California City

Deep in the Mojave Desert, there is a little town with a big name and a bizarre history: California City. For decades, real estate developers have sold a dream here: if you buy land now, you’ll be rich one day. Thousands of people bought this dream. Many were young couples and hard-working immigrants looking to build a better future. But much of the land they bought is nearly worthless. In this new podcast from LAist Studios, host Emily Guerin tells a story of money, power and deception.

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EPISODE 'WBEZ's Motive,' Episode 1: "Motive Preview"
Now that our limited run series is over, we wanted to share a preview of the new season of Motive, an investigative series from WBEZ Chicago hosted by Odette Yousef and Colin McNulty. To understand today’s white supremacist movement, look at the last time hate pulled in young Americans. Preview the new season of Motive, an investigative series from WBEZ Chicago, where over the span of eight episodes, they explore how Skinheads became front-line warriors of the white supremacy movement, and how their experience created the playbook for the recruitment of young people into the movement today.  California City sponsors include: Korea Tourism Organization: Visit Korea and experience delicious food, vibrant cities, and natural beauty. Please visit https://www.visitkorea.com.my/ Caltech: Cal Tech Science Exchange provides trustworthy answers, clear explanations, and fact-driven conversation on critical topics in science and technology. Please visit scienceexchange.caltech.edu
EPISODE 9Bonus Episode: Cashing In On The Desert
For decades, Californians have been obsessed with trying to profit off desert land. In this bonus episode of California City, host Emily Guerin, the Desert Oracle’s Ken Layne, and artist and curator Kim Stringfellow explore the myths of the Mojave Desert as "wasteland," failed schemes and utopias, Instagram-driven tourism and coronavirus refugees. The audio was recorded during a live virtual event on September 3, 2020 and presented by LAist Studios and KPCC in partnership with The Autry Museum of the American West.   California City sponsors include: Sun Basket is offering $35 off your order when you go right now to SUNBASKET.com/calcity and enter promo code calcity at checkout. Simplisafe: Try SimpliSafe today at SimpliSafe.com/CALCITY. You get free shipping and a 60-day risk free trial. There’s nothing to lose. Korea Tourism Organization: Visit Korea and experience delicious food, vibrant cities, and natural beauty. Please visit https://www.visitkorea.com.my/ Caltech: Cal Tech Science Exchange provides trustworthy answers, clear explanations, and fact-driven conversation on critical topics in science and technology. Please visit scienceexchange.caltech.edu
EPISODE 8The Reckoning
Silver Saddle gets shut down and accused of fraud. Will the company - and the dream Ben Perez believed - survive? California City is a limited series with 8 episodes. Show support by subscribing wherever you get your podcasts. California City sponsors include: Sun Basket is offering $35 off your order when you go right now to SUNBASKET.com/calcity and enter promo code calcity at checkout. Try SimpliSafe today at SimpliSafe.com/CALCITY. You get free shipping and a 60-day risk free trial. There’s nothing to lose.
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EPISODE 8 TRANSCRIPT

Note: California City is a podcast for a reason. You can read the transcript below, but the story is meant to be listened to. The host and a team of producers worked hard to make the podcast sound its best, and this transcript can’t capture all the voices, emotion, intonation and atmosphere in the original audio. If you’d like to quote this podcast, please check the corresponding audio first.

EMILY GUERIN: Previously on California City.

MUSIC

CATHY YIP: Oh wait a minute I'm in business I don't wanna say anything about Silver Saddle. Ok? No don’t, don’t do that.

LEE SMITH: What do I want to say, in Kern County, you know, this is, not really a secret.

THERESA GRIMSHAW: But the thing is, what they're doing isn't, as far as we know, is not illegal.

SOUND OF HIGHWAY, CAR DOOR SLAM

EMILY GUERIN: At 10 am, on Wednesday September 25, 2019, eleven people gathered in the parking lot of an industrial office park next to the airport runway in Burbank, California.

There were four employees of a company called Regulatory Resolutions, all wearing suits. Three California Highway Patrol officers, in beige uniforms with guns on their hips. Two investigators for the California Department of Business Oversight. One locksmith. And one computer forensic specialist named Joe.

They opened a door to a long hallway, and all eleven of them walked up a flight of carpeted stairs. They stopped outside a cheap-looking wooden door. There were two pieces of paper taped to it. One had a Microsoft Word clip-art smiley face giving a disembodied thumbs up. It read, “Ahh.. you made it! See...that wasn’t so bad now, was it?” The other sign said, “Welcome to Silver Saddle!” It was the company’s headquarters.

Meanwhile, managers at three different banks received an email from Regulatory Resolutions instructing them to freeze all of Silver Saddle’s bank accounts.

And 113 miles away, four CHP officers, two employees of Regulatory Resolutions, and another locksmith drove past Galileo Hill, past the gatehouse, and down the long driveway that leads to Silver Saddle Ranch.



It had been 61 years since Nat Mendelsohn started selling the dream of California City.

EMILY GUERIN: But when you went was there anything there at the time?

KATHRYN EFFORD: No! No it was just dirt.

ALEX MENDELSOHN: It’s gonna be wonderful he was very optimistic and very excited about it.

EMILY GUERIN: Forty eight years since The Nader’s Raiders called it “the big lie.”

DALLON COX: If you profit at the expense of those who are being duped then you’re evil. Literally there is an evilness to that.

EMILY GUERIN: Forty two years since Ken Donney tried to stop it.

KEN DONNEY: They prey on what we all share in humanity, which is our wishful thinking.

EMILY GUERIN: Thirty four years since Tom Maney started Silver Saddle.

EMILY GUERIN: So what are you saying?

TOM MANEY: I’m saying they may exaggerate their claims.

EMILY GUERIN: And more than 2 years since Ben Perez got home after a long, strange weekend and realized all he wanted was to get his money back.

BEN PEREZ: I feel like I lose hope. My dream is not gonna happen anymore.

EMILY GUERIN: It was another warm, sunny day in Southern California and Silver Saddle was getting shut down.

I’m Emily Guerin, and welcome to the final episode of California City.

BREAK

EMILY GUERIN: Regulatory Resolutions ran the raid on Silver Saddle that day. They’re what’s called a court-appointed receiver. They’re a company that takes control of other companies that are being sued, and they run them while the case is proceeding.

MUSIC

Getting a receiver appointed is kind of a big deal. It means the judge thinks the state is likely to win their case. It also means a judge thinks the company being sued will keep harming people unless they’re shut down.

MUSIC

EMILY GUERIN: Regulatory Resolutions wrote a detailed report of what happened on September 25. It’s kind of a play by play. And I have spent a lot of time with this document. And I also talked to someone who was there that day. But he only agreed to talk to me if I didn’t reveal his name.

SOUND OF WALKING AND KEYCHAIN CLINKING

EMILY GUERIN: Just after 10 a.m., the group opened the door and they walked inside. They found seven women and one man busy packing up 37 file cabinets worth of documents. There were boxes everywhere. Apparently they had been preparing to close the Burbank office and move everything out to California City.

One of the guys who worked for Regulatory Resolutions cooly told all the employees:

EMILY GUERIN IN DISTORTED VOICE: Everybody remain calm.

Step away from your computers.

And leave your phones on your desks.

Come with us to the breakroom.

There’s a lawsuit against Silver Saddle.

Just give me a few minutes, we need to take care of a few things.

EMILY GUERIN: The CHP officers swept the office. They looked for all the possible exits and made sure no one could sneak out a harddrive or a file folder. The locksmith changed the locks. Joe, the computer forensic specialist, began copying harddrives, emails, spreadsheets and bank statements. Then, Regulatory Resolutions began pulling people out of the break room one by one to see who knew what. After questioning them, they escorted the employees back to their desks so they could collect their coffee mugs, their sweaters, any pictures of their kids.

The team opened the file cabinets. Drawers. They opened boxes. They scanned any document that seemed interesting, and labeled what office it had come from. They worked late. They ordered sandwiches. They came in early. They worked late again.

Out in California City, Silver Saddle Ranch was nearly deserted when the authorities arrived. There were just six employees there, mostly the people who took care of the animals: 12 goats, 12 sheep, 5 chickens, 4 horses, 2 ponies, 2 burros, 2 alpacas, 2 peacocks, one llama and 4 cats, including the cat I met, Midnight.

CAT MEOWING

EMILY GUERIN: They made arrangements to move most of the animals off-site, and feed the ones that stayed behind. Then a locksmith changed the exterior locks on all the buildings. The front gate was chained shut and a makeshift plywood sign was left leaning against it. It read, in green spray paint, “No Trespassing. State Authorized Access Only.”

And then, they all left.

This raid was two years in the making. In mid-2017, this state agency called the California Department of Business Oversight received its first complaint about Silver Saddle.

The DBO regulates a lot of different financial transactions: student loans, mortgages, banks and securities. And they told me the complaint they received was from someone who had won a raffle at at Filipino grocery store. This person had gotten a call inviting them to a buffet dinner, and there, they’d been invited to spend a free weekend at Silver Saddle, where they said they were pressured into spending a bunch of money. So the DBO investigated, and came to the conclusion that Silver Saddle was selling unlicensed securities.

Okay, so let me just explain this: remember how when Ben Perez bought his share of the landbanking project, he spent $31,540? Well, when I looked at his paperwork, I realized it wasn’t a lump sum: there were a bunch of smaller charges, including $2000 to this thing called “the Capital Improvement Fund.”

And in a letter Tom Maney wrote to investors that would later wind up in court documents, he said that this fund would be used to develop the empty desert land that surrounds the ranch. But the DBO decided that the Capital Improvement Fund was actually a security -- it was something of value that you can trade, like stocks. And the DBO said Silver Saddle didn’t have a permit to sell securities.

So, in May 2018 -- one month after I began my research for this podcast -- the DBO told Silver Saddle to stop. Stop selling the Capital Improvement Fund. And stop saying untrue or misleading things about it.

In other words, the DBO wasn’t going after Silver Saddle over land sales. Because land sales isn’t what they enforce. But they could sink their teeth into this other thing: the Capital Improvement Fund.

They explained all this when I called them. And after we hung up, we went our separate ways.

I was investigating. They were investigating.

MUSIC

Silver Saddle did stop selling the Capital Improvement Fund. But they kept right on selling the landbanking project, according to the DBO.

It felt like a slap on the wrist.

So I was totally caught off guard when the email appeared in my inbox in September 2019 saying the DBO was shutting down Silver Saddle completely.

I was really curious what had changed, but DBO investigators wouldn’t talk to me. So I asked someone else, someone who was working on the case. And he told me that maybe the fact that I had been digging around had put Silver Saddle on the DBO’s radar. There was, as he put it, starting to be a drum beat.

SOFT DRUM BEAT

EMILY GUERIN: Silver Saddle was getting shut down. And there was a court hearing coming up. It was Silver Saddle’s chance to appeal. To make their case before a judge that they didn’t need Regulatory Resolutions taking control of their company. Of their 37 file cabinets, their 16 bank accounts, or their dozen sheep.

So of course I had to go. That’s after a break.

BREAK

MUSIC

EMILY GUERIN: The hearing was on October 16 at the San Diego County Superior Court. I got there early, and I sat in the front row of the courtroom as people filed in.

At the front of the seating area, there was this bailiff in uniform who paced back and forth. She barked at people to put away their phones and take off their sunglasses. And if they didn’t understand what she was saying, she just yelled louder and slower, until someone translated. Once all 42 seats were taken, she began turning people away.

At 1:30 PM, Judge Joel Woelfeil walked in in his long black robe and we all stood. He sat and we sat. Two men remained standing, facing the judge: the lawyer for the DBO, in a light grey suit, and the lawyer for Tom Maney, in a charcoal one. There was another lawyer on the phone. He didn’t mute himself, so everyone could hear his loud breathing.

Tom Maney’s lawyer argued that a court-appointed receiver was unnecessary. Shutting down Silver Saddle would do more harm than good. And there was no evidence of a cover up. The DBO’s lawyer disagreed. He said there were “suspicious transfers” of money. He said Silver Saddle had squandered tens of millions of dollars. He said they lied, and targeted unsophisticated consumers.

Then it was the judge's turn. He sided with the DBO. In order to protect the public, Silver Saddle needed to stay closed, and Regulatory Resolutions kept in charge. The whole thing maybe lasted 20 minutes. Everyone got up and filed out to the hallway.

SOUND OF MICROPHONE BEING TURNED ON, SOFT RUSTLING

EMILY GUERIN: I tried to catch the DBO’s lawyer.

EMILY GUERIN: Hi, are you with the DBO?

DBO LAWYER: Yes.

EMILY GUERIN: I’m Emily Guerin, I’m a reporter.

DBO LAWYER: Yeah, I can’t make any comments to you today

EMILY GUERIN: OK.

EMILY GUERIN: I didn’t know it then, but the DBO lawyer knew exactly who I was. He’d listened to my interview with Tom Maney, the one that Tom had secretly recorded. It had been on a computer in the Burbank office.

DBO LAWYER: Nice meeting you.

EMILY GUERIN: Thanks.

SOUND OF WALKING

EMILY GUERIN: Outside the courtroom, people were huddled together in groups, and their voices echoed off the hard stone floors. As I tried to decide who to talk to, a woman in a pretty silk scarf came up to me.

SOUND OF VOICES TALKING IN CROWDED HALLWAY

LIANHUI ZHOU: Hello.

EMILY GUERIN: Hi.

LIANHUI ZHOU: I'm Chinese investor.

EMILY GUERIN: Oh, okay, I'm Emily. I'm a reporter.

LIANHUI ZHOU: Nice to meet you.

EMILY GUERIN:Yeah, nice to meet you too.

LIANHUI ZHOU: My English — not good. I just can speak some.

EMILY GUERIN: Okay!

LIANHUI ZHOU: So, I want to let my friend interpret for me.

EMILY GUERIN: Okay.

EMILY GUERIN: Lianhui Zhou had driven all the way from Orange County. Her interpreter friend David Dai was also Silver Saddle investor. He wore a suit for the occasion.

DAVID DAI: How are you?

EMILY GUERIN: Good, how are you? I'm Emily.

DAVID DAI: Emily? David.

EMILY GUERIN: Nice to meet you, David. Do you mind if I record?

EMILY GUERIN: And through David, Lianhui started telling me about how a Silver Saddle sales agent had pressured her into buying a share of the landbanking project.

LIANHUI ZHOU: speaking Chinese.

DAVID DAI: Ok, she just said, at a time, they sold those land, they say you know, there are water, there are sewage, there are road, it's built, but now, there are nothing there.

EMILY GUERIN: And you couldn't cancel it.

DAVID DAI: You cannot. Once you cancel...

LIANHUI ZHOU: I call them, but, they said no.

EMILY GUERIN: So you don't think it's a good investment, you don't think you'll ever be able to make money off of it, you just want your money back.

DAVID DAI: We want the money back now.

EMILY GUERIN: By this point, a small group had gathered around us. At least one person was filming me. David turned to speak to them, kind of like a preacher addressing his congregation.

DAVID DAI: Absolutely. Everybody?

CROWD: Yes.

DAVID DAI: Everybody?

CROWD: Yes.

JINDAO HE: speaking Chinese

DAVID DAI: Yeah, that means, we want our money back, that's the Chinese.

EMILY GUERIN: That man yelling out was Jindao He. His eyes were big, and they flashed beneath his bushy eyebrows. His mortified teenage daughter hid behind his shoulder as David translated.

JINDAO HE: speaking Chinese

DAVID DAI: They are the cheaters and they are, you know, they cheated on us. He wants to stop, stop them from cheating again and cheating the different people.

JINDAO HE: Thank you.

EMILY GUERIN: OK thank you for talking.

JINDAO HE: Thank you.

EMILY GUERIN: No, thank you.

LAUGHING

MUSIC

EMILY GUERIN: David told me he’d learned the hard way not to trust America’s laws.

DAVID DAI: You know what, we are immigrants...And we thought in America, we cannot imagine this happen to us.

EMILY GUERIN: How come?

DAVID DAI: Very naive.

EMILY GUERIN: You think so?

DAVID DAI: Yeah. Yeah. And we think everything's law and order, and we have so much trust in those business peoples, and that they give a good presentation.

EMILY GUERIN: Does it make you think differently about America?

DAVID DAI: I would not say different, I will say add more experience. I know America better.

MUSIC

SOUND OF PHONE DIALING

BEN PEREZ: Hello?

EMILY GUERIN: Hey Ben!

BEN PEREZ: Hi Emily.

EMILY GUERIN: Hi can you hear me ok?

BEN PEREZ: Yes.

EMILY GUERIN: Ok, cool. Um, so what did you think when you saw this, um, press release about Silver Saddle being shut down, like how did you feel?

BEN PEREZ: I feel like you know, a sense of relief that it’s finally over.

EMILY GUERIN: It had been over two years since Ben’s trip to Silver Saddle. Two years since he’d signed away his food truck money.

BEN PEREZ: It’s been a long time. Like, I feel super hopeless.

EMILY GUERIN: But do you feel any better now knowing that like you might get it back?

BEN PEREZ: Hopefully yeah. Laughs.

EMILY GUERIN: Yeah, you don't you don't, I'm not convinced.

BEN PEREZ: laughs I don't know.

EMILY GUERIN: Yeah.

BEN PEREZ: Yeah.



MUSIC

EMILY GUERIN: Ben was not confident that the lawsuit would help him. Not nearly as confident as David and his group. And, reading through court documents, I could see why.

Silver Saddle’s finances were a mess. Years had passed without any basic accounting at all. Their books were so disorganized, the DBO’s fraud examiner determined it must be deliberate -- Silver Saddle must have been transferring money between multiple accounts to make it difficult to trace. Most of the money, the fraud examiner found, was gone. A lot of it was used to pay sales agents. Marian Ducreux had been making $300,000 a year, according to the DBO.

All that was left was the ranch itself, and all the things that had been left behind, including: two American flags. Two projector screens. Four booster seats. Eight broken paddle boats. Fifteen fake wine bottles. One cowboy statue. One jackalope. And one hot dog roaster.

The DBO wants Silver Saddle to give all the investors their money back. But how? Even if they sold the ranch, and sold the vacant land that remained, it wouldn’t generate enough money to pay everyone back in full. Because the land was, “near-worthless real estate”, as the DBO put it.

They said people like Ben Perez had paid around 100 times more than what it was really worth. A hundred times!

But in the courtroom in San Diego, Tom Maney’s lawyer proposed a solution: the people who’d bought into Silver Saddle could take over the ranch from Tom Maney and run it themselves.

David and Lianhui did not like that idea one bit.

LIANHUI ZHOU: speaking Chinese

DAVID DAI: She just, you know, said, what they want is, do not do anything just, you know, take the land, take the ranch, then, you know... We're done. This is not right way. This is not the correct legal action at all.

EMILY GUERIN: They didn’t want anything to do with Silver Saddle. They just wanted as much money back as possible. And given the charges against Silver Saddle, and the dozens of investors I’d talked to, I assumed most people felt this way. But then I met Antonio Garcia.

MUSIC

EMILY GUERIN: Antonio was standing at the opposite end of the courthouse hallway from David and Lianhui’s group. He was a large man in a baggy suit with a bluetooth in his ear. And he was standing very close to Tom Maney’s lawyer, surrounded by a group of people who were listening intently.

ANTONIO GARCIA: And in the 2,000 people that are members or investors, there are people there, there are doctors, there are accountants, that can run this place, to make it good.

MUSIC

EMILY GUERIN: They were discussing the proposal Tom Maney’s lawyer had made earlier in the courtroom. Antonio said that he had a large group of people who all wanted to take over the ranch from Tom Maney.

ANTONIO GARCIA: But if we have control, we would make the money back that we invested.

EMILY GUERIN: Antonio said all he needed was to convince the court that everyone who had bought into Silver Saddle was on the same page. So Tom Maney’s lawyer had an idea.

MARK HIRAIDE: Maybe a survey might be helpful.

ANTONIO GARCIA: Yeah, we'll do a survey, and we'll send it to everybody.

MARK HIRAIDE: OK.

EMILY GUERIN: I realized I’d talked to Antonio before on the phone. I’d asked Debbie Nicastro, the woman we’d interviewed with Tom Maney, for the names of some people who were happy with Silver Saddle. It made me wonder if maybe Antonio and Tom Maney were working together. That, and the way Antonio was talking to Tom’s lawyer. Standing so close. Speaking so calmly.

EMILY GUERIN: Are you driving back somewhere right now?

ANTONIO GARCIA: Um...we’re going to have a meeting someplace.

EMILY GUERIN: Ok. I mean, can I come?

ANTONIO GARCIA: Uh, where are we going after this?

EMILY GUERIN: I introduced myself, and Antonio told me if I wanted to keep talking, I could meet him at a restaurant a few miles away from the court house.

SOUND OF CAR DOOR CLOSING

EMILY GUERIN: I’m going into Erlinda’s Filipino Cuisine and Ice Cream parlor.

EMILY GUERIN: Antonio was sitting around a table with a few people I recognized from the hallway. They’d already eaten, and the table was littered with styrofoam plates and dirty napkins. An older man offered to buy me something to eat.

OLDER MAN: You might like. It’s sweet.

EMILY GUERIN: What is it called?

OLDER MAN: It’s called Halo Halo?

EMILY GUERIN: Oh! I’ve always wanted to try that actually.

WOMAN: What ice cream do you want?

EMILY GUERIN: Is there like green tea? Or Thai tea? They have Thai tea. I’ll have green tea ice cream.

OLDER MAN: Green tea, I think they have.

EMILY GUERIN: The older man plopped a huge plastic cup of ice cream, coconut and sweet red beans in front of me. I tried, semi-successfully, to eat it with one hand while I held the microphone with the other. I mentioned I’d been talking to David at the courthouse.

ANTONIO GARCIA: That's the guy who doesn't like us, he is contrary to what we're doing. He will tell you that we were not honest and all that stuff, blah, blah, blah, whatever.

EMILY GUERIN: Antonio told me that Silver Saddle, and all the land around it, still had a lot of potential. It was going to be worth something someday. He had what I think Kathryn Efford would call, the vision.

ANTONIO GARCIA: It's a good location for many of the high, high tech industries. There was at one time, talk about Virgin Airlines using it as a place to develop their space program. That in itself alone brings a lot of value.

EMILY GUERIN: He said there could be a hemp farm there. Or a field of solar panels. Or a water park. The land already had water and power.

ANTONIO GARCIA: But remember, Las Vegas was a desert before it became Las Vegas.

EMILY GUERIN: On one hand, you had the people who were mad at Tom Maney. The ones who blamed him. The ones who want nothing to do with the land and they just want their money back. And then there were the people who see a future for Silver Saddle and for California City. People like Antonio, who explained it all to me absentmindedly as he picked at the food on his plate, chewing as he spoke.

ANTONIO GARCIA: We acknowledge the fact there is some mismanagement of the money.

EMILY GUERIN: So are you, do you blame him? Are you mad at him or angry in any way?

ANTONIO GARCIA: No. Uh uh. They're mad at him because of what?

EMILY GUERIN: Uh, I think they feel like he and the sales people lied about the value of the land and and pressured them and, you know, told them they would make a lot of money overnight and then they didn't.

ANTONIO GARCIA: They were not told that they were going to make money overnight, they were told that they will make money as soon as it is developed. The promise to make money is later on in the future.

EMILY GUERIN: In other words, Silver Saddle was a long-term investment, just like Tom Maney had told me. Long. Term. It was so familiar.

EMILY GUERIN: And are you... affiliated with Tom Maney or Marian or Silver Saddle in any way?

ANTONIO GARCIA: No. No.

CARLOS NOVELO: Totally separated.

EMILY GUERIN: Okay.

ANTONIO GARCIA: Anything that you heard otherwise is, is not true.

EMILY GUERIN: After an hour and a half, my halo halo was a melted gloppy syrup. Antonio was done picking at his food, and the other people with him seemed restless about their long drives home. I shook their hands and I ordered a styrofoam container of mung bean stew to go. I took it outside and I ate it on the curb as the sun set over the empty parking lot.

MUSIC

EMILY GUERIN: In the weeks after I met Antonio, I kept asking myself the same question I had about Nat Mendelsohn and Tom Maney: what are Antonio’s intentions? I decided to ask one more person: Darryl Horowitt. Antonio had hired him to represent all the people who bought into Silver Saddle, but for reasons that are too complicated to explain, he’s no longer representing them.

DARRYL HOROWITT: I can't describe any attorney-client communications, but I can tell you that when I worked with them, there was no indication they were working with Mr. Maney.

EMILY GUERIN: Except, the Department of Business Oversight does have an indication that Antonio is working with Mr. Maney. I found it in some court documents. It was a quote from an email that Marian Ducreux had written to one of her clients. She was suggesting that the client elect Antonio as the official representative of the people who had bought into Silver Saddle.

“Please vote for the following people,” she’d written, “they are all members of our team.”

I still don’t know if Antonio was working with Silver Saddle. But either way, Darryl seemed to be trying to distance himself from him.

DARRYL HOROWITT: Look, hope springs eternal for a lot of these people. They have this romantic notion that it's going to be something. If just given the chance, it will, it will happen. And, again, it's never going to. You and I rationally can look at it and realize it probably isn't ever going to happen. Why do people believe things that they know are believed to be false? It's because we have a default to truth. We want to believe people are telling us the truth.

MUSIC

KATHRYN EFFORD: Real estate is the basis of all wealth. Period. Worldwide, basis of all wealth. Kings, queens and wars are fought over her. If she’s dirt, someone’s gonna die for that piece of dirt. That’s just the way it is.

KATHRYN’S VOICE FADES INTO MUSIC

EMILY GUERIN: All the DBO’s findings and evidence show that what Silver Saddle sold, at the price they sold it for, is a bad investment. “By any measure, such pricing was astronomical and not supported by any market metric,” reads the receiver’s report.

So why do people like Antonio still believe?

I think it’s because what Silver Saddle’s salespeople were selling -- what sales people in California City have sold for decades in some form or another -- is a particularly beguiling dream.

A dream that, through blood and sweat and a little luck, we can make the desert into our garden.

California owes its very existence to this dream. Our dams. Our aqueducts. Our fields of almonds. Our herds of cattle. Our freeways. Our cities. We made the desert bloom. We turned dust into gold. So why not in California City? Why not one in more place?

MUSIC SWELLS AND FADES

EMILY GUERIN: By mid-August, Ben Perez had been out of work for five months. The pandemic had forced Google to close its campus in early March, and so with no Googlers to cook for, Ben got sent home. He’s on unemployment now. His mom, his three brothers, and his sister still live together. Ben still sleeps on the couch.

The case against Silver Saddle was on hold for months because of coronavirus. It’s nowhere near finished.

But Regulatory Resolutions has been busy. They’re selling off Silver Saddle’s assets, which is something the court has allowed them to do to try to generate as much money as possible for people like David, Lianhui and Ben.

They sold one horse for $2500. They sold 12 sheep and 10 goats for $500. Now, they’re trying to sell the Ranch itself, and the thousand acres of empty land that surrounds it, for $2.5 million. Which is...a fraction of what Silver Saddle claimed it was worth.

If the sale goes through, Ben Perez will get less than $1,300 back. He spent more than $31,000.

Antonio Garcia, of course, hates this idea.

He thinks the Ranch is worth way more than $2.5 million.

He thinks Regulatory Resolutions just doesn't understand its potential.

He thinks they don’t have the vision.

And he’s still trying to convince the judge that he and all the other people who bought into Silver Saddle should run the ranch themselves.

That’s how they’ll make all their money back.

SOUND OF WIND BLOWING, EMILY TESTING HER MICROPHONE, FOOTSTEPS ON GRAVEL

EMILY GUERIN: I decided to come back to California City one more time. I guess I just wanted to see it in the age of coronavirus. See if anything has changed. Honestly it looks just as quiet as it normally does.

I drove out here to Silver Saddle and was just shocked again by how far away it is. I mean, California City is already so remote and Silver Saddle is in the most remote part of California City.

That plywood sign with the green spray paint sign is gone. Instead there's an actual "keep out no trespassing" sign, but I know the road to Galileo Hill is still public, so, I drove up here and put the e-break on, and now I'm just standing out here.

It's windy today and the birds are drafting. Ravens or maybe they're crows. There's a mylar balloon blowing around in a creosote bush. And there's a billboard for the Galileo Project, the landbanking project that Ben Perez and thousands of other people bought into. The billboard blew over at some point. It's just sitting there on the ground, faded in the sun.

It's been a long time. I feel like it's been a really first time since I first came to this place.

I think if I were in charge of selling land here, I’d focus on the silence. I mean it is a stunning thing to experience. Where else within 100 miles of Los Angeles, can you hear absolutely nothing man-made, just the wind?

California City is unlike anywhere else I have ever been. And I think it’s because Nat Mendelsohn’s dream failed to come true. If he hadn’t dreamed so big, and come up so short, California City would be... I don't know, unmemorable. I mean It would just be any other sunbelt suburb. It wouldn’t be a place where you can just belt out Karaoke, and then wander home, still singing, on curving, moonlit roads. It wouldn’t be a place where you can spend a cool spring morning on top of a man made waterfall, hearing thrushes sing. It wouldn’t be a place where you can trace the tracks of long-gone wagons across the windswept ground. And it wouldn’t be a place where you can drive to the top of Galileo Hill, and stare out at the beautiful nothingness.

The nothingness is what makes the anything possible.

FOOTSTEPS WALKING, MUSIC SWELLING

CAR DOOR OPENING, CAR BEEPING, DOOR CLOSING

MAN’S VOICE: Good?

EMILY GUERIN: I'm good.

WIND BLOWING, MUSIC

EPISODE 7Open Secret
Fear, rumors, and looking the other way. How salesmen have sold the fantasy of California City for so long. California City is a limited series with 8 episodes. Show support by subscribing wherever you get your podcasts. California City sponsors include: Sun Basket is offering $35 off your order when you go right now to SUNBASKET.com/calcity and enter promo code calcity at checkout. Try SimpliSafe today at SimpliSafe.com/CALCITY. You get free shipping and a 60-day risk free trial. There’s nothing to lose.  
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EPISODE 7 TRANSCRIPT

Note: California City is a podcast for a reason. You can read the transcript below, but the story is meant to be listened to. The host and a team of producers worked hard to make the podcast sound its best, and this transcript can’t capture all the voices, emotion, intonation and atmosphere in the original audio. If you’d like to quote this podcast, please check the corresponding audio first.

EMILY GUERIN: Previously on California City…

MUSIC

CATHY YIP: Oh wait a minute, I am in business, I don't wanna say anything about Silver Saddle. Ok? No don’t, don’t do that.

TOM MANEY: Well, first of all, we've never misrepresented — we just don't do it. You know, I mean, I, that's, that's the way I live my life.

EMILY GUERIN: My takeaway is that either they really don't know what the sales people are saying, or they're totally bullshitting us.

KEN DONNEY: You hear me Tom? I'm talking to you right now, Tom Maney. Shame on you.

EMILY GUERIN: Do you feel bad that you brought people there?

BEN PEREZ: Very bad. I feel very bad.

COUNTRY MUSIC SWELLS, SOUND OF BAR

EMILY GUERIN: If you don’t count the American Legion and the VFW, California City is a one-bar town. The bar is inside a Chinese restaurant called the Green Tea Garden.

They have a wood-paneled jukebox that plays mostly country, although James and I picked Jewel and TLC off playlists written in Sharpie. We shot pool in the neon glow of red Budweiser signs. We drank what passed for craft beer. We noticed the 20-year old cigarette burns on the red carpet.

Part of the reason we hung out there so much was that, on our first day in town, we’d gotten a tip that the woman who owned the Green Tea Garden knew a lot about Silver Saddle.

SOUND OF JAMES INTRODUCING HIMSELF TO JOHN DAVIDSON

It was James who’d gotten the tip. He was hanging out in the park on election day in 2018, and he started talking to this guy named John Davidson, who’d just got done voting. His big issue was the gas tax: he didn’t want to pay more to drive his truck. He was in his 50s, ex-Air Force, his eyes hidden behind sunglasses and his hair hidden beneath a trucker hat. He had a handlebar moustache. No hiding that.

JAMES KIM: And, yeah, how would you describe California City?

JOHN DAVIDSON: It’s a small town, small community, out in the middle of nowhere. laughs. Not much to do out here, not unless you’re riding a dirt bike or playing sports.

EMILY GUERIN: John thought California City was going to shit. Which, we noticed, was a common opinion among the older white people in town.

JAMES KIM: And, what has changed since you’ve lived here?

JAMES DAVIDSON: They allowed Section 8 in. Ruined the city.

JAMES KIM: Can you elaborate?

JOHN DAVIDSON: Back in ‘95, when I came out here, the crime was very low. But now that they allowed Section 8 in… it’s caused a lot of problems. It is a small community and you don’t have that much law enforcement.

JAMES KIM: And then the other thing we heard a lot about is this place called Silver Saddle Ranch. Do you know anything about it?

JOHN DAVIDSON: Yeah, I think it’s a corrupted place. laughs.

JAMES KIM: Why do you say that?

JOHN DAVIDSON: It’s a real estate scheme. You know. Selling properties, promising that there’s gonna be improvements, the city is growing and all that, and nothing ever happens so people default on their taxes on the property, and guess who re-purchases it when it goes into foreclosure? Who do you think purchases it?

JAMES KIM: They do.

JOHN DAVIDSON: There you go.

JAMES KIM: Yeah.

EMILY GUERIN: At the time, James and I did not understand what John was talking about. But we do now.

When James asked him if he’d be willing to talk any further, he put his key in the ignition.

SOUND OF CAR STARTING

And he muttered, “Naw, I’m good. It’s a small town they might take me out.”

JAMES KIM: One thing though, I have to say, every time, like, a conversation heads in that direction, people get afraid to talk. Why is that?

JOHN DAVIDSON: It’s just a small town, people know everybody.

EMILY GUERIN: And then came the tip.

JOHN DAVIDSON: — Green Tea garden. Talk to them.

JAMES KIM: Green Tea Garden?

JOHN DAVIDSON: That lady has been there for a long time.

JAMES KIM: Interesting, okay.

EMILY GUERIN: We went that same night. We went late and the place was nearly empty. We sat down at a booth and we ordered cream cheese wontons. A thin woman in a boxy sweatshirt and loose jeans came over to deliver them. Cathy Yip, she owned the place. We started chatting, and after a minute or so, I did what I always do.

EMILY GUERIN: So this is our gear, this is my microphone. It likes to be close to people, cause then it, you know, it’s just how it works...

CATHY YIP: You gonna ask me a question or some shit?

EMILY GUERIN: Yeah, James’ll ask you I’ll just hold it.

JAMES KIM: Yeah, I guess I could ask you, would you…

EMILY GUERIN: Will you tell us your name first?

JAMES KIM: Wait, hold on, do you feel comfortable doing this?

EMILY GUERIN: This is the only tape I have of Cathy. Because once I pulled out my mic, and we started asking her about Silver Saddle, she started backing away from the table and waving her hands in front of her.

CATHY YIP: Wait a minute, I am in business, I don't wanna say anything about Silver Saddle. Ok? No, don’t, don’t do that.

EMILY GUERIN: It was going to be a lot harder than we thought to get people to talk about Silver Saddle. And I think that’s part of the reason they’ve managed to stay in business for so long. They’re kind of an open secret.

I’m Emily Guerin, and welcome to California City, episode six.

MUSIC SWELLS, THEN FADES

BREAK

MUSIC AND SOUND OF BAR

EMILY GUERIN: Cathy Yip didn’t want to talk to us about Silver Saddle. But she kept feeding us names of people who might. And one Thursday night, at the bar, Cathy cornered a woman who was playing pool and instructed her to tell us everything she knew.

SOUND OF INTERVIEW IN BACKGROUND

So the three of us went out back and we stood in the wet alley beneath the streetlight. It was cold, and she was shivering in a thin cotton sweatshirt. She was pretty drunk, and I felt kind of slimy to be interviewing her at all. This isn’t what she sounds like, by the way. She asked us to distort her voice.

EMILY GUERIN: So what should we know about Silver Saddle?

WOMAN: I've been here for a long time and I know they're pretty scandalous. As far as, they try to sell people land which they cannot re-sell, because it's out in the f… the middle of … nowhere. I really want to cuss, I’m sorry.

EMILY GUERIN: That’s okay, you can say whatever you want.

WOMAN: No, no I’m not gonna cuss.

EMILY GUERIN: And I could tell this woman did want to talk to us. But it also felt like she was holding something back.

WOMAN: Because it is a small-knit community. And so everybody knows everybody. So, you never know, if you talk to somebody, if you're gonna be beat up. Or ostracized. Or whatever… cus this is such a small-knit community.

And then she backed away from the microphone and silently mouthed, “I’m done.”

This kept happening.

MUSIC SWELLS

It happened at a diner at the California City airport called Foxy’s Landing. A waitress there once told me she served salespeople coffee as they pushed paperwork on potential clients. She thought it was weird, but it was none of her business.

SOUND OF DIRT CRUNCHING, STEPS, HIKING

It happened on top of a butte, on a hike with a woman who knows the name of, like, every single Mojave desert plant. Although she agreed to an interview, she later asked me not to use her name. She reminded me: she had to live in California City. She had a daughter. She was afraid of the repercussions of being seen as someone who would talk to a reporter about Silver Saddle.

It was starting to feel like no one was willing to talk about Silver Saddle, unless they were drunk or anonymous or both.

Until one night at the Green Tea Garden. When Cathy gave us another name: Theresa Grimshaw.

Theresa’s a real estate agent who specialized in selling land in California City. Her Zillow page says, “I believe in honesty and fair dealing, not only with my clients, but with everyone connected in a real estate transaction. Theresa says she gets lots of calls from unhappy people who bought land at Silver Saddle.

THERESA GRIMSHAW: I probably get a call a day.

EMILY GUERIN: Are you serious?

THERESA GRIMSHAW: Yeah.

EMILY GUERIN: Wow. That's way more than I thought you were gonna say.

EMILY GUERIN: She gently tells them that yes, although she is a real estate agent, she cannot sell their land.

EMILY GUERIN: So you're saying there's almost no resale market for the lots that Silver Saddle is selling?

THERESA GRIMSHAW: Yes, yes. That's what I'm saying.

EMILY GUERIN: Do you feel like the buyers knew that going into it, based on your conversations with them?

THERESA GRIMSHAW: No... But most of them, believe it or not, they appreciate my honesty. I've had very few if anybody get angry at me for telling them my opinion.

EMILY GUERIN: We were talking in her real estate office, an echoey building on California City Boulevard. The wind kept rattling the windows. Theresa’s long grey hair was wrapped around her shoulders like a shawl. She looked small and cold in her big office chair.

THERESA GRIMSHAW: laughs. I wanted to put a sign out there telling people, do your due diligence, beware. Caveat emptor. You know, buyer beware.

EMILY GUERIN: What would the sign look like?

THERESA GRIMSHAW: laughs. It would have been at least four by eight. It would have been, you know, like, bright yellow with big letters on it.

MUSIC FADES

EMILY GUERIN: I wonder what would’ve happened if Theresa’s sign had been up when Ben Perez was driving out to Silver Saddle. A big yellow and black sign, 4 feet by 8 feet. Like you might see at a construction site.

A sign warning you not to buy land out here, from a woman who sells land out here.

Maybe Ben would’ve turned to his buddy Clifford and asked, what the hell is that?

Maybe Clifford would’ve ignored him, just brushed him off.

But we’ll never know, because Theresa never built that sign.

THERESA GRIMSHAW: You don't want to say something and end up not being able to find your body somewhere. There's a lot of land out there. Because there's been a reputation up here in the high desert, too, of places for people to just dump bodies.

EMILY GUERIN: I said this once, but I’m gonna say it again: I talked to A LOT of people in California City. And no one ever accused anyone affiliated with Silver Saddle of a violent crime. Ever.

But I understand why Theresa feels scared. California City does feel kind of lawless. A police sergeant here told me they do find bodies out in the desert occasionally, along with trash and stolen cars and other things people want to disappear.

Dateline did a story last year about the town’s eight unsolved murders. And on the outskirts of town, there’s three billboards that a mother put up admonishing the police to solve her daughter’s murder.

EMILY GUERIN: Do you feel like a lot of people in town know what Silver Saddle is doing and how they operate?

THERESA GRIMSHAW: Oh, yes. Everybody knows. Yes. But the thing is is, what they're doing isn't, as far as we know, is not illegal.

EMILY GUERIN: The police sergeant I’d talked to said he had no idea about Silver Saddle. “I don’t get involved in real estate,” he told me.

But there was one California City cop who had been suspicious of them.

A guy named Steve Colerick.

Steve grew up in Arizona, but he visited California City a ton as a kid, because his grandparents owned the concrete plant in town. He told me it was idyllic back in the 60s and 70s, before Great Western Cities declared bankruptcy and the city began to fall apart.

In the early 80s, Steve became a cop in California City. And it didn’t take long before he started hearing rumors about Silver Saddle from one of the older guys on the police force.

STEVE COLERICK: He came right out and said that Silver Saddle was a, was a scam. And I’ll admit, I, up to that point, I didn’t pay attention to that stuff. I didn’t care. It didn’t interest me. If they weren’t selling drugs or gang banging, I didn’t care.

EMILY GUERIN: For years, Steve didn’t think about Silver Saddle.

But that changed around the time his infant grandson died, two days after Easter, in 2002.

The historical society offered to build a little memorial to the baby boy along this old wagon trail

that once ran through town. It’s mostly been paved over, but Steve had heard that way out in the desert, the ruts were still there, worn into the dirt by heavy wagon wheels more than 100 years ago.

For some reason, Steve became obsessed with finding these ruts. He told me, it just seemed like something I needed to do.

STEVE COLERICK: I got on my dirt bike and I started riding. I’m going, “I gotta find this, this trail. Where’s the ruts at? I couldn’t find the ruts.”

EMILY GUERIN: Steve criss-crossed the empty plain on his Honda, searching for a thing that almost no one else cared to find.

And over time, his obsession morphed into something larger: the history of California City.

Steve began collecting old ads, articles and documents about Nat Mendelsohn and the town’s early pioneers.

He had an entire white bankers box full of the stuff, and he brought it to my room at the Best Western on one of my visits, and began rifling through it.

SOUNDS OF RIFLING, STEVE TALKING UNDER HIS BREATH

Steve is a meaty guy with small eyes, big ears and divots on the sides of his head from years of wearing his sunglasses too tight. He has a retired cop buzz cut and a gray moustache that you can almost hear as he talks.

STEVE COLERICK: This is for you.

EMILY GUERIN: What is this?

STEVE COLERICK: I wrote that.

EMILY GUERIN: Steve pulled out a piece of yellow lined notebook paper.

EMILY GUERIN: Is this your little timeline of who owned what and when?

STEVE COLERICK: Yeah, this was my first sketch that I did. Um.

EMILY GUERIN: It was a hand-written timeline of all the major events in the history of California City.

In the 1950s, when Nat Mendeloshn started selling land.

In the 70s, when his company got sold to the Hunt Brothers.

EMILY GUERIN: And it goes to Great Western Cities?

STEVE COLERICK: Right.

EMILY GUERIN: And then you have this whole period of class action lawsuits and Ralph Nader?

EMILY GUERIN: Also in the 70s, you have the lawsuits and the investigations.

And then in the 80s, Silver Saddle’s creation.

When Steve was making this timeline, he wasn’t totally sure if Silver Saddle had anything to do with Great Western Cities or not. They seemed kind of similar, but he just didn’t know.

So he started asking around. Quietly. He wasn’t building a case, but he said it kind of felt that way.

STEVE COLERICK: Had to be careful on what questions I asked. Cause I didn’t, sometimes I didn’t know who was who. And there was, most of the time I didn’t ask questions, I tried to find out the answers on my own.

EMILY GUERIN: One day, Steve talked to one of Silver Saddle’s owners. This guy named Jim Quiggle, who died before I got a chance to meet him. He worked with Tom Maney for years. And Steve said the guy just seemed... evasive. Which Steve thought was weird. I mean, most people, when they talk about history, they want to share what they know.

Steve became the police chief in California City in 2008. And after that, he asked two of his detectives to talk to the Kern County district attorney about how to investigate Silver Saddle.

And Steve says the DA told him, don’t even waste your time.

STEVE COLERICK: There was no way our department, if there was a crime, had the resources to do a financial white collar investigation like that.

EMILY GUERIN: Plus, Steve says no one complained about Silver Saddle to the police department. There was no victim. And without a victim, he didn’t have a case.

So Steve let it go.

And then in 2011, he retired. He focused on his rock collection. His dachshunds. And his wagon-wheel ruts.

But I could tell it bothered Steve. It seemed like he regretted not doing more.

He told me once, back in April 2018:

STEVE COLERICK: Emily, I think after a while, you resign yourself to what fight you can win, and what fight you can do more damage to yourself if you try to push the issue.

EMILY GUERIN: A few months later, James tried to ask him again about his regrets. But something had changed.

JAMES KIM: Yeah, so, you know, going back on the phone conversation that you had with Emily, I thought I, you know, heard that you did have some sort of regrets about not looking into them of sorts.

STEVE COLERICK: I didn't lose any sleep over it. If, if that's what you're asking.

JAMES KIM: I mean, with you, um, would you say that Silver Saddle was doing any sort of suspicious activity?

STEVE COLERICK: I never had any personal knowledge of that.

EMILY GUERIN: Suddenly, he made Silver Saddle out to be this fun after work hang out.

STEVE COLERICK: Looking back on it, what I remember is countless Christmas parties, retirement parties. And it was nice, good food. Really good food. Good atmosphere. Lot of fun. Lot of dancing. That’s, that’s what I remember. That’s probably what I’ll choose to remember.

EMILY GUERIN: What he’ll choose to remember.

I’m still struggling to make sense of what he did next: he handed me his bankers box of documents, and he told me to make copies of whatever I wanted. He said he trusted me.

STEVE COLERICK: You’re more than welcome for me to leave this, I can leave this here and you guys can just go through it.

EMILY GUERIN: Oh, like overnight, and we can bring it back?

STEVE COLERICK: Yeah, I trust you.

EMILY GUERIN: Okay.

EMILY GUERIN: He said he was glad I was looking into Silver Saddle. He said I was one of the good ones.

But then, he started ignoring me. He stopped answering my calls and texts. The last time we talked, it was only because he butt dialed me on Thanksgiving from Catalina Island. It was our last interaction.

MUSIC SWELLS

I was starting to think the town itself was the problem. It was too small, too insular, too gossipy.

Nobody here was going to put themselves on the line.

I needed to find people who had less at stake.

So I thought back to that weird tax default foreclosure thing that John Davidson had told James about in the park. Maybe Silver Saddle had a paper trail. I decided to find it.

That’s after a break.

MUSIC FADES

BREAK

The Kern County Administrative Offices are in Bakersfield, at the very bottom of the Central Valley. They’re next to the railroad tracks and across from the convention center, where you can see a Kiss concert, or a monster truck rally, or “The Bachelor” live on stage.

I know Bakersfield gets a bad rap, but I love it. It reminds me of all the small Great Plains cities that I used to hang out in when I lived in North Dakota. The railroads. The dust. The cattle and coal.

The county assessor’s office is on the third floor. I signed my name on the visitor’s sheet, and I walked down a long carpeted hallway to a small office.

SOUND OF DOOR, WALKING

EMILY GUERIN: Thank you.

SOUND OF MOVEMENT

LEE SMITH: Yeah, we're sitting in my office, my name’s Lee Smith I’m the assistant assessor. I'm with Emily…

EMILY GUERIN: Guerin .

LEE SMITH: Guerin. And, and I’m waiting for questions.

EMILY GUERIN: Ok, Ok. So. Um...Have you heard of Silver Saddle?

LEE SMITH: Oh, yeah, they've been around for a long time.

EMILY GUERIN: Okay, and, like, what do you know about them?

LEE SMITH: Um, well, umm…

EMILY GUERIN: Lee Smith reminded me of a Sunday School teacher. Sweet, and afraid to piss anyone off. He had been working for the assessor for as long as I’ve been alive. I asked him when he first noticed something unusual about land sales in California City.

EMILY GUERIN: When was the first time you sort of started thinking that like, it was a different kind of market than, say Bakersfield?

LEE SMITH: Pretty early on. Pretty early on.

EMILY GUERIN: Because what were you seeing even back then?

LEE SMITH: It’s what we're seeing today.

EMILY GUERIN: What Lee Smith was seeing — back then, and today — was Silver Saddle selling the same pieces of land over and over.

The way it worked was: somebody would buy a lot from Silver Saddle for anywhere from 10 to 40 thousand dollars.

And then, after a few years, they’d realize it was just a bad investment. So, they’d stop paying their property taxes and the county would take possession and auction it off.

And at these auctions, Silver Saddle would buy the land back, for like $500. And they’d turn it around and sell it again.

EMILY GUERIN: So when you see this over and over... does it like raise any red flags for you?

LEE SMITH: Um... that's a good question. Um. Um. Me, could you describe what you …

EMILY GUERIN: What a red flag means?

LEE SMITH: What a red flag means?

EMILY GUERIN: Like, are they running some kind of land scam where they're ripping people off and deceiving them about the value of the land?

LEE SMITH: Um… That's a good question.

EMILY GUERIN: That good question... is one that state investigators would ask themselves later on.

LEE SMITH: Yeah, that’s a good question, um.

EMILY GUERIN: “That’s a good question” is what Lee Smith said when he got uncomfortable. He smiled and shifted in his seat, crossing and re-crossing his legs.

LEE SMITH: You know, the assessor's office has its role, and our role is to assess the value, we aren't necessarily an enforcement entity, we're just there to value the property… So if you're, you’re asking me if I think it's fraudulent, that's, that's really not my role….

EMILY GUERIN: Like, I don’t know, I guess it just seems interesting that like, the people who would notice the trend, like your office, can't, can't necessarily, like, do something about it.

LEE SMITH: … Umm...

EMILY GUERIN: Like, if you worried...

LEE SMITH: Ok ok, now that's a good question. And, and, I mean, so, so, okay, so this is, you know, kind of the question I have for somebody who says, do something about it. So, what would we, what would you suggest?

EMILY GUERIN: I mean, you could contact the DA, they have, like, a consumer complaints division.

LEE SMITH: And, and, and, and a lot of people do do that.

EMILY GUERIN: But Lee didn’t contact the DA. He wasn’t one of those people. It wasn’t his job.

LEE SMITH: What do I want to say, in Kern County, you know, this is, this is, this not, not really a secret, you know, I mean, it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s, you know, it’s been going on.

EMILY GUERIN: Like, everybody knows, this is what happens in California City?

LEE SMITH: Yeah. laughs.

EMILY GUERIN: And it was true: everyone I talked to at the assessor’s office that day knew that Silver Saddle was selling the same pieces of land over and over.

MUSIC

The nice lady who helped me log into the property records database? She knew. She whispered to me, it happens a lot out there in the desert.

The chief appraiser? She knew, too. She told me she regularly sees people buying empty desert land for more than ten times what she thinks it’s worth.

The Kern County treasurer and tax collector, Jordan Kaufmann? He also knew. He runs the tax auctions, and for years he’s watched Silver Saddle buy its own land back for a couple hundred bucks. He actually got a law passed recently, closing that loophole. But the law didn’t stop Silver Saddle from selling a confusing desert real estate investment to unsuspecting people like Ben Perez.

EMILY GUERIN: Is there anything that you could do about it as the tax collector?

JORDAN KAUFMANN: Uhh... Not really, I mean. I, I focus on what my sort of constitutional duty is in the state of California, which is to, you know, get properties back in revenue producing status, however I can, whether it’s through a tax sale or just a normal collection of taxes.

EMILY GUERIN: Mh hm.

EMILY GUERIN: I wanted to know — if it’s not the job of the tax collector, or the assessor, to report or investigate the possibility of fraud, then whose job is it?

I went to the district attorney in charge of white collar crime in Kern County. He said

he’d only received two complaints, ever, about Silver Saddle. And he’d forwarded one of them to the California Department of Real Estate.

So I asked the California Department of Real Estate. And they said they’d received 17 complaints since 1984. But nothing had come of it: they’d closed all 17 without taking any disciplinary action against Silver Saddle.

That got me wondering about the Federal Trade Commission.

The FTC told me they’d received 14 complaints about Silver Saddle since 2014. But as far as I can tell, they didn’t act on any of them.

I told Ken Donney about this, and it really pissed him off.

KEN DONNEY: My alma mater has dropped the ball on this, big time.

EMILY GUERIN: Mh hm.

KEN DONNEY: Yeah, I’m talking to you guys and gals…

FADES

EMILY GUERIN: His phone cut out, but he said, “I’m talking to you, guys and gals at the FTC. You really did drop the ball. You should’ve stopped this a long time ago.”

Ken demanded I ask the FTC what had happened. What went wrong? Why hadn’t they enforced their big 1977 court judgement against Great Western Cities — the one that Ken believed applied to Silver Saddle?

So I did.

And they wrote back and said, no comment.

There was one last place to look. The Mojave Desert News. It’s the only newspaper based in California City. And when I was there, in the Fall of 2018, there was only one reporter covering the city: this guy named Kane Wickham, who goes by Citizen Kane.

And it was immediately apparent to me, talking to Kane, why the Mojave Desert News had not investigated Silver Saddle: the former publisher had worked with Tom Maney for years. He was one of Tom’s former business partners.

He was that guy Steve Colerick had said seemed evasive.

Kane once stealthily took pictures of me and James at a California City council meeting with his zoom lens, and he sent them to us later. I had no idea what to make of it.

I was no longer surprised that something so bad had been going on in California City for so long.

The people who were suspicious of Silver Saddle were afraid to speak up.

Or, they didn’t have the time, or the money, or the bandwidth to investigate.

Or, they didn’t think it was their job.

Or their jurisdiction.

Sigh. Which, honestly, made me feel tired, and jaded, and kind of sad.

And then, on October 1st, 2019, at 11:26 a.m., an email appeared in my inbox.

It read: California Department of Business Oversight Sues to Stop $30 million Silver Saddle Ranch Investment Fraud.

I scanned it. I saw phrases like “illegal land sales,” “high pressure sales tactics,” and “false promises.” I saw Marian Ducreux and Tom Maney’s names. I saw Silver Saddle and Great Western Cities.

I stood up at my desk and I ran, in my socks, over to my editor and I blurted out, oh my god, they’re finally getting shut down.

That’s next time on the final episode of California City.

MUSIC FADES

CORRECTION: Since we fact-checked this story, the California Department of Real Estate received 3 additional complaints about Silver Saddle. One resulted in disciplinary action against the company.

EPISODE 6The Hunted Becomes The Hunter
Emily confronts the owner of Silver Saddle and walks away doubting herself. Plus, Ben becomes part of Silver Saddle's sales machine. California City is a limited series with 8 episodes. Show support by subscribing wherever you get your podcasts. California City sponsors include: Sun Basket is offering $35 off your order when you go right now to SUNBASKET.com/calcity and enter promo code calcity at checkout. Try SimpliSafe today at SimpliSafe.com/CALCITY. You get free shipping and a 60-day risk free trial. There’s nothing to lose.
icon2 Episode Details

EPISODE 6 TRANSCRIPT

Note: California City is a podcast for a reason. You can read the transcript below, but the story is meant to be listened to. The host and a team of producers worked hard to make the podcast sound its best, and this transcript can’t capture all the voices, emotion, intonation and atmosphere in the original audio. If you’d like to quote this podcast, please check the corresponding audio first.

MUSIC

EMILY GUERIN: Previously on California City:

KATHRYN EFFORD: Real estate is the basis of all wealth. Period.

JUNE SUGASAWARA: We thought it was a golden opportunity and we were going to make millions off of it.

DAVID DAI: You know what, we are immigrants, and we thought in America, we cannot imagine this happen to us.

MARIAN DUCREUX: I don't know. Maybe I have the charisma. laughs

BEN PEREZ: That money is supposed to be for my future. And now I lose my future. I lose hope.

SOUNDS OF GETTING INTO A CAR

EMILY GUERIN: You ready, James?

JAMES KIM: Let's do it.

EMILY GUERIN: 8:53. Time to go.

laughs

EMILY GUERIN: By the time James and I confronted the president of Silver Saddle Ranch and Club, Tom Maney, I’d been reporting on California City on and off for almost three years.

James and I had been to Silver Saddle before, just to check it out.

EMILY GUERIN: Oh wait, you know what, can I actually buy a mug?

FRONT DESK STAFF: Yeah, of course.

EMILY GUERIN: We even bought souvenir mugs — with cash, obviously, because we didn’t want them to have our credit card information.

But today, we were talking to the man in charge. Tom Maney.

We’d obsessed about this interview for days. My senior producer and I even role-played. She was Tom and I was me.

So, I was ready. But, I was still nervous.

SOUND OF DRIVING

JAMES KIM: How are you feeling now about Tom's interview? How are you…?

EMILY GUERIN: Um, do you see how I have my left arm up? That's because I'm sweating and I need to air out my armpit.

JAMES KIM: What?!

EMILY GUERIN: Dude, I'm telling you. Just — I don't want to get like sweat stains before we even get there.

JAMES KIM: Oh, man.

EMILY GUERIN: So.

MUSIC SWELLS

EMILY GUERIN: We turned right out of the parking lot of the Best Western, which is the only hotel in California City. We drove to the edge of town and we kept going into the desert. It had rained the night before, and the air tasted clean and cold.

SOUND OF DRIVING

JAMES KIM: It's really beautiful right now.

EMILY GUERIN: Mh hm.

JAMES KIM: Just looks like a Western film with the white clouds and the slightly rainy clouds in the sky.

EMILY GUERIN: As we drove away from town, I thought about everyone who had ever made this drive over the past 60 years.

Nat Mendelsohn.

Kathryn Efford.

All the thousands of ups.

Ken Donney’s undercover investigators.

Marian Ducreux.

Ben Perez.

And Tom Maney.

As we got closer, we saw the road snaking up Galileo Hill.

We saw the model homes in that weird half-built neighborhood.

We saw the cottonwoods and sycamores that crowd the shore of Lake Maney.

We rolled down our windows and we smelled the petrichor.

JAMES KIM: Ah, I should have bought cigarettes. Now I'm starting to get nervous.

EMILY GUERIN: Oh, that you don't have cigarettes?

JAMES KIM: That and because now we're turning to go into Silver Saddle.

EMILY GUERIN: So here’s what I knew about Tom Maney at this point.

I knew Tom was 79.

I knew he was a lawyer.

I knew that today, he was the president of Silver Saddle.

But I knew in the 70s, he’d worked for Great Western Cities.

And I knew he’d been pretty high up — the senior vice president and general counsel.

I knew Tom was there during the Federal Trade Commission's investigation.

I knew he blamed Nat Mendelsohn for all the problems.

I knew Tom and Ken Donney had both signed the FTC settlement.

Their signatures were both on page 21, just centimeters apart.

I knew Tom and his business partners had bought a lot of land from Great Western Cities after it went bankrupt in 1984. I knew they bought Silver Saddle Ranch.

And I knew they kept selling land.

I knew that Tom, in other words, was the link to the past.

BEAT






I knew Tom had once lived in Carmel, California, in a 4-bedroom house with six fireplaces, a sauna and a view of the sea.

I knew his wife, Sharon, was an abstract painter.

And I knew Tom now lived in Lancaster, California, in a 5-bedroom house with only four fireplaces, stone floors and a view of the desert.

MUSIC

But there were things I didn’t know.

I didn’t know Tom Maney’s intentions.

Did he believe what his salespeople were saying?

Did he believe that his landbanking project really was a good investment?

Did he believe that 60-year old refrain: that California City was on the verge of booming?

Or... was he just trying to make as much money as he could, the only way he knew how?

I’m Emily Guerin, and welcome back to California City, episode five.

BREAK

MUSIC FADES

EMILY GUERIN: Administrative office. Do you think that’s where we should go?

JAMES KIM: Um, let’s meet him at the lobby. I don’t think they’d assume we’d go to the administrative office.

EMILY GUERIN: Silver Saddle Ranch and Club was closed for the winter, so there wasn’t really anyone around when James and in drove past the unmanned guardhouse. The only cars in the parking lot were a couple pick-up trucks and a bright red Tesla, which I would later learn was Tom’s. As we walked up to the clubhouse, a black cat named Midnight came up and rubbed against my legs.

EMILY GUERIN: God that cat is always here.

JAMES KIM: Midnight?

EMILY GUERIN: Hi kitty face!

MIDNIGHT MEOWS

WORKER: Morning. Morning. Come on in!

EMILY GUERIN: Hello. Thank you. We have an appointment with Debbie.

WORKER: Yes, ma'am.

EMILY GUERIN: Okay. Hi there.

DEBBIE NICASTRO: Hey guys.

JAMES KIM: Hey how's it going?

EMILY GUERIN: Hey.

TOM MANEY: Hi.

EMILY: Hi. Are you Tom?

TOM MANEY: I’m Tom.

EMILY GUERIN: Tom. Nice to meet you. I'm Emily.

TOM MANEY: Hi Emily.

EMILY GUERIN: This is my colleague James.

TOM MANEY: James, nice to meet you.

JAMES KIM: James, nice to meet you. Hey, good seeing you too.

EMILY GUERIN: Hi Debbie. It's good to see you.

EMILY GUERIN: Tom had been reluctant to talk to us. He told his director of operations, Debbie Nicastro, that he thought we were going to make Silver Saddle look bad. But she convinced him. She told me she appreciated “ethical investigative unbiased journalism.”

EMILY GUERIN: Thanks.

TOM MANEY: We've got breakfast here.

EMILY GUERIN: We actually had some at the Best Western, but thank you.

DEBBIE NICASTRO: Do you want more?

TOM MANEY: Eggs, bacon, fruit.

DEBBIE NICASTRO: Coffee, juice?

EMILY GUERIN: There was an entire, untouched buffet station set up in the empty dining room, apparently for us.

It was actually a little baffling how welcoming they were, given what we were there to do and what we were about to ask them.

We sat down, and Tom began swiping on his phone.

TOM MANEY: And I'm looking at pictures of the ranch right now from a helicopter.

EMILY GUERIN: I had asked Tom and Debbie if I could record our conversation. And they said yes. But I would learn later that they too had recorded our conversation, secretly. And looking back on it, I think this moment, with Tom swiping on his phone, maybe that was when he started recording.

I kept trying to start the interview, but he kept interrupting to show me pictures.

EMILY GUERIN: So I just wanted to thank you both in advance for being willing to do this and — it's a good one too.

TOM MANEY: That is a good one

JAMES KIM: Beautiful sunset.

EMILY GUERIN: Tom is pretty ripped for his age. He was wearing a short sleeve polo shirt, and I think I saw a tattoo peeking out on his right arm.

Debbie sat next to him, looking like a middle-aged Farrah Fawcett with bangles and tight jeans.

I was still sweaty. My palms were all clammy on my microphone. Because I was nervous that Tom would get angry, or yell, or kick us out.

But it wasn’t like that. It was worse. It was quiet. It was calm. Tom never raised his voice. He didn’t need to, because, according to him, he’d done nothing wrong.

TOM MANEY: Well, first of all, we've never misrepresented. We just don't do it. You know, I mean, I, it’s, it’s the way I live my life.

TOM MANEY: We never had any, any problems. Did we Debbie?

DEBBIE NICASTRO: No, we didn't have any.

TOM MANEY: None.

EMILY GUERIN: But we knew they knew that wasn’t true.

So James and I started walking Tom and Debbie through the complaints we’d heard about Silver Saddle.

JAMES KIM: And so when they come to the ranch, they're unaware that there's going to be a sales pitch.

DEBBIE NICASTRO: That's not true. Actually, there is a, I wish I had the marketing material with me. It's made very, very, very clear that you are coming for a sales presentation. And that's going to be at least a 90 minute tour.

TOM MANEY: Yeah

DEBBIE NICASTRO: That is required.

TOM MANEY: That's a requirement of you coming to the ranch.

DEBBIE NICASTRO: It’s a requirement of you coming. We make sure they know.

EMILY GUERIN: Tom rejected the accusation that Silver Saddle targets people who don’t speak English well.

TOM MANEY: I just think that’s a terrible thing to say. It's like, we're, you know, Hispanics are more than 50% of the population in California. To say, oh, you're selling to people who don't speak English. I mean, there are a lot of people like that in California. It's the majority, actually.

EMILY GUERIN: Actually, about 20% of Californians don’t speak English well. And either way, that wasn’t my point.

My point was that there is a difference between running a business that caters to certain kinds of people, and targeting them with a confusing sales pitch.

But Tom denied that too.

TOM MANEY: Our sales people all spoke their languages so they understood what they were buying. And we, we, some of the primary documents we translated into their languages.

EMILY GUERIN: It just seems like there are a not insignificant number of people that just don't really understand what they're buying.

TOM MANEY: I, I don't know if that's true or not.

EMILY GUERIN: A lot of people had told me about these kind of wild claims that the real estate agents make during the sales pitch. So I asked Tom about that.

EMILY GUERIN: I've talked to multiple people who said, “I bought this because I was told I would double my money in a year.” I mean that's, that's what someone...

TOM MANEY: No, no...

DEBBIE NICASTRO: God forbid, we would never, that's...

TOM MANEY: They'd be fired on the spot.

DEBBIE NICASTRO: If we heard it. Definitely.

TOM MANEY: Nobody's ever told us that.

EMILY GUERIN: Silver Saddle is a long term investment, they said. Long. Term.

EMILY GUERIN: Like how long term are we talking?

TOM MANEY: We don't know. But we say long term.

EMILY GUERIN: I swear I tried to pin them down on how long long term was.

EMILY GUERIN: Like decades in the future?

TOM MANEY: 10, 20 years probably, yeah, I would guess.

DEBBIE NICASTRO: I, I don't know if I agree with that.

EMILY GUERIN: I was getting nowhere, so I asked them about the high-pressure tactics that sales agents like Marian Ducreux supposedly use. Which Tom also denied.

TOM MANEY: We never give anybody a bad time if they don't buy. We shake their hand just like everybody else and give them the gifts, and away they go.

EMILY GUERIN: Tom made me feel like everything was crystal clear. He made me doubt myself. Doubt everything that I had learned, which was a lot.

So I got specific.

I opened my manila folder, and I slid Debbie and Tom a copy of the text messages that Marian had sent Ben after he’d begun trying to get his money back. The one where she’d said, quote:

“You emailed the company bad about me. I treated you right and now you are telling people I lied. I will sue you for defamation of character and false accusations if you will not stop this.”

TOM MANEY: Well, she's an independent contractor. If somebody said something about her that she felt was defamatory and false, I guess she has a right to do it.

EMILY GUERIN: What do you mean she's an independent contractor? She's not an, they're not employees here?

TOM MANEY: No. They're sales agents.

DEBBIE NICASTRO: No, no, these are, these are licensed real estate agents and they are independent contractors.

EMILY GUERIN: So are you saying that you're not responsible for their, sort of, their behavior or the way they interact with their customers, their clients?

TOM MANEY: Well, they have to follow our rules or they can't work for us.

EMILY GUERIN: Debbie looked over the text message for another minute or so while I talked about Ben. And then she pushed it away and looked me straight in the eye.

DEBBIE NICASTRO: I'll tell you right now. I do not think Marian wrote this.

EMILY GUERIN: So do you think that he's making this up?

DEBBIE NICASTRO: I'm just saying, I don't think, no, I can't speculate as to what this is. I'm just saying — I don't, when I read this, I don't think Marian wrote it.

EMILY GUERIN: But Marian did write it. She told me so. And when Debbie asked her about it later, she admitted it.

The interview went on like this for 3 hours.

Tom denied he sold land for up to 100 times what it’s worth.

TOM MANEY: Well, they’re buying more than just the land…

EMILY GUERIN: He denied Silver Saddle had anything in common with Great Western Cities.

EMILY GUERIN: Even though...

TOM MANEY: Series of different companies, actually.

EMILY GUERIN: He denied that his vision for the future of California City had anything to do with Nat Mendelsohn’s.

EMILY GUERIN: You don’t, you don’t think so?

TOM MANEY: Nope.

EMILY GUERIN: But by the end, Tom and Debbie switched tactics. They acknowledged that there could be problems at Silver Saddle. But they weren’t to blame. Their customers were. The 2,000 or so people who’d bought shares of the landbanking project, for nearly $60 million dollars.

TOM MANEY: Well, if you're talking to people who want to get out of the deal, they may say all kinds of things. You never know. They want out. Right?

EMILY GUERIN: Right. What? So what are you saying?

TOM MANEY: I'm saying they may not. They may exaggerate their claims. You know, it’s like somebody with this car, if something goes wrong with it, and he says, “Oh, this went wrong. That went wrong. This went wrong. This car is no good. I want my money back.”

DEBBIE NICASTRO: Buyer's remorse.

TOM MANEY: Yeah, it’s buyer’s remorse.

DEBBIE NICASTRO: Buyer's remorse comes in many, you know, whether it be financial, you know, it's, it's an emotional sale. Oh my god, I want to do this. You know, we've all gone through that. I mean, I'll speak for myself, it’s like, oh, what, what did I just do? Why did I, you know, I went to buy a Volkswagen, I just bought a Mercedes, you know, why did I do that? Now I'm locked in.

EMILY GUERIN: Mh hm.

DEBBIE NICASTRO: Okay, there's buy— there is buyer's remorse.

EMILY GIUERIN: And they blamed their salespeople, too. Debbie was essentially saying that if Tom had done anything wrong, it was being too trusting.

DEBBIE NICASTRO: Tom had been really been taken advantage of by a lot of employees here… his vision is very, very real. He’s brilliant as to his ideas and how he structures things. And you start trusting and putting faith in people and sometimes that, that bites you.

TOM MANEY: Cus, you know, we’re taking a very hard look at everything that we’re doing to make sure that we can eliminate as much of these problems as you’re mentioning.

EMILY GUERIN: They can eliminate as much of these problems as I’m mentioning.

MUSIC FADES

SOUND OF DRIVING

EMILY GUERIN: That was like the nicest, confrontational interview I've ever done.

JAMES KIM: Yeah, I was gonna say that too. It was — even through the tough questions. They were smiling through them.

EMILY GUERIN: Yeah.

EMILY GUERIN: After three hours, we stumbled out into the early spring sunlight. We said goodbye to Midnight, and we tried to make sense of what had just happened.

EMILY GUERIN: My takeaway is that either they really don't know what the sales people are saying, or they're totally bullshitting us.



SOUND OF DRIVING

EMILY GUERIN: We drove back into town. James bought cigarettes, and I hit up the only coffee shop in California City: the McDonalds. Then we turned left on California City Boulevard, and we headed back to L.A., too tired to talk.

SOUND OF DRIVING

When I got home, I took a shower, I made some soup, and I collapsed on the couch.

CAT MEOWS

EMILY GUERIN: I feel like maybe they’re not as bad as I thought they were. I don’t know… I guess I started to feel like, you know, I guess if you think about it as like a long term investment, I mean, I wouldn’t do that, but, it doesn’t seem like, that ridiculous.

MUSIC

EMILY GUERIN: So many people told me they felt like Silver Saddle had scammed them. What if they were wrong? What if I was wrong?

It is incredibly disorienting when you think you know something, but then someone insists that you’re wrong. And they say it over and over and over, in the calmest possible way, until you begin to think — maybe this person is right.

I feel like this happens a lot in America right now. But I think I’m particularly susceptible to it.

I think it’s why I ended up getting married: I was on the fence, but my boyfriend at the time was convinced, and convincing. 11 months later, we split up. But honestly, I knew the moment he proposed that it was a bad idea. I went through with it because, at that point in my life, it was just easier to say yes than to say no. And, I wanted it to be true.

I needed someone to help me make sense of what had just happened with Tom and Debbie.

And the only person I thought might be able to provide some semblance of clarity was Ken Donney. I was going to a convicted murderer for advice.

That’s after a break.

BREAK

EMILY GUERIN: Well, so I sat down with Tom Maney, and, uh...

KEN DONNEY: Oh you did?

EMILY GUERIN: Yeah I did.

KEN DONNEY: laughs. Tell me, Emily, did he remember me?

EMILY GUERIN: Ken, being Ken, wanted to talk exclusively about the issue that concerned him: his big FTC settlement from 1977.

Ken had made sure the agreement covered all of Great Western Cities’ successors and subsidiaries. Forever.

But Tom didn’t think it applied to Silver Saddle.

Which I thought was weird, because Tom had continued using Ken’s warning label on Silver Saddle’s contracts. The one that said, “the value of this land is uncertain, do not count on an increase in value.”

EMILY GUERIN: Okay, but is Silver Saddle bound by that FTC judgment?

TOM MANEY: No, we’re not.

EMILY GUERIN: You don't, you don't think so?

TOM MANEY: No.

EMILY GUERIN: Okay. I just...

TOM MANEY: Totally different...

EMILY GUERIN: Even though...

TOM MANEY: Series of different companies, actually.

EMILY GUERIN: Okay, even though you could be viewed as a, as a successor company because you had worked for Great Western..

TOM MANEY: Not really, it’s totally different.

KEN DONNEY: laughs. Oh, gee, I would love to get him on the witness stand in federal court. Oh, that's great stuff right there.

EMILY GUERIN: I told Ken about how Tom had been so calm and confident as he denied everything. And how it left me feeling so confused.

KEN DONNEY: So Emily, so Emily?

EMILY GUERIN: Mh hm?

KEN DONNEY: May I just say?

EMILY GUERIN: Mh hm.

KEN DONNEY: Congratulations. You've just been exposed to a first class snake oil artist. Straight up! Trust me, he knows. Whatever act he's putting on, he knows.

EMILY GUERIN: Really, so you think he's just kind of bullshitting me?

KEN DONNEY: You hear me, Tom? I'm talking to you right now. Tom Maney. Shame on you.

EMILY GUERIN: I know it’s kind of weird, but Ken’s little pep-talk did help.

Afterwards, I went back and I read all the transcripts of all the interviews I’d done with people who bought into Silver Saddle.

MUSIC

The Vietnamese refugee who trusted California’s laws would protect him from scams.

The home health nurse who had to choose between paying Silver Saddle and buying chicken, eggs and milk.

The young dad, fresh out of jail, with only $1,000 in the bank and a fussy baby in his arms.

All of us were confused after we left Silver Saddle. And honestly, I started to wonder if that was intentional. Maybe Tom and his sales agents tried to make people feel this way.

Because, that’s how Ben Perez felt too. When he came back from Silver Saddle in July 2017, he told me he couldn’t tell what was real, and what was a lie. Which is how he ended up ensnaring his friends.

Marian had told Ben not to worry. All he needed to do was invite his friends, and he’d make a bunch of money.

BEN PEREZ: She told me like, this is super easy, guys. Just 10 people. And then you're going to get to $20,000 plus additional $10,000.

EMILY GUERIN: But when Ben talks about this, there’s a lot of inconsistencies in his story.

When I asked him if he invited his friends to Silver Saddle before or after he decided it was a scam, at first he said after, but then he said he’d been 50-50 at the time.

When I asked if he warned his friends not to buy anything, he said yes, but then he said no.

And when I asked how long it took him to realize he’d made a huge mistake, his answer ranged from a few days to a few weeks.

I realized I had seen Ben as just one thing: a victim. But of course, like everything in this story, it’s more complicated.

So I went to meet one of the people that Ben had brought out to Silver Saddle.

His friend Michael.

MICHAEL VIERNES: Sorry it’s kind of flooded all over the place…

EMILY GUERIN: Oh, don’t worry about it!

MICHAEL VIERNES: It usually never floods here.

SOUND OF RAIN AND WIND CHIMES

EMILY GUERIN: It was pouring, and the windchimes outside his door were banging around in the gusts of wet air.

EMILY GUERIN: Woah, so much water!

MICHAEL VIERNES: Right?

EMILY GUERIN: When I got inside, Michael offered me cold water, Jameson, coke or Nescafé. I said yes to the Nescafé, and we sat down at his kitchen table.

MICHAEL VIERNES: My name is Michael Viernes, and I'm from Union City, and I happened to go, went, I went to Side Saddle Ranch about a year ago if I'm not mistaken.

EMILY GUERIN: Silver Saddle?

MICHAEL VIERNES: Silver Saddle. I'm sorry. Silver Saddle Ranch.

EMILY GUERIN: How'd you find out about it?

MICHAEL VIERNES: Well, Benjamin is a good friend of mine. And he said, hey, what are you guys doing this weekend? Why don't you guys come with me to this resort I know? So I said sure. Why not? I have nothing planned... Um, but at that time, though, he didn't tell me about, it was an investment thing.

EMILY GUERIN: Michael is kind of like Ben’s big brother. And said he immediately got a weird vibe from Silver Saddle.

EMILY GUERIN: How was Ben acting before the tour?

MICHAEL VIERNES: Tell you the truth, Ben was acting kind of fidgety

EMILY GUERIN: Fidgety?

MICHAEL VIERNES: Yeah, he wasn't his normal self you know, his relaxed state.

EMILY GUERIN: Michael sat through the sales pitch and thought to himself, “these people are liars.” So afterwards, he pulled Ben aside, and he kind of reprimanded him.

MICHAEL VIERNES: Why the hell did you do this? Why are you so stupid? And kind of thing like that, why didn't you think this over? But you know, at the other side, I actually, just, didn’t want to make him feel so bad because he did invest a lot of his money and he really believed in this endeavor.

EMILY GUERIN: He did?

MICHAEL VIERNES: Yes.

EMILY GUERIN: How could you tell.

MICHAEL VIERNES: Um, because he actually, he actually asked more friends to actually go to this resort place and invest. He didn't just stop with us. He didn’t give up.

EMILY GUERIN: Ben says he brought at least eight friends to Silver Saddle, and at least three bought in.

But Marian Ducreux told me at least five of Ben’s referrals spent money.

It took Ben nine weeks to make up his mind about Silver Saddle. By mid-September 2017, he began emailing company management, trying to get his money back and saying he thought he’d been scammed. That’s when Marian threatened to sue him if he didn’t shut up.

I asked him if he felt like he was complicit.

EMILY GUERIN: Like, do you feel like because you invited people you helped Silver Saddle get more people into the scam?

BEN PEREZ: Hmm. Not, not in that way.

EMILY GUERIN: Okay. Because I could see somebody who was like, looking at it from the outside being like, "Wait, Ben is a victim. But he also made other people victims."

BEN PEREZ: Yeah.

EMILY GUERIN: Do you know what I mean?

BEN PEREZ: Yeah.

EMILY GUERIN: It wasn’t a tragedy that occurred.

It wasn’t a failure.

Ben did it.

He knew in order to get his money back, his friends had to buy in.

EMILY GUERIN: Do you feel bad that you brought people there?

BEN PEREZ: Very bad. I feel very bad.

EMILY GUERIN: I’ve thought a lot about how this all makes me feel about Ben. He’s complicated.

Based on everything I’ve learned about Silver Saddle, from dozens of people who visited or bought in, I do think Silver Saddle took advantage of him.

I think they deliberately confused him with their sales pitch.

And I think they convinced him and his friends to lure even more people into their web.

But I also think Ben knew what he was doing.

He felt like something wasn’t right, but he invited people there anyway.

And he didn’t warn everyone — he just warned his family.

I think he was self-interested. And I think he was just trying to get his money back.

I know that’s what he’s wanted this whole time.

BEN PEREZ: I really hope to get that money back. I’m seeking help to everyone can help me.

EMILY GUERIN: Yeah, well.

BEN PEREZ: I don’t know what to do, I been doing research since day one… and, no one, you know, no one can help me. I don’t know where to go.

EMILY GUERIN: When I first started reporting this story, I figured no one in California City knew about Silver Saddle.

How else could something this bad have gone on for so long?

But the more time I spent there, the more naive I realized I’d been.

The people in town do know about Silver Saddle. And they talk about it as if it’s run by the mob. It’s not. But that’s the level of fear that people have when they talk about it.

CATHY YIP: Oh wait a minute, I am in business, I don't wanna say anything about Silver Saddle. Ok? No don’t, don’t do that.

KELLY ANON: You never know if you talk to somebody if you're gonna be beat up. Or ostracized. Or whatever. Cus this is is such a small knit community.

THERESA GRIMSHAW: You don't want to say something and end up not being able to find your body somewhere. Because there's been a reputation up here in the high desert too of places for people to just dump bodies.

EMILY GUERIN: I want to be clear: as far as I know, no one from Silver Saddle or Great Western Cities ever murdered anyone or buried bodies in the desert.

But it does seem like everyone in town knows that something sketchy is going on out there. Because whenever I asked about it, they wouldn't talk.

And I think that’s part of how this thing has been happening for 60 years. It’s an open secret.

That’s next time on California City.

MUSIC SWELLS

EPISODE 5The Tragedy That Occurred
Ken Donney is a hero to some, but most people would call him a villain.  California City is a limited series with 8 episodes. Show support by subscribing wherever you get your podcasts. California City sponsors include: Sun Basket is offering $35 off your order when you go right now to SUNBASKET.com/calcity and enter promo code calcity at checkout.
icon2 Episode Details

EPISODE 5 TRANSCRIPT

Note: California City is a podcast for a reason. You can read the transcript below, but the story is meant to be listened to. The host and a team of producers worked hard to make the podcast sound its best, and this transcript can’t capture all the voices, emotion, intonation and atmosphere in the original audio. If you’d like to quote this podcast, please check the corresponding audio first.

MUSIC

EMILY GUERIN: Previously on California City:

EMILY GUERIN: I mean, do you, do you really think that anybody could just snap and kill their wife?

KEN DONNEY: Huh...um.

VOICE: YOU HAVE 60 SECONDS REMAINING.

EMILY GUERIN: There’s no one in this story who was as proud, or as disgraced, as Ken Donney.

Ken helped thousands of people get their money back in California City, and then 18 years later, Ken murdered his wife.

It’s hard to hold both of these versions of him in my head. But both are true.

And that’s the reason I want to tell you about Ken’s crime: because he’s the most extreme example of something I’ve noticed about almost everyone I talked to for this story.

Heroes can be villians.

Victims can be perpetrators.

No one is all bad or all good.

I’m Emily Guerin, and you’re listening to California City, episode four.

A quick warning about this episode: it does contain graphic descriptions of violence.

BREAK

I had been putting off asking Ken Donney about the murder.

Instead, I’d asked him all about the fraudulent way that Nat Mendelsohn sold land in California City.

I’d asked him about the student program and the tool lots.

The salesmen’s lies and misrepresentations.

The Federal Trade Commission's punishment.

I’d had more than a dozen calls with him.

VOICE: YOU HAVE A PREPAID CALL FROM...

KEN DONNEY: Ken for Emily!

KEN DONNEY: Ken for Emily.

KEN DONNEY: Ken for Emily.

KEN DONNEY: Howdy!

KEN DONNEY: I’m back!

KEN DONNEY: Ken for Emily.

KEN DONNEY: Emily, it’s Ken!

KEN DONNEY: Emily Emily from Ken Ken

KEN DONNEY: Encore!

EMILY GUERIN: But by the 21st minute of our seventh phone call, I couldn’t avoid it any longer.

EMILY GUERIN: I, I need to explain to the listeners the reason that you're in prison.

KEN DONNEY: Ah.

EMILY GUERIN: And so I wanted to know what you would like to say about that.

KEN DONNEY: Well, first of all, you're starting to fade away a little bit. So I don't know if you changed, uh. You’re on a cell phone, right?

EMILY GUERIN: He spent the next minute trying to hear me better. Although, he could’ve been deflecting.

EMILY GUERIN: Okay. Can you hear me now?

KEN DONNEY: Obviously, yeah, I hear you but barely.

KEN DONNEY: Interesting question. Again, I was advised by some lawyers not to even do this at all, this podcast interview at all, just for the simple reason that, um, ah high profile anything is is never a good thing for a prisoner.

EMILY GUERIN: Ken worries about his safety in prison. This one time, another inmate bashed his face in with a mop handle. And he’d only been locked up for a year when someone slit his throat, and he needed emergency surgery. He believes he was attacked because he’s a former federal prosecutor.

KEN DONNEY: Um, so I'd like to say — really at this moment, my — I’d just like to say no comment.

MUSIC

EMILY GUERIN: Ken never did tell me exactly what happened. But I read all four of his parole hearing transcripts, plus a bunch of newspaper articles, which is how I know everything I’m about to tell you.

In the summer of 1995, when Ken was 49 years old, his wife, Nina, told him she wanted a divorce.

They both worked at Santa Clara University, in Silicon Valley. He’d taken a job at the law school, and she worked in fundraising. But Nina was unfulfilled. She had a PhD. She wanted to be an academic. She told Ken she wanted to move out of state to get a teaching job. And Ken thought she wanted to take the children with her.

And he couldn’t handle it. He stopped eating. He stopped sleeping. He refused to move out of the house. He tried to talk her out of it, but it wasn’t working.

What happened just after 2 a.m. on the morning of October 27th is...really gruesome.

Nina’s mother believes Nina was asleep in the study when Ken walked in and stabbed her 29 times with a chef’s knife.

Their son, Phil, told police he heard his mom screaming “I don’t want to die.” He says he heard his dad scream back, “You should have thought of that before.”

For years, Ken said he didn’t remember the details.

But at his first parole hearing, in 2008, he told the commissioners he and Nina were arguing when she came at him with the knife.

He said he grabbed the blade, and then blacked out.

Ken pled guilty to second degree murder. He said he didn’t want to put his kids through a trial.

A judge sentenced him to 16 years to life in prison. He’s been locked up for 24.

There’s a story Ken often told me about something the judge said during his sentencing. And I think it says a lot about Ken.

The judge said,

KEN DONNEY: "What happened to Mr. Donney can happen to anybody." Quote unquote. He went on to, and there's a cautionary tale there.

EMILY GUERIN: What did he mean by that? “What happened to Mr. Donney can happen to anyone”?

KEN DONNEY: In other words, um, he's seen it happen before. Maybe not in the exact same way, but in other words none of us — I mean that could be the title of a memoir for me. It could happen to anyone. It could happen to anybody. Meaning, that...

EMILY GUERIN: Can you… what's it?

KEN DONNEY: The tragedy that occurred. The reason I'm in prison.

EMILY GUERIN: But is it something that happened to you?

KEN DONNEY: But that's, those were his words. And, um.

EMILY GUERIN: No, and I, I, I understand, I understand that I guess my, I guess the way my initial reaction to that is...

KEN DONNEY: Yeah, please.

EMILY GUERIN: Sort of framing it, as well, framing it as it could happen to anyone or it happened. It sort of takes the agency out of it. It's like a thing that that happened...

KEN DONNEY: I know

EMILY GUERIN: And not a thing that…

KEN DONNEY: I know.

EMILY GUERIN: … you did.

KEN DONNEY: I know. I know. And I didn't say that. The judge did. So he must have had his reasons. The rhetoric that you just used with regard to agency, with regard to concepts of free will or the lack thereof, and so on? That's what you're talking about. Right?

EMILY GUERIN: Yeah, I mean, I guess less free will and more just... responsibility?

KEN DONNEY: Well, I pled guilty, I accept responsibility.

VOICE: THIS CALL AND YOUR TELEPHONE NUMBER WILL BE MONITORED AND RECORDED.

KEN DONNEY: You can't really take more responsibilities then putting yourself in prison.

EMILY GUERIN: To Ken, the federal prosecutor, pleading guilty is the ultimate form of accepting responsibility. It is showing remorse.

“Actions speak louder than words,” Ken said at his third parole hearing. “It’s ineffable.”

And maybe that would be true, if Ken didn’t also imply, with his words, that Nina was partially to blame.

KEN DONNEY: I possibly could have won a manslaughter and been out in 11 years.

EMILY GUERIN: Hmm.

KEN DONNEY: Alright? I knew that. Um, and nevertheless, and you obviously don't know any of the circumstances of the prelude and so on and so forth of what happened. But you, you don't know the whole story, but bottom line is this: despite my having other choices available to me, I felt too much sorrow and remorse. I've taken another life.

EMILY GUERIN: I read through all four of the transcripts of Ken’s parole hearings. And I see it again and again — Ken referring to the murder as “the tragedy that occurred,” or “what happened,” or “a failure.”

A failure. Like stepping on the gas instead of a brake, and killing a pedestrian. It could happen to anyone.

The Parole Commissioners picked up on this, and they used it as justification for keeping Ken locked up.

“We fail at things all the time, sir,” one Commissioner said, “but the taking of a human life rises to a much higher degree than failure, and it’s noteworthy you chose that word. And ordinarily, we don’t nitpick words when it comes to our hearings, but it’s noteworthy that we’re not speaking to an unintelligent man... suggesting you don’t choose your words lightly.”

Sighs. I felt like if Ken wouldn’t say what he did, I had to.

EMILY GUERIN: And I've actually been thinking a lot about what the judge said. I mean, do you, do you really think that anybody could just snap and kill their wife?

KEN DONNEY: Huh...um.

VOICE: YOU HAVE 60 SECONDS REMAINING.

KEN DONNEY: That's what a judge who had been a family law judge before became a criminal law said. So I'm not gonna disagree with him.

Ken gets three, 15-minute phone calls each time we talk. We had time for one more. So we hung up. I didn’t think he would call back, given what I’d just asked him. But then, 50 seconds later…

VOICE: THIS IS GLOBAL TEL LINK. YOU HAVE A PREPAID CALL FROM:

KEN DONNEY: Ken for Emily.

VOICE: AN INMATE AT THE CALIFORNIA HEALTH CARE FACILITY STOCKTON CALIFORNIA. TO ACCEPT THIS CALL SAY OR DIAL FIVE NOW. BEEP. BEEP.

VOICE: THANK YOU FOR USING GLOBAL TEL LINK.

KEN DONNEY: Hello. Are you there?

EMILY GUERIN: Hello, I'm here.

KEN DONNEY: Yeah. So, to finish my thoughts. In no way, Emily, I think you're, you might be misjudging what I'm telling you versus how I'm feeling. Alright?

EMILY GUERIN: Okay.

EMILY GUERIN: Ken worried I didn’t understand how he felt about the tragedy that occurred.” He said he wasn’t the kind of person who showed emotion, especially in public.

KEN DONNEY: And I'm not, on a radio interview, in a room full of other inmates. And guards prancing around and noise… You can't possibly believe that my ability to emote in this interview with you is not somehow affected by the circumstances in which we're talking. So don't take what I'm saying in any way, Emily, as minimizing what I consider to be my offense.

MUSIC

EMILY GUERIN: The first three times Ken was up for parole, they denied him.

But on May 8th, 2019, something changed.

That’s after a break.

BREAK

EMILY GUERIN: Ken’s parole hearings have a certain... rhythm.

MUSIC

First, the commissioners have everyone in the room introduce themselves.

Front row, lawyers.

Back row, friends and family.

Ken’s son, Phil.

Nina’s sister, Abby.

Then, the commissioners go over paperwork. Ken’s behavior in prison, his anger management and victim’s awareness classes, the psychologist’s assessment that Ken is at low risk of reoffending if he gets out.

Then, they start re-hashing Ken’s marriage, and the events leaving up to the murder.

But in Ken’s fourth parole hearing, the way he talked about the crime, I don’t know, it just felt different.

Where as before, he might mention that Nina wasn’t taking her medication...

Or how he’d been in a near catatonic state on the night of the murder...

Or how he’d lost 30 pounds…

This time, he didn’t offer any excuses.

He said, quote, “I murdered Nina. I did it and I’m forever ashamed and there’s nothing I can do to remedy that.”

“I was in a rage about her not loving me anymore and wanting to leave.”

“I was controlling.”

“I was manipulative.”

“Angry.”

This time, he said he was the one who grabbed the knife out of a box while they were arguing. He’d been packing up the kitchen, preparing to move out.

I was really surprised. I mean, it was such a reversal from “the tragedy that occurred.” And at the end of the three hour and 40 minute hearing, the parole commissioners decided to grant him parole.

KEN DONNEY: I laid my head on my forearm on the table, and, and sobbed for a couple of minutes while the commissioner continued his decision.

EMILY GUERIN: I talked to Ken two days after his parole hearing.

KEN DONNEY: I'm on cloud nine. I'm in seventh heaven. I'm happy. I'm grateful. I'm relieved. And I have nothing but hope. Which, you know, prior to the hearing I didn't have.

EMILY GUERIN: But Ken wasn’t out yet. In California, the governor can deny the parole of anyone in prison on a life sentence.

So for three months, from May until August of 2019, Ken waited anxiously to see if Governor Gavin Newsom was going to let him out.

In July, I went to visit him in prison.

Officially, my visit was to fact-check. Unofficially, it was because I was curious. What did Ken look like? Would his voice sound different? Would he be more open with me in person?

As I drove up Highway 99 through the Central Valley, I thought about all the hours we’d spent on the phone.



EMILY GUERIN: How are you?

KEN DONNEY: Fair to middling. How's that?

EMILY GUERIN: Fair enough.

KEN DONNEY: laughs.

EMILY GUERIN: How's your, how's your morning so far?

KEN DONNEY: Oh, it's just been a thrill a minute. Wish you were here, as we say on the shores of Tahiti.

EMILY GUERIN: His favorite brand of prison coffee.

KEN DONNEY: Keefe, K-E-E-F-E, it's a freeze dried instant coffee.

EMILY GUERIN: His sexist compliments.

KEN DONNEY: And I hope you don't take this the wrong way: good girl.

EMILY GUERIN: laughs.

KEN DONNEY: Ah, it seems silly saying good lady or good woman or whatever.

EMILY GUERIN: Good job works, too. Good job.

KEN DONNEY: Hah! There you go. Thank you.

EMILY GUERIN: His own thoughts on death and God.

MUSIC CHANGES, SOUND OF PIANO BUILDS

KEN DONNEY: You know the prayer… Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, but if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. Have you ever heard that prayer?

EMILY GUERIN: Yeah,

KEN DONNEY: Okay. Well as a kid, and later I always thought that was a little morbid, about the, “if I die before I wake” business? I mean, I'm not the only one to think of that. It's been said many times by many different people.

EMILY GUERIN: Yeah.

KEN DONNEY: So I decided to compose a counterpart to that prayer, as a, as a possible replacement, for kids especially. And it goes like this: Dear loving God with your sweet might, please stay with me throughout the night, help me sleep and dream away, till I wake up with you to pray. Amen! And that is entitled "Dream Away."

At 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning, in July, I arrived.

I was wearing the outfit that I’d selected based on the prison guard’s recommendations.

No red, orange, blue or green, to avoid being confused for an inmate or guard.

No underwire bra.

No electronics, so I couldn’t record.

No cup of coffee for Ken, to save him from Keefe.

10 pieces of paper only.

Nine one-dollar bills, in a ziploc bag.

Inside, the visitor’s waiting room was filled with women, small children, and hard plastic chairs.

I checked in at the desk, where a guard cataloged my accessories: one hairband, two earrings, and a watch. I lifted my shirt and the cuffs of my pants, and walked through a metal detector. I stepped through a series of doors that closed behind me, before another one opened. I followed a long sidewalk to another building, and a guard buzzed me into the visiting room.

An old man with olive skin, bushy eyebrows and crazy, Beethoven hair was waving at me from a table.

Ken.

He was smaller than I imagined, and his voice was softer than it was on the phone.

I offered to buy coffee, so we walked over to the vending machine, which was behind a thick red line that only I could cross.

When Ken stepped on it, a guard barked at him to move back.

We sat down with styrofoam cups and a pack of powdered donuts. A prison guard handed me a freshly-sharpened pencil, and I pulled out my 10 sheets of paper with facts about Ken that needed checking.

Without the time restrictions of the prison phone calls, Ken went into professor mode, lecturing me on the fine details of his life.

It was… sighs. It was exhausting. And after three hours, I was completely drained.

At the end, Ken asked for a photo. He flagged down the inmate who carried around a point and shoot camera, and I handed over the tokens I’d purchased at the front desk. We stood with our shoulders nearly touching, in front of a large, abstract painting, and Ken told the guy, over and over, “count to three before you press the shutter,” as if he had never held a camera before.

The photo seemed like a perfect time to say goodbye. I folded my 10 sheets of paper, I returned my pencil, and told Ken I had a six hour drive ahead of me. But Ken didn’t get the hint. He asked about public radio. He asked if I’d ever considered becoming a lawyer. I was a sponge, and he was a strong pair of hands, wringing every last drop out of me.

In early August 2019, Ken got word. Parole denied.

In a letter explaining why, Governor Newsom said he was still troubled by Ken’s lack of insight into his crime. Until he can explain why he violently murdered his wife, he remains a danger to society.

Ken is appealing the decision.

Because Ken has been locked up since 1995, he had no idea what was happening in California City.

Ken had no idea that salesmen at Silver Saddle were selling a modern-day version of Nat Mendelsohn’s dream.

He had no idea that state investigators believe more than 2,000 people have spent nearly $60 million on that dream in the past eight years alone.

He didn’t know that the guy in charge of it all, the president of Silver Saddle, was someone he’d met years ago, during his negotiations with Great Western Cities.

MUSIC SWELLS

SINGER: Dear loving God… with your sweet might… please stay with me… throughout the night… help me to sleep… and dream away… till I wake up, with you to pray… Amen! Amen… Amen....

No one in California City is all bad or all good.

That’s next time on California City.

MUSIC FADES

EPISODE 4Soldiers of the Sale
Nat builds an army of salespeople to sell his dream. And then, then Ralph Nader intervenes. California City is a limited series with 8 episodes. Show support by subscribing wherever you get your podcasts. California City sponsors include: Sun Basket is offering $35 off your order when you go right now to SUNBASKET.com/calcity and enter promo code calcity at checkout.
icon2 Episode Details

Note: California City is a podcast for a reason. You can read the transcript below, but the story is meant to be listened to. The host and a team of producers worked hard to make the podcast sound its best, and this transcript can’t capture all the voices, emotion, intonation and atmosphere in the original audio. If you’d like to quote this podcast, please check the corresponding audio first.

MUSIC

EMILY GUERIN: PREVIOUSLY ON CALIFORNIA CITY…..

KATHRYN EFFORD: Nat believed with all his heart that God gave him the vision for the city.

BEN PEREZ: I feel like I lost hope.

ALEX MENDELSOHN: He's lost connection with reality.

DALLON COX: If you profit at the expense of people who are being duped then you're evil. There's an evilness to that.

EMILY GUERIN: In California City, Nat Mendelsohn was a mythical figure but from the outside... I don’t know, he seemed small-time, like, a regional player, not someone anyone outside of Southern California would’ve heard of. But it turns out someone was paying attention.

EMILY GUERIN: Hello?

RALPH NADER: Emily, Ralph Nader.

OLD TELEVISION TAPE PLAYS

NEWS ANCHOR: New York Lawyer Ralph Nader, a legal adviser to the United States senate inquiry…

Jon Stewart: Federal and state legislation since the 1960s, Ralph Nader.

ANCHOR: Ralph Nader is the Green…

ANCHOR: Ralph Nader charged today that…

RALPH NADER: Good, I can't believe you're into this land development story. What's going on with journalism in California?

EMILY GUERIN: laughs. What do you mean?

RALPH NADER: Well, they don't usually pay attention to this?

EMILY GUERIN: Oh, well, that's good. That's good.

RALPH NADER: Yeah.

EMILY GUERIN: Ralph, can I first just have you introduce yourself?

RALPH NADER: Yeah. So Ralph Nader, I've been called consumer advocate and worse names.

MUSIC PLAYS

EMILY GUERIN: Before Ralph Nader ever heard about California City, he was busy becoming famous for something completely different: car safety.

In 1965, Ralph published an exposé of General Motors called Unsafe At Any Speed. He accused them of knowingly manufacturing dangerous cars. His work is the reason we have seatbelts in cars.

So not surprisingly, GM didn’t care for Ralph. He had cost them a lot of money, and so they had him secretly followed, and they investigated his finances.

They even hired women to try to seduce him. But Ralph was unseducable.

He sued GM, and won nearly half a million dollars. He used the money to hire a bunch of Ivy League law school grads: men mostly, with close shaves and boring ties. People called them the Nader’s Raiders, and Ralph was their fearless leader.

TV ANNOUNCER: Ralph Nader, who started the massive concern for auto safety, says the public wants mandatory airbags now!

RALPH NADER: Show me anybody in this country who would rather go into steel and glass in an automobile collision instead of a cushioned airbag.

EMILY GUERIN: After the seatbelt victory, Ralph started looking for something else to blow the lid off of. And he decided on development and land sales in California. He’d worked in Yosemite one summer earlier in his life, and, like we all do when working in a national park surrounded by beautiful nature…

RALPH NADER: I began to absorb the rampant land development, the lack of zoning, the conflicts of interest, the corruption, the misuse of eminent domain, the huge subsidies, tax subsidies, given to these developers.

EMILY GUERIN: So Ralph decided to unleash his Raiders on land sales in California.

BOB FELLMETH: Well, I was one of the first Nader Raiders, back in the 1960s. I started working for Nader in ‘68, right after he published unsafe at any speed.

EMILY GUERIN: Ralph Nader put Bob Fellmeth in charge of the project. And two of Bob’s researchers stumbled upon California City, and they went there to see what was really going on.

BOB FELLMETH: There was exaggeration going on vis a vis how settled it was. How much of a metropolis it was. So you, in a sense, you could just say well, ok, they were overly optimistic. Hindsight is 20-20, bla bla.

MUSIC PLAYS

EMILY GUERIN: When the Nader’s Raiders went to California City, it was barely a city at all. There was no doctor. No dentist. No drugstore. No clinic. No tailor. No travel agent. No bakery. No book store. No liquor store. No veterinarian. No mortician. No high school. No intermediate school. No college. No Standard oil, Union oil, Shell oil, Mobil oil, or Texaco station.

In 1971, the Raiders published their findings about California City and a bunch of other things in this little paperback with a yellow and red cover. They called it The Politics of Land. And I read it one night while I was cooking pasta.

EMILY GUERIN: Oh my God. turns page. Ok, ok, I just have to read this whole part. “This is no ordinary real estate scheme. Mendelsohn isn’t trying to sell land, and the public isn’t really buying the land. They’re engaged in a grand illusion of creating wealth. turns page. Mendelsohn has a dream, and the buyer’s believe the developer’s dream is capable of providing them with a pot of gold. The art of creating gold from base metals has long eluded our grasp, but NK Mendelsohn has perfected the art of turning desert dust into gold — but only for himself.” Oh my god!

EMILY GUERIN: SUCH. A. NERD.

Anyway, so the Raiders were horrified by the way Nat Mendelsohn’s salespeople sold land.

It went like this: You’d see an ad in the paper for a real estate training course.

You’d attend a dinner party to hear more about it.

You’d learn you could make a bunch of money selling land in this place called California City. You’d take the course, and you’d buy a piece of land yourself.

And then you’d persuade your friends and family to come check it out.

It seemed so similar to what Ben Perez said Marian Ducreux told him: buy land yourself, and then make your money back referring your friends and family.

I decided if I was going to understand Silver Saddle’s sales strategy, I needed to know what preceded it.

I needed to know how Nat Mendelsohn sold so much empty desert land.

I needed to know he got big, so big, he attracted the attention of Ralph Nader.

So I tracked down one of Nat’s former salesmen. A guy who spoke sales, not English. And talking to him was as close as I could get to being in one of Nat’s sales offices, almost as good as hearing the pitch myself. And I gotta say, it’s pretty genius.

I’m Emily Guerin. Welcome to California City, episode three.

BREAK

MUSIC

WOMAN ON PHONE: Kuyrkendall and company?

EMILY GUERIN: Hi this is Emily the reporter calling back for Don?

WOMAN ON PHONE: Hold one minute.

EMILY GUERIN: Thanks

EMILY GUERIN: I found Don Kuyrkendall because on his company’s website, he listed that he’d been a land salesman for Nat ’s company almost 50 years ago.

He was proud of his first real job.

SOUND OF PHONE PICKING UP

DON KUYRKENDALL: OK

EMILY GUERIN: Hey Don. Sorry that took so long.

EMILY GUERIN: It was a weird thing to include on your resume if you know what happened to Nat’s company. I mean, it’s not like putting fixer for Rudy Giuluani on there or anything, but it’s still not the best look.

DON KUYRKENDALL: Hey listen, you don’t sell the steak, you sell the sizzle. That’s what sales are about. Doesn’t make any difference whether you’re selling a car, or selling a stock, or selling a piece of property in the Mojave Desert.

EMILY GUERIN: Don talked like he was letting me in on a little secret. He once said, “hey listen,” 38 times in a single phone call. He calls his assistant babe, and he calls himself a dirt peddler, no shame.

DON KUYRKENDALL: We were dirt salesmen. We were, we were peddlers. We were all dirt guys.

EMILY GUERIN: Don taught me a lot of new words. What Silver Saddle would call referrals, Don called ups.

DON KUYRKENDALL: Ups are people.

EMILY GUERIN: What Silver Saddle called land-banking, Don called a dirt deal.

DON KUYRKENDALL: Well that's what they're called in the industry we did, they’re just dirt deals.

EMILY GUERIN: Don never stopped defending the dirt deals he did for Nat Mendelsohn. He feels really grateful to Nat, to California City, to the “student program” — which is his term for the real estate training course that Nat used to sell so much land.

Don took the student program in 1970, and it saved him from his dangerous job at the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant outside Denver. I’m not totally sure what he did there — he wouldn’t tell me because he had a top secret clearance, but it had something to do with plutonium.

DON KUYRKENDALL: I didn’t know a real estate transaction from a search warrant when I, when I went into the student program and they trained me to be a salesman and they taught me how to take ups and they taught me how to close. They taught me an, an invaluable, invaluable lesson. I’ve never been unemployed. I've had a job my entire life. I'm doing the same thing today I was doing for 50 years ago, I’m looking for the next deal.

It was 1970, and by that point, Nat had been selling land in California City for just over a decade. He had 3000 salesmen, and more than 24 offices all over the world. Hawaii. Texas. Illinois. Germany. Mexico. The Philippines. And Seattle, where Don ended up moving.

Don and the other salesmen placed ads in the local paper. I found some of them:

Our business is good!

We need additional real estate sales people!

Earn $10,000 or more this year

Let us explain. Attend a free evening or daytime meeting!

The meetings took place at fancy, modern places like the Jack Tar Hotel in downtown San Francisco. The building was blue and white glass, and there was a three-sided rotating sign on top, so that as it turned you could see the words, “Jack. Tar. Hotel.” There was air conditioning in every room. There was an outdoor skating rink. And there was a parking lot full of heavy American cars.

The company would fly salesmen like Don in. And at 8 p.m., they would get up on stage in the Pacific Heights room and say something like:

DON KUYRKENDALL: Listen, you can be a Kuyrkendall. You could be, you could be making atomic bombs for Dow Chemical right now, or you could be making $4,000–5,000 a month like Kuyrkendall… yeah you can do it too! Hey listen, if I can do it, you can do it.

EMILY GUERIN: Don loved putting on his suit and addressing the crowd, a shining example of what could happen if you took Nat Mendelsohn’s student program.

If you were impressed by the pitch, if you thought you could be a Kuyrkendall too, the next step was to take the course. And then, you were expected to buy a piece of land in California City.

Or, in sales speak, buy...

DON KUYRKENDALL: It's what we call tool lots.

EMILY GUERIN: Tool lots.

DON KUYRKENDALL: Tool lots. That’s what we called ‘em. Tools.

DON KUYRKENDALL: Hey listen, if you go to work for Clarence Kaylee tomorrow at North Park Lincoln, are you going to be driving a Chevy?

EMILY GUERIN: Probably not.

DON KUYRKENDALL: Probably not. So what is that? It's a tool.

EMILY GUERIN: If you’re going to sell a Chevy — you’d better drive one.

It was like when Marian told Ben she owned that model home near Silver Saddle. It gave the impression that she believed so deeply, she was willing to invest herself.

DON KUYRKENDALL: It was just kinda common sense.

EMILY GUERIN: And just like Marian did with Ben, Don and the other salesmen would suggest that the students recruit their friends and family to come down to California City and buy a lot.

So, the students would come up with a list of names of potential ups.

And they’d bring them, these people they were closest to, to a seminar, where Don would stand behind a podium and pitch them on California City.

And if they were intrigued, Don would book them a flight on a chartered jet to the hottest new city in Southern California.

When Don worked there, in the early 70s, the company spent almost a million dollars a year on flying people down to take a look.

DON KUYRKENDALL: They'd fly into Sea-tac and we'd load them up with our Seattle people, we'd fly down to Portland, pick up our Portland people, fly down to Los Angeles. We'd put them on buses and we'd drive them out to California City. And we'd dump them out of the truck and we'd take, give them to the up, the up guys at California City and they'd take em out and show them their property.

EMILY GUERIN: The buses parked in a huge parking lot in downtown or, what they promised would one day be downtown.

The ups climbed down the stairs and walked into the sales tent, where they were greeted by a bunch of folksy salesman.

There was a map of the city was tacked up on a board, and the salesmen told the ups to just pick out a street they liked — Darwin Drive, DaVinci Place, Gold Rush Avenue. And then, they’d walk over to a row of shiny black Cadillacs, and drive off to be sold a dream.

Nat had an army of sales people. And Kathryn Efford, that woman who thought he was a prophet? She was one of them. And, not to gossip, but a woman who knew her back then, told me that Kathryn had a nickname in those days. They called her “The Barracuda.”

MUSIC

Kathryn used to love driving out into the desert with a couple of ups in the back of her Cadillac.

Just picture it:

She drives past the model homes and their tumbleweed yards.

Past the sailboats tacking on the artificial lake.

Past the edge of downtown, and through 17 miles of empty desert.

She drives up to the top of Galileo Hill.

Nat Mendelsohn had named the hill himself. He admired Galileo — a man with big, controversial ideas who was deemed a heretic and confined to his house for the rest of his life, but was later redeemed by history.

I imagine Kathryn parking the Cadillac on top, and getting out. Her red hair whips her face in the wind. The ups climb out too. The man raises his hand to his forehead to block the sun, and the wife clutches her skirt so it doesn’t balloon. Kathryn looks at them and says,

KATHRYN EFFORD: Everybody has a dream. Everybody has a desire to get better than they are today. Everybody has a family. They wanna see kids go to college. The one thing that people always seem to put on the back burner because it's out of their reach is real estate. Real estate is the basis of all wealth. Period. Worldwide, basis of all wealth. Kings, queens and wars are fought over her. If she's, dirt someone's gonna die for that piece of dirt. That's just the way it is.

KATHRYN EFFORD: California City is sandwiched between three major freeways. They will someday be six and eight lane freeways. Today, that's not quite there. But where California City is is what will give her her value.

KATHRYN EFFORD: If you can't see the vision, you can't see the dream, don't buy it. If all you see is vacant land with a few roads... you don't get it. If you see another Van Nuys, or another Encino, or another Salt Lake City, then you've got the vision. If you’ve got the vision, buy it. If you don't have the vision, don’t bother.

EMILY GUERIN: That was, like, very convincing. What you just did.

KATHRYN EFFORD: You know why?

EMILY GUERIN: Why?

KATHRYN EFFORD: Cause I believed it. I still believe it. The prerequisite to any kind of sales, I don’t care what it is, you gotta believe in your product.

EMILY GUERIN: After the tour, they drove back into town. And the ups had a decision to make: was California City the right investment for them, or not?

I mean, they were so young. They were children, really. Not that different from Ben Perez. They rented cramped apartments in the kinds of neighborhoods where everyone wishes they lived somewhere else. The most valuable things they owned were their cars and their engagement rings.

But here was this opportunity to invest. They could pay for the land in installments, $200 down and $30 bucks a month. Maybe they’d retire there. Or maybe they’d just sell the land to put the kids through college.

But it wasn’t all hopes and dreams that convinced them to buy. There was pressure, too. The people who’d invited them out to California City were their friends. Their family.

It’s one thing to disappoint a salesman. It’s another thing to let down your brother or your cousin. Just think of all those awkward birthdays and Thanksgivings. It is so much easier to just say yes than to say no.

This is how Nat sold so much land. He made you sell.

It was going so well, Nat Mendelsohn decided to open up two additional cities: Colorado City, Colorado, and Cochiti Lake, New Mexico.

Three cities.

Thousands of salesmen.

Tens of thousands of ups who would spend hundreds of millions of dollars.

MUSIC

Carla Nemeth was shown a map of how California City would look fully built out. She thought it was so exciting, she bought land just to be a part of it.

CARLA NEMETH: Well this was a bust, I'm not ever gonna be able to get rid of it.

EMILY GUERIN: Her salespeople said she would definitely make her money back and then some. She didn’t.

A salesperson told June Sugasawara that California City was a golden opportunity. That she’d make millions once an international airport was built. But...

JUNE SUGASAWARA: — there’s no sign of an airport.

EMILY GUERIN: A salesperson told Gary Lindsay that California City’s population would double in two years. He was going to get rich quick when the aerospace industry moved in. sighs. But that never happened.

GARY LINDSAY: There’s no buyers for it. Nobody wants it. I suppose you could give it away, but you can’t sell it.

EMILY GUERIN: A salesperson told Kathryn Jandeska she’d be able to sell her $4,300 lot and make a profit. And she did end up selling it. To Habitat for Humanity. For one dollar.

KATHRYN JANDESKA: I don't have any illusion that it's worth what we paid.

EMILY GUERIN: So people complained. They complained to reporters. They complained to lawyers. They complained to the state attorney general.

Don Kuyrkendall said he never heard these complaints until he talked to me. And when I told him, he brushed them off.

DON KUYRKENDALL: If, even if there were 1,000 people that sued us it would be a fraction, a minuscule amount of the people that actually participated in the programs and people that bought property from ‘em.

EMILY GUERIN: But when I asked him about the way he sold land, his tricks of the trade, he got defensive.

EMILY GUERIN: Hey, I just wanted to ask the last thing, um, you said you learned a lot about sales from working in California City. And I was wondering if you have any specific examples of tactics that you still use?

DON KUYRKENDALL: Tactics?

EMILY GUERIN: laughs. Yeah. Strategy?

DON KUYRKENDALL: Tactics?

EMILY GUERIN: I don't know. What would you call it?

DON KUYRKENDALL: Listen, I think you have the wrong impression of salespeople. They didn't teach us to be fast pitch guys and close this guy with his fingernails on the table or something in the back room. I mean, when you look at a guy and say, “hey listen, we're going to sell you some California City property. We're going to put you on a plane, we're going to take you to California, we're going to put you in a hotel for a night. We're going to take you out to the Antelope Valley, we're gonna let you walk on this piece of property, and John if you don't like it, you don't have to buy it.” I mean, how can you be more transparent than that?

EMILY GUERIN: What makes you think I have a bad impression or the wrong impression about salespeople?

DON KUYRKENDALL: Well, because you keep talking about the Student Program and you keep, obviously you've read that, that a lot of people didn't like the Student Program and that they, it didn't work for them.

EMILY GUERIN: Um.

DON KUYRKENDALL: And I know that. And I, and I, believe me, I know that. I was there.

EMILY GUERIN: I guess I've read, I actually haven't necessarily read that people liked it or didn't like it. I've read that, um, they were promised things that weren't true.

DON KUYRKENDALL: Well, I don't know. Again, I don't think any of that happened in the Northwest Division.

EMILY GUERIN: But Don did have doubts of his own. Specifically, about why Nat Mendeloshn chose to build California City in the middle of the Mojave desert.

DON KUYRKENDALL: Why did Nat pick that spot? But, hey listen, it’s just, who knows, I wasn't the kind of guy that was going to sit back and second guess a guy like Nat Mendelsohn. laughs. I mean, I'm a 25-year-old kid, you know, with no college education and you know. I never asked those kind of questions.

EMILY GUERIN: There’s a lot of reasons why people don’t ask those kinds of questions.

I used to be a reporter in the oilfields in North Dakota, where 25-year-old kids with no college education put up with 16-hour days, deadly roads and toxic fumes because they were raking it in.

The golden handcuffs, an oil worker once told me. When you’re making that kind of money, you’ll do anything to keep it coming.

MUSIC

But Kathryn Efford was a different story. I think she didn’t ask Nat Mendeloshn those kinds of questions because… she didn’t have them. She seemed willing to do almost anything for him: move to California, pose in a bikini, maybe even bend the truth a little.

She had proof of some of the things she said. But some of her stories just seemed over the top. Like, specifically, her story of meeting Nat Mendelsohn in California City in 1958.

So I called her younger sister Susan, to fact-check it. And Susan said, oh, please. Por Favor. I could hear her rolling her eyes. Susan’s theory is that California City became so important to Kathryn later in her life, she inserted herself into its inception.

Sighs. So I asked Kathryn, did you make up that story?

KATHRYN EFFORD: laughs. No. No. And the reason that she has no knowledge of that is — I don’t, do you think I'm going to tell somebody I'm getting on an airplane, I'm nine months pregnant? I'm going to get on the airplane with somebody they don't know? I told my mother. I said, “Mom I’m going to fly out to California, I’ll be back tonight.” She said, “you can’t fly, you’re nine months pregnant.” I said, “yes I can. My baby bump doesn’t show, leave me alone.” That was, that has always been my attitude. Ok? My mother was an alcoholic. If you think she would’ve told Susan, you’re crazy. You know. So, I mean, it’s like, you know, what did I, what was I doing? Nobody has ever asked me, Emily, what did you do between the time you were 15 and 20.

EMILY GUERIN: Mh mh.

KATHRYN EFFORD: Nobody. Nobody. Okay. Absolutely nobody. I got my real estate license. I, I traveled. I saw things, did things and got paid for things that most people only dream about getting paid for.

EMILY GUERIN: Mh hm.

KATHRN EFFORD: So, you know, it's like, God, you know? I mean, I, I kind of figured my sister would just simply say, “Well, I don't think she was there.” All right. Why? Cuz she wasn't even talking to me. Not Talking to me, Emily.

EMILY GUERIN: Yeah.

EMILY GUERIN: There were other things that didn’t add up.


Kathryn told me she was taking classes at Northwestern University, but when I called, the registrar couldn’t find her.

She had told me that Nat sent 107 purple and white orchids to her fourth wedding, but later, she told me they were actually white roses, babies breath and a single black orchid.

EMILY GUERIN:: And I think the reason that the details are important to me is because it… um... a lot of the things that you told me and that other people told me that happened a long time ago, like, they're kind of hard to fact check. They're kind of hard to verify.

KATHRN EFFORD: Yeah.

EMILY GUERIN: And so if I get the sense that there's like inconsistencies in what people say, or, or if someone close to them says no, that didn't happen. Does that...

KATHRYN EFFORD: Then exclude them! Cut them out.

EMILY GUERIN: But…

KATHRYN EFFORD: Delete them. Exclude them.

EMILY GUERIN: No, but, but does that make sense, though, that it might cast doubt on like other things?

KATHRYN EFFORD: Oh, of course.

EMILY GUERIN: In fact checking with Kathryn, she said Susan had always been jealous of her. That explained the inconsistencies.

And normally, I wouldn’t include such an unreliable person in a story. I would do what Kathryn just suggested. I’d exclude her, cut her out. Delete her.

But if there’s one thing I learned from spending so much time in California City, it’s that it is full of unreliable narrators. You can’t tell this story honestly and exclude them.

When the Nader’s Raiders published their big exposé on Nat Mendeloshn and California City in 1971, they accused Nat of committing fraud. They called the way he sold land in California City, “the big lie.”

But it wasn’t their job to stop him, to do something about it. That was up to someone else.

KEN DONNEY: Ladies and gentlemen, I'd like to introduce to you Ken Donney, Ralph Nader of West.

That’s after a break.

BREAK

EMILY GUERIN: My relationship to Ken Donney is complicated. But he is the closest thing this story has to a hero.

He came closer than anyone else to stopping the scam. He was 29 when he did it, a young, cocky lawyer at the Federal Trade Commission in the 1970s. He had wavy brown hair that reached to his collar and John Lennon glasses. He worked out of a shiny skyscraper on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles.



KEN DONNEY: Hitting corporate America where it hurts worst. And that’s in their pocketbook.

EMILY GUERIN: Ken didn’t have a poster of Ralph Nader on his wall or anything, but the way he talks about him, it seems like he should have. He was Ralph Nader of the West. He was a modern-day Robin Hood.

KEN DONNEY: Take from the rich and give to the less rich, the needy, the small guy and gal.

EMILY GUERIN: And his Sheriff of Nottingham was Nat Mendelsohn.

KEN DONNEY: The "Genius," and I say that in quotes, of the original land development scheme was created by a white collar crook named Mendelsohn. Mendelsohn.

EMILY GUERIN: As far as I can tell, the FTC began investigating California City just after the Nader’s Raiders’ report came out. By the time Ken started there in 1973, his boss already had a massive file on Nat and California City.

KEN DONNEY: And he brought it to me, dropped it on my desk. I had no idea what it was. It was, it was a file about, oh, two feet high. laughs.

EMILY GUERIN: Really?

KEN DONNEY: And it was a lot, lot, lot higher after I got done with it.

MUSIC

The FTC had issued a cease and desist order. Stop making false and misleading statements. Stop running deceptive ads. Or else, we’ll take you to court.

Now, it was Ken’s job to be the enforcer or, in FTC jargon, do “a compliance case.”

KEN DONNEY: Compliance cases were generally considered kind of a humdrum, go through the motions, make sure this, that and the other thing’s going on.

EMILY GUERIN: Yeah.

EMILY GUERIN: To Ken, there was nothing humdrum about it. They had not ceased or desisted. They were still running ads. Making claims like:

“Major industry is moving into the Antelope Valley.”

“Employment is good, the community is growing, the future is bright.”

Of all the deceptions cited by the FTC, Ken was most impressed by Nat’s student program. I could tell he thought it was important, because he explained it to me nine times.

KEN DONNEY: Tool, T-O-O-L, lot, L-O-T.

KEN DONNEY: … t-o-o-l, a tool lot.

KEN DONNEY: His ingenious scheme was the tool lot. That’s T-O-O-L lot. And the way he swindled these folks originally was, first of all it was for real estate, for these people to get a real estate license, they wanted to become real estate agents themselves. And in order to do this, the Mendelsohn scheme was, you need to buy your own property, you see, Mr. and Mrs. Consumer, because when you want to sell future property, you can say, “See? This stuff is so good, I bought my own property as well.”

EMILY GUERIN: So that was, and that was a lie.

KEN DONNEY: That's fraudulent. Absolutely fraudulent. Because it's bait and switch.

MUSIC

EMILY GUERIN: For Ken to figure out what was really going on, he needed an inside man. So he made his own group of Nader's Raiders, and he had them pose as ups. He'd send them to hotel ballrooms and they'd sit there, next to overflowing ashtrays, and take notes as salespeople made their pitch.

They’d ride the bus out to California City. They’d listen to the spiel from the top of Galileo Hill.

KEN DONNEY: Close your eyes and imagine the lights of Los Angeles. This is what this area is going to look like in the not so distant future.

EMILY GUERIN: The more Ken learned, the more he respected how good the salespeople were. And to be clear, Ken was speaking about them as a group. He said he didn’t know the salespeople I’d talked to and he didn’t name any individuals.

KEN DONNEY: The good salesperson is a work of art. I mean those folks are something else…

KEN DONNEY: It's in their DNA. And they'll tell you that. That they not only sell the product, they sell a dream. That's their language, not mine. What that means is this, and this is, again before we get cut off, and...

EMILY GUERIN: We're doing fine. I'm keeping track of the time. We're good.

KEN DONNEY: Good, good, good.

KEN DONNEY: They prey on what we all share in humanity, which is our wishful thinking.

KEN DONNEY: Empirically, I've seen it proven time and time again, that people, the most intelligent people, the most emotionally stable people, are in an incredibly vulnerable position. Vulnerable to what? To a shyster, to a fraudster, to a grifter. All these con artists, these snake oil artists, are utterly aware of that psychology.

EMILY GUERIN: Ken investigated for a year. He had enough evidence that the company Nat had founded was still breaking the law. And thousands of people were still getting swindled.

It was time for a confrontation. Time to negotiate a punishment. It was time to put a stop to the scam. Or, at least, to try.

Okay, so it’s 1976 at this point. Nat Mendelsohn didn’t even own the company anymore. He had sold it a few years earlier, to generate more cash, and then he’d resigned and moved to Texas.

The company’s new name was Great Western Cities.

And it was owned by a pair of very rich brothers also from Texas — the Hunt Brothers. They made their money on silver and oil.

And what you need to know about these guys, is that their family was the inspiration for the TV show Dallas. They’re still one of the richest families in the world. So, they never cared about California City. It was a pimple on their butt.

So Ken flies to Denver. He goes to the Great Western Cities’ headquarters. It’s in this historic building with arched windows, carved granite pillars, and a board room table that Ken said was like a mile long.

Ken and another FTC lawyer sat down in the dead center of that massive table.

KEN DONNEY: On the opposite side of the width was Ivan Irwan. The Hunt’s personal lawyer.

EMILY GUERIN: Ivan Irwin: a man who’d gotten rich helping even richer men get out of legal trouble. He died in 2018.

On Ken’s left sat another one of the Hunt’s lawyers. He’s still alive, but he never returned my calls or emails.

And on Ken’s right...

KEN DONNEY ... a guy, who I later found out was former FBI. And I could see a pistol in his shoulder holster inside his, inside his suit.

EMILY GUERIN: Wait, why?

KEN DONNEY: He was clearly there to try and intimate me.

EMILY GUERIN: Wait, wait, sorry, just to clarify, so would he like…

KEN DONNEY: laughs

EMILY GUERIN: … periodically open his jacket so you could see the pistol?

KEN DONNEY: Well, I wouldn’t say periodically. Let’s just say I, I had a clear vision of the pistol in his shoulder holster.

EMILY GUERIN: Jeeze.

KEN DONNEY: And this guy had zero effect on me. When I would push back my chair, and put my pointy toed cowboy boots, brown tan boots, up on the table, it was always on this side of the table, the guy who was supposed to intimidate me. And Ivan Irwan quickly caught on that, that that that game wasn’t working with this young attorney.

EMILY GUERIN: I can’t confirm this story, but I love it anyway. Just picture it: this West L.A. boy, wearing cowboy boots to a big negotiation so the Texans don’t push him around.

Ken knew that the Hunts weren’t really to blame for what was going wrong in California City. They inherited the problems when they bought Great Western Cities a few years earlier.

KEN DONNEY: To put it in literary terms and not legal terms. Mendelsohn was the...

VOICE: YOU HAVE 60 SECONDS REMAINING.

KEN DONNEY: Mendelsohn was the evil genius and, and the Hunt brothers of Dallas were the, for want of a better way of putting it before we get cut off, were the honest greedy, honest greedy bunch that got stuck with the bill.

EMILY GUERIN: It feels to me like in this, this story there's, there's people who you think are good guys, and then they're bad guys, or there are people who you think are victims and then they’re perpetrators.

KEN DONNEY: You're a really good journalist. Has anyone ever told you that?

EMILY GUERIN: laughs. Uh, my mother. No, just kidding.

KEN DONNEY: laughs because...

EMILY GUERIN: Well, thank you.

EMILY GUERIN: Eventually, they settled the case.

There would be consequences. A punishment for scamming at least 73,000 people out of hundreds of millions of dollars. There were four main parts:

One: Great Western Cities’ salesmen had to stop telling people that land in California City was an excellent investment.

Two: they had to put a warning label on all of their California City contracts and brochures. A little white rectangle with a black outline, and blocky font. Like you might see on a cigarette carton. It said, QUOTE, “the value of this land is uncertain. Do not count on an increase in value.”

Three: spend $16 million building paved roads, power, water and sewer lines. In other words, the things they’d said were already there.

And, four: a nearly $4 million refund to everyone who had bought land since 1972. The L.A. Times called it the largest consumer refund in the history of the FTC.

Sitting in first class on his way home from Denver, Ken popped some champagne to celebrate.

Afterwards, California City fell apart. First the company, and then the place.

Sales dropped from almost $58 million to $14 million in just five years. The number of salespeople plummeted from 3,000 to less than 200.

MUSIC

It turned out that vacant, Mojave Desert land 100 miles north of Los Angeles was nearly impossible to sell without deceiving people about its value.

So no more deceptions, meant no more sales.

And no more sales meant no more money to prop up California City.

I mean, the place had always been a company town. The company paid to pave the roads. To plant trees. To subsidize the Shakey’s Pizza and the bowling alley. And without the development company, the town withered.

The oleander bushes that lined California City boulevard got scraggly and wild.

The grass on the par 3 golf course turned brown.

The Lakeshore Inn closed, and weeds crept along the cracks in the parking lot.

Eventually, even the waterfall went dry.

In February of 1984, Great Western Cities declared bankruptcy. Nine months later, Nat Mendelsohn died.

He had a heart attack after a round of golf and drove into a tree.

Obituaries ran in papers around the country.

Some told the truth. Some sold the myth.

Nat Mendelsohn, developer of controversial California City, died Sunday.

Nat Mendelsohn, the Father of California City, the man with a vision for a city where an average American could live in a country club atmosphere, is dead at 69.

He is survived by his wife Helen, his daughter Janet, and five major master-planned communities.

Survivors include his adopted child, Alex Mendelsohn.

Many of the people who’d bought the dream — and the empty land — they got their money back.

Ken Donney was a hero.

A consumer protection hero. The Ralph Nader of the West.

But if you look at the rest of Ken’s life, he was nobody’s hero. In fact, anyone else would consider him a villain.

EMILY GUERIN: Do you really think that anybody could just snap and kill their wife?

KEN DONNEY: Huh… um.

VOICE: YOU HAVE 60 SECONDS REMAINING.

That’s next time on California City.




EPISODE 3A Man with a Dream
The vision that Ben Perez was sold in 2017 began in 1958, with one man's dream to build a utopian desert city from scratch.
icon2 Episode Details

Note: California City is a podcast for a reason. You can read the transcript below, but the story is meant to be listened to. The host and a team of producers worked hard to make the podcast sound its best, and this transcript can’t capture all the voices, emotion, intonation and atmosphere in the original audio. If you’d like to quote this podcast, please check the corresponding audio first.

MUSIC

EMILY GUERIN: Previously, on California City:

BEN PEREZ: That’s actually my 5 years savings. I work 5 years just to save that $30K.

EMILY GUERIN: That’s your five year savings?!

BEN PEREZ: Yeah.

SAKO SIGNE: Somehow they got our name, probably from the Fillipino grocery store.

MARIAN DUCREUX: I don’t know, maybe I have the charisma? laughs

EMILY GUERIN: So when you first saw the Yelp reviews, like how did you feel?

BEN PEREZ: I said, oh my god, this is a scam.

EMILY GUERIN: I told Ben Perez I would try to figure out what happened to him. How he spent so much of his money on a slice of empty desert land that he somehow believed would make him rich one day.

But in order to do that, I had to understand where this belief came from. Who started it? And what was this town anyway?

The man who started California City was named Nat Mendelsohn.

Nat Mendelsohn was a real estate developer who 60 years ago, decided to build a city from scratch in the Mojave Desert. But what were his intentions? Was he really trying to build a city, or was he just trying to make as much money as possible?

Intention matters.

Intention, this professional poker player once told me, is really the only difference between a dreamer and a con artist. And when someone is dead, like Nat Mendelsohn is, it can be really hard to figure out what his intention really was.

I realized I had to talk to the people who knew him well.

But that made things even more complicated, because talking to them made me realize that there are so many versions of Nat Mendelsohn.

By all accounts, Nat was whatever you needed him to be.

There was Nat, the prophet.

KATHRYN EFFORD: Nat believed with all his heart that God gave him the vision for the city.

EMILY GUERIN: There was Nat, the dad.

ALEX MENDELSOHN: I remember calling him up and asking him if I could ask him if I could call him Daddy.

EMILY GUERING: There was Nat, the founding father.

PAT GORDEN: He was a dreamer. But he made dreamers of us all in the beginning. He lit our torch.

EMILY GUERIN: And there was Nat, the scoundrel.

DALLON COX: If you profit at the expense of people who are being duped then you're evil. Literally, there's an evilness to that.

EMILY GUERIN: Who was this guy, really? And did his vision for California City begin as a dream, or was it always a deception?

I’m Emily Guerin, and welcome to California City, episode two.

BREAK

Let’s start with the weirdest version of Nat. Nat, the prophet.

EMILY GUERIN: Ok. Are we recording?

DAVID RODRIGUEZ: Yes.

JAMES KIM: No, we’re not recording.

EMILY GUERIN: Yeah we are, yeah we were, yeah we were. Yeah we are.

JAMES KIM: Ok.

EMILY GUERIN: Ok

SOUND OF CAR PASSING

EMILY GUERIN: The woman who told me Nat Mendelsohn got his vision from God is named Kathryn Efford.

She was one of his earliest disciples.

EMILY GUERIN: “I feel like a princess.”

EMILY GUERIN: In June 2018, I went out to California City to meet her with producers James Kim and David Rodriguez. We met her at her real estate office on California City Boulevard. It’s a small house that’s painted the color of grass, and it's totally surrounded by dirt. In the driveway, Kathryn’s silver minivan was parked in the shade of a spindly tree. It had a bumper sticker that read, Trump 2016.

SOUND OF KNOCKING

EMILY GUERIN: Hello?

KATHRYN EFFORD: Hello.

EMILY GUERIN: Kathryn?

KATHRYN EFFORD: Yeah, yeah, that’s me.

EMILY GUERIN: Her office was covered with books and there were children’s games everywhere. And in the middle, there was a big table, with a map sprawled out on it.

KATHRYN EFFORD: That happens to be a map of California City back in 1980.

EMILY GUERIN: Ok.

KATHRYN EFFORD: Ummm. She is now a little over 200,000 square miles. 200,000 acres.

EMILY GUERIN: She? You call her she?

KATHRYN EFFORD: Yeah. Well all cities are female, come on. All, you know.

EMILY GUERIN: laughs. Ok.

EMILY GUERIN: She was 79 when I first met her. And she was regal, sitting in her high-backed office chair like it was a throne. She sat so straight it made me conscious of my slouch. And I don’t even have a slouch. Her pink shirt matched her pink toenails, and her white capris seemed untouched by Mojave desert dust. She had this black chihuahua named Minnie that slept on her lap, and it did not get up once. The whole scene reminded me of oil paintings of 18th century French queens and their papillons.

EMILY GUERIN: Just to back up for a second.

KATHRYN EFFORD: Sure.

EMILY GUERIN: So you knew Nat Mendelsohn?

KATHRYN EFFORD: Yes, very well.

EMILY GUERIN: How did you meet him?

KATHRYN EFFORD: Um. laughs.

MUSIC

KATHRYN EFFORD: The first time I met him was 1958. We had a mutual friend. And like I said, I thought the guy was crazy.

EMILY GUERIN: You thought Nat was crazy?

KATHRYN EFFORD: Yeah! When he said, you know, someday we're going to have a city here. This is 1958. No four-lane highways, no anything. And I said why here?

EMILY GUERIN: The way Kathryn tells it, in 1958, she was pregnant with her second daughter, and she was married to her first of five husbands. She was taking classes at Northwestern University.

KATHRYN EFFORD: And I had a friend who was an investor stock guy, type person, okay. And he called me up one day and said, how would you like to go to California for a day or two? I said a day or two, California? I said, Yeah, why not?

EMILY GUERIN: Kathryn told me her friend’s name was Al. And that Al been approached by this real estate developer named Nat Mendelsohn, and that Nat was looking for people to help him build California City.

KATHRYN EFFORD: And we came out here, we flew out on the early, early flight. He was telling me about this development and this man who had this vision of building a city and why.

EMILY GUERIN: So Kathryn and Al drove out to California City, same way I drove in. Same way Ben Perez did. But back in 1958, I don’t know, it was different. The Mojave Desert felt even more remote and desolate than it does today.

The Marines had just quit using the area as a bombing range, but the rocky buttes they’d been using as targets were still pockmarked and shattered. Otherwise, there wasn’t much there. Just cotton and alfalfa farms. No trees, except these wispy salt cedars the farmers had planted as windbreaks. There weren’t many people, either, except the Basque shepherds who herded their sheep to and from the high country in the Sierra Nevada. Nights were cold, days were hot, and the wind blew nearly all the time.

Kathryn and Al stopped at an intersection, and they turned right on a road that Nat Mendelsohn would later call California City Boulevard.

When they saw Nat, they got out of the car.

KATHRYN EFFORD: Well, I'll tell you who he sounded like, was Donald Trump.

EMILY GUERIN: What do you mean?

KATHRYN EFFORD: The New York, the New York accent, kind of a deep voice. Not high. Not high shrilled….

EMILY GUERIN: Does he remind you of the president in any way? Nat?

KATHRYN EFFORD: Yes.

EMILY GUERIN: Really?

KATHRYN EFFORD: Trump reminded me of Nat the first time I saw Donald Trump.

EMILY GUERIN: Really. What, what about him?

KATHRYN EFFORD: Well first of all, the way he carries himself. There’s no heads down with him. Okay. He’s not looking at a floor, any time, anywhere… Very much aware of people around him and their plight. Never cheated anybody out of a dollar that I am aware of, and I gotta tell you, I saw a lot of money come through here.

EMILY GUERIN: By the time Kathryn met Nat, he’d formed the California City Development Company and he started quietly buying up a ton of land up here. There was no city. No town to speak of. Nat knew it was desolate, but so was Las Vegas before it boomed. It was the location that mattered.

KATHRYN EFFORD: But Kathryn you realize with your education, location location location. I said right. He said, California City is the perfectly located city to build a new city in. Zone it, design it to be less congested, more available, and more welcoming to the population as a whole. Okay?

EMILY GUERIN: But when you went, was there anything there at the time?

KATHRYN EFFORD: No! No! It was just dirt.

SOUND OF ROAD, CARS, MUSIC

EMILY GUERIN: But Nat didn’t see it that way. Nat saw the city he would build. He saw a huge, new, meticulously planned city.

California City would be 200 square miles. Bigger than Vegas. Bigger than Denver. More than twice the size of Baltimore.

SOUND OF CITY LIFE

In Nat’s city, Kathryn’s children could walk to school safely, because he designed the roads to slow down traffic. She could push them in a stroller down the winding green belt that Nat would build. Her husband could play golf on the 18-hole golf course, or take a class at the University of California campus Nat claimed was coming. She could shop at the Aspen Mall or picnic by the man-made waterfall, in a park that would rival Central Park.

Nat was a masterful salesman. I’m pretty sure he could sell shit to a diaper.

KATHRYN EFFORD: And at that point when you talk about indoctrinating somebody, Nat had the talent for doing that like nobody else I've ever known in my life...

EMILY GUERIN: Indoctrinating. That word jumped out at me as soon as Kathryn said it. Because typically, real estate developers sell, they don’t indoctrinate. But Kathryn talked about Nat like he was a prophet.

KATHRYN EFFORD: I always believed that God gave Nat the vision that he gave him. Because not only did he give him the vision, but he gave him the investors and the reality of life to invest the money to make it happen.

EMILY GUERIN: So God gave Nat the vision and the resources…

KATHRYN EFFORD: And the resources.

EMILY GUERIN: … to execute it.

KATHRYN EFFORD: Absolutely. And I picked that off in 1958.

EMILY GUERIN: You felt like back then you could tell God gave Nat the vision?

KATHRYN EFFORD: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Absolutely came from God. And I still believe that.

EMILY GUERIN: So the people who didn't believe Nat or thought he was running a scam, I mean they're disagreeing with a man who has God's vision.

KATHRYN EFFORD: That's right. That's right.

MUSIC

EMILY GUERIN: On the edge of the Wasatch Mountains in Utah, there’s this state park called This is The Place. And it’s where, in 1847, the Mormon leader Brigham Young first saw the empty desert basin that would become Salt Lake City.

“This is the right place,” he proclaimed from the back of his wagon. It was where the Mormons would finally settle, where they would finally be free of persecution. It was where they would make the desert bloom like a rose.

When I think about Kathryn and Nat, standing there on the side of that empty road in the Mojave Desert more than a century later, I see Nat make a similar proclamation.

I see him take off his Homburg hat and mop the sweat from his forehead with a pocket square.

I see him sweep his arm across the landscape and say, “This is the place.”

And I see Kathryn, with her red hair tied up in a bun, wearing a long jacket to hide her baby bump.

I see her looking up at Nat, in awe of this man with a dream.

EMILY GUERIN: Why did you believe it?

KATHRYN EFFORD: There’s some real simple truths. One, God keeps making babies and doesn't make any more land. That's it. As crowded is Los Angeles is, you still have people coming. In by the millions. Where are those people gonna go?

EMILY GUERIN: They were gonna go to California City.

Because, when Kathryn was growing up, after World War Two, cities were done. Urban planners were turning their backs on Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. They were polluted, they were crime-ridden, over-crowded, and they could be nuked by our enemies any day. But in the deserts of the West, there was still tons of open land. Why not just buy it up cheap and start over?

Sometimes I think the reason Kathryn fell so hard for Nat and his pitch was timing. She was just old enough not to be timid, but too young to know any better.

EMILY GUERIN: Did he know you were 17?

KATHRN EFFORD: No. Oh heavens no. My drivers license, first of all, said I was 20-something.

EMILY GUERIN: Kathryn had been lying about her age for years. Her mother drank too much, her father worked all the time, and she was already starting to feel distant from her husband. In retrospect, all this instability, it kind of makes me think Kathryn was the perfect mark for a con.

MUSIC

So, when I was her age, I was also enchanted by a man who I thought was a prophet.

There were two men actually. Two, beautiful brothers who I met in a foggy trailer park in New Zealand, where I was traveling alone.

So, you have to know, I was a prep school kid. I was logical, I was rational, I did not just believe things, I didn’t have blind faith.

But over fire light, they told me about their past lives. They told me about the Mayan calendar. They told me they believed the world was ending in 2012. And they wanted me to believe those things too.

So I was naturally skeptical, but they had answers to all of my questions. They gave me a timeline of when I would fall in love and how deeply. They knew a ton about me, even though we’d just met.

And I was… totally captivated by their confidence. I had never met anyone like them. And so for a few weeks, I just hung around, and I lapped up their every word.

I think Kathryn must have felt the same way towards Nat.

But unlike Kathryn, I got a bad feeling from them eventually. They were trying to get me to stay. They wanted me to become a priestess. One of many priestesses who worshipped them. And, yes, slept with them. So one overcast afternoon, I snuck off, and I never went back.

But Kathryn stuck by her prophet. She was willing to say, or do anything, to defend Nat and his vision.

KATHRYN EFFORD: I wore a size 12. I was very pretty. Nat loved it, because, he said it's so great Kathryn, to have you, I said well. He said I need to do a real PR shoot at the airport. He says, why don’t you go put on a bikini and a cute dress so we can take PR shots at the airport. And I'd do it.

EMILY GUERIN: Wait, did you do it?

KATHRYN EFFORD: Oh yeah.

EMILY GUERIN: You did bikini shots for Nat Mendelsohn?

KATHRYN EFFORD: Oh yeah! Oh yeah! We put them in the magazine. “This is California City!”

EMILY GUERIN: Wait wait wait. So you were part of the marketing.

KATHRYN EFFORD: Yes.

EMILY GUERIN: Interesting.

KATHRYN EFFORD: I did it all. Are you serious?

EMILY GUERIN: So it didn’t surprise me when she answered this way.

EMILY GUERIN: Do you think that Nat also genuinely wanted to build a city or do you…

KATHRYN EFFORD:: Absolutely!

EMILY GUERIN: … that the city was a way for him to make money.

KATHRYN EFFORD: No. Absolutely. Anybody who says the only reason he developed the cities was strictly to make money, didn't know the man. Okay? When … It's like a woman who decides one day with her husband that she wants to have a child. And she has a vision for that child. And then she gets pregnant. Most women would die for that child. That's the kind of vision that Nat had. And he worked at it not once a week, not once a month, but every day of his life. And he instilled that vision in other people. That's why we have the city we have today.

EMILY GUERIN: Kathryn said this without a hint of irony in her voice, as if the city we have today is some gleaming metropolist. And it just isn’t.



But I talked to someone who knew a different side of Nat Mendelsohn. Meet Nat Mendelsohn, the Dad. That’s after a break.


BREAK

ALEX MENDELSOHN: My name is Alex Mendelsohn, and I am the adopted daughter of Nathan Mendelsohn.

EMILY GUERIN: I mean, is that how you would actually describe…?

ALEX MENDELSOHN: I don't know.

EMILY GUERIN: ...your actually relationship to him? I mean, I just...

ALEX MENDELSON: No...but I guess for this. I thought maybe I should. No, I would, I would say, you know, Nathan Mendelsohn was my father.

EMILY GUERIN: Everyone seems to have a story of being charmed by Nat Mendelsohn. This is Alex’s.

ALEX MENDELSOHN: He married my mother when I was about five. And actually, the story goes that I was the one that asked him to marry her, or us, because he charmed me.

EMILY GUERIN: Alex’s mom, Sylvia, met Nat just as he was beginning to sell land in California City: it was 1958 or maybe 1959.

Sylvia was in her late 20s and she was Jackie-O pretty. She was raising Alex alone in a one-bedroom apartment in Santa Monica. She met Nat at a party, and even though he was 13 years older than her, she was very enamored of him. So was Alex.

ALEX MENDELSOHN: He was always reciting little limericks and poems and made some very fun playful faces. You know, he was maybe a little bit like a grand, a playful grandfather. He had a great laugh. Hah! Hah! Hah! Like a Santa kind of laugh but lower.

EMILY GUERIN: That’s great.

EMILY GUERIN: It only took three months for Alex to fall in love with the idea of Nat as her father. So, she asked him to marry her mother. And he said yes.

ALEX MENDELSOHN: And I actually got a little pinky ring also.

EMILY GUERIN: Really?

ALEX MENDELSOHN: Yeah, yeah.

EMILY GUERIN: So Alex and Sylvia moved in with Nat into his house in the Hollywood Hills. It was a big house, it was a Spanish style estate, and it was perched on the edge of a very steep and winding street. It had high ceilings, french doors, and a massive window in the living room. There was a piano, and while Sylvia played, Nat would dance with Alex around the living room. They played chess. They went on family trips to colonial cities in Mexico, where Nat couldn’t stop talking about how the streets were laid out.

EMILY GUERIN: Did you feel like you were father and daughter?

ALEX MENDELSOHN: Yeah. Yeah. And in fact, when I was about 13, I remember calling him up asking him if I could, ugh, asking him if I could call him Daddy. Would he mind? Like I had called him Nathan before that.

EMILY GUERIN: Really?

ALEX MENDELSOHN: Yeah, I'd never called him Daddy. And he, he got really choked up on the phone. I was kind of choked up too. And he said yes, I would love that.

EMILY GUERIN: Alex slowly absorbed bits and pieces of Nat’s life story.

ALEX MENDELSHON: I know that he came to this country as a child. They were very poor.

EMILY GUERIN: Nat moved to New York City from Czechoslovakia in the 1920s. He grew up in a tenement, but he landed a scholarship to Columbia, where he took classes in rural sociology. During the war, he moved out to California and he worked for the federal government as an economist. His agency kept prices from sky-rocketing and they rationed tires, sugar and shoes.

ALEX MENDELSOHN: Well, I just remember as a kid thinking it seemed like he had done absolutely every kind of job that was available.

EMILY GUERIN: Nat told her stories about his time as a professional dancer. Stories about how he got into real estate. There was money to be made selling suburban tract homes in Southern California to returning soldiers. Or, in Nat’s case, selling them vacant land with the promise that this desert would become a city one day.

ALEX MENDELSOHN: He’d say, "Honey, this is just gonna be so wonderful. You know, this is going to be a terrific community for people and it's going to bring people together and the streets are going to be rounded and there are going to be parks so that you know, people have a sense of community and they come together and it's going to be wonderful."

EMILY GUERIN: Nat was always talking about the beautiful new future and he liked to throw parties with Hollywood blacklisted types and self described “thinkers.”

ALEX MENDELSOHN: He gave himself a middle name of Karl with a “K” after Karl Marx who he admired tremendously and was constantly reading.

EMILY GUERIN: Okay, so this really surprised me. Because convincing thousands of people to buy land in a speculative desert city seems like the kind of thing Marx would hate.

But, then again, a lot of things about Nat Mendelsohn surprised me.

Like the fact that he never lived in California City.

ALEX MENDELSOHN: It's funny now that you mentioned that, no. I mean, and I never, you know you would think maybe he'd say, “we're going to build a house here,” and no. Uh uh.

EMILY GUERIN: Things about Nat surprised Alex, too.

She told me about this one time in the early 60s, when she was a teenager, she saw Nat coming out of a restaurant with a young woman on his arm — a woman who was not her mother.

ALEX MENDELSOHN: And I was totally shocked. And he was totally shocked to see me on my bicycle on Hollywood Boulevard.

EMILY GUERIN: Alex never said anything to her mom. But Sylvia figured it out eventually, and soon enough, they were living alone in the Hollywood Hills, and Nat was the one in the small apartment in Santa Monica.

He started drinking more, drinking enough to scare Alex.

ALEX MENDELSOHN: Sometimes I'd go to visit him on a Sunday morning, spend the day with him. And he'd have a bloody mary that had a lot of booze in it. And he'd have a few of those. You know, I became concerned about his drinking. In fact, I used to try to indirectly, you know, get him away from drinking something and say let's go for a walk or you know, um, interrupt him as he was pouring a drink to try and stop him because I guess I didn't really like it when he drank.

EMILY GUERIN: Did it work?

ALEX MENDELSOHN: Occasionally, but not often.

EMILY GUERIN: When Nat got engaged to one of his new girlfriends, Helen, he told Alex to go buy a dress for the wedding. When she asked how she would pay for it, he told her to just walk into any dress shop in the city…

MUSIC

ALEX MENDELSOHN: “...and just tell them you're my daughter." But I knew Los Angeles is a big city, not everybody knows who he is. You know, I just thought he's lost connection with reality.

EMILY GUERIN: Hm.

ALEX MENDELSOHN: It just, it was an example to me of how his ego was just really getting weirdly bloated.

EMILY GUERIN: The Nat who had charmed Alex, the playful grandfather that she’d asked to marry her and her mother, that man was gone. Or maybe, Alex was starting to see Nat the way he’d been the whole time.

So that’s Alex, but for most of the people I met, Nat was a different kind of father figure. He wasn’t a prophet or a dad. He was California City’s founding father. A man who got you excited to come be a pioneer, and help him build a city from scratch. That’s the man Pat Gorden knew.



EMILY GUERIN: Okay, so why did you want to move out here?

PAT GORDEN: I love the desert. I just loved the desert. I love the beautiful skies and the open spot and I always wanted to have a house in the middle of a section of land, you know, by myself.

MUSIC

EMILY GUERIN: Pat Gorden is a small woman who reminds me of the homesteaders I met when I lived in North Dakota: polite, but no-bullshit tough. She was 83 when I first met her, and I got the sense that she considers herself kind of a living diary, the keeper of early California City memories.

In 1961, Pat and her husband TV — yeah, TV — were living in Orange County when they answered an ad looking for someone to run a grocery store in this new place called California City. Nat needed the things that make a town a town: kids running in the street, cars on the roads, a place to buy groceries. Because Nat wasn’t just building a city, he was building the idea of a city. A place you could picture yourself living.

EMILY GUERIN: A dreamer?

PAT GORDEN: He was a dreamer. But he made dreamers of us all in the beginning, he, he lit our torch.

EMILY GUERIN: How did he do it?

PAT GORDEN: Just because he was who he was. He was a very honest man, and he was educated and he had studied people movement, you know, so we had confidence in him.

EMILY GUERIN: And what did you think that the city was going to become?

PAT GORDEN: Well, we thought we were in on the beginning of a really good thing when people discovered our little secret out here about how wonderful it was to live here that they would all come.

EMILY GUERIN: In the beginning, California City was a small town, with just a handful of residents — they called themselves pioneers. And nearly all the pioneers knew Nat. He wasn’t just the founding father. He was everyone’s favorite uncle.

Nat ate mackerel with Judy Riggenbach’s parents on Sundays, and it would stink up the house. Judy’s dad was a quiet civil engineer whose job it was to survey property lines. He wasn’t buddy buddy with many guys, but he was buddy buddy with Nat.

Nat gave a college scholarship to the first boy born in California City.

The city’s first Mayor, James Riley, he worked for Nat’s company. So did Councilman Sutherland and Councilman Loeffler. And so did the wives of Councilman Schulz and Truitt.

In California City, Nat was the pope, and there was no separation of church and state.

EMILY GUERIN: So, I'm just going to ask this out right and you can respond any way you want. But do you think Nat was running a land scam?

PAT GORDEN: No.

EMILY GUERIN: How come?

PAT GORDEN: No.

EMILY GUERIN: I mean, you…

PAT GORDEN: I never felt like he was a land scammer. Ever. Neither did my husband, my brother, my sister in law, those of us that worked hard in these small businesses. We thought he was a very sincere person.

EMILY GUERIN: But other pioneers had their doubts.

DALLON COX: Nat Mendelsohn. I knew him. I didn't like him.

EMILY GUERIN: Meet Nat Mendelsohn the scoundrel. That’s after a break.

BREAK

EMILY GUERIN: Herb Lee and Dallon Cox lived in California City from its inception in the late 1950s. And one Sunday night, I talked to them for three hours at the Ford dealership in the town of Mojave, where until recently, Dallon sold trucks. We sat in a little room off the showroom and drank car dealership coffee out of styrofoam cups.

MUSIC

If I saw them on the street, I would not expect them to have been best friends since they were 12, or even get along. Herb’s long grey hair hung heavily on his shoulders. He’s a shorts and Birkenstocks kind of guy, even in the winter. And his feet look like they’ve never seen the inside of a closed-toe shoe.

Dallon, meanwhile, is a short, clipped hair and baseball cap kind guy. Black windbreaker, so he looked like he just finished a round of golf. He smelled strongly of cigarettes.

Part of why they became best friends is there weren’t a ton of other options. Growing up, California City was was so small, it took every single kid in town to play a game of flag football — boys and girls.

HERB LEE: And Dallon’s big sister Rhonda was the terror. She was the fullback.

EMILY GUERIN: They spent a lot of time wandering around the desert, carrying sticks.

HERB LEE: I swung that thing and I whacked the cactus with it.

EMILY GUERIN: Or, making bonfires in the creek beds.

HERB LEE: Gee, probably there was more beer than soda at some of those events.

laughs

EMILY GUERIN: Did it feel like a lawless place? You know what I mean?

DALLON COX: No, it wasn't lawless. It was just that there was no law.

EMILY GUERIN: They would sneak onto the golf course.

They would cruise the artificial lake in paddle boats.

They would sneak to the top of the concrete waterfall.

All of those things were amenities that Nat Mendelsohn’s company built. And they were also props to sell land. I learned this from a professor who did his dissertation on architecture in California City.

I learned that Nat built a clay airstrip, where chartered DC-3s full of potential buyers would land.

He built these billboards shaped like cactus flowers. They didn’t say anything — they were just landmarks to help salesmen navigate the faceless desert.

And before Nat built a high school, or a medical center, or a police department, he commissioned a million-dollar city hall. It was designed by a famous German architect who called it “the eighth wonder of the world.”

But people in town didn’t want a German-designed city hall. They wanted a sewer. They wanted a city that worked. And when they questioned Nat about it, he publicly called them “cynics and doubting Thomases,” with “scornful” and “negative” attitudes. As if they were just a bunch of California City killjoys. The city hall never got built, anyway.

But some of the other props did, and they were beloved. The city pool being among the most popular. It was always crowded on hot days… which was most days in California City. The pool is where Dallon Cox first overheard the adults talking about Nat Mendelsohn..

DALLON COX: And most of the comments that I heard led me to believe that he was just kind of a slime bag. Literally. That was the kind of impression that I got from it.

EMILY GUERIN: Herb’s mom Marian Lee was one of the most outspoken of the pioneers. She’d been a nuclear physicist and she also taught encryption and decoding in the military.

HERB LEE: She was not to be denied. Ever…

DALLON COX: A very brilliant woman.

EMILY GUERIN: That very brilliant woman — she didn’t trust Nat Mendelsohn. She didn’t trust him because Nat was trying to get the current residents of California City to pay for the things he wanted built.

So, in the early 1960s, California City was still Nat’s private development, which meant he paved the roads, he planted the trees, built the little city airport. But if California City incorporated, if it became official, Nat wouldn’t have to pay for these things anymore — the taxpayers would.

And Herb’s mom Marian, she didn’t like that idea. She thought Nat should finish what he started. He should make good on the things he had said were coming. And he should do it on his own dime. I mean, he was the one making the money.

EMILY GUERIN: Was she anti-incorporation?

HERB LEE: Yes.

EMILY GUERIN: And that was an unpopular opinion?

HERB LEE: Uh, it was a highly divisive opinion.

EMILY GUERIN: Marian Lee was literally the first mother of California City. People listened when she talked.

And Nat must have felt like he needed her support. Because he invited her to his home in the Hollywood Hills to try to convince her. And she brought Herb along.

HERB LEE: I was agog. I was standing looking out this wall of glass across the top of Los Angeles, and, and he's talking about building a new, wonderful city. And it was just all glorious.

EMILY GUERIN: Marian was having none of it. And back home in California City, she continued agitating. She talked to her friends at the monthly potlucks. She went to Sacramento to complain to politicians.

sigh

And then, the trouble began.

By the time Herb told this story, it was late. The bad coffee was now bad and stale. Dallon was out in the parking lot on his sixth smoke break. So Herb was alone with me and my producers.

HERB LEE: I didn't find out till several years later that my mother got phone call threats about the wellbeing of her children.

EMILY GUERIN: Who do you think was making the phone calls?

HERB LEE:. The threat appeared to come from the, um, high profit side of the negotiations.

EMILY GUERIN: What do you mean?

HERB LEE: Um. Corporate.

EMILY GUERIN: But like, from the development company?

HERB LEE: Yeah, seems like.

EMILY GUERIN: You think your mom was threatened by the California City Development Company?

HERB LEE: Or someone whose purpose was to eliminate the opposition to incorporation or whatever.

EMILY GUERIN: Because the company would stand to benefit by incorporating because they could pass the expenses off to the people. And so people who didn't want to incorporate threaten the bottom line?

HERB LEE: Yeah. The development company employed 35 or 40% of the people in town. They had a, a powerful political voice.

EMILY GUERIN: Here’s what Herb says happened next: Nat’s company bought their house. Nat’s company bought the building where his dad had his barbershop. Herb wouldn’t say it felt like they were getting run out of town, but he did say the need to leave felt very urgent.

Towards the end of the night, I asked Herb and Dallon what they think about Nat Mendelsohn now.

DALLON COX: I think Nat Mendelsohn was a con artist in a way. You have a, you have a vision and a dream, and you sell that vision and a dream to people, and make them believe in it. They'll spend their money. That's what con artists do. It doesn’t have to be anything that’s gonna come to reality, it just has to be a vision and a dream and you sell people on that vision and that dream and they’ll spend their money on it.

EMILY GUERIN: After hearing all these different versions of Nat, it seemed like he would be whatever you needed him to be — as long as it served him.

Nat was a pioneer to the people who craved the excitement of the frontier. He was a prophet to a woman who believed in miracles. He was a daddy to a little girl who needed one.

He sold all these people what they wanted to buy. A dream, a vision, a plan, a good investment, a sense that he’d take care of you. It was the same thing Marian Ducreux would do with Ben Perez 60 years later.

As for Nat’s intentions for California City, honestly, I’m still not sure. I mean, it’s clear to me that in the beginning, he had a dream, he had a plan, and he was optimistic and excited.

But it’s also clear to me, that at some point, Nat changed. He realized it was easier to sell the promise of a city than to build one. And so the dream became a scam.

Whatever his intentions, Nat Karl Marx Mendelsohn made a ton of money. He hired an army of salespeople and they made hundreds of millions of dollars.

It was an enormous operation.

How did he pull it off? The answer to that question is next time on California City.

EPISODE 2Turning Desert Dust Into Gold
In 2017 Ben Perez goes to a Mojave Desert resort for a free vacation and ends up signing away his life savings. Turns out Ben is one of tens of thousands to believe a version of this dream over the past 60 years.
icon2 Episode Details

Note: California City is a podcast for a reason. You can read the transcript below, but the story is meant to be listened to. The host and a team of producers worked hard to make the podcast sound its best, and this transcript can’t capture all the voices, emotion, intonation and atmosphere in the original audio. If you’d like to quote this podcast, please check the corresponding audio first.

EMILY GUERIN: I wish I’d met Ben Perez before this all happened. When he still had dreams he thought he could make come true. When he still believed people were mostly good.

But, I didn’t. I met him after.

After he was betrayed by someone he trusted. After he signed away his life savings. After he took a trip to a place called California City.

PHONE RINGING

EMILY GUERIN: Hi, Ben?

BEN PEREZ: Hello?

EMILY GUERIN: I first talked to him in June 2018. It was less than a year after he said he’d been tricked into buying a worthless piece of desert land.

EMILY GUERIN: I got your name because you wrote a Ripoff Report review right?

BEN PERZ: Yes.

EMILY GUERIN: Ripoff Report is this website people go to to write scathing complaints when they feel like they got ripped off. Hence the name.

Ben told me he’d lost around $31,000. And despite his best effort, he hadn’t gotten that money back.

BEN PEREZ: That’s actually my 5-years savings. I work 5 years just to save that $30 thousand.

EMILY GUERIN: That’s your five year savings?!

BEN PEREZ: Yeah, because I want to open a food truck…And I lose all that money. And

now I’m back to zero. I only have…

EMILY GUERIN: Oh my god.

BEN PEREZ: Ya. I only have $1,000 in my bank. I lose all that money. And I want… I really want to open a food truck. And my dream is not happen anymore.

EMILY GUERIN: I’m so sorry. What kind of food truck?

BEN PEREZ: Like Japanese Teriyaki food truck.



EMILY GUERIN: Ben is a cook at the Google headquarters in Mountain View. Or, he was, before coronavirus.

But ever since he’d arrived in California from the Philippines in 2011 he’d been dreaming of something better. Something bigger.

He wants to be his own boss. He wants to support his family. He wants to invest in his future.

And the Japanese teriyaki truck, that’s Ben’s version of the American Dream.

A dream that would end up being used against him, leaving him with nothing.

BEN PEREZ: I really hope to get that money back. I don’t know what to do. And now no one can help me. I don’t know where to go.

SOUND OF DRIVING

EMILY GUERIN:The place where Ben said he’d been ripped off is called Silver Saddle Ranch and Club. It’s a dude ranch. It’s basically this run-down, kitschy hotel where you can shoot guns and ride horses, and it’s way out there, 100 miles north of Los Angeles, in the Mojave Desert town of California City. It is so isolated that when you drive out there, you kinda feel like you’re in a horror movie.

After I talked to Ben, I talked to a lot of other people who also claimed they’d been scammed at Silver Saddle. They wrote complaints on Ripoff Report too. And on Yelp. And on the Better Business Bureau, and this website called Scamion.

And it’s kind of crazy how much their stories have in common.

A lot of them start like this: you get a phone call... from someone who sounds just like you.

FRANCES HE: Sorry to bother you at the dinner time, we’d like to offer you opportunity for the real estate investment.

EMILY GUERIN: The voice on the phone is calling from Silver Saddle Ranch. And they invite you to a hotel to learn about a real estate opportunity. And at the hotel, they’ll offer you a free weekend at a resort in the desert.

You wonder, how did this person get my number?

SAKO SIGNE: Probably from that Fillipino grocery store.

EMILY GUERIN: Turns out that raffle you signed up for while buying groceries — it was for this.

Or maybe it’s not a phone call. Maybe it’s a friend who invites you out to the ranch. They tell you, it’ll be fun. Come on.

RHEANA ROBLES: And she’s like, “oh it’s gonna be cool, there’s like, it’s free.” And I was like, “okay it can’t hurt, right? Like...”

EMILY GUERIN: What the hell, sounds fun. So you go.

You drive out to the desert expecting something elaborate. Something stunning. A fancy resort like the ones in Palm Springs. But when you get there, it feels like a ghost town.

LENY MARTINEZ: It’s, it's vacant. I mean, you know, it's like a vacant lot.

RHEANA ROBLES: A lot of brown. Like, a lot of dirt.

EDWARD ARABIA: Oh my gosh, is this really the resort?

EMILY GUERIN: So you check in. And you notice that most of the people there are Filipino. Or Latino. Or Chinese. There’s a lot of elderly people. And a lot of people who don’t speak English super well. And of course you can’t tell by looking, but they just don’t seem like savvy investor types.

SAKO SIGNE: So they kind of marketed to a, I guess, a vulnerable, laughs a vulnerable group of people.

EMILY GUERIN: By the end of the weekend, you will come to believe that you will get rich if you buy a piece of land way out here.

SAKO SIGNE: And they were saying how it’s gonna be very developed, a lot of people are coming in, and for us to get in early would be the smartest thing to do.

EMILY GUERIN: You will try to get your money back, but you will fail. And you will feel ashamed and angry and betrayed.

REANA ROBLES: How can you prey on your fellow Kababayans like that? That was a terrible experience. I would never recommend that to anyone.

DAVID DAI: You know what, we are immigrants… we thought, in America, we cannot imagine this happen to us.

EMILY GUERIN: I talked to more than 25 people who invested with Silver Saddle. But it was Ben’s story that stuck with me. Maybe because it was still so fresh – it had happened just a year before I met him. Or maybe it was because the money he said he lost had meant so much to him. Or maybe it was that he’d asked me for help.

BENJAMIN PEREZ: I, I wanna ask. How do you think I can do to get my...? Should I find a lawyer?

EMILY GUERIN: His phone cut out a little, but he asked me what he could do to get his money back. I wasn’t sure what to tell him beyond what I always tell people when I’m reporting. That maybe, together, we can bring some attention to this, and maybe enough people will notice, and something will change.

SIGH

I had no idea how hard that would be.

I didn’t know that there are thousands of people like Ben, all around the world.

I didn’t know that the way some of them were pressured into buying land, it wasn’t just unethical, it was illegal.

I didn’t know that people in the past had tried, and failed, to put a stop to it.

I told Ben I would try to figure it out.

EMILY GUERIN: Okay. Um. Alright. I’m really glad you emailed, thank you so much for talking, and I will be in touch very soon.

BEN PEREZ: Ok. Yeah, just feel free to uh, email me or contact me.

EMILY GUERIN: Ok, I will. Thank you so much, I’ll talk to you soon.

BEN PEREZ: You’re welcome. Thank you.

EMILY GUERIN: Bye.

EMILY GUERIN: Sigh Oh my god.

EMILY GUERIN: I’m Emily Guerin, welcome to California City. This is episode 1 of 7.

BREAK

MUSIC

EMILY GUERIN: I knew Ben had spent a lot of money. I knew his dreams of selling teriyaki on the streets of San José had taken a serious setback. But what I could not get my head around was how a guy who was so dead set on saving this money could go away for a weekend and come back broke. I needed to know exactly how it happened.

So last January, I flew to visit Ben in San José.

The morning I met him was bleak and foggy and cold by California standards. Not the kind of weather people imagine when they move here to chase their dreams.

BEN PEREZ: Emily I’m coming outside.

EMILY GUERIN: Oh, okay, cool.

BEN PEREZ: Bye.

EMILY GUERIN: Bye.

EMILY GUERIN: I waited for him on the sidewalk outside his apartment. Ben lives next to a freeway on a noisy, potholed road. He lives in one of those boxy, early 80s condo villages where every looks building identical and forgettable.

EMILY GUERIN: I’m in the parking lot, I’m looking at the building, it says 464 on the side and then there's… there’s like, two, four apartments. Oh, is this you?

BEN PEREZ: Yeah.

EMILY GUERIN: Okay.

EMILY GUERIN: We did that thing where I was still talking to him on the phone as he walked up.

EMILY GUERIN: Hi. Nice to meet you. Finally. Is it this one?

BEN PEREZ: Yeah.

EMILY: Okay.

EMILY GUERIN: Ben was 26, but he looked younger than I imagined. He had the kind of stubble men have when they can’t really grow a beard. He wore a black hoodie, baggy track pants and a red baseball hat. And he had a small stud in one ear.

We walked into his apartment to grab something.

EMILY GUERIN: Do you want me to take my shoes off?

BEN PEREZ: That’s okay.

EMILY GUERIN: Okay.

EMILY GUERIN: The curtains were drawn, so I couldn’t really make anything out, and I awkwardly complimented the first thing I saw.

EMILY GUERIN: Nice Christmas tree.

EMILY GUERIN: Ben apologized for it being messy, but it wasn’t messy.

He reached under the coffee table and grabbed a tote bag.

BEN PEREZ: This is the bag that I got from Silver Saddle. I have all the documents here. I wanna show it to you later, so you can take a look.

EMILY GUERIN: Okay. Yeah. It’s like kind of a nice bag…

BEN PEREZ: Yeah.

EMILY GUERIN: Um, well, should we like drive around a little bit.

EMILY GUERIN: We left, and walked out to his car, a 7-year old Audi sedan that was giving him trouble. He didn’t have the money to fix it.

Ben wanted to take me to the mall to get coffee. So, I tried to fill the silence as we drove.

EMILY GUERIN: So how, how many people live with you in your apartment now?

BEN PEREZ: There's five of us and it's a two bedroom apartment.

EMILY GUERIN: So how do you split up the bedrooms?

EMILY GUERIN: Ben was living with his three brothers and his sister. Now his mom is there too. He sleeps on the couch. And when I asked him how they decided who got the couch, he just shrugged and said...

BEN PEREZ: Me. laughs

EMILY GUERIN: You just were like I'll, I’ll take the couch.

BEN PEREZ: Yes.

EMILY GUERIN: I was surprised by how shy he was. He’d been so much more forthcoming on the phone. And in his online reviews of Silver Saddle, I mean, his anger was practically jumping off the screen. Bunch of liars, he wrote on Yelp. I work hard for that money and everything went to waste. Now I feel stupid and ashamed about myself. And then he wrote in all caps, YOU DESTROYED MY LIFE!

I couldn’t square Angry Internet Ben with this whisper of a man who averted his eyes and mumbled.

EMILY GUERIN: Do you like coffee?

BEN PEREZ: Yes.

EMILY GUERIN: Honestly, I was getting a little nervous. I mean I’d flown all the way up here from LA, and he was giving me one word answers.

It wasn’t until we were waiting for our coffee at Starbucks, and I asked him about what he likes to cook, that he began to open up. Or the closest thing to opening up I think Ben ever gets:

EMILY GUERIN: You said you developed some recipes?

BEN PEREZ: A lot.

EMILY GUERIN: Like, what are some of your favorites?

BEN PEREZ: Chicken teriyaki. Panang Thai curry which is really good. Beef broccoli, chicken broccoli, I added a lot of stuff on it to make it more delicious and serve a fine dining experience to Googlers.

EMILY GUERIN: I realized how seriously Ben takes his job cooking for Googlers. But, he has bigger dreams. He wants to be on the show, Final Table, which is a showdown between famous chefs.

EMILY GUERIN: You want to be on that show?

BEN PEREZ: Yeah.

EMILY GUERIN: You want to be like one of the best chefs in the world?

BEN PEREZ: Yeah.

EMILY GUERIN: Do you think you're going to?

BEN PEREZ: Yeah. laughs.

EMILY GUERIN: The mall was kind of noisy, so we ended up sitting in his car. He slouched in the driver’s seat and spun the coffee sleeve around his cup. One short sentence at a time, I slowly learned more about Ben.

He was born in Glendale, which is a suburb of LA, but when he was four, his parents moved back to the Philippines because his dad lost his job at an architecture firm. They thought it would be easier there, but it wasn’t.

BEN PEREZ: We actually struggled a lot. Like there's times that we only ate once a day.

EMILY GUERIN: Ben was super into math as a kid, and he especially liked algebra. But his classes were chaotic, and a lot of the time, the teacher didn’t even show up. There weren’t enough desks, so kids were sharing chairs and writing on scrap paper on their laps. And Ben wrote really really small on his scrap paper, to make it last longer.

BEN PEREZ: I want to be like engineer or a doctor when I was younger, but since of the lack of education, the only thing that I was thinking to do when I grew up is to be a chef. And that's what I've been doing right.

EMILY GUERIN: Ben moved back to California when he was 19. In the beginning, he slept on his aunt’s couch in San José. And he did a lot of random stuff. Unloaded clothes at Marshalls and catered events at a law firm. He worked until midnight moving tables and cleaning up other peoples’ messes. And then he got the job in the kitchen at Google.

So instead of being an engineer, Ben is a chef who cooks for engineers.

EMILY GUERIN: Ben had been saving money for more than five years for Teriyaki Food Truck, when in July 2017, his friend invited him to this free resort in the desert. A 24-hour stay that would change the rest of his life.

But Ben had no idea what was coming.

That’s after a break.

BREAK

Ben didn’t know it yet, but his food truck dream started to crumble when his friend Clifford invited him and two friends to spend a free weekend at this place called Silver Saddle Ranch and Club. “Hey Ben,” Clifford said, “it’s a free vacation! There’s gonna be free food and free give-aways.”

I got a hold of Clifford, but, I don’t know, he sounded afraid to me. He told me his lawyer told him not to talk to me, and then he hung up.

Anyway, so Ben and Clifford and two of their buddies set out for Silver Saddle on the Fourth of July weekend in 2017. Thousands of unsuspecting people have made this pilgrimage over the years.

MUSIC

EMILY GUERIN: Silver Saddle is a six hour drive south of San José.

It’s in the Mojave desert. In a town called California City.

I’ve made this drive, too. And each time, I’d notice a strange new detail.

Fields of cows waiting to be slaughtered, breathing air that reeks of manure.

Entire forests that have died, weakened by drought and eaten alive by beetles.

SOUND OF DRIVING ON HIGHWAY

The Los Angeles Aqueduct. That flume of stolen water that allowed that city to boom.

An airplane graveyard, and if you listen you can hear the wind whistle through broken cockpit windows.

And finally, after turning east onto California City Boulevard, there’s a billboard. It reads, “Take Heed that No Man Deceive You.”

So, imagine any suburb you've ever been in in America. Now, remove the houses from that scene. And remove the cars. And the trees. The lawns and the sidewalks. Remove the people. Remove everything so all that’s left is roads and street signs.

Darwin Drive, Da Vinci Place, Gold Rush Avenue.

SOUND OF DRIVING

EMILY GUERIN: Like, they’re very like civilized suburban names and then there’s nothing there.

JAMES KIM: Yeah…

EMILY GUERIN: I remember the first time I drove those roads with producer James Kim. It was dusk, and we kept creeping ourselves out.

EMILY GUERIN: Oh, there’s just people right there.

JAMES KIM: Where?

EMILY GUERIN: Behind the bush.

JAMES KIM: What? Don’t freak me out.

EMILY GUERIN: I’m just telling you the truth.

JAMES KIM: Oh my god, I just feel like I’m in a zombie movie.

EMILY GUERIN: laughs

EMILY GUERIN: It did feel like a zombie movie. Or maybe, a city after a bomb went off.

All across that empty, flat plain, you see these faded Land for Sale signs that swing from one hinge on peeling wooden posts. They kind of look like the white crosses people put up to mark the site of fatal car accidents. And the desert is covered with them.

JAMES KIM: Wow…

EMILY GUERIN: Like, what is for sale?

JAMES KIM: That’s so weird, there’s an arrow just pointing in the middle of nowhere!

EMILY GUERIN: The houses you do see are the same color as the dirt that surrounds them.

JAMES KIM: I could see it being a paradise if you don’t like people.

EMILY GUERIN: On the city’s seal, there’s a sailboat on a lake in front of a waterfall.

And later, you will pass that lake. It’s thick with algae and choked with reeds.

The waterfall, you realize, is artificial, and it’s gone dry.

And on the top, in the concrete, someone has scrawled the words (beat), “Lord, I’m sorry for all I’ve done.”

California City is the 3rd largest city by land area in the state. It’s enormous, but it’s empty. Only about 14,000 people live there.

The only grocery store in town is a Dollar General.

The only bar is part of a Chinese restaurant.

The only thing there isn’t an only of, is churches.

SOUND OF CHOIR

There’s a Baptist church, a Pentecostal church,a Catholic church, a Kingdom’s Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses and a little white shack out in the middle of the desert, where, on the 13th of every month, women in white robes claim to see the Virgin Mary in the sky.

You pass all of that as you drive to Silver Saddle. As you get closer, your cell signal drops to one bar, and then disappears.

BEN PEREZ: I actually got, I’m actually very uh, like, scared, it’s like, where are we going? I don’t see any houses, and then we got to Silver Saddle.

EMILY GUERIN: The dirt and scrubby bushes disappear, and there are big leafy trees, succulent gardens and a duck pond called Lake Maney.

CAR DOOR SHUTS

They have 80 hotel rooms out here, with loud ACs and old box TVs.

They have a pool, they have paddle boats, they have a corral with friendly horses.

They have karaoke in English, Tagalog and Spanish.

And they have an upright piano with sheet music for Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing. Which is pretty cool.

The resort is a nice place for families with young kids. But Ben and his friends thought it was super lame.

The horseback ride was just two laps around a dusty circle.

The paddle-boats got old after 5 minutes.

Even the shooting range was lame.

BEN PEREZ: You shot the gun?

BEN PEREZ: Yeah.

EMILY GUERIN: Was it fun?

BEN PEREZ: No. It's only like three shots, that's it.

EMILY GUERIN: It was not the kind of weekend Ben was expecting. So they ended up spending a lot of time in their rooms. Four 20-something boys in the middle of the desert with no wifi and no cell service. It was so boring that Ben got bored just telling me about it.

BEN PEREZ: There’s nothing really… thing to do there … they have like, mini golf…

EMILY GUERIN: You weren't that impressed.

BEN PEREZ: No. Not at all.

EMILY GUERIN: But, for a free weekend, it was ok.

MUSIC

Ben told me that on Sunday morning, the phone rang in their room. It was the woman at the front desk, reminding them not to be late for the tour. Ben didn’t know about any tour. But the woman on the phone said if he didn’t go, he’d have to pay for his stay.

So Ben and his friends reported to the lobby. There were vans waiting outside, and they all got in. The vans took them to this long, low, wooden building on the ranch, one that’s kind of removed from everything else. It’s called the sales pavilion. And I think this moment was the beginning of Ben losing his money.

Silver Saddle wouldn’t let me take the tour. They said it was private. But more than a dozen people described it to me, and I have to say, their stories are nearly identical.

The tour took around three hours, and it has four steps.

Step one, (pause) divide and conquer.

BEAT

In this step, the sales agents start separating people into smaller groups.

BEN PEREZ: They have one for Chinese they have one for Español, and one for English so I attended the English one and Tagalog one... with all the Filipino people.

REANA ROBLES: Why did they herd everyone by ethnicity into different rooms? I was like, what is this, like, the 50s or something? Like, are we...

EMILY GUERIN: Rheana Robles went on the tour with her parents in 2016. And she says they got sucked in too. But she thought the whole thing was bullshit.

Like Ben, she got put in the Filipino room. She said it was this small little movie theater, and it was really dark, and the seats were weirdly velvety.

REANA ROBLES: And then they had, like, this white guy just trying to appeal to us, like, in our language, like “oh, like, the Philippines right? Like, and he was trying to like, speak the language in a really crude way, and I was, I just thought it was, like, weird.

EMILY GUERIN: The white guy turned on a video.

REANA ROBLES: Um, I don’t remember all the details, but I remember a really bad powerpoint.

EG: laughs

REANA ROBLES: Like, they kept on showing, like, these wind turbines, and like throwing around like Elon Musk, and I was like who is Elon Musk? And I, like, now I’m just like “oh I know who he is.” But, and he was like, “yeah Bill Gates, and, like this is gonna be the next Silicon Valley.” And, like, they kept throwing around these really big names.

BEN PEREZ: Like the billionaires Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, is expanding his interest into the area...and then they’re bringing up Google, and the space industry.

EMILY GUERIN: Rheana told me, after the presentation they broke for lunch. Hot dogs, soda, party packs of chips.

Hardly Final Table.

And then, this woman with dark, straight hair, thick fuschia lipstick and a watch embedded with Swarovski crystals got up and introduced herself.

MARIAN DUCREUX: I'm Marian Ducreux, I'm a real estate broker here in California. And I do land sales.

EMILY GUERIN: Marian Ducreux isn’t just any real estate broker. She is the top-selling sales agent at Silver Saddle. She’s been doing it for almost 30 years. And almost everyone I talked to had a Marian story.

EDWARD ARABIA: Uh, we loved her to death. She was like our mother. She was very friendly. She made us feel at home, and she made sure that we were taken care of. I guess you can say she wrapped us around her little pinky. laughs.

EMILY GUERIN: I think she was doing that to me, too. When we were texting about where to meet up, she sent me a heart eyes emoji. And then, at Panera Bread inside this stripmall near where she lives an hour or so east of LA, she walked in slowly, taking small steps that made her seem older than she is. She spoke quietly and she didn’t interrupt. I’d been expecting this slick saleswoman, but instead, she was more of an auntie.

EMILY GUERIN: Is it a good job?

MARIAN DUCREUX: It is, it's fun. You know I meet a lot of people and a lot of my clients are like family to me already.

EMILY GUERIN: And if you don't mind me asking, like does it pay well too?

MARIAN DUCREUX: Um. It’s — for me yes because I have a lot of clients you know.

EMILY GUERIN: How many do you think you have?

MARIAN DUCREUX: In so many years probably thousands already.

EMILY GUERIN: Really?

MARIAN DUCREUX: Yes.

EMILY GUERIN: Wow.

MARIAN DUCREUX: Yes.

EMILY GUERIN: I didn’t know then how much money Marian made, but it looked like she spent a lot. I know because I follow her son on Instagram. He also works at Silver Saddle, and I know that sounds weird but whatever, I’m a reporter.

Marian’s son has posted pictures of her in front of the glass pyramid in front of the Louvre, a cobblestone street in Lisbon, and posing with lumberjacks and sled dogs on an 8-day Alaskan cruise.

But my favorite post of his, Marian is standing in the middle of the road outside what I’m pretty sure is her million-dollar house in Corona, cupping her hand so it looks like she’s holding up the end of a rainbow.

MUSIC

So back at Silver Saddle, Marian tells Ben and his friends that it’s time for the next part of the tour. She was going to take them to visit some model homes a mile away. And this is part two: the neighborhood. A way for you to imagine what this place could look like in the future.



REANA ROBLES: Yeah they put us into like this van. It was kind of, we were all kinda squished in there. It was really hot at first, um, we were all really awkward because we didn’t want to be near each other, they drove us, I don’t know really remember how far it was, but it wasn’t too far, but I remember the houses, they weren’t built next to each other, there was like a lot of space in between them, but they were still in the same like, like neighborhood.

EMILY GUERIN: I’ve been there too. There’s maybe 20 houses, on hundreds of empty lots. Some of them were boarded up. Some had barbed wire holding the gates shut. One had a deflated football in the driveway. But some had tomatoes growing out front, and freshly watered flowers.

Ben said on his tour, they stopped in front of this one big house. And Marian told everyone it was her house, and they were all kind of impressed.

They walked inside. The AC was blasting and the carpets were freshly vacuumed. Ben and his friends flopped on the beds and took goofy pictures of themselves. Rheana peeked inside the bathroom.

REANA ROBLES: They brought us up and they said like, oh well, here in California City, um, you know, you can take like a Hollywood Shower.

EMILY GUERIN: A Hollywood Shower?

REANA ROBLES: Yeah, that’s what they called it, a Hollywood Shower. And they’re like, yeah, our faucets are fully, like, flowing.

EMILY GUERIN: So they were talking about how they had a lot of water?

REANA ROBLES: Yeah, yeah. And I thought that was kind of ironic, for like, the middle of the desert, and we were in a drought at that time.

EMILY GUERIN: On the way out, Rheana noticed a nice SUV parked next door, with groceries in the back. She wondered if it was some sort of prop. Because it didn’t seem like anyone lived there. The whole thing felt staged.

Part three is the vision.

Ben and his friends got back in the vans and they drove with their sales people to the tour’s third location. Galileo Hill. Legend has it that the founder of California City loved going up here and looking out at his creation.

And it really is a great view. You can see for miles, far across the empty desert plain.

You can see the sunset over the southern Sierra Nevada to the west, and the distant glow from Los Angeles.

But mostly what you notice is the spiderweb of roads. It’s what my James and I noticed our first time up there.

JAMES KIM: It’s just massive, the amount of land that’s out here. And the roads... just, there’s so many roads on every single direction. They’re all leading to nothing.

EMILY GUERIN: Everyone I talked to told me a similar version of what happens up here on Galileo Hill. Your sales agent tells you there’s a future here. Just close your eyes and you can see it. You can be a part of it.

Almost every city in California started out empty, like this. Palm Springs. The San Fernando Valley. Irvine.

Can you imagine if you had bought land in one of those places before they boomed? Imagine how much money you would have.

What’s so amazing to me about this pitch is that you are looking out at absolutely nothing.

And, sometimes I think that’s the reason the pitch works so well. Because of how empty it is up there, looking out from Galileo Hill. It makes anything seem possible. A city, a space exploration center, a field of wind turbines, whatever. This empty desert is a blank canvas that the salespeople can paint a dream on.

REANA ROBLES: Like it was like a, like, primarily a good investment. Like, saying like, oh, if you buy this land now it’s gonna skyrocket later. Kind of, like, that was kind of like their whole appeal... it may be worthless now but it’s gonna be worth a lot of money later.

EMILY GUERIN: Part four is the close. You get back to Silver Saddle. A different room, one with a lot of small cafe tables and tall windows.

I’ve seen pictures of the room: the wall is covered in photos. There’s Walt Disney. And then there’s all of these rich dudes from the Philippines, under these big silver letters that say “LAND BARONS.” There’s a huge gong hanging from the ceiling, and whenever anyone closed their deal, their sales agent would get up, walk over, and strike it with a mallet.

This is where they explain to you exactly what they’re selling. Because by now, you’ve heard about Elon Musk and Google. You’ve seen the Hollywood Shower. You’ve heard about the other people like you who made it big when they bought land early.

And after the break, it’s your turn.

BREAK

So, here’s something I learned a lot about when I was trying to figure out what exactly Ben was buying into.

Landbanking.

Landbanking is where a bunch of people jointly own a huge chunk of land. Kind of like being an owner in a co-op apartment, except what you own cooperatively isn’t a building, it’s land. In this case, the land was the 1020 acres of empty desert that you could see from the top of Galileo Hill, including the Silver Saddle Ranch property. And it was divided into 4,000 shares.

MUSIC

They give you this pamphlet saying one day, this land will be worth a lot of money. And then, when you sell it to a developer, you and your 3,999 co-owners will all get rich.

But Ben, I don’t know, he told me he just wasn’t convinced.

EMILY GUERIN: How come?

BEN PEREZ: Um, because it's in the middle of nowhere. laughs And there's nothing really to do there. You need to travel like 25 miles away from that location to go to the stores.

EMILY GUERIN: So he was was like, fuck it, I’m out. And he got up to leave.

But as Ben was walking out the door, Marian started calling after him. Ben, don’t go. We’re going to do a raffle. A TV, a night in Vegas, a cruise. Don’t you want to stay for the raffle?

And in a moment he would come to regret, Ben decided to stay.

EMILY GUERIN: I didn't realize that you were about to walk out and that they somehow changed your mind.

BEN PEREZ: Yeah, I actually don't know what happened.

EMILY GUERIN: Really?

BEN PEREZ: I don't know why I bought this land. I think because they're offering me a lot of um free stuff.

EMILY GUERIN: So he walked back in. And what happened next sounds like a how-to guide for high-pressure sales. Ben says Marian told him there was a promotion going on, but only if he bought today.

EMILY GUERIN: So they were trying to say if you buy it today, it's cheaper.

BEN PEREZ: Yeah, they going to give you $10,000 off. And she said, this is only for today, if you go here tomorrow or the following days, it’s gonna be back to $35,000.

EMILY GUERIN: Ben told her he didn’t have that kind of money.

BEN PEREZ: Then I told them I don't have cash. And then they said, "Oh, credit card work. If you have credit card, we can do that.

EMILY GUERIN: Another classic sales tactic: turn a “no” into a “yes.”

At some point, Marian switched to Tagalog. She told him they would work together and she’d help him make money. She even called him “my son.” Hey listen, my son. You can make good money, my son. You can trust me.

BEN PEREZ: Her strategy is make people to like fall in love with her, trust her and she's saying like oh, [TAGALOG], it means like "my people. I want you to make money. I want you guys to become rich. So you need to trust me." Like that.

EMILY GUERIN: I asked Marian, how do you do it? How do you get people to trust you?

MARIAN DUCREUX: laughs I don't know. Maybe I have the charisma. Maybe it runs in my blood. And I tell them my experiences in land and they can relate to me because a lot of people in the Philippines, they were farmers, but they inherited big land that was nothing before, and now they have hundreds of millions of pesos. That's why I think the Filipinos, they love to buy land. Me too. I love to buy land. I buy land wherever I can.

EMILY GUERIN: I looked at all of Ben’s receipts, and his share of the landbanking project cost him $24,990. But with all Silver Saddle’s escrow charges and lender fees and contributions to something called “the capital improvement fund,” it came to $31,540 total.

But he said Marian assured him he would make that money back. All he needed to do was bring in new customers.

EMILY GUERIN: Was this kind of the thing that convinced you to do it? That you would get your money back?

BEN PEREZ: Yeah. She told me like, this is super easy, guys. Just 10 people. And then you're going to get to $20,000 plus additional $10,000.

EMILY GUERIN: For each referral who bought into Silver Saddle, Ben would get $2,000.

And with that, he was in. The sales manager got up and walked over to the gong. He hit it loud and hard.

And then, a different guy came over and placed a giant stack of paper in front of Ben and started flipping through it.

BEN PEREZ: They just, they just told me like, oh, initial here, oh, initial here, initial here.

SOUND OF PAPERS TURNING

EMILY GUERIN: How fast were they going through this?

BEN PEREZ: Like, like super fast. Here's the first page, um, put your initial here.

SOUND OF PAPERS TURNING

BEN PEREZ: Oh, here's the next page, initial, initial, initial, initial. Sign and date.

EMILY GUERIN: So they didn’t really let you read it?

BEN PEREZ: No.

EMILY GUERIN: Did you feel like they were rushing you?

BEN PEREZ: Yeah, they, they were rushing me. But at the same time, since they're Filipino, I am Filipino, we were speaking Tagalog, And once you're speaking Tagalog, it's like you really trust that person. So all I did is just trust, trust them and do what they want me to sign or everything.

EMILY GUERIN: Most of us don’t really understand the reams of legalese we agree to when we buy a house, or take out a car loan, or sign up for Facebook.

And Ben was no different: he says he didn’t remember initialing all kinds of things in his contract.

MUSIC

Like, the disclosure that his one four-thousandth share of the landbanking project would be very difficult to re-sell. Like, that there was no cancellation period. Like, that he was obligated to pay $41 a month in membership fees to Silver Saddle Ranch for the rest of his life.

To avoid Silver Saddle’s 15.9 percent interest rate — which was five times higher than a car loan at the time — Ben paid the purchase price in full.

$31,540, gone.

What he got was a 40” TV and a camera that he said didn’t really work. And he got his photo taken with a cowboy hat on, standing next to Marian Ducreux.

When Ben got home, he was finally able to Google Silver Saddle. He was really excited... But then he found their Yelp page.

VOICE ACTORS

Let me guess? You’re looking at this review, because you got a call from Silver Saddle stating that you won a consolation prize in the supermarket raffle. - LORI

DON’T YOU WANT TO BE A MILLIONAIRE??? MAKE MONEY??? IT’S A GOOD DEAL. - YINGXIE

Shame on you guys because you were preying on your kababayans. - CARLA

I saw a lot of red flags! - CHAVA

They conducted business with me knowing that I was inebriated. - LORI

Gross, just gross. - CARLA

That piece of desert — never gonna be developed. The only things live there are the coyotes. - CHAVA

MUSIC

EMILY GUERIN: So when you first saw the Yelp reviews, like, how did you feel?

BEN PEREZ: Oh my god. This is a scam.

EMILY GUERIN: And with that panicked thought, Ben sat down and wrote an email. It said: “Hi, I think I got scammed and I want to ask if I can get my money back. I found out that your company had a lot of complaints and lawsuit. Regards, Benjamin Perez.”



BEN PEREZ: I gave my number and then there is no response.

EMILY GUERIN: But a few days later, his phone buzzed just before 11 p.m. It was Marian, texting him. “You emailed the company bad about me,” she wrote. “I treated you right and now you are telling people I lied. I will sue you for defamation of character and false accusations if you will not stop this. You signed a valid legal contract on your own free will. Nobody forced you.”

EMILY GUERIN: Were you surprised that she threatened you? Because she had been so nice to you?

BEN PEREZ: Yeah, I feel like you're not the person that I first met. You were very nice to me and then all of a sudden you're gonna sue me. And I feel like you're, you're a bad person. You're doing this to your people. As a Filipino people.

EMILY GUERIN: When Ben talked about that text from Marian, it was the closest I got to seeing Angry Internet Ben. It bothered him nearly as much as losing $31,000. Marian, who called him son, who he trusted. She was threatening him.

I got to see this side of her, too.

She told me she owned a share of the landbanking project. But I couldn’t find the deed in the assessor’s database. And there wasn’t one for the model home near Silver Saddle that she told Ben she owned.

When I texted her about it, she responded that it was none of my business and she called me a liar. She said she had paperwork proving she owned a share, but then she refused to show it to me. And then she wrote quote, “I will refer u to my attorney if u continue harassing me.”

No more heart-eyes emojis.

For me, it was just unsettling. But for Ben, it was traumatizing — that’s his word.

He said he stopped contacting Marian. Stopped contacting Silver Saddle. Stopped trying to get his money back. sighs. But he didn’t stop thinking about it.

BEN PEREZ: I feel like I lost hope. I feel like I am, I'm a stupid person and I feel very down for giving away my money...

EMILY GUERIN: What do you mean when you say you lost hope.

BEN PEREZ: Um, that money is supposed to be for my future. And now I lose my future. I lose hope. So. It's very a big, big deal for me.

EMILY GUERIN: Do you ever, like, have dreams about it?

BEN PEREZ: Yeah. Like nightmares.

EMILY GUERIN: Like what happens in those dreams.

BEN PEREZ: I feel like I'm very down. I feel like I'm gonna, I’ll gonna be stuck for who I am right now, as a low person, without any money and without being successful any more than what I thought before. So I have nightmares about that.

EMILY GUERIN: Like, like you’re this way for the rest of your life?

BEN PEREZ: Yeah. I'm gonna be stuck like this.

EMILY GUERIN: When Ben says low-class person, I don’t think he just means poor. He means a failure. A disappointment. Someone with big dreams that will never come true.

EMILY GUERIN: I don't think you're a low class person.

BEN PEREZ: Mh hm.

EMILY GUERIN: I feel, I really feel like this could happen to anybody.

BEN PEREZ: Yeah, it really affects me. You can see I always have these under the table.

EMILY GUERIN: Really?

EMILY GUERIN: He pointed at the totebag of Silver Saddle brochures and contracts. The one he grabbed before we went to the mall. It was under the coffee table, next to the couch. The couch that’s also his bed.

BEN PEREZ: It’s always under here, the table.

EMILY GUERIN: The Silver Saddle stuff is always under the table?

BEN PEREZ: Yeah, yeah.

EMILY: Sighs.

Silver Saddle is there when he’s awake.

It’s there when he’s asleep.

It’s there when he’s at work, cooking chicken teriyaki for Googlers.

It’s there when he’s at home, watching Final Table.

It’s easy now to understand why Ben mumbles. He’s not shy. He thinks he’s a low-class person.

It’s like he wrote in his Yelp review: Now I feel stupid and ashamed about myself.

MUSIC

I’d later learn that state investigators believe more than 2,000 people have bought into Silver Saddle since 2011.

They believe that each of those people spent up to $30,000 on a slice of empty desert land that they thought would make them rich.

And they believe it was actually Silver Saddle who was making the money. $56,517,148 (fifty six million, five hundred and seventeen thousand, one hundred and forty eight dollars) to be precise.

Like I said, I told Ben I’d try to figure out what happened to him.

And I did try. I spent years looking into it. Weeks staying in California City.

I’d paid a guy with a stringy goatee $40 bucks to fly me over California City in a Cessna so I could see what it looked like from the air.

I drank shots of Jack Daniels with Arthur the bartender at the Green Tea Garden, the town’s only Chinese restaurant.

I sang “Goodbye Earl” — which is my go-to Dixie Chicks song — at karaoke at the American Legion.

I bought groceries at the Dollar General.

I talked with more than 150 people. I’d pored over hundreds of pages of government filings and court documents. Tax records. Land records. Blueprints. Emails. Texts. Even a dissertation on the architecture of California City.

And in the process, I realized that this desert real estate investment that Ben got wrapped up in, it didn’t start 10 years ago.

And it’s way bigger than Silver Saddle.

Its roots spread out all over California City.

It’s been going on for 60 years.

Long before Silver Saddle existed.

And tens of thousands of people, all around the country, all around the world, have paid the price.

VOICE MONTAGE WITH PREVIOUS BUYERS OF CALIFORNIA CITY LAND

EMILY GUERIN: So what year did you buy the land?

GARY LINDSAY: Uh, 19-65.

VOICEMAIL #1: My mother purchased the lot in the early 1970S. I can’t even give it away.

VOICEMAIL #2: We bought the lot in March of ‘71.

DIANE LEVINE: They gave us a free lunch, which, as you know, there's no such thing as free lunch.

GARY LINDSAY: The whole thing was, it was gonna… uh, the land was going to become very valuable in just a matter of a year or two.

JUNE SUGASAWARA: And we thought it was a golden opportunity and we were gonna make millions off of it.

KENNETH KIRKHAM: Yeah, they, they sold the vision, that’s what they were selling. They had nothing there to sell.

RON BOURNE: I feel like I’ve invested into a giant hole that’s getting deeper.

To understand Ben’s experience, I had to know how Silver Saddle came into existence — I had to go back to 1958.

To meet the man who first stood on Galileo Hill.

A man in a dark suit, wearing a homburg hat.

A Czechoslovakian immigrant so charismatic, so convincing, that some people believed he’d been given a vision from God.

A man with a dream.

A dream to build a utopian city from scratch in the Mojave Desert.

A dream that evolved into a scam — a scam that robbed so many other people of their dreams.

Next time on California City — Nat Mendelsohn... the man who started it all.

MUSIC SWELLS, THEN FADES



EPISODE 1How I Found Out About California City
It was supposed to be a simple story about the California drought. Instead, reporter Emily Guerin became obsessed with the bizarre history of a sprawling, half-built desert city.
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Meet The Team
Emily Guerin - Senior Reporter & HostEmily Guerin is the host of California City and a senior reporter at KPCC. Before moving to Los Angeles, she reported on the oilfield in North Dakota for Prairie Public Radio and Inside Energy. Before that, she wrote for a small newspaper in Maine, and lived on the Western Slope of Colorado while reporting for High Country News. She's received a national Edward R. Murrow award for her work on wildfires, and was a finalist for the Daniel Schorr Journalism Prize for her work on mysterious oilfield deaths.
Arwen Nicks - Senior ProducerArwen Nicks is an independent podcast producer and editor. Her previous work includes The Big One, Tell Them, I Am, The Sub Pop Podcast and How's Your Day? After working on California City she is nearly positive she will be buying Ralph Nader's cookbook.
James Kim - ProducerJames Kim is a podcast producer based in Los Angeles. He previously worked on KPCC's Repeat and Tell Them, I Am. The first public radio job he ever had was in 2011 working as an intern for KPCC's weekend show Off-Ramp hosted by John Rabe.
Mike Kessler - EditorMike Kessler is Senior Editor of Investigations and Projects at KPCC and LAist.com. He is the host, co-reporter, and co-writer of the investigative podcast The Running Man, coming soon from ESPN; his work for ESPN.com will be featured in the book Best American Sports Writing 2020; and a 30-minute documentary he reported with ESPN is a finalist for a 2020 Sports Emmy. Kessler’s work has twice been a finalist for the National Magazine Award, and included in several anthologies. An L.A. native and former writer-at-large for Los Angeles magazine, he has been working in journalism since 1996.
Valentino Rivera - EngineerValentino is a mixing/mastering engineer that has a strong passion for sound and storytelling. His credits include “The Big One: Your Survival Guide” and “Tell Them I Am.”
Gabriel Dunatov - Producer and Fact CheckerGabriel Dunatov is a public radio producer, researcher and fact-checker based in Pasadena. Before working on California City he contributed to KPCC’s Take Two. He used to work for NPR’s Morning Edition in Washington, D.C. and the NPR West bureau as a news assistant. His first experience in public radio was as an intern for Morning Edition.
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