State hires guards to monitor other businesses under 10 years old Highway

More than a month after an arson fire at a storage warehouse damaged a key Los Angeles freeway, the state hired security guards to monitor smoke and other problems at three additional sites under the 10 Freeway that were leased to the same bankrupt businessman.

Associated Press journalists visited the properties and saw pallets of wood and other hazardous and flammable materials much like those that fueled the Nov. 11 inferno beneath the highway, which is used by 300,000 vehicles daily. Rats ran under cars, trucks and RVs in various states of repair and electrical wiring snaked across the floor.

The state has outsourced security services as it fights to evict Ahmad Anthony Nowaid and dozens of tenants who sublet through him, in violation of their contracts with the California Department of Transportation, according to court records.

No arrests have been announced in the arson case that closed for a week a 2-mile stretch of a key corridor for the U.S. supply chain and for travelers in the country’s second-largest city. Gov. Gavin Newsom said the property was in the hands of “bad actors.”

The state leased more and more land to Nowaid even as accusations against him mounted, raising questions about the government’s vetting process before leasing land under California highways and highways.

Nowaid leased the storage yard that burned and four other Caltrans properties (all but one under Category 10) through his companies, Apex Development Inc. and Metro Investments Group.

Treston Security Services guards are also at a receiving area where combustible items were moved from properties leased to Nowaid and at a maintenance yard where Caltrans set up temporary offices, Caltrans said.

One December afternoon, one of those guards wearing a neon vest was sitting in a folding chair outside an enclosed storage yard rented from Nowait that was filled with wooden pallets.

Six tenants subletting space under the freeway described Nowaid as a bully. They showed receipts for their monthly payments to the Associated Press. Nowaid owes the state nearly $223,000 for a property, according to court documents.

“Where did all our money go?” said Alberto Mazariegos, who stores his business’s industrial laundry machines at the site where he paid $1,100 a month in rent. “The State gave power to this guy. They are also responsible.”

A person who answered a phone number listed on Nowaid referred questions to an attorney, Mainak D’Attaray. The attorney did not respond to calls or emails seeking comment on any of the allegations. D’Attaray said in a statement in November that Apex was not to blame for the fire and had made improvements to that property, although he said the company had been unable to access the facility shortly before the fire occurred.

The Nov. 11 fire spread quickly, fueled by wooden pallets, supplies of hand sanitizer and other flammable materials stored there in violation of the lease. The fire damaged nearly 100 support columns on the interstate highway. Sixteen people who lived there, including a pregnant woman, were safely evacuated. The Biden administration gave the state $3 million in response to the disaster, although Caltrans has not released a final price tag.

Records show the state was aware of problems at sites leased to Nowaid, and inspectors provided compelling reports identifying unsafe conditions for years.

Among the legal filings involving Nowaid while doing business with the state starting in 2008:

—A 2015 restraining order granted to a man who alleged civil harassment by Nowaid.

—A 2016 lawsuit filed by the owner of a recycling company who said she was subletting to Nowaid and was illegally locked out after he placed “two attack dogs on the premises, presumably to greet anyone who dared enter.” ”, according to the court file. The lawsuit was ultimately dismissed.

—A $70,000 settlement in a 2019 case against one of his companies to cover unpaid wages to construction workers.

In 2017, Caltrans sold land to Nowaid used for a mobile home park in Ceres, Northern California. Residents there filed a lawsuit in 2022 accusing him of overcharging rent and leaving the property in squalor. That lawsuit is ongoing.

Caltrans said the agency conducts reference checks before leasing its properties, but declined to answer other questions about Nowaid’s history.

Nowaid’s name is linked to at least 20 companies, including real estate, property management and construction companies, that have registered with the California Secretary of State. Two of his companies filed for bankruptcy separately in 2016 and 2019, according to state court records.

After the fire, Newsom ordered a review of the 601 so-called “airspace” sites that Caltrans has leased around highways. The program dates back to the 1960s and most of the properties have been used for parking lots, cell phone towers, open storage and warehouses. Lots range from a few hundred to thousands of square feet and are concentrated in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area.

Airspace leases have generated more than $170 million in the last five years.

The sites leased by Nowaid’s companies “are outliers, with relatively few sites presenting confirmed fire or safety concerns,” Caltrans said in a statement.

State inspectors made six visits to the burn site, starting in 2020, and repeatedly reported that flammable and hazardous materials were stored there.

In February 2020, inspectors detected several subtenants, wooden pallets, and washing machines. In September 2021, inspectors reported hazardous materials and in August 2022, in a surprise visit by inspectors and the fire marshal, they found solvents, oils, and a homeless encampment that had returned.

“This is a dirty, unmaintained lease,” Inspector Daryl Myatt wrote in a September 2022 report. “This area has been used since the mid-1970s and appears that way.”

That same month, Caltrans warned Nowaid that hazardous materials were also found at two other sites he leased, and inspectors were denied access to the remaining two.

Weeks before the fire, a tenant at one of the properties said Nowaid not only locked him out of his own business but also showed up “with an armed person” and that he feared Nowaid could kill him. The case was dismissed because the tenant did not appear in court.

Nowaid tenants at another property marked unsafe said they installed lighting and large water tanks, and purchased fire extinguishers, which Nowaid was supposed to provide. About a dozen people work there in businesses ranging from a machine shop to a scrap metal recycling business.

Caltrans officials visited this summer and told tenants they would be evicted because Nowaid had not paid rent. The tenants said they want to rent directly from Caltrans and would comply with the rules.

“It makes me angry,” said Félix Hernández Rubio, a mechanic who paid monthly for seven years. “I have good credit. No fool should be allowed to ruin my name. “This is violating my rights.”

Associated Press writers Stefanie Dazio in Los Angeles and Sophie Austin in Sacramento contributed to this report.

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