Face-off over converted garage could land woman, 83, in jail

By | October 19, 2008

Face-off over converted garage could land woman 83 in jail

La Quinta, Calif., resident says the space was a bedroom when she bought the house 30 years ago, but the city says it’s her responsibility to undo the illegal conversion. … 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.” … “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,” Duzman 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.” – lat

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