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Offers of Assistance -- and a Surprise

My story of the 71-year-old woman living in her car for eight years in El Segundo, with her dog Sandy in the passenger seat, took more than a few interesting turns this past week.

Lee Sevilla and I were overwhelmed by the response, which included hundreds of offers of jobs, money, medical services and housing.

“I have a house in Malibu that sits empty 3 1/2 weeks of the month as I live on the East Coast and the house is for sale,” wrote a reader named Jonathan. “She is welcome to move in immediately with her dog.”

Laura and Tom in Culver City offered a room in their house. A woman named Teresa offered $6,000 to help with a year of rent after reading that Sevilla said she was $500 a month short of affording an apartment. A man named George offered to contribute up to $18,000, and Sevilla also got offers of free housing in Iowa and Minnesota.

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The kindness of strangers brought the part-time receptionist to tears, especially given the blue streak of bad news for those who live on the margins. In a new report, California has the nation’s third-worst poverty rate when the cost of living is factored in, and the lack of affordable housing has put tens of thousands on the streets, in their cars, in the bushes and on the edge.

Meanwhile, the new Medicare drug program is failing to reach three out of four low-income senior citizens, California Senate Republican Leader Dick Ackerman of Irvine expressed pride at trimming rental subsidies and homeless shelter funding from a state public works project and a $70-billion federal tax cut was weighted to benefit those who least need it.

So it was no mystery why Sevilla and I received dozens of passionate commentaries from readers -- elders, especially -- who could identify with her financial struggles in the land of plenty.

“I am 78 yrs old and the article you wrote about Lee Sevilla could be me but for the Grace of God!” wrote Rose Marie De Giorgio of Encino.

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“As a 67-year-old retiree, I wonder how long before I find myself in similar straits,” wrote Bud Peters of Hawthorne. “I’m currently in a 400 sq. ft. studio at $750/month.... Could I move to lower rent senior housing? Well, I’m currently on 10 waiting lists, some with a backup of 2 or more years.”

Sevilla hasn’t yet been able to get through all the letters and parcels that swamped the little Playa del Rey post office.

“They had three boxes of mail for me,” said Sevilla, who went through only a fraction of it and found down payments from readers commissioning artwork from her. Sevilla, a sketch artist, said people sent photos of pets and enough money in down payments to get her into an apartment for months to come.

And I’m still wading through my own mail on her plight.

But in the midst of all that good news, I got a jaw-dropping e-mail from a reader who suggested Sevilla hadn’t told me her entire story. Sevilla was once in prison, said the reader, who suggested she was reluctant to apply for government housing for fear of being brought to justice.

Could it be true?

It’s partly true, I discovered, but nothing at all like what I feared.

“I didn’t tell you because I didn’t think it was relevant,” Sevilla said when I confronted her.

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It turns out that Sevilla was the subject of national news nearly 20 years ago when an overambitious Illinois prosecutor went after her for a sales and employee tax debt for a business she ran in suburban Chicago.

First, the background. Sevilla, whose husband walked out on her, raised three kids on her own. When they were grown, she took a gamble, borrowing money to open an interior design shop that became a financial disaster. A lawyer advised her to declare bankruptcy in the wake of lawsuits by suppliers, but she refused, stubbornly determined to turn the business around and make good on $12,674 in unpaid taxes.

Sevilla admitted owing the money and set up payment plans with the IRS and the state, but just when she thought she had it worked out, she was hit in 1986 with a multi-count indictment. In fact, she was the first person prosecuted under a new Illinois law that made failure to file timely sales and employee withholding taxes a felony rather than a misdemeanor.

“I was shocked,” said Sevilla, who readily admitted she was in debt but couldn’t believe she was treated like a common crook. “I was guilty of being a lousy business manager, but I had agreed to a payment plan.”

Most of the charges against her were thrown out in court, but she was convicted on $34.91 she owed in sales tax. This in a country where corporate thieves make sport of tax dodges with help from the congressional knaves they sponsor.

A Chicago attorney, incensed by the draconian sentence, won a reversal of Sevilla’s conviction, giving her a brief moment of relief.

About the same time, Sevilla’s ailing mother passed away in California, and she headed west to get Mom’s affairs in order. While she was in Los Angeles, the Illinois Supreme Court reinstated the conviction and a warrant was issued as her tax debt grew to $37,000 with interest and penalties.

The dangerous grandma was collared in Los Angeles in November 1990 and dragged off to the slammer. While in jail, awaiting extradition to Illinois, she suffered a heart attack, spent weeks in the hospital, then went straight back to the ball and chain.

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The news clips I found dovetailed with her version of events. “It sounds incredible, but it’s true,” said an Orange County Register story dripping with incredulity and the suggestion that political aspirations fueled the prosecutorial zeal.

She remained in custody until March 1991, when Illinois authorities dropped the extradition proceedings, saying that the cost of continuing the case was prohibitive.

Sevilla was elated, but her troubles had only just begun. Given her age and health, she couldn’t find good enough wages to get decent housing. She worked at her daughter’s Westside store for a while and even sacked out with her for a while. She lived with her son briefly, too, but he suffered brain damage in a car accident and later killed himself.

The series of calamities landed Sevilla in her car, but she was certain the temporary living arrangement would soon end.

That was 8 1/2 years ago.

“I’ve tried a million times to get help for her,” said Victoria Bray, a daughter who lives near Pittsburgh and has begged her mother to move in with her. But Bray said her mother has been stubbornly independent since the day her marriage ended and a survival instinct kicked in.

As Sevilla and I looked through the letters and e-mail last week at the El Segundo library where she does her sketch work, we came upon a tip that she try a senior housing project in El Segundo.

“Been there twice,” she said, and it was no go. She’s checked other places too, and it’s always the same. Either you need to show utility bills, which she doesn’t have, there’s a long waiting list, or they won’t take pets.

Other readers suggested Sevilla apply for disability insurance, but she admitted she has been reluctant to apply for any additional government help for fear of getting cuffed and dragged back to prison.

Don’t worry, I told her. That’s done.

“Don’t worry,” Sevilla sniffed. “That’s what everybody kept telling me back when. Don’t worry, you won’t get arrested. Don’t worry, you won’t get convicted. They’ll never send you to prison.”

Sevilla’s plan for the weekend was to read her mail and consider the housing offers. She told me she doesn’t think she can accept the thousands of dollars offered to her, but she’ll accept commissions for her artwork. She worries, though, about keeping up with the orders.

On Friday afternoon, after a couple of days of tracking down Sevilla’s records on the phone with Chicago, I told her that according to the court, there’s no outstanding warrant as she feared. It was dropped years ago.

“Oh my God, what a relief that is,” she said.

She planned to splurge on dinner, and instead of her usual Sunday night in a Motel 6, she was going to live it up all weekend.

*

Lee Sevilla can be reached at Box 5854, Playa del Rey, CA 90296.

Reach the columnist at steve.lopez@latimes.com and read previous columns at

latimes.com/lopez.


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