The mysterious sinking of the "Shooting Star." Part 1
|A typical AVR conversion|
Fuentes credits former Supervisor Ronald Caspers for much of his political rearing. He worked as an aide to Caspers for four years in the 1970s. Caspers' boat was lost at sea with 10 aboard—including Caspers—in 1974. (Fuentes would have been aboard the Shooting Star himself on the voyage to celebrate Caspers' reelection to a second term but decided against going at the last moment.) None of the 10 aboard was found.
Fuentes had hoped that he would be appointed to replace Caspers. When he discovered that there was a one-year residency requirement that he did not meet, he decided to carry out an earlier plan to enter a seminary and study for the priesthood.
|Tom Fuentes, c. 1974|
It will come as no surprise to long-time OC observers that Caspers, Fuentes' boss, was associated with a powerful group whose corruption eventually made headlines (see below).
Recently, a close relative of one of the victims of that disaster contacted me in an effort to gather information—she says the family has always been dissatisfied with how little information they got from authorities or from the press—and this renewed my own interest in the event.
The disaster started on June 13, 1974:
The Star-News, June 15, 1974
Ex-Pasadenan, Sons on Sinking Craft
A sea search for a pleasure boat containing 10 persons … intensified late Friday with the Mexican Navy and Air Force vessels joining the U.S. Coast Guard in the effort.
On board the 59-foot “Shooting Star” are Supervisor Ron Caspers, 43 … and his two sons, Kirk, 20, and Rick, 18.
The drama began late Thursday night [June 13] when the converted Navy vessel was reported sinking by its owner-skipper Fred Harber, an Orange County political manager. In a “May Day” call, Harber radioed that the “Shooting Star” was taking in water off the Baja California coast.
As the rescue units converged in the search area, about 275 miles south of San Diego in an area dotted by the San Benito Isles and Island De Cedros [see map], authorities said an advancing hurricane was rapidly approaching the operation area.
Friends and former associates who knew Caspers as a banker here during the fifties recalled ominously Friday how the supervisor’s first wife, Barbara, was killed in an accident at sea on Oct. 2, 1954.
. . .
Another person, advertising executive Harold Kelly, also was killed in that accident but Caspers and two other friends survived.
. . .
Also aboard the boat are Thomas Klein, 26, an aide to Orange County Supervisor Chairman Ralph Clark; two of Klein’s brothers, identified as John and Tim Klein; Leonard Basher, an Anaheim contractor; Basher’s son-in-law, Richard Tully, 21, and Basher’s nephew, Robert Basher, also of Anaheim.
As the search continued, authorities reported that the approaching Hurricane Connie was causing rough seas and limiting visibility to 500 feet. Most of the vessels steaming toward the area were said to have arrived in the rescue area late Friday night or early today. In two calls prior to the distress signal, however, Harber reported that the $65,000 vessel is well-stocked with rations, life jackets and a small lifeboat with outboard motor.
The 10-member party was on a fishing trip from Cabo San Lucas, at the tip of the Baja peninsula, to Newport Beach when the problems arose.
Ultimately, all ten passengers were lost. Despite some big unanswered questions, the incident faded into oblivion. Slowly, politically aware locals began to view the matter as curious, mysterious, odd. It became mythic.
Nine years later:
Here’s a portion of an article about Orange County “mysteries” that appeared in Orange Coast Magazine in October of 1983 (“Some OC Tales Could Add Another Chapter To Ripley’s—Believe It Or Not”; by Cathy Eilts):
According to an article which appeared in the Register of October 2, 1974, a search for the vessel began after an engineer aboard a private research ship on the night of June 13 picked up the following distress signal: “Mayday. This is the Shooting Star with nine persons aboard… We are sinking about 50 miles from Turtle Bay.”
The Coast Guard searched for the Shooting Star from June 14 to June 20, covering 40,000 square miles. Six to ten private planes also searched the area….
In June, debris was found from the yacht including the top of the cabin, some furniture, and a sailboat which had capsized. In July, a foreign freighter recovered the yacht’s lifeboat 350 miles from the first sighting of debris. None of the bodies or the yacht’s hull were found.
Three years later, according to another Register article, new questions surfaced regarding the incident. A sea captain who often traveled from Orange County to Cabo San Lucas may have been the last American, other than the Shooting Star travelers, to talk to Harber. According to the seaman, Harber had said the group planned to make a leisurely voyage and do some marlin fishing. However, in order to travel to the spot near Turtle Bay where the distress call was picked up, the yacht would have had to travel 69 hours straight and often in stormy seas. Why did Harber, who was considered an expert seaman, try the fast-paced and dangerous voyage contrary to former plans?
This next article, which appeared, again in OC Magazine, exactly ten years after the incident, continues the “mystery” theme and reports some remarkable speculation and political intrigue.
Some began to ask, "Was it murder?"
The Sinking of a Political Machine
by Larry Peterson
|Dr. Louis Cella|
…Among the ten men lost and presumed dead on the ill-fated fishing trip were County Supervisor Ron Caspers and political strategist Fred Harber.
Following its investigation of the disappearance of the converted naval rescue craft just before midnight on June 13, 1974, the U.S. Coast Guard concluded that there was no evidence of foul play.
But, other than to suggest that bad weather may have been a factor, the probe failed to determine why the 63-foot vessel, owned by Harber, disappeared with barely a trace in rough, shark-infested waters. What is not subject to question is that Orange County’s politics never have been the same since that tragic night.
The voyage was supposed to be a celebration of Caspers’ re-election only a few days before. The victory was engineered by 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.] 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, 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. 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.
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.”
But even if the demise of the Cella-O’Neill machine is attributable to that of the Shooting Star, the events that sealed the boat’s fate remain a mystery.
Neither bodies nor pieces of the wooden hull of the ship were ever found. Recovered 350 miles away from what was believed to be the site of the boat’s sinking was its thirteen-foot lifeboat. More than 300 miles from the presumed resting place of the Shooting Star, but a like distance from the lifeboat, debris from the yacht was found: a thirteen-foot sailboat, two large pieces of cabin top, two life jackets, some furniture and a few smaller items.
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.
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|
“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.
|From the 6/24/74 Star-News|
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 2
|The "Shooting Star" was a converted WWII-era AVR|
• Dear Mr. Fuentes (Nathan Calahan, April 28, 1999)
• GOP's Fuentes Favored to Win 7th Term Chairing O.C. Party (LA Times, January 19, 1997)
• Interview With Tom Fuentes, Part 1 (Red County, September 15, 2008)
• Interview With Tom Fuentes, Part 2 (Red County, September 16, 2008)
• Trouble in the Big Tent (Jean Hastings Ardell, Orange Coast Magazine, March 1996)