Tag Archives: james dean crash

Down the Road to Eternity, Part 2

Our Death Ride began a few hours earlier and a hundred miles to the south in the parking lot of the Marie Callender’s restaurant just off the 5 freeway in Valencia. Kim and I were joined there by our friend Alan Pollack, having decided to complete the Hollywood portion of the trek at a later date.

It was on this site in 1955 in a restaurant called Tip’s that Dean may have had his last meal.

“Legend holds that Dean and Wutherich stopped here and Dean had a piece of pie and a glass of milk,” explains Alan, who as president of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society is an authority on local history. “This story is based on an interview that was made by Tony Newhall in The Signal newspaper here in Newhall in the 1985. He interviewed the restaurant manager at the time who said that a waitress named Althea McGuinness served Dean that day,” Alan adds.

“Unfortunately,” Alan continues, “there’s a problem with this story. Newhall claimed that the Tip’s manager sounded sincere, but Dean’s mechanic Rolf Wutherich claimed in an interview in 1960 that they didn’t stop until three hours after leaving Hollywood, and that would have put them much further past Tip’s.”

This could be simply a case of faulty memory on either or both of the parties. The manager may have remembered a visit by Dean on a different day, and Wutherich, who was severely injured in the crash, may simply have forgotten about the stop.

But there is an additional problem with the story. In 1955 there were two Tip’s restaurants only two miles apart. The manager stated in 1985 that Dean had stopped at “Tip’s Coffee Shop” (which would be at the current Marie Callender’s site) and not at the main Tip’s at Castaic Junction, but other accounts disagree. If Dean did indeed have his last meal at Tip’s, there is no way to positively conclude in which Tip’s it took place.

We leave the Marie Callender’s at 11:00 AM and stop briefly at the intersection of the 5 and California 126, which was the site of the other Tips restaurant. Today, there is nothing but an empty lot.

Afterwards, we get on the 5 and head north. A half-hour later we exit in Gorman, and after gassing up at the Chevron station there (said to be the oldest in the chain) we head up old Route 99, which today parallels the 5. This would have been Dean’s path in 1955.

We stay on the old road until we pass Lebec where we re-enter the 5. Within a few minutes we exit the mountains to find the seemingly endless expanse of the San Joaquin Valley before us. It was here just off of California 99 that Dean signed his last autograph onto a speeding ticket issued by patrolman O.V. Hunter just a couple of hours prior to his death. Officer Hunter clocked Dean going 65 in a 55 mph zone.

Wutherich claimed later that Dean was embarrassed by the ticket because he had recently filmed a public service announcement with actor Gig Young on traffic safety. In this commercial, Dean eerily ends his message encouraging slower speeds by saying, “The life you save may be mine.”

(Something we’re sure took place at the Marie Callender’s site was the tragic “Newhall Incident” in 1970 where four CHP officers died in a shootout. – More on the “Death Ride” tomorrow.)

   

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At the Birth of a Legend, Part 2

James Dean memorial at Cholame, California.

Today, as tribute to our friend Ernie Tripke, who passed away Tuesday at the age of 88, I am posting the second of a two-part article that I wrote in 2009 on Ernie and his partner Ron Nelson who were the CHP officers who investigated James Dean’s crash in 1955. This article original appeared in The Signal in Valencia, California.

*****

“There was also another traffic fatality that I investigated that night,” said Tripke. “It was a young man in the military who was killed, but that was quickly forgotten due to the James Dean crash.”

“By the time we got back to the station,” Nelson remembered, “the phone was ringing off the hook. And it didn’t seem to stop for months.”

Tripke also remembers the constant stream of phone calls he got about the crash until he was promoted to sergeant and transferred to Eureka a few months later.

“I was sorry to see him go,” laughs Nelson, “because that meant that all the phone calls fell to me.”

Tripke and Nelson viewed Dean’s body after the crash at the funeral home, and Tripke, who spoke German in his home as a child, was later asked to help translate for German-native Wutherich in the hospital. An inquest was held a few days later in a much larger arena than usual due to Dean’s fame. The coroner’s jury found neither driver to be at fault for the accident.

Tripke transferred several times before retiring as a captain from San Luis Obispo in 1976. Nelson had retired two years earlier, having moved several times around the state, and attaining the rank of lieutenant. Both men settled in the San Luis Obispo area.

Ernie celebrating his 86th birthday in 2007.

The families of the two men spent much of their retirement years traveling together throughout the west in identical RVs. And the friendship that Nelson and Tripke have maintained has extended to each others’ families. Tripke’s wife Harriett and Nelson’s wife Genece have been close friends for decades, and Tripke’s daughter Julie and Nelson’s daughter Jenell, are also best friends.

Both men agree that the James Dean crash was the biggest event of their careers. They have often been paired together and asked to recall their memories of the accident for numerous newpapers, television stations, and documentaries. The interest in James Dean followed them into retirement.

“I was told that I could expect to hear about James Dean until 2005, which was the fiftieth-anniversary of his death, and that was the truth,” said Tripke. “It seems like after the fiftieth, the calls stopped like someone had turned off a spigot.”  

Recently, the two men were again the subject of James Dean interest when I went with Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society President Alan Pollack, and Leon Worden of SCVTV in Newhall, to interview them near the site of Dean’s crash. We met in a restaurant called the Jack Ranch Café. In 1955, it was the site of Paul Moreno’s repair shop.

It was to the repair shop that Dean’s Porsche, as well as Turnupseed’s Ford, were brought after the crash. There is a picture in the restaurant of the two smashed vehicles sitting side-by-side in the garage in 1955.

Both Tripke and Nelson are very friendly and in remarkably good health with crisp minds that can recall details from a half-century ago without pause. They look decades younger than their ages, and both are blessed to have been married to the same women for more than 60 years, and to live close to other members of their family.  

The two men spent much of our time together dispelling myths that have taken on a life of their own about Dean’s crash.

“I read a couple of years ago about Dean’s “fiery crash” and there wasn’t a spark to be found,” Tripke said. “I also heard that some people believe that Wutherich was actually driving. This wasn’t the case because Dean’s feet were tangled up in the clutch and brake pedals, so I knew he had been driving.”

It is known that Dean had been speeding earlier in the day because CHP Officer Otie Hunter had cited him for going 65 in a 55 mile per hour zone south of Bakersfield. (We met Hunter, now 94, on the same day we interviewed Tripke and Nelson. He took us to the very spot where he wrote Dean his ticket in 1955.) But Nelson discounts the notion that Dean was speeding at the intersection.

“My investigation of the skid marks indicated that Dean was going no more than 55 miles per hour through the intersection, which was the legal speed. I’ve heard people say that he was going 90 miles per hour. If he had been, there wouldn’t have been anything left of the car.”

Julie and Ernie.

Another myth about the Dean crash that both men deny was that Dean had been drinking earlier and that his body was so drained of blood by the crash that to test his body for alcohol would have been impossible.

“That was just not the case,” said Tripke. “He was not bloody at all and we had no indication that alcohol was involved in the crash. It was customary for a blood test to be performed on all deceased drivers, and Dean’s blood came up negative for alcohol.”

Since it was still daylight at the time of the crash, and excessive speed and alcohol weren’t involved, I asked Officer Nelson what he believes to be the cause of the crash that claimed James Dean’s life.

“Because there were no lights on his car,” he said. “If James Dean’s Porsche would have had its lights on, Turnupseed would have seen him and not pulled into his lane.”

It may seem anticlimactic for some to learn that the crash that created the James Dean “rebel” legend could have been prevented by simply turning on headlights, and was not caused by recklessness, excessive speed, or alcohol. And sometimes the true facts of a story get lost in the re-telling. That’s why it’s so important to capture the stories from the people who were actually there.

And from Ernie Tripke and Ron Nelson, we can learn about what really happened on the day James Dean died – and even more about friendship.

Ernie Tripke – 1922 – 2010

*****

Click here to see the documentary the I hosted where I interview Ernie and Ron about James Dean’s crash.

Click here to see a panel discussion on James Dean’s last day in Newhall in February, 2009 that Ernie and Ron participated in.


At the Birth of a Legend, Part 1

The Tripkes (left) and Nelsons in 2007.

Today, as tribute to our friend Ernie Tripke, who passed away Tuesday at the age of 88, I am posting the first of a two-part article that I wrote in 2009 on Ernie and his partner Ron Nelson who were the CHP officers who investigated James Dean’s fatal crash in 1955. This article original appeared in The Signal in Valencia, California.

*****

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 repairship 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.)


Ernie Tripke – 1922-2010

Ron Nelson (left) & Ernie Tripke in 2009.

I was at one of my favorite Southern California “happy places” yesterday when I received some very sad news. My family and I were driving through the beautiful Tehachapi Valley, which due to the recent rains had never looked more Celtic, when I got a call from our friend Julie Tripke informing us of the passing of her father Ernie early that morning.

Ernie was a young CHP officer in 1955 when he and his partner Ron Nelson were called to investigate a head-on car crash near the town of Cholame, California. There was one fatality, twenty-four-year old actor James Dean, who neither of the two men had ever heard of.

By the time they returned to their office news of Dean’s death had hit the airwaves and Ernie and Ron found themselves answering banks of ringing phones. The calls would return whenever a James Dean-related anniversary rolled around for the next five decades. As if closing a spigot, the calls stopped after the 50th anniversary of the crash. Four years later I ended the drought when I tracked Ernie down to ask about a supposed stop Dean made in Newhall on the day he died for an article I was writing. Ernie had no knowledge of Dean’s actions before the crash, but the chat we had was so pleasant that I suggested we meet up for dinner near Ernie’s home in San Luis Obispo sometime in the future.

It just so happened that Kimi and I found ourselves there a few days later and met Ernie and his daughter Julie at the Apple Farm for dinner. We liked them immediately, noticing the special easygoing bond that existed between the two. They were a father and daughter who not only loved each other, but really liked each other as well. Ernie wore an ever-present smile that evening that never disappeared during the two years we were honored to have known him.

The James Dean/Newhall question later developed into a documentary, which I hosted. In it, I was able to interview both Ernie and Ron near the site of the crash. (I was also able to interview retired CHP officer Otie Hunter, who issued Dean a speeding ticket a couple of hours before the crash.) In February, 2008 I helped arrange for Ernie and Ron to be part of a James Dean panel discussion in Newhall hosted by the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society.

Kimi and I visited the Tripkes a few weeks ago in the convalescent hospital where Ernie had recently taken up residence. Before that, he had lived with Julie for several years. The decision to move Ernie to the home was one they made together after he suffered injuries from several falls. He was pleased to get the opportunity to be with his wife at the same facility, where she suffers from Alzheimer’s. Julie visited them there every day, and on most days twice. (We have never seen such devotion from a daughter to her parents.) We had no idea we were saying goodbye to Ernie that day, because he seemed to be in great spirits.

Ernie was a significant part of popular cultural history, and that was the initial reason that I reached out to meet him. But our friendship with the wonderful Tripke family was the real lasting gift we took away from our meeting. I thank James Dean for bringing us together.

(As a tribute to our friend and Julie’s “hero,” I will reprint portions of interviews I conducted with Ernie and Ron over the next two days.)


The Church of Cholame

James Dean's death site near Cholame, California.

I don’t have to step inside a church building to contemplate life’s big questions. All I do is go to one of my “introspection spots,” like the one at the intersection of highways 41 and 46 in the Central Valley. It was here at California’s great “What Might Have Been” spot that James Dean was killed 55 years ago today.

On the morning of September 30, 1955, 24-year-old actor James Dean drove from his home in Sherman Oaks to a garage in Hollywood to get a tune-up for his newest toy, a Porsche 550 Spyder, which he planned to race in the Central California city of Salinas over the weekend. Around noon he set out with his mechanic, 29-year-old Rolf Wutherich, riding shotgun. They never made it.

At approximately 5:30 PM, a young Cal Poly student named Donald Turnupseed was driving eastbound in a black-and-white 1950 Ford. At the “Y” intersection of California 41 and 46 (California 466 at the time), Turnupseed crossed into the oncoming traffic lane to head north. He apparently didn’t see the hip-high, silver Porsche with Dean at the wheel approaching from the opposite direction. They collided nearly head-on. Turnupseed walked away with minor injuries and Wutherich was hospitalized for several months. Dean died on the way to the hospital.

The weekend closest to the anniversary of Dean’s death has become the annual time of pilgrimage for many of his most faithful fans. It has taken on the macabre name of the “Death Ride,” and as anyone who has ever made the trek can tell you, the intersection where he died still looks pretty much the same as it did back in 1955.

The site lies at the bottom of a wide treeless valley that is situated smack-dab atop the San Andreas Fault line where California is literally being ripped in two. It seems oddly appropriate that the crash happened here, because Dean’s death marked a tectonic shift in popular culture, and marked the beginning of the end of the Happy Days 50s.

The Tree of Heaven.

A mile to the west, just past the sign for the non-existent town of Cholame (pronounced Sho-lam) is the Jack Ranch Café. It is here that the faithful traditionally gather. Their totem is a stainless steel monument that bears Dean’s name, birth and death dates and times, and the infinity symbol. It surrounds a tree that has come to be known as the “tree of heaven.”

As I stand around tree, I hear other Death Riders asking big questions based around the theme of “What might have been.” Would Dean have won a cabinet full of Oscars? Or would he have flashed brightly in the pan before drifting into obscurity?

As I quietly listen in, I wonder to myself if it would have mattered if Dean hadn’t been in Cholame at 5:30 PM on September 30, 1955? Would fate have simply set up a different place and time to carry out its wishes, making an alternate intersection a site of pilgrimage?

It is, of course, impossible to ever know. But I can’t help thinking about how Wutherich survived the crash in Cholame only to die 25 years later in a similar car wreck in his native Germany.

 The site where Dean died is still starkly beautiful and unspoiled.

All-in-all, not a bad place to attend church.

(If you would like to learn more about Dean’s death, click here to watch The Stuff of Legend: James Dean’s Final Ride, which I hosted for SCVTV.)