Landlord's Empire Is Far-Flung, Problem-Plagued

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Case files bulge with the bureaucratic legacy of Sam Menlo's life as a landlord: code violations, thousands of them, at rental units beset with everything from vermin and mold to wretched plumbing.

With a real estate empire spanning Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino and Orange counties, Menlo has a 30-year track record of skirmishes with city and state agencies, capped last fall with a sentence to live for a time in his own filthy Anaheim complex.

Now 73, in failing health and with a possible jail sentence hanging over his head, Menlo is spending millions of dollars to fix up several of his apartment properties, including the decrepit Ridgewood Gardens in Anaheim where he was forced to stay briefly last year.

City inspectors report that Menlo's renovations are nearly complete. Bureaucrats and neighbors who have battled Menlo for years are watching his progress with interest and more than a little skepticism.

They wonder: is Sam Menlo finally cleaning up his act?

A Fateful Meeting

Michael Burke first met Menlo four years ago.

A four-alarm blaze at Ridgewood Gardens had left 17 families homeless and revealed wretched, filthy conditions.

Inspectors found the place crawling with cockroaches and rats. Vagrants had taken up residence in abandoned apartments littered with hypodermic needles. Some units were so moldy that mushrooms sprouted from the ceiling. The city cited Menlo with 112 building code violations, and charged him with 34 criminal counts of violating city codes. He pleaded no contest to three counts and was given probation--and an order to fix things fast.

Burke, a deputy city attorney, was in charge of seeing the fix-up through to conclusion. He eventually would become the public official who would pursue Menlo most vigorously.

In that first meeting, Menlo impressed Burke by coming to his office full of apologies and armed with a multipage "Menlo Plan of Action" that detailed reforms from trimming trees to scrubbing hallways with detergent.

"He convinces you that he is going to take charge," Burke said. It seemed a simple administrative matter, easily resolved.

As weeks dragged on with no detergent, no tree trimmers, Burke dug into the Anaheim files on Menlo. He found old city letters demanding change. He found other Menlo plans of action dating to the 1980s.

Burke heard about similar problems with Menlo and Century Quality Management in Fullerton and Los Angeles. Then a city attorney in Pico Rivera gave Burke a bit of professional advice that changed his entire outlook.

He told Burke to research Menlo's history. And what Burke uncovered during a simple database check stunned him.

Menlo was no small-time landlord without the means to fix up the place. He was an extremely wealthy man--and one continually in trouble with cities throughout the region.

"I suspected that he probably had problems," Burke said. "I didn't realize that he had so many."

Menlo declined to be interviewed. But even his attorneys concede the long history of filth, broken plumbing, moldy walls and vermin infestations at many of his holdings.

They paint a picture of a landlord who has been victimized by bad tenants and apartment managers. If anything, Menlo is a micromanager, attorney Kevin Mello says, demanding that he personally approve repairs as minor as a broken garbage disposal. With as many units as he owns, that's bound to lead to delays. Menlo owns his land through a family trust for which he is the trustee/conservator, and he is president and manager of Century Quality Management, the company that rents and manages the apartments.

State, County Cite Nursing Home Problems

Among the more troubling incidents Burke discovered in his research through old newspaper articles were the episodes at Menlo's nursing homes.

Menlo, as owner and operator of the homes, battled Los Angeles County and the state Department of Health Services for eight years during the 1970s over more than 2,000 health code violations and 78 counts of criminal neglect at his nursing homes.

Investigators found patients lying in beds full of excrement and urine and one patient with bedsores infested by maggots.

More than 20 years later, the case still stands out in the mind of Los Angeles County probation officer Gordon Smith, now retired.

"It was more repugnant than almost anything I had seen up to that time," Smith said.

The state revoked nine nursing home licenses. Menlo pleaded guilty to 25 misdemeanors but served no jail time. He paid a $75,000 fine and devoted 250 hours to community service.

Just a few years later, the state was after him again, this time for problems at his board-and-care homes for the elderly.

In 1986, state officials shut down an adult residential facility in Lynwood; it was the most drastic action they could take. The Department of Social Services also ordered Menlo to relocate patients at another home in Gardena.

After a yearlong investigation, the state Department of Health Services filed a civil complaint against Menlo, accusing him of "every possible inadequacy of care."

At the time, Menlo complained that he had been singled out by state inspectors. Without admitting guilt, the landlord ultimately agreed to close eight Los Angeles-area board-and-care places.

In the years that followed, Menlo's businesses have been scrutinized by Cal/OSHA, a civil jury, police and fire departments, county health inspectors and city code enforcement officials. The Los Angeles County Department of Health Services alone has documented more than 1,760 violations at Menlo's properties in the past five years.

That scrutiny has resulted in hundreds of man-hours but criminal prosecution only in Anaheim, Fullerton and Los Angeles County. By promising to reform, Menlo has narrowly escaped prosecution in Riverside, Bellflower, Pico Rivera, Azusa and Torrance--though he or his management company was cited and Menlo was brought in for various civil nuisance hearings.

"He thinks he can wing it, that he'll never get in trouble, that he can talk his way out of tight corners," Burke said. "It would make it easier . . . if other jurisdictions took him on and stopped babying him."

Some of those cities are trying. In Torrance, after years of repeated code enforcement violations and police complaints, frustrated city officials are considering a different but extreme tactic: taking over Menlo's property.

"We are looking at an eminent domain action," said Assistant City Manager Mary Giordano.

Through the years, Menlo has also faced mini-uprisings by his tenants. In 1985, residents of his Anaheim complex held a rent strike to protest cockroaches, dirty pools and plumbing problems. In 1990, tenants of a Menlo trailer park in Hawthorne lodged complaints about power failures, septic tank overflows and unsafe wiring. For those problems, he was cited for 190 health code violations.

And Cal/OSHA cited his Century Quality Management on at least two occasions, in 1995 and 1999, for forcing workers--in one case under cover of night--to perform highly dangerous asbestos removal without proper training or protective gear. Menlo also was ordered by a separate agency to pay $43,000 in back wages to those workers.

As Burke's research into Menlo's history developed, the landlord's promises to change sounded increasingly hollow. During his three years on probation for the problems at the Anaheim apartments, Menlo's code violations at Ridgewood Gardens multiplied to 819 instead of going away.

Enough of fines and threats, Burke decided. He went back to court last year to get Menlo's probation--and freedom--revoked.

After touring Menlo's 368-unit Ridgewood Gardens apartment complex, Superior Court Judge Michael Hayes found conditions "beyond deplorable" and sentenced Menlo to live 60 days in his own crumbling building. Probation was extended until 2003 with the threat of 18 months in jail if Menlo failed to fix the property or if it fell into disrepair again.

But if tenants thought Menlo would finally understand how they lived, such notions quickly dissipated. The landlord who would put off paying for so much as a plumber to fix a toilet suddenly had repairmen descending on the unit that would serve as his jail, painting and refurbishing. Then deliverymen carried in new furniture. Even security increased, with as many as six guards standing watch outside the complex around the clock shortly after Menlo moved in, tenants reported.

"They should have put him in with one of us, so he knows how we feel," grumbled former tenant Luis Cabrera, who had holes in the kitchen where mice had chewed their way through the floorboards.

Holocaust Survivor Is Lauded for Generosity

At synagogues and charities throughout the region, Menlo holds an entirely different reputation: that of a Holocaust survivor of exceptional decency and philanthropy.

In letters to the court in the Anaheim case asking for leniency, at least 10 rabbis or directors of Southern California Jewish schools, synagogues or associations enumerated Menlo's generosity.

"He's a fine man. He's just a marvelous person," said Rabbi Yonason Denebeim of the Chabad of Palm Springs, where Menlo has donated thousands of dollars over the past 15 years. "I wish there were more folks like him."

His wife of 44 years, Vera Menlo, also described him as a generous man, who is "loving, conscientious and hard-working." She spent the bulk of her letter detailing the tragic early life of the man she affectionately calls "my Sam."

Menlo lived in a Czechoslovakian ghetto until he was 14. Later, he was incarcerated in a series of Nazi concentration camps: Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Birobidzhan, she wrote. He watched as the Nazis executed his family, his attorney said.

"By the time he was liberated in 1945, he had lost his father, mother, his four brothers, his sister and his grandparents, as well as his other relatives--literally his entire family was killed," Vera Menlo wrote. "He was left alone to survive in the world."

Attorney Mello suggests that Menlo's background as a Holocaust survivor even may help to explain his client's approach to being a landlord.

"I can only imagine what lies in a concentration camp versus someone who has a leaky faucet or someone who has a little bit of mold or mildew building up on a bathroom wall," Mello said. "His minimum standard is lower than mine."

Menlo immigrated to New York when he was 26, starting a construction business. He subsequently moved to California and set his sights on real estate and property management. At one time, he operated numerous nursing and retirement homes in Southern California. Later, he began purchasing apartment complexes and office buildings, his attorney said.

Menlo amassed enough wealth to buy an 8,500-square-foot house near the Wilshire Country Club for himself and his family.

The assessed value on the roughly 40 properties and thousands of apartment units held by the Sam Menlo trust tops $154 million, though his lawyer says some of them are being sold.

His son-in-law, Jeffrey Winter, who oversees the rehabilitation projects, wrote in his letter to the court: "He is driven by the simple need to provide for his family and community. Mr. Menlo embodies a sincere desire to provide quality and affordable housing for low-income families, given his own humble beginnings."

Rabbi Meyer H. May, executive director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, said in a letter to the court that he cannot explain why a man who suffered the horrors of the Holocaust might maintain substandard housing.

"I have learned over the years that it is impossible to judge or rationalize the behavior of Holocaust survivors," May wrote in the letter asking for leniency. "We often find that a person who suffered so greatly at the hands of others is not at all resistant to imposing hardships of their own on others."

He called Menlo's past "unique and serious personal baggage," but said Menlo should not be jailed.

That history may be why Menlo believes he is the victim of a conspiracy between Anaheim police and city officials, doctors said in letters to the court. He also offered a conspiracy theory in a written statement to The Times more than 20 years ago when his nursing homes were the target of a state investigation.

Apartment Complex Gets an Overhaul

Just 23 days into his sentence at Ridgewood Gardens, Menlo was hospitalized after suffering a stroke. His lawyers said the landlord was too sick to finish out his time there.

Since then, he has refurbished property in Fullerton and Pico Rivera, with work still underway in other cities. Officials in those spots confirm the progress with some surprise. No one has seen Menlo undertake such a sustained fix-up project before--though some give much of the credit to his son-in-law.

Homeowners near Ridgewood Gardens, who once threatened a class-action suit, concede that the neighborhood is happier. Still, they're not quite ready to forget 15 years of trouble, homeowner Ed Wylie said.

"I'm not going to all of the sudden change my mind on things," he said.

Menlo is back home, and it doesn't appear that he'll ever have to finish his sentence at Ridgewood Gardens. No one lives at the apartment complex these days, and even the name is about to change.

All the tenants were evicted to make way for the massive overhaul of the buildings. Around and within the apartments swarms a small army of plumbers, carpenters and painters installing carpet, toilets, plumbing, balconies, sidewalks, a clubhouse.

Menlo's lawyers recently declined to discuss whether there's a transformed landlord behind the transforming buildings. "It's business as usual," said one.

They did offer a glimpse at Menlo's new business plan for the place, though. Coming soon: senior housing.

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