Saturday, June 23, 2012

1954: "Shooting Star" was Caspers' second boating tragedy. The first was also a doozy

     As you know, I have occasionally noted the high incidence of violent death in the unfolding Caspers/Cella/Harber saga—a lurid fabric into which the young Tom Fuentes was thoroughly woven. The “Shooting Star” disaster and the murder of Arlene Hoffman are but two extraordinary examples. There are several others.
     Here’s one that I haven't mentioned.
     We know that Ronald Caspers perished when the “Shooting Star” went down off the coast of Baja in 1974. But, as it turns out, that was not the first odd boating disaster that involved Caspers. The first occurred nearly twenty years earlier, when Caspers was a 23 years old rich kid.

     ALOHA MEANS GOODBYEAccording to former OC GOP chairman (1969-72) Thomas C. Rogers in his Agents’ Orange (2000),
     Caspers had made headlines prior to ... [1970]. 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.
     Why did Rogers choose to mention a 1954 Ventura County boating accident in a book about Orange County politics?
     Perhaps Rogers had his doubts about Ron Caspers, a man who, according to him, later had a great impact on OC politics.
* * *
     In a Nov. 8, 1970 LA Times article (“Freshmen supervisors: a study in contrasts”), Caspers described himself as a “Reagan conservative." Guess so. He seemed to like Richard Nixon, too.
     And he was rich: according to the Times, he spent $81,695 winning his supervisor seat—an astounding sum at the time—including $46,984 of his own money.
     The Supe gig made him $15K per year.
     The Times described Caspers’ education:
     The son of the late R.W. Caspers, founder and head of Mutual Savings and Loan in Pasadena, Caspers managed to enter Menlo College at the age of 16, attended UCLA, was graduated from San Jose State College as a business administration major and did graduate work in marketing and financing at USC.
Ron Caspers, c. 1973
     —OK, I’ll say it: how does a guy start his education at a fancy private college, transfer to a UC school, and then end up getting his Bachelors at a state college? What's that about?
     The article goes on to explain that Caspers did indeed make a big success of Keystone Savingswhich he founded in 1957, in Anaheim, when he was about 26 years old. 

     THE CASPERS TENENBAUMSI did a little looking, and it turns out that Caspers came from a rich and perhaps peculiar family. As indicated above, his father, Rudolph, an avid yachtsman, ran Mutual Savings and Loan. By the mid-50s, he seemed to spend much of his time traveling about the world with his photographer wife. He died in 1958 at age 64.
     I do believe that Ron Caspers’ mother had some sort of TV show—perhaps a travelogue.
     I've found references to the “residuary trust under the will of Rudolph W. Caspers.” Not sure what that's about. Ron Caspers' father was named Rudolph, but so was his grandfather.
     There was a Rudolph Caspers in show biz in the thirties and forties. Same guy? Not sure.

* * *
     MOWED BY A CUTTERI did find some old articles about the “Aloha” tragedy, which, to authorities back then, warranted investigation.
     The ramming and sinking of the Aloha by the Coast Guard cutter Morris occurred on October 2, 1954. The Aloha had five passengers, two of whom perished, including Caspers' wife. Within a few days, there was an official inquiry. In the end, the Coast Guard investigation concluded that the actions of those piloting the two ships—Ron Caspers (age 23) and an Ensign James Frost (age 25)—were responsible for the tragedy:
     …Out of the Coast Guard’s board of investigation and military inquiry yesterday came the tragic knowledge that the Morris and the Aloha both altered direction a few minutes before they collided.
     Ensign James A. Frost, 24, on the Coast Guard cutter Morris, ordered a change to port [left]. Ronald Caspers, 23, at the wheel of his father’s $55,000 racing ketch Aloha, adjusted to starboard [right].
     And the two alterations, each made to avoid a possible collision, accomplished just the opposite. They made for a near perfect collision course. (“Double shift of course blamed for sinking of yacht Aloha by cutter,” LA Times, Oct. 9, 1954)
     The details, however, are worth reviewing.
     On it's face, the incident was strange. On that dark but calm and clear night, the Coast Guard cutter Morris spotted the Aloha when it was still three miles away. The officer on deck of the Morris, Frost, kept an eye on it, for it kept coming at the Morris. He sought to avoid a collision, but the Aloha seemed to change direction to maintain a course directed at the Morris.
     It’s clear that Caspers was to some degree negligent in the incident:
The CG cutter Morris
     …[Attorney] Keith Ferguson … seized on Caspers’ horn testimony during cross-examination.
     “Are you aware that two blasts of a horn is a signal to denote that the ship is to change course to port [i.e., to their left]?” asked Ferguson.
     “No, I did not know that,” Caspers answered.
     “Do you know the rules of the road?” the attorney asked.
     “Not all of them,” Caspers admitted.
     Caspers, far from shifting course to port, altered gradually to starboard [to the right, from his perspective] for approximately five minutes before the crash, according to his testimony.
. . .
     “I thought the craft was stationary,” he said, “and I wanted to give it plenty of room.”
     “Didn’t it mean anything to you that your bearing on the other boat remained the same even though you had changed your course?” Ferguson, an admiralty lawyer, asked.
     “It would now,” Caspers replied, “But my mind wasn’t working that way then.”
     Caspers pointed out that he would not have acted differently even had he known the Morris was moving.
     “The other boat, being on my port [left] side, would have to change course,” he explained.
     Later in the article, testimony provides a dramatic account of the Aloha's actual sinking, an account that seems designed to make Caspers appear heroic:
A ketch
     [Survivors] Caspers, Boisot and Miss Kurz all testified to their almost miraculous escape from going down with the Aloha.
     Caspers said he stood up [when collision became imminent? occurred?] in the cockpit and moved to go below.
     “I kept thinking that I had to get the people out,” he said. “But by the time I got there, the cabin was almost full of water.
     “Then I saw some hands rise up through the debris. I reached down and grasped them and pulled up on them. It was Miss Kurz. I finally managed to pull her out and then we were in the water.
     “The ship went down immediately—almost instantaneously. The Dinghy was floating free and we swam to that. We didn’t see anybody and then we heard Boisot calling out. He swam over and hung on with us.”
     Miss Kurz testified that she was asleep on the starboard side of the cabin, aft. She said Mrs. Caspers was asleep in the port bunk of the same cabin.
     “I was either thrown or I vaulted from the bed,” Miss Kurz recalled. “Then I was standing in the middle of the room. I yelled and yelled for Bea. I felt in her bunk but I couldn’t locate her.
     “I had no time to spare. I started up the ladder and somehow got myself caught in the hatch. Then Ronald reached down and pulled me out.”
     Obviously, there are at least two possible hinky Caspers scenarios. First, Caspers was simply grossly negligent—scandalously ignorant and careless. Second, Caspers deliberately collided with the Morris.
     Why would he do that? Well, you can use your imagination. One possibility would involve collusion with the two other survivors (Boisot, a 32-year-old "manufacturer" and Kurz, a 25-year-old secretary). There's no evidence of anything like that. (But it's hard to find any information at all about so distant and obscure an event.)

* * *
     AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMANThe best account of the Coast Guard hearing that I could find appeared in an article in the Oct. 8 Long Beach Press-Telegram (“Cutter officer tells of crash”). According to that article, the crash occurred just before 5:00 a.m. Ensign James Frost was in charge of the cutter while the captain was sleeping. He testified that he spotted the Aloha when it was 2 or 3 miles away:
     “The young officer said that as the two craft approached one another visual bearing indicated the other vessel steadily moved from 20 to 30 degrees to his starboard.
     “At that time I considered the vessel to be passing me well to his starboard [i.e., to my right],” Ensign Frost declared.
     He said he went into the wheelhouse contemplating making a navigation “fix” but had been in only a few seconds when he looked out toward the other vessel and saw both running lights, indicating that it had turned toward him.
     “I took the binoculars and stepped out on the wing of the bridge,” he said. “I saw the green light only again. Then both lights again.
     “At this time I gave an order to the helmsman “left five.’” He explained he meant left five degrees rudder. He said the command was acknowledged and carried out.
     For a period of 10 seconds, Ensign Frost said, he could see alternately one navigation light and then both as the other vessel appeared to waver back and forth. [Presumably, Frost's seeing both lights suggested Aloha's course directly toward the Morris.]
     “Approximately 20 seconds before the collision,” he said, “I saw the port running light. I realized the other vessel was trying to cut across my bow. I gave the command “all back full.”
     “We hit the vessel approximately with our prow. We hit amidships on the port side” [the side where Mrs. Caspers was sleeping, aft].
     Ensign Frost said he did not sound any whistle signals prior to the impact and heard nothing from the Aloha at any time. At the time of the impact he sounded a series of four or more three-second whistle blasts. He said the Morris backed off about 50 yards and he gave orders to stop all engines.
     The whistles, general alarm signals, and shouting awakened the captain…. Ensign Frost said the skipper was on the bridge between 30 seconds to one minute of the collision.
     Ensign Frost said the Morris put searchlights into operation to seek survivors, but that he had seen no one on the deck of the Aloha at time of impact.
     The skipper of the Aloha, 23-year-old Ronald W. Caspers of Pasadena, told the board Thursday his version of events leading up to the collision.
     The victims of the tragedy included his 25-year-old wife, Barbara [she went by “Bea”], and Harold Kelly, Jr., 61 of New York and San Bernardino. Caspers and two other passengers were rescued.
     Caspers’ testimony brought out that the sounding of an electric horn may have contributed to the accident.
     Caspers testified that [Aloha passenger] Emile K. (Kelly) Boisot, 32, of Arcadia waked him by sounding the boat’s electric horn “two or three times” about 13 minutes before the Morris rammed the Aloha.
     The witness was asked by Atty. Keith Ferguson, San Francisco, special assistant to the U.S. Attorney General, if he was aware “that two blasts of a horn is a signal to denote that a ship is to change course to port?”
     “No, I did not know that,” said Caspers, son of Altadena sportsman Rudolph W. Caspers, owner of the Aloha.
     Caspers said he altered course gradually to starboard for about five minutes before the crash.
     Earlier, the young skipper said he had seen the Morris and thought it to be one of other fishing boats he had noticed.
     “I thought the craft was stationary,” he continued, “and I wanted to give it plenty of room.”
     It’s all very odd, if you ask me. I mean, the collision could have gone down because of a perfect storm of incompetent maneuverings by the two skippers. Speaking as a non-sailor, and given the testimony above, that seems implausible. Maybe experienced seamen see it otherwise. Dunno.
     Why was Bea Caspers' body never found? You'll recall that none of the bodies of the ten passengers of the Shooting Star were never found either. 
     What's it all mean? Maybe nothing. Bodies get eaten, lost.

* * *
     THE HAWAIIAN YARN. Earlier, I said that we "know" that  Ron Caspers perished with the "Shooting Star" in 1974.
     Do we? There's a reason, perhaps a very slim one, to wonder.
     In his excellent 1984 article "The Sinking of a Political Machine," published (in Orange Coast Magazine) exactly ten years after the "Shooting Star" sinking, journalist Larry Peterson considered the possibility that the yacht was deliberately sunk. One theory that had been proposed at the time, by a private detective and ex-cop named Neal Graney, involved the idea that one of the ten passengers of the "Shooting Star" helped sink it and survived:
     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.
     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.
     Peterson was referring to the repair history of the boat and evidence that it had undergone modifications that would make it virtually unsinkable.
     Peterson raised the question of why anyone would want to sink the ship. He turns to Richard Jordan's allegations, in a sworn declaration, that Caspers and his pal Harber (who was also on the boat) were attempting to shake him down—a highly plausible suggestion, given the histories of those two men, as explained recently here on DtB. Perhaps, suggests Peterson, Jordan wasn't the only target of shakedowns? Perhaps some of these others were violent people?
     And maybe Caspers believed that the DA was closing in on him (Jordan's declaration indicates that) and he couldn't face the fall that would result.
     Admittedly, there's a huge problem with the "Caspers did it" theory: two of Caspers' sons were lost with the ship (apparently). Of course, they might have been "in on it" and survived, along with dad, but that makes the whole yarn ridiculously complex and unlikely.
     Would a guy kill his own sons? Don't think so.
     Of course, we don't know who that former elected official thought he saw that day in Hawaii. Maybe it was Fred Harber.
     We'll never know.

1 comment:

  1. And I'm not even mentioning the odd sinking of the Shooting Star in Dana Point harbor (years before the Baja incident).

    ReplyDelete

Trolls and flamers will be cursed by our team of black magicians