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County raids homeless camp

To reach the secret place they call the Cave, its denizens must climb a ladder toward a small, hard-to-notice opening in the tall concrete slab that helps hold up the 10 Freeway. They must squeeze beneath a rusty metal grating, balance on a ledge and descend a second ladder into thick, dead air and darkness. This is home, a vast, vault-like netherworld, strewn with garbage and syringes.

Richard Dafoe likes it here, even with 3-foot cobwebs and the constant thrum of freeway traffic overhead. For the decade or so he has lived here, he has found it a reliable sanctuary against daylight, police and other people.

“It’s basically a safe place to be because the cops can’t get into it,” said Dafoe, 56, known as the Wizard for his ample white beard and wild hair. “They’re scared.”

About the size of two high school gyms placed side by side, the Cave is both an invisible squatter’s camp and a shooting gallery for drug users. The California Department of Transportation has tried repeatedly to seal it shut. Police didn’t realize people were still living there until March, when a USC journalism student researching homelessness spotted the opening in the underpass near the San Gabriel River in Baldwin Park.

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This week, authorities are clearing out the Cave, evicting the few people who live there and trying to close it off for good.

On Wednesday, as a team of deputies and Caltrans workers stood by in protective face masks, a circular saw began cutting away one of the metal doors along the north-facing wall, deemed the safest entrance.

Guns drawn, deputies stepped through the opening into the darkness. Flashlight beams picked up mounds of scrap metal, bicycle parts, knives, syringes and an M-16 ammo clip. They found thick sections of concrete wall had been chiseled away to create little rooms. They found a man sleeping near the rotting carcass of what appeared to be a cat.

Sheriff’s Deputy Paul Archambault, who was leading the sweep, found a ladder and climbed up to inspect a series of overhead crawl spaces.

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He pointed his flashlight.

“It looks like a baby was living in here. It looks like they had a nursery or something. There’s a bunch of rattles and toys and stuff,” he said. “I think they put the babies up there to keep them away from the rats.”

After the search, standing in the open air and the sunlight, he took off his mask and dripped sweat. “There were two nurseries,” he said. “There was a dead cat in one of them. It looked like they had skinned it and ate it. They had a little barbecue set up. It’s just wicked in there.” He estimated that 30 squatters had been living there.

Archambault described it as “a hidden city” and said he had not seen anything like it in 27 years with the Sheriff’s Department.

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On Thursday, Caltrans engineers assessed the freeway’s structure, and contractors hauled out piles of garbage.

Nearby, Dafoe was gathering up his belongings and stuffing them into a suitcase, wondering where he’d go next.

“Somewhere around here. It’s a big river,” he said. Wherever it is, he said, he prefers to stay out of public view. “I don’t want people to feel uneasy because I’m around, like kids,” he said. Dafoe, who describes himself as a former freight handler from Nebraska, said the baby paraphernalia found in the Cave is just bric-a-brac scavenged from recycling expeditions and that children have not lived there.

He said that only five people have been living there recently but that over the last decade or so, there have been dozens.

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At nearby San Angelo Park, booths were set up to help homeless people find shelter. Doctors checked vital signs, and hot dogs were distributed. “This is not to take away their home, this is to give a home,” Sheriff’s Department spokesman Steve Whitmore said.

Caltrans workers say they’ve cleared out the Cave several times before, and that the freeway lights overhead are out because thieves have stolen the electrical wire, scavenging for copper to sell.

Don Griffiths, 47, the Caltrans bridge crew chief for L.A. County, said he’s helped clean out 30 or 40 hidden dungeons like this in the last 15 years. “I’ve seen nastier ones, smellier ones, but this is the biggest one,” he said.

Caltrans workers today will seal every opening they can find with quarter-inch sections of welded flat-plate steel.

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“Nothing’s impregnable with these guys. We do the best we can,” Griffiths said. “They can steal a sledgehammer and beat on it all night long, and nobody can hear them.”

Dafoe doubted that whatever Caltrans did to seal the Cave would be enough to keep people out. In time, he’d find another way in. “I don’t say we’re gonna go in right away, but it’s gonna happen sooner or later,” he said. “The only way they can keep people out of the Cave is by cementing the whole thing in.”

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christopher.goffard@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Corina Knoll and photographer Francine Orr contributed to this report.


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