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Tolerance Runs Out for a Kindly Connoisseur of Junk

Times Staff Writer

Being a nice guy has long paid off for Adolph Leben, a mild-mannered recluse who seems to have won the affection of his Thousand Oaks neighbors despite the growing pile of junk in his yard.

Over the last decade or so, as families have come and gone and gardens and children have flourished, Leben’s property on Havenwood Drive has been steadily obscured by rusting cars and scrap metal, tires, wooden planks, rolls of fencing and other glaring aberrations in a community known for order and affluence.

“One pallet of bricks has been there so long it has a three-and-a-half-foot pine tree growing out of it,” said Deputy City Atty. Nancy Schreiner.

This week, after years of avoiding any serious punitive action against Leben, the City Council decided to renew a Municipal Court case that could result in jail for a man consistently described by neighbors as gentle, helpful and pleasant.

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Schreiner said the council, which rejected a plan to clear the yard with $15,000 in public funds, will ask the court to revoke a three-year probation levied against Leben in April after he pleaded guilty to causing a public nuisance. The council addressed the issue Tuesday because Leben failed to comply with a court order to clean up his property, even after receiving a six-week extension that ended July 1, Schreiner said.

“Someone chops down a tree and he wants not only the cords but the twigs,” said Councilman Alex Fiore, who lives in Leben’s neighborhood and has been aware of the junk for years.

“Nobody wants to put anybody in jail for something like that,” Fiore said before the council meeting. “Chances are if he’d at least kept up the front yard it would have been overlooked. What’s out of sight is out of mind.”

Neighbors Ken and Susan Bachner and George and Sandy Elias agreed, suggesting that Leben has managed to avoid prosecution not only because of his personality but because his yard is set back from the street and not readily seen.

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“I feel bad that it’s going through criminal prosecution,” Ken Bachner said Wednesday in response to the council’s decision. “We have some serious problems out there, and to punish this man with jail time, I don’t agree with that.

“He’s a wonderful guy who just has this particular idiosyncrasy, and I don’t know how you go about punishing someone for that,” said Bachner, summing up the neighborhood’s prevailing attitude.

Apparently impressed by Leben’s helpfulness and old-world demeanor, residents have by and large looked the other way over the years, only quietly complaining to local authorities and then apologizing for causing their neighbor any trouble.

“If your car broke down and he didn’t know you, he’d stop and help you; that’s what kind of man he is,” said Susan Bachner, who’s marveled at Leben’s collection for nearly 15 years.

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“You know, you can have neat neighbors who aren’t nice,” she continued. “That’s why no one pushes it.”

Until now, even officials have been reluctant to act, despite years of polite notices, many promises to clean things up, the Municipal Court case and a blaze April 14 on Leban’s property in which firefighters were hampered by the clutter. Residents say the fire started when an electrical wire fell on a tree.

A testament to Southern Californian tolerance, or simply an example of a kinder, gentler suburbia? “I think it’s a testament to the man,” said one neighborhood newcomer who was tempted to make a stink about Leben’s mess--then changed her mind after meeting him.

‘We Just Can’t’

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“My husband and I looked at each other and said, ‘We can’t do that. We just can’t,’ ” said the young mother, who, like other neighbors, was reluctant to talk because she didn’t want to hurt Leben’s feelings or expose him to more publicity.

“He’s been burned,” said one neighbor, protective to the point of lecturing a reporter.

Attracting Attention

Several residents said recent publicity over the junk in the yard has turned the quiet cul-de-sac into a sideshow--attracting gawkers to the Leben home in the 1800 block of Havenwood Drive and frightening the owner, who is described as intensely private.

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No one seems to know much about Leben, although several neighbors thought he works for the aerospace industry. Local lore places Leben in his 40s, has him married, and holds that his two young children play with other neighborhood youngsters and attend parochial school.

A tall man with a football player’s broad build, Leben twice fled from a reporter Tuesday, once on foot and once in his red pickup truck.

“It’s been a real big embarrassment for him,” the young mother said.

Fascinated Neighbors

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His nocturnal routine has fascinated neighbors. Rapt, they have watched him unload his truck at 4 a.m., move piles from one side of the yard to the other, and just this week plant a few shrubs--perhaps in an attempt at camouflage--beneath a midnight moon.

“He always imports, never exports,” quipped next-door-neighbor Sandy Elias.

“A year ago, we took down a fence in the back, and he asked if he could have the stuff,” said Debra Strong, who lives around the corner on El Monte Drive.

“It’s a difficult issue,” said Ken Bachner. “He’s one of the nicest people you’d ever want to meet. I have a problem with this because, on the one hand, he has a right to store what he wants to on his own property. On the other hand, it’s an eyesore and nuisance to the community.

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“If he were to confine it to his back yard, I’d be perfectly happy. As it is, it doesn’t bother me. This is not worth pulling your hair over.”


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