At the July 21st Visalia City Council Meeting, the council voted to levy a fine of $29,556 on Abigail Trevino’s residence in southwest Visalia for code and law enforcement violations. According to Tracy Robertshaw, neighborhood preservation manager, Trevino’s case is the exception. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, home owners comply when they get their first letter of a possible fine for a code violation.” said Robertshaw.
Trevino’s fine originated from years of police visits and substandard living condition of her home. Half is for administrative fees as a result of code violations at her home. The other half is for recovery fees for police expenses during a February raid at her home.
Trevino’s fine and mortgage add up to more than her house is worth. She earns on average $20,000 a year so she does not have money on hand to pay. Whether Abigail Trevino will walk away from her house, no one knows, probably not even her. But how she arrived here is less of a mystery.
Trevino said that the trouble started in 2005 when the police showed up with a search warrant. Her middle son and his friend had hidden two guns in her oldest son’s bedroom. When the police showed up, they found the guns and arrested her oldest son who had been previously convicted on drug charges.
She revealed to me that her middle son “started running around with the wrong crowd,” but when pressed, she admitted that her son was in a gang. Her three sons have a deadbeat dad and she carries an immense amount of guilt about how they turned out. Ironically, the oldest son ended up going to jail for two years on charges of illegal gun possession while the middle son involved in gangs went free.
In 2007, 2010 and 2013, the police were called out to her house to investigate gang activity or serve a search warrant. During each visit there were no arrests and nothing was found, but the police did call code enforcement each time for unsanitary conditions or health hazards. From the outside of her property, except for the eight cars, her home looked well kept. From the inside it is clear that the family struggles with hoarding. Code enforcement found unsanitary conditions, several health hazards and an illegal pot grow. Her youngest son has a medical marijuana permit but that didn’t cover the number of plants found.
Each time Robertshaw worked with Trevino to get the house up to code with mixed results. Abigail would clear out some of the garbage, and get rid of the marijuana plants, but then slip back after a few months later into non-compliance.
None of this prepared Trevino for what was going to happen the morning of February 1st of this year. At 6am there was a rumbling like an earthquake outside of Abigail’s home.
Little did she know that a SWAT team was at her front door with a search warrant looking for evidence of a gang-related attempted murder. Obviously the police were looking for her middle son, but he had moved out the year before. When the police started to smash through her front door, her youngest son screamed for them to stop so he could open it instead. Right as he got to the entry way the door broke open and flew past him.
The police handcuffed Abigail, her two sons and a roommate and put them in separate patrol cars for questioning. There were 20 police cars, one armored car, six police in riot gear with full body shields, and many uniformed police. They did not present Abigail with a search warrant nor did they explain why they were there. The police just peppered her with questions about different cars she might have seen. The police did let Abigail keep her lap dog, Ducky, in the patrol car with her so the dog wouldn’t freak out in the house.
During the search, the police threw her belongings out of boxes and drawers, broke expensive items, tore the insulation out of her attic leaving it spread over her bed and bedroom. They took $3,000 that they found in the pocket of a sweatshirt and have not returned it. As in the previous three times, the police did not find what they came looking for.
But they did find some jars with marijuana residue on them, a product of her youngest son’s use of medical marijuana. The police then arrested her two sons. They were not charged with anything and were released from jail a few days later.
After a terrifying morning, and her two sons being thrown in jail, she received a bill for $12,066.60.
Trevino was not being charged for the raid itself but rather as a result of the 62 times the police had been called to her house since 2005. The fine was an effort to curb the resident’s bad behavior and to recoup some of the expenses for past police officer time and resources.
Again, after the raid, the police called code enforcement because of several hazards found in the home. As a result of Trevino’s continual code violations, she was charged $14,802.
On April 8th of this year, Trevino’s property was inspected and deemed compliant. Her case was closed but the fine for the code enforcement and police of $26,869 remained unpaid. Trevino failed to set up a payment plan or appeal their decision so the fine was placed on the tax roll which incurs a ten percent finance charge, bringing the total to $29,556.24.
During the city council meeting to decide on the amount of her fine, emotions ran high. Trevino testified that she did make calls to the city and was not in town for the appeal date. She also had two of her neighbors at the meeting, one of whom spoke on her behalf.
Chief of Police Colleen Mestas was very sympathetic to the challenges faced by Trevino, a single mother with boys, but stated that the morning of February 1st was justified. The SWAT team was called to arrest a suspect for an attempted murder. Chief Mestas also explained that the police are required to have a search warrant, which they had, but they are not obligated to show it to the residents.
The city council had two choices; to charge the entire amount or cut the fine in half and have Trevino make payments. For the sake of the neighborhood four of the council members voted to charge the full amount.
Council Member Greg Collins spoke sympathetically of Ms. Trevino’s situation and thought a lot about his vote later that night. His final decision to support the fine was based on the neighborhood. “If I were a neighbor I would be upset. Maybe it would be better for her to move.”
Council Member Any Shuklian mused out loud that Trevino had actually been out of compliance since September of 2013. At $500 a day, she should have been charged $70,000. The municipal code for Trevino’s violations allows the city to charge $500 a day with a cap of 30 days, which is $14,300.
Vice Mayor Warren Gubler was the lone vote against the fine, preferring to cut the amount in half and setting up payments that the homeowner might be able to afford. According to County Tax Assessor Rita Woodward, the city could always change its mind in the future and cancel the fine or amend it.
With Trevino juggling whether to pay her mortgage or electricity bill, it’s unknown whether she would be able to pay the fine even if it were cut in half.
How do the neighbors feel about what the city has labeled a “nuisance” property? Well, that depends on who you talk to. It’s an all-American neighborhood with a mix of professions, ethnicities, and ages. A sheriff lives three doors down from Trevino’s house and he understandably wants her to leave.
Other neighbors see Abigail as an asset to the community, helping out those in need and volunteering at her church. One neighbor chased me down the street to tell me that “everyone on the block loves her.” He said that Abigail is a wonderful lady and that he didn’t agree with the city’s decision.
Among the residents I spoke with, there was a huge divide in opinion between those who had lived in the neighborhood for years versus the newcomers. The newcomers loved her and wanted the city instead to shut down the apparent meth house down the street. Those who remember the drive-by shootings and possible gang activities wanted her to leave, and according to the city staff, were afraid for their lives.
When asked what else the city could have done in Trevino’s case, Robertshaw stated, “What haven’t we done? I thought outside the box for the first 17 code violations. For the 18th, we decided to enforce the full weight of the fines to get her to comply.” Robertshaw explained that she has devoted many hours to work with Trevino but that, “she has taken advantage of our kindness. At some point she needs to take accountability.”
The question is: Should Visalia charge such a large amount that Trevino will lose her home? The city’s goal was to curb her family’s bad behavior, possibly encourage her to move, and recoup some of the police and administrative costs, none of which can now happen. Until 2020, when the home will be sold by the county because of the tax lien, Trevino has nothing to lose, and it is unclear how the city will deal with code violations at her residence in the future.
As a city employee for Exeter, Collins has been through a similar situation. He said that Visalia has very few options now if there are future code violations at Trevino’s residence. Trevino cannot be evicted because she owns the home.
While sitting on her couch I looked around at some of her memorabilia. Above what might have been an entertainment center overburdened with a life of collecting papers and knickknacks was a colorized picture of her mother and a gold-framed picture of her three sons in a more innocent time. Abigail’s American dream of working hard, raising a family, and buying a home, for her, had turned into an American tragedy.