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SANTA ANA, Calif. – The smell wafting from the house was bad, to put it mildly. It was the result of more than 200 dead pythons, 200 still-living snakes, and a rodent infestation.
It was bad enough to send veteran investigators gasping for air. Bad enough to make normally poised TV reporters hold their noses. Bad enough to make much of a neighborhood gag.
"House of Horrors: That's the best way to describe it," said Sondra Berg, supervisor for the Santa Ana Police Department's Animal Services Division after coming out of the five-bedroom Orange County home of elementary school teacher William Buchman.
"I mean there's so many dead snakes ... ranging from dead for months to just dead. There's an infestation of rats and mice all over the house. There are rats and mice in plastic storage tubs that are actually cannibalizing each other," Berg said.
Buchman, 53, was arrested for investigation of neglect in the care of animals, police Cpl. Anthony Bertagna said, and remained in police custody late Wednesday.
Five months earlier, that smell had driven neighbors to complain about the home, with some of them speculating there was a dead person inside.
"It got so bad as to where my wife would throw up," next-door neighbor Forest Long Sr. said. "She'd get out of the car and run into the house."
Long said he had once been friendly with Buchman, and they would get together to watch televised sports.
But Buchman, who lost the mother who lived with him a few years earlier and had since lived alone, stopped coming around about a year ago, Long said.
"Something changed in Bill, yes it did," he said. "Something triggered it because I couldn't even think that that was going on."
Buchman has not yet had a court appearance or been formally charged and it wasn't clear if he had an attorney. The Newport-Mesa Unified School District, where he works, declined comment, saying it was a police matter.
Police served a warrant on the home Tuesday morning, and found four of the five bedrooms stacked from floor to ceiling and wall to wall with plastic bins on wooden and metal racks, Berg said. The bins were packed so tightly they didn't require lids because there was no room for the snakes to slither out.
There were more than 400 snakes in all — 180 live ones and at least 220 dead ones.
Some of the snakes were little more than skeletons. Others, only recently dead, were covered with flies and maggots.
Bertagna said animal control authorities had tried to work with Buchman for several months after neighbors reported the smell. He said they sought the warrant after they were not allowed inside the home.
Berg said Buchman told authorities he was involved in a type of snake breeding called "morphing," in which owners try to breed different color patterns in the reptiles.
It was a very popular and lucrative enterprise 10 years ago but has declined, she said.
"There was a lot of fast money in it, but now the bottom pretty much fell out of the market because there are so many of these snakes out there," she said.