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Story of Jail Stay Called Key to Site’s Preservation : Ojai: Council members say Bill Lotts’ anecdote prompted decision to renovate the structure in tribute to its history. The work starts next month.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When recounting Ojai lore, local residents still talk about Bill Lotts’ impassioned words to the City Council in 1992 as he stood firmly and demanded the preservation of the old city jail.

“I’m neither a drunkard nor a wife beater, but I once spent a night in the Ojai City Jail,” Lotts declared, responding to a city official who wanted the structure torn down partly because, he said, only drunks and wife beaters ever stayed there.

And council members will tell you today that those 20 words uttered by Lotts helped sway their decision to renovate the jail into a historic site for the public in Libbey Park, where it was used from the mid-1920s through the early 1970s.

Now, Phase 1 of the renovation--exterior painting, a bench, a sign, lighting and landscaping--is set to start in early September. The City Council and the Planning Commission in July and early August approved the specifics of the Ojai Historic Preservation Commission’s Phase 1 plans.

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The small, white and tattered cement building found down a short walkway from the Libbey Bowl will soon get an adobe-colored paint job, a granite sidewalk, a plaque on a redwood post, a wooden bench, a steel light fixture and automatic floodlights that activate when someone approaches the building at night.

Lotts said he had read a parks commissioner’s comment in a local newspaper to the effect that only drunks and wife beaters were imprisoned in the jail, and it should be dismantled.

“That made me angry,” he said in an interview.

Then, Lotts said, he knew it was time to speak up and stop officials who wanted to place three picnic tables where the jail stood, on the advice of a consultant updating Libbey Park’s master plan. “I went on to say that I thought it was important that the jail be kept, that it was a historic monument to the city of Ojai,” said Lotts, 70, an electrical contractor and an Ojai resident since 1948.

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And at the heated council meeting in 1992, politicians agreed, after a long discussion. Mayor Joe DeVito said Lotts’ speech influenced the vote to save the jail. Lotts “added some zest to the conversation,” DeVito said.

“It did make a difference. Everybody warmed up to the whole issue when Bill came forward,” recalled Councilwoman Nina V. Shelley. “What we leave and put in that park is very carefully decided upon.”

Shelley and DeVito said Lotts’ whimsical story about a night spent in one of the four 6-by-10-foot jail cells in 1955 bolstered the commission’s argument that the jail had a rich past that should be preserved.

“It’s part of Ojai,” DeVito said. “And Ojai feels strongly about retaining its past and tradition.”

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Added Shelley: “Bill’s little story lent a sense of history to the thing.”

At age 32, Lotts and an Ojai policeman were dating the same woman. Lotts had gone to her house to ask her to dinner one winter evening, but as she opened the door the officer pulled up to her house and told Lotts he had illegally parked on her small, dirt road.

“We got into a heated argument,” Lotts said, and the policeman arrested him. Lotts couldn’t recall the specific charge, but he thought it was either resisting arrest or public drunkenness, although he hadn’t downed a drop that day.

Lotts was stuck for the night in the small, creepy jail in Libbey Park. It sat across the street from the police station near the back of the park.

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“They put me in there with flashlights--it was pitch black,” Lotts said. “I remember it being cold; I slept with my clothes on. I remember being very lonely.”

The next day, he said, the charges were dismissed. Lotts thinks the policeman didn’t show up for the hearing.

The chairwoman of the preservation commission, Betty McAllister, says tales such as Lotts’ make the Ojai jail worth keeping. She said that after the renovation her commission plans to showcase the unique features of a shack-like city jail, used to house small-time offenders, which was set apart from the police station.

“The original wash basins and toilets are still in the jail,” she said, “and the walls have graffiti written on them that I’d like to preserve, like words from Bob Dylan songs and other writing from inmates in the 1960s like, ‘LSD is here to stay.’ ”

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On several walls in the musty jail, graffiti from the ‘60s and early ‘70s takes visitors back.

“I Kerry Donat O’Conner hereby cast spells on the both of you,” an inmate wrote in 1969, referring to police officers. A prisoner named Cain marked off his 60-day sentence on another section of the wall.

“I hope people learn the history of the social conditions of the times and how they’ve changed,” McAllister said. “You’d never get away with that jail today; the Civil Liberties Union would be after you.”

In the decades that the jail was operating, about 600 offenders were sent there, McAllister said. Often, two people were crowded into each extremely small cell. Lotts recalled that on the night he spent there, he was told there was an intercom and microphone connected to the police station in case he fell ill or encountered trouble. But he doubts anyone was really listening.

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McAllister said that after the exterior renovations are completed--she hopes by the end of the year--more money will be raised and plans for the interior renovation will be presented to the City Council. She expects the interior work to be finished by October, 1995, in time for the next Ojai Day celebration.

Preliminary plans for the interior include replacing old bunk beds that once hung from chains in the small building--only 23 feet across, 15 feet wide and 10 feet high.

“Most people think it’s a restroom or something,” McAllister said, adding that the interior renovation will include either bars or a plexiglass wall inside the doorway, which will be kept open during daylight hours, so sightseers can view the inside on their own.


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