August 20, 2004

Home ownership challenged

After 30 years in the desert, she's fighting to stay

By MICHAEL FISHER / The Press-Enterprise

IVANPAH - Connie Connelly balanced on her haunches, drawing deeply from a cigarette as swollen thunderclouds tinged red by the setting sun swept over her remote home in the Mojave National Preserve.

A tumble of scrap lumber, rotting travel trailers and battered furniture surround her green-and-white house. As a freight train rumbled by on tracks just a few feet away, the locomotive's piercing whistle drew howls from some of Connelly's 11 dogs as they prowled her dusty corral.

For 30 years, Connelly has lived in a rustic six-room home, a converted general store on 5 brushy acres about 23 miles from the shimmering casinos of Primm, Nev.

"When you've been in a place this long, you grow roots," the 44-year-old woman said. "This isn't for every Joe out here. You either make it here or you don't. ... I believe in preserving the simple life."

But Connelly's lifestyle is careening toward a showdown with National Park Service officials who are seeking to evict her and end a land squabble that started nearly four decades ago when her family first moved to the desert.

Connelly is to appear today before a U.S. District Court magistrate in Barstow to answer a charge of trespassing on federal land. The brief hearing will mark the first salvo in a courtroom battle to determine if Connelly will be forced from the land she asserts her father, Don, purchased in 1966.

Connelly said parks officials contend her father leased but never bought the property.

Mary Martin, preserve superintendent, declined comment, directing inquires to federal prosecutors.

"She is there illegally," Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles, said of Connelly. "She does not have permission to reside at that location."

Rights Expired

Mrozek said Connelly's parents and their neighbors in the sparsely populated area were allowed to continue living on the federal land when the 1.6-million-acre Mojave National Preserve was created in 1994.

Connelly's father died in 1990. And when her mother, Pauline, died last year, so did the family's right to live within the preserve, Mrozek said. Connelly's name is not on the lease.

Connelly, who says she cannot afford an attorney, faces up to six months in jail and a fine if convicted.

"We're not seeking to incarcerate her but that is a possibility," Mrozek said.

Just 8 when her family moved from Hemet to the desert, Connelly is fighting eviction with the help of newfound friend Jennifer Foster of Hesperia, co-founder of Public Lands for Public Use, a recreationalist organization aimed at keeping government lands open to equestrians, hunters and other outdoors enthusiasts.

They say the Connelly family's purchase of the former Aztec Mining Company store in 1966 immediately sparked a dispute with the federal Bureau of Land Management, who challenged his ownership of the property. To prove his case, Connelly's father gave his paperwork, including a deed, to the BLM, which lost the file, Foster said.

The deed apparently was never recorded, and Connelly's father signed a lease agreement with BLM in 1968, Foster said.

"People are going to wonder why she would want to stay out there. A woman. Alone. The nearest neighbor a quarter-mile away," Foster said, her voice choked with emotion. "You have to remember, it's all she's known."

Although parks officials contend Connelly's family never owned the land, they have offered to swap her home and its surrounding 5 acres for more than 7 acres of desert land in Cadiz, about 75 miles south.

But Connelly and Foster question the quality of the well at the Cadiz site, where they say summers are significantly hotter because that property sits at a lower elevation than Connelly's house.

"It's about 10 miles from Hell," Foster said.

A Simple Life

Connelly, Ivanpah's sole resident, supports herself as an artist fashioning decorative wood, furniture, beadwork and other crafts. She says she is content with her simple life in the sparsely furnished desert home she shares with her dogs, one cat and a horse.

With her well broken, she drives 17 miles to Nipton every other day to fill a pair of blue plastic 55-gallon drums with water for her and her animals. Her old Ford pickup carries her 33 miles to Searchlight, Nev., for feed and supplies.

Oil lamps light her house at night. Connelly occasionally switches on a portable generator if she wants to watch a movie. Her phone is attached to a telephone pole outside. Until recently, she had to shimmy up the pole to use the phone.

Her furniture, she joked, bears dents and divots from errant shovel strikes intended for rattlesnakes that slithered into her house.

Connelly's house in years past was considered part of Leestock, a town of about 100 residents that sprung up at a railroad stop where ranchers loaded cattle onto trains.

"It was like the Old West out here. Time pretty much stood at a standstill," recalled Connelly, whose weathered eyes convey a distant expression. But, at a friendly jibe, she breaks into laughter, revealing a warm smile.

Her father, a former San Bernardino County sheriff's deputy turned part-time prospector, kept the general store open, selling food, beer and sundries. From the front porch, the family could see the trailers that made up the famed Chicken Ranch brothel about six miles down a nearby dirt road.

"Every night, we had the miners down playing cards and talking," she said. Train engineers would stop to chat as they waited for another locomotive to pass.

Bats, owls, nighthawks and coyotes are now Connelly's neighbors. Age and weather have reduced the other buildings of Leestock to rubble. Connelly's not sure why her dad moved his family to the remote desert.

"When I was small, I asked him once when he went prospecting, how did he pick a spot. And he said you just kind of get a feeling about a place," Connelly said. In the nearby corral, the breeze stirred a set of wind chimes created from long lengths of old pipe.

In 1976, the family moved about 100 miles to Newberry Springs when Connelly's mother began suffering dementia. They returned eight years later and had to chase squatters off the land.
Last year, parks rangers began stopping by, telling her and her mother that they had to leave, Connelly said.

Foster met Connelly when the Ivanpah woman called her in January, seeking help. In just seven months, the two women have become close friends.

"Connie came into my life for a reason," Foster said. "She's a special person. ... Within her still lies that pioneer spirit."

Foster and her husband, Ken, have sought help for Connelly from San Bernardino County Supervisor Bill Postmus' office and are trying to find her a lawyer.

If evicted, Connelly figures she will move to Wyoming. She holds little hope for her future.

"They'll undoubtedly get me out of here, one way or the other. It saddens the heart."