The evidence can be seen on 45 tedious minutes of videotape of the $3.5-million Benedict Canyon house rented last year by comic Roseanne Arnold and her family: wallpaper coming apart at the seams, gouges in the leg of a 12th-Century Chinese table, a blackened brick wall in the kitchen, corroding brass fixtures in the bathrooms, cigarette burns in a desk.
Not to mention the warped, buckling, scratched and scarred wooden floors. “The floors are in just disastrous shape,” the owner of the house is heard to say on the tape. “It seems like there was a herd of elephants going through here.”
Elephants have probably been ruled out, but otherwise, just what caused $205,000 in damage to the furnished, four-bedroom home is one of the more bizarre recent mysteries to find its way into Santa Monica Superior Court.
Was it the recklessness of a slovenly show business family, as the owners, record company executive Spencer Proffer and his wife, Suzanne, alleged in a lawsuit filed in July?
Or were the Proffers driven by greed to conspire with the National Enquirer, an old adversary of Roseanne Arnold? And did Enquirer staffers destroy the house to cook up a “wholly contrived, utterly fictional” story ridiculing Arnold for living in a pigsty, as she charged in a subsequent counterclaim?
Inquiring minds may want to know, but they will have to wait while the case wends its way through the tortuous legal system, with the help of lawyers from several of the nation’s most prestigious firms, including Williams & Connelly in Washington, Irell & Manella in Century City and Rosenfeld, Meyer & Susman in Beverly Hills.
The case has already produced a blizzard of paper, including a sealed 750-page deposition from a former National Enquirer reporter accusing the tabloid of a variety of sleazy practices.
In a kind of sideshow, the Enquirer’s attorney has accused Arnold’s lawyer of making a settlement offer that smacked of extortion. Arnold’s attorney has charged that the tabloid--in an ironic twist for a newspaper--is violating 1st Amendment rights by seeking to permanently seal the reporter’s deposition. Each side has denied the other’s charges.
Initially, the lawsuit over 2570 Benedict Canyon Drive seemed like a routine homeowners’ horror story, except for the famous defendants and the extent of the damage they allegedly caused.
When the Proffers decided to move to Santa Ynez two years ago, they leased their antique-filled home, with swimming pool and tennis court, to Arnold for $16,000 a month. The comedian, her husband, Tom, and her three children occupied the Proffer home from mid-July, 1989, until mid-May, 1990, when they rented a more expensive place in Malibu.
Regaining possession of the house May 16, the Proffers were stunned and heartbroken by what had happened in their 10-month absence, according to letters filed with the court papers.
The couple put together a photographic inventory containing 207 instances of damage--37 to the master bedroom alone. With the pictures and the videotape, they catalogued everything from “wallpaper peeled off wall, floors deeply scratched” in the maid’s bedroom to “tennis court cabinet taken off hinges.”
Contractor Ray Cowen explains on the videotape that some of the damage apparently occurred when harsh abrasives were applied to delicate surfaces, while much of it resulted from long-term carelessness.
Far more dramatic was the account that appeared in the July 12, 1990, National Enquirer under the headline, “Roseanne Trashes Megabucks Mansion.” Only a month earlier, the Arnolds had sued the tabloid under federal racketeering statutes for publishing stolen love letters. The case was settled last June, but terms were not disclosed.
Detailing the destruction supposedly caused by “Hurricane Roseanne,” the article declared: “Incredibly, the damage is so extensive the entire house has to be gutted to repair the interior.” An anonymous “Hollywood insider” was quoted as saying that the house “looked as though it had been occupied by pigs--not humans.”
But was the story--published six days before the Proffers filed their lawsuit--a setup? Surfacing at the end of July, James W. Cruse, a former Los Angeles-based Enquirer reporter, charged that it was. In a sworn preliminary statement, he told the Arnold’s lawyer, Delos E. Brown, that his editor ordered up “a pigsty story on Roseanne and Tom.”
When Cruse was dispatched to the house just after the Arnolds moved out, he found only minimal damage--a broken window and unhinged cabinet and bedroom doors--in what was otherwise a “normal, lived-in home,” he said in the statement.
Subsequently, according to his statement, he learned that other Enquirer reporters had dumped garbage throughout the house and in the pool area so that the photographers would be able to back up the editor’s angle. In their counterclaim, the Arnolds charge that Enquirer reporters “damaged furniture and fixtures and stained rugs and walls to create an opportunity for National Enquirer photographers to supplement the phony ‘pigsty story’ with phony pictures.”
Cruse, who has said the Enquirer fired him in May because he planned to write a book about the tabloid, could not be reached for comment.
But Brown said in an interview he is not certain whether the damage to the house was caused by Enquirer staffers or the Proffers. He accused them in the counterclaim of conspiring with the tabloid “to redecorate their entire house. . . . Driven by greed, using fraud, perjury, artifice and deceit, they have claimed that Roseanne and Tom damaged the contents of their house.”
Calling these allegations categorically false, Richard S. Hoffman, the Enquirer’s Washington-based attorney, added: “It is an attempt to deflect some of the negative publicity about the way (the Arnolds) lived in that house.” Nathan B. Hoffman, the Proffers’ attorney, characterized the conspiracy theory as “absolute, unmitigated balderdash.”
The Arnolds, who forfeited a $32,000 security deposit, say they left the Proffer house in good, if not perfect, condition. Brown said they did not fight over the deposit to avoid “the kind of situation we’re in now.” (Roseanne Arnold declined a request for an interview.)
Interviewed by an investigator for the Arnolds, the couple’s staff denied that their bosses lived like irresponsible slobs but acknowledged that panes of beveled, leaded glass in the entryway were broken and other minor damage occurred.
To the staff, the house appeared to be in poor condition to begin with. Catherine Spears, Roseanne Arnold’s personal assistant, described it as a “grungy,” rodent-infested abode with creaking floors and a dank smell. “My impression of this house is it was literally falling to pieces,” she said in her statement.
Scoffing at these allegations, Nathan Hoffman said, “It stretches the imagination to believe that the house was something other than immaculate if someone of (Arnold’s) stature was going to live in it and pay that kind of rent.”
Yet another witness who contradicts the Proffers is Doran Rhoads, a self-described plant technician who used to tend the greenery inside the Benedict Canyon home. Rhoads, who now lives in Waco, Tex., said in a deposition that the Arnolds kept the house in the same condition in which they found it.
If Rhoads’ statement is to believed, however, no appreciable damage was ever inflicted--by anyone--before the house was renovated. Returning to the house a few days after the Arnolds moved out, Rhoads was unsympathetic when a distraught Suzanne Proffer complained: “They (the Arnolds) destroyed my house. They totally ruined my house.”
To Rhoads, the house looked “the same as it was before.” It wouldn’t surprise her, she said, if the couple had “found a good excuse to fix up their house to sell it.”
Attorney Brown acknowledges that Rhoads’ statement does not support his case against the Enquirer. At this point, he said, there are “reasonable, responsible hypotheses” but no way of knowing the truth about 2570 Benedict Canyon Drive.
“This may be a drama that takes years to play out,” he said.