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Matter Disposed Of : Fight Over Dirty House Ends as New Owner Takes Possession

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A 15-year battle by Huntington Harbour neighbors over a Cal State Long Beach professor’s messy house came to a surprising close Wednesday when the new owners took possession of the property and opened its doors to the public.

And what a sight it was.

All the rooms were covered in 2 to 3 feet of trash--everything from rotting vegetables and old newspapers to vintage records and aging exercise equipment.

In the kitchen, maggots teemed in the oven, piles of dishes filled the sink, and flies buzzed around rotting bell peppers. Faucets leaked, toilets were backed up and mountains of garbage teetered atop beds.

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The new owners, who bought the home for $301,500 at a court-ordered auction last month, allowed neighbors to finally see what they have been complaining about for so many years. Many neighbors left the house stunned, feeling both anger and pity for former owner Elena Zagustin.

“It’s really sad,” said Jenise Stone, who lives across the street and was one of those who sued Zagustin to clean up her house. “I am very relieved this is one step closer to over. I am only surprised that we finally succeeded. . . . I feel vindicated.”

Meanwhile, Zagustin was scheduled to turn herself in at Orange County Jail on Wednesday night to begin serving a 30-day jail term for allowing trash and other items to accumulate at her home. An arrest warrant was issued for her Wednesday after she failed to make a court appearance related to a probation violation. The case stems from an separate conviction for violating health and safety standards.

Zagustin’s attorney, Anthony Cosio, said it’s unfair that his client must serve any time behind bars, saying her eviction was punishment enough.

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“They forced the sale of her house . . . all over an abatement for a nuisance,” he said. “Leave the woman alone. She’s suffered enough.”

This week’s events lent another strange twist to the long saga that attracted national attention, enraged neighbors and cost the city of Huntington Beach more than $100,000 in investigation and attorney fees.

For more than a decade, Zagustin defied city orders to clean up the single-story, ranch-style home that neighbors said was rodent-infested and filled with trash and human waste. Her efforts unraveled after she was convicted on numerous housing code violations and neighbors succeeded in winning more than $300,000 in court judgments against her.

The long battle reached a close Wednesday morning when deputy marshals arrived for the eviction and found the door unlocked and Zagustin gone.

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The mess, however, remained.

One of the new owners, Randy Durham, said it will take five days to rid the house of the garbage as well as several pieces of furniture. A real estate investor, Durham said he plans to renovate the home and resell it.

“We’ve had properties like this before, but this is a worst-case scenario,” Durham said.

Some neighbors speculated that the house was once in much worse shape, noting that three truckloads of garbage had been removed over the last few days.

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Cosio said he does not know where Zagustin will live. The 62-year-old civil engineering professor has been on sabbatical from her teaching post.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Rehabilitation Begins on Blighted Home

New owners took possession Wednesday of a blighted Huntington Harbour home that neighbors have been battling to clean up for 15 years. Neighbors obtained $300,000 in judgements against homeowner Elena Zagustin, forcing the court-ordered sale of the house in July.

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Sources: Attorney Brian Simon; Huntington Beach Planning Department

Graphics reporting by BRADY MacDONALD / Los Angeles Times


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