A 72-year-old woman who was found dead on her porch in Santa Ana — a kitten in a carrier on her lap and 40-plus stray cats roaming on the property behind her — was one of the worst cases of hoarding that county firefighters said they had ever seen.
Rita Corpin's property was so clogged with overgrown brush, trash and stacked items that it took emergency crews three hours on Tuesday night to reach her body and then clear a path to get it out, officials said. To do so, firefighters had to remove two cars, mountains of debris and cut through overgrown trees and vegetation.
"We put [hoarding] into Levels 1 through 5, with 1 being bad and 5 being 'Oh my God,'" said Darren Johnson, an inspector with the Orange County Fire Authority who also works on a task force that helps hoarders. "This was absolutely a 5-plus. It had everything we're concerned about."
The home was so stuffed with litter that Corpin lived in her truck — a yellow Toyota pickup with a camper shell, officials said.
The dozens of cats she fed stayed mostly outside, though authorities found animal and human feces inside the house, along with mold, trash and flammable material. Two dogs were taken by animal control officers. A hazardous-materials team had to be called in.
Her neighbor, Mary Campa, 78, said Corpin retired from teaching world history at a Garden Grove high school about six years ago and was knowledgeable about plants and gardening.
"She could tell you anything about plants that you wanted to know," she said.
But the trash she accumulated on her properties, as well as the stray cats, were a constant strain on her neighbors.
Juan Coria, 21, lived next door to Corpin for about four years and said the trash started to become a problem when it began to creep into his backyard.
He described Corpin as friendly, but when neighbors talked to her about the cardboard, trash and plants that had overrun her home, she would get angry.
"She'd get mad and ignore you," Coria said.
Corpin used a Jeep she parked on the street outside her property to feed cats at her two other homes about five minutes away, police said. At night, she would drive up, honk the horn and dozens of feral cats would emerge from the overgrown brush to feed.
She may have had about 40 cats running around her primary home, Coria said, but she really only owned one, a cat named Mitzy.
"We would hear her calling out the cat's name at night," he said.
When Corpin stopped picking up her newspapers and feeding the cats, Campa suspected something was wrong.
"I called the gardener and he came and found her," Campa said.
Johnson said his county task force had no files on the woman and had not received any report from friends or family on her living conditions.
As officials scoured Corpin's home and the other two properties, her brother, David Corpin, arrived, having learned of the death from his daughter, who saw it on the news. He said he last spoke with his sister a week or two ago, but added that they weren't close.
When asked if she had any medical issues, David Corpin said: "She wouldn't complain."
Police said they have been to her home six times in the last decade after receiving complaints about stray animals, but she refused to let them on the property. Each time Santa Ana code enforcement officials issued a notice or fine, she responded by doing the minimum to comply.
Officials now have to clear out the mess. Police said they will trap the cats, although they had not immediately figured out what to do with them.
"It's a sad story," Johnson said. "It might not make sense to you, but to them, stuff is power. The more the better. In this case, we're too late.… I think we could've helped her."