Eccentric left a home full of rats, 69 vintage cars and a disputed estate … – Los Angeles Times
Where does it all go after we’re gone?
Gerald Willits’ life was full of things, but he was very much alone.
When he died a year ago at 76, it took days for anyone to notice. By then, said Orange County Deputy Public Administrator Brett Williams, his body had begun to decompose.
Willits had lived in Buena Park, in a little one-story house behind a high chain-link fence. His rooms were piled high with papers and trash and fast-food wrappers. His roommates were swarms of bees and rats. The rodents ate away at everything, including the furniture.
By the time officials discovered this classic case of hoarding, it was so bad that county workers had to cover their noses and mouths with masks.
Part of the job of the district attorney’s public administrator’s office is to secure property when people die without clear plans in place. In Willits’ case, the challenge was most unusual — obvious to officials from the moment they stepped into his yard.
There, entirely unprotected from the elements (though in some places obscured by large trees), was a collection of 69 vintage cars: Model As, Model Ts, vintage Mercedes, Volkswagen bugs and buses, as well as piles of tires and engines and other assorted spare parts.
Outside as inside, rats had claimed dominion. They camped out in the cars, eating the upholstery sometimes down to the springs and making nests under the hoods. Squirrels squatted where they could.
Some cars were bumper-to-bumper rust. Just about all had flat tires, even the oldest ones with wooden spoked wheels.
Buena Park had been trying to get the property cleaned up for years. But in short order, the county hauled the largely undriveable collection away on four large flatbed trucks. Along with the cars went tractors and Ditch Witches and a tiny silver experimental airplane found under a trash pile in the garage.
On Tuesday in Santa Ana, hundreds of car buffs showed up in person and online to bid on the “barn finds” — left as is for the authenticity collectors like, with pick-up cabs full of leaves and junk and engines covered in old newspapers.
Many had come out the day before the auction to circle and squint — weighing what the hard-luck cars were missing against how difficult it would be to replace what in some cases were very rare parts. Some of the potential bidders were rat rodders who care about drive over looks. A few came from prop houses, scouting for styles popular on film.
Also in the crowd were the automobile world’s equivalent of transplant surgeons. In cars they deemed too far gone for revival, they saw parts that could breathe new life into others — restoring their sight, for instance, with perfectly intact original headlights.
There were those who came too just to admire the strange, wrecked beauty of it all — the old phone numbers from the telephone-exchange days painted on rusted pick-up doors, the way the color on a 1949 Ford Convertible bled from rust to brick red to powder blue.
It was a sea of worn straw hats, long white beards and arms covered in tattoos.
Jamie Benn, whose tattoos were of the Volkswagens he lovingly restores, had his eye on a white 1965 VW van, whose inside was a shell in need of pretty much everything but whose windshield was split — a feature prized by collectors.
Benn spoke of times he’d pulled up in front of Willits’ house to ask about the VWs. Willits had shouted for him “to get out of here” because his cars were not for sale.
That Willits could have been part of a friendly and very social vintage car community but, for whatever reason, wasn’t, was something quite a few visitors spoke of as they examined what once was his.
Elizabeth Henderson, chief deputy public administrator, saw some good in what had happened since Willits’ death. The feral cats in the county parking lot had fattened up on the old cars’ residents. And the auction’s winning bidders surely would treasure what Willits left behind.
But, she said, she also felt the sadness of strangers pawing over his things.
Making a will, no matter how simple, is a good way to avoid that, she said. An old person recently died, and the county found a Post-It stuck on the fridge. It clearly stated where he wanted his belongings to go, and so was much better than nothing.
As for Willits, who acquaintances said once had worked in construction, his auctioned-off house, cars and rental properties should add up to more than $2 million.
Who will get the proceeds remains in question. A daughter in Hawaii says the inheritance should be hers. But county officials have found two conflicting wills — one in the trunk of a Model A, one in a toolbox, both explicitly disowning the daughter.
The first was a copy from 1996, and gave his property to his parents, now deceased. The second, from 2002, said everything should go to the Long Beach Scottish Rite.
Sorting out the claims will be up to the courts, and it could take some time.
But on Tuesday, a collection that Willits took a lifetime to amass was sold off in under two hours. A 1931 Ford Tudor went for $14,000. The VW van brought in $6,700. Some lots of spare parts sold for $5.
It was all over and most of the crowd had departed by the time Victor Boatwright, 47, arrived on a bus from Buena Park.
He walked around slowly, sighing, forehead furled, looking crestfallen. He said he’d known Willits for about a decade.
“I just wish he would have enjoyed his life a little bit more, honestly, instead of just holding on,” he said. “We don’t get nowhere like that, and we all do it, don’t matter what it is. We all have something in our heart that we can’t let go of.”
What would he have wished for his friend? To be richer in life than on paper.
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