Published: Friday, September 30, 2005
A LEGEND OUT OF TRAGEDY SEPT. 30, 1955: THE DEATH OF JAMES DEAN; DOZENS OF NORTH COUNTY RESIDENTS REMEMBER DEAN’S FATAL CRASH AT A RURAL CROSSROADS, POSSIBLY THE MOST FAMOUS EVENT IN THE COUNTY’S MODERN HISTORY
By Jay Thompson
Fifty years ago today two cars collided at a rural crossroads east of this one-cafe town. Two men were hurt and one died.
“It was nothing special,” said Dr. Robert Bossert, 94, of Loma Linda, the former Paso Robles physician called to the hospital that night. “Just another accident that we took care of. We took care of quite a few accidents in those days.”
But the two-car crash at Highway 41 was unlike any then or since. It inspired movies, a play and a host of documentaries. Every year on this day the curious from all over the world visit the site.
The victim was James Dean. The injured were Rolf Wuetherich, 28, a German mechanic who was traveling with the 24-year-old actor to a Salinas car race, and Donald G. Turnupseed, 23, a Cal Poly student, who was driving to Tulare.
Also among the affected were dozens of North County residents who overnight found their rural lives disrupted by an international event involving a celebrity whose name many didn’t even recognize.
Paso in the ’50s: farmers and far less traffic
In 1955 Highway 101 went through Paso Robles, a town of 6,000, but traffic was light — sometimes nonexistent. “You could stand out there and shoot a gun down Spring Street and not hit anybody,” recalled Martin Kuehl, 84, who owned the two-story red brick house at 17th and Spring streets that housed the mortuary his father opened in 1929.
The town was also the hub of a vibrant agricultural economy of almond growers, wheat and barley farmers and cattle ranchers.
By 6 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 30, 1955, the sun was up. The temperature had dipped to 39 degrees that morning, but the fall day would heat to 82.
Cliff O. Bickell, 39, was readying for work. He and wife Mickie lived on 12th Street. It took minutes for Bickell — who 12 days later would serve on the jury that examined Dean’s death — to walk downtown to his stationery store.
About a half-hour drive east in Cholame, 12-year-old Richard “Buckshot” Moreno was preparing for school. He said goodbye to his dad and used the crosswalk on his way to the one-room Cholame School. His father, Paul, operated the Cholame Cafe, a Chevron gas station, garage and ambulance service.
Bus driver Collier “Buster” Davidson would soon arrive with more students at the school, where he lived in the caretaker’s cottage with his family.
Students were also trickling into Paso Robles High School, then on 24th Street, which had started the year with 500 students, “an all-time record,” officials said. On this Friday, many were thinking about the Bearcats football team that would be “getting their first real test under new coach Ace Parker” at 8 o’clock in Bakersfield that night, the then-Telegram-Tribune reported.
At 3:30 p.m., about 20 miles south of Bakersfield, Dean signed his last autograph. CHP officer Otie V. Hunter had cited him on Highway 99 for driving his Porsche Spyder 65 mph in a 55 mph zone — a $25 fine.
The actor made a last stop at Blackwell’s Corner, a snack bar-gas station on Highway 466 (now designated Highway 46). Then he and his mechanic headed west on the 27-mile stretch to Paso where they planned to have dinner with Bill Hickman and photographer Sanford Roth, who were trailing in Dean’s station wagon.
By 5 o’clock, rancher Cliff Hord, wife Ruth and their 13-year-old son, Ken, were readying for the Paso football game and the drive to Bakersfield.
In the next 45 minutes they were part of a chain of events that would lead to James Dean’s death; it would involve up to six autos all converging on the “Y” intersection of Highways 41 and 466, both one-lane roads with narrow shoulders.
A deadly meeting
Turnupseed, a Poly freshman and Navy veteran, was headed east and passed two vehicles just minutes before the crash. The first was a 1948 Mercury sedan driven by Earle Requa of Paso Robles. The second was Tom Frederick’s 1952 Dodge pickup.
Meanwhile, Dean, who was traveling west, was attempting to pass John R. White of Los Angeles.
Ken Hord said his father’s car had just passed the “Y” when his dad yelled: ” ‘Jesus Christ, Ruth. Look at that son of a bitch come.’ ”
“I looked up and here come this little car,” the Creston resident recalled. “We were three abreast right there. My dad just yanked it to the right and went into the barbed-wire fence.”
To the west, Shandon beekeeper Frederick, 28, said Turnupseed had slowed to make a left turn at the “Y” onto Highway 41. The Cal Poly student then headed into the intersection, just as Dean’s Porsche came into it.
“I was right on his tail,” recalled Frederick. “I was just about opposite from him (passing Turnupseed on the right) when they hit. ”
Frederick’s son and his 15-year-old brother-in-law, Don Dooley, a student at Shandon High, were also in the truck. A headlight ring from the Porsche “went sailing over our pickup,” Dooley said. “We weren’t too far from being in it ourselves.”
Requa’s car headed down the slight grade between Cholame and the intersection, when something caught his wife’s eye. “Look, there’s a car flying through the air,” Edith Requa said.
“We saw this gray blur in front of us,” recalled daughter-in-law Marie Requa, who sat next to Edith. “It landed off the road, and as we stopped we noticed the car that had recently passed us was in the intersection.”
The radiator of the 1950 Ford Tudor was leaking, and Turnupseed was seated in the car with its door open when the Requas pulled up. It was about 5:45 p.m.
The Porsche traveled 45 feet from the point of impact, leaping occasionally off the ground before stopping near a phone pole by a fenced pasture. After impact, the Ford slid 36 feet and stopped, nearly blocking the westbound 466 lane.
Devastating damage to lightweight race carJames Dean’s wrecked Porsche Spyder in a Chalome garage after the fatal accident . Photo by Sanford Roth, courtesy Seita Ohnishi
Damage to Dean’s car stunned even veteran CHP officers. The left side of the aluminum-skinned Porsche was crushed, and the dashboard and steering wheel were pushed to the right, making it appear as if the German roadster had right-hand drive. The front trunk was open. And the car’s rear cowling had flipped up, revealing the engine and undamaged back wheels.
Dean, who suffered severe head injuries, was slumped forward, leaning to his right — his face covered in blood. Wuetherich, ejected when the two-seater went airborne, was on the ground near the rear wheel on the driver’s side.
White, the driver of the westbound car that Dean passed, stopped, and a bystander told him to get help at Cholame.
Marie Requa, 24, and her mother-in-law comforted Wuetherich. They placed Earle’s white handkerchief under the injured man’s face to keep it out of the gravel and grass.
“Be still,” Marie told him. “Help’s coming.”
A few hundred feet east, Cliff Hord, 49, surveyed the damage to his car before he and his son ran to the intersection. Ken was within a few feet when Dean’s body was eased back.
“He must have hit the dash or something,” Ken Hord said. “There was a lot of blood and stuff so you didn’t know who it was.”
Attaching a celebrity name to the crash
For the next 10 minutes it remained a typical traffic accident until Dean’s friends arrived — Sanford Roth and Bill Hickman, who later gained prominence as the driver of the 1968 Dodge Charger in the movie “Bullitt.”
“They came running across the road yelling ‘Oh my God. Do you know who that is?’ And they said James Dean,” Marie Requa remembered. “It crossed our minds that it was the singer (Jimmy Dean). We didn’t know who (the actor) was. I don’t think we’d ever seen his movies.”
Bob Coombe and his wife, Kay, were more familiar with movie people; earlier that year Bob worked at a Beverly Hills dealership where he repaired actor Jimmy Stewart’s car. The couple and their daughter, Karen, a Paso High senior, were headed to the game. They were among the growing number who stopped.
When a near-tearful Hickman learned that Kay Coombe was a nurse, he “pleaded with her and offered her anything if she could do anything to save Dean,” said Drew Seal, her grandson, of Rushville, Ill. “She examined him, and there was nothing that she could do.”
More cars, trucks and even a Paso school district bus began to bunch up at the scene. Cliff and Mickie Bickell of Paso Robles were riding with two friends. Mickie’s seat behind the driver offered a clear view of the Porsche.
“I probably closed my eyes and prayed when I saw that,” she said. “It was so dreadful looking … it looked like he was either gone or was close to death.”
Alerting the authorities
About the time of the crash, CHP officers Ernie Tripke and Ron Nelson were preparing for their shift. The Highway Patrol operated a substation out of the Paso Robles Police Department that was in a portion of what was the Hot Springs Hotel building at 13th and Spring.
Just before 6 p.m., Cholame ambulance driver Paul Moreno was speaking by phone to the dispatcher when Tripke walked in.
“He said, ‘It’s Moreno. You got a bad wreck out of Cholame,’ ” recalled Tripke. “So we jumped into separate cars and headed out.”
Moreno, 40, called ambulance attendant Buster Davidson, a wiry Missourian 10 years his senior, and the pair rushed to the accident a mile away. It took them several minutes to remove Dean, whose foot was tangled in the brake and clutch pedals, and load him in the back of the tan Buick ambulance.
Just then, at 6:20 p.m., the CHP officers arrived. Tripke went over to Dean.
“I figured he had a broken neck,” he said. “We weren’t qualified to say that he was deceased, but I think he was darn close.”
With Nelson directing traffic between pacing off measurements for the report and photographing the wrecks, Tripke interviewed witnesses including Turnupseed, who suffered “very minor injuries.” He did not smell alcohol on the young man’s breath, and Turnupseed was not detained.
“He said he was making his turn,” Tripke said. “He just didn’t see Dean coming until the last, split second, and it was too late.”
Paso radio station scores a scoop
Reports of the crash spread throughout the North County via KPRL radio. Over the years station owners Dale and Barney Schwartz encouraged listeners to phone in news tips to create an “old telephone party line where everybody will know what’s going on,” recalled Dale, who was later elected to the Paso City Council. His brother became one of the city’s longest-serving mayors and is honored with a park in Paso that bears his name.
“We built up to where we had over a hundred stringers … housewives … barbers,” said Dale, who was in Bakersfield setting up for that evening’s game broadcast.
One of those callers provided a tip that would forever link the area and the actor.
“Someone told us of a horrible accident, and then people started calling and telling us who it was,” recalled Dorothy Schwartz, now 92 and sister to Dale and Barney, who answered the phones that night.
After Dorothy reported the accident to the Associated Press, other news organizations called wanting details.
“When I called her after the accident, Dorothy said, ‘This place is a madhouse. I’m getting calls from all over the world.’ ” Dale said. “She was getting them from Italy, from Germany, France.”
“She said ‘It’s Jimmy Dean.’ I said, ‘Who the hell is Jimmy Dean?’ ”
It was the same question that officer Tripke was pondering, after a motorist asked if that was the owner of the splintered silver car. But there would be other curiosities.
“The dispatcher kept calling me on the radio, which is most unusual,” the officer said. “‘When are you going to be … through at the scene?’ Finally, he says, ‘There’s a bunch of calls waiting for you at the hospital.’ And I was wondering, ‘Why are they calling me at the hospital?’”
One hurt and one dead at the hospital
Meanwhile, a nurse rang up on-call physician Robert Bossert, 44, at his Beverly Street home in Paso. When he entered the emergency room at the former War Memorial Hospital, he quickly examined Wuetherich, who had a broken leg and jaw, a chest injury and some scratches and bruises. Moreno said the man in the ambulance was dead.
“I went out and (Dean) was in the ambulance feet first. There were minor facial injuries,” Bossert said. “I couldn’t see any severe destruction except that he was totally unresponsive in any way.”
Inside the white preparation room at Kuehl’s mortuary, the air reeked of formaldehyde. Martin Kuehl, 34, chronicled the actor’s injuries: “The left side of the face was damaged much more than the right side. Upper and lower jaws multiple fractures, broken neck, possible basal skull fracture. Both arms multiple fractures. Both legs OK, though trousers on one side were ripped off from the body. … There were small particles of glass embedded in Dean’s face, believed to be from the windshield.”
Dean represented the county’s 27th traffic fatality that year.
The CHP’s Tripke, who had come from interviewing Wuetherich at the hospital, stopped at the mortuary to pick up Dean’s driver’s license and a vial of his blood to test for alcohol.
Meanwhile at the crash scene, officer Nelson notified CHP dispatch at 7:55 p.m. that the vehicles had been towed off.
Turnupseed, who was bound for Tulare, caught a ride with Dale “Blackie” Kimes, a former Arroyo Grande resident.
“He seemed like such a nice caring kid,” Kimes told the Telegram-Tribune in 1995. “He kept saying over and over again, ‘I hope (Dean’s) going to be all right.’ ”
Back at the Paso police station, Tripke and Nelson went into a quiet room to try to “piece together what had happened … but we couldn’t get to first base writing this report because of the telephones,” Tripke said. Calls “were coming in from all over the country about Dean.”
There was little time for analysis, anyway. At 11:10 p.m., the partners responded to a drunken-driving accident south of Paso and at midnight to an injury crash near Bradley.
Back in Cholame, ambulance driver Paul Moreno and his assistant Buster Davidson finally returned home.
Davidson’s daughter Helen Hooper said her dad didn’t say much about what happened.
“He said when they picked up Jimmy Dean that it was like picking up ‘a limp noodle,’ is the words he used,” said Hooper, 75, of Merced. The loss of “a young life is what bothered him,” she said. “That’s when he said he wouldn’t drive the ambulance again.”
And across the highway, young “Buckshot” Moreno watched as his dad parked the two wrecks in the repair garage. His dad said something that night that stuck in the boy’s mind.
“He said, ‘We’re probably going to see a lot of people over here,’ ” the Mariposa resident recalled.
Paul Moreno’s words would prove prescient. In the days that followed, friends and co-stars of the actor visited Cholame to see the bloodied and crumpled car.
And every Sept. 30 since, legions of fans have flocked to this one-cafe town and its shiny monument to remember James Dean.