Bigfoot Encounters

Death Alley
by Jeff Smith for the San Diego Reader

Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2010 -- The Butterfield Stage line between Warner’s Ranch and Oak Grove was a narrow trail, dusty in summer, soggy in winter, rutted the year round. On its weekly treks, the stage always stopped at Deadman’s Hole, a 300-yard, concave hollow eight miles northwest of Warner’s. A thick grove of shade trees, a field for grazing, and two spring-fed ponds made the site a natural rest area. For passengers in the crowded coach, the bone-jarring ride made the stop a necessity.

In the fall of 1858, a stage driver reined in his team near Deadman’s. He chain-locked the wheels and announced a 40-minute respite. A passenger walked to the easternmost pond for cool refreshment. As he kneeled down and cupped his hands in the water, shafts of sunlight flickered on a dark object, too large for a fish, breaking the surface. Blank eyes stared skyward. Ripples nudged a decomposing body.

An unidentified prospector: cause of death unknown. And since he was a stranger, passing to or from the gold fields around Julian, there was no coroner’s report.

Some say that’s how Deadman’s Hole got its name. Judge C.W. Fink, of Agua Caliente, gave a different version.

The majordomo of Warner’s Ranch frequently sold livestock in Temecula. Before his return, he always gambled at a saloon.

Almost every stop on the Butterfield line, writes James Jaspar, became a magnet not only for carousing cowboys but also “rovers, rowdies, and toughs.” Crude hotels and saloons sprouted up. Whiskey flowed, blood spilled. According to Jaspar, the station at Little Temecula Ranch ranked among the worst.

At the saloon, the majordomo proudly displayed a sack of gold. He left early the next morning for the long day’s ride to Warner’s. Just north of Aguanga he noticed a distant horse and rider, in no hurry but headed his way.

Cold shock. No one had said they’d be going south in the morning. The majordomo pulled off the trail and hitched his horse to a tree. Then he scratched out his tracks with a branch.

The rider rode past, slowed down, stopped. The saddle squeaked as he leaned over, looking for lost marks. He turned his horse around and walked it back up the trail, inspecting every indentation. Finally, he continued south.

He’d been one of the strangers at the saloon, and somewhere between here and Warner’s he’d be waiting. According to Fink, the majordomo decided to give his future assailant “a dose of his own medicine.”

In the 1850s and ’60s, since it was so out of the way, criminals hid out on Palomar Mountain and in canyons on the eastern slope. The majordomo knew of a “friendly outlaw” holed up near Aguanga who owed him a favor.

The majordomo offered the outlaw a $20 gold piece to kill the stalker. The majordomo would leave it at Buena Vista Casa. But the outlaw didn’t fancy being seen in public. After several arguments, the majordomo handed him the coin. Don’t do the job, he warned, and I’ll turn you in.

A few days later, travelers camped at Deadman’s found a corpse in a small barranca. According to Fink — who doesn’t say whether it was the majordomo or the stalker — ranch hands buried the body, and the outlaw “disappeared, with a horse and saddle and a twenty dollar gold piece.”

The nameless prospector may not have been the first to die at the grassy cienega, and the majordomo/stalker wasn’t the last. In fact, so many travelers lost their lives that two of San Diego County’s most aptly named sites are Deadman’s Hole and nearby Dark Canyon.

By 1888, if you don’t count the two men ambushed by bandits just south of Oak Grove (or the Frenchman probably shot by his wife in 1870, and another gunned down in 1875), at least seven corpses lay near the isolated water hole. Many others disappeared without a trace. The list of suspects includes outlaws on the lam, gangs of bandits, irate husbands or wives, and, for those strangled brutally, a “wild man” or “manimal,” known today as a sasquatch.

“Deadman’s isn’t a good place to rob a stage passing through,” says Arlie Bergman, whose ancestors — the Bergmans and Mendenhalls — helped settle Palomar Mountain. “They were always ready for trouble; in fact, there were very few Butterfield robberies around here. But it’s a good place to bushwhack individuals camped alone near the springs. They had to have money on them somewhere.”

Most mysterious were the murders where money, apparently, wasn’t the object. Between 1876 and 1888, at least three men and a woman were found strangled, their necks severely bruised or broken, with wallets and goods intact. The culprit, so the legend grew, was a “wild man.”

When the first friars came to San Diego, the natives spoke of hairy human giants that lived in arroyos to the east. The tribes expelled them, the story went, because they were too warlike.

Early in 1876, during a stop at Deadman’s, a passenger sensed something watching him take a drink. He turned and saw a “naked thing covered with long black hair” hiding in the bushes. In an instant, the large creature vanished.

In March 1876, Turner Helm and a man whose initials were “L.T.H.” prospected east of Warner’s. Helm, who had wandered off about a half-mile, heard a whistle — like a kid putting two fingers in the sides of his mouth and blowing. Then Helm saw “something” on a large boulder, maybe 20 paces away. It looked like an animal but “proved to be a man” of about medium size, reported the San Diego Union, “covered all over with coarse black hair, two or three inches long.” The man had “fine features — not like those of an Indian, but more like an American or Spaniard.”

Helm tried speaking to the creature, in English, then Spanish, then the local native tongue. When the creature stepped toward him, Helm raised his rifle. The manimal fled over a hill.

L.T.H., who wrote the Union story, said they’d seen the creature’s tracks before, “but I supposed them to be [those] of an Indian.” He didn’t see the strange being, “but Mr. Helm is known to be a man of unquestioned veracity.”

The creature fit the general description of “wild men” sighted around the country. The Titusville Morning Herald, November 10, 1870, reported one at Grayson, California (in Stanislaus County), that was “disproportionately broad and square at the shoulders…with dark brown and cinnamon-colored hair. The head was small…and appeared to be set upon the shoulders without a neck.” The author swears it wasn’t an orangutan or gorilla escaped from a zoo. The Pittsburgh Index of April 29, 1871: “He is preternaturally hirsute and ferocious, swift and strong” and ranges in height “from about four feet to ten.”

On October 24, 1873, the San Diego World announced a sighting in a ravine that leads from Peñasquitos down to Paguay (Poway). “A horrid creature about five feet high, covered from head to foot with matted hair. His head was large and round, with an enormous neck indicating a great muscular force.”

Not to be out-scooped, the next day the Union ran its own story about the “Wild Man of Paguay Gulch.” A search party captured the “beast,” which proved to be a local ranch hand dressed in a gorilla suit, “thrown into convulsions at the sight of the guns and revolvers.”

In June 1887, the body of a “harmless, inoffensive old man,” writes Jaspar, lay at the southern end of Deadman’s Hole. White-haired David Blair, who lived in Chihuahua Valley and “had no quarrel with anybody,” had a broken jaw and cheekbones and had two stablike wounds in his neck. Someone, or thing, had dragged him to this spot. In his pockets: a gold watch on a long gold chain and a large sum of money.

Oliver Ridley, a prospector, found two mules “practically dead from thirst” and Blair’s diary at a camp. When Ridley reported his discovery, a sheriff charged him with murder.

According to the coroner’s inquisition, Ridley was a “colored” man. Try as they might, the jury — one of whose members was “wild man” witness Turner Helm — couldn’t find enough evidence to convict Ridley.

Blair had wealthy friends in San Francisco. Several paid a detective to find the perpetrator — who had, rumors alleged, “supernatural power.” After weeks of investigating, writes Jaspar, the detective admitted defeat and “declared that he never had heard of so mysterious and unaccountable a murder.”

Luis Melinda, nicknamed “Chihuahua” for his place of origin, built the first adobe structure in the area that took his name: Chihuahua Valley. In late December 1887, he returned home from a trip and found it ransacked, his stepdaughter, Francisca Ranteria, missing. Her body was found at Deadman’s, 200 feet from where Blair’s lay six months earlier. She had two bullet holes in her back, “inflicted by person or persons unknown,” and died on either December 20 or 21.

About a week later, prospectors found a “harmless” young native woman named Belita at Deadman’s. She’d been choked to death, and the body, which had been dragged from someplace else, “had not been outraged.” There was no blood on the ground, and sheep “obliterated all evidence.”

James Jaspar edited the Julian Sentinel from 1887 to 1892. On April 1, 1888, the San Diego Union printed a story by Jaspar that promised to solve, once and for all, the murders at Deadman’s Hole.

Almost due west of Deadman’s lies a craggy canyon with walls so steep that sunlight rarely reaches its brush-tangled depths. “So uninviting are its hidden recesses that civilized man has probably never visited many portions of it,” writes Jaspar. He added that there was no game in the canyon, but that wasn’t why “the Indians always avoided it.” Poor goat-herders named it Cañon Oscuro: Dark Canyon.

Edward Dean and Charles Cox, hunters from Julian, decided to explore maybe the best hideout in the county. They waded up the canyon through waist- and head-high brush, dry twigs crackling with every step. They climbed over rocks and logs, careful that a rattlesnake wasn’t coiled in the darkness underneath. With each step, the half-lit canyon narrowed and grew even quieter.

A “slight rustle” startled them up ahead, then “a crashing sound, as of some heavy object moving through the brush.” For a better view, they scaled partway up a wall and saw “an immense unwieldy animal that from a rear view resembled a bear making rapid strides through a narrow defile.” At least six feet tall, it had long, dark brown hair and moved “uprightly like a man or monkey.” Although the legs were broad and the feet wide, “The arms and hands of the beast greatly resembled those of a human being. The body was large and round and entirely devoid of a tail.”

Cox raised his pistol and fired a warning shot in the air. The creature stopped and faced the hunters. “They saw before them a human countenance.” Then the animal “turned almost instantly, and resumed its flight up the canyon.”

As the hairy figure tried to scale a boulder, Cox fired his rifle. “With a cry like a human being, the beast instantly fell in a hideous heap.”

Dean and Cox approached warily. The creature lay on its side, a bullet in its breast. It “proved to be dead.”

The hunters examined the strange being. Though the skin of the face was dark and wrinkled, “The features were unmistakably Indian in character,” but the long teeth were “plainly those of a carnivorous animal.”

The head was man-sized, but “perhaps the most singular point,” the animal must have weighed at least 400 pounds, and the strange feet were at least 24 inches long, 8 wide, “and covered at the bottom with a hard substance like that of the foot of a dog.”

Above the boulder, Dean and Cox noticed an opening in the cliff under a large rock. They climbed up and found a cavelike “apartment,” ten feet deep and hand-carved out of the slope.

Cox lit a match. On one side: a bed made of leaves and weeds; on the other, beyond the half-eaten remains of a goat, a pile of bones and five human skulls. Dean and Cox lugged the body up to the shelter. They rode to San Diego, where they borrowed a wagon and vowed to return with their prize the next day.

The Union story deduced that the creature would sneak up on its victims at "Deadman’s hole," strangle them, then drag them back to its lair. Case closed.

On April 2, 1888, the San Diego Union published a story about various April Fools’ pranks: phony pleas to doctors for aid; carriages summoned to taxi fictitious clients; two Julian hunters promising to exhibit a wild man they’d just shot at Dark Canyon: “one of the strangest creatures ever presented to human vision.” People flocked to the police station to see the beast, but there wasn’t one. They might have better luck, officers quipped, if they came back next April 1.

Sasquatch-watchers have different reactions to the story. Patrick Householder notes that, hoax or not, “The description of the creature is uncannily like those being reported today in our Pacific Northwest.” John Green, who has written the most thorough study of Bigfoot, admits relief: “No other substantial story indicates such totally carnivorous behavior, or gives the creature a home in a cave, or describes so human a face.”

Early on the morning of June 17, 1967, Border Patrol officers Theodore Newton Jr., 25, and George Azrak, 22, worked a traffic checkpoint near Deadman’s Hole. They stopped two suspicious vehicles. As they inspected the first — an old ambulance carrying 800 pounds of marijuana — two men from the second overpowered them. The drug traffickers handcuffed the officers to each other. They drove to a remote cabin near Anza and murdered Newton and Azrak execution-style. The Border Patrol named its highest honor, the Newton-Azrak Award, for the slain officers.

One of the most intense manhunts in California history tracked down four suspects. Two — brothers Harold and Alfred Montoyo — received 30-year sentences. Victor Bono and Florencio Mationg got life.

The other murders at Deadman’s Hole remain unsolved. ■


1. James A. Jasper (on the stage stations): “Could the old walls talk, what tales they could tell of nightly revels with tragic endings.”

2. David Daegling: “Wild man legends existed prior to a single name for the creature.”

3. John Green: “I find not a single account of a sasquatch killing a human anywhere in Canada or anywhere in the United States east of the Rockies.”

Bergman, Arlie, interview.

Daegling, David J., Bigfoot Exposed: An Anthropologist Examines America’s Enduring Legend, Walnut Creek, 2004.

Green, John, Sasquatch: The Apes Among Us, Surrey, 1978.

Householder, Patrick F., “Monsters and Murders, the Story of Deadman’s Hole,” San Diego Historical Society, unpublished ms.

Jaspar, James A., “Trail-Breakers and History Makers,” vol. 3, San Diego Historical Society ms.; “Tragedies of Chihuahua Valley,” San Diego Historical Society ms.

Sparkman, Philip Steadman, “The Culture of the Luiseño Indians,” University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology, VIII, no. 4. 1908.

Articles in the San Diego Union, the San Diego World, and other newspapers.

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