An Old Hassle Over This Old House

Times Staff Writer

More than a century ago, the family of a Mexican vaquero settled in San Juan Capistrano, building a modest two-bedroom house and tending its large garden. The forebears of the vaquero, Jose Manuel Polonio Rios, would ultimately lend their name to the neighborhood -- the Los Rios Historic District.

For the descendants of Jose Rios, the old wood-frame house has been a source of frustration. On and off for 80 years, they have sniped over the fate of the home, one of the county’s longest-running probate cases.

“Typically, most cases close within 12 to 18 months. But this is one of the oldest and very rare,” said Linda Martinez, senior attorney with the county’s Probate Department.


The home has been in probate since 1925. The dispute has gone on for so long that the modest house is now estimated to be worth more than $1 million.

For years, the Refugia Rios home dispute centered on who should administer the property, but more recently the argument has focused on whether the family should sell or keep the house, a block from Mission San Juan Capistrano and in one of California’s oldest neighborhoods.

“This is our birthright, our homeland; we can’t sell this property,” said Joyce Perry, 50, of Irvine, who is trying to encourage family members to buy the house from the estate.

But Perry’s second cousin Sylvia Hawk, 64, of Yorba Linda wants to sell the property and split the proceeds among family members. “It’s time to move on,” Hawk said. The feud has escalated to the point where some relatives speak to each other only through attorneys.

Built on less than an acre, the house was originally deeded in 1876 to Calixtra Bonyones. It was later acquired by Rios, a Mexican vaquero, whose wife, Refugia Rios, was Bonyones’ daughter, according to court documents.

After Jose Rios died, his wife was the rightful owner. When she died without leaving a will on March 1, 1925, the probate dispute took form.


According to case records, three family members squabbled over the title then. Court documents from 1937 show the estate was still in dispute.

For the next 70 years, family members moved in and out of the house with little fanfare, even though no legal heir was determined. From time to time there were family skirmishes, but most were resolved quickly.

Currently, the Los Rios Street house is occupied by Bertha Carter, who is Perry’s aunt and Hawk’s cousin. The house sits on a tree-lined street, flanked by refurbished homes that are tourist attractions. Its roof sags and its faux brick siding is peeling.

On the same street is the Rios Adobe, dating to the 1790s, whose owner, Stephen Rios, is a descendant of the original homeowner and is a distant relative of Jose Manuel Polonio Rios.

The most recent commotion started in 1997, about the time that Perry, while researching the family genealogy, discovered that the estate was still unsettled. Many in the family had assumed the ownership of the house had been adjudicated.

Hawk had already discussed selling the estate with some family members. But Perry, armed with family history documents, began recommending that someone from her side of the family be named the estate’s administrator and that there was much to lose if they sold.


“These other family members just want to sell it. But this is our legacy,” Perry said.

The feud intensified three years later when Hawk was appointed administrator of the estate. Perry and other family members challenged it and lost.

Undaunted, Perry, tribal manager for a Juaneno Band of Mission Indians faction, did not give up, partly because she believes the family home may help the Indian band in its attempt to become a federally recognized tribe. Some rival family members, including Hawk, dispute the Juaneno family connection.

Perry and other Juanenos from San Juan Capistrano say Jose Rios was a descendant of a Juaneno woman only known as Primitiva. Demonstrating historical ties to land is part of the government’s recognition process, Perry said. The home could give them the needed connection.

After waiting decades, the Juanenos recently learned that the government may examine their request for recognition.

If they win recognition, an estimated 4,000 Juanenos can form a sovereign government and receive federal aid for education and medical care.

David Belardes, tribal chairman of the same Juaneno faction that includes Perry, expressed frustration that one of the early families may part with its land.


Perry’s only hope now is to encourage other family members to pool their resources and bid on the estate. But their chances could be fading.

In March, a probate judge denied all objections and ruled in favor of Hawk, allowing her to move forward and sell the property.

John J. Gottes, Hawk’s attorney, said potential buyers, including a nearby restaurant, have expressed interest. The sale could be approved by Probate Court as early as next month.

One of Perry’s brothers, Martin Sellers, 49, a mechanic who lives in Torrance, said he supported the sale.

“I’m not sad; I could care less,” he said. “I’ve got children, and I’ve got to think about college funds rather than a small house in San Juan Capistrano.”

But another brother, Jesse Sellers, sides with his sister.

“I can’t tell you how disappointed I am,” he said. “Believe me, if I could figure out a way to buy it, I would. If they would take blood, I would give it to them.”


Property taxes on the house have been paid by the family members living there. But the heirs also face a long-term capital gain tax that may take as much as 25% of the estimated $1-million sale price, Gottes said.

Attorney fees could claim as much as $150,000, leaving an estimated $600,000 for the heirs -- $14,000 to $18,000 each.

That’s a small return for something as valuable as the family legacy, Perry said.

“I just can’t believe this is happening.”