As investigators wearing respirator masks carried the reptiles out of the house and stacked them in the driveway, reporters and passers-by gagged at the smell. Some held their noses or walked away from the five-bedroom home to get a breath of air.
"The smell alone—I feel like I need to take a shower for a week," said police Cpl. Anthony Bertagna. "They're pretty much in all the bedrooms—everywhere.
Officers said they found more than 400 snakes—at least 220 of them dead—as well as numerous mice and rats, in the Santa Ana home of William Buchman after neighbors complained about the smell. He was arrested for investigation of neglect in the care of animals, Bertagna said.
Buchman, 53, was still in custody Wednesday afternoon, Bertagna said. The Newport-Mesa Unified School District, where he works, declined comment, saying it was a police matter.
Buchman has not yet had a court appearance or been formally charged and it wasn't clear if he had an attorney.
Authorities said he lived alone, and neighbors said his mother, who had lived with him, had passed away within the past few years.
Sondra Berg, the supervisor for the Santa Ana Police Department's Animal Services Division, said four bedrooms in the home were stacked from floor to ceiling and wall to wall with plastic bins on wooden and metal racks. The bins were packed so tightly, Berg said, that they didn't require lids because there was no room for the snakes to slither out.
Each snake was catalogued by name and type, and Berg said Buchman told authorities he was involved in a snake-breeding enterprise.
"House of Horrors: That's the best way to describe it," Berg said of the house. "I mean there's so many dead snakes ... ranging from dead for months to just dead. There's an infestation of rats and mice all over the house. There are rats and mice in plastic storage tubs that are actually cannibalizing each other."
Some of the snakes were little more than skeletons. Others, only recently dead, were covered with flies and maggots.
Next-door neighbor Forest Long Sr. said he has known Buchman for years, adding the men had once been friendly, getting together to watch sports on television.
But he noticed a change in his neighbor about a year ago, he said, adding Buchman stopped coming around and, when he did, he appeared to have gained a good deal of weight.
"Something changed in Bill, yes it did," he said. "Something triggered it because I couldn't even think that that was going on."
The odor from the house, meanwhile, became unbearable about five months ago.
"It got so bad as to where my wife would throw up," Long said. "She'd get out of the car and run into the house."
He said neighbors speculated that there must be a dead body inside.
Bertagna said animal control authorities had tried to work with Buchman for several months after neighbors reported the smell. He said they sought a warrant after they were not allowed inside the home.
Berg said Buchman told authorities he was involved in a type of snake breeding called "morphing," in which owners try to breed different color patterns in the reptiles.
It was a very popular and lucrative enterprise 10 years ago but has declined, she said.
"There was a lot of fast money in it, but now the bottom pretty much fell out of the market because there are so many of these snakes out there," she said.
At one time, Berg said, a good specimen of the type authorities found could have fetched $5,000. Today it would be worth only about $200.
Associated Press Writer Amy Taxin contributed to this story.