Hundreds of snakes caught inside a "God-awful" hoarding situation in an elementary school teacher's Santa Ana home may have been worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to one snake expert who says he suspects it was a "half-million-dollar operation." Gadi Schwartz reports for the NBC4 News at 11 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014.
An elementary school teacher was arrested on suspicion of animal cruelty Wednesday after police found hundreds of mostly dead and dying ball pythons in his Santa Ana home, animal services officials said.
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William Fredrick Buchman, a sixth grade teacher at Mariners Elementary School in Newport Beach, was taken into custody after police served a search warrant at his home, authorities said.
A substitute teacher has been called in to cover Buchman's class "until he resolves his personal matter," said Laura Boss, a spokeswoman for the Newport-Mesa Unified School District, in a statement.
Shelly Rooney, a parent at Mariners, said Buchman has been a wonderful teacher at Mariners.
"I personally requested him as a teacher for the six years my son attended Mariners never having been granted him as a teacher," she said in an email to NBC4. "Mr. Buchman has always been a caring teacher and one who I would gladly be a character witness if called to do so."
Three years ago when his mother died, he broke down and cried when Rooney offered her condolences to him, she said. She was also an educator and would go to the school and read to the students in his class, Rooney said.
"His mother was a strong presence in his life," Rooney said.
More than 400 snakes and snake carcasses were found in cages throughout the home in an environment that Santa Ana police said smelled "god-awful." More than half of the snakes were found dead, police said. They had not been fed and were covered in mites, police said.
About 240 dead snakes and 182 live snakes were found in the home. Veterinarians on Wednesday night examined the living snakes to see if they were in dire health.
"None of them have been really bad that I have seen so far," veterinarian Tom Greek said. "Some of them could use a little food."
Animal services officers wore special suits and masks to process the scene.
"There are all forms of decay," said Sondra Berg, an animal services supervisor at the Santa Ana Police Department. "From skeletons to just dead in the last few days. There is an infestation of rats and mice. They are running loose all over the house. There are rats and mice in plastic storage tubs that are actually canabalizing each other."
The front four rooms of the home were packed floor to ceiling with snake cages, officials said. Buchman was breeding the ball pythons to sell them, officials said.
One rescuer described the massive operation as "overwhelming."
"Between the rack system, which is where the snaked lives, and the tubs, and the heat, and all the animals, live and deceased, I would put it someone close to about a half a million dollar operation," said Jason Haywood, of the Southern California Herpetology Association and Rescue.
"It becomes an addiction, and you can get overwhelmed very easy," Haywood said. "It kind of looks like a couple years ago he had a family tragedy that got him overwhelmed, and here we are today."
The home, in the 2900 block of North Fernwood Drive, was also infested with mice and rats, police said.
Animal control first received complaints about the home one year ago when neighbors suspected Buchman was breeding snakes. At the time the snakes were healthy and animal services did not have a violation to allow them to seize the animals.
Four months ago, police and animal services were notified of a dead body smell coming from the home. After it was determined that it was actually a dead animal smell, animal services sought Buchman's cooperation to allow for a search of the home. When he refused, a warrant was obtained.
"This is a major case of neglect," said Sam Makki, executive director of Reptile Rescue Orange County. "It is all very sad. These snakes are completely harmless and make great pets, but it is clear that the owner hardly provided any care for them."
Ball pythons are known for being docile. They rarely bite and curl into a tight ball when threatened.
While there used to be a market for these animals oversaturation has caused prices for ball pythons to drop from $1,500 to $200.
The surviving snakes from Buchman's home are being transported to a veterinary hospital where they will be given necessary medication and nourishment.
"I think in the end we will be able to find some loving homes for these snakes," Makki said. "They just need some love and care."