After I-10 fire, California employs guards to watch businessman’s other sites


More than a month after an arson fire at a storage yard damaged a major Los Angeles freeway, the state has hired security guards to keep an eye out for smoke and other problems at three other properties beneath Interstate 10 leased to the same bankrupt company.

When Associated Press journalists visited the buildings, they discovered wooden pallets and other hazardous and flammable materials similar to what fed the Nov. 11 inferno beneath the interstate, which is used by 300,000 motorists daily. As electrical cables snaked across the ground, rats ran beneath automobiles, trucks, and RVs in varying states of repair.

According to court filings, the state has subcontracted the security services while it seeks to evict Ahmad Anthony Nowaid and scores of tenants who are subletting via him in breach of his contracts with the California Department of Transportation (or Caltrans).

They are scheduled to appear in court again this month.

There have been no arrests in the arson case that prompted the closure of a 2-mile stretch of a crucial corridor for America’s supply chain and commuters in the country’s second-largest city for a week. The land, according to Gov. Gavin Newsom, is in the hands of “bad actors.”

Even as accusations grew against him, the state leased more and more land to him, raising issues about the government’s vetting procedure before leasing ground beneath California’s freeways and highways.

Nowaid’s enterprises, Apex Development Inc. and Metro Investments Group, leased the burning storage yard and four other properties from Caltrans — all but one of them under I-10.

Treston Security Services guards are also stationed at a reception area where combustible objects were relocated from properties leased to Nowaid, as well as a maintenance yard where Caltrans has put up temporary offices, according to Caltrans.

One of those guards, wearing a fluorescent vest, sat in a folding chair outside a guarded storage yard filled with wooden pallets leased to Nowaid on a December afternoon.

Six renters who sublet space beneath I-10 described Nowaid as a bully. They presented The Associated Press with their monthly payment receipts. According to court filings, Nowaid owes the state about $223,000 for one property.

“Where did all our money go?” wondered Alberto Mazariegos, who keeps his company’s industrial laundry equipment at the location where he pays $1,100 per month in rent. “The state gave this guy power. They are also accountable.”

A person who answered Nowaid’s phone number referred questions to an attorney, Mainak D’Attaray. Calls and emails requesting a response on any of the charges were not returned. D’Attaray stated in November that Apex was not to blame for the fire and had made upgrades to the property, despite the fact that the company had been unable to enter the site just before the blaze.

The fire swiftly spread on November 11, fueled by wooden pallets, hand sanitizer supplies, and other flammable objects placed there in breach of the leasing contract. The fire destroyed almost 100 interstate support columns. Sixteen individuals, including a pregnant woman, were safely evacuated from the area. In response to the disaster, the Biden administration granted the state $3 million, though Caltrans has not published a total cost.

Records show that the state was aware of problems at Nowaid-managed sites for years, with inspectors providing stinging reports exposing unsafe circumstances.

Among the legal filings surrounding Nowaid since he began doing business with the state in 2008:

  • A restraining order was issued in 2015 to a guy who claimed civil harassment from Nowaid.
  • A lawsuit was filed in 2016 by a recycling business owner who claimed she was subletting from Nowaid and was unjustly barred after he stationed “two attack dogs at the premises, presumably to greet anybody who would dare enter,” according to the court document. The lawsuit was ultimately dismissed.
  • A $70,000 settlement in a 2019 complaint against one of his companies to cover construction workers’ underpaid salaries.

Caltrans sold Nowaid land in Ceres, California, for a mobile home park in 2017. Residents filed a complaint against him in 2022, accusing him of overcharging for rent while leaving the home in disarray. That lawsuit is still underway.

Caltrans stated that it conducts reference checks before leasing its premises but refuses to address any additional details about Nowaid’s background.

After I-10 fire, California employs guards to watch businessman's other sites

Nowaid’s name is associated with at least 20 businesses registered with California’s Secretary of State, including real estate, property management, and construction organizations. According to state court documents, two of his firms filed for bankruptcy independently in 2016 and 2019.

Following the incident, Newsom directed an assessment of all 601 “airspace” sites leased by Caltrans around roadways. Since the 1960s, the majority of the sites have been used for parking lots, cellular masts, open storage, and warehouses. The lots range in size from a few hundred to thousands of square feet and are mostly found in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area.

Over the last five years, airspace leases have generated more than $170 million for public transportation.

The locations leased by Nowaid’s enterprises “are outliers, and relatively few sites present confirmed safety or fire concerns,” according to a statement from Caltrans.

Starting in 2020, state inspectors paid six visits to the burned-out site and regularly reported that combustible and hazardous chemicals were stored there.

Inspectors discovered many subtenants, wooden pallets, and washing machines in February 2020. Inspectors detected hazardous items in September 2021, and in August 2022, during a surprise visit by inspectors and the fire marshal, they discovered solvents, oils, and a re-established homeless encampment.

“This is a filthy, unmaintained lease,” inspector Daryl Myatt stated in a report dated September 2022. “This area has been utilized since the mid-1970s and looks like it.”

That same month, Caltrans issued a warning to Nowaid that hazardous materials had been discovered at two other properties he had leased, and inspectors were denied entry to the remaining two.

A renter at one of the houses said that weeks before the fire, Nowaid not only locked him out of his own business but also showed up “with a person with guns” and threatened to kill him. When the tenant failed to appear in court, the case was dropped.

Nowaid’s renters at another dangerous property said they erected lighting, and large water tanks, and bought fire extinguishers, which Nowaid was supposed to furnish. A dozen people work there in a variety of industries ranging from a mechanic shop to a scrap metal recycling firm.

Caltrans authorities paid a visit to the renters this summer and informed them that they would be evicted because Nowaid had not been paying rent. The tenants stated that they want to rent directly from Caltrans and that they will follow the rules.

“It irritates me,” Felix Hernandez Rubio, a mechanic who paid monthly for seven years, said. “I have excellent credit.” Someone should not be permitted to tarnish my reputation. This is an infringement on my rights.”

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