Los Angeles' most notorious slumlord, Vijaynand Sharma, a fugitive for three years, has been traced to Scotland, where he says he is living the life of a lonely innkeeper.
Sharma, 43, fled after his conviction in the largest criminal case ever brought by the city against a landlord--112 counts of housing violations at five Los Angeles buildings. He faced a 20-month jail sentence and a $153,000 fine.
Reached by telephone at his Inveravon Hotel, a bed and breakfast on the outskirts of Edinburgh, Sharma said he misses California and described Scotland as a freezing "hellhole."
"Being a fugitive," he lamented, "is no fun."
Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy George Rose said he learned of Sharma's whereabouts from Scottish authorities in Edinburgh last month after Sharma applied for a liquor license.
Local officials may not be able to bring him back to Los Angeles. According to the district attorney's office, Sharma was convicted of criminal misdemeanors, which are not covered by the United States' extradition treaty with the United Kingdom.
"We've tried to pursue every avenue we could but the doors seem to be closing on us," said Barbara Moore, chief of extradition services for the district attorney.
"I'm outraged," said Stephanie Sautner, head of the city attorney's slum housing task force, which prosecuted Sharma for conditions that included lack of heat and hot water, missing window screens, broken pipes and rat infestations. "I'm outraged that he owned 16 buildings in Los Angeles, subjected thousands of tenants to substandard conditions . . . has settled down in another country, and is operating a business with such complacency."
Sautner said she plans to research whether the $153,000 in fines Sharma owes the city are collectable. "I want to look into whether we can attach his property in another country," she said.
Sharma said Thursday that he had not been "an evil landlord," but was rather "like a social worker," giving "cheap housing to poor people."
He left Los Angeles in early 1988, when he was to appear in Municipal Court for sentencing on another case involving slum violations that could have resulted in several more months in jail. The city attorney also had filed eight other housing cases against Sharma, some involving earthquake and fire safety violations as well as slum conditions.
"I didn't run away out of fear," he said. "There was no way I could win. I was fighting the city of Los Angeles. Why waste more of my moments? I had to go on."
The former landlord said the prosecutors and court system did not allow him to present evidence in court showing the repairs he had made to his buildings. "I liked fixing up things. I improved those properties," he said. But the city attorney, he said, "wanted to make sure I was prosecuted, to get publicity."
"I was defeated. I had no chance in court," he added. "My way to defeat them was to escape."
Sharma was captured once as a fugitive by the FBI in September, 1988, in New Jersey. But after a New Jersey court set bail at $20,000, he posted the bond and disappeared again.
According to Sheriff's Deputy Rose, Sharma has used other aliases in the last three years, including Alexander Durosaux, Joe Comaeux and Joe Ngaue.
Sharma said he went to Scotland soon after leaving New Jersey, and with $2,000 he "built some buildings up (refurbished them), made some money and invested in some property." He said he was aware that authorities could not extradite him to Los Angeles.
The Inveravon Hotel is a large stone structure built more than a century ago, said Eveline Doulby, who heads the local hotel association in Edinburgh. She said she had never met Sharma.
Some buildings in Scotland are "worse" than any he owned in Los Angeles, Sharma said. "Every one of the property owners here would be criminally liable under California law. They'd all be in prison. They have rats here. They have flies. Nobody has window screens, and they're not earthquake proof."
A native of Fiji who came to California when he was 17, Sharma has left behind family in the United States, including his mother, brothers, a sister and two sons from a former marriage. "I never get to see them," he said. "I am alone here. . . . I cannot be 100% happy.
"But I didn't want them to see me in prison," Sharma added. "I'd rather be dead first."