Ojai

Archive for March, 2017

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The Case of the Missing Alibi

Photo of Robert Clark by Erle Stanley Gardner, taken the night of his first election as Ventura County Sheriff in November 1922.

Intro By Patricia Clark Doerner

Bob Clark’s father, Michael Hugh Clark, lost his mother during the Great Irish Famine.  In 1858, he boarded the CALHOUN, departing for New York, settling in Wisconsin, with his two siblings, Tom and Winefred.*  When he got word of the Irish Brigades forming in New York, under the direction of Irish Revolutionary Thomas Francis Meagher, he left immediately to join the Union Army under Brigadier General Meagher; the secondary purpose, so stated by all, was to gain fighting skill sufficient to recapture Ireland from the British.  Unfortunately, soon after enlisting, he was captured by the Confederates.  The defining moments of his life were spent In Andersonville, where he, along with the other prisoners, searched feces for scraps of undigested kernels of corn.   

When he was released, he married Margaret Lynch.  She was a quiet little woman, loved him dearly, but could not help him escape the demons that haunted him.  None of his children, reported Cousin Howard Bald, could remember seeing him smile.  By the time the youngest son, Robert Emmett “Bob” Clark arrived in the family, Michael Hugh had virtually disappeared into the Backcountry.  The older boys supported their mother and the younger children.  Bob thus escaped the brooding savagery of his father, and took to his own pursuits: dare-devil racing his stagecoach (the stories abound); joining the newly formed Forest Rangers, being stationed in Castaic with his new bride and, while there, settling the long-standing Jenkins-Chormicle Feud—another story for another time.

Throughout his many adventures, Bob made even more friends, one of them being Erle Stanley Gardner, who wrote the following story.  It was Gardner, well-known author of the Perry Mason series, who shot the obviously staged photo of Bob on November 7, 1922, the night Bob was first elected Sheriff of Ventura County.

*All three siblings, Michael Hugh, Tom and Winefred (Thompson) eventually settled in the Ojai Valley.

By Erle Stanley Gardner

So sensitive is the balance of justice that sometimes the slightest thing — something as slight even as a puff of summer breeze — has been known to upset that balance.

That is precisely what happened one time, years ago, up in the bailiwick of my good friend Bob Clark, in Ventura County, California.  And had it not been that Bob Clark — one of the greatest law enforcement officers ever to pin on a badge — pursued that puff of wind to an astonishing discovery, the freedom of an innocent man would have been sacrificed.  The entire course of a human life would have been unjustly altered.

But that is the kind of man “Red Bob” was, and is, although he now is retired from the field of endeavor to which he devoted many years. Over those years, Bob hung up a record seldom equaled. It is a record in which he, although a policeman extraordinary, often worked as hard and as doggedly to prove a man innocent as he did to establish his guilt — if the evidence raised a doubt as to the latter.

Bob was elected sheriff of Ventura County in 1922, at a time when the only police force in the county was in the city of Oxnard. I was practicing law in Oxnard at the time, and came to know Bob and his methods of working well.  In the rest of the county he and his two deputies were the only law. And the county embraces a geographical area nearly as large as some of our eastern states.

During the noon hour, one hot summer day in the early 1920s, three men entered the bank of Hueneme, a small town a few miles from Ventura. In the bank at the time were only the cashier, the vice president and two girl clerks.

The invaders pulled pistols and forced this quartet back into the directors’ room in the rear. Then the three men grabbed up $12,000 in gold from the vault and fled.  They made a clean get-away, since the bank employees carefully obeyed the robbers’ instructions to remain silently in the room for a full 30 minutes.

So it was more than an hour after the robbery before Bob Clark got to the scene.  He quickly decided the gang must have had a hideout some place which they could reach within the 30-minute interval they had specified to their victims. Therefore, he made no attempt to launch an immediate chase.

He showed the holdup victims photographs of known bank robbers who had operated in the area in the past. They made a positive identification of a man we will call Knox, who was living in Stockton, over 300 miles from Hueneme.

Knox was arrested and Bob began some adroit questioning, without revealing the exact nature of the crime in which he was interested. He probed into the suspect’s movements before, during and after the time of the robbery.

Knox would account for his time the day before and the day after, but he could not remember where he was the rest of the week. To an experienced officer like Bob Clark this was a memory pattern just a little too convenient.  It was the story of a typical alibi of a guilty man trying to cover his wrongdoing.  So he was now even more convinced that Knox was the man he wanted.

Knox knew he was in real trouble and began to tax his brain to recall his whereabouts on the day of the robbery. 

And then it came to him!  He had been in Stockton helping dig a basement under his sister’s house.

“Can you prove it?” Bob Clark asked. “My sister will tell you it’s true,” Knox said.

But Bob knew the word of a near relative must be somewhat discounted in a situation like this. Most people will stretch the truth in an effort to save a loved one in trouble. There must be something else!

Then Knox remembered that there was something else.

In the first place, he had needed some cement and forms and had stopped by a lumber yard to purchase these. But it was a cash sale.

The chances that the clerk would remember Knox — or the day the purchase was made — were remote.

Knox desperately cudgeled his wits and remembered something further he’d done that day in Stockton.

He had received notice that the power company was going to turn off his lights if he didn’t pay the bill. So he drew an advance wage from his sister to make this payment. He had gone to the power company office during the noon hour.  The clerk, an attractive blonde, wasn’t too friendly, since the bill was long overdue.

He had handed her the money and the bill. The latter was muddy and covered with cement, having fallen out of his pocket while they were pouring the basement walls. The bill was so smudged and dirty, he remembered, that instead of trying to mark it “paid” as was the routine practice, the blonde clerk wrote him a receipt from her book.

But he hadn’t bothered to keep the receipt.

“She crumpled up the muddy bill,” Knox told Clark as he tried desperately to recall every tiny incident that might support his story. “She tossed it into the wastebasket, and then…

He stopped and his eyes began to widen.

“And then what happened?” Clark said.

“The wind!” Knox almost shouted.  “A gust of wind came in the window and blew the bill aside. It never landed in the basket!”

Clark, a little skeptical, began to question Knox minutely on this fantastic new bit of recollection. He neither discredited nor accepted it. He could have tossed aside the incredible fragments the suspect began to dredge up from his tortured memory. He could have proceeded against Knox on the strength of the bank employees’ identification.

But he didn’t.

Knox told him he now remembered seeing the muddy slip of paper veer in the gust of breeze and flutter toward a half-open drawer beside the basket.

“It must have hit the open drawer,” Knox said, wincing as he realized how weak a straw he was seizing.

“I remember seeing it hit the side of the drawer.  If it fell inside and is still there, you can prove my story’s true.”

Slender as the likelihood of truth appeared to be, Clark felt it should not be cast aside untested. He and his prisoner drove the 300 miles to Stockton and went to the utility office. They met a cool reception and eventually a snotty rebuff from the blonde clerk. But the manager was more cooperative when he heard the story. With a thinly veiled grin of disbelief, he led them back to the girl’s desk.

“This the drawer?” the amused manager asked. Knox said it was. The manager pulled it open and rifled through a pile of papers it contained.

The muddy bill was not there.

Knox sagged against the desk. The trace of amusement began to fade from the manager’s face and he looked at the two men as if he were beginning to doubt the sanity of everyone involved, including himself.

“Pull it all the way out,” Bob said.

The doubting manager complied. Bob knelt and thrust his hand deep into the interior of the drawer niche. Then a  broad grin spread across his face. He pulled forth a crumpled bit of paper, smudged gray with dried cement.

It took only a moment then to check the receipt files of the clerk and determine that the bill had been paid on the date in question.  But that was no proof that Knox had paid it in person. The clerk had no recollection of who had paid the bill.

Only the muddy slip of paper, which had planed down in the gust of breeze and lodged incredibly between the drawer and the desk niche that contained it, proved that Knox had told the truth.

And only the persistence of Bob Clark, an officer who put aside the temptation of an easy conviction to trace down every tiniest possibility of truth, saved Knox from a life sentence, which he figured to draw because of his previous bad record.

The next-to-final trick in the game was played when a man was arrested later and led Bob to a secret cache where $8,000 of the missing funds were recovered.  Still later, Bob nailed the other two bank robbers in Texas — along with most of the remaining loot.

There are countless stories about Bob Clark, one of the finest of his breed it has ever been my privilege to know. But this one I’ve always liked best of all.

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The Baron of Wheeler Hot Springs

Baron Baptiste comes from a distinguished lineage of yoga teachers.

By Mark Lewis

Nationally known ‘power yoga’ teacher Baron Baptiste is the new owner of Ojai’s long-shuttered Wheeler Hot Springs resort. Can he bring it back to life after a 20-year hiatus?

The first hint came by way of Instagram on July 29. “An amazing future opening up here in Ojai,” posted Baron Baptiste, a well-traveled yoga entrepreneur who currently makes his home in Park City, Utah. His location that day apparently was the Ojai Valley Inn, but his focus was six miles to the north up Highway 33: Wheeler Hot Springs, the defunct resort with the long and sometimes troubled history.

By November, the news was out: The Baptiste Foundation had paid $3.65 million to acquire the historic, 84-acre Wheeler property from its previous owners, dentist Daniel Smith and his wife, Maureen Monroe-Smith, of Malibu, and their partner Rickey M. Gelb, a real-estate developer based in the San Fernando Valley. This was exciting news in Ojai, where many people have fond memories of soaking in Wheeler’s natural hot springs, which have been closed to the public since January 1997.

“I swam in the pool at Wheelers growing up in Ojai, and enjoyed the hot tubs and restaurant back in the ‘80s,” said Suza Francina, a longtime Ojai yoga teacher, author, and current City Council member. “I’d love to see it come back to life if it was handled with sensitivity and respect. So I am very curious about what Baron envisions.”

Baptiste isn’t saying. At least not yet. But he seems quite excited about the property’s potential, to judge from the Wheeler image he posted on November 28: “In Ojai … standing in a beautiful dream made real.”

If that dream involves hosting yoga retreats at Wheeler, Baptiste will soon be having some interesting conversations with Ventura County regulators. Presumably he is well aware of the challenges the previous owners faced in trying to win county approval for reinventing Wheeler as a modern resort with overnight accommodations. After eight fruitless years, the Smiths and Gelb finally threw in the towel in 2015 and listed the property for sale as a potential private residence rather than as a resort. But its purchase by Baptiste, in the context of Ojai’s growing popularity as a destination for yoga-loving visitors, suggests other possibilities — if the new owner can persuade the county to go along.

Baptiste did not respond to email and voice-mail queries from The Ojai Quarterly, but his Instagram posts imply that he has big plans for the property. One of the hash tags that festooned his Nov. 28 post was especially suggestive: #baptistesanctuary. A 40-acre resort is a lot of sanctuary for just one person.

Another clue: Per county records, the purchaser is not Baron Baptiste the individual, but his Baptiste Foundation, a nonprofit organization which according to his website “discovers new partnerships to share the transformative power of Baptiste yoga with everyone, everywhere,” by bringing yoga to groups of people “who need it, but might not have access to it” — including armed forces veterans and active-duty personnel, people recovering from addiction, and victims of domestic violence.

Whatever his plans may be, Baptiste has not yet formally presented them to county officials. 

“I did meet with several interested buyers for the Wheeler Hot Springs property this past summer, though I do not recall their names,” county permit-administration official Winston Wright told the OQ in late January. “There are no active applications to open the facility.”

WHEELER DEALERBaron Baptiste is only the latest in a long line of owners to view Wheeler Hot Springs through the eyes of a visionary. That Nov. 28 post began with a quotation from the song “Ruby Tuesday” by the Rolling Stones: “Lose your dreams and you might lose your mind.” An apt sentiment, given how things turned out for the property’s original dreamer.

Wheeler Blumberg, for whom the springs were named, discovered them one day in 1888 while he was hunting deer near the North Fork of Matilija Creek. Blumberg homesteaded the surrounding acreage, built a hotel on the property, and extended the road there from nearby Matilija Canyon. The resort prospered, but Blumberg did not reap the benefit: He went mad in 1907 and died screaming in a padded cell. 

Subsequent owners, including the television personality Art Linkletter, continued to operate the resort for the next 90 years, with varying degrees of success. Bad luck dogged many of them, including Evelyn and Frank Landucci, who acquired Wheeler just before it was destroyed by the great flood of 1969. They rebuilt it and added a popular restaurant, which their son John later successfully promoted as a jazz nightspot until he was killed by a falling tree near one of the springs. By 1993 the property had passed to the control of Tom Marshall, who ran it straight into bankruptcy four years later. The Smiths acquired the property for $3.3 million in 2007, but were unable to reopen it. Now it’s Baron Baptiste’s turn to try his luck.

(For a detailed account of the tangled and often fraught history of Wheeler Hot Springs from 1888 through 2011, do a Google search for “New Owners Confront Old Issues” by Mark Lewis, originally published in the Spring 2011 issue of The Ojai Quarterly.)

Baptiste, 53, was born into an American yoga dynasty. His parents, Walt and Magana Baptiste, were San Francisco yoga pioneers, and his sisters, Sherri and Devi Ananda Baptiste, are notable yoginis in their own right. Baron started out teaching in the family studio; then he headed to Southern California to study under Bikram Choudhury before branching out on his own, with a clientele that included Hollywood stars like Raquel Welch, and later the Philadelphia Eagles pro football team. Baptiste eventually landed in Boston, where his studios were enormously popular, and he won a national following as the author of such books as “Journey Into Power: How to Sculpt Your Ideal Body, Free Your True Self, and Transform Your Life With Yoga.”

There have been some bumps along the way. A 2006 profile of Baptiste published in Boston Magazine described some acrimonious business-related lawsuits (one of which involved a son of the late Robert Kennedy). The magazine also quoted a dig at Baptiste by his former teacher: “ ‘He’s not doing yoga,’ Bikram said. ‘He’s doing aerobic exercise. He’s doing Jane Fonda.’ ”

To be fair, the same observation has been made about all modern yoga teachers, presumably including Bikram himself, by Ojai’s own Jiddu Krishnamurti. “I don’t know why they call it yoga, it should be called just exercise, but that wouldn’t appeal to you!” the sage said in 1979, in response to a question from his audience. “You can do this kind of yoga exercise for the rest of your life, but you won’t awaken spiritual insight, nor will the awakening of a higher energy come into being.”

Nevertheless, modern yoga is enormously popular in America, and Ojai is increasingly popular as a destination for yoga-minded visitors. This is due in part to the valley’s long association with Eastern spiritualism, which (ironically) goes back to Krishnamurti’s arrival here in 1922. Francina remembers taking classes at the World University in Ojai many years ago from the legendary yogini Indra Devi (who also visited Baptiste’s parents’ studio in San Francisco).

“The whole yoga community is extremely familiar with Ojai,” said Calleen Cordero, a well-known footwear designer who until last year hosted many yoga retreats at her Calliote Canyon property just south of Wheeler Hot Springs. “It’s a really popular destination, and not just with L.A. people. We got a lot of inquiries from East Coast people as well.”

Why Ojai? Cordero names three factors: Its bucolic setting, with plenty of hiking trails and nighttime views of the Milky Way; its long association with New Age spiritualism; and its proximity to Los Angeles.

“It’s only an hour and a half from L.A.,” she notes, “and Los Angeles is a Mecca for yoga.”

A yoga retreat on the Wheeler property would have a fourth factor going for it, Cordero notes: the hot springs. Many yoga enthusiasts are fond of soaking in natural hot springs rich in minerals, which are said to have healing properties.

It was the local hot springs, in fact, that originally led to the founding of Ojai, then called Nordhoff, back in the 1870s. This town started out as a health resort, conveniently located near the springs of Matilija Canyon. A century later, when the Landuccis bought the Wheeler property in the late 1960s, Evelyn Landucci’s initial idea was to turn the resort into a Southern California version of Esalen in Big Sur. If Baron Baptiste does turn the property into a yoga center, it will have come full circle.     

Yoga DestinationOjai was a yoga Mecca in its own right during the annual International Ojai Yoga Crib gatherings organized by Kira and Eric Ryder of the former Lulu Bandha’s studio on East Matilija Street. These gatherings, which drew hundreds of yoga instructors from far afield, are no longer held. But the valley still is home to some 15 yoga venues of various sorts, and yoga is “an integral part of the Ojai lifestyle,” said Veronica Cole, director of public relations and marketing for the Ojai Visitors Bureau.

“It’s definitely part of our marketing strategy, but not so much yoga only — it’s more about health/wellness/mindfulness and everything that entails,” Cole said. “What we’ve been seeing is that yoga venues have begun offering additional activities which speak to a sense of community, such as get-togethers to enjoy food, reflection, music and seminars.”

That sounds like the definition of a yoga retreat, such as those that take place periodically at Casa Barranca, also known as the historic Pratt House, high up on Foothill Road. Owner Bill Moses does not advertise the property as a yoga retreat; per his agreement with the county, he merely makes it available, discreetly, for group rentals. But many of the people who rent it are yoga teachers hosting weekend retreats.

For Moses, yoga pilgrims are the perfect Ojai visitors. They’re here seeking peace and tranquility, so they’re quiet and don’t bother the neighbors.

“They’re the least impactful, the most respectful” visitors a town could ask for, he said. “It’s the opposite of Vegas.”

Moses said he does not know Baptiste’s plans, but he can see Wheeler Hot Springs as a yoga destination: “If they did in a way that was environmentally OK, I think it would be great.”

Suza Francina also would welcome a yoga retreat on that property, with the same caveat.

“I would not like to see the land heavily used in a way that brings a zillion more cars up that stretch of the highway, but (perhaps) they could mitigate the traffic by not allowing daily trips back and forth (in a retreat you usually don’t leave the area),” she said. “But first we have to see if the county even allows yoga retreats up there.”

There’s the rub. The previous Wheeler Hot Springs owners complained of county resistance to their plans. And Calleen Cordero said she sold her nearby Calliote Canyon property last year after running into permit problems. Nevertheless, Cordero thinks that Baptiste probably has the resources to make it happen.

“If you have money and you do it to code,” you can get a conditional use permit, she said. “All you have to do is build things to code.”