Monday, March 12, 2012

The sinking of the Shooting Star, part 6: an 11th passenger?

Ronald Caspers, 1973
[See UPDATE below] [See also Part 7, where it is revealed that the mystery passenger likely sailed from La Paz (with the Klein brothers) to Cabo, where he disembarked. Hence, there is no "11th passenger."]
     Recently, I’ve posted a series of articles about the odd 1974 disappearance of the yacht “Shooting Star” off the coast of Baja California. Ten people disappeared with that boat, including OC Supervisor Ronald Caspers and political consultant Fred Harber. (Our own Tom Fuentes was Caspers' "executive aide" at the time.)
     Harber and Caspers were linked to the Orange County "shadow government”—DA Cecil Hicks’ term—allegedly masterminded by Dr. Louis Cella, who, not long after this episode, was tried and then sent to prison for corruption concerning campaign contributions to officials across the state. Cella's partner in the giving of huge chunks of money to key state politicians (including Jerry Brown) was South Orange County land baron Richard O’Neill, who died in 2009; Cella died in 2011.
John Klein
     In most of these posts, I have relied on two long-unavailable articles that appeared in the November and December, 1974, editions of the defunct Orange County Illustrated (many editions of that magazine were recently acquired by the OC archives). I was sent copies of the articles by the daughter of one of the victims of the tragedy (John Klein).
     The articles really are well-written, but they do raise questions.
     I decided to contact their author, Wayne Clark, who, at age 84, is still a busy man. He is Associate Executive Director of the Urban Water Institute in Irvine. (I do believe he holds other offices as well.)
Tony Moiso of Rancho 
Mission Viejo
     Clark is an interesting guy. After participating in the military occupation of Japan after WWII, he went to college and then studied the law. He seems to have spent many years as a journalist, working for the LA Times, among other organizations. From about 1963 to 1973, he was UCI’s Public Information Officer. After that, he worked as a “deputy” for one of the supes on the OC Board of Supervisors (I recently speculated that he had held that position at about the time that the “Shooting Star” episode occurred). He then started a successful PR firm and then, starting in the early 90s, he held various positions on local water boards. The politics of water seems to have kept Mr. Clark occupied in the last twenty.
     As we'll see, Clark was in fact the aide to someone (according to one reporter) very much caught up in infamous OC 70s corruption free-for-all. More on that in a moment.
     I left an email with him last night, asking about the old OC Illustrated articles. This morning, he got back to me by phone. Here are my notes (not verbatim unless quotation marks are used) of our twenty-five or so minute conversation:

Conversation with Wayne Clark, March 12, 2012
Wayne Clark
     Clark: “I’m 84, and my memory’s not always so good.”
     I told him I was impressed with his career and accomplishments. Then I zeroed in on his work in the seventies with a member of the OC Board of Supervisors. He said: I started to work as deputy to Supervisor [LaurenceSchmit – probably, the “worst Supervisor of all time.” (Laughs, not unpleasantly.)
     I asked: You were a deputy? Is that the same as an executive aide? Yes. [In ’74, Tom Fuentes was the executive aide of Ronald Caspers. A victim of the SS disaster, Tommy Klein, was the executive aide to Supervisor Ralph Clark.]
     I asked: Did you work for Schmit at the time of the Shooting Star incident in 1974?
     No, a bit later, about 1976, after I worked for Orange County Illustrated. I left them before they went out of business. [Schmit appears to have served as a Supe from 1975 through 1978, one term.]
     The people who hired me [for the exec. aide job] told me that my job was to “keep him out of jail,” which I did, more or less (laughs).
     I [Roy] asked what sort of questionable or illegal activity we were talking about, but Clark was either unwilling to tell me or he didn’t remember.
     We talked about the ill-fated trip of the Shooting Star. I asked whether he knew who flew down to La Paz for the trip. Was anyone along who didn’t get on board the boat? Is it true that Tom Fuentes was supposed to join the group but backed out at the last minute? Clark couldn’t remember such details.
     But then he said something remarkable:
     Clark: One passenger got off the boat. . . –wasn’t that in the article?—can’t remember his name. [I said that that certainly was not in the article. Note: as far as I know, there has never been any mention of an 11th passenger who got off the boat in any news stories or official reports. See Part 5 of this series: Coast Guard report, etc.]
     I mentioned that the SS stopped at Turtle Bay to refuel. Did the passenger got off there? Clark didn't seem to know or to remember.
     Clark: He [that passenger] is still around. He works as a consultant. Works for O’Neill down in South County [Rancho Mission Viejo]. Worked for Tony Moiso [President and Chief Executive Officer of Rancho Mission Viejo, which is associated with the O’Neill family. Moiso and O’Neill have run RMV since the 60s]. Clark just couldn't remember the guy's name.
Phil Anthony
     I asked about the article that appeared in Orange Coast Magazine in 1984—the one that focused on the political aftermath of the SS disappearance and that mentioned an ex-Chicago cop’s investigation and his view that the Shooting Star was destroyed by a bomb. (You don’t find body parts if they’re blown to bits; they then become fish food.)
     Clark: No, I didn’t know about the ex-cop and his theory. (Evidently, Clark didn’t follow the case.)
     I mentioned Dr. Louis Cella, the remarkable political donor and political machine kingpin. Clark had interviewed him, he said. He was doctor, said Clark. Clark remembered that Cella had gone down to Mexico to try to find Caspers and the others.
     Clark: The rumor was that he was in the mafia, but I don’t think so. [No longer referring to the Shooting Star:] He had a plane and he’d go off once a week, pretty mysterious—maybe on a Thursday—but, as it turns out, he didn’t go where he said he was going. Clark seemed to suggest that there was some funny business there. No doubt some of the mystery was uncovered during the criminal investigation of Cella and others, though, as I recall, journalists who reported the story have opined that they never got answers to where all the money was coming from.
     Clark: I remember interviewing him. It was odd. There was all this printing equipment (I think at the hospital). It was “strange.” (Clark seemed to use the word “strange” for Cella himself, not just for the presence of the equipment.) You might want to talk to Phil Anthony, who was a Supervisor and who’s on the OC Water District board these days. At the time, I seem to recall he resigned to avoid indictment.
      Clark: You should talk to Tom Fuentes. He’d know all about this.
 
     I explained that Fuentes is now dying of cancer. I said I knew him and that I wasn’t going to contact him.
     Clark laughed that I knew his background so well. How do you know all this about me? I read his bio, I said. Yes, I was UCI PIO for about ten years, said Clark. Worked for the LA Times at the OC office before that. 
[UPDATE: Just heard back from Mr. Clark:
Roy - L... O... [email address given] is the person I remember as having got off the boat in Central Baja before it being lost at sea. I believe he is still engaged as a consultant to the Ranch. - Wayne 
He gave me the guy's full name, but I want to contact him and discuss his own recollections before I say more. --I've contacted Mr. LO. It'll be interesting to see what he says, if he responds.]
Laurence Schmit, giving a speech
     —Well, that’s about it. Clark is an old fellow and seems nice enough. I didn’t want to bother him further. He said he might be able to remember the name of the “passenger” who got off the Shooting Star. “If you remember the name,” I said, “you can call or email me. I’d very much appreciate that."

* * *
     I did a little digging after the phone call, and now I’ve got new questions. Evidently, Supervisor Schmit, the guy Clark worked for for several years, was very much a full member of the OC “shadow government,” as DA Hicks used to describe it. (See Peterson's article below.) He took office in 1975. After his 1978 reelection defeat, he moved to Northern California.
     Phil Anthony started out on the Westminster City Council, became mayor, and then served as a Supervisor from 1976 to 1981. He’s served on various boards since then. (See.)
     You can read about Moiso here and here. He’s still very much a player also (he’s only 72).
     I’ll close with this excerpt from the 1984 Orange Coast Magazine article: The Sinking of a Political Machine by Larry Peterson:
Larry Peterson (1984)
     …The voyage was supposed to be a celebration of Caspers’ re-election only a few days before. The victory was engineered by [“Shooting Star” owner Fred] Harber, who had close links to Dr. Louis Cella and other political figures who later were to be indicted on charges ranging from fraud and embezzlement to campaign-finance cover-up and bribery.
     At the time, Cella headed the closest thing Orange County has ever had to a political machine. [Please note: Fuentes’ turn as county GOP chair started in 1984 and lasted about twenty years. He also is often described as having constructed and maintained a “machine.”] In the mid-seventies, Cella and south Orange County land baron Richard O’Neill teamed up to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to dozens of candidates.
     District Attorney Cecil Hicks, close to the country’s Republican establishment, fought a running battle with Cella. Hicks once publicly accused the doctor of heading a “shadow government” that controlled the county Board of Supervisors. Cella responded by accusing Hicks of alcoholism. In any case, a majority voting bloc [including Caspers], usually consisting of recipients of Cella’s political largesse, repeatedly helped stymie Hicks’ attempts to investigate Cella and his allies.
     Within four years after the sinking of the Shooting Star, most members of the shadow government had been driven into political exile. Some, indeed, were behind bars, and others were fighting rear-guard legal battles that would end in their incarceration.
     Cella was convicted in 1978 of using a hospital he owned to defraud the federal government of hundreds of thousands in Medi-Cal funds, much of it used to underwrite his campaign contributions. After serving time in federal prison, he moved to Coachella. County Supervisor Robert Battin, for whom Harber had been an aide, was convicted in 1976 and briefly jailed for illegally using county funds to help his unsuccessful 1974 bid for the Democratic nomination of lieutenant governor. He now practices law in Santa Ana. Supervisor Laurence Schmit, a Cella ally and a major beneficiary of his political influence was defeated in his 1978 re-election bid. He moved to Northern California. Supervisor Ralph Diedrich, who tried to reassemble the shattered machine, was convicted in 1979 on bribery charges. Recently released from prison, he, too, has left the county. [Land baron Richard] O’Neill—never accused of wrongdoing—eventually became chairman of the state Democratic party. But that was only after years of virtual political hibernation during which he lived down the onus of his alliance with Cella.
Moiso and Governor Brown in January
     Cella, interviewed last year in Coachella, where he practices medicine at a farm workers’ clinic, said the sinking of the Shooting Star marked the “death knell” for his role as a power broker.
     The loss of Harber, he said, deprived him of his political allies of a “political genius,” who, had he steered the boat safely home, could have helped pilot the shadow government through troubled political waters.
     And, in Caspers, Cella added, the group lost a reliable ally who could have helped push through a Cella-backed move to investigate the district attorney’s office and blunt any possible probe of the Cella-O’Neill combine.
     “If Caspers had lived, we would have had the votes to stop Hicks,” said Cella. “He was a very strong vote against Cecil and he disliked Cecil even more than Fred did.”
     Battin agrees with Cella’s assessment, calling the loss of Harber and Caspers “the beginning of the end.” [END] 
      So, if Peterson has his facts right, our guy Wayne Clark was the executive aide to someone very much tied to Cella’s “machine.” And his job was to keep him out of jail? Well, he seems to have accomplished that.
     And the mystery passenger? He went to work for Tony Moiso and Rancho Mission Viejo—the company of Richard O'Neill, Cella's partner? [L.O.?]
      It’s all very odd.

* * *
ANOTHER EXCERPT FROM  The Sinking of a Political Machine
by Larry Peterson:

[WAS IT MURDER?]

     ...Neither bodies nor pieces of the wooden hull of the ship were ever found....
     The Coast Guard investigation failed to determine why the life jackets apparently were not used or why radio reports before the sinking indicated different positions.
     Also still a mystery is why no one, according to the official report, apparently was able to transfer from the Shooting Star to the lifeboat. 
Robert Battin
    Another discrepancy that remains unexplained is that a mayday message picked up by a research vessel in the area said there were nine persons aboard.
     And still subject to guesswork—and not addressed by the report—is why, according to witnesses, the party on board suddenly forsook plans for two days of leisurely marlin fishing and headed—apparently in a hurry—for San Diego.
     The Coast Guard said it found no evidence of fire or explosion aboard the lifeboat. But at least one person believes there was an explosion aboard the Shooting Star and that it was set off deliberately.
     Private detective Neal Graney, who conducted his own unofficial probe, went so far as to publish a 200-page fictional account—Mayday! Mayday! Morningstar—a thinly disguised rendition of his speculations about what happened. The names, of course, have been changed. Currently, he is trying to market a screenplay based on the same theme. “I know I don’t have a smoking gun,” says the former Chicago policeman. “But, in my gut, I’m sure it was murder.”
     Though long on conjecture and short on proof, he also theorized that one of the men aboard knew the yacht was about to blow up and left in the lifeboat before the explosion. That, he argues, explains the mayday report of nine aboard and the great distance between the discovery place of the lifeboat not only from the sinking site but also from the other debris.
     And the bodies? “There are many reasons,” explains one of Graney’s fictional characters. “When bodies go down to the bottom of the sea, they usually float to the top within two or three days. That is, unless they are in small pieces. Then they are fish bait.” As for the condition of the life preservers, some of them damaged but none demonstrably bloodied, Graney attributes that to the impact of metal or wood fragments from the explosion.
     There is some support, however slender, for Graney’s belief that someone got off the boat alive. One former west Orange County elected official told me he thinks he saw a member of the ill-fated party about three years ago in Hawaii.

Richard O'Neill and family, 1950
     At the time, the former official says he was on the beach near the Pacific Beach Hotel in Waikiki, and the supposedly deceased man crossed the street nearby.
     “It looked so much like him that I just yelled his name without thinking that he was supposed to be dead,” said the vacationer, who was well-acquainted with the Shooting Star passenger he thinks he saw. “He took off and disappeared into the crowd….I’m sure that, when I yelled out, he would have recognized me….It seemed deliberate.”
     Scenarios just as bizarre as Graney’s based more on conjecture than provable fact, have been widely circulated and are passed on by Cella, Battin and others to anyone who asks.
     Details vary, but the essentials are this: Somebody hired either organized crime-related figures or a right-wing paramilitary group to blow the Shooting Star out of the water.
     Implausible as that may seem, there is some evidence that the boat would not normally have sunk, even with the pounding it took from heavy seas. Louis Fallows, co-owner of the Wilmington-based firm that was one of the government’s contractors for the type of naval rescue boat that was rebuilt to create the Shooting Star, is graphically emphatic on that question. She said the boats were built with air-tight compartments that would have buoyed themselves so much that it wouldn’t have sunk completely even if there were a big hole in the hull. “The only thing that would have sunk it would have been if it were blown apart,” she said, without being prompted by being told of theories about an explosion.
     Why anyone would want to deep-six the Shooting Star, especially in the manner Graney suggests, is unclear.
     But evidence that Harber and Caspers were up to potentially dangerous mischief at the time surfaced four years later. In 1978, developer Richard V. Jordan alleged in a suit against the county that the two were trying to shake him down for a $10,000 payoff plus $2000 a month for approval of a project he wanted to build near El Toro, in Caspers’ supervisorial district.
     The county settled out of court on Jordan’s claim that the county illegally revoked his building permit, paying him $700,000. The matter was investigated by the district attorney’s office to determine whether persons still alive might be criminally liable, but that probe ended inconclusively.
     As it turns out, preliminary discussion concerning the alleged deal took place in Mexican waters aboard the Shooting Star, Jordan said in papers filed with his lawsuit.
     Before the arrangement could be consummated, however, Caspers, Harber and the others departed on the fateful trip. Ironically, Jordan said, he was invited along, but declined because he didn’t think the Shooting Star was seaworthy. But the Coast Guard cited reports that deficiencies on the boat had been corrected prior to the trip.
     Jordan, the record shows, knew how to seek and obtain remedies for his grievance in a court of law. But one is tempted to ask: Were Harber and/or Caspers using the same routine on anyone else, perhaps someone prone to resort to different—and more violent—remedies?
     That might be a point of departure for any resumed investigation of the disaster. For years, however, there has been no evidence of any official interest in the matter—with one exception. In the past year or so, the FBI, questioning a politically connected Orange County person on a different matter, slipped in some questions about the Shooting Star. That doesn’t amount to a new probe, of course. But ten years later, even a residue of official curiosity at any level is intriguing.
     Still, until the questions left hanging by the official report are answered, who is to say that Graney’s explicit but seemingly farfetched version is wrong? Those questions, of course, may never be answered. And the tale of the last voyage of the Shooting Star may make as good a whodunit ten years from now as it does today.

SEE Part 7

6 comments:

  1. It's all very interesting.

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  2. Any connection between Schmidt and Herm Schmidt who was the head AR at Saddleback for years?

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  3. The Supervisor's name was Schmit, not Schmidt. See.

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  4. Roy, I can't thank you enough for all you have done for me & for my family. I know that I have learned more than I've known in nearly 38 years. I'm in tears after reading this one. It is unreal to me that there is someone out there walking around that was on that boat & may know the truth of what happened. I pray that he gets back to you......

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  5. Roy I too thank you from the bottom of my heart. We are starting to get long awaited answers. Keep up the great work!

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