Paul Wellman (file)
Santa Barbara City Fire responds to a Quarantina Street storage yard fire (Nov. 17, 2011)
Who’s to Blame for Fatal Fire?
Investigators, Survivor Justin Mezey Search for Truth in Suspicious Blaze that Killed Homeless Woman
Thursday, December 22, 2011
Gloria was killed in a small but intense fire that flashed through one of Santa Barbara’s Lower Eastside storage yards last month. Responders found the homeless woman’s body where she was sleeping, outside on a mattress laid across plywood propped up on cinderblocks. Gloria’s death and the fire itself, according to investigators and the surviving victim, are suspicious, and the probe into who or what started the blaze is ongoing. So far, little information has been publicly released — even Gloria’s full name is being withheld until her family in Oklahoma can be tracked down and notified. She was known on the streets as Gigi.
Justin Mezey, who says he helps homeless women in distress to make good with God, rents the section of the 2 South Quarantina Street property that erupted in flames the evening of November 17. He lived full-time in the fenced 10-by-60-foot lot, flanked by other squatters, contractors, and scrap-metal artists, all of them nestled in the often overlooked, occasionally dangerous industrial corner of the city that reeks of processing trash. When the fire began, Mezey said he was sleeping in his trailer with the TV on. He escaped, but suffered third-degree burns on 25 percent of his body, only recently returning to Santa Barbara from a Los Angeles treatment center.
“Her screams woke me up,” said Mezey, gingerly wiping tears with a hurt hand. “If she didn’t wake me, I’d be dead,” he went on, explaining why he would only meet in an out-of-the-way location to talk: Someone is trying to kill him. Looking skyward and sobbing heavily, Mezey cried above the sound of surf and seagulls at Leadbetter Beach, “I lost my Gigi! I told her she’d be safe! Do you know how much that weighs on me? How much do I have to carry, Lord?”
By Paul Wellman
A San Marcos High School graduate born and raised in Santa Barbara, Mezey joined the Coast Guard’s Search and Rescue Drug Enforcement squad when he was 19. He served four years until he was injured and discharged. He’s since split his time between Santa Barbara and Mexico, summering down south and fishing the rest of the year here. (Mezey recently started living in Santa Barbara year-round, calling Mexico too dangerous.) A lifelong ocean lover and staple of Santa Barbara’s waterfront, Mezey has also been involved in various mariculture projects throughout the years. He has a slip in the harbor, moors boats in Fool’s Anchorage, and has a claim offshore from Hendry’s Beach where he’s toiled with shellfish harvesting. The father of two grown sons, he’s been married twice.
Even though approximately 40 years have passed, Mezey’s time in the Coast Guard still haunts him. “I’m not happy with what I did in the military,” he said. “I was born and raised Christian. I was told it was against God’s law to take someone’s life.” Mezey wouldn’t elaborate on specifics, only to say, “It was a war time.” To temper his past transgressions with acts of altruism, Mezey says God told him to help abused and drug-addicted homeless women. “I’ve been doing this for the last 25 years,” said Mezey. “And the reason I do this is to seek redemption.” It wasn’t his choice but a path chosen for him. “Do you think that I would go out and seek to deal with these crazy people?” he asked, his demeanor jumping between sorrow, rage, and complacency. “You have to have the patience of Job.”
Mezey, who said he doesn’t drink or do drugs, gives homeless women a place to stay in his yard when shelters reject them, offering food, clothing, counseling, and even financial support for hospital visits and rehab. He claims to have a better success rate than nearby Casa Esperanza. “The women love me,” said Mezey. “I mean, they really love me. I treat them like human beings. I’ve had them lined up trying to get into my place to spend the night. Some nights I had three women soaking wet in my bed when it was raining.” The relationships would sometimes turn physical, Mezey admitted. “I love them all,” he said. “Some more than others. I want to put my arms around all of them.”
Mezey knew Gloria for about two months but said they weren’t dating. “She was a sweet girl,” he said. “She made me laugh.” An alcoholic in an abusive relationship, Gloria — who was in her late forties — would often come to Mezey with black eyes and a swollen face. Mezey said he witnessed his father beat his mother when he was 8 years old and intervened. “I’ll never hit a woman like that, and I can’t stand a man who does,” he said. When Gloria stumbled up to Mezey’s locked gate shortly before 8 p.m. the night she died, she was drunk and had been fighting with her boyfriend. Mezey made her bed and covered her with a blanket, soon retiring to his trailer and nodding off.
Santa Barbara City Fire responds to a Quarantina Street storage yard fire (Nov. 17, 2011)
“All of a sudden, I hear two yells,” Mezey remembered. “I look out my trailer and see a solid wall of flames. It was like Dante’s Inferno.” Mezey’s Coast Guard training kicked in, and he immediately held his breath and dropped to the ground to escape the heat and smoke. He crawled on his hands and knees toward Gloria to save her but couldn’t get close enough. With his legs, buttocks, arms, and scalp on fire, he made a break for the gate, out to the driveway, and — because his phone was burning in the trailer — into his truck, which he drove into the street and laid on the horn until firefighters arrived. “I told them, ‘There’s a girl in there. There’s a girl in there,’” recalled Mezey, breaking down in tears. “She died in two breaths. That’s how fast she died.”
Mezey won’t explain why he believes someone is out to kill him, but does know that he has a lot of enemies, noting his yard’s gate was locked before he went to sleep but was wide open when he escaped. He said he’s unsure if Gigi was collateral damage or if she was a target, as well. Not to be intimidated, however, Mezey explained part of his reason for leaving the hospital early is to find out who started the fire. “No one survives my undivided attention,” he said. “I’m a force to be reckoned with.”
So Say the Streets
Indian Jim has interacted with Mezey a number of times over the years. Homeless for the past decade, Jim said at least six women have confided in him that the fisherman is manipulative and dangerous, a predator who meddles in people’s business and takes justice into his own hands. “This is not a nice guy,” he said. Jim claimed Mezey gives women Valium and money to buy drugs, making them dependent on him so he can control them. He said he saw Gloria moments before she slipped into Mezey’s yard and knew instantly she was the victim when he heard someone was killed in the fire. “We think he did something to her,” Jim said, claiming he witnessed firsthand two arson fires next to Mezey’s lot in the past year.
One of Mezey’s tactics, said Jim, is to get the legal jump on his victims by filing complaints against them before they can do the same to him. Court records show Mezey tried twice — last year and this year — to have a restraining order imposed on a homeless woman named Colleen Divine King after he claimed she attacked him. He was denied both times.
During a separate interview, a formerly homeless woman who wished to remain anonymous out of fear for her safety seconded Jim’s claim that Mezey gives homeless women Valium and that his intentions are more sinister than he lets on. She said she warned the property landlord that Mezey was bound to cause problems. She brought up an incident in December 2010 during which Mezey was arrested for pulling a knife on a man during an argument. According to court filings, Mezey and a man named Raul Sanchez — who works for a roofing company that keeps supplies near Mezey’s trailer — exchanged heated words after Mezey complained Sanchez was blocking the property’s driveway. Sanchez alleged that as the argument escalated, Mezey pulled out a folding knife and began chasing him around his car.
Police soon arrived and interviewed the two men, who have a history of not getting along. After finding a knife in Mezey’s truck — Mezey told officers Sanchez threatened him with the weapon — Mezey was arrested and charged. Mezey pled no contest, but the case was later dismissed, said Kevin Weichbrod with the District Attorney’s Office, explaining that Mezey’s lack of criminal history played a part in the decision. Mezey filed for a restraining order against Sanchez, which the court denied. In all of his legal dealings, Mezey has represented himself.
The anonymous woman brought up the two prior fires, as well. According to her, Mezey set them himself to frame the roofers, some of whom were reportedly sleeping with a prostitute staying with Mezey at the time. The first fire occurred around Christmas last year, the other supposedly in March or April of 2011. The woman claimed Mezey took pictures of the fires and showed them to her, boasting of his plan. The first blaze burned the fence that separates the storage yard from MarBorg Industries’ natural gas refilling station. The other was purportedly in the middle of the yard’s driveway and looked like someone’s belongings were lit, the woman recalled.
Mezey emphatically discounts these allegations, saying the sources are unreliable drug addicts. The men who trash his reputation are jealous of the attention he gets from women, claimed Mezey, and the women who speak ill of him are envious of those he’s helped. He swears he’s never given anyone drugs, and he actually enjoys his notoriety as a “fascist asshole,” he said, explaining it’s an image he intentionally cultivated to keep people from walking over him.
Mezey blames the neighborhood’s crack cocaine problem for making users crazed and paranoid, taking special exception to what he describes as Hispanic dealers in the area. He remembered the first fire — saying it was started accidentally by one of the roofers during a party — but couldn’t recall the second. The authorities have confirmed that the fence fire was ruled accidental but have no record of a second.
So Says the City
Keld Hove, a police officer who works with the homeless on the restorative justice beat, said Gloria had been in Santa Barbara for a little more than a year. By all accounts a warm and friendly woman, Gloria struggled with severe alcoholism, but Hove was eventually able to hook her up with mental health services and transitional housing at Hotel Riviera. After three months, however, she began pushing against the program’s rules. By the fourth month, she chose to leave. Gloria promised her social workers she had a nice place to stay and would keep in touch, continuing with her treatment. Two days after she walked out of Hotel Riviera, she was dead.
The Coroner’s Office is having a hard time finding Gloria’s sister and two daughters in Oklahoma to tell them what happened. While The Santa Barbara Independent has learned her identity, we’re withholding the information until Gloria’s family members are told first. In the meantime, the coroner is waiting on results from a toxicology test, which could take another few weeks.
Joe Poire with City Fire, who’s heading the District Attorney’s Arson Task Force, said authorities are still trying to determine the fire’s exact cause. The special unit was called in the night of the blaze and remains actively working on the case, conducting interviews, examining evidence, and talking with Mezey. Poire — noting that Mezey has been “helpful and cooperative” — explained that in cases like these, only a fraction of the investigation is spent at the actual fire scene, with the lion’s share of the legwork taking place in the follow-up, fact-gathering phase. Potential witnesses or those with valuable information, however, have been hard to come by, said Poire, as many are homeless and shy away from law enforcement.
Paul Wellman (file)
Remains of a burned structure in a storage yard on Quarantina Street
Some of those same people are worried about the future of the storage yard where they sleep. Rumors have swirled that the city is a close to condemning or leveling the plot — which is zoned for manufacturing — but so far no enforcement action has taken place. There was a building enforcement case at 2 South Quarantina in 2007 for electric lines running through trees. Currently, half a dozen power lines snake from the street into a few of the plots. Some contain sheds or makeshift structures with generators and propane tanks nearby. Most, however, appear to be used as legitimate storage spaces. There are no active building permits, the last one being filed in 1998.
Property co-owner Marc Recordon said he’s had constant issues with people sleeping in the football field–sized lot. Explaining he’s been the primary owner for “a long time” — the other is Summerland-based Pride of Ownership Properties — Recordon said he charges “a few hundred bucks a month” for the individual plots. Recordon owns a number of other properties around town, including the former Hotel State Street, which is being renovated and turned into Statehouse Hotel. He declined to say what specific other properties he owns or manages. Of illegal tenants staying at 2 South Quarantina Street, Recordon said he “deals with it.”
Poire said engine companies perform general inspections of such open-air properties every two years. They won’t necessarily look into individual spaces, he said, but will take note of “suspected dwellings” when they’re spotted. If confronted, renters will often say they only nap there or use it to keep belongings. The lot was last inspected in 2002. Poire said a walk-through will likely happen in the near future.
On the Mend
Mezey will soon return to the care of Santa Barbara’s Veteran Affairs — which he transferred to after leaving L.A. — lauding the nurses and doctors here for saving his life. He’s in therapy and working through the effects the fire and Gigi’s death had on him. In the meantime, though, he’s enjoying the feeling of sun on his face, saying he can’t stand to be cooped up in a hospital room. “This is my town,” he said. “This is my ocean.” He has second-guessed his calling to help homeless women but vows to continue. “Never say never,” he mused.
Since his home is now in ashes, Mezey is staying with various friends. He’s concentrating on healing both physically and mentally, explaining infections from his burns are a real possibility if he’s not careful. He can’t bring himself to visit the yard. The memory is still too fresh, he said. Promising to help the authorities in their investigation, Mezey is nevertheless still on the hunt for who he thinks killed Gigi.
“There are some people responsible for this,” he said quietly. “God is going to punish them if I don’t get to them first.”