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Newport teacher held on animal cruelty charges

Hundreds of dead snakes found in python breeder's Santa Ana home.

January 30, 2014|By Adolfo Flores and Ruben Vives | By Adolfo Flores and Ruben Vives

A Newport Beach grade school teacher who bred snakes as a hobby was arrested Wednesday on animal cruelty charges after authorities discovered more than 400 ball pythons — some alive, many dead — scattered throughout his cluttered home.

Animal control officers said it took much of the day to search the five-bedroom home in a Santa Ana neighborhood where residents for months had complained about a foul smell drifting from the home.

Investigators said they discovered 404 non-venomous snakes — 180 alive, 224 dead — inside rows of clear plastic containers with labels reading "pastel reaper," "cinny ghost" and "orange belly." In addition to the snakes, authorities said 45 rats and mice roamed freely inside the home. Others kept in tubs had started to eat one another other.

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"I got rats everywhere," one officer said in a police video that captured investigators first entering the home wearing gas masks and clutching Tasers.

William Buchman, a longtime teacher at Mariners Elementary School in Newport Beach, 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, some that could sell for thousands of dollars.

But at some point, Buchman appears to have gone from a snake hobbyist to a hoarder, said Sondra Berg, Santa Ana Police Department-Animal Services supervisor.

"It's pretty sad," Berg said. "Hoarding is pretty much a mental condition. [Hoarders] need help."

Chantelle Wolfe, 44, of Costa Mesa, said her son was in Buchman's kindergarten class when he first started teaching at Mariner's nine years ago. He was one of the first male teachers at the school, she said.

"Everyone enjoyed him," Wolfe said, adding that Buchman was a good teacher who invested his time and resources in his students.

"I certainly hope that it doesn't affect his teaching career, because he was a good teacher," Wolfe said.

Authorities said Buchman's mother died in 2011, and that her death appeared to have affected him profoundly. Wolfe said the pair were close.

Many of the dead snakes were still in plastic containers and there was no evidence of food or water in any of the cages, Berg said. Four of the bedrooms were filled with racks of containers, each holding 30 to 40 snakes. A refrigerator in the home was filled with dead rats.

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