Shooting Star, part 4: semi-rogue searchers & the elusive "unsinkable" Boston whaler

Cedros Island
     I want to continue recounting the narrative of the sinking and search of the “Shooting Star,” a yacht that disappeared off the coast of Baja California in June of 1974—evidently taking all ten (or nine?) crew with it, including Tom Fuentes’ then-boss, OC Supervisor Ronald Caspers, “kingpin” political strategist (and yacht owner) Fred Harber, OC Supervisor Ralph Clark’s executive aid Tommy Klein, and seven others, none of whom have ever been found (though, according to one odd report, one of the crew was spotted in Hawaii in about 1981). I'm relying on a pair of articles by Wayne Clark that appeared in the November and December issues of Orange County Illustrated magazine in 1974.
     A quick review: on June 9, 1974, just days after Caspers’ reelection to the Board, he and seven (?) others flew down to La Paz, Mexico (in the gulf, on the eastern coast of Baja) and from there south to Cabo San Lucas, for a trip up the Baja coast in Harber’s yacht, the “Shooting Star,” an expensive converted Navy boat. It appears that, in Mexico, the group were joined by two of Tommy Klein’s younger brothers, John and Tim, who had flown to Mexico(?) months earlier evidently to serve as caretakers of the boat, which was docked at La Paz. (It had been used in early May by Caspers, Harber, and friends for a four-day fishing trip in the gulf. That's when the plan for the June trip was hatched.)
One of three Klein brothers lost
with the Shooting Star
     On the morning of the 10th, the group sailed the SS north, toward California, encountering rough seas. By the 13th, the likely frazzled crew seemed to be in a great hurry to get home, contrary to initial plans (fishing); they appeared to be making a beeline for San Diego. At one point, the SS backtracked a bit to Turtle Bay for fuel and then set out again on a beeline course for San Diego. Witnesses later said they were in a hurry.
     Very late that night (a Thursday), the SS called for help; it was taking on water and needed pumps. A few minutes later, it issued a MAYDAY and a message which some heard as saying that nine (not ten) men were on the boat. Owing perhaps to another poorly received transmission, the Coast Guard sent a helicopter and a plane to the SS's location—or at least where they thought it was in those shark-infested waters just west of Cedros Island (at about the San Benito Islands).
     (Naturally, later, people wanted to know what was actually said in these transmissions. According to Wayne Clark, the all-important tape-recording of the SS’s MAYDAY was inexplicably lost!)
     By the morning of the 14th, two Coast Guard aircraft had been searching (for flares) already for two hours, but they had found nothing. Low on fuel, they headed east to the Mexican shore (the coastal town of Guerrero Negro), where international red tape stopped the search cold for eight hours!
     Eventually, the snafu was overcome, and the search continued, soon with more planes and more advanced equipment. By early on the 15th (Saturday), a Coast Guard cutter, Venturous, had arrived in the area to control the search, but, by then, chances of survival of any crew in the drink were slim.
     Owing to currents, the search was adjusted southward, but, again, nothing was found. The search area was expanded.
     On Sunday, June 16, the SS’s cabin top and some furniture were found—50 miles to the north of the original search area! The search was redirected northward.
     Eventually, part of the search effort focused on the two thirteen-foot boats carried by the SS, including a whaler, which, of course, would likely head to the Baja coast to the east. These efforts yielded nothing.

13-foot Boston Whaler (contemporary). They are unsinkable, but pretty small.
* * *
     ANXIOUS, PEEVISH ORANGE COUNTIANS. Naturally, friends and relatives back home in Orange County (and San Diego) grew increasingly anxious. Numerous callers to Supervisor Caspers’ office called for a volunteer civilian effort. When, by Saturday, the Coast Guard’s search had yielded nothing, the volunteer effort lurched into existence. It was a vast effort, comprising many private planes and boats. Including the Coast Guard, Navy, and Air Force’s efforts, this search was, according to some, the biggest such enterprise in West Coast history.
San Diego's own
     Wayne Clark, upon whose well-written 1974 account I am relying (Orange County Illustrated, November and December), writes that the search continued for more than a week. Then, for a week after that,
their effort was extended far to the south by professional tuna spotters who were hired to fly the lonely ocean mission after the military and civilian volunteers had abandoned hope.
Long after that, Mexican villagers were paid to search the Baja coast for bodies. None was ever found.
     Writes Clark, this increasingly quixotic (and expensive) search
was spurred by the determination of rich and politically powerful friends of the missing men and by the slim hope that survivors might have managed to board or cling to the Shooting Star’s “unsinkable” 13-foot whaler.
     FLASH FORWARD: twenty-one days after the June 13 MAYDAY, the whaler was found by a Swedish freighter, drifting about 350 miles to the south of the original search area. The damaged and empty craft revealed no sign that survivors were ever aboard.

Click on graphic to enlarge.
* * *
     ROGUE RESCUERS. Clark writes that, on the day after the MAYDAY, anxious friends back home held back from launching a civilian effort on the grounds that the Coast Guard was very capable and already on the scene, but that sentiment was not strong, and some, including Harber crony Dr. Louis Cella, Jr. (he of the soon-to-unfold political/financial scandals), prepared to fly to Mexico already by early on the morning of the 14th (Friday). In Orange County, no one knew about the absurd international snafu and they were under the impression that bad weather hampered the search. But, once in Mexico, Cella was soon in the air where he was surprised to find relatively good weather and visibility. Seeing only inaction in Guerrero Negro, he quickly printed and distributed handbills to alert local fishermen and recruit them in search efforts. When the Coast Guard was forced to remove one of its C130s from the search on Saturday (to accompany a distressed airliner), Cella finally called for the civilian volunteers, waiting anxiously and annoyedly back in Orange County.
An ad for Orange Empire National Bank
 in the October 1964 issue of the Orange 
County Illustrated magazine, which
published Wayne Clark's "Shooting Star"
articles in late 1974
     A group of close Harber/Caspers associates and County government cronies, including men who had served in the Air Force and Navy, had been studying the disaster, calculating the SS’s likely position, given its cruising speed, etc. According to their calculations, the Coast Guard search was too far to the south!
     The Coast Guard balked at the proposed or threatened civilian effort, citing various hazards (e.g., planes running into each other), but they eventually relented. Civilians could search as long as they stayed out of the way of Coast Guard equipment.
     The OC planning commissioner quickly took charge of organizing the civilian search. Five twin-engine planes were selected, each manned with a 3-4 man crew, including pilot, navigator and spotters. Special survival equipment was loaded onto the planes. By mid-afternoon on Saturday (the 15th), the planes headed for Tijuana for customs clearance. That went smoothly. Then the squadron headed south, but upon closing on their destination, they encountered encroaching fog and haze, and so they landed at Guerrero Negro (the coastal town to the east of the search area; see maps). It was late afternoon.
Louis Cella, Jr.
     They were then horrified to find rudimentary facilities. The situation was made worse when they learned that no aviation fuel was for sale! But, they were told, at a dirt landing strip used by the salt industry—just five miles away—someone would sell them fuel. Off they went. They managed to refuel.
     Then the fog lifted, and they had time for a one-hour search of the bay, but they found nothing. When it grew dark, they headed back to Guerrero Negro, landed, and then headed to the El Presidente Hotel, which housed the Coast Guard team, with whom they confabbed.
     Evidently based on the calculations made by the DIY crew back in OC, the civilians and the Coast Guard agreed to a new search strategy according to which the Coast Guard would search to the north while the civilians would scan the waters between Guerrero Negro and Cedros Island—where, they hoped, the whaler might be spotted.

 Islas San Benito
     On Sunday, the 16th, that’s what they did.
     At 8:30 a.m., the fog cleared a bit, and the civilians took off in their twin-engine planes. By then, the Coast Guard’s helicopter and C130 (fixed-wing aircraft) had already headed to the area north of the San Benito Islands (which are 25 miles to the west of Cedros Island), out past Vinzcaino Bay.
     The civilians spent the morning scanning the northern waters to the east of Cedros Island. They returned for refueling at about noon.
James B. Utt's successor
     Then, at 1:00 p.m., the Coast Guard radioed that a Navy search plane had spotted something about 30 miles to the northwest of San Benito Islands. The Venturous and Coast Guard helicopters were under way to check it out.
     Clark explains:
The first sighting was of the cruiser’s cabin top. Then a variety of items was found, including furniture, life jackets, the capsized snark sailboat and other debris. All were from the Shooting Star. Hope glimmered, waned, then glimmered again. There were no signs of the “unsinkable” Boston whaler, survivors or bodies. But, ominously, many large sharks lurked about the debris. A Coast Guardsman, sent over the side of the Venturous in a wet suit to lash ropes to the cabin top, was quickly returned aboard when a large shark was spotted directly under the debris….
     The civilians got in their planes and flew toward the action, but when they made radio contact with the Coast Guard, they were encouraged to return home.
     By Sunday evening, they were back at Orange County Airport—perhaps, with an optimism unwarranted by a full understanding of the somewhat elusive facts (sharks, etc.).
     In the meantime, the Coast Guard recalculated the likely location of the Shooting Star disaster: it was almost 50 nautical miles from the initially supposed MAYDAY site: 29° 06N; 116° 01W.
     (Before the debris was found, interviews at Turtle Bay [where the SS had refueled midday, Thursday, the 13th] established that the SS had indeed taken a course to the west of Cedros Island.)

Click on graphic to enlarge
* * *
Wayne Clark
     On Monday (the 17th), the Coast Guard was looking specifically for the Boston whaler, a search that afforded higher plane speeds and altitudes. They scanned Vinzcaino Bay (west of Guerrero Negro, east of Cedros Island) and the beaches, but they found nothing. Later, Navy and Air Force planes scanned the area southeast of the disaster location, but, again, they found nothing.
     Back in Orange County, impatient, long-distance observers speculated that the ten men could have used the whaler, with five on board and five clinging to the side—taking turns in the drink. Maybe they were now stranded on a lonely beach?
     By Tuesday, media reports of the disaster had generated considerable public interest, and there were calls for a second volunteer search effort.

*** to be continued ***
SEE Part 5


Anonymous said…
you can go back to sleep now.
Linda Klein Berrett said…
I would like to thank you for the time you have taken to research this tragedy. Our family hopes one day the truth will unfold.
To those of you who are mocking, or making rude comments, I hope, I pray, you NEVER have to know the pain our families have gone through. If you want to trash talk or be disrespectful, have the courage to post you name instead of hiding behind "anonymous"
These are real people who died, they had real families, family that are reading these articles..Have the decency to keep your comments to yourself, why would you want to cause more pain to families whose lives have been torn apart by this horrible tragedy.
Mr. Penky said…
I do hope that local journalists will look into this story again. It really is quite odd. How hard is it to hang on to a Boston Whaler? Why did no one make it? Why nothing washed to shore?
James T. Kirk said…
-Stats reveal most boating accidents involve alcohol.
-Passengers get bumped off boat traveling at too much speed.
-Boat speeds away.
-Passengers stranded.
-Free boat found in Mexico.
-End of story.

I apologize for the people posting on this blog. It is just the nature of the blog. I am reading the story because I am waiting for Bauer to tie Mathur into it somehow. I sympathize for the loss of your family and ship.
Anonymous said…
Yeah, your sympathy come through loud and clear, "Captain Kirk." Thanks so much. You're a great human being. Hug and kiss your kids tonight. Tell them what a sympathetic guy you are.
Anonymous said…
We already have the feeling this series will eventually lead to implicating Fuentes in some way. We get it, Roy.
Linda Klein Berrett said…
You Mr Anonymous...don't get anything. This isn't a game of pretend. I hope this story can shake loose facts, that some people know. If Fuentes is involved (I believe he may very well be) I hope the truth comes out. This is not just a "series" this is REAL...REAL people dead..REAL Families torn apart. Our family has waited years for answers...someone has those answers....If this blog gets people talking, remembering, then my hat is off to Roy. I do not care about your political agenda, innocent people were on the Shooting Star, innocent families want answers. I was only 23 when I lost my brothers, I've lived this nightmare for 38 years. Screw your worry about politics, I want to know the truth about what happened June 13 1974, on that last voyage of the Shooting Star. I want to know what really happened to my brothers, and why they really had to die.
Sherry Klein said…
And I want to know WHY, I, at the age of 2 had to be told that my Daddy was gone & was never coming back. Why I spent my younger years trying to flag down planes because I knew he left here on one. Why I spent my childhood wishing on stars that my Daddy really wasn't dead & he would find his way back home again. Imagine being two years old and trying to fully understand that he's dead & as you get older you try to wrap your mind around the fact that your uncles & Dad were NEVER found, along with all those other people. You have No IDEA how hard it was to grow up without them. No closure, no answers, just roadblocks. Whoever did this or knows who did this, should at least step forward & see what honesty feels like. It's been 38 years, but it hurts as much now as it did then. I need answers. We all need answers. I'm sure the families of everyone involved would like the answers we're seeking. I don't think it's to much to ask for.
Anonymous said…
Isn’t Fuentes dying from cancer and is now on morphine? I mean, really? Implicating him is a cheap shot. The guy can’t defend himself and there is there is no such thing as defamation suit from a dead guy.
Roy Bauer said…
Linda, Sherry: trust me, you only encourage the troll by responding to him. If he offers more, I'll likely have to delete it. Then they'll cry censorship, the brave, brave anonymous trolls.
Anonymous said…
Well, gee this blog is full of cheap shots at Fuentes in his dying days so whats new?

Even during his liver transplant. Does "liver boy" ring a bell?
Linda Klein Berrett said…
You are right Roy, it amazes me people just cannot help themselves. It doesn't matter the subject, These "Trolls" are just mean spirited people who can only bully by being anonymous. If I have an opinion I am not afraid to use my name. Cowards hide under ANONYMOUS
Anonymous said…
How 'bout continuing the series on the unsavory VPI?
Mr. Panky said…
The story is facinating and it doesn't seem to be much about Fuentes, though part of what makes it interesting is all of the corruption in it. I want to know more about bagmen and corruption among politicians, real estate tycoons, and doctors with connections all over the state. If Fuentes the bagman is part of the story, then that's fine by me. He's obviously a creep, and his managing to get that liver never made any sense. Some people think that kind of corruption is just fine but I don't.
Anonymous said…
9:48, the "bagman" claim was made by prominent local businessman Nathan Rosenberg, who is also a big cheese in the Boy Scouts of America. If Rosenberg says Fuentes was Caspers bagman, then I believe it. Does it hurt somebody's feelings to be reminded that Fuentes was part of a notoriously corrupt political machine? Well, too bad.
Anonymous said…
I like when the blog goes beyond our usual college topics, especially the history of Orange County. I find it funny that people complain about that - reading the blog is optional you know. It won't be on the test. You can always get your own blog.
Anonymous said…
Roy, this is a great service you are doing, not only for the Klein survivors, but for your readers as well.

I have a few questions for you regarding Fuentes. Maybe I missed it in your series, or maybe you haven't reached that part of the story--if so, I apologize. But has Fuentes ever given an account of what he thought happened to the boat and those on board? Being Caspers' "bagman" would certainly mean he would have some insight as to what happened. And has he ever given a clear explanation as to why he didn't go on the trip? It seems that someone in his position would have pressed for an investigation immediately following the incident. But, it doesn't appear that he did much to find out. Strange.
Roy Bauer said…
The reports readily available of the incident are sketchy at this point, although, with some digging (which I haven't really done, beyond Google), much information could be uncovered I'm sure. I have the Coast Guard's report, which I will discuss at some point, I suppose. You should look at part 1 of this series: it presents an article, written in 1984, that includes the speculation of an ex-Chicago cop who was persuaded that murder was afoot. He had a theory as to the reasons--it had to do with Cella and the corrupt machine that then prevailed. I don't know if Fuentes ever fully explained his take on these events, though the news reports I have read make clear that he was very concerned about the boat: he and Caspers' wife didn't want Ron to go on the trip because of that boat, which had sunk previously, though the Coast Guard report seems to state unambiguously that all of the defects of the boat had been corrected by the time of June of 1974. Almost immediately after the disappearance of the Shooting Star, Fuentes entered the seminary. He emerged six months later with new plans; he commenced working for a "consultant" with private construction and engineering firms. He seemed to be the kind of guy depicted in Mad Men--guys who wine and dine clients to get 'em to sign on the dotted line (or, in the case of government officials, to issue a permit or whatever). Indeed, in about 1990, Fuentes and some other guy got caught up in a scandal about one such government official.
Roy Bauer said…
In my last comment, I said that, when Fuentes left the seminary, he started "working for a "consultant." I meant to write that he started working "as" a consultant. Though his BS was in Political Science (Santa Ana College/Chapman College), he always seemed to work for big construction or engineering firms. Evidently, as one of those "winer and diner" guys, he had a trademark: a bouque of red roses. These "persuasive" skills were much used during his twenty-year stint as chair of the local GOP. He was renowned for such touches and for much hoopla and grandeur. Fuentes has always gravitated to the elite rich and the tastes of the rich: cigars, fine Scotch, the Balboa Bay Club, etc. But that hasn't prevented him from associating with some pretty rough characters here and there.
Roy Bauer said…
Part 1 of this series can be found here.
Anonymous said…
Roy, what does this story have to do with Mathur? The only thing interesting about you is Mathur. Please, we want to hear about your passion.
Roy Bauer said…
10:59, get some help. The only person with an obsession with Mathur is you. Look at, say, the last 50 posts on this blog. Not one of them is about Mathur. Please go away.
Anonymous said…
hmm, poor thing. You haven't been reading the blog for awhile, have you 10:59? Mathur, as you may know, has been gone for a while. But you can always search the archives. Plenty there.

And as someone pointed out, the blog IS optional reading. It won't be on the test. No need to drop by. We won't miss you.
Anonymous said…
Let's not forget those short honeymoon periods before the beatings begin again...
Anonymous said…
I like the stories about old OC history and the stories you post about your family history as well. I think it adds to the blog. If others don't, well, they don't have to read it. They remind me of the students in class who complain all semester long about how boring the reading is and how just make provocative comments to cover up how little they've read or understood.
Anonymous said…
And judging from the rankings in your sidebar, these most recent posts about the Shooting Star are quite popular. I think most people just read and appreciate and don't comment at all unless they see you in person. I wouldn't let those complainers bother you. It also seems to be the same person somehow, over and over again. Have a good Spring Break!
Linda Klein Berrett said…
I have no idea if Fuentes is or was involved in the sinking of the shooting star. Quite frankly, I don't care if he is dying, I would say if he is on his death bed, now would be a good time to tell what he does or doesn't know. I do not like to think ill of other people, but he stood in the way of the initial investigation. If he doesn't know the facts, my guess is he knows who does. The honorable thing to do would be to give the families some insight and closure. For those of you who think our interest is politically motivated, stop a moment, put yourself in our shoes and ask yourself....what is more important.. politics, of families who lost so much. Three families lost 3 family members each in this tragedy...Where would your priorities really be if this was your family?
Anonymous said…
Dead is dead. Get over it. Is life really so miserable that you must dwell on the past? You probably blame you current problem on it too.

If you cannot have sympathy for another person's life, then I see no reason to sympathize for your loss.
Sherry Klein said…
I'm sorry he's dying. I don't wish death on anyone. No matter the type of person he may be, good or bad, he's still somebody's someone. Father, brother, uncle, son, husband……
Do I wish he would give his account of what happened? Of course! Do I understand that at this stage of his illness that may not be possible? Absolutely!
All we are we want are some long awaited answers. It's hard not to be bitter after 38 years of knowing that someone out there has the answers you're searching for, be it Fuentes or somebody else, and know that they aren't willing to give you any of the answers you seek.
I don't need your sympathy 12:32, that isn't at all what we're trying to gain here. I need the truth. If you could give me that, I'd greatly appreciate it. As it stands now, Roy has already given me more info than I had when we started. I'm forever grateful to him for that!!!
Anonymous said…
You say “I have no idea if Fuentes is involved or not.” So why are you wasting time with a conspiracy theory conjured up by insanity? If you really want more answers investigate details about the boat, the model, its issues, history, capabilities and defects of that same model. If you still want to be the conspiracy theorist, claim the manufacture covered up known defects and destroyed the evidence. But connecting Fuentes is really just Bauer’s crazy idea fueled by some personal issues with his superior. Bauer is hardly an unbiased investigator. Did you ever care to notice this?
Sherry said…
Fuentes was a very large key player in this whole thing. His name appears in the Coast Guard report, most of the news articles, magazine articles & pretty much everything politically related. Roy isn't out to point fingers at Fuentes. Fuentes really was connected to it all. How exactly? Who really knows?
Anonymous said…
What do you seek to gain from this?
Sherry said…
To get people talking about it again in hopes that the people who know have any kind of information will share it. In the end, maybe have a few answers I didn't have before.
Anonymous said…
There are no more answers. If you cannot accept this then the only question you should be asking is, why can't you accept it.
Sherry said…
How do YOU know there are no more answers??? Do you know something the rest of the world doesn't know? In the short time since I contacted Roy, I learned about a book I didn't know existed, I've seen newspaper articles I've never read before, read a first hand account of a man who was on that boat that I had never even heard of. Now here you are, a complete stranger, hiding under the name of anonymous, telling me there are no more answers & pretty much psychoanalyzing me. Who are you again? Oh that's right? To scared to use your name…………
It's not your Dad & uncles we're talking about so you don't care. Why should you? Nobody asked you to read these blogs, it was your CHOICE!! Try to remember that as you pass judgment on me for searching for the answers to my questions.
Roy Bauer said…
Please don't feed the trolls! Once you feed 'em, they hang around leaving their droppings.

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