor Russell Cataldo they are “filthy white trash.”
Newcomers such as Cataldo said Wolfe’s assessment is simplistic and ignores the rapid deterioration of the situation during the past few years.
“Look at that filth, that mess, those squatters,” said Cataldo, a retired developer who in 1983 built a four-bedroom redwood house with a turret down the hill from Winemiller’s land.
It is not just the eyesore of rusting cars, decaying trailers and trash heaps that concern Cataldo and some of the other neighbors, but also the more insidious threats they present.
They worry about fires being started by extension cords to the trailers. They worry about their well water being ruined by latrine tanks emptied on the ground. They worry about people tapping into their limited water supply with hoses and pumps.
Cataldo said the county’s apparent inability to act on building and zoning violations for which Winemiller has been cited over the years highlights a double standard of enforcement.
“When I build, I gotta adhere to every code, every little stipulation or they’re all over me like bugs,” Cataldo said. “Look, I have nothing against anybody who can beat the system. . . . I’ve done it myself. But not to where it hurts my neighbor.”
When Winemiller moved to the canyon with his parents, they became the first year-round residents in a community of vacation cabins. They lived in a one-room cabin for years, which, he said, makes him feel pretty good about the two simple clapboard houses that he and his sister inherited.
After spending 58 of his 70 years in Kagel Canyon, Winemiller figured he has “got roots” there. He called the rows of cars, for which he now has a garage license, his collection, and he swore that a dozen of them were running recently, although he cannot recall precisely when.
“They’re trying to run me out, is what they’re trying to do,” he said, referring to Cataldo and other critics.
But Winemiller made it clear that he has no intention of leaving. It is his home and besides, he said, “Where would I go? I’d want to move way out in the country again.”
Asked if any compromise could be struck with his neighbors, he answered, “Yeah, for these people to just mind their own damn business.”
At least twice, according to neighbors’ accounts that were confirmed by Winemiller, he tried to impress on “these people” that they ought to leave him alone by shaking rocks at them or challenging them to a fistfight. At least once he ended up in the county jail overnight on an assault charge, he said.
“They get me so riled up, they provoke me, and then I’m the one who gets carted off to jail,” he said.
It was Winemiller’s fighting spirit, which also included the more refined approach of hiring an attorney, that slowed the county’s ability to react, Wolfe said.
“We sent our letter of intent Sept. 7 that we were going to clean up those properties ourselves,” Wolfe said. “But you’ve got to understand that some of the folks are not that amenable to complying and they’re entitled to due process just like everybody else, and that takes time.”
Building rehabilitation supervisor O.B. Thompson said the county will charge Winemiller for the cleaning and clearing, a fee that could reach several thousand dollars. He said work would begin “within the next month.”
But Jonathan Asher, whose wide-windowed house overlooks Winemiller’s property, said he has heard it all before.
“I can tell you right now what will happen: Nothing will happen,” Asher said. “They’ll be up here in two weeks writing the same citations.”
To support his claims, Asher showed an inch-thick stack of his correspondence with the county, dating back to 1983. It is filled with promises, reassurances and requests from the county that Asher be patient, including:
Following complaints from Asher and his live-in companion, Carol Johnson, on July 8, 1983, the Department of Regional Planning cited Winemiller for “an occupied trailer and campers, inoperable vehicles, junk and salvage” and gave him one month to clean it up.
On July 22, 1983, Rick Vena, head of the county’s zoning enforcement section, wrote Johnson that his office would “continue to pursue this matter until the zoning violations are abated.”
In mid-September, 1983, John Edwards, division chief for zoning enforcement, told Johnson: “I assure you that we are proceeding in these matters as quickly as the enforcement processes allow.” Edwards said the case had been turned over to the district attorney’s office for prosecution.
On June 13, 1984, a letter from Edwards told Asher that he was mistaken in his “belief that nothing had been done.” He said that Winemiller had not appeared on his court date, but that further court action would be taken against him. “But in the meantime we must ask your understanding and patience.”
A letter from Deputy Dist. Atty. Tim D. Hansen in November, 1984, said an agreement had been reached in which Winemiller and one of his tenants promised that “the zoning violations you spoke of will soon be corrected.”
After exchanging letters and telephone calls with Asher and Johnson for three years, Antonovich called a July, 1986, meeting among planning, zoning, health and district attorney’s staff members. His letter afterward said that he had learned that “there has been some limited progress made over the past few years in responding to complaints.” However, he wrote, “Let me assure you that I share your concerns. I have requested monthly updates from each of the departments. . . . I assure you that steps will be taken to remedy this situation.”
Antonovich’s planning deputy, Dave Vannatta, said that when Asher stopped writing and calling after that letter, the supervisor assumed that things had improved in Kagel Canyon. When Asher sent a six-page letter dated Sept. 20, 1988, accusing the county of a consistent lack of action, Vannatta said, it “caught me by surprise and caught Mike by surprise.”
“Our perception was, quite honestly, that the problem was being dealt with quickly and responsibly,” Vannatta said. “We’re very angry about this.”
Vannatta said Antonovich had asked the various county departments involved for an update on the Kagel Canyon situation by Oct. 11.