The Time Ranger | Our Most Epic Crime in SCV History

The Time Ranger
Time Ranger

Seems we finally have some proper fall weather for moseying. Good thing, too. We’ve got a most interesting trail ride ahead through Santa Clarita history. 

Unlike our own well-mannered saddlepals, we’ve got a drunken, horse-abusing trail rider to teach us how not to ride. 

Watch those pickets. We’ve got some earlier grocery strikes in the Santa Clarita Valley. 

We even have some interesting figures on how much it cost to fight big fires back in the valley. 

Well. Enough of the previews of coming attractions. Mount up. Hold onto your hat as we pass through the time portal and don’t litter in yesteryear. It messes with their minds when the locals find Starbucks cups and McDonald’s wrappers … 


QUIET. JUST THE WAY I LIKE IT. — ’Tweren’t much back here in these parts. Not much happening, either … 

NOVEMBER 10, 1923  

GEEZ. AIN’T THAT JUST — SWALL (Get it? ‘Swall?’ ‘Swell?’ Sorry …) Albert Swall was one of the biggest movers and shakers in the valley during the 1920s. On this date, he and his wife announced they were moving from Newhall into the big city of Los Angeles. Mr. Swall commuted from Tinseltown to the SCV and continued running his huge real estate empire here, however. 

SITTING ON A FEW MILLION — On this date, farmer A.M. Dunn bought a scenic cattle ranch in Castaic from a Mr. Randall who also just happened to be our congressman. Dunn would run the ranch for nearly a decade, until it was taken over via eminent domain by the county of Los Angeles. They would end up putting a prison on the ranch by the Ridge Route. Odd thing? Dunn had no idea his ranch literally sat on an oil lake worth a fortune. He would end up suing L.A. County, but the judge sadly shook his head and pointed out the statute of limitations had run out. 

RING A DING A DINGY — On this date, the Southern California Telephone Co. began construction of the first official telecommunications office in the valley. It was in downtown Newhall. 

BARGAIN BASEMENT FIREFIGHTING — Forest Ranger Peterson did the final tally of how much it cost to fight the Castaic fire from July earlier in the year. The blaze consumed 3,050 acres. Peterson’s calculations were that it cost a total of $3,815.97 to put out the fire. This was about $1.20 an acre — which is below the 1923 average of $2 an acre. 

TWO WORDS. ‘KA’ AND ‘BLOOEY.’ — Way up the road and north, there used to be a world-famous resort in Lebec. A stove exploded in a house nearby, blowing up the neighboring garage and destroying every other building in Lebec — except the famed Lebec lodge. Damage was a whopping $60,000, nonetheless. 

NOVEMBER 10, 1929  

THE SAGA OF THE GREAT SAUGUS TRAIN ROBBERY — His motive was a woman. His downfall was not so much another woman, but his own, relentless stupidity. 

A baby-faced smallish cowboy and frontier Wild West show rider, one “Buffalo” Tom Vernon, was the perpetrator of one of the last big train robberies in the history of the West. 

It was the early evening of Nov. 10, 1929, when Vernon derailed a Southern Pacific series 5000 locomotive and all the cars it pulled right behind where the Saugus Speedway sits today. 

Interestingly, one of Hollywood’s biggest box office flops, Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate,” was based in part about Vernon’s alleged parents. Buffalo Tom spread the story that he was the son of Jim Averill, a postmaster and saloon owner and his mother, known as Cattle Kate, ran the whorehouse in Carbon County, Wyoming. Both were hanged by ranchers for rustling.  

Vernon was a teller of tales at the very best and probably closer to a liar. He said that, at 6, he was orphaned and alone. Here are some of his claims: 

• He was adopted by the Sioux for several years. 

• Then, Vernon was adopted by a white family. 

• He became a cowboy and sharpshooter. 

• He worked for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, drifted, then turned to a life of crime. Interestingly, Vernon served time for stealing a milking cow from movie star Harry Carey’s San Francisquito Canyon ranch. 

This part IS true. Vernon was the perpetrator of both the last train derailment robbery in the history of the West AND the second-to-last train derailment robbery. The latter? It was here in Saugus on this date in 1929. 

After prying loose some railroad ties near where Del Taco sits today at Soledad/Bouquet/Valencia junction, Vernon hid in the shrubbery and watched as the great iron giant flipped over, spitting steam and sparks. Vernon quickly scampered aboard the passenger cars, acting first as a railroad official, then robbing everyone. 

It wasn’t hard for lawmen and rail detectives to figure out who pulled off the spectacular stunt. The train robber had left a piece of paper with his name and address on it in the bushes where he had been hiding. 

In the meantime, it was an absolutely epic project to remove the huge derailed train and cars. Railroad workers had to lay parallel tracks and cart off the immense wreckage. It attracted looky-loos by the thousands. 

A week later, Vernon pulled a similar train derailment robbery in Wyoming. Acting like a man who wanted to be caught, Vernon left yet another letter, this one addressed to a prostitute in Oklahoma. The text left Vernon’s arrival time and date — by train — of when he would be pulling in for a visit. 

At his trial in 1930, Vernon confessed that he had derailed the Saugus train to pay for an operation for an impoverished lady friend in Los Angeles. Actually, the cash was for an abortion for a prostitute. Fallen women seemed to be one of the Buff’s many and fatal weaknesses. Vernon’s take in the robbery was about $300.

Buffalo Tom Vernon was given life in prison at Folsom. Several stories, including one from a prison guard living in the SCV in the 1990s, indicated Vernon died an old man in prison in 1967. The prison guard reported he had crossed paths with Vernon daily in the pokey.

However, the latest information about our fibbing train robber is that he was paroled in the 1950s. There is both testimony and photographic evidence that, as an old man, Vernon lived with a family in Citrus Heights and died of tuberculosis. That family buried him in 1958.

NOVEMBER 10, 1933  

ONE OF OUR WORST TRUCKING ACCIDENTS — I can’t recall a more horrific trucking accident in local history. On this date, four big rigs were destroyed, another partially wrecked and three teamsters killed in a spectacular crash on the new Highway 99. The major interstate was closed all day due to the wreck 6 miles north of Castaic. A flatbed loaded with empty welding tanks lost control, doing about 60 mph downhill. It smashed into another big rig, starting a huge chain reaction, which included a fifth truck going the opposite direction being smashed.  

NOVEMBER 10, 1943  

ONE OF THE MOST SPECTACULAR FIRES — A giant blowtorch started one of the most epic blazes in SCV history. A 10-inch gas main that ran along the ridge next to the Newhall Refinery ruptured, sending a cloud of gas skyward. The gas hit the crackling high-tension wires above and exploded into a huge flame. The big metal towers melted and started a brush fire. Over 500 firefighters battled the blaze. It didn’t help that the dreaded Santa Anas were blowing 40 mph winds. 

WHEN PUSH CAME TO SHOVE — Pat Lizza, the controversial head of Bermite, stood trial for assaulting women employees at his Saugus munitions plant. Bermite was one of America’s largest munitions manufacturers during World War II. The women workers accused Lizza of shoving them so hard while at work, they hurt their necks and backs. Lizza denied the charges, pointing out the women not only finished their shifts, but also returned to work the next day. A local jury acquitted the Bermite president. 

NOVEMBER 10, 1953  

FOR THE CATTLE, IT WAS MERELY A STAY OF EXECUTION —A double rig filled with beeves and headed to the L.A. slaughterhouse caught on fire in Weldon Canyon (The Old Road near today’s Towsley Canyon. They unloaded the herd from the blazing truck and later shooed them into a new truck.  

DAM. JUST, DAM — There was an important election in neighboring Ventura County. On this date, voters endorsed a $10 million bond to build the Piru dam and reservoir. 

NOVEMBER 10, 1963  

THE BIRD’S THE WORD — Sixty years back, the Heinly family got their Thanksgiving dinner the hard way. They shot it. Seems a truck full of gobblers had motor trouble and pulled off the side of the road in Agua Dulce. In transferring some of the turkeys to another truck, a couple of gobblers ran off into the sagebrush. Juanita Heinly spotted the fowl, acted as navigator and got her husband to plug the bird. They had it later for Thanksgiving. Juanita would later become the city of Santa Clarita’s first employee.  

TODAY, IT’S NOW ONE OF THE SCV’S OLDEST BUSINESSES — Newhall Bowl celebrated its first birthday with a special — three lines of bowling for a buck. Bowling was a big deal in the SCV back then. They had a full-time bowling instructor and an organist who played six nights a week. 

NOVEMBER 10, 1973  

PUT ’EM IN THE GUILLOTINE — On this date, the county launched a War on Burglary. Guess we haven’t won that one yet. By the way. We had 885 burglaries for that year here in the SCV. 

NO RELATION TO BELOVED SADDLEPAL AND SIGNAL EDITOR, TIM WHYTE — I’d just like to point out that all these years of leading these trail rides, I’ve never done the following. On this date, Charles Lee of upper Canyon Country was renting out horses, supposedly for pleasure riding. A tenderfoot from the San Fernando Valley, Clyde White, noted along the route that he could not control his horse. Lee pointed out he was, “… riding his horse wrong.” White pointed out he didn’t know how to ride a horse, period. At this point, there are two versions of the story. White said that’s when Lee rode up next to him and yanked him out of the saddle. Then, according to White, the cowboy started whipping him “… with the leather thing you use to make the horse go.” Lee’s tale is a bit different. He said White was riding while drinking straight from a wine (white) bottle. White, drunk, started violently spurring the horse and that’s when Lee tried to take the reins and control things. White started whipping Lee with the reins, then fell out of the saddle. When sheriff’s deputies arrived at the stable, they found White was fairly well blottoed. White threatened a lawsuit, saying his civil rights had been violated.  

THREE BUCKS AN HOUR — On this date, the Retail Clerks Union went on strike, urging locals to boycott Thrifty Drugs in Valencia, Saugus and Canyon Country. All three stores were closed the first days of the pickets. Cause of the strike? Wages. Clerks hired before a certain date received $3.63 an hour and clerks hired after that same date got $3.03. The union wanted everyone to make $3.63. Can you imagine that today? A $120 a week paycheck? 

NOVEMBER 10, 1983  

WONDER IF ‘THE RAINS OF RANCHIPUR’ GOT WET? — You’d think a library would have the good sense to have a strong roof. Not so. It leaked during an early November rain, turning hundreds of hard covers into soft. Oh. The writing ghosts would haunt me if I didn’t point out that “The Rains of Ranchipur” was the movie and “The Rains Came” was the 1937 novel that launched the movie. 

IF I WERE WARDEN — Wayside, aka Peter Pitchess Detention Center, was given a $108 million home improvement grant. They used the money to fortify the former minimum security honor farm and add 1,616 beds. This may be out of my realm of expertise here, but maybe if they made the convicts stand up all the time, they’d be too tired to cause trouble and would probably not want to go back to Wayside … 

LIFE IMMITATES ART — A TV film crew closed off San Fernando Road in Downtown Newhall for a crashed car stunt. “Blue Thunder” got a little too realistic. The car spun out of control, exploded and hit the cameraman. Both driver and photographer were critically injured.  

UNWOKE VOLLEYBALL COVERAGE — We weren’t so politically correct at The Signal 40 years back. Sports Editor Jeff Rietveld’s headline noted how a local girls’ volleyball team were going to the CIF championships. It read: “Hart Volley Vixens Earn Play-Off Spot.” Hm. “Volley Vixens.” What’s next? Tennis tarts? 

WHAT’S IN A NAME? — By the by. Rietveld’s unasked-for nickname was, “The Pineapple.” Jeff was from Hawaii … 

•     •     • 

Well that was just an epic outing and then some. See you back here at The Mighty Signal hitching post (259-1000 if you don’t have three subscriptions already) next Saturday with another exciting Time Ranger adventure. Until then? ¡Vayan con Dios, amigos!  

If you enjoy the Time Ranger, you’re going to love his local history volumes. Visit Order John Boston’s terribly exciting Volumes I & II on “SCV Monsters, Ghouls, Ghosts, Bigfoot” & all our local paranormal stories. Great Christmas gift idea. Leave a kindly review … 

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