A federal judge ventured from his chambers and into the dusty streets of a migrant housing encampment Thursday as he debated whether to grant a government motion to order drastic repairs or shut the place down.
Flanked by gun-toting federal marshals and the occasional stray dog, U.S. District Judge Stephen G. Larson spent more than an hour walking the narrow, muddy streets of the settlement, which as many as 4,000 farmworkers call home.
A court reporter, a bailiff, and an entourage of attorneys, sheriff's deputies and reporters followed Larson from trailer to trailer as a private code inspector _ who wore protective booties _ pointed out unsecured propane tanks, thickets of twisted wiring, unstable foundations, standing water and exposed electrical outlets.
The judge, dressed in a dark suit, dress shoes and a long trench coat, said little during the rare tour, but set a hearing for early January. He was accompanied by U.S. Attorney Thomas O'Brien and Bureau of Indian Affairs official James Fletcher, who are suing to close the park.
"It's very sad that there isn't proper housing for these folks to live in," said Fletcher, superintendent of the BIA's Southern California Agency. "We need to have them in proper housing, with proper sewer and proper water so they won't get sick."
The park is on Torres Martinez Indian land in the fertile Coachella Valley, about 130 miles southeast of Los Angeles, and is exempt from state and local safety codes because of its sovereign status. It is owned by Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians member Harvey Duro Sr.
About 4,000 migrant workers live there during peak harvest season, picking some of the nearly $1 billion worth of table grapes, dates, chili peppers and other crops from the region's heavily irrigated fields.
Local officials are concerned that closing the park would leave many residents _ who make as little as $15,000 a year _ homeless in an area that already has a shortage of affordable housing.
On Thursday, the normally bustling streets were empty and many trailers were shuttered with their front gates locked. Groups of mangy dogs roamed among the trailers as a bulldozer widened and groomed the streets and workers collected trash in pickup trucks.
The few tenants who were home said they didn't want the park to close because they couldn't afford to live elsewhere. Residents pay Duro about $275 in rent, but some have said the monthly bill can soar above $500 for water and electricity that often goes out.
"We'll be in the street," said Adolfo Bacilio, 50, who fits seven people in his trailer. "I haven't tried to get another house because I have no money. He waits for me for the rent up to two or three months, and he doesn't kick me out."
At a hearing last week, Larson ordered Duro to get federal permits for the 23 businesses and more than 300 trailers in the park within 60 days. Duro said after the tour that he has made many repairs and continues to work to improve conditions. He said some tenants have stopped paying him rent because they believe the park will close.
"I'm just trying to help here, and it seems like they just want to do the opposite," Duro said. "If they want corrections, why don't they help me pump some money into this place if they want to see change, instead of just condemning me?"
His attorney, Scott Zundel, also said all the bad publicity surrounding the park has made it difficult to get utilities to make improvements because the BIA has told them the site will shut down.
"I would rather live here than be homeless," Zundel said after the hearing. "If all I could afford was this rent, I would live here. To my knowledge, there's no record of any health issues here by any of the tenants."
The conflict between Duro and the federal government began in the late 1990s, when local officials began cracking down on illegal trailer parks hidden away on land in rural Riverside County.
Duro opened 40 acres of his land on the reservation to the migrant workers being displaced. With trailers in tow, the workers flocked there _ and kept coming.
In July, a fire destroyed some trailers and displaced 120 residents, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs paid for a two-day independent inspection that launched the government's latest drive to shut the park down.
That inspection found sewage wastewater several inches deep, dead rodents, swarms of flies, and animal feces, as well as inadequate drinking water, a jerry-rigged electrical system, severe overcrowding and fire hazards, according to court papers.
The U.S. attorney's office and the BIA sued Duro several months later after a judge declined to reopen a 2003 case that sought repairs to electric, sewage and plumbing systems there.