Signal 100|The Saga of ‘Big’ Bill Bonelli

No. 30 in a series of 52 commemorating 100-year anniversary of The Signal

Just about everyone in the Santa Clarita Valley has driven past what used to be the Bonelli ranch on Soledad Canyon Road. It’s right next to the Saugus Speedway. The house, for being one of the nicest in the entire valley, rested a stone’s throw from the railroad tracks running above it. It’s gone now, as is one of the richest and most influential men in California, “Big” Bill Bonelli.

From the 1940s to the 1970s, The Mighty Signal covered William George Bonelli for a variety of reasons. For one thing, “Big” Bill bought the world-famous rodeo grounds from legendary film star Hoot Gibson. He would later turn it into a car racing track, featuring everything from destruction derby to midget car events. Later, it would become the Saugus Swapmeet.

I always wondered about that. Bonelli was not just rich, he was stupid rich. The man owned epic spreads throughout the Southwest. And yet, his adobe ranch was just a hundred yards away was that infamous stock car roar that, back in the day, could be heard from Castaic to Canyon Country. Throw in the train in their backyard and I’m guessing the Bonellis didn’t mind the commotion.

But The Signal covered Bonelli for another reason. He was one of the victims of what media critics decades later would call “Fake News.”

For some 30 years, the Saugus rancher battled some of the most powerful government and business figures in America. For his troubles, he hid out in Mexico for 17 years, avoiding trumped-up charges. His was not exactly a terrible life in exile. Bonelli owned a ranch south of the border stretching over — do sit down for this — One. Million. Acres.

Bonelli went to war with the behemoth Los Angeles Times and wrote a hard-hitting expose entitled “Billion Dollar Blackjack.” It was an indictment of police, politicians, bureaucrats and a crooked media complex.

The First Developer . . .
There weren’t too many houses built, period, in the Santa Clarita the first 50 years of the 20th century. Yes. The population of the valley grew, from a scant 500 souls in the 1920s to about 7,000 at the end of the second world war. Bonelli and his family built the first modern housing tract, Rancho Santa Clarita, in Saugus in 1947. It’s where Seco Canyon is today and is still called the Bonelli Tract. He also was a huge supporter of SCV charity.

“Big” Bill Bonelli and his family built the first modern housing tract, Rancho Santa Clarita, in Saugus in 1947. It’s where Seco Canyon is today and still called the Bonelli Tract.

Big Bill was born in 1895 in Kingman, Arizona, and moved to Los Angeles, graduating Phi Betta Capa from USC in 1916 and lettering for four years in varsity tennis, football and basketball. He served as a pilot in World War I and that would come in handy in the following years. The Signal gleefully reported Bonelli successfully hopped not only across the Mexican border while arrest warrants dogged him, but he also just flew from one huge spread to another.

Bonelli was the youngest member of the Los Angeles City Council at the tender age of 36 and later, he’d fail in capturing the mayor’s seat. He later ran for U.S. Senate — and lost. He was a state assemblyman and, in 1931, he was elected to the State Board of Equalization and soon headed up that bureaucracy.

A Tale of Two Sources . . .
There are two completely different stories about Big Bill. His accusers were powerful. They included The Times, The Los Angeles Mirror, the Los Angeles Police Department, California Gov. Goodwin Brown (and other governors) and an army of dubious characters.

Bonelli?
Well.
He wrote that darn book.

“Billion Dollar Blackjack” was a chilling expose, linking the immortal Chandler family (who owned The Times) and their relatives whom he not only accused of running an illegal liquor empire, but also being behind the absconding of the billions of dollars in water from the Owens Valley project.

“Blackjack” was co-written by reporter Leo Katcher. He was a writer’s writer — from penning hard-hitting exposes on President Richard Nixon’s “Millionaire’s Club” to earning an Oscar nomination for screenplay writing. It was no secret that The Times of the 1940s and prior was one of the more partisan papers in America and was active in covering up the city hall scandals.

The tiny but Mighty Newhall Signal took the part of their neighbor, Bill. While The Times vilified Bonelli, The Signal championed him, bringing to light many facts the gargantuan daily 45 minutes away chose to ignore.

Busted in Kingman . . .
As chairman of the State Equalization Board, Bonelli unearthed an epic criminal undertaking that also included shady water and real estate deals going back decades. There were literally thousands of liquor licenses in Los Angeles and Southern California. The Signal reported that Bonelli had discovered most of them were owned by people with ties to the police and the august Times. Cub reporters, interns, junior photographers and people barely making rent “owned” flashy nightclubs and liquor stores.

How’s that for a perk? Write a story. Get a saloon.

The Times fought back.
The periodical accused Bonelli of being a Mafia kingpin and running an illegal liquor empire. Bonelli sued both The Times and The Examiner for $1.5 million each — huge money in the early 1950s. You have to give it to Big Bill. He had chutzpah. Not only did he sue the media giants from Mexico, but carried on a 17-year-long war, hounding and harassing the rich, famous and powerful, from L.A. to Sacramento and Washington, D.C.

Bonelli was arrested in Kingman in 1947 on California corruption charges. He hopped on a plane and flew to his estate in sunny Mexico.

Among his many accomplishments, Bill Bonelli might make the Guinness Book of World Records for possibly becoming the first person in history to receive a written apology from the Internal Revenue Service.

‘Having a wonderful time. Glad you’re not here.’ . . .
What the media, history and many historians get wrong is Bonelli’s life on the lam. Accounts, falsely repeated and re-repeated, paint a picture of a poor chap, excommunicated from his beloved U.S.A.

Not true.

Over the years, Bonelli came and went as he pleased. Frequently, while reported living in Mexico, he was here, in Santa Clarita. In his Watchman column, Signal Editor Fred Trueblood intimated that Bonelli would fly in to the private 6S Air Field at his neighbor’s ranch. The 6S was called such because there were 6 Schultzes. Their ranch would later become North Oaks. Trueblood’s column, The Towerman, hinted that Bonelli would get a friendly warning from local police or officials if there were any outside lawmen snooping around Newhall on his trail.

Bonelli loved to torment his tormenters. He would send postcards or snapshots of himself poolside at various tony Mexican resorts to Gov. Goodwin Knight. The Signal acquired one. In Bonelli’s handwriting, it said: “Having a wonderful time, Goody. Wish you weren’t here.”

“Hiding” in Mexico did wonders for the rancher/multimillionaire. He lost 150 pounds and had a pretty good tan.

Also, somehow, while on the lam, Bonelli managed to acquire thousands of acres in the SCV. In 1954, he of course started the Bonelli Tract. He also would buy several thousand acres of what would later be the Circle J project. The Signal noted that, originally, it was set to be a golf and equestrian country club. Each block of houses would all share stables, stalls, a main arena and smaller train circles with riding trails in the hills.

Before this ongoing drama started, Bonelli made the local paper in 1944 with the purchase of a bull. Big Bill paid a then-world record of $30,000 for a Hereford. The cow-mater was named Trunode Domino 64th, although I’m guessing he wouldn’t come to you no matter what you called him.

Sins of the Father . . .
The corruption of Los Angeles and California was legend for much of the 20th century. In 1954, it caused Bonelli to switch from Republican to Democrat. From the Jan. 11, 1954, Signal, Bonelli had strong words for the political machine:

“I believe the Democratic Party offers Californians their only protection against the sinister threat of political domination by the Chandler-owned Times-Mirror combine,” said Bonelli.

“The picture of this scheming Chandler family, owning and controlling a half-billion-dollar empire, with its $50 million a year income is frightening,” Bonelli said. “All forms of business are being invaded competitively by this hungry and cunning group.”

Not only was Big Bill into politics, but so was his son, Dr. William Bonelli Jr. His son was a cornerstone of SCV life, donating time, power and money to various events and charities. He sat on the early College of the Canyons board of trustees. He ran for state Assembly in 1950. He was heavily favored to win. A few days before the election, The Los Angeles Times ran a series of huge front-page stories, accusing Bonelli Jr. of being a top-tiered Mafia kingpin.

The entire story was a fabrication.

Bonelli II lost the election. A few days later, The Times buried the tiniest of “clarifications,” apologizing for “any misrepresentation or erroneous facts,” which, I believe, is an oxymoron.

Fake news?

In the 1960s, the grandchildren of the Bonelli family went to Hart High School. A decade later, father and son would die within months of one another. Bill Sr. passed away in 1970 and his son, in 1972.

One item that never made The Signal, nor any other newspaper and certainly not the Internet, involved the character of Bill Bonelli Jr.

One of my good friends of 50 years still lives in Newhall. His aunt used to be the Bonelli housekeeper. When she retired in the 1960s, after working for the family for years, she gave her notice, both in writing and personally to Bill Jr.

Bonelli II said he was more than sorry to see her leave, but understood. He thanked her for her hard and kind work and asked that on her last day, to please come by his office for her paycheck.

The woman lived on “the wrong side of the tracks,” off Race Street. The envelope was a little suspicious.

And lumpy.

Inside were the keys to a brand new Chevrolet.

And that wasn’t all.

Though she had retired, Bonelli paid her full salary — for the rest of her life.

Big Bill?

He might make the Guinness Book of World Records for possibly becoming the first person in history to receive a written apology from the Internal Revenue Service. After 17 years of flying back and forth from Mexico to his U.S. ranches, the IRS and Department of Justice sent him letters of apology for “his inconvenience” and dropped all charges.

As did the government of California.

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. 31 in our 100th Anniversary and History of The Mighty Signal.

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