A Santa Ana home in the 2900 block of Fernwood Drive was the scene of death and dying on Wednesday as police and animal control officers discovered over 400 snakes plus dozens of rats — some alive, many dead — throughout the house.
William Buchman, 53, a sixth-grade teacher at Mariners Elementary School in Newport Beach, was arrested on suspicion of felony animal cruelty after authorities obtained a search warrant to scour the home.
Buchman is identified on various reptile collector websites as a ball python breeder and was using a process known as “morphing” to achieve different patterns on the snakes, Jason Haywood, President of Southern California Herpetologist Assn. and Rescue, told the Los Angeles Times.
"Ball pythons are easy to care for," Haywood said.
But at some point, Buchman appears to have gone from a snake hobbyist to a hoarder, said Sondra Berg, supervisor with Santa Ana Animal Services.
"We thought someone was dead," said Forest Long Sr., 62, who lives next door. "We couldn't open up the bedroom windows. My wife started to gag and throw up."
Long told the Orange County Register that, up until last year, Buchman seemed like a “regular Joe.” He worked out. He taught 6th graders. He loved the San Antonio Spurs basketball team and the Baltimore Ravens football team. Last year, he watched the Super Bowl at neighbor Forest Long’s home with a crowd of more than 100 people.
Authorities said Buchman’s mother died in 2011, and that her death appeared to have affected him profoundly.
The John and Ken show on KFI radio reported that William Buchman apparently had always lived with his mother, growing up and living his entire life in the Santa Ana home on Fernwood. There was no indication that he had ever been married, they said.
Buchman used to show his bull terrier, Kodak, at dog shows, his neighbor Forest Long said. When the dog died, Buchman decided to buy a snake like the one he had as a child.
He then he became a snake breeder. He’d been working to breed various color and pattern combinations in the snakes, known as “morphs,” Sandra Berg said. When the market was high, they could be worth $1,500, according to Berg. Now? About $200.
The most valuable survivor was a “phantom butterball” python, a variety which can be sold for about $5,000, said Jason Haywood, 37, of the Southern California Herpetology Association & Rescue of Buena Park.
The breeding of ball pythons (called that because they curl up in balls) boomed in 2011 and bottomed out in 2013, he said, “Breeding is pretty easy to get caught up in because they reproduce so rapidly.”
“This is not what our hobby represents,” said Haywood. “This gives it a bad name.”
Sadly, many of the dead snakes were still in cages and there was no evidence of food or water in any of the cages, Berg said. She also told the Times that, when they entered the house, they discovered mice were eating one another and that the entire home was peppered with mice feces.
"Four rooms….had racks from floor to ceiling each with 30 to 40 snakes in containers per rack." Berg said. "The front room had nine racks,” and the majority of the animals were dead, she said.
The final count was 180 snakes alive and 224 dead; 45 mice were alive.
"It's pretty sad,” Berg said. “Hoarding is pretty much a mental condition. They need help."
Residents in the tidy neighborhood on Fernwood Drive said Buchman was pleasant but that the smell from the house had become overwhelming.
Sam S. Makki, director of Reptile Rescue Orange County, told the Los Angeles Times that he was called on to help with the handling the pythons, but that the scene inside the home was depressing.
“A lot of the snakes were just bones,” Makki said. “There were rodents running around the house.”
Santa Ana Police Cpl. Anthony Bertagna said he was standing about 200 to 300 feet away as officers were executing the search warrant and couldell the stench.
It smelled like "death," Cpl. Bertagna said.