The Bizarre Story of the San Jose Jacobsons

Bruce Newman’s excellent Mercury News story about the piles of garbage at the Baker house in San Jose reminded me of a story I worked on nearly 25 years ago.
The city editor of the afternoon San Jose News met me at the door to the newspaper first thing in the morning and sent me over to 19th Street, where I first met the Jacobsons.
In the end, it was a sad story of mental illness. I think much more is understood today about their behavior than it was at the time.
Here’s the weekend story I worked on with colleagues after the discovery of the Jacobsons mess.

Publication: SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS
Headline: HOW GARBAGE OBSESSION GREW
NEIGHBORS RECALL TWO SIDES TO FAMILY
Subhead:
Web Headline:
Reporter: By Mike Cassidy, Tom Philp and Marilyn Lewis, Mercury News Staff Writers<
Day: Sunday
Print Run Date: 8/7/88
Section: Front
Edition: Morning Final
Page Number: 1
Section Letter: A
Memo: Mercury News Staff Writers Michelle Guido and John Spalding contributed to this report.
Corrections:
Dateline:
Slug
Text: The first thing neighbors noticed when John and Floria Jacobson moved to Whitton Avenue in 1963 was the beautiful violin and piano music that drifted out of their house.

Then came the stench.

And soon the Jacobsons’ East San Jose neighbors realized they were living next to an increasingly bizarre family that hoarded garbage in their home and fed rats with giant makeshift feeders in their back yard.

The couple and their three grown children apparently continued living that way until last month when police found them in a North 19th Street home filled with 25 tons of rotting garbage, mice, rats and stench.

The Jacobsons’ obsession with trash collecting has driven neighbors to extremes. They’ve armed themselves with pellet guns to kill rats. They’ve lined tool sheds with metal to stop the rodents from nibbling. They’ve given up backyard barbecues.

But despite the family’s unusual habits, neighbors’ recollections also show a side of the family that is not terribly different from most.

“She played the violin for us once, ” a Whitton Avenue neighbor said of Floria, the mother. “Oh, she played so pretty.”

Floria, now 70, also wrote lovely letters and poetry and voted in almost every election. She was articulate and liked chatting with neighbors, at least until they began complaining about the foul smell coming from her home.

And she also dominated the family, neighbors said, a dominance that may have come to influence her husband and sons in years to come.

Though family members have not worked regularly in recent years, John, the 68-year-old father, used to clean restaurants for a living. He was also the keeper of the family’s only transportation — a battered woman’s bicycle with a big basket and a bell.

Two of the three sons — Ralph, 39, and John, 40 — are pictured in the 1967 and 1968 San Jose High School yearbooks.

Ralph worked on the school paper. He wore a white shirt and white jacket with a black bow tie for his yearbook picture. Beneath it was his stated goal: to be an artist and a journalist. And his favorite phrase: “Faith through endeavor.” John wore the same traditional outfit and said his goal was to go to college to study business administration.

The three sons were avid readers. Librarians at the San Jose Public Library recognized John and Arnold, 42, as regular customers. They remembered John’s talk of joining the Peace Corps.

The older brothers also frequented the documents room at San Jose State University. And with brother Ralph, they volunteered time at Loaves and Fishes, a meal program.

“I think we’ve been drastically misunderstood and misrepresented, ” Ralph said. “We didn’t intentionally want to do any harm to anyone.”

The family’s story started when Floria met John while working at a Rosicrucian dance in the 1940s. She played the violin and John played the drums.

Accepted at first

In the early ’60s, the Jacobsons moved to Whitton Avenue. The family was accepted as part of the neighborhood at first.

“They were proud, proud people, ” said Velma Breaux, a next-door neighbor for 22 years, until the Jacobsons moved to 19th Street in 1985.

“When their boys graduated from high school, ” she recalled, “they went to the graduation. They got all dressed up. And they walked — from here to the civic auditorium. We couldn’t have offered them a ride because they wouldn’t have taken it.”

At first they would cut the grass and trim their trees, said Isiah Breaux, Velma’s husband.

“But then they stopped cutting their yard, and the trees from their house started coming into my yard, and she (Floria) wouldn’t let me cut them.”

The boys’ lives revolved around the family and by extension, Floria, neighbors say.

“Nobody ever came to visit. The guys never had any girlfriends, ” Velma Breaux said. “The boys didn’t ever do activities or anything like that. They just kept to themselves at school.”

As the Jacobsons became more reclusive, she said, the sounds of fighting occasionally issued from the house.

“They would fight like cats and dogs, ” she said. “One night we heard (Arnold) call her a Nazi, a dictator, and he wasn’t going to stand for it. That’s where we came to the conclusion she was, so to speak, the ramrod of the family.”

From their vantage points next door, the Whitton neighbors watched the family’s behavior grow stranger every day.

At night, the Jacobsons would dump 100-pound bags of granulated sugar and loaves of bread into massive cardboard garbage bins, neighbors said.

“Sometimes late in the evening and at night, they’d be out at 2, 3 o’clock in the morning, ” said a neighbor who asked not to be named. “And she’d be supervising them moving it around, telling them where to put it.”

With the ample food supply, the rats at the house grew and multiplied to the point that by the summer of 1985, some neighbors armed themselves with pellet guns.

Neighbors shot rats

“We’d knock out 12 a night, ” one neighbor said, showing a picture as proof. In the photo, his brother stands smiling in the back yard, pellet gun in one hand, a dead rat — with an eight-inch tail — in the other.

Isiah Breaux said he lined the bottom of a new tool shed with sheets of metal in 1985 so rats wouldn’t chew their way through the bottom.

Velma Breaux recalls that the younger John Jacobson used to haul three or four cardboard barrels full of trash into the house each day.

Brenda Engelhapt, one of the Breaux’s eight children, says she remembers the day her pet cat disappeared.

“He had wandered underneath their house and died from distemper, ” said Engelhapt, 37, of San Jose. “She (Floria) asked me if she could have him. At the time, I didn’t think anything about it. I knew she liked animals.”

All the while, the family piled garbage into the house until November 1985, when they left under orders from the city after the house had been condemned. The family then moved to the two-bedroom rental house on 19th Street and sold the family home, which eventually was torn down. The rubbish had been accumulating on 19th Street for at least two years when police arrived on July 19, neighbors say.

Police went to the house to check on a report that a corpse was rotting in the house. What they found instead was trash piled floor-to-ceiling, feces smeared on walls, about 14 cats, maggots, swarms of flies and rats.

Officers were forced out of the house by the smell of rotting food and cat waste and immediately called in firefighters with oxygen masks to help.

Clearly, the family perceives the world differently from most people.

Floria Jacobson said 19th Street neighbors are making a big fuss over a small issue: All she had done was let some chicken spoil. She says the 20 truckloads of trash hauled out of the house were possessions with sentimental value. Sprinkled among the trash were jars of currency, each labeled with a date.

Ralph acknowledged the foul smell and the mess.

“Maggots, mice, stench, yes. We’re going to be open. It’s quite obnoxious.” But he said the family isn’t to blame.

“We felt very bad about it, ” he said. “There was an ominous feeling that it might all explode. It was just something out of control.”

Respect for life defended

And he said he was outraged that anyone would suggest the family kept a dead body in the house. The implication suggested the family had no respect for life.

“We care for the smallest creatures, ” Ralph said.

The city charged all five family members and their landlords, Salvador and Joan Castello, with misdemeanor code violations in connection with the mess on 19th Street.

Floria, the only of the seven jailed, was released on $2,000 bail Friday. She is scheduled to appear in Santa Clara County Municipal Court in San Jose for a pretrial hearing Monday.

The city has condemned the house the Jacobsons rented and the landlords have started an eviction process, which means the Jacobsons will have to leave within three weeks. So far, they have no place to go.

The neighbors say they are happy to see an end to the stench and garbage, but some add that they feel sorry for the family.

“They need help more than attacking, ” said Santos Carrizales, a next-door neighbor on 19th Street. “They cannot live by themselves.”

Said Velma Breaux: ‘Why don’t they take them to Valley Medical to give them help?”

Several psychologists, who have not examined the family, say the family — or even one domineering member — could be suffering from a garbage-collecting obsession.

“Clearly someone who is domineering can get other people to go along with whatever it is that they hold important, ” said Dr. William Hewlett, a Stanford University psychiatrist.

But even if the mystery behind the family’s odd behavior is solved, it is not likely the family will accept offers of help.

They have been refusing the efforts of social service and mental health professionals for years. Without that help, officials say, there is nothing they can do to help the family.

“There are, ” explained Fred Kretz, a county health department administrator, “a lot of cases that just don’t fit.”

<
Infobox:
Chart:
Illustration: Photos (3)<
Caption: PHOTO: John R. Fulton Jr. — Mercury News
Neighbors say that Floria Jacobson dominated the family, a domination that may have influenced her husband and sons in their increasingly bizarre behavior. (color)
PHOTO: John Jacobson
. . . From high school yearbook
PHOTO: Ralph Jacobson
. . . From high school yearbook
Column:
Word Count: 1603
Keywords: SAVE Legacy Import; SAN-JOSE; UNUSUAL; FAMILY; HOUSING; WASTE; PROFILE; MAJOR-; STOR

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