Murder, Reagan & a Saugus High First

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Dear saddlepals. There you are, all sleepy and forlorn. Got just the thing to vitalize you. Got 50,000-plus fine steeds here, each in temperament just right for you. Climb aboard. Let’s head out to less complicated and crowded times, to a Santa Clarita filled with scenery and vistas, lore and monkey business.

C’mon. Guarantee you’ll return from this journey smarter than when you started, despite yourselves…


  • Too bad we don’t have a time machine and some loose change. On Oct. 20, 1873, Santa Barbara attorneys J.T. Richards and Charles Fernald bought the entire Santa Clarita Valley for $33,000. That worked out to about 75 cents an acre.
  • It was one of the finest 5-star hotels in all of California. The Southern rested where the intersection of Main and Market is today. It burned to the ground on Oct. 23, 1888, a decade after it was built. The morning fire took just 45 minutes to burn the entire structure and its 150 rooms to the ground.

OCT. 21, 1928

  • Some days, there just isn’t anything happening in town. The lead story of The Mighty Signal 90 years ago was about Frank Johnson trading his 1,300-pound work mare for some baled hay. One has to wonder. What would Frank do with the hay now that he didn’t have a horse?
  • The Saugus Hotel hosted a salesmen convention. Granted. It was a small convention to boot. Turns out one of the salesmen was on the lam. He left behind a brand new Graham-Paige. That would be the 1920s car model, not the British rock singer.

OCT. 21, 1938

  • Don’t know if this is any relation to Larry. But, on this date, Sand Canyon’s Albert Johnson attempted to murder both his live-in lover and their next-door neighbor. The concubine in question was Hazel Rasmussen. She ran next door and tattled to her neighbor, a Mr. H. Shafer, that Mr. Johnson had threatened to end her life with a butcher’s knife. Next day, Mr. Shafer heard screams and sprinted to the rescue. Bursting through the front door, he was greeted by the distraught Mr. Johnson, who yelled: “You asked for it and now you’re going to get it,” (which seems somewhat theatrical). Johnson fired two shots from his blue-steel revolver and missed. Then, he shot his lover, Ms. Rasmussen, wounding her severely in the collar bone. In a blink, Johnson pointed the big Colt revolver on himself and attempted to end his tormented life. Don’t know whether Johnson was lucky or just didn’t have much of a brain to hit, but besides leaving two huge holes in his skull, the bullet did little damage. Mr. Johnson was tried at Newhall Courthouse and thrown in the pokey.
  • Little Dorothy Jean Sutton was surprised when the owner of the Boots & Saddles Motion Picture company let her ride his horse. Her Placerita rancher parents were even more amazed when they found the plug was worth over $3,500. They had never heard of an animal costing so much. The horse was named Champion. The owner was Gene Autry. Actually, there were seven different Champions over the years, from 1935 into the 1990s, but — there was only one Gene Autry.
  • Carla Heimbuck died young at 15. She bet her 22-year-old boyfriend she could beat him in a footrace across a field in Pico Canyon. For some reason, she leapt from a moving car, landed head-first and died instantly.
  • One thing they keep forgetting to share is that yucca plants are poisonous. Newhall’s Bill Ireland had to stay in a hospital for a month after jabbing himself with a poisonous Yucca spine.

OCT. 21, 1948

  • I hope John Petty’s not around to hear me ask: “How dumb do you have to be?” Petty reported that about $700 worth of firearms, cash, camera equipment and valuables were stolen from his home up in Lang. Worse, the thieves also took Petty’s home, which was a tent. The Saugus resident had left all that stuff in his tent — GET THIS, SADDLEPALS — from July 1 to Oct. 10.
  • Joe Rose and Bill Markham had escaped from Wayside Honor Rancho (Pitchess prison today) and hightailed it to Nevada. There, they kidnapped a widow and her three small children, holding them at their desolate ranch for months. Markham grew homesick. He, Rose and the kidnappees drove back to the SCV so Markham could visit his family. The two cons sent the woman to get supplies while they trained revolvers on the three tots. The widow ran to authorities, who surrounded the Markham abode up Sierra Highway by the Halfway House. Then, long before there were reading of your Miranda rights, they made the two original despicables eat a whole passel of dirt. Mother and children were unhurt.
  • “B” movie legend Johnny Mack Brown was finishing up his Western, “Stampede,” at the old Melody Ranch, called “Placeritos” back then.

OCT. 21, 1958

  • Apparently, Summer had not gotten the memo. For more than a week, the mercury topped the 100-degree mark.
  • Popular grocery store owner Charles Dillenbeck and a 12-year-old boy he was carrying in his car were killed after a CHP cruiser hit them broadside. The Highway Patrol unit was estimated traveling at 80 mph on a high-speed chase of a speeding car. The CHP car ran the red light at Solemint Junction, T-boning Dillenbeck. Dillenbeck was headed to L.A. to watch legendary former Hart High star, Joe Kapp, play in a college football game.

OCT. 21, 1968

  • Signal Publisher Scott Newhall never recognized that Ronald Reagan was governor. On the bright side, had Ronnie known Scotty, he may not have recognized him as Signal publisher. In a front-page editorial, Newhall suggested that the “alleged” governor have his mouth washed out with soap for creatively swearing at a UC regent. Me? I would have wrote: “Way to go, Ronnie!” Newhall referred to the future president as “constable” instead of “governor.”
  • Hart High surprised a powerful and unbeaten Santa Clara, 27-0. To put it in the proper historical perspective, the lead to the story included the ’60s word: “Outasight!” Perhaps the greatest running back in SCV history, Clint McKinney, played in that game. McKinney would eventually topple O.J. Simpson’s single-game junior college rushing record.

OCT. 21, 1978

  • High school sports history was made in 1978. For the first time ever, Saugus High beat BOTH Hart and Canyon in prep football. For the first time, the Centurions got to keep The Signal’s SCV Victory Bell, a concept of then-Signal Sports Editor Walt Cieplik.
  • Must have been the birth of California Cuisine. After hosting the local Chamber of Commerce luncheon at the Ranch House Inn, the biz guys complained loudly about the menu. Seems the lunch was microscopic, featuring cheese, crackers and carrot sticks. The Ranch House defended their banquet, noting you don’t get much for $7 per person. Well you do at McDonald’s…
  • The American Water Works Association elected William Mulholland to their Water Utility Hall of Fame. That brought grumbles locally. Mulholland was the man who designed the St. Francis Dam. You know. The one that burst in San Francisquito Canyon in 1928? Two hundred-foot wall of water? Killed more than 400 people in California’s second-worst disaster after the San Francisco fire?

Well dear saddlepals. Hate to say it, but that wraps up this week’s ride through the back canyons of Santa Clarita history. I’ll see you next week with another exciting Time Ranger adventure. Until then, dear saddlepals, no tomar prisioneros en Halloween y vayan con Dios!

John Boston, aka, Mr. Santa Clarita Valley, has been writing about and teaching the history of the SCV for more than 40 years. Recipient of The Will Rogers Lifetime Achievement Award and 119 major journalism honors, he is also author of the historical tome, “Images of America: The Santa Clarita Valley.”

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