Rancher chooses jail over displacing homeless
November 23, 2009
BY KAREN VELIE
Rancher Dan De Vaul was led away in handcuffs this morning after electing to go to jail for 90 days rather than accept San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge John Trice’s offer of five years of probation.
De Vaul, who will also pay a $1,000 fine, told a packed courtroom that he simply could not abandon the residents of Sunny Acres who needed a place to live.
“I am willing to go to jail to keep people in places that are not to code,” De Vaul said. “If I take probation, they can come out the next day and say ‘throw the people out or we can arrest you for probation violations.’”
De Vaul’s attorney Jeff Stulberg asked those in the courtroom who would not have a place to sleep or food to eat without De Vaul to raise their hands. About 20 people did so.
Trice asked De Vaul to accept the county’s terms of probation, which included removing all but two vehicles from the property, removing mobile homes, allowing searches of the property, and forcing people living in the mobile homes or storage units to vacate.
De Vaul refused the judge’s request and was subsequently arrested, handcuffed and taken to jail.
“If Mr. De Vaul is wanting to go to jail, the county has no choice but to accommodate him,” said San Luis Obispo County Deputy District Attorney Craig VanRooyen. “If he goes to jail, it is because he wants to go to jail.”
VanRooyan contended that De Vaul’s refusals to work with the county and clean up his property had left them no choice. He asked De Vaul repeatedly to accept probation, work with the county and comply with government codes.
De Vaul runs Sunny Acres, a clean and sober living facility, on his ranch on Los Osos Valley Road just outside San Lios Obispo’s city limits. He has housed between 30 to 75 low income and homeless people on the 72 acre property at any given time over the past nine years.
Those who can afford the charges pay $300 a month for room and board. Indigent lodgers either work in the kitchen, garden the six-acre vegetable patch, fix old cars or chop wood for their keep.
In August, rental receipts totaled $3,500, of that approximately $1,500 went to utilities, insurance and supplies. In addition, De Vaul said he paid a total of $500 a week in wages to those residents who work for their rent at Sunny Acres.
“We cost taxpayers nothing,” De Vaul said. “We run this on a shoestring.”
For more than 10 years, three neighbors of the rusty vehicle-littered property, including former San Luis Obispo Councilwoman Christine Mulholland, have lodged complaints accusing De Vaul of code violations.
After Stulberg put out a press release questioning the county’s reasons for the July 23 raid of De Vaul’s property, Trice issued a gag order that silenced prosecutors, De Vaul’s attorneys and any possible witnesses. Trice’s highly unusual gag order has the honor of being the first ever issued in a misdemeanor case in San Luis Obispo County.
On Sept. 21, a jury found De Vaul guilty of fire and safety code violations when he converted a barn into a shelter. Combined, the two misdemeanors carry a fine of up to $1,000 and/or one year in county jail.
In October, Stulberg filed a motion for a new trial after a juror said she reluctantly agreed to vote guilty on the two counts after Trice reprimanded her and a fellow juror harassed her.
Last week, Superior Court Judge Michael Duffy disagreed with De Vaul’s lawyers’ arguments that misconduct by Trice had tainted the jury. After oral arguments, Duffy immediately began reading from a previously prepared statement, leading observers to believe he had written his decision before hearing arguments.
“I refused probation because the first rule of probation is you have to obey all laws,” De Vaul said. “We have places people are living in that are not to code. I do not want to kick them out.”