A couple of months back, I received word that our friend Ron Nelson had passed away. Ron and his partner Ernie Tripke were the two CHP officers who investigated James Dean’s fatal crash in 1955. This past Sunday was the 57th anniversary of the accident. As tribute to Ron, I am reposting the first of a two-part article that I wrote in 2009 on Ron and Ernie (who passed away in 2010) describing their experiences being on hand at the moment the James Dean legend was born.
Former CHP officers Ernie Tripke and Ron Nelson have been friends for longer than many of us have been alive. Through three-decade long careers with the Highway Patrol, and a similar amount of time in retirement from the force, the two men have remained close friends and frequent companions.
“We’ve had disagreements from time-to-time, but no big arguments in almost 60 years,” said Tripke.
Their friendship was forged as young patrol partners in the CHP in the 1950s. It continued during the two officers’ lengthy careers – ones in which they stopped thousands of speeders and investigated hundreds of car accidents.
It was during the investigation of what was thought to be a routine crash in 1955 that their names were forever linked to a Hollywood legend named James Dean.
Tripke and Nelson’s lives have run in parallel almost since birth. Tripke, the younger of the two by four years, was born in Cleveland in 1922, but moved with his family to Oakland when he was only five-months old. He spent World War II in the navy as a member of the Naval Air Corps.
Nelson was born in North Dakota 90 years ago. He left the upper-Midwest winters for good on the day he finished high school and later also ended up in the navy.
While serving in 1941, Nelson was stationed at Pearl Harbor aboard the repair ship USS Vestal which was moored alongside the battleship USS Arizona. On the morning of Sunday, December 7, Nelson was at the base playing tennis when Japanese fighter pilots attacked without warning. He barely missed being strafed by a Japanese plane when its bullets struck the tennis court. He escaped with only minor injuries.
Back aboard ship, some of his crewmates were not so lucky. Japanese torpedoes passed below the Vestal and struck the Arizona, sending it to the bottom. Two bombs landed aboard the Vestal and a fire, which started from the ruptured fuel tanks on the Arizona, spread to the ship. In all, seven of Nelson’s fellow crewmembers died in the attack, but his ship survived to fight another day. Although it was severely damaged, Comdr. Cassin Young of the Vestal was able to beach the ship to keep it from sinking – an act for which he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Shortly after leaving the navy, both Tripke and Nelson joined a group of 18,000 men who each applied for one of only 1,000 jobs that were up for grabs with the California Highway Patrol. Both men passed the examination and were initially assigned to work the highways in Los Angeles. Tripke transferred a few months later to Paso Robles and Nelson followed in 1953. It was there that they first met.
“Our office was in San Luis Obispo, but we often worked out of the police department in Paso Robles at the time,” says Tripke. “Ron and I were often partnered together when we worked the night shift from 6 PM to 2 AM. That’s how we became friends.”
It was during one of these shifts in 1955 that the two men became part of a morbid chapter in Hollywood’s history and were personally on-hand to witness the birth of a tragic legend.
The date was Friday, September 30, and the two men had just reported for work when they got a call about a car crash which had just occurred 30 miles east of Paso Robles. Two cars had struck nearly head-on at the intersection of California 41 and 466 (now California 46). One driver suffered only minor injuries, but the other driver was near death. His name, they would quickly learn, was James Dean.
24-year-old Hollywood actor James Dean had been traveling westbound on the 466 driving a Porsche 550 Spyder convertible that he was planning to race in Salinas the following day. His mechanic, 29-year-old Rolf Wutherich, was riding shotgun. A Cal Poly San Luis Obispo student named Donald Turnupseed was approaching the “Y” intersection of the 41 and the 466 from the west. He failed to see the hip-high silver Porsche’s approach in the late afternoon light and crossed into Dean’s lane to turn northbound onto the 41. Dean tried to maneuver his car around Turnupseed’s Ford, but the impact caught the smaller, lighter Porsche full-force, and hurled Wutherich from the vehicle.
“We got the call about the crash from Paul Moreno,” Tripke recalls. “Paul ran a repair shop and operated an ambulance in Cholame, about a mile from the crash site. I responded first and was the lead investigator, and Ron followed behind in another car and secured the site and took the pictures.”
When Tripke arrived at the scene, he found Dean’s smashed Porsche at rest along a fence on the north side of the “Y” intersection. Dean was still in the car slumped over the passenger side door.
“He was still alive at the time, but he obviously had a broken neck. But he was not bloody or mangled like I have read. He looked to be in fairly normal shape, except for a few abrasions, and of course, the broken neck,” says Tripke.
By the time Nelson arrived on the scene, Dean had been placed on a gurney and was being loaded into the ambulance.
“I didn’t get a good look at him, but I could hear him, and he was breathing hard. I speculated that his head had actually made contact with the front of Turnupseed’s car, and that he had suffered severe brain damage,” recalls Nelson.
It was a Friday night, and the road had more than normal traffic flow with drivers heading westbound to the race and high school football fans traveling eastbound to a game in Bakersfield. It didn’t take long for the dying driver to be identified as James Dean, but Dean, who had only one major film credit at the time of his death, was not universally known.
“I was told that the victim was James Dean,” recalled Tripke, “but the only James Dean I knew about was Jimmy Dean, the sausage maker. But I could see that the driver wasn’t him. It wasn’t until later when we went to the funeral home in Paso Robles that the funeral director’s wife, who had just read an article in The Saturday Evening Post about James Dean, clued me in to who he was.”
Tripke remembered that Dean was actually involved in two traffic accidents that day.
“The ambulance that Paul Moreno was driving, which had Dean and Wutherich in the back, was involved in a minor traffic accident on the way to Paso Robles. It was nothing big. The drivers just exchanged information and Moreno drove on to the hospital. It was there that Dean was pronounced dead-on-arrival.”
(Look for “Part 2” tomorrow.)