Inching his way along steep, winding roads in the hills northwest of Hollywood, Dennis Bogard looks intently for a house he knows is invisible from the road.
Suddenly he stops his Fire Department cruiser, jumps out and bolts into a wild lot of trees and brush between two neatly manicured lawns.
"They always live like this," he says, pushing away branches and vines. "Cul-de-sacs or at the end of streets where nobody will find them."
Hunching his way through a tunnel of overgrowth, he marches up concrete steps past an assortment of rusted-out relics, pausing halfway to observe a patio cluttered with battered porch furniture, old hubcaps, chipped lawn statues and weathered paint cans. Near the top, he doubles over to squeeze under a fallen tree cloaked in ivy.
If not for his nerdy uniform of black wool pants, button-down white shirt and black clodhoppers, the lanky six-footer could be an urban version of Indiana Jones--an archeologist plumbing the depths of the suburban jungle for clues.
Only it is not treasure he seeks.
Officially known as the city's hazardous refuse abatement coordinator, Bogard's task is to free of garbage the dirtiest homes in Los Angeles. The people who live in them, otherwise known as pack rats, range from reclusive oddballs to whacked-out drug addicts who cram their homes so full of garbage, they wind up sleeping outdoors. Some are thought to suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder.
The job of policing these trash addicts didn't formally exist until Bogard, a former paramedic and borderline pack rat, created it, making Los Angeles one of the few cities in the nation with a Pack Rat Unit.
On a recent day, the unit--a man, a 1980 Ford Paramount and a cardboard box of manila envelopes containing photographic evidence of trashy caboodle--makes five house calls. One of them is to the well-hidden home of a woman in her 70s, a pack rat fingered by neighbors who complained that her trash is attracting vermin.
Although Bogard hasn't been inside her home, he draws on an arsenal of clues, collected during the past year of scouting out such hoarders, to guess what is inside.
"The curtains are drawn," he says. "That's a sure sign of a pack rat. They cover up their windows to hide their trash."
A cluttered front porch is another tip-off, and this pack rat's is barely navigable. Sidestepping dirty mattresses, rusty box springs, a bucket of murky water and waterlogged boxes, Bogard calls out: "Fire Department. Fire Department. Hellooo."
Answered by silence, he is on his way to the back of the house when he runs head-on into the homeowner. Shoeless and shabbily dressed in purple sweat pants and a black sweater, she doesn't wait to find out what this uniformed intruder wants. With long white hair flying and a half-eaten syrupy waffle in hand, she ducks beneath the tree and is gone.
The pack rat has good reason to flee. The 15-day grace period Bogard gave her to clean up expired five days ago. When a written notice of a violation is ignored, a hearing with the city attorney and then a court date will usually be set, although few hoarders show up. But Bogard, hoping to coax his clients into compliance, often softens the deadline. If they make even a small effort, he backs off.
This woman, though, has evaded him on four visits. This may be the last courtesy call before Bogard returns with armed police escorts to sift piece by piece through her belongings, keeping family photographs and important documents and tossing the useless remains. If she ignores the bill for the cost of the cleanup, the city can put a lien on taxes or Social Security checks.
Many pack rats are recluses, without electricity or running water. They don't have or don't answer their phones. Most ignore written notices. "Citing them is like citing a 6-year-old child," says Roylene Walker, a city social worker for homebound seniors. "Paperwork down the drain."
Unless the state declares a pack rat mentally incompetent, only the Fire Department can enter property without a warrant for a forced cleanup. No one took such pains to avoid these cleanups until Bogard, 49, appeared on the scene a year ago. His misfortune--a neck injury suffered when a heavy patient being lifted into a helicopter crashed down on his head--proved a blessing for the city agencies struggling to keep tabs on its worst pack rats.
Like most cities, Los Angeles lacked the manpower to pursue all but the most serious cases. And the firefighters counted it among the most vile duty one could draw. "We got involved only when there was no way out of it," says Mike Theul, the officer who used to handle the pack rats.
But Bogard, reassigned to a light-duty post, loved it from the start. Never mind the stench, dirt and fungi that make most cleanup workers physically sick, the hours spent listening to excuses, the painful process of seizing property--Bogard believes he's doing more than preventing fires and appeasing neighbors.
"I see these people as people," he says of the pack rats. "They just need some help. I don't go in there with my black boots and kick down their doors. I try to talk to them about what has to go and sometimes they thank me afterward."
It is not a job most inspectors can finesse, says Bogard's boss, Capt. Greg Stone.
"On the one hand he is dealing with people who are sick, and on the other with neighbors who have no tolerance for their habits. Not every officer can do that, but Dennis is able to successfully bridge both."
In some cases, Bogard has persuaded pack rats to clean their own messes. Plying them with 40-gallon trash cans, brochures for Clutters Anonymous (a 12-step recovery program based on Alcoholics Anonymous) and gentle reminders, Bogard prods them to a state of order.
"It is a real art," says Al Romero, a building inspector who has worked on some cases with Bogard. "Dennis has a real sense of what appears to be value in their minds. He knows how to get them to part with things they have been saving for 20, 30 years."
One such client is a West Hills woman in her 50s. Approaching the gate to her quaint two-bedroom home, Bogard begins his customary call. "Recluses don't answer doorbells," he explains.
"Hey hon, how ya doing?" he says loudly, as if he were beckoning a longtime friend.
But the moment she appears, it is clear that the woman doesn't regard Bogard as friend.
Near tears and reluctant to let him in, she whines, "I'm trying, I'm trying, but I don't want you to see the house." Bogard agrees to sit on a porch swing. Visible through the open screen door is an armchair heaped with soiled clothing and a dining room table piled with junk. A month ago, rubbish filled the entire living room.
Drawing on his 25 years as a Fire Department paramedic, Bogard props his chin on his hand and patiently listens. The woman says that someone else has been dumping trash in her yard, that her adult son hurt himself in a fall and is now in wheelchair, that a friend of his stole her pocketbook. He hears her tearful confession that she hoarded clothing grabbed from stores damaged in the Northridge Earthquake, a boon for many pack rats. Gently, he steers her back to the subject of her trash, urging her to clean a little bit at a time, until she is done.
Part of Bogard's patience stems from personal experience. His mother, though not as obsessive as some of his clients, had a tendency to collect everything from rocks to dolls. And Bogard himself makes and collects mechanical dolls from parts bought at garage sales and auctions. With more than a 1,000 dolls, he has filled his garage and a rented storage space from floor to ceiling.
"He sees a little of his mother," says his wife, Pearl, "in every place he goes."
In the past year, he has made 310 inspections, kept constant tabs on 40 active pack rats and cleaned 12 home sites of more than 2,680 cubic yards of refuse. His cases include an old man who in his lifetime has bought and filled 13 homes with acquired junk and a woman who gets around her apartment by crawling through tunnels of trash. In another home, Bogard sifted through layers of newspaper and coins to uncover a large armchair. The owner explained that her husband read the paper each evening in the chair. But, to maximize his comfort, he first emptied his pockets.
Yet another frail old woman is a beneficiary of Bogard's it's-never-too-late philosophy. Believed to be in her 80s, she lives in the same Brentwood neighborhood as Nicole Brown Simpson did, but without electricity or running water. Her trash-filled kitchen is impossible to cook in, so she lives mainly on McDonald's. The yard, littered with machine parts, construction materials and a portable toilet, is part prairie, part used car lot.
Like one-third of Bogard's clients, the old woman is a repeat offender. She has been cleaned out by the city four times, most recently by Bogard, who removed 380 cubic yards of trash from the site. Still, her compulsion to clutter keeps him coming back.
And although this recluse, swaddled in clothing despite 90-degree temperatures and only partly visible from her hiding spot behind a spray of tall weeds, harps accusingly about the demolition of her property, she tolerates Bogard's questions, even half-welcomes him with talk about his bad back.
On this visit, one of his last before taking a new position as a fire inspector, he notices a patch of brush he told her to get rid of last week is gone. Congratulating her, he says, "You just keep doing what you're doing. You're going to make me a happy man."