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Residents Live With Scars of Siege

Times Staff Writer

When winds sweep the Santa Clarita Valley, Marilyn Lombardi’s two-story home gets hit with litter, dirt and dust from the vacant lot next door. Rain accentuates the stench of ashes.

On warm, blue-sky days -- most days -- living-room window views of the concrete slab, rusted beam and chain-link fence cause Lombardi to recall the morning two summers ago when police mistakenly shot several rounds into her house, barely missing Lombardi, her husband and their day-old daughter.

The bullets were meant for the Lombardis’ neighbor, James Allen Beck, who opened fire on federal agents trying to serve him a search warrant. He fatally shot a sheriff’s deputy and died when flames consumed his house, ending the siege in the young, upscale Stevenson Ranch subdivision where taupe homes with plastic playgrounds lure families faster than contractors can build new tracts.

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But the property at 26444 Brooks Circle remains a caged and unsightly skeleton, much as it was in the days after the standoff in August 2001. For months, neighbors have complained about the “eyesore” that mars their otherwise manicured community.

Besides being ugly, the site also conjures, for many, feelings of anger, fear and betrayal. Beck had fooled Brooks Circle residents into believing he was a U.S. marshal who enjoyed walking his dog and socializing with them during backyard barbecues.

In reality, Beck was a 35-year-old felon known to authorities for stockpiling weapons and ammunition as well as impersonating law enforcement officials.

A Porter Ranch woman bought the lot in April, but, despite warnings from Los Angeles County officials, has failed to raze the remains of the house and, according to a family spokesman, is still far from beginning new construction.

The county Department of Public Works posted a notice on the fence a few weeks ago ordering the new owner to demolish the burnt structure by Thursday and condemning it as “substandard,” “a public nuisance” and “injurious to health; offensive to the senses; and [it] obstructs the free use of neighboring property so as to interfere with the comfortable enjoyment of life and property.”

“At first we were worried about the construction, nails pounding at all hours,” said Philip Lombardi, Marilyn’s husband. “Now, that would be music to our ears.”

Neighbors complain that the county has issued notices before, yet the property remains uninhabitable -- except by a crow perched on the steel beam.

Thursday’s deadline is final, said Bob Haueter, a deputy for county Supervisor Mike Antonovich, whose district includes Stevenson Ranch, an unincorporated area north of Los Angeles and west of the Golden State Freeway. If the owner does not demolish what’s left, the county will -- and bill the property owner for the cost.

“The homeowner has had more than sufficient time to move forward,” Haueter said. The shootout was “a huge trauma, and the community deserves to have a home built there.... If the homeowner can’t execute it, then, frankly, [she] should sell the property.”

Emmaliza Baquir, 37, purchased the lot for $130,000 on April Fool’s Day from Beck’s mother, who paid nearly three times as much when she bought the house for her son in November 2000.

The new owner’s brother, Chris Baquir, said he plans to live there with his mother. He said the family has experienced delays in getting funding for construction. A private individual lent Emmaliza Baquir $77,000 for the purchase, according to public records.

“We hope to have a house by this time next year,” Chris Baquir said recently as he stood inside his family’s Porter Ranch garage, stuffed to the corners with piles of boxes, shoes and furniture. His sister could not be reached for comment.

Brooks Circle residents should not be upset, Baquir said. His family has cleaned the property of weeds and debris. They plan to use the concrete slab as the foundation for their new home.

“We want to move into the neighborhood,” Baquir said. “We want a house.”

The Stevenson Ranch homeowners association also will push for the Baquir family to build soon, said Jeff Stevenson, an executive board member and consultant for Lennar Communities, developers of the subdivision. If the deadline isn’t met, he said, the board would consider other action.

“They cleaned up some,” Stevenson said, “but not to the satisfaction of neighbors.”

Rudolph Mancini, who lives two houses from the site, has, like other neighbors, helped care for the property. He swept the gutter, removed garbage and rehung the public notice after winds blew it off. At one point, he said, weeds reached 6 feet high.

“It’s an eyesore,” Mancini said. “I’m sure there are rodents and germs.”

Rain turns the property into “a slop, a muddy cesspool,” said Steve Rizzo, who lives next door. “It’s disrespectful to the neighbors for [Baquir] to come in and hold up the process. Let’s just say [the property owner] is not making any friends.”

About 30 bullets struck Rizzo’s house during the siege. He said his family does not dwell on what happened, but sometimes it’s difficult to forget when the former Beck lot looks “the same as it did a year and a half ago.”

The county paid the Rizzo and Lombardi families $37,500 and $167,500, respectively, in shootout claims.

Personal relationships have also suffered with neighbors who called them anti-police for seeking a settlement. But most neighbors supported the payments -- they saw the damage firsthand. And the Lombardi family and others said Brooks Circle remains -- although not as much as before the standoff -- a close-knit community where children play in the streets, mothers share confidences and fathers grill steaks.

“Yes, we hated [what happened],” said Lombardi, explaining that people must move on. “But no one [in the family] was hurt. We have our three kids.”

Lombardi hugged Gianna, just 38 hours old when her mother shielded her from bullets.

“Talking about it makes me want to throw up,” Lombardi said.

She glanced out her window and heaved a sigh.


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