They found dishwashers and lawn mowers, wobbling, upside down. They found tombstones from Arlington National Cemetery. That was after they discovered 15 to 20 tanks of propane and acetylene. And before they found a portable U.S. military "Dragon" rocket launcher.
D.C. police arrived at the house in the 1500 block of S Street SE on Friday to investigate claims of a bad check. What they found instead was a house packed from basement to bedrooms with jumbles of clothing, computers, phones, luggage, decorative porch lights, ammunition and tanks of combustible chemicals.
The fire marshal's office called the Anacostia house a hazard and condemned it. Detective Anthony Johnson said police suspect some of the property is stolen. For the past six days, city workers wearing yellow protective suits and masks have burrowed through the house. Forty tons of debris have been carted away.
They are not done yet, not by far.
But what officials are calling a fire hazard and possibly a cache of stolen property is also home to Gene E. Ashe, 68. He said he is just a sloppy contractor who fixed refrigerators and electrical appliances for a living.
"I'm just kind of a pack rat," Ashe said. "If anything is stolen in there, I don't know anything about it."
Watching his house be cleaned out yesterday, Ashe--who wore a Yankees cap and a snow-white beard--said he has gathered the stuff during years in the business and from yard sales. When a neighbor prodded him to "tell the truth" about how he accumulated the items, he simply said he knows a good deal when he hears one.
"I don't buy things because they are hot," Ashe said. "I buy them because they are cheap."
Ashe said he never stole anything. Not the electric guitars, the air conditioning units or the power tools. All were from his business or his yard-sale shopping, he said.
But the portable rocket launcher?
"My son's," Ashe said. "He was in the National Guard. It was a souvenir."
Fire officials yesterday said U.S. military intelligence didn't think it was a good keepsake. They came this week to pick it up.
Neighbors say Ashe is a good fix-it man and also a magnet for odd goods: Recently, someone lugged a chandelier on his shoulders to Ashe's house.
Ashe, who is single, said there is nothing unsafe about his home. He has lived there happily for 24 years. "Me and my bird have been living here for a long time," Ashe said. "Nothing has ever happened to us."
The cockatiel, Bert, is now living in an animal shelter.
As for Ashe, he said he has been wandering the city since fire officials condemned his two-bedroom home on Friday. "They have banned me from the house," he said outside his home yesterday. "I'm living on the streets now."
The fire marshal said there was no choice.
"This could have went boom, and then that would have went boom," said Ronnie Elam, a fire inspector, shaking his head at the tanks of propane and paint thinner being dug out of the mounds of material inside the house. "There is everything you need here for a fire that would have killed some firefighters. No one would have survived this."
Another fire inspector, Tim Cropps, stood amid stoves and wires and fans yesterday inside Ashe's basement. "People should be able to live the way they want," Cropps said. "But this could have taken out several houses if there was a fire. And it still can happen."
Inside the house yesterday, 18 women from a welfare-to-work program dug shovels into the tangles of wires and clothes and appliances. They have been cleaning for five days. With every scoop they seemed to discover more chemical tanks and household appliances. They kept digging and digging.
"If this city had more places like this, we would always have work," one woman said to the group of workers as others cheered.
Outside the house were two orange trucks, each capable of carrying eight tons. The workers have finished cleaning only two rooms in the 3,700-square-foot house. Then they have the two bedrooms, the basement and the bathroom.
"I have never seen anything like it. This is more than just a pack rat," said D.C. police officer L.R. Mitchell, who stood in front of the house as workers sorted the stuff into several trucks: one with goods police wanted to identify, one for rubbish and the last for chemicals. "He's got everything up in there."
The house, which the city assessed at $69,123, looks like a dump inside, the rooms loaded from floor to ceiling with appliances and machinery and tanks of chemicals. Some of the windows have bars.
Ashe, who has owned the house since Dec. 2, 1979, said this is the way he likes to live.