By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
By Charles Lam
Photo by Jack GouldA county inspector driving along Trabuco Canyon Road a few weeks ago spotted a dump truck carrying a load of fill dirt. Because the county is cracking down on illegal grading in Trabuco Canyon and other parts of the county's backcountry, the loaded truck naturally piqued the inspector's interest. So he followed it. The truck led him onto Trabuco Creek Road, a rutted dirt track that runs to Holy Jim Canyon, and then onto an equally rutted turnoff that crosses Trabuco Creek and enters the Mitchell Ranch, a rustic 150 acres sprawling across the brown hills and through oak-choked arroyos.
What the inspector found there was not the simple case of illegal grading he thought he was pursuing. What he discovered, instead, was the other side of Orange County.
Once across Trabuco Creek, the dirt lane entering the Mitchell Ranch forks. If you take the left fork, you wind back and forth to the top of a hill upon which sits the main house, a luxurious affair of lush landscaping and wide verandas giving an excellent view of the surrounding canyon lands. But forget the main house for a moment. Follow the route taken by the county inspector and take the right fork instead. That road rises gently and curves into a narrow arroyo forested with sycamores and oaks. Here you will find as the inspector did a community that does not appear on any maps, population about 120. Most are families with children; the rest are single men. Most are Mexican, and most are undocumented. And they all live on the Mitchell Ranch illegally.
You know, of course, that Orange County is a place of great wealth:expensive cars, towers of glass and steel that gleam in the sun, big houses, well-tended houses surrounded by emerald lawns and banks of flowers cared for by gardeners. On the Mitchell Ranch, the homes of the residents consist of small trailers or shacks roughed together from scavenged lumber and camper shells and corrugated tin. Children play a game of tag along the dirt pathway. A man boils a kettle of water over an open fire. Chickens peck for feed. There is no electricity and no plumbing. Water for washing and drinking is carried by hoses strung together from a spigot at the big house. There was a time when the tenants had no bathroom facilities and relieved themselves, by common agreement, in the trees and brush a few yards from the campsite; today, they visit several battered portable outhouses scattered along the road. The residents own their dwellings but pay rent for the land. The rent varies. A single man living alone pays $135 per month. A married couple with a child or two pays $250 per month. An extended family of children and several adults pays as much as $800 per month. Rent is paid to the property owner in cash; speaking conservatively, this may amount to $100,000 per year.
The owner is Eve U. Mitchell. Now in her late 80s, Mitchell has owned the ranch for 45 years, living on it for most of that time. Many of the residents have lived here for years, and the community itself may be 23 years old. We know that because this isn't Mitchell's first run-in with the law. In 1988, county officials discovered similar conditions and ordered Mitchell and a neighbor, Sam Porter, to evict "transients" living on their ranches in unlicensed, substandard housing lacking electricity and running water. At the time, a resident told The Orange County Register he had been paying Mitchell $150 per month in rent for six years; other residents indicated people had been living on the property in similar circumstances for 12 years.
A few years after the county ordered her to shut down her Tijuana-like shantytown, Mitchell narrowly avoided public scrutiny again. In the winter of 1995, heavy rains washed out the road to her house. A Register reporter visited Mitchell and other canyon residents to describe how they were coping with the flood; the reporter explained that "local laborers" fashioned an "improvised footbridge" to provide temporary access. The "local laborers" were not otherwise identified.
Here is a question you can debate with yourself: Is the Mitchell Ranch simply Orange County's libertarian spirit at its best—willing tenants making a voluntary deal with a landlord so that they can raise their kids in the bucolic splendor of Orange County's majestic canyon wilds —or is it a symbol that America hasn't learned much about its poor, many of whom live in conditions remarkably like those in The Grapes of Wrath?
Whatever your answer, county officials decided that at a minimum, there were serious code violations. The county planning official who discovered the shantytown returned the following day with a district attorney's investigator. In short order, more inspectors showed up, documenting numerous sanitary hazards, fire dangers and substandard housing. There was some concern that human waste had contaminated a nearby creek. Officials posted notices informing residents they must move out by Oct. 1.
But this is a kinder, gentler Orange County: a county task force was formed to help the residents find other housing.
The district attorney's office began an investigation. No one is talking much about the details of that investigation. Nor is anyone offering an answer to the biggest question of all: How could such a thing come about in one of the richest counties in America?