Jeff Jardine

Hoarder turns once-magical Riverbank yard into eyesore

Ellen Caudill’s front yard once seemed magical. Neighbors will tell you it used to be the nicest in the 4000 block of rural Mesa Drive, just east of Riverbank.

She decorated it elaborately for the holidays. She adorned it at other times so attractively with animal and other figures that parents would drive by to entertain their children.

“The place was immaculate,” said Greg Smith, who lives about 300 yards away along Highway 108.

Not anymore, though. Huge piles of junk and garbage, old Christmas trees and every other kind of debris imaginable now occupy virtually every inch of space, from the white board fence at the front of the property to the house itself, as a photo from Google Earth’s satellite depicts. Neighbors complain of rodents and other vermin, and of odors emanating from the lot. Safety officials proclaim it a fire hazard. Stanislaus County’s Department of Environmental Resources last year posted a cleanup order on the property.

“It’s a very sad case,” said Jami Aggers, Environmental Resources’ director. “It’s a case of mental illness, and one form of mental illness is hoarding.”

The department is following a tedious and painfully slow process aimed at addressing the problem without depriving Caudill of her due process rights. But enough is enough. The electricity has been shut off to the home, Aggers said. That means there is no running water (and therefore no functioning shower, sinks or toilets) because the water source is a well that requires an electric pump.

The neighbors find it sad as well, more because of the owner’s declining mental state than the horrid condition of the property. But that, too.

“As much as I’d like to see the property get cleaned, I’d really like to see her get the help she needs,” said Courtney Schmitt, who lives down the road in the house where her husband was raised and where his parents lived for decades.

The Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department has responded to 22 calls for service to the address over the past five years, 11 this year alone. Deputies have been summoned by neighbors claiming aggressive and agitated behavior on Caudill’s part, as well as calls by Caudill herself. Residents have watched the place transform from a home with gorgeous landscaping into a landfill.

“(Caudill) used to have the prettiest house on the block,” said neighbor Tami Nickolauson, who lives with her mother just down the street in the family home of more than 40 years. “She was always out there gardening.”

But things began to change several years ago, Nickolauson said, when Caudill began going to garage and yard sales, buying stuff and putting it out in the front yard. And since Caudill’s husband, Kurt, died in an auto accident in July 2014, neighbors say she’s been bringing in trash by the shopping cartload. She can be pleasant and talkative one minute, Nickolauson said, then angry the next.

“I called mental health a couple of years ago,” neighbor Greg Smith said. “They said they couldn’t do anything. Nobody wanted to get involved.”

Except they did. The county began working on the case in May 2015 after receiving complaints from the neighbors. Fourteen months later, in late July, the issue made its way to the county’s Nuisance Abatement Hearing Board. A report details the steps taken, including a visit from Adult Protective Services officials who determined Caudill could still take care of herself.

“They cannot force any type of aid or services due to the fact Ellen is an adult and refused services,” the report claims.

But code enforcement inspector Robert Miramontes, who wrote the report, could do something about the blight. He wrote that when he asked her to voluntarily clean up the mess, she claimed the county was harassing her and that she’d hired an attorney.

“I gave Ellen my business card and requested a call from her attorney,” Miramontes stated.

He inspected the property in September 2015 and issued a formal cleanup order, followed by fines of $100 and $200 for failing to act. Meanwhile, the report says, county Behavioral Health and Recovery Services officials had visited the property to evaluate her. This past April, Miramontes learned that the property faced foreclosure, with a sale scheduled for June that was delayed until July 18. Three days before the sale, Caudill’s brother suddenly brought the mortgage current and promised county officials he would clean up the place. At a Nuisance Abatement hearing on July 28, the board gave him some time to do so.

“He brought in a Dumpster and made a little progress, then it stopped,” Aggers said. “We made it clear he had to make significant progress over the (Labor Day) weekend.”

That hasn’t happened. Now, if the Caudills refuse to allow the county to clean it up, officials will obtain an inspection warrant allowing them to begin cleaning up the property in three weeks or less at a cost estimated at $15,400. They will place a lien against the home to recover the cost when the property is sold.

“He got a couple of vehicles out of there and put the Dumpster in, and now she’s decorated the Dumpster,” neighbor Smith said. (Campaign signs for U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham and 12th District Assembly candidate Ken Vogel are among the adornments.)

The other residents along Mesa Drive simply are anxious for the mess to go away. Schmitt said the property is so well known locally that when she tells people where she lives, they reply, “Oh, you’re by the hoarder’s house.”

And, Schmitt said, a friend who works at the elementary school down the street told her she overhears kids talking about things they’ve seen in front of Caudill’s place.

Indeed, a yard that once drew families who brought their children by to see enchanted settings is now a tourist attraction for all the wrong reasons.