Pioneer Terrorists in Modoc County


Fort Crook was established on July 1, 1857 in Fall River Mills on the Pit River in Modoc County, for the protection of settlers against hostile Indians.  Scheduled to be abandoned on June 1, 1869, Captain Wagner was assigned to the fort to see through its decommission. The Indian hostilities in the area seemed to under control, and Captain Wagner had a skeleton crew of one cavalry company to man the fort

Captain Wagner was something of a scallywag and took up with the wife of a local Native American.  When the fort was abandoned, Captain Wagner abandoned his Indian mistress, whose Christian name was Mary, to a soldier named Calvin Hall.  Private Hall was mustering out of the Army and settling in Modoc County.  For taking his lover off his hands, along with her two Native American children, Captain Wagner gave Hall a small portable sawmill.

Hall used sawmill to make a living, but eventually sold it and settled on some land near the present town of Lookout.   The two raised her two teenage Native American children, Frank and Jim, and they in turn took Calvin’s last name, Hall.

Mary grew tired of Hall and took up with another white man named Wilson.  They had a child together named Martin, but she left Wilson to come back to Hall, who was raising Frank and Jim.

Sometime during 1900, a Native American named Daniel Yantes came to Lookout and moved in with the Halls. Yantes later took Mary away from old man Hall and they lived together on a ranch. Yantes was a detestable man who always carried a big gun, but he was nevertheless kind to the boys. Together, the disreputable stepfathers raised the boys. Everyone involved was agreeable to the situation, and they all made up one big, eccentric extended family. It happened to be criminal-minded as well, especially Frank and Jim, who were well-known (if not yet convicted) for committing a slew of crimes around Lookout. Caucasians, Mexicans, Californios and fellow tribesmen alike knew the family as psychopathic thieves to be avoided at all costs.

Only 84 people live in Lookout as of 2010

Calvin Hall had a knack for getting his adopted sons out of jail on technicalities, which made Frank and Jim even more daring and obnoxious.  Whenever Frank and Jim were acquitted of crimes, the cattle and horses of the accuser were mysteriously killed or mutilated. Sometimes they would slash harnesses, burn crops or destroy wagons. Frank and Jim were suspected of vandalizing a local schoolhouse, but there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute.  In the meantime, the locals assumed that with all the comings and goings at the ranch, the Hall’s place was a safehouse for itinerant criminals and fugitives.

In May 1901, a burglary was committed in tranquil community of Lookout.  The Hall boys were quickly suspected, and when the Hall ranch was searched, several of the stolen items were found there.   Branded hides and meat that didn’t belong to Hall or Yantes were also found on the premises and Frank, Jim and Calvin Hall, along with Daniel Yantes and Martin Wilson, were taken to Lookout and placed under guard in the bar of the town’s hotel.

Just like today, judges and prosecutors were overworked and understaffed. Trials were expensive and the prisons were overcrowded.  The prosecutor dismissed the burglary charges and had the men charged with petty larceny. Yantes and the Halls, who would be out on bail shortly, made threats of vengeance against the townspeople who attempted to prosecute the criminal family.  Everyone knew that the threats were real.  Houses and barns would be burned and throats could be slashed.  The people of Lookout had had enough with the terrorist family.

At 1:30 a.m. on May 31, 1901, a group of masked men rushed the guards watching over the clan at the bar.  They marched Daniel Yantes, Martin Wilson, and Frank, Jim and Calvin Hall off to the Pitt River Bridge and hung them over the railings.

The bridge in the background is the actual site of the lynching

The people of Modoc County were shocked and encouraged the authorities to prosecute the members of the lynch mob.  Modoc County Superior Court Judge Harrington wrote to the California Attorney General requesting investigators and a special prosecutor examine the case.

The Grand Jury convened on June 10th and indictments were presented against R. E. Leventon, Isom Eades and James Brown. The case against Brown was the strongest, and he was “brought to trial” on November 21, 1901. Assistant Attorney General Post and Deputy Attorney General George Sturtevant were sent from the Attorney General’s office in Sacramento to prosecute the case. Ex-Judge G. F. Harris, E. V. Spencer and John E. Raker, defended Brown.

Assistant Attorney General Post felt that he needed a bodyguard while in the wild North and hired noted gunfighter Danny Miller to protect him.  Miller made himself unpleasant to the people of Lookout during his stay.  He bullied the locals and brandished his pistols at the slightest provocation.

The authorities were nervous that there might be acts of violence committed by the locals, and there was talk about bringing California National Guard troops in to make sure that the peace was kept, but the only violence committed during the trial was caused by the Assistant Attorney General’s bodyguard, Danny Miller.  At one point in the trial, Miller drew a revolver in the courtroom and attempted to shoot Attorney John Raker.

Bounty hunters and reward seekers poured into Lookout, hoping that they would uncover evidence or persuade someone to testify to collect the reward offered by the State and several newspapers. So many residents were approached by the headhunters to commit perjury, that popular opinion tilted towards acquitting Leventon, Eades and Brown.

In the first week of January, a man who called himself Detective Gibson approached a young couple named Slavin, who were stranded in Alturas and were working for their room and board.  Gibson offered the husband a percentage of the reward, about $900, to testify for the State. The Slavins told Gibson that they knew nothing about the lynchings and that as “poor as he was, Mr. Slavin would not swear to a falsehood.”

Gibson returned a few days later, hoping that the cash would dull the Slavin’s ethics, and tried to get Slavin to testify, explaining to Slavin that “the men were guilty and that no one would ever be the wiser.” Slavin told Gibson that if he asked him to testify again, he “would shoot him like a dog.”

The crooked investigators interrogated John Hutton and Claude Morris, who were suspected members of the lynch mob.  The teenage Morris was taken into a room, plied with whisky and threatened by the detectives.  At two in the morning a completely intoxicated and frightened Claude Morris signed an affidavit that indicted fifteen members of the community.  The affidavit had already been prepared for him.  All he had to do was sign the paper.

The next day Morris protested that he had been hoodwinked into signing the affidavit. He was told that he would be charged with perjury if he went back on the confession that he had signed before a notary public. The young man was not allowed to talk to an attorney.  He was kept under guard and away from his family and friends.

On January 4th, 1902, Mary Lorenz, the half-breed daughter of old Mary Hall, swore to a warrant charging fifteen residents of Lookout with complicity in the lynching. They were all arrested, placed in jail, and on January 10th, indictments were filed charging each one with five different murders.

The trial was a farce. Judge Harrington disallowed any evidence introduced by the defendant’s attorneys and “raved like a madman” against them when they tried.  Almost every day of the trial Judge Harrington sent one or more of Brown’s attorneys to jail for contempt. Paid-off or bullied witnesses were paraded onto the stand to testify for the State, and Judge Harrington refused to allow the defense to produce evidence to prove the witnesses were lying.    Attorneys Harris, Raker and Spencer would argue the point and manage to get the evidence before the jury.  Judge Harrington would then send one of them to jail. The trial went on for months and cost Modoc County $40,000—a huge sum in 1901.

Lookout is about as far out in the boondocks as you can get in California

When the verdict was finally reached, the men were acquitted.  The citizens of Lookout knew that the lynched men were disreputable and dangerous characters.  Witnesses and reward hunters, fearing being charged with perjury or a necktie party, left town in the middle of the night.  Attorney General Post and his bodyguard, Danny Miller left Lookout on the first stage after breakfast.

The prisoners were discharged one, two and three at a time and quietly returned to their homes.  Life went back to normal for the first time in a long time in Modoc County.


Four Lynchings in One Day – Yreka, California – August 26, 1895


Lawrence H. Johnson was a Scottish emigrant who worked hard at various jobs around Etna, a mining town west of Yreka.  His work often took him away from home overnight, leaving his wife alone.  The fifty-nine year old Johnson had a feeling that his wife was unfaithful while he was away, so on the night of July 28, 1895, Johnson kissed his wife goodbye and then hid out near his home to see if his worst fears were true.  They were.

Johnson saw a young man enter his home.  After waiting a short time, Johnson entered his home and found his wife with her young lover in bed.  Johnson pulled out his revolver and started firing at the young man, who jumped out the window.  The only thing that saved the young Romeo is that Johnson’s gun misfired all three times he pulled the trigger.

Turning his anger onto his adulterous wife, Johnson pulled out his huge Bowie knife and stabbed her four times in the chest and stomach.  Why she didn’t jump out the window to save herself is unknown. 

Feeling remorse for the death of his wife, Johnson turned himself in to the Sheriff I. A. Moxley of Etna.  Johnson’s only regret was that his pistol misfired.  Sheriff Moxley took Johnson to Yreka for the murderer’s safety, as the people of Etna were in a lynching mood and Johnson was just the latest in a line of murderers to try the patience of the community.

Garland Stemler was on summer break from his studies at a Southern California college.  The nineteen-year-old Arkansas native was looking for adventure during his time off, so he rode the rails traveling throughout the state like a hobo.  Through his travels, he met up with forty-year-old Louis Moreno.

Moreno was no college boy slumming the rails for a summer adventure. He was a full-time criminal hobo, ready to break the law to suit his immediate needs.  On August 19th, the mismatched pair was short on money, so they entered Sears Saloon in Bailey Hill, fifteen miles north of Yreka with the intentions of robbing it.

Saloon owner George Sears and his elderly German bartender, Casper Meierhaus, had no intentions of letting the hooligans make off with the day’s receipts.  A fight transpired that surprised the younger men.  In the ensuing fight, Sears was shot in the head and died before he hit the floor.  Meierhaus was shot in the stomach, but lived long enough to give a full description of the assailants.

The hobos spilt up and ran in different directions.  Moreno was quickly captured, as he was the only Mexican running around Bailey Hill with a bullet wound in his hand.  Stemler was arrested in the Pokegama railyard.  He had a recently fired pistol in his possession that matched the shell casings left at the saloon. Stemler also had the bad luck of having made acquaintances with Meierhaus in the past.  Meierhaus identified Stemler by name.

Ohio-born William Null was one of the thousands who came to California to try their hand at finding gold.  The forty-five year old Null shot his partner, Henry Hayten, in the back on April 21st over a dispute about their claim near Callahan.  He pleaded insanity and was cooling out in the Siskiyou County Jail, awaiting trial for the murder on August 25th.

The citizens of Siskiyou County and Yreka were enraged that their community suddenly found four murderers in their county jail.  Disgusted at the fact that their tax money was being used to feed and house the murderers while the wheels of justice slowly turned, they decided to take matters into their own hands.

The men of the county started leaving their jobs early on August 25th.  Their employers wondered why everyone was suddenly feeling ill, and wives around the county looked in vain for their husbands who left their farm chores undone.  The men hid out in the forest around Yreka, staging themselves as set out in the timetable that was organized beforehand.  A jug of rotgut whiskey was passed around to instill courage in the normally upright and sober family men.

The men captured anyone who discovered them and didn’t know the password, which was “mud.”  The captured men had the choice to either join them or be a hostage held under armed guard.  By nine in the evening, two hundred and fifty men drifted into the outskirts of Yreka without being noticed.  One squad of men went to a blacksmith shop and acquired the necessary equipment for a lynching, rope and sledgehammers. They also procured a stash of dynamite. What their plans were for the explosives is unknown. Another squad went to the railroad yard and lugged off a rail.

A squad went to the fire station and tied the bell ropes too high to be reached without a ladder, so nobody would be able to raise an alarm.  Other squads swept the streets of Yreka for any unfortunates who were out walking and were either pressed into joining the lynch mob or taken prisoner.

The masked men woke Deputy Sheriff Radford at his courthouse office and demanded the keys to the jail.  Deputy Radford told the mob that he would blow the brains out of anyone who came through the door.  The mob knew that Radford meant what he said.  The mob left a squad of men to keep Radford at bay and searched for a new way into the jail.

The younger men among the mob climbed over the stone wall that enclosed the jail yard, waking up the night guard, Deputy Henry Brautlacht.  Brautlacht thought that some prisoners were escaping and stepped out of the jail, where he was promptly captured and disarmed by a squad of masked men. They took his keys and unlocked the cellblock.  Not having access to the keys for the cells, the mob used sledgehammers to break the locks on the murderer’s cells.

Louis Moreno, Garland Stemler, William Null and Lawrence H. Johnson hanging around outside the Siskiyou County Courthouse in 1895

Around eleven in the evening, some men pounded on City Marshal Erskine Parks’s door, telling him that there was a huge fight down on Miner Street.  The Marshal left his home in his nightshirt and ran down to Miner Street, where some men informed him that the fight had moved over to Main Street.  When Marshal Parks arrived at Main Street and found not a soul in sight, he realized that he had fallen hook, line and sinker for a diversion.  Out of breath, Marshal Parks ran for the fire bell to raise the alarm, only to find the ropes beyond his reach.  Parks ran to the jail, firing his pistol into the air, only to find the jail overrun by the lynch mob.  He was outnumbered and powerless to stop the lynching.

By one in the morning of August 26, 1895, the jail cell doors were smashed open and a mysterious middle-aged man wearing a long duster and a white mask appeared.  He calmly ordered the mob to start their business.

Gesturing for wife killer, Lawrence Johnson, to go first, the mob dragged the pleading man to the railroad rail that had been tucked between the limbs of two locust trees.  A noose was put around his neck and he was yanked up into the air in mid-sentence.

Next, the captain of the mob went to Null’s cell.  Null tried to make a statement before he was executed.  His statement was cut short by the rope.

Moreno walked silently to the makeshift gallows.  He showed no signs of fear and made no sounds as he joined Null and Johnson on the rail.

There was some talk between the Captain and the other leaders of the mob on whether or not young Garland Stemler should join the others.  It was decided that he was just as bad as the others and, because of his advanced education, should have known better.  Stemler was so frightened he could hardly speak.  He asked the mob to remove his boots because he promised his mother that he would die with his boots off.  He also said, “Tell my brother to tell my mother that I am innocent.”

Stemler joined Johnson, Moreno and Null in the locust trees, hanging like some kind of sick Christmas tree ornaments.  Witnesses said that the executions were all botched.  The ropes stretched and the men twisted as they strangled to death.

The mob left as quickly and quietly as they appeared.  Marshal Parks and Coroner Scofield cut the bodies down.  Around the neck of Lawrence Johnson was a note that read:

“Caution – let this be a warning and it is hoped that all cold-blooded murderers in this county will suffer likewise. 

Yours Resp’ly,

Tax Paying Citizens. 

P.S. Officers, ask no questions, be wise and keep mum.”

No one was ever prosecuted for the lynching and not a single person was ever identified as a member of the lynch mob.  Legend has it that the two locust trees in which the men were hung died a little more than a year after the lynchings. They supposedly withered away as if they were strangled.

Twisting in the wind in Redding – July 24, 1892 – Trail of Dead – 3


John and Charles Ruggles were born 1860 and 1871, respectfully, to prosperous parents near Woodland in Yolo County. Their father Lyman came out to California during the Gold Rush in 1850 and worked the mines until he realized that there was money to be made as a farmer. The hordes of people tromping around California needed to eat, and the restaurants that popped up all over the state needed fresh produce and meat. In time, Lyman was elected to the Yolo County Board of Supervisors. Having an eye for opportunity, he started farming in Tulare County and eventually acquired over four hundred acres of prime farmland.

Young John was sickly, and so his father sent him to live in Stockton, closer to his doctor. John’s physician, E.A. Stockton gave him a job as a stock tender on his ranch. John Ruggles had shown no inclination toward criminal behavior, but on October 31, 1878, he unexpectedly attempted to rob a couple who were out for a stroll. The man that he tried to rob pulled out a revolver and fired five shots, hitting John in the back. Wounded, he surrendered to the police immediately. His wound was serious, but he quickly recovered and was tried and convicted for robbery and assault. He was sent to San Quentin prison for seven years.

Old man Ruggles was distressed about his son’s surprising crime and imprisonment. No sooner had the prison doors slammed behind John Ruggles than old man Ruggles started a campaign to get his son pardoned, which no doubt included large donations to the governor’s campaign chest. Dr. Stockton wrote that he had been treating John for sex addiction and that John was nearly an imbecile when he committed the crimes.

Governor George C. Perkins pardoned John Ruggles after he served fourteen months in San Quentin. He was placed in the custody of his parents and seemed to go straight, working hard on his father’s farm, eventually buying several parcels of property near the town of Dinuba in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. By 1887, he was married and had a daughter, but luck was something that was always just out to reach for John Ruggles. His wife took ill and died in 1889, devastating Ruggles. Unable to care for a young child, he left his daughter with relatives. With little to live for, he neglected his crops, spending his time hunting and living off the land in the mountains.

In 1892, John’s little brother Charley came to visit his brother in the mountains. Charley had just come back from the gold fields in Shasta County where, instead of panning for gold, he allegedly robbed sixteen stagecoaches in the area with a buddy, Arizona Pete. After listening to Charley’s tales of his stagecoach-robbing exploits, John couldn’t resist hitting the outlaw trail with his little brother. He leased out his farm to a neighbor and rode north, stopping first in San Francisco for a little merrymaking.

On May 10, 1892 the Ruggles boys robbed the Weaverville stage, but the take was small. They decided to wait a few days before trying another robbery, scoping out a new location where the road tops out over a hill, five miles north of Redding. It was a perfect place to stage a holdup, because not only would the coach be traveling slowly as it reached the top of the hill, but the horses would be tired.

They stopped the stagecoach and demanded the driver to throw down the Wells Fargo boxes. As the second box hit the ground, simultaneous gunshots rang out and Charlie Ruggles was hit with buckshot fired by a guard riding in the coach with the passengers. More shots rang out, and the air filled with gun-smoke and dust kicked up by the panicked horse team. A passenger named George Suhr was hit by buckshot, as was the driver, Johnny Boyce. The guard, Amos “Buck” Montgomery, was also seriously injured and was bleeding profusely inside the coach.

John Ruggles was shocked that his second holdup went so wrong. He ran up to the coach and fired his revolver into already wounded Montgomery’s back. Boyce regained control over his team and rode hell-bent for leather out of there.

John ran up to his brother Charlie, who was reeling from his wounds. He had been shot in the face and was covered in blood. Believing that Charlie was good as dead, John grabbed the money, said goodbye to his little brother and fled the scene.

Charlie was soon found by a posse and was taken to get medical attention. He had been hit thirteen times with buckshot, with the most serious wounds knocking out some teeth and exiting out of his neck. Charlie refused to tell the authorities who his partner was, but Wells Fargo detective John Thacker quickly figured it out and was soon on his way to see Lyman Ruggles, who was now managing a warehouse in Traver. Catching the next train to Redding, Lyman visited his son in jail, where Charlie admitted that his partner was his brother, John. An eleven hundred dollar reward was put on John’s head.

John worked for a farmer for a few days and ended up in his old hometown of Woodland, where the locals immediately recognized him. While he was eating a meal at the Opera Restaurant, Deputy Sheriff Wyckoff walked in, sat down at the table next to John and leveled his pistol at the outlaw’s head. After a brief struggle, John was on his way to Redding.

At the Redding jail, John was joyously surprised when he discovered that his little brother was not dead. They had a tearful reunion behind bars.

Going to trial on July 28, the pair’s strategy was to implement the late Buck Montgomery as a collaborator in the robbery. This disgusted the people of Redding, as many of them had known Montgomery and had been to his funeral. There was talk of forming a necktie party and a scathing editorial from the Republican Free Press did nothing to help calm the population down.

Twisting in the wind, in Redding

In the early morning hours of Sunday, July 24, a group of masked men entered the jail and broke into the prisoners’ cells. John tried to take all the blame for the crime to save Charlie, but the lynch mob showed no sympathy to the elder Ruggles’ final pleas. They hung the Ruggles brothers from a makeshift gallows near Etter’s Blacksmith Shop. With purple faces, they slowly twisted in the wind, greeting the townspeople of Redding on their way to church.

Grisley Sacramento History – 1865


Irish born Frank Hudson was a poor soldier.  He deserted the British Army in Canada and joined the Sixth Regiment of Regulars of the United States Army at Rochester, New York.  He then deserted the U.S. Army, moved to California, and joined the army again.  This time he rode with the Second Cavalry, California Volunteers.

On April 14, 1865 while stationed at Camp Bidwell in Butte County, Lieutenant Daniel Webster Levergood reprimanded Corporal Hudson for being drunk.  At nine o’clock that night, Lieutenant Levergood was shot.  He lived for two days and identified Hudson as the shooter.  Hudson immediately went AWOL, but was soon captured.

Hudson, (his real name was Dean) was court-martialed in Chico and sentenced to hang.  He was taken to Fort Union in Sacramento for execution. Fort Union was located at what is now the northeast corner of Sutterville Road and Land Park Drive, near the Sacramento Zoo and Fairytale Town.

Child frolic near the site of an official Army execution

On the day of his execution, mounted guards were stationed at the west end of the parade ground to keep out uninvited spectators, but over 500 people stood on the public racetrack, 100 yards from the scaffold.  Three companies of soldiers stood at attention in front of the gallows.  General Wright, Adjutant General Evans and other officers were on hand for the somber occasion.

Father Gallagher led the 32-year-old Hudson to the gallows and read Hudson’s last statement.

“Francis Hudson before his execution declares that he dies in the hope of eternal bliss, through the merits of his Divine Savior Jesus Christ.  He forgives every person in the world, as he himself hopes forgiveness from God.  He returns his sincere thanks to the officers and soldiers at Camp Union for their uniform kindness to him during his imprisonment.  He also from his heart is grateful to his spiritual director, Father J.A. Gallagher, and to the Sisters of Mercy for their consoling words in preparing him for death.”

A black cap was pulled over his head and he fell through the trap, dying immediately. In 1878, while building the Y Street levee workers uncovered a buried coffin.  Inside was the body of Frank Hudson, in uniform with a noose still around his neck.  He apparently wasn’t allowed to be buried on sanctified land and was unceremoniously buried by the river.

Death in an Ice Cream Parlor – 40 years ago on September 24, 1972


The third annual Golden West Sport Aviation Air Show at Executive Airport in Sacramento was winding down.  The planes that performed at the event were beginning their taxi routes to fly out.  The column of airplanes was long, too long for pilot Richard Bingham, who voiced his complaint to the control tower.  Bingham was piloting a Korean War-era F-86 Sabrejet, a fuel-guzzling and temperamental plane, one of the first combat jet aircraft in the United States Air Force inventory.  The F-86 was a hard-edged aircraft, difficult to control at low altitudes. I routinely stalled if its nose wheel lifted off the ground when taking off at speeds slower than 140 knots.

The F-86 was a hard-edged aircraft, and difficult to control at low altitudes.

Bingham decided to take off on the shorter and less crowed runway to save on fuel.  He held an air transport pilot’s license – one of the highest-qualified licenses a pilot can have – but he only had twelve hours of flight time in the F-86

The blue and gold single-engine jet rolled down the runway, lifted its nose off the ground, bounced back down, and then lifted off.  But the aircraft stalled, lost altitude, and clipped an old levee.  The fuel-filled drop tanks ignited, causing a huge fireball.  The F-86 bounced, landing on Freeport Boulevard, bounced again, and slid into the corner window of Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor.

Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor was one of the two businesses open in the Crossroads Shopping Center that Sunday afternoon.  As many as 100 people, many of them children, were enjoying a refreshing treat when the flaming F-86 slammed into the restaurant.

That old fashion font that Farrell’s Ice Cream used, always creeps me out

Twenty-three people, including twelve children, died from multiple causes.  The entire Krier family – Warren and Sandra and their two children, Brandon and Jennifer, ages two and eight respectively – died in the inferno.  Nine members of another family also died.  Twenty-five people were injured.

When the fired department pulled the plane out of the wreckage to look for bodies, they found two automobiles melted together underneath the plane.  Inside one of the cars were the bodies of an elderly couple who had been driving on Freeport Boulevard when the Sabrejet bounced on top of their car.

It is amazing that more people were not killed in the explosion

To his credit, pilot Bingham rode the plane down instead of ejecting from the out-of-control and blazing plane.  He luckily survived, suffering a broken leg and arm.  A passerby pulled him out of his burning aircraft.

23 people, including 12 children died that horrible day, September 24, 1972

Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor is long gone.  The new Sacramento police headquarters is now located where the Crossroads Shopping Center once stood.  On March 15, 2003, a memorial was dedicated to the victims of one of the worst on-ground air disasters in American history.

He Shot the Sheriff – Santa Rosa 1935


Al Chamberlain was the last of his kind.  A real live cowboy who had seen the frontier dissolve before his eyes, and found his skills and lifestyle mocked by the younger generations.  Born in 1858 to a Santa Rosa cattle family, Chamberlain grew up on a horse, roaming the rangeland and hills.

For several decades, Chamberlain owned a horse corral on Sonoma Avenue, where Santa Rosa’s city hall now stands.  He supplemented his income by acting as a guide and packmaster for hunting expeditions.  Even though he was a living relic of a bygone time, many of the citizens of Santa Rosa, including some of Santa Rosa’s finest, teased the old timer.

Santa Rosa in 1924

In 1930, Santa Rosa bureaucrats forced Chamberlain to close up his corral because of allegedly unsanitary conditions.  It seems more likely that the authorities were interested in condemning his property so they could acquire his land for the new city hall.  Chief of Police Charlie O’Neal personally signed the final notice to vacate the property.  He gave Chamberlain three days to leave.  Chamberlain was never the same after the eviction.

Chamberlain attempted to learn how to drive, but he was a horseman first and foremost.  The sight of Chamberlain pulling back on the steering wheel of his old Chevrolet touring car and calling out “whoa” made the people of Santa Rosa roar with laughter at the old man.  He would often stop his car by crashing into the curb or sidewalk.  Chief O’Neal warned Chamberlain to get his vehicle under control or stay out of town.  Chamberlain wasn’t about to let some badge-wearing bully tell him what to do.

One day, Chamberlain ran his car onto the sidewalk and knocked down a woman.  She was unhurt and laughed it off, but Chief O’Neal threw the old cowboy in jail for reckless driving.  He was fined one hundred dollars and sentenced to thirty days in jail.  O’Neal added fuel to the flames by taunting Chamberlain during the trial and tormented him by asking the judge to raise Chamberlain’s fine.

After Chamberlain did his time, he started dressing like the cowboys of his youth.  He wore a big cowboy hat, boots, spurs and old-fashioned flannel shirts.  He had business cards made up that said, “Alfred E. (Two Gun) Chamberlain, Santa Rosa Outlaw and Jailbird.”  He handed them out to anyone that he met.  He still drove his old Chevy around town.

Financially ruined by the loss of his corral and his month in jail, Chamberlain sold most of his ranch to John McCabe.  He lost the rest of his fortune to back taxes, which were paid by McCabe.  Chamberlain completely lost his mind and plotted to assassinate McCabe, Sheriff Patteson, Chief O’Neal and his insurance agent, Harold Jones.  He was sure that he would be lynched and would die with his boots on, like the cowboy outlaw that he had turned himself into.

On July 15, 1935, a hot Monday morning, Chamberlain loaded his pistols and drove to his former home.  At the ranch he waited in the barn for McCabe to do his morning chores.  He shot McCabe eight times, leaving him for dead.  Chamberlain got into his beat up car and headed for Santa Rosa, reloading his old nickel-plated .44 and .45 revolvers.

Arriving in Santa Rose, Chamberlain parked his car and walked to the City Police Station on Hinton Avenue.  Chief O’Neal was the only person in the stationhouse. Chamberlain pumped three rounds into O’Neal and walked out to find Sheriff Patteson.

Santa Rosa back in the day that Al Chamberlain’s skills were appreciated

The sheriff was at the jail next to the police station.  He heard the shots and saw Chamberlain walking down the street with a gun in each hand. Patteson, thinking quickly, started walking toward Chamberlain.  Chamberlain asked the sheriff, “Are you Harry Patteson?”

“Hell, no, I’m not Patteson,” said the sheriff.  “What do you want with Patteson?”

The men walked down the street together for a few steps when Chamberlain realized that the man he was walking with was the sheriff.  Chamberlain raised both guns at Patteson and fired one of his pistols.  Patteson tackled the cowboy and two men, Joe Schurman and Burnette Dibble, helped disarm and subdue the old man.

That night, Sheriff Patteson took Chamberlain to San Quentin Prison for his own safety.  The recent lynchings in Santa Rosa made it too dangerous to house the old cowboy in the Santa Rosa jail.

John McCabe recovered from his eight gunshot wounds but Chief O’Neal died of his wounds on July 17.  Chamberlain was tried in September and sentenced to life in prison.  He died in San Quentin– a very un-cowboy-like ending.

The Last Lynching in California – January 6, 1947 Callahan, Siskiyou County


The students arrived at Callahan Grade School in Siskiyou County, on a cold winter morning just like any other school day. But January 6, 1947 was different.  Strung up on the telephone pole in front of the school was the body of an African-American man with calfskin wrapped around his shoulders.  Bullet holes could be seen on the bloodstained man.

All eight grades attended the same one-room school, and the children were ushered into the school by the teacher as the police and coroner’s van arrived.  An hour or so later, a young boy went outside to use the outhouse and bumped into a tall man wearing a suit and a cowboy hat.   The first grader asked the man what had happened.  “That’s to teach you kids what happens when you rustle cattle,” he replied.

The teacher of Callahan School later told her pupils, “You are never again to talk about what had happened here today.”

On Friday, January 10, 1947 the Western Sentinel newspaper carried a front-page story about the lynching of the African-American butcher from Weed, California.   A few days later, the Etna Gazette carried the story about a butcher who was lynched after being caught stealing a calf. Soon afterwards, all the copies of the Sunday, January 12, 1947 issue of the Etna Gazette and all the copies of the January 10th issues of the Western Sentinel disappeared, including the Siskiyou County Library’s copy, and so details of this lynching are scarce.

What we do know is that in the early morning hours of January 6, 1947, near Gazelle in Southern Siskiyou County, California, a small mob of local ranchers shot, wounded and captured a suspected cattle rustler on a ranch owned by a well-known Yreka medical doctor. From there the black man was taken to the village of Callahan and hanged from the utility pole in front of Callahan’s one room school house.  A cover-up was conspired by the so-called respected citizens of Gazelle, who with the help of local authorities managed to remove all documented evidence about the lynching.  Chances are good that at the time of this writing, some of the people involved are still alive and living in the area.

It was the last known lynching in California.

Psycho Hillbilly Brothers murder cops – August 29, 1936 – Horse Creek – Siskiyou County


In 1936, Siskiyou County was still reeling in the effects of the Great Depression.  The roads were virtually void of vehicles as people drove only when absolutely necessary, but the steadfast residents got by better than many people in the United States.  Vegetables were grown, eggs were laid and livestock was taken to slaughter.  Neighbors bartered with each other for goods and services.

The Great Migration of Americans from the Dust Bowl states was in full bloom.  Poor-as–dirt citizens of Oklahoma, Texas and other states from Middle America streamed into California to start a new life.  Most of these people were farmers whose land had been made unusable by years of drought and windstorms, so they naturally congregated around the large orchards and fields of the West Coast.

The Brite family was the quintessential Dust Bowl family.  Archie J. Brite and his wife Martha “Ma” along with their sons, thirty-five year old John and thirty-one Coke moved to an isolated mountain cabin, a mile and a half up a steep mountain trail, nine miles from Horse Creek, a village tucked into the rugged Siskiyou Mountains, about thirty miles northwest of Yreka on the Klamath River.  The only road out to the Brite home was rutted Horse Creek Road that predictably followed Horse Creek.  The Brites would park their weathered and roofless Ford Model T at the trailhead and would hike up a steep trail to their rented cabin where they grew vegetables and did a little mining.

John and Coke were convicted felons who did time in Arizona and Oregon before landing in Horse Creek.  From all accounts, the brothers were polite and hardworking men.  On their way to town, they often stopped at the handful of homes along Horse Creek Road to see if there was anything that they could pick up while they were in Horse Creek.  Because of the tough hike to and from the cabin, the sixty-five year old Archie and the sixty-four year old Ma rarely went to town with their boys.

Yreka’s Miner Street during the 1930′s

 The Brite Brothers were always courteous when they went to town, but the thing that got them in trouble was that they always bought a jug of wine to drink on the bumpy ride back home.  When under the influence of alcohol, Coke and John had hair-trigger tempers and would become extremely violent at the slightest insult.  Neighbor Charley Baker found out just how violent the Brite brothers could get.

In June 1936, after one of Coke’s excursions to Horse Creek, he stopped off at the Baker place to drop off two loafs of bread that Mrs. Baker asked him to get for her when he stopped by on the way to town.  Coke’s friend Maplesden, a local from a pioneer family, was driving.  Mrs. Baker could tell that Coke was drunk and told him that he should be ashamed of himself.

 “No, Goddamn you Mrs. Baker,” Coke said within earshot of Charley.  “I ain’t ashamed of what I done.”

Charley Baker approached Coke and told him to never speak to his wife that way again and to get off his property.  Coke responded by chasing Charley, cursing him with every step.  Charley grabbed a heavy stick that was used as a rosebush stake and whacked Coke across the arm.  Maplesden ran over to Charlie and threw both arms around him, begging him not to hit Coke again.

“I’ll get him out of here,” Maplesden told Charlie.  “I’ll take him out.”

Maplesden then ran to Coke, who was charging Charlie.  The men ran around the house with Maplesden holding onto the enraged Coke.  Maplesden finally calmed Coke down and got him into the car.  As they were driving away, Coke shook his fist at the Bakers and shouted, “I’ll getcha!”

The next day Charley drove to Horse Creek to seek advice from a friend.  He told Charley that it was probably just the alcohol talking and that Coke would probably come over and apologize after he sobered up.  The local Justice of the Peace, Judge Rainey, told him the same thing.

The Bakers had lived most of their lives in Long Beach, California and had only moved to Northern California a few years before. Charley, a retired carpenter, had few friends up in the mountains.  He was a God-fearing, intelligent man, but had a hearing impairment that sometimes made him quite cantankerous.  Charlie and his wife were teetotalers, didn’t socialize much and were quite happy tending their gardens.    They were basically city slickers and didn’t have much in common with the type of people that lived in the Siskiyou Mountains.

 In rural areas, deer hunting season is one of the biggest events of the year.  Farmers get ahead of their chores so they can have time to hunt.  Hunting stories mixed with good-natured kidding dominates conversation in barbershops and restaurants.  Deer hunting is a much a family happening as it is a sport, and it was always good to have some free meat on the table.

 Vallejo resident Fred Seaborn was Charley Baker’s friend and hunting buddy.  For years, the two hunted together on the first week of the season.  Seaborn, who was a retired naval officer and Vallejo’s Harbor Chief, arrived at the Baker place on August 29th, 1936, one week before hunting season started.  He wanted to help Seaborn catch up with his chores and do some scouting.

After supper, the two men walked down to the trailhead to look for one of Baker’s horses that had wandered off.  They quickly picked up its trail on the Government Path and followed it down to a neighbor’s pasture.  It was a pleasant evening and the two friends were enjoying the stroll.  It was getting dark out when they came upon Horse Creek, where Seaborn stopped to get a drink of water.  In a few seconds, the lives of dozens of people would change with one ignorant act of aggression, fueled by alcohol.

Whatever was said as the two men stooped to drink some fresh mountain water has been disputed since August 29th, 1936.

As Seaborn knelt to drink, he asked Baker who owned the old Model T parked at the trailhead.

Baker supposedly replied, “It belongs to the Brite boys up on the hill.”Little did the men know that the Brite brothers were sleeping nearby, too drunk to walk up the path to their home.  It was supposedly the only time that the Brite boys ever slept at the trailhead.

The Brite brothers, in their drunken stupor had hear Baker’s reply as, “It belongs to those two sons of bitches, the Brite boys, up on the hill.”

Coke Brite answered, “You’re Goddamned right it does.  What are you sons of bitches doing in our camp?”

An empty wine jug went whizzing past Seaborn’s head. Captain Seaborn apologized in a loud voice into darkness where the Brite brothers had been sleeping.  Suddenly, Coke and John came charging out of the darkness and started a fight worthy of a Hollywood movie.  Baker was beaten almost unconscious with a branch by John while Seaborn held his own with Coke.  Seaborn was a large man and a former sailor, who had seen his share of fights.  Eventually Seaborn and Baker got away from the crazed hillbillies and stumble down the trail to the Baker home.

Bloody and bruised, the two friends drove down the mountain road to Horse Creek to inform the authorities about the assault.  Judge Rainey issued an arrest warrant and called the Sheriff in Yreka.

Meanwhile, the Brite brothers crawled back into their bedroll and dozed back to sleep.  Not long after they fell asleep, a hoot owl woke them up.  John sat up and fired a shot from his .32 semi-automatic pistol in the general direction of the owl.  That seemed to shut the bird up.

Deputy Martin Lange, Baker, Seaborn and a former constable, Joe Clark drove out to the end of Horse Creek Road with the intentions of arresting the Brite brothers.   With flashlights on, the men approached the sleeping hillbillies.  Joe Clark walked up behind the Brite brothers’ sleeping area and pulled the blankets off the men, which angered them to psychotic proportions.

Clark smacked John over the head with his blackjack a couple of times, which quieted the man fairly easily.  Coke arose, and Clark clubbed him in the head too.  As the men were being handcuffed, Coke made a lunge for the blackjack and Deputy Lange got him in a bearhug.

Baker and Seaborn were just six to eight feet away from the fracas when Deputy Lange and Coke landed in front of them.  Seaborn hit Coke over the head a few times with his flashlight.  Seaborn then pulled Coke off Lange and threw him to the ground.  Coke landed on his bedroll and grabbed his 30/30 carbine and he started firing.  Baker was the only person to make it out of the camp alive.

He ran to his neighbor B.F. Decker, who lived only a few hundred yards from the trailhead.  Decker went to the camp and talked some sense into the Brite brothers.  He had to assure the men that he bid them no harm and only wanted to see what had happened.  Decker found Deputy Lange on his back in the center of the road.  There were two bullet holes between his eyes and one under his nose.  Most of his upper jaw was blown off.  Lange was also shot in the thigh and was barely alive when Decker found him.

Joe Clark was pitched over with his coat over his head.  He had a bullet in this back and the carbine, now broken, was lying nearby.  Coke had beaten Clark with the gun after he shot him.

Seaborn was on his back with his face smashed in.  He was shot under his left arm.  Seaborn, like Lange, was barely alive.  It was B.F. Decker’s turn to alert the authorities.

The Brite brothers ran for their parents’ cabin and no doubt told them what had happened. With Northern California’s reputation for lynching cop killers, Coke and John headed for the hills.

Decker took his neighbor and mining partner Bob Lanning to Horse Creek’s Justice of the Peace.  Deputy Eddie Mathews answered the call.  Mathews had been acting Sheriff when Clyde Johnson was lynched in 1935.  He had tried valiantly to intercept the lynch mob, but was too late.  The last thing that Deputy Mathews wanted was another lynching on his watch.

Deputy Mathews called Sheriff Chandler at his home and told him of the situation.  In short time, Sheriff Chandler, Mathews, Doctor Schlappi, Deputy L.L. Fortna and Yreka City Police officers Gilbert Rhodes and Frank Fullerton were screaming through the mountains towards Horse Creek in Mathews’s car.  In the meantime, Judge Rainey, Decker, Lanning and Joe La Plant headed up Horse Creek Road to see if anyone could be saved.

Sheriff Chandler took a surprisingly scientific investigation of the crime scene, preserving and cataloging the evidence.  Ma and Pa Brite were questioned and their cabin was searched.  They told the sheriff that the boys had fled into the mountains because they were frightened that they would be lynched.  Nine separate posses were organized, and the Brite cabin was put under surveillance.

Deer season was fast approaching, and the mountains and ravines would soon be full of hunters, who would also be on the lookout for the murderous brothers.  With the reward for the capture of the Brite brothers, some of the hunters were more interested in hunting the brothers than they were in their usual quarry.  Several times hunters brought in prospectors, hoping that it was one of the Brite brothers.  In one case a man was almost lynched when his capturers took him to a tavern instead of to the authorities.

Such was the fever pitch to revenge the deaths of three men that Frank Merriam, Governor of the State of California issued the following statement:  “There must be no more lynchings in California:  I will take whatever action is necessary to enforce the law.”

Siskiyou County District Attorney James G. Davis had his hands full.  Elected to the position only two years earlier, he beat the incumbent by only three hundred and forty four votes.  He kept the fact that he was half Native American in a time when Native Americans were still looked upon as subhuman in the rural areas of Northern California.  It was extremely rare for a Native American to even have a high school education, let alone college and law degrees.  Some people didn’t like the way that Davis was handling the investigation into the murder and the manhunt.  In fine California fashion, there was grumbling about a recall.

Hunters hunting for the Brite brothers

Trackers had found fresh tracks left by the brothers, and there was suspicion that the boys were being left food and supplies by Ma and Pa Brite, even though their cabin was under almost twenty-four hour watch. There was concern that the Brite brothers would come back and kill Baker, who still lived at his cabin less than a mile from the murder site.

In the meantime, Sheriff Chandler, District Attorney Davis and various bounty hunters were cozying up to Ma Brite, hoping that some sort of agreement could be made so that the Brite brothers could surrender without being pulled out of the Siskiyou County Jail in the middle of the night and hung from a telephone pole by a crowd of masked men.

On September 17th, District Attorney Davis scooted out of his office in a hurry.  Nobody knew where he was going and why he was being so tight lipped.  Davis didn’t show up for work the next day and the people following the case knew that something was up.

On September 19th, Sheriff Chandler got a telephone call from the warden of Folsom Prison, outside of Sacramento.  The district attorney and Dr. Earl Harris had arrived at Folsom Prison with Coke and John Brite.  They were to be imprisoned in the infamous penitentiary until their trial.  On the lam for nineteen days, the Brite brothers were ready to give themselves up.  They had met secretly with Davis and Dr. Harris, a dentist, at noon near the Brite cabin.  They had driven in a roundabout way to Sacramento, taking Highway One, along the coast to avoid anyone who would recognize them.  The trip took nearly an entire day.

A trial was held and the Brite brothers claimed many things, including that they couldn’t remember the fight or the murders because they were too drunk.  They also blamed Baker for inciting the fight by calling them “sons of bitches.”  The brothers were found guilty of three counts of first-degree murder.

On December 22nd 1936, the men were sentenced to death, however over the years of appeals the sentence was reduced because there were questions about Deputy Clark’s sobriety at the time of the attempted arrest of the brothers and the credibility of the witnesses.  Oddly, District Attorney Davis led the appeal.  The brother’s sentence was reduced to life in prison.

The people of Siskiyou County were very resentful about the sentence and the actions of the District Attorney.  Davis lost the election in 1938, mainly because of his defense of the killers.

The Brite brothers were paroled on September 17, 1951, but they both broke parole and were returned to Folsom Prison.  Coke Brite was paroled in 1972.  He died on April 19, 1973.  John Brite was presumably murdered in prison sometime between 1964 and 1973.

Some historians believe that Coke and John Brite were innocent, and that Charley Baker, Fred Seaborn, Deputy Martin Lange and Constable Clark had set up the brothers in order to get access to the Brite’s cabin.  This seems highly unlikely because Baker and his wife had only lived in the area for a few years and by all accounts were loners with few friends.  Seaborn had a respectable job as the Harbor Chief of the city of Vallejo and was in Siskiyou County only to visit Baker and to go hunting.  Since Baker already had a nice home, less than a mile from the Brite’s cabin, what would the men possibly want with an old ramshackle miner’s cabin?   And why would Constable Clark and Deputy Lange want to risk their careers and reputations by helping near strangers, Baker and Seaborn, take over the cabin?  The facts of the violent attack and the brother’s criminal records, along with their inability to hold their alcohol, also contradict that theory.

There is no doubt that the Brite brothers could have been lynched and that District Attorney Davis went beyond the call of duty in protecting them, but when the facts are all laid out; the Brite brothers weren’t so bright after all.  In reality, they were ignorant, drunken psychopaths who would felonious assault neighbors at the slightest insult and murdered three men at the end of Horse Creek Road in 1936.

Vernal Fall – 17 / Humans – 0


California is blessed with extensive natural beauty and one of the most beautiful places on Earth is Yosemite National Park.  A World Heritage Site since 1984, Yosemite was the first parcel of land to designated for protection by the Federal Government on June 30, 1864 by President Abraham Lincoln.  The State of California controlled the area until it was transferred to the National Park Service on its inception in 1916.

Vernal Fall is one of the most dangerous places in Yosemite National Park

Millions of tourist have visited Yosemite over the years to enjoy its breathtaking mountain vistas, cascading waterfalls and 800 miles of hiking trails.  It has been said that you can walk 50 yards from any of the park’s roads and you will be in the wilderness.  Which is why it is so easy for a tragedy to occur in the park.  There are 704,624 acres of land in Yosemite and 92.4 percent is wilderness.  Add over 3.5 million visitors each year and the odds are that someone is going to die there.

The most deadly single place in Yosemite National Park is Vernal Fall, where the Merced River tumbles 317 feet into a pool of rocks and boulders.  As of 2010, seventeen people have fallen over it’s ledge.  None of them survived.

The first recorded death at Vernal Fall was sixteen-year-old Lucille Dulingon who stepped into the abyss on August 22, 1924. Lucille was enjoying her vacation at Yosemite National Park, a giant change of scenery than her life in Hollywood, which was then a dusty town of orchards mixed with the emerging film industry.   After a grueling climb to the head of Vernal Fall, Lucille along with her father and her friend, Riva Straub stopped to admire the magnificent waterfall that plunge 317 feet out of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  The teenagers posed for photos by the guardrail, but the girls thought that they could get a more dramatic photo if they were on the other side of the River of Our Lady of Mercy.

Being late summer, the river was running deceptively low and the girls had no problem getting across the river for their photos.  Riva crossed the river without a problem, as Lucille’s father changed the film in his camera.  Lucille took a different route than Riva and started to jump from rock to rock.  Perhaps she slipped on the algae-covered smooth river rocks or maybe the ice cold water numbed her feet too much, whatever the case, the teenage girl fell into the river and disappeared, only to surface in time to scream as she plummet over the ledge and to her death.

The panic stricken father ran down the trail to the base of the falls, while Riva ran to get a ranger.  Lucille’s lifeless body was bobbing violently around in the pool, as her father tried desperately to swim out to his daughter.  They retrieved her later with a rope.   Lucille Duling was the first waterfall fatality in Yosemite as a result of a photo opportunity.   Unfortunately, she wasn’t the last.

On June 29, 1929 a twelve year old boy from Burlingame was enthralled by the spectacular view while standing in the middle of the Merced River.  Forest Case and his friend Edward Shoemaker had hiked up the Mist Trail to the top of the falls.  Case, stepped about twenty feet into the river after getting a drink of water.  He shouted to Shoemaker, “Look at those mountains up there, with the white clouds floating around them!”  Those were his last words as he lost his footing and fell into the swift current.

Shoemaker ran to help his struggling friend and got as far as grabbing Case’s hand, but the river tore their death grip apart and Case went screaming over the falls in front of dozens of witnesses.  Three female witnesses fainted at the sight of the boy falling over the ledge.  Case’s body was never found.

Orville Dale Loos was on leave from the Navy when he and two other sailors went to visit Yosemite.  Loos, a native of Dayton, Ohio were hiking along at the top of Vernal Fall when he saw eleven year old Keen Freeman being carried down the river toward the lip of the falls.  The boy and his father Dr. Walter Freeman were visiting the park from Washington D.C.  Keen fell into the river while trying to fill his canteen. The sailors jumped the guardrail to try to save the boy from a certain death. Loos got ahead of the other rescuers grabbing Freeman just fifteen feet from the brink.  Swimming against the powerful current with Freeman under his arm, Loos made it to a finely polished boulder and clung on for a few seconds before the algae cover rock made him lose his grip sweeping Freeman and Loos to their death.  Freeman’s body was found a week later.  Loos was found five days after Freeman, just a hundred yards from the base of the falls.

The next three deaths at Vernal Fall happened without any witnesses.  William C. Hansch apparently went off the trail on June 3, 1947.  The forty year old man from Sacramento had left his backpack near the top of the falls and his body was found fifty-four days later, at the base.  On August 8, 1965, twelve year old Ohioan Daniel R. Duda mysteriously went over Vernal Fall and was not found until October 16th.   Seven year old Roberta Mary Hurd of Jackson was on a family vacation in Yosemite, when  her while her parents were momentarily distracted, when she fell in.  She was spotted by a witness just as she was about to go over the falls.  She was found on July 4th.

In normal years, Vernal Fall is reduced to a trickle by August

On June 18, 1970 tragedy again struck Vernal Fall.  After climbing over barriers and ignoring signs warning hikers not to go into the Merced River, 30-year-old La Puente resident Yolanda Fuentes and her daughter Christine along with five other members of their party sat on the rocks in the raging river to cool off and take photos less than sixty feet from the lip of the falls.  A woman who was standing in the water taking photos dropped her hat into the water.  Little Christine sloshed over to retrieve it and was pulled into the strong current.  Her mother Yolanda chased after her daughter and was gripped by the rushing water.  One by one, the hat, Christine and Yolanda were all swept over the ledge to their death.  Yolanda’s decomposed body was found over two month later.  Christine’s body was never found.

William Ramirez of Gardena hiked up the Mist Trail with his brother, John on July 11, 1971.  Hot and sweaty from the hike in the summer heat, William climbed over the guardrail to take a dip in the cool waters of the Merced River.  John, wisely stayed on shore and expressed his concern to his brother about the wisdom of swimming in the water despite all the signs warning against it.  William ignored his brother and continued to swim 175 feet upstream of the rim.  The current snatched him and pulled him downstream.  Witnesses said that Ramirez appeared to be in shock and made no effort to struggle out of the death ride.  John ran into the river to save his brother but realized that he too would be dragged over the falls and got out.  William Ramirez was found by hikers ten days later.

Nine days later, sixteen-year-old Randy Friedman was with a tour group seeking the natural beauty of Yosemite National Park.  The Hartsdale, New York teenager climbed over the guardrail to fill his canteen and before anyone could comprehend what had happened, Friedman went over the brink and his body was never found.

Vernal Fall was the site of at least one suicide when on April 30, 1973, Leah Oliver Good told her husband, a Park assistant superintendent that she was going on a hike.  The next day hikers found her body fifty yards from the base of the falls.  She had died from the impact of falling 317 feet.  The 49-year-old Good was sick with cancer had probably committed suicide.

Fresno native, David Kingseng Chu hiked up the Mist Trail with his family on August 18, 1977, it would be a full day and a lifetime before he’d come down.   Climbing over the guardrail festoon with warning signs, Chu waded into the icy Merced River just twelve feet from the lip of the killer waterfall.

The river was running low and 1977 was a drought year, however gravity trumps stupidity.  Chu wanted to take a photograph of the water falling over it’s ledge, standing in the middle and on the very tip of the falls.  Realizing the danger that was upon him, he panicked and leaped sideways toward a nearby dry boulder.  Slipping on the algae-cover river boulders that lay just below the surface, Chu’s feet slipped out from under him and he disappeared over the edge.

The Yosemite Search And Rescue (SAR) team arrived and unsuccessfully searched the boulder strewn basin.  They sent searchers downstream to search for the body to no avail.  Rangers believed that Chu’s body may be stuck in a crevasse behind the pounding wall of water.

The next day the SAR team sent in a wetsuit clad ranger 75 feet from the bottom of the falls.  Dangling from safety ropes, the ranger worked his way sideways into the falls.  The freezing water easily pierced the neoprene insulated suit and the force of the falling water almost drowned him at times.  After staying in as long as he could, he was replaced by another ranger who brought along a seven-foot fireman’s pike.  The ranger found Chu’s crushed body wedged four feet into an 18 inch wide crevice.

Twenty-eight years went by before the next death happened at Vernal Fall, when Silicon Valley software engineer Chintan Dakshehbai Chokshi made a decision that would cost him his life.  The 24 year-old native of Ahmedabad, India was with a group of friends on their way to Nevada Fall and stopped to rest at Vernal Fall.  Wanting to wash his face in the cold Merced River, Chokshi climbed over the barrier rail and unknowingly walked towards his death.  Stepping into the river, Chokshi immediately slipped on the slick rocks, fell on his butt and was pulled into the current.  Struggling to regain his footing, Chokshi was pulled to his death.

Chokshi’s body was discovered on September 24th and to add to the tragedy NPS Special Agent Dan Madrid suffered a fatal asthma attack while partaking in the recovery of the body.

On July 19, 2010, twenty-two year old Hormiz David, twenty-one year old Ramina Badal, both of Modesto and twenty-seven year old Ninos Yacoub of Turlock were on a day trip to Yosemite.  Despite the warning signs and raging white water churning before the ledge of Vernal Fall, the trio walked into the Merced River to take some photos.  They were all swept over the falls.  Hormiz David’s body was found in July about a half mile from the base of the falls.  Yacoub and Badal’s bodies were discovered in December 2010.

The tranquility of nature can mask real danger in a heartbeat.

Aunt Edna’s Secret


(Please note:  This is my first piece of published fiction.  It was picked as the Winner of “Best Prose” by Point No Point Magazine – a Seattle literary magazine created by the late Patrick McRoberts and Walt Crowley – in 1996)

My great Aunt Edna lived most of her life on a goat farm on north Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound of Washington State.  She tended her goats on her lush, two hundred-acre spread pretty much by herself.  She never married.

Aunt Edna was my grandfather’s sister.  She must have been over sixty when I was born.  Throughout my childhood, my family would pile into the station wagon about once a month and take the two-hour drive from Seattle to Aunt Edna’s farm.  She was always happy to see us.

Her house was always in complete disarray.  Stacks of magazines slid off the end of the couch onto the coffee table that was covered with books, seashells. Glass jars filled with colored liquids. And plastic soldiers left at her house years earlier by various male relatives.  The linoleum on her floors had long ago peeled away. Leaving the bare wooden planks stained by years of farm fresh boots, the house emitted the essence of goat and after a few hours inside, on got the extreme desire to bolt for the door for a gulp of fresh air.

The farm consisted of the house, a large barn, two large sheds and three smaller ones. And a chicken coop.  A circular driveway looped off the road, which was a couple of miles off the highway.  The shade-covered front yard was fenced in so when you pulled into her driveway, you first had to get out of your car and open the gate.  Aunt Edna’s yard was free range for the goats. The penalty for not closing the gate was a day’s work on the farm, which we would gladly do as we all loved to be there.  Even while in high school I would often go out to Aunt Edna’s on the weekend to help her out.  I’d camp out in the back forty, smoke pot and groove on nature.  Aunt Edna loved my shaggy friends and they loved her.  She didn’t care if I brought girls over to camp out either, which led to ample opportunities for teenage sex.

Aunt Edna was a social animal.  Her phone rang every fifteen minutes and she had visitors every day but she rarely left the farm.  She liked to be sure her goats were safe.

There was only one way to physically describe Edna; a hunchback toothless hag who swore like a sailor.  Her appearance was shocking.  We all found it wise to forewarn first time visitors.  My mother always warned us kids that if we didn’t stand up straight we’d end up hunched over like our aunt.  Edna had about three teeth in her mouth.  There were a couple of brown stubby things on her gums but I never found out it they were teeth or not.  Her gray hair was always braided and under a floppy hat.  Her face was deeply wrinkled and her hands were like claws; fingers like pink hooks.  They came in handy when carrying bales of alfalfa and hay.  Aunt Edna could fling a bale as far as I could, and I was young and virile.

She loved her goats but you’d never know it by the way she talked to them.   When she brought them into the shed for the night there was always a marathon session of profanity.  I could swear all I wanted when I was with Aunt Edna.  She taught me how.  Her goats were all named “Motherfucker.”

“Come with me you little motherfucker!” she’d say as she grabbed a goat by the beard.

My mother hated all the swearing so I learned to switch it on and off pretty well.  But once I came running in from the fields with a bouquet of wild flowers for my mother, screaming as eight year old boys do, “Mom!  I picked these fucking flowers for you!”

As much as she loved her goats, Edna never had a problem selling them to the butcher.

“Goodbye you motherfuckers.” She’d say as the truck full of goats pulled onto the road.

Her mildly retarded farmhand, Bobby, found Aunt Edna dead in her bed on a beautiful spring morning.  Bobby lived a quarter mile up the road and knew Edna his entire fifty-some years.  He was about as retarded as the television character, Gomer Pyle.

Bobby always gave me the creeps.  He gave Edna the creeps too.  Aunt Edna wasn’t’ gentle with him.  If he stood around in the kitchen too long while family was over she’d say to him, “Goddamn it Bobby!  You got your own fucking family just up the road!  Get the fuck outta here and don’t come back until bedtime.”  By “bedtime.” She meant when the goats are brought in for the night.  That was the only time she really needed him.  He worked for Edna his whole life and was soon to be out of a job.  He was very upset about her death and cried his eyes out on my father’s shoulder. But his emotional upheaval had more to do with the inevitable loss of the only job he had ever had.  His tears ended abruptly when we asked him to take care of the farm while we tried to find Edna’s will and decide what to do with the place.  Bobby told us that she was perfectly normal the day before.  They had brought in the goats together just like any other evening.

The Saturday after we buried my great Aunt Edna, my father and I drove out to her farm to go through her things and to give Bobby some money.  My father was in his mid-seventies and wasn’t getting around like he used to.

“Goddamn it!  It’s just like Edna to die and not tell any of us if she had a will;” croaked my father.  “For over thirty years I must of asked her a hundred times in a hundred different ways.  Aunt Edna, you’re not going to live forever.  You gotta make some plans about what you want done with the farm after you pass away.  You’d think that once, just once, she’d pull me aside or call me up and tell me what was going on.  Nope.  She always acted like she didn’t hear me.  If this thing lands up in probate, you’re going to have to deal with it.  I’m too damn old to deal with lawyers and judges, especially all the way up here!  These island hicks love to mess with city people!”

I listened to my father as I drove.  He was right, it was a major pain in the ass not knowing if and where the will might be.  My father, her closest living relative, was in no condition to deal with a paper chase and the bureaucracy of our legal system.  Neither was I.

I had a mortgage on an overpriced house that needed new plumbing, a business that fluctuated as much as the Puget Sound tides during June, a wife who wanted to go back to school and a fourteen year old daughter who thought black gangsta types were cool.

“You know,” my father said, “Edna was the last of her kind.  The end of the old family.  It’s funny, that old farm is the closest thing out family has to a homeland.  Edna bought it the year I was born, nineteen nineteen.  Now what the hell are we going to do with it?  Nobody wants to live up there.  That house is no good.  They’ll probably have to burn it down.  You’d have to build a little cottage or something up there to use it as a weekend place, but who’s go the money for that?”

“Maybe some old navy guy will retire there,” I said.

“Maybe,” Dad grumbled.

State Road Twenty winds through Fidalgo Island like a View Master show.  I must have been on that road five hundred times and the scenery always delights me.

“Remember that guy that built the Ark?  I think it was right up here.”

My father was getting old.  I learned to keep quiet when he said repetitive things.  For the last ten years, every single time we drove up to Edna’s together the old man would bring up the Ark and every time he’d point out a different place.  I remember the exact location, but he never believes me.  He isn’t a dick about it, he just doesn’t believe me.

I stopped at a little store and bought a six-pack, a bag of Frito’s and some salsa.

“What do we need beer for?” whined my father.  “It’s only ten o’clock in the morning!”

“I think that after we spend the day in Aunt Edna’s house you’ll be glad to have a beer or two.”

We drove in silence for a while.

“I hope Bobby doesn’t start crying,” the old guy spoke, “I hate it when he cries.  He was always such a crybaby.”

“Yeah, but he’s retarded, dad.”

“Yeah, I remember when he was born.”

I prepared myself for another story that I knew by heart.

“Not much hope for that guy.  The cards were stacked against him when he entered this world.  His mother wasn’t very bright either.  She got wild at a young age and started hanging out with sailors, got knocked and had Bobby.  That didn’t stop her from drinking and carrying on.  She died in a car wreck on Strawberry Point Road.  The car is still down there!”

“I know dad.  I know.”

We drove again in silence.

It was odd to pull into Edna’s driveway knowing that for the first time in seventy-five years Edna wouldn’t be there.

Bobby waved to us from the barn.  The only sound I could hear were birds singing.  No dogs here.  The only kind of dog Aunt Edna ever owned were mongrel lap dogs.  She didn’t believe in outside dogs.  “Same as a goddamn coyote,” she’d say.

I went into the house while dad went to the barn to talk to Bobby.  It wasn’t much of a house; two stories, wood frame, surrounded by lilac and blackberry bushes, two bedrooms upstairs, a bedroom, living room and kitchen downstairs.  Off the kitchen was a sunroom and a bathroom with a big old claw and ball tub and freestanding sink.  The bathroom was always the cleanest room in the house.

The place had been shut up for a week and the air in the house was stale and rank.  I left the door ajar and opened a couple of windows.  A trio of goats ran to the window and stared up at me.  Goats are friendly and curious animals.  Like cats, their faces distinguish them.  They all look just a little different.

The curtains were really worn.  I wondered how old they were.  The whole place needed painting and a lot of the wood was rotten.  Then there was the smell.

A navy jet roared by, shaking the house and my kidneys.  A navy air station was only five miles away.  Maybe the pilot flying that plane will buy this farm.  After he retires, he can sit out here in peace and quiet and have his liver quivered.

Suddenly I had an eerie feeling that I was not alone in the room, that I was being watched.  I could feel two eyes on the back of my head.  I quickly turned around to see a young goat standing in the doorway.

“Get out of here. You little motherfucker!”  I yelled.

The goat hightailed it out of there.  She was probably wondering who we were and what happened to Aunt Edna.

There’s an old tradition with beekeepers when they die.  Someone goes to the hives and tells the bees that their keeper is dead.  They drape black cloth over the hives.  Several times throughout my life I have seen covered beehives while driving in some rural areas.

I could see dad and Bobby walking toward the house.  Bobby’s mouth was flapping like long underwear on a clothesline.

I’m sure he had told each and every goat on the farm about Edna’s death.  I didn’t want to deal with Bobby so I went out the front door and got the groceries out of the car.

I could hear dad and Bobby walking through the house, so I walked around and came in the backdoor.  Dad got rid of Bobby and we got down to work.

“Well,” said my father, “where should we start?”

Let’s look in her nightstand,” I said.

We went into Edna’s cluttered bedroom and opened the drawer of her nightstand.  An envelope with the name of a law firm on it was sitting on the bottom of the drawer, underneath three or four romance novels.   Everyone was too upset when Edna died to look around.  She had made her funeral plans and had even bought her grave and tombstone years ago.  All the mason had to do was carve her death date.  Dad took the letter out and we read it.  It was a letter to Edna confirming a change in her will and it was dated June 1, 1993.  It seemed that Aunt Edna had a lawyer in Seattle who knew what was going on.  That was good enough for both of us.  I’d call him on Monday.

We went outside and cracked open the beer to celebrate our short search.

“All this time, Edna would never tell me what her plans were,” lamented my father.

“Well don’t get too excited dad.  Knowing Edna she might have left everything to the “Center for U.F.O. Studies” or “Save the Whales.”  You never know.  Maybe that’s why she’d never talk about it.”

“Oh, it’s not the money.  It’s just, well… I’ve always looked in on her.”

“Come on dad, nobody looked after Edna.  She’d get pissed of and tell you to mind your own business.  It just wasn’t in her nature to be looked after.  I’ll call this lawyer on Monday and find out what’s up.  Until then, let’s enjoy being in the country.”

Dad went to snoop around in the barn while I checked out Edna’s upstairs rooms.  I was only up there a half a dozen times in my life.  The two rooms were full of cardboard boxes and not much else.  From my understanding, the items in the boxes once belonged to my great-grandparents who both died in the 1930’s.

I opened every box in the first room only to find old blankets and bed things.

“Can’t ever have enough blankets.” I thought, “but this is crazy.  There must be a lifetime supply here.”

I went into the other room, which was smaller; I made my way straight to the closet, where I found a large steamer trunk.  I had to move some boxes around to clear an area so I could have some room.

“Could this be something of value?”  I thought.  “Could this be a treasure of untold proportions?  A family heirloom from the old country?  What country would it be from?  I’m a hopeless American.”

I was a little nervous.  I undid the latches and lifted the lid.  At first I thought that the trunk was filled with glassware wrapped with newspaper, but good things don’t always come in small packages.  Instead of vases and goblets. I found five tiny skeletons; each wrapped individually in it’s own newspaper.  The date of the papers gave me a time frame of these little mysteries.  It appeared that all the skeletons were of newborn infants, fresh from the womb.  There was no way to tell whose babies they were; if they were stillborn or left to die.  The newspapers were dated between 1921 and 1930.  Surely everyone involved was either dead or very old.

Gazing out the window, I saw my father walking out of the barn.  He was carrying an old milk can that was probably as old as he was.  I put the bones in the newspapers and back into the chest that had been their mausoleum since birth.

My father talked all the way home about the contents of Aunt Edna’s barn.

“There’s got to be at least a half a dozen milk cans in that barn!  I found tools that haven’t been made in years.  I don’t even know what some of them are for!  But ho, look what I found.”

Dad reached back behind my seat and pulled out a thick disk of hard black rubber about eighteen inches in diameter.

“You know what this is?”  He asked.

I glanced over to look at it.  I was only half listening to him.  Traffic was getting heavy and my mind was still in Aunt Edna’s upstairs room.

“No, what is it?”

“Well back when they used wooden beer kegs, the driver had to make sure that the barrels wouldn’t break when he dropped them off the wagon.  So he’d place this rubber disk on the ground to cushion the impact, pretty neat, huh?”

I didn’t tell my father about the little guys and I didn’t even tell my wife.  Instead I came back the next day.  I tossed the newspapers and put the bones into a bag.  I grabbed a shovel and buried the little guys out in the back forty while the goats looked on amused.

I don’t know whom those bones belonged to; if they were Aunt Edna’s children or someone else’s.  It didn’t matter.  Aunt Edna was family and if she had any secrets, they were buried on Whidbey Island.