Steve Whitmore used to be the daft and capable city editor of The Signal about 25 years ago. He uttered words true: “The devil will never come at you with horns and red tail twitching, breathing fire and brimstone. He’ll look quite normal. He’ll walk next to you, put his hand on your shoulder and say: ‘Be reasonable …’”
And so it often is with the swindlers The Mighty Signal has covered this last century. Confidence men (and women) are that because they instill confidence. You — believe — them. Sometimes they are grifters, passing through town to make a few quick bucks. Sometimes they are the seemingly stellar and beyond reproach stalwarts of the community. Sometimes, the con game is played on the Santa Clarita by big business, the local pastor and even the government.
To this day, I cannot understand the math behind what could only be described as a joke of counterfeiting. In the early 1940s, The Signal ran a tiny story about a man caught passing funny money at the old original Tip’s in Castaic. I’m still wincing trying to figure this one out. The perp took a series of one-dollar bills. He cut out the four edges of a $5-bill. He glued the edges (using TWO $5 bills, for the front and back) onto a ONE DOLLAR BILL. He was arrested and turned over to the FBI.
We ran a small story in the 1970s about how a family rented a dozen horses for a one-hour ride from the old Circle K Ranch, which was near the employee parking lot at Magic Mountain. The family struck a deal to rent a dozen for $10 an hour. This was early in the morning.
The family then rode the horses across the Santa Clara River to Highway 126, posted a sign: “Horses for Rent: $20” and made a tidy profit for the all-day borrowing.
As infallible as we often are, even The Mighty Signal can get duped. In January 1984, we gave front-page play to an ancient scam. Two sheets tied to the side of a white van told a small tragedy: “Work For Food-n-Gas. STRANDED. Wife-n-3 Kids. Need Work.” Dave Behrenmeir, an unemployed carpenter, left North Carolina before Christmas to find work in California. He ended up stranded on Lyons Avenue at Kansas Street with no food, no gas and no prospects. His plight drew attention, and well-wishers visited the van to drop off food, clothing and money. After a couple of days, Behrenmeir and his family disappeared, and we learned months later they pulled the same stunt in America’s breadbasket and the parents were arrested for it.
We’ve been cursed with so many scam artists, from defrauding the elderly to the kind and generous. What makes a sting so painful is when it’s perpetrated by the young and supposedly innocent.
In June 1980, two Saugus High co-ed honor students were finally caught. They were in charge of collecting the money from the campus vending machines. The pair stole more than $1,900 over a four-month period.
All in change.
Crooks in the dirt
Back in July 1950, a small group of Acton politickers were caught red-handed by The Mighty Signal for manipulating local elections. In 1950, the Acton Rehab Center helped dry out drunks and drug addicts. It had 375 residents — more than the entire population of Acton and all of whom were eligible to vote in local elections. Come election day, some locals started driving out-of-town drug and alcohol abusers to the nearest voting booth, offering succinct voting suggestions, then taking detox residents to dinner afterward. A couple of school bond measures passed handily because of the kind intervention. A little Signal investigative reporting discovered this technicality that wasn’t quite provable as a crime.
A little downhill from Acton, in Tick Canyon, one of my favorite larcenies was pulled off in April 1967. The Signal uncovered a scam by a real estate agent and developer. Charles Griner was convicted, ironically, on April 15 — Tax Day — in a San Francisco courthouse. Griner pulled off a simple but ingenious stunt to get a $6 million state water bond voted in on a local ballot and then had it transferred to his development company. Griner put up a couple of mobile homes in the then-desolate Tick Canyon and moved eight out-of-town people into the trailers. Only four other actual Tick Canyon souls voted in the election. The bond passed. Griner was convicted of many counts of fraud, including swindling a 75-year-old widow out of the original tract of land.
This was Griner’s second trial. Turns out he bribed a juror in the first one.
Another case of shoddy real estate shenanigans involved the Braewood and Pardee projects in the early 1970s. A former heavy equipment operator, Ed Malloy, shared with The Signal that he had sent letters to County Supervisor Warren Dorn, warning about shoddy soil compaction. The whistleblower accused developers of cutting corners. “I was sent to the jobs to compact the slopes. I was forced to do such shabby work that I refused to do any more and had to give up my job.” Malloy said the lots were built on fill dirt with very little compaction and that, when the first big rain or earthquake hit, the lots, with the houses, would be lost. Malloy was right. The big rains and landslides of 1974 ruined many a resident’s new Saugus homes.
Our fair share of crooked parsons
If there’s one person you have to trust, it’s your pastor.
Most of the time.
Know this. If there’s ANYTHING a newspaper loves it’s writing an exposé on a fallen angel. And even better than that? Writing a scathing headline. Like:
“THE STRANGE CASE OF
THE WILDCAT MINISTER”
Imagine THAT across eight columns.
Back on Nov. 19, 1970, SCV minister David Taylor was jailed on 20 felony counts, from grand theft to stock fraud. He was the former pastor of United Methodist Church. He was released on bond, then sort of disappeared. An associate of the United Methodist minister was asked if Taylor would ever go straight. His friend replied: “Not if Christ had him by one arm and a gorilla had him by the other.”
You always have to worry when a church has “Inc.” at the end of it. Back on April 7, 1951, the not-so-good Rev. Jerry E. Hauff, of the Full Gospel Assemblies in Christ Inc., was arrested for defrauding eight elderly citizens of all their possessions. Hauff had created “Eden City” on a ranch in Agua Dulce. The parson had convinced the eight seniors that the world was coming to an end — soon — but they’d be safe if they sold their homes and turned over all their money and possessions to him in exchange for “free” room and board at the ranch. The eight were also given “chores” which amounted to hard labor and ranch work of 60-80 hours a week. Their home? It was a series of holes dug out in the Agua Dulce hillside.
Of course, the granddaddy of all falsely religious scam artists were Tony and Susan Alamo. Starting in the early 1970s, this newspaper devoted many a front page on, at first, their charitable works, and then, on their litany of legal woes.
The couple had started a church in West Hollywood years earlier but left after 150 raids by the Los Angeles Police Department, mostly on child endangerment and drug charges. The Alamos settled in upper Mint Canyon in an old, sprawling restaurant. There, they ran a profitable empire where they would send hundreds of street kids into Hollywood and L.A. to beg for money for their chur — er, cult.
While out here, the Alamo Foundation initially earned community support with their help and donations (they built the bleachers for Canyon’s football stadium and also operated several small businesses).
But, soon, charges ranging from fraud to kidnapping drove them out of the SCV to Dyer, Arkansas, where they started the same scam of taking homeless kids and using them as essentially “Christian” slave labor to run their enterprises. Tony’s wife, Susan, was diagnosed with cancer in December 1975. She’d die in 1982.
Tony was under investigation for a mountain range of charges, including human trafficking and child rape. He died in a North Carolina pen at the age of 82.
Tony Alamo was actually born a Jew in 1934 and changed his name from Bernie Lazar Hoffman. Hoffman was briefly a Hollywood lounge singer and changed his name because, in his words: “The Italians were all making it as crooners at the time.”
The Signal almost gleefully noted that in 1972, a con man bought a box of Alamo cookies and paid for them with a counterfeit $20 bill.
Back when I was news director of the local SCV NBC station, I interviewed them in 1972. Found them amazingly sleazy, but not too many people in the community shared my sentiments.
One last Alamo trivia for you?
Neil Young released his “Journey Through the Past” album in December 1972. Backing him up on instrumentals and vocals was the Tony & Susan Alamo Christian Youth Band and Choir.
Years later, the couple is immortalized in entertainment. Just this year, the Sundance Channel produced a four-part mini-series: “Ministry of Evil: The Twisted Cult of Tony Alamo.”
Back in the ’70s here, the minions of Tony and Susan would stick thousands of pamphlets on the windshields of local residents. Nearly 50 years later, there are still cultists who will occasionally distribute the message of the two cult leaders.
And the Jim Dandies of swindlers?
Actually, there’s several. More on them next week in Chapter 2.
For example, The Signal covered the brutal shenanigans of a man who earned the unasked-for nickname of Schindler the Swindler.
Fits well in a headline.
We also take a look at Y.M. Yant, who spent years in Folsom in the 1920s and 1930s, tried to go straight, came back to Newhall and accidentally became an “honest” millionaire, earning so much petroleum money in Santa Clarita he upset the world oil market.
We’ll also see how your hometown newspaper for the past century covered the crook who tried to bankrupt the William S. Hart Union High School District — and ended up blowing his brains out in a motel.
After that, you’ve got to come back next Saturday for Chapter 2 of The Mighty Signal Covers The Con Men.
Starting in the 1960s, off-and-on, John Boston has worked for The Signal for nearly 40 years. He’s the local historian, author and columnist for The Mighty Signal. Come back next Saturday for installment No. 18 and Chapter 2 of this newspaper’s coverage of conmen over the past century in our History of The Mighty Signal.