Thursday, March 22, 2012

Shooting Star, part 10: the "grand scheme of patronage"

El Toro Road, 1970
Ronald Caspers
            This series of posts has focused on the 1974 disappearance of the Shooting Star and the political corruption and misdeeds that served as that tragedy's backdrop. Recently, I acquired a copy of Agents’ Orange, a history of recent Orange County politics by former OC GOP chair Tom Rogers, who, starting in the 80s, emerged as a leader in the fight against developers and the Supervisors they “owned.”
            Here’s Rogers' discussion of Ronald Caspers, who perished in the 1974 disaster and who, it seems, was a pretty nasty piece of work:

            [TAKING OUT ALTON ALLEN.] The incumbent in the 5th district was [Republican] Alton Allen [born: 1897], a retired banker, who lived in the charming village of Laguna Beach….
            Allen was widely respected for his representation of the 5th District, which included the beach communities of Newport, Balboa, Laguna, and San Clemente, plus the vast inland areas held by the Irvine Ranch and the Rancho Mission Viejo, with thousands of acres devoted to agricultural production.
Alton Allen
            It came as a rude shock when, in 1969, a tabloid-type mailer was received by residents of the 5th District alleging wrongdoing on the part of Allen and his staff. Allen’s reputation for honesty and integrity had been undoubted, never a whisper against his character had ever been heard. Campaign finance reporting requirements were almost nonexistent in those days, so it was impossible to determine who was behind this puzzling attack, which was to develop into a recall movement. Anthony Tarantino, one of the nominal sponsors of the mailer, … was a man of modest means and it was obvious that there was someone else, unidentified, who was engaged in the expensive campaign to destroy Alton Allen’s character.
            Allen contacted Republican leadership for help against this scurrilous attack. At a meeting at the Balboa Bay Club, GOP leaders met with Allen and those in attendance were at a loss for any explanation of the anti-Allen campaign. The retired banker was obviously distraught at having unfounded insinuations directed at himself and his staff. There was some speculation tentatively expressed. Organized crime? Democrats taking over a neglected facet of Orange County politics? ….
            [NEXT: RECALL.] The mysterious anti-Allen forces opened a headquarters in Laguna Hills from which to launch a formal recall campaign. The mailers kept arriving with insinuations of Allen’s “wrongdoing.” Staff at the recall headquarters refused any information to the press that had become interested in the plot. The Alton Allen recall petition failed to obtain sufficient signatures and it is doubtful that the exercise was anything other than to prepare the way for the upcoming supervisorial election in the 5th District. Alton Allen’s campaign for reelection was close at hand.
Paul Carpenter
            [CELLA AND HARBER.] It would be revealed later that Tarantino had ties to [corruption kingpin] Lou Cella, [Shooting Star owner] Fred Harber, and others identified by [corrupt Supervisor] Robert Battin as “the Coalition.” Battin, in an attempt to depict his own conviction as discriminatory, revealed the existence of the group, which also included [OC land baron] R.J. O’Neill.
            Tarantino’s connection was that as a cabinet-maker he had worked for Cella and become friends with both him and Fred Harber. It was at their request that he agreed to lend his name to the Allen recall. Tarantino was also on the payroll of the Mission Viejo Hospital at $800 per month, until the law caught up with Cella.
            The original plan to recall Allen was scrubbed when it was decided that if Allen were recalled, Governor Reagan would probably appoint his assistant John Killifer, who was in no way connected to the scheme….
            [THE "SHADOW GOVERNMENT"* VS. ALLEN.] Robert Battin was to use his position on the Board of Supervisors to make Allen look inept in dealing with certain issues. [Local politician and (ultimately) convicted felon] Paul Carpenter also admitted to being part of the recall effort much later, but denied knowledge of the other Coalition members being involved. Carpenter claimed that the clandestine effort was confined to himself and a Republican who aspired to be a supervisor.
            [RON CASPERS EMERGES.] Emerging out of the shadows was Ron Caspers, a Republican who was the owner of Keystone Savings and Loan in Westminster. In the beginning there were suspicions expressed that he was the moving force behind Allen’s recall, a charge he denied but which was later confirmed in the course of several unrelated criminal prosecutions.
Robert Battin
            [AN EARLIER BOATING DISASTER.] Caspers had made headlines prior to the Allen affair. He and his wife Beatrice had been cruising in coastal waters south of Port Hueneme in the ketch Aloha on the night of October 1, 1954. With Caspers at the helm, the Aloha veered in front of an oncoming Coast Guard cutter. The Aloha sank and the remains of Beatrice Caspers were never found, despite an intensive search by Coast Guard vessels and aircraft. An investigation by the U.S. Coast Guard of this tragedy at sea never resulted in any criminal proceedings.
            Allen’s reelection campaign received no help from the GOP, and his campaign staff were amateurs, at best. Alton never recovered from the personal attacks and he went down to defeat.
            Casper had made his conservative Republican credentials a key part of the contest, although investigation turned up the fact that he had been a sponsor of and signatory to a “Republican for Alan Cranston” newspaper political advertisement. [Cranston’s political career was later destroyed by his involvement in the Keating Five scandal.]
. . .
            [CASPERS, THE COALITION, AND “SHAKEDOWN” RUMORS.] With Caspers’ election, Orange County politics were turned upside down. It was the dawning of a new era, and whether Caspers was a Republican or a Democrat, the special interests flocked to his office confident that they had a supervisor with whom they could do “business.”
            The fact he claimed to be a Republican had little to do with the support he received from the Coalition. That group supported other Republicans including Larry Schmit for supervisor.
            Caspers is rumored to have indicated that important county appointments, such as the Planning Commission, would cost an applicant $15,000.
            [ENTER YOUNG TOM FUENTES.] Caspers hired a young graduate of Chapman College who had helped in his campaign to serve on this staff. As Casper’s assistant, Tom Fuentes [born: 1949] (who would become prominent in Republican circles later on) worked diligently to convince Republicans that Caspers was not what many party regulars feared, an unscrupulous opportunist who had no permanent loyalty to any political party. Fuentes was aided in his duties by the ubiquitous Frank Michelena. Michelena, a lobbyist with a checkered career, was notorious in the field of political influence. [“Checkered” is an understatement.]
            If there were ever any doubts regarding Casper’s ties to the Democratic Party, they were soon dispelled. It was discovered later that Caspers had a business arrangement with [Democrat] Ken Cory through a company called Anaheim Insurance Agency. It was out of the office of this company that Democrats operated their registration efforts in Orange County. Assemblyman Cory was to be the subject of a criminal investigation concerning the no bid purchase of insurance by the City of Carson in Los Angles County. Although several Carson City Councilmen were involved, Cory was never indicted.
Ken Cory
            In this election, it appears that the candidate preceded the special interests, and it was after his election that Caspers made the contacts and set the ground rules for developer participation in the grand scheme of patronage carried to an exponential degree.
            [ORGANIZED CRIME?] In a later criminal case, a paid informant with reputed ties to organized crime would allege that Caspers had received a $600,000 loan from two banks, Coast and U.S. National. The informant, Gene Conrad, had been working with the district attorney’s office in an attempt to connect the Board of Supervisors to the syndicate. Conrad’s testimony did not bear out the suspicion of the D.A. that supervisors had been provided with interest-free loans from gambling interests. Conrad stated that his research had determined that the loan in question did carry interest. Whether it was ever paid back remains a mystery.
. . .
Leisure World, 1974
            Casper’s career was cut short on June 14, 1974, when he disappeared at sea aboard the Shooting Star owned by Fred Harber. Caspers and his two sons were returning from a trip to Cabo San Lucas in Baja California when Harber’s converted … rescue craft was overtaken by a violent storm. After sending out a mayday signal on January 13, the vessel was never heard from again, and all of the occupants were presumed dead, lost at sea.            
            [FUENTES AND OVERBY DODGE A BULLET.] Tom Fuentes, who was scheduled to go on the trip, backed out at the last minute, and was saved from a similar fate. Another county luminary who backed out of the ill-fated trip at the last minute was Lyle Overby.
            Despite a full-scale search operation directed by Fuentes that included the use of commercial swordfishing “spotter planes,” no trace of the craft of its passengers was ever found.

SEE Part 11

*OC DA Cecil Hicks' phrase (referring to Louis Cella, et al.)

9 comments:

  1. I like this series of post not because it's a whodunnit mystery story (still seems like a tragic accident) but more because of what it reveals about the root of the political culture of Orange County today. Great stuff.

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  2. I like them for that reason too - AND the old photos.

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  3. I like the stories, but I miss the piercing commentary on life at IVC.

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  4. Just who is that bald guy in the Leisure World picture, Bob Newhart?

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  5. So that newspaper article, that name doesn't sound familiar to me. Who is it? I'm viewing it from my phone, so when I blow it up, it gets distorted.

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  6. Sherry, the article was from the June 15 Oakland Tribune. The headline is "Cruiser Hunted in Baja Hurricane." The subheadline is: "Millionaire, 9 others, aboard sinking ship." You can find the article here.
    The photo shows Caspers with his family.

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  7. Roy, when I click on your link, it takes me back to the top of the page, not to the newspaper article. When I looked at it from my phone, it didn't look anything like millionaire.

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  8. Sherry, try this:
    http://newspaperarchive.com/oakland-tribune/1974-06-15/page-2

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  9. That worked. Thanks!!

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