Ageda Camargo was sitting in her shady frontyard, wondering aloud if jail is as bad as it sounds.
“I’m thinking of writing Martha Stewart to ask what it’s like,” said the soft-spoken 83-year-old. “Do they put you in a cell? I wouldn’t want to be in a cell.”
These weren’t idle worries.
Camargo, a grandmother of six, has run afoul of La Quinta’s code enforcement in a big way, big enough to put her behind bars.
The city near Palm Springs insists that one of her three bedrooms is really an illegally converted garage. She insists it’s just a bedroom.
“What right do they have to call this a garage?” she asked, walking around the room with its cabinets, sink, bathroom and refrigerator. “I never called it a garage. How do they know it’s not a bedroom? If this is a garage, then they owe me a bedroom.”
For 18 months now, code enforcement officials have been after Camargo to turn the bedroom back into a garage. Insisting that her home is her castle, she has ignored more than a dozen warnings.
Her resistance crumbled last week when a local judge ordered her to comply or face possible jail time.
“It’s traumatic. It’s like tearing my house down,” she said. “I bought this place 30 years ago, and it was always a bedroom. And now they are trying to shove this down my throat.”
City building and safety director Tom Hartung said that an illegally converted garage poses health and safety risks but that going to court is a last resort.
“To say we should not enforce the ordinances based on the demographics of the owner of the property is unrealistic,” he said. “We can’t do that.”
Hartung said that in his 25-year career, he’s seen only one person jailed over a violation.
“I think we are very fair,” he said. “I don’t think you will find a more reasonable department.”
Camargo grew up on a family farm in nearby Thermal. In 1977, she moved to Avenida Montezuma in La Quinta, attracted by the isolation and soaring views of the nearby Santa Rosa Mountains.
“I was crazy about those mountains,” she said, relaxing under a vine-covered pergola in her frontyard. “There were no neighbors then, nothing but sand dunes. I loved it.”
Her troubles began when a code enforcement officer spotted a light shining from her garage into the street, a code violation. He noticed her trash cans in front of the house (another violation) and weeds poking through the concrete (yet another one).
But what really caught his eye were the garage doors. They were firmly fixed in the driveway and didn’t open. Windows lined one side wall of the attached structure.
“He began yelling orders at me and said he wanted to bring in inspectors,” Camargo said. “He wanted to come in, and I said, ‘No way am I going to let you in. Are you telling me this isn’t America anymore?’ ”
Undeterred, code enforcement sent letter after letter warning that continued defiance could mean a fine or jail. The department gave her repeated extensions to undo the conversion. Still she didn’t budge.
“I know rules are rules, but this is harassment,” said Mike Head, Camargo’s son. “She has undergone three surgeries in the last two years. She had breast cancer. She had brain surgery, which took her a year to recover from, and I still think she’s a little dingy from that.”
On a recent morning, in thick glasses and a long floral dress, she seemed more anxious than “dingy.”
“I never had a garage,” said Camargo, who parks in the driveway. “I don’t need one or want one.”
Nevertheless, the city finally took the gloves off. Code enforcement showed up recently with three inspectors, two police officers and a search warrant.
Jarrod Head, Camargo’s 29-year-old grandson, who lives with her, was sleeping in the disputed bedroom when they arrived.
“They pushed right in,” he said. “I said, ‘What’s this about?’ but they were busy taking pictures. When I asked why they were taking pictures, the police asked me for my ID. I asked why they needed my ID, and they put me in handcuffs.”
Camargo was indignant.
“I didn’t like to see my grandson handcuffed,” she said. “The inspector went into the bedroom and said, ‘I can tell this has been added on.’ They gave me two weeks to put it into compliance.”
Mark Moran, a member of the Riverside County Advisory Council on Aging, called the situation “elder abuse.” He filed a complaint with Adult Protective Services, which has opened a case.
“You would think Ageda Camargo was hiding Osama bin Laden in the house, given the way they have come after her,” he said.
City prosecutor Noam Duzman denies that La Quinta is targeting the elderly woman. He said that the city has “bent over backward” to resolve the dispute but that Camargo has not been forthcoming and refuses to abide by the law.
“She believes that since she bought the house this way, it isn’t her responsibility,” he said. “The county and city code says if you build or convert something, you need a permit. I get the feeling she felt if she stuck it out long enough we’d drop this -- but we won’t because it’s a public safety issue.”
Last week Camargo was in court. The judge ordered her to pay a $3,000 fine, which she said she couldn’t afford. She asked for the other option -- 30 days in jail.
“She insisted on jail time instead,” Duzman said. “I went on record in front of the judge to say that the city did not recommend this.”
The estimated cost of fixing the problem is $10,000. Camargo said she lives on Social Security and income from a reverse mortgage.
If the work is done by Jan. 12, the fine and threat of jail will be dropped.
“I don’t think she should go to jail. She is an elderly woman,” the prosecutor said. “I do believe, however, that she should be subject to the law just like everyone else.”