Sespe Wilderness is Probably Cursed
Nobody else has made this claim yet, but after enough research, I'm declaring it. There's obviously no dramatic story like that of Dona Petronilla's curse on Griffith Park, but by the end of this article you'll likely agree that someone forgot to tell the rest of us that there's some ancient curse on the outskirts of Ojai that kills people and forbids anyone from developing the area.
Lowkey, this article was a way for me to parlay a backpacking trip into a history lesson. I didn't die, obviously, but I did twist my ankle walking through the Sespe Creek and lost my Ray Bans and Leatherman. Three days after I came back, the area to the south erupted in the nightmare Thomas Fire.
Originally, this area was established by the General Land Office of California in 1892 as the Pine Mountain and Zaca Lake Forest Reserve. In December 1903, Teddy Roosevelt combined this reserve with the Santa Ynez Forest Reserve and called it the Santa Barbara Forest Reserve, which later combined with more reserves to form the Los Padres National Forest Megazord. Teddy's initiative allowed current land owners and settlers to retain their rights, but this often became a complex, muddy legal fight throughout the area because of the already messy rancho issues with squatters.
In 1902, John W. Burson decided it would be pretty spectacular to have an electric railway that ran from Fillmore to the Sespe Hot Springs. He wanted a bathhouse and hotel built so all those tired oil workers in the Burson oil fields wouldn't have to go all the way to the beach for a vacation, they could just relax nearby and give him back the money he paid them. Genius!
In May 1903, the area along the Sespe River that included Sespe Hot Springs was granted to the Radford family by the Southern Pacific Company. Henry Crane Radford, a butcher and oil investor from New York who traveled frequently, failed to acquire the deed from the selling party before they moved to Nevada. Furthermore, all the maps and property lines were screwed up and no one really knew what the hell the was going on. In August, it seemed that John Burson owned the hot springs after a land survey was performed. In October, the forestry service said, “Nah, man, that hot spring is on the Pine Mountain and Zaca Lake Forest Reserve. No one is allowed to own, only lease.” So John Burson applied for a land lease. But wait! There's more. It turns out a congressman had, long ago, already secured a long term lease for a “Jack” Hollingsworth. Oh, the drama.
Finally, in November 1903, after accepting an unknown sum of money, the government grants a land patent of 320 acres to Henry Radford. Despite the fact they essentially bought the land twice, things seemed to be going swell for the Radfords until January 1904. Their 22-year-old son, Harry Radford, disappeared while on a hunting trip. After a fifty man search party found his body, an autopsy was performed. The coroner determined that Harry fell off a cliff while carrying his rifle, hit several pine branches, and somehow, in all that flailing, the rifle discharged through his neck. While it certainly could be the most freaky of freak accidents, the fact that the Radfords were recently engaged in a bitter fight with several parties over land ownership makes the circumstances somewhat suspect. A few years later, the Radfords, who were only in their 50's, died. Their daughter, Lillian, sold off the land.
Jumping to 1918, the body of Joseph A. Crane is found in a shallow grave near the Sespe Hot Springs by a group of campers. 17-year-old William Taylor confessed to the shooting in an attempt to play it off as self-defense, but witnesses say that Taylor said he always hated Crane. His mother fainted in the court room when the judge determined he would not be tried in juvenile courts. Taylor was sent to San Quentin and died of a lingering illness in 1923.
Over the next 15 years, several parties attempted to purchase the land and build a resort. In 1922, it was HN Newman and two other men. In May 1927, PS Coombs of the Sespe Development Corporation announced monorail plans between Fillmore and Sespe Hot Springs. He said construction would begin within 60 days and the monorail would transport people to the hot springs in an impressive 30 minutes. In July, construction began. It seems they decided that was too difficult, because in November 1927, the Sespe Development Corporation issued stocks to build a resort and have a road come in through the north instead of from Fillmore. In 1928, the company now swears that the monorail will be built as soon as litigation settles. PS Coombs continues to make claims of potentially huge monorail profits as late as September 1929. Then silence as the Great Depression hits. The last change of private ownership I found was when the land sold to a group of Long Beach men in 1931.
From here on out, there's just a series of deaths. In August 1932, Deon Rockwell falls off a cliff while hunting. In April 1954, 13-year-old Boy Scout James E. Houston falls off a cliff. April 1956, Hubert C. Sharp of Walnut Growers Association dies of a heart attack while fishing near Sespe Hot Springs. In January 1969, 6 boys and 4 are men killed in the flooded Sespe river during a storm. Had they hunkered down during the storm, they would have been fine. In June 1970, Robert Schutz goes missing while swimming in Sespe. In June 1971, Richard O. Hunziker and his wife, Margaret, die in a bi-plane crash in the Sespe Wilderness. In August 1975, Daniel Ayres dies in a plane crash near Sespe Hot Springs. Three companions survive, but one, John McElheney, is in the hospital with critical burn wounds. In May 1977, 50 people are stranded near Sespe due to washed out roads. In 1991, the Sespe Wilderness Area was officially declared.
I'm going to circle back to 1970 for the most famous Sespe Wilderness death, that of attorney Ronald Hughes. Hughes went on a Thanksgiving weekend retreat to the Sespe Hot Springs after being appointed to defend Leslie Van Houten in the Tate-La Bianca murder trials. In 1969, he had met with Charles Manson and was supposed to defend him, but was then replaced with the more experienced Irving Kanarek two weeks before the trial. See, Hughes failed the bar exam three times. He subsequently enraged Manson by trying to be a good defense attorney for Van Houten and separating her interests from that of the Manson family. He attempted to extinguish Linda Kasabian's credibility by exposing her drug usage and magical beliefs while illustrating the complete brainwashed control Manson had over Van Houten.
For months, the search for the body of Ronald Hughes endured. His badly decomposed body was discovered in March by two fisherman. He was wedged between boulders in a gorge and was only identified by his dental record. Due to the decomposition, his cause of death was never determined. While no one was ever convicted of his murder, one Manson family member claimed he was murdered for being a shitty attorney and angering their leader.
Sort of related is the murder of Thomas More, owner of Rancho Sespe, by five masked men in 1877. I feel it doesn't count toward the Sespe Wilderness murders because Rancho Sespe's land encompasses Fillmore in the south and, frankly, the whole Rancho Sespe saga deserves its own article.
There are undoubtedly many more deaths, accidents and maladies endured by those who traverse this beautiful, wild land. Fortunately, the Thomas Fire spared the area so it can continue to kill more people and the rest of us can enjoy a nice hot soak.
Below is an interview concerning the effects of Ronald Hughes' disappearance on the Manson trials.