Murder in the Mountains

Recent incidents of violent crime in the Malibu Canyon area have shocked and saddened residents and local officials, but the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area always had a darker history.

The combination of remote unspoiled mountains and canyons and easy proximity to one of the largest urban parks in the country make the area a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts. Those qualities, however, have also led to it being used for decades to dispose of stolen cars and sometimes,  human remains.

The most high profile case remains Jane Doe 99, a victim of psychopathic serial murderer, Doug Clark, and his accomplice, Carol Bundy, the “Sunset Strip Killers.” The pair were convicted of murdering eight people, and disposing of their bodies at locations throughout Los Angeles. Many of the victims were sex workers or teenage runaways, two were never identified. Jane Doe 99 was shot in the head. Her body was dumped down an embankment in Tuna Canyon, near Saddle Peak. Her remains were found by a hiker.

The discovery of Japanese banker Takashi Sakai, buried in an unmarked grave in Malibu Canyon in 1988, also grabbed headlines. Sakai’s son, Toru Sakai, was charged with the 1987 murder, but remains at large and is still on the Los Angeles Police Department’s Most Wanted List. If Toru Sakai’s friend and accomplice had not directed detectives to the location of the grave in exchange for immunity, the remains of the elder Sakai may never have been found.

In what arguably remains one of the most grisly incidents in Topanga history, Van Nuys carpenter Barney Lee Mapes, 40, was charged with murder in 1951 in the death of his estranged wife, Viola, 35. Viola’s body, attired in a “ballerina skirt,” was found not far from the Summit on Topanga Canyon Boulevard by passing motorists. Mapes, who struck his wife in the head with a claw-hammer, pleaded self defense and argued that Viola was violent. He was acquitted of the murder.

One of the earliest incidents of a body being disposed of in the mountains occurred in September of 1946, when a skull and parts of a disarticulated skeleton were found in Latigo Canyon. The coroner was able to determine that the remains were those of a young woman, but she remains a Jane Doe, and the cause of her death was never determined.

The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department recently announced that an L.A. street gang is responsible for two bodies discovered by the side of the road near Malibu Creek State Park. It’s more than 70 years since the Latigo Canyon bones made headlines, but the same M.O. was used to dispose of today’s murder victims.

In May, the body of 52-year-old Francisco Reynaldo Cruz was discovered in a ditch by the side of the road opposite Malibu Creek State Park, near the Malibu Hindu Temple. Cruz reportedly died from sharp force injuries to the upper body and blunt force injury to the head.

Two months later, on July 27, the body of 19-year-old Roger Eli Chavez-Barahona was found beside Piuma Road near Schueren Road. The Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office revealed that Chavez-Barahona died from multiple gunshot wounds. Both incidents remain under investigation.

The location where Chavez-Barahona’s remains were found was less than two miles from the site where the remains of 24-year-old Mitrice Richardson were found in 2010. Richardson made national headlines when she vanished after she was released before dawn on Sept. 17, 2009, from the Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station in Calabasas, after being arrested for failing to pay a restaurant bill in Malibu.

Her remains were found just a month before the one-year anniversary of her disappearance. State Park Rangers checking on an abandoned marijuana grow in Dark Canyon, off Piuma Road made the discovery. The cause of death was never determined but was almost certainly murder. The case remains unsolved.

The discovery of Mitrice Richardson’s body raised more questions than it answered, but sometimes a discovery, no matter how gruesome or tragic, enables the victim’s family to find closure.

Parts of a body found by hikers in the Pacific Palisades side of Topanga State Park in 2012, were determined to be the remains of David John Goeser, a 22-year-old UCLA honors student who disappeared two months earlier. The coroner ruled that the cause of death was suicide.

The search for Nancy Huter, a Thousand Oaks woman who disappeared in Malibu Creek State Park in 1991, took one and a half years to be resolved. Her bones were found in Point Mugu State Park near Pacific Coast Highway after a fire stripped the area of vegetation.  Forensic experts were able to use dental records to make a positive ID, but the cause of death could not be determined, although murder was suspected.

The family of entrepreneur and former rock musician Philip Kramer had to wait four years to discover his fate.

Kramer, an aerospace engineer and the former bassist for the rock band Iron Butterfly, disappeared in 1995. He was last seen driving to LAX  on February 12, 1995, to pick up a business associate, but ended up missing the man, who went directly to his hotel. Kramer made a number of increasingly strange cell phone calls to his wife and to the police, but never returned home.

On May 29, 1999, two car enthusiasts looking for old vehicles to photograph at the bottom of Decker Canyon, a graveyard for cars, discovered the wreckage of Kramer’s minivan. His bones were inside.

Two similarly tragic finds have been made in the same area, in the same circumstances, one in 2011, the other as recently as February of this year. More incidents of the same type have also occurred in Malibu Canyon and off Kanan Dume Road. In all cases, the vehicle went over the side of the canyon and the wreckage could not be seen from above.

In late July, investigators announced that they are making progress in the Malibu Creek State Park shooting death of Tristan Beaudette. The Irvine man was killed in the early hours of the morning on June 22. He died in his tent in front of his two daughters, ages 2 and 4. His death shocked and horrified area residents and State Park personnel. The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department has not released the new information that prompted the progress announcement.

Locals continue to point to other recent reports of gunfire in the area, but law enforcement has not verified a connection.

Investigators have announced that Baudette’s death is not connected to the two gang-related killings, but all three incidents are a grim reminder that bad things can happen in anyone’s backyard, even when that backyard is a special place like the Santa Monica Mountains.

See something suspicious? Report it safely and anonymously: lacrimestoppers.org.

Suzanne Guldimann

Suzanne Guldimann is a writer, artist, and musician who lives in Malibu and loves the Santa Monica Mountains. She’s covered environment, arts, science, history and crime for the local media for more than a decade and is the author of nine books of music for the Celtic harp. She can be reached at s.guldimann@messengermountainnews.com

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