California City

Deep in the Mojave Desert, there is a little town with a big name and a bizarre history: California City. For decades, real estate developers have sold a dream here: if you buy land now, you’ll be rich one day. Thousands of people bought this dream. Many were young couples and hard-working immigrants looking to build a better future. But much of the land they bought is nearly worthless. In this new podcast from LAist Studios, host Emily Guerin tells a story of money, power and deception.

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EPISODE 6The Hunted Becomes The Hunter
Emily confronts the owner of Silver Saddle and walks away doubting herself. Plus, Ben becomes part of Silver Saddle's sales machine. California City is a limited series with 8 episodes. Show support by subscribing wherever you get your podcasts. California City sponsors include: Sun Basket is offering $35 off your order when you go right now to SUNBASKET.com/calcity and enter promo code calcity at checkout. Try SimpliSafe today at SimpliSafe.com/CALCITY. You get free shipping and a 60-day risk free trial. There’s nothing to lose.
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EPISODE 6 TRANSCRIPT

Note: California City is a podcast for a reason. You can read the transcript below, but the story is meant to be listened to. The host and a team of producers worked hard to make the podcast sound its best, and this transcript can’t capture all the voices, emotion, intonation and atmosphere in the original audio. If you’d like to quote this podcast, please check the corresponding audio first.

MUSIC

EMILY GUERIN: Previously on California City:

KATHRYN EFFORD: Real estate is the basis of all wealth. Period.

JUNE SUGASAWARA: We thought it was a golden opportunity and we were going to make millions off of it.

DAVID DAI: You know what, we are immigrants, and we thought in America, we cannot imagine this happen to us.

MARIAN DUCREUX: I don't know. Maybe I have the charisma. laughs

BEN PEREZ: That money is supposed to be for my future. And now I lose my future. I lose hope.

SOUNDS OF GETTING INTO A CAR

EMILY GUERIN: You ready, James?

JAMES KIM: Let's do it.

EMILY GUERIN: 8:53. Time to go.

laughs

EMILY GUERIN: By the time James and I confronted the president of Silver Saddle Ranch and Club, Tom Maney, I’d been reporting on California City on and off for almost three years.

James and I had been to Silver Saddle before, just to check it out.

EMILY GUERIN: Oh wait, you know what, can I actually buy a mug?

FRONT DESK STAFF: Yeah, of course.

EMILY GUERIN: We even bought souvenir mugs — with cash, obviously, because we didn’t want them to have our credit card information.

But today, we were talking to the man in charge. Tom Maney.

We’d obsessed about this interview for days. My senior producer and I even role-played. She was Tom and I was me.

So, I was ready. But, I was still nervous.

SOUND OF DRIVING

JAMES KIM: How are you feeling now about Tom's interview? How are you…?

EMILY GUERIN: Um, do you see how I have my left arm up? That's because I'm sweating and I need to air out my armpit.

JAMES KIM: What?!

EMILY GUERIN: Dude, I'm telling you. Just — I don't want to get like sweat stains before we even get there.

JAMES KIM: Oh, man.

EMILY GUERIN: So.

MUSIC SWELLS

EMILY GUERIN: We turned right out of the parking lot of the Best Western, which is the only hotel in California City. We drove to the edge of town and we kept going into the desert. It had rained the night before, and the air tasted clean and cold.

SOUND OF DRIVING

JAMES KIM: It's really beautiful right now.

EMILY GUERIN: Mh hm.

JAMES KIM: Just looks like a Western film with the white clouds and the slightly rainy clouds in the sky.

EMILY GUERIN: As we drove away from town, I thought about everyone who had ever made this drive over the past 60 years.

Nat Mendelsohn.

Kathryn Efford.

All the thousands of ups.

Ken Donney’s undercover investigators.

Marian Ducreux.

Ben Perez.

And Tom Maney.

As we got closer, we saw the road snaking up Galileo Hill.

We saw the model homes in that weird half-built neighborhood.

We saw the cottonwoods and sycamores that crowd the shore of Lake Maney.

We rolled down our windows and we smelled the petrichor.

JAMES KIM: Ah, I should have bought cigarettes. Now I'm starting to get nervous.

EMILY GUERIN: Oh, that you don't have cigarettes?

JAMES KIM: That and because now we're turning to go into Silver Saddle.

EMILY GUERIN: So here’s what I knew about Tom Maney at this point.

I knew Tom was 79.

I knew he was a lawyer.

I knew that today, he was the president of Silver Saddle.

But I knew in the 70s, he’d worked for Great Western Cities.

And I knew he’d been pretty high up — the senior vice president and general counsel.

I knew Tom was there during the Federal Trade Commission's investigation.

I knew he blamed Nat Mendelsohn for all the problems.

I knew Tom and Ken Donney had both signed the FTC settlement.

Their signatures were both on page 21, just centimeters apart.

I knew Tom and his business partners had bought a lot of land from Great Western Cities after it went bankrupt in 1984. I knew they bought Silver Saddle Ranch.

And I knew they kept selling land.

I knew that Tom, in other words, was the link to the past.

BEAT






I knew Tom had once lived in Carmel, California, in a 4-bedroom house with six fireplaces, a sauna and a view of the sea.

I knew his wife, Sharon, was an abstract painter.

And I knew Tom now lived in Lancaster, California, in a 5-bedroom house with only four fireplaces, stone floors and a view of the desert.

MUSIC

But there were things I didn’t know.

I didn’t know Tom Maney’s intentions.

Did he believe what his salespeople were saying?

Did he believe that his landbanking project really was a good investment?

Did he believe that 60-year old refrain: that California City was on the verge of booming?

Or... was he just trying to make as much money as he could, the only way he knew how?

I’m Emily Guerin, and welcome back to California City, episode five.

BREAK

MUSIC FADES

EMILY GUERIN: Administrative office. Do you think that’s where we should go?

JAMES KIM: Um, let’s meet him at the lobby. I don’t think they’d assume we’d go to the administrative office.

EMILY GUERIN: Silver Saddle Ranch and Club was closed for the winter, so there wasn’t really anyone around when James and in drove past the unmanned guardhouse. The only cars in the parking lot were a couple pick-up trucks and a bright red Tesla, which I would later learn was Tom’s. As we walked up to the clubhouse, a black cat named Midnight came up and rubbed against my legs.

EMILY GUERIN: God that cat is always here.

JAMES KIM: Midnight?

EMILY GUERIN: Hi kitty face!

MIDNIGHT MEOWS

WORKER: Morning. Morning. Come on in!

EMILY GUERIN: Hello. Thank you. We have an appointment with Debbie.

WORKER: Yes, ma'am.

EMILY GUERIN: Okay. Hi there.

DEBBIE NICASTRO: Hey guys.

JAMES KIM: Hey how's it going?

EMILY GUERIN: Hey.

TOM MANEY: Hi.

EMILY: Hi. Are you Tom?

TOM MANEY: I’m Tom.

EMILY GUERIN: Tom. Nice to meet you. I'm Emily.

TOM MANEY: Hi Emily.

EMILY GUERIN: This is my colleague James.

TOM MANEY: James, nice to meet you.

JAMES KIM: James, nice to meet you. Hey, good seeing you too.

EMILY GUERIN: Hi Debbie. It's good to see you.

EMILY GUERIN: Tom had been reluctant to talk to us. He told his director of operations, Debbie Nicastro, that he thought we were going to make Silver Saddle look bad. But she convinced him. She told me she appreciated “ethical investigative unbiased journalism.”

EMILY GUERIN: Thanks.

TOM MANEY: We've got breakfast here.

EMILY GUERIN: We actually had some at the Best Western, but thank you.

DEBBIE NICASTRO: Do you want more?

TOM MANEY: Eggs, bacon, fruit.

DEBBIE NICASTRO: Coffee, juice?

EMILY GUERIN: There was an entire, untouched buffet station set up in the empty dining room, apparently for us.

It was actually a little baffling how welcoming they were, given what we were there to do and what we were about to ask them.

We sat down, and Tom began swiping on his phone.

TOM MANEY: And I'm looking at pictures of the ranch right now from a helicopter.

EMILY GUERIN: I had asked Tom and Debbie if I could record our conversation. And they said yes. But I would learn later that they too had recorded our conversation, secretly. And looking back on it, I think this moment, with Tom swiping on his phone, maybe that was when he started recording.

I kept trying to start the interview, but he kept interrupting to show me pictures.

EMILY GUERIN: So I just wanted to thank you both in advance for being willing to do this and — it's a good one too.

TOM MANEY: That is a good one

JAMES KIM: Beautiful sunset.

EMILY GUERIN: Tom is pretty ripped for his age. He was wearing a short sleeve polo shirt, and I think I saw a tattoo peeking out on his right arm.

Debbie sat next to him, looking like a middle-aged Farrah Fawcett with bangles and tight jeans.

I was still sweaty. My palms were all clammy on my microphone. Because I was nervous that Tom would get angry, or yell, or kick us out.

But it wasn’t like that. It was worse. It was quiet. It was calm. Tom never raised his voice. He didn’t need to, because, according to him, he’d done nothing wrong.

TOM MANEY: Well, first of all, we've never misrepresented. We just don't do it. You know, I mean, I, it’s, it’s the way I live my life.

TOM MANEY: We never had any, any problems. Did we Debbie?

DEBBIE NICASTRO: No, we didn't have any.

TOM MANEY: None.

EMILY GUERIN: But we knew they knew that wasn’t true.

So James and I started walking Tom and Debbie through the complaints we’d heard about Silver Saddle.

JAMES KIM: And so when they come to the ranch, they're unaware that there's going to be a sales pitch.

DEBBIE NICASTRO: That's not true. Actually, there is a, I wish I had the marketing material with me. It's made very, very, very clear that you are coming for a sales presentation. And that's going to be at least a 90 minute tour.

TOM MANEY: Yeah

DEBBIE NICASTRO: That is required.

TOM MANEY: That's a requirement of you coming to the ranch.

DEBBIE NICASTRO: It’s a requirement of you coming. We make sure they know.

EMILY GUERIN: Tom rejected the accusation that Silver Saddle targets people who don’t speak English well.

TOM MANEY: I just think that’s a terrible thing to say. It's like, we're, you know, Hispanics are more than 50% of the population in California. To say, oh, you're selling to people who don't speak English. I mean, there are a lot of people like that in California. It's the majority, actually.

EMILY GUERIN: Actually, about 20% of Californians don’t speak English well. And either way, that wasn’t my point.

My point was that there is a difference between running a business that caters to certain kinds of people, and targeting them with a confusing sales pitch.

But Tom denied that too.

TOM MANEY: Our sales people all spoke their languages so they understood what they were buying. And we, we, some of the primary documents we translated into their languages.

EMILY GUERIN: It just seems like there are a not insignificant number of people that just don't really understand what they're buying.

TOM MANEY: I, I don't know if that's true or not.

EMILY GUERIN: A lot of people had told me about these kind of wild claims that the real estate agents make during the sales pitch. So I asked Tom about that.

EMILY GUERIN: I've talked to multiple people who said, “I bought this because I was told I would double my money in a year.” I mean that's, that's what someone...

TOM MANEY: No, no...

DEBBIE NICASTRO: God forbid, we would never, that's...

TOM MANEY: They'd be fired on the spot.

DEBBIE NICASTRO: If we heard it. Definitely.

TOM MANEY: Nobody's ever told us that.

EMILY GUERIN: Silver Saddle is a long term investment, they said. Long. Term.

EMILY GUERIN: Like how long term are we talking?

TOM MANEY: We don't know. But we say long term.

EMILY GUERIN: I swear I tried to pin them down on how long long term was.

EMILY GUERIN: Like decades in the future?

TOM MANEY: 10, 20 years probably, yeah, I would guess.

DEBBIE NICASTRO: I, I don't know if I agree with that.

EMILY GUERIN: I was getting nowhere, so I asked them about the high-pressure tactics that sales agents like Marian Ducreux supposedly use. Which Tom also denied.

TOM MANEY: We never give anybody a bad time if they don't buy. We shake their hand just like everybody else and give them the gifts, and away they go.

EMILY GUERIN: Tom made me feel like everything was crystal clear. He made me doubt myself. Doubt everything that I had learned, which was a lot.

So I got specific.

I opened my manila folder, and I slid Debbie and Tom a copy of the text messages that Marian had sent Ben after he’d begun trying to get his money back. The one where she’d said, quote:

“You emailed the company bad about me. I treated you right and now you are telling people I lied. I will sue you for defamation of character and false accusations if you will not stop this.”

TOM MANEY: Well, she's an independent contractor. If somebody said something about her that she felt was defamatory and false, I guess she has a right to do it.

EMILY GUERIN: What do you mean she's an independent contractor? She's not an, they're not employees here?

TOM MANEY: No. They're sales agents.

DEBBIE NICASTRO: No, no, these are, these are licensed real estate agents and they are independent contractors.

EMILY GUERIN: So are you saying that you're not responsible for their, sort of, their behavior or the way they interact with their customers, their clients?

TOM MANEY: Well, they have to follow our rules or they can't work for us.

EMILY GUERIN: Debbie looked over the text message for another minute or so while I talked about Ben. And then she pushed it away and looked me straight in the eye.

DEBBIE NICASTRO: I'll tell you right now. I do not think Marian wrote this.

EMILY GUERIN: So do you think that he's making this up?

DEBBIE NICASTRO: I'm just saying, I don't think, no, I can't speculate as to what this is. I'm just saying — I don't, when I read this, I don't think Marian wrote it.

EMILY GUERIN: But Marian did write it. She told me so. And when Debbie asked her about it later, she admitted it.

The interview went on like this for 3 hours.

Tom denied he sold land for up to 100 times what it’s worth.

TOM MANEY: Well, they’re buying more than just the land…

EMILY GUERIN: He denied Silver Saddle had anything in common with Great Western Cities.

EMILY GUERIN: Even though...

TOM MANEY: Series of different companies, actually.

EMILY GUERIN: He denied that his vision for the future of California City had anything to do with Nat Mendelsohn’s.

EMILY GUERIN: You don’t, you don’t think so?

TOM MANEY: Nope.

EMILY GUERIN: But by the end, Tom and Debbie switched tactics. They acknowledged that there could be problems at Silver Saddle. But they weren’t to blame. Their customers were. The 2,000 or so people who’d bought shares of the landbanking project, for nearly $60 million dollars.

TOM MANEY: Well, if you're talking to people who want to get out of the deal, they may say all kinds of things. You never know. They want out. Right?

EMILY GUERIN: Right. What? So what are you saying?

TOM MANEY: I'm saying they may not. They may exaggerate their claims. You know, it’s like somebody with this car, if something goes wrong with it, and he says, “Oh, this went wrong. That went wrong. This went wrong. This car is no good. I want my money back.”

DEBBIE NICASTRO: Buyer's remorse.

TOM MANEY: Yeah, it’s buyer’s remorse.

DEBBIE NICASTRO: Buyer's remorse comes in many, you know, whether it be financial, you know, it's, it's an emotional sale. Oh my god, I want to do this. You know, we've all gone through that. I mean, I'll speak for myself, it’s like, oh, what, what did I just do? Why did I, you know, I went to buy a Volkswagen, I just bought a Mercedes, you know, why did I do that? Now I'm locked in.

EMILY GUERIN: Mh hm.

DEBBIE NICASTRO: Okay, there's buy— there is buyer's remorse.

EMILY GIUERIN: And they blamed their salespeople, too. Debbie was essentially saying that if Tom had done anything wrong, it was being too trusting.

DEBBIE NICASTRO: Tom had been really been taken advantage of by a lot of employees here… his vision is very, very real. He’s brilliant as to his ideas and how he structures things. And you start trusting and putting faith in people and sometimes that, that bites you.

TOM MANEY: Cus, you know, we’re taking a very hard look at everything that we’re doing to make sure that we can eliminate as much of these problems as you’re mentioning.

EMILY GUERIN: They can eliminate as much of these problems as I’m mentioning.

MUSIC FADES

SOUND OF DRIVING

EMILY GUERIN: That was like the nicest, confrontational interview I've ever done.

JAMES KIM: Yeah, I was gonna say that too. It was — even through the tough questions. They were smiling through them.

EMILY GUERIN: Yeah.

EMILY GUERIN: After three hours, we stumbled out into the early spring sunlight. We said goodbye to Midnight, and we tried to make sense of what had just happened.

EMILY GUERIN: My takeaway is that either they really don't know what the sales people are saying, or they're totally bullshitting us.



SOUND OF DRIVING

EMILY GUERIN: We drove back into town. James bought cigarettes, and I hit up the only coffee shop in California City: the McDonalds. Then we turned left on California City Boulevard, and we headed back to L.A., too tired to talk.

SOUND OF DRIVING

When I got home, I took a shower, I made some soup, and I collapsed on the couch.

CAT MEOWS

EMILY GUERIN: I feel like maybe they’re not as bad as I thought they were. I don’t know… I guess I started to feel like, you know, I guess if you think about it as like a long term investment, I mean, I wouldn’t do that, but, it doesn’t seem like, that ridiculous.

MUSIC

EMILY GUERIN: So many people told me they felt like Silver Saddle had scammed them. What if they were wrong? What if I was wrong?

It is incredibly disorienting when you think you know something, but then someone insists that you’re wrong. And they say it over and over and over, in the calmest possible way, until you begin to think — maybe this person is right.

I feel like this happens a lot in America right now. But I think I’m particularly susceptible to it.

I think it’s why I ended up getting married: I was on the fence, but my boyfriend at the time was convinced, and convincing. 11 months later, we split up. But honestly, I knew the moment he proposed that it was a bad idea. I went through with it because, at that point in my life, it was just easier to say yes than to say no. And, I wanted it to be true.

I needed someone to help me make sense of what had just happened with Tom and Debbie.

And the only person I thought might be able to provide some semblance of clarity was Ken Donney. I was going to a convicted murderer for advice.

That’s after a break.

BREAK

EMILY GUERIN: Well, so I sat down with Tom Maney, and, uh...

KEN DONNEY: Oh you did?

EMILY GUERIN: Yeah I did.

KEN DONNEY: laughs. Tell me, Emily, did he remember me?

EMILY GUERIN: Ken, being Ken, wanted to talk exclusively about the issue that concerned him: his big FTC settlement from 1977.

Ken had made sure the agreement covered all of Great Western Cities’ successors and subsidiaries. Forever.

But Tom didn’t think it applied to Silver Saddle.

Which I thought was weird, because Tom had continued using Ken’s warning label on Silver Saddle’s contracts. The one that said, “the value of this land is uncertain, do not count on an increase in value.”

EMILY GUERIN: Okay, but is Silver Saddle bound by that FTC judgment?

TOM MANEY: No, we’re not.

EMILY GUERIN: You don't, you don't think so?

TOM MANEY: No.

EMILY GUERIN: Okay. I just...

TOM MANEY: Totally different...

EMILY GUERIN: Even though...

TOM MANEY: Series of different companies, actually.

EMILY GUERIN: Okay, even though you could be viewed as a, as a successor company because you had worked for Great Western..

TOM MANEY: Not really, it’s totally different.

KEN DONNEY: laughs. Oh, gee, I would love to get him on the witness stand in federal court. Oh, that's great stuff right there.

EMILY GUERIN: I told Ken about how Tom had been so calm and confident as he denied everything. And how it left me feeling so confused.

KEN DONNEY: So Emily, so Emily?

EMILY GUERIN: Mh hm?

KEN DONNEY: May I just say?

EMILY GUERIN: Mh hm.

KEN DONNEY: Congratulations. You've just been exposed to a first class snake oil artist. Straight up! Trust me, he knows. Whatever act he's putting on, he knows.

EMILY GUERIN: Really, so you think he's just kind of bullshitting me?

KEN DONNEY: You hear me, Tom? I'm talking to you right now. Tom Maney. Shame on you.

EMILY GUERIN: I know it’s kind of weird, but Ken’s little pep-talk did help.

Afterwards, I went back and I read all the transcripts of all the interviews I’d done with people who bought into Silver Saddle.

MUSIC

The Vietnamese refugee who trusted California’s laws would protect him from scams.

The home health nurse who had to choose between paying Silver Saddle and buying chicken, eggs and milk.

The young dad, fresh out of jail, with only $1,000 in the bank and a fussy baby in his arms.

All of us were confused after we left Silver Saddle. And honestly, I started to wonder if that was intentional. Maybe Tom and his sales agents tried to make people feel this way.

Because, that’s how Ben Perez felt too. When he came back from Silver Saddle in July 2017, he told me he couldn’t tell what was real, and what was a lie. Which is how he ended up ensnaring his friends.

Marian had told Ben not to worry. All he needed to do was invite his friends, and he’d make a bunch of money.

BEN PEREZ: She told me like, this is super easy, guys. Just 10 people. And then you're going to get to $20,000 plus additional $10,000.

EMILY GUERIN: But when Ben talks about this, there’s a lot of inconsistencies in his story.

When I asked him if he invited his friends to Silver Saddle before or after he decided it was a scam, at first he said after, but then he said he’d been 50-50 at the time.

When I asked if he warned his friends not to buy anything, he said yes, but then he said no.

And when I asked how long it took him to realize he’d made a huge mistake, his answer ranged from a few days to a few weeks.

I realized I had seen Ben as just one thing: a victim. But of course, like everything in this story, it’s more complicated.

So I went to meet one of the people that Ben had brought out to Silver Saddle.

His friend Michael.

MICHAEL VIERNES: Sorry it’s kind of flooded all over the place…

EMILY GUERIN: Oh, don’t worry about it!

MICHAEL VIERNES: It usually never floods here.

SOUND OF RAIN AND WIND CHIMES

EMILY GUERIN: It was pouring, and the windchimes outside his door were banging around in the gusts of wet air.

EMILY GUERIN: Woah, so much water!

MICHAEL VIERNES: Right?

EMILY GUERIN: When I got inside, Michael offered me cold water, Jameson, coke or Nescafé. I said yes to the Nescafé, and we sat down at his kitchen table.

MICHAEL VIERNES: My name is Michael Viernes, and I'm from Union City, and I happened to go, went, I went to Side Saddle Ranch about a year ago if I'm not mistaken.

EMILY GUERIN: Silver Saddle?

MICHAEL VIERNES: Silver Saddle. I'm sorry. Silver Saddle Ranch.

EMILY GUERIN: How'd you find out about it?

MICHAEL VIERNES: Well, Benjamin is a good friend of mine. And he said, hey, what are you guys doing this weekend? Why don't you guys come with me to this resort I know? So I said sure. Why not? I have nothing planned... Um, but at that time, though, he didn't tell me about, it was an investment thing.

EMILY GUERIN: Michael is kind of like Ben’s big brother. And said he immediately got a weird vibe from Silver Saddle.

EMILY GUERIN: How was Ben acting before the tour?

MICHAEL VIERNES: Tell you the truth, Ben was acting kind of fidgety

EMILY GUERIN: Fidgety?

MICHAEL VIERNES: Yeah, he wasn't his normal self you know, his relaxed state.

EMILY GUERIN: Michael sat through the sales pitch and thought to himself, “these people are liars.” So afterwards, he pulled Ben aside, and he kind of reprimanded him.

MICHAEL VIERNES: Why the hell did you do this? Why are you so stupid? And kind of thing like that, why didn't you think this over? But you know, at the other side, I actually, just, didn’t want to make him feel so bad because he did invest a lot of his money and he really believed in this endeavor.

EMILY GUERIN: He did?

MICHAEL VIERNES: Yes.

EMILY GUERIN: How could you tell.

MICHAEL VIERNES: Um, because he actually, he actually asked more friends to actually go to this resort place and invest. He didn't just stop with us. He didn’t give up.

EMILY GUERIN: Ben says he brought at least eight friends to Silver Saddle, and at least three bought in.

But Marian Ducreux told me at least five of Ben’s referrals spent money.

It took Ben nine weeks to make up his mind about Silver Saddle. By mid-September 2017, he began emailing company management, trying to get his money back and saying he thought he’d been scammed. That’s when Marian threatened to sue him if he didn’t shut up.

I asked him if he felt like he was complicit.

EMILY GUERIN: Like, do you feel like because you invited people you helped Silver Saddle get more people into the scam?

BEN PEREZ: Hmm. Not, not in that way.

EMILY GUERIN: Okay. Because I could see somebody who was like, looking at it from the outside being like, "Wait, Ben is a victim. But he also made other people victims."

BEN PEREZ: Yeah.

EMILY GUERIN: Do you know what I mean?

BEN PEREZ: Yeah.

EMILY GUERIN: It wasn’t a tragedy that occurred.

It wasn’t a failure.

Ben did it.

He knew in order to get his money back, his friends had to buy in.

EMILY GUERIN: Do you feel bad that you brought people there?

BEN PEREZ: Very bad. I feel very bad.

EMILY GUERIN: I’ve thought a lot about how this all makes me feel about Ben. He’s complicated.

Based on everything I’ve learned about Silver Saddle, from dozens of people who visited or bought in, I do think Silver Saddle took advantage of him.

I think they deliberately confused him with their sales pitch.

And I think they convinced him and his friends to lure even more people into their web.

But I also think Ben knew what he was doing.

He felt like something wasn’t right, but he invited people there anyway.

And he didn’t warn everyone — he just warned his family.

I think he was self-interested. And I think he was just trying to get his money back.

I know that’s what he’s wanted this whole time.

BEN PEREZ: I really hope to get that money back. I’m seeking help to everyone can help me.

EMILY GUERIN: Yeah, well.

BEN PEREZ: I don’t know what to do, I been doing research since day one… and, no one, you know, no one can help me. I don’t know where to go.

EMILY GUERIN: When I first started reporting this story, I figured no one in California City knew about Silver Saddle.

How else could something this bad have gone on for so long?

But the more time I spent there, the more naive I realized I’d been.

The people in town do know about Silver Saddle. And they talk about it as if it’s run by the mob. It’s not. But that’s the level of fear that people have when they talk about it.

CATHY YIP: Oh wait a minute, I am in business, I don't wanna say anything about Silver Saddle. Ok? No don’t, don’t do that.

KELLY ANON: You never know if you talk to somebody if you're gonna be beat up. Or ostracized. Or whatever. Cus this is is such a small knit community.

THERESA GRIMSHAW: You don't want to say something and end up not being able to find your body somewhere. Because there's been a reputation up here in the high desert too of places for people to just dump bodies.

EMILY GUERIN: I want to be clear: as far as I know, no one from Silver Saddle or Great Western Cities ever murdered anyone or buried bodies in the desert.

But it does seem like everyone in town knows that something sketchy is going on out there. Because whenever I asked about it, they wouldn't talk.

And I think that’s part of how this thing has been happening for 60 years. It’s an open secret.

That’s next time on California City.

MUSIC SWELLS

EPISODE 5The Tragedy That Occurred
Ken Donney is a hero to some, but most people would call him a villain.  California City is a limited series with 8 episodes. Show support by subscribing wherever you get your podcasts. California City sponsors include: Sun Basket is offering $35 off your order when you go right now to SUNBASKET.com/calcity and enter promo code calcity at checkout.
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EPISODE 5 TRANSCRIPT

Note: California City is a podcast for a reason. You can read the transcript below, but the story is meant to be listened to. The host and a team of producers worked hard to make the podcast sound its best, and this transcript can’t capture all the voices, emotion, intonation and atmosphere in the original audio. If you’d like to quote this podcast, please check the corresponding audio first.

MUSIC

EMILY GUERIN: Previously on California City:

EMILY GUERIN: I mean, do you, do you really think that anybody could just snap and kill their wife?

KEN DONNEY: Huh...um.

VOICE: YOU HAVE 60 SECONDS REMAINING.

EMILY GUERIN: There’s no one in this story who was as proud, or as disgraced, as Ken Donney.

Ken helped thousands of people get their money back in California City, and then 18 years later, Ken murdered his wife.

It’s hard to hold both of these versions of him in my head. But both are true.

And that’s the reason I want to tell you about Ken’s crime: because he’s the most extreme example of something I’ve noticed about almost everyone I talked to for this story.

Heroes can be villians.

Victims can be perpetrators.

No one is all bad or all good.

I’m Emily Guerin, and you’re listening to California City, episode four.

A quick warning about this episode: it does contain graphic descriptions of violence.

BREAK

I had been putting off asking Ken Donney about the murder.

Instead, I’d asked him all about the fraudulent way that Nat Mendelsohn sold land in California City.

I’d asked him about the student program and the tool lots.

The salesmen’s lies and misrepresentations.

The Federal Trade Commission's punishment.

I’d had more than a dozen calls with him.

VOICE: YOU HAVE A PREPAID CALL FROM...

KEN DONNEY: Ken for Emily!

KEN DONNEY: Ken for Emily.

KEN DONNEY: Ken for Emily.

KEN DONNEY: Howdy!

KEN DONNEY: I’m back!

KEN DONNEY: Ken for Emily.

KEN DONNEY: Emily, it’s Ken!

KEN DONNEY: Emily Emily from Ken Ken

KEN DONNEY: Encore!

EMILY GUERIN: But by the 21st minute of our seventh phone call, I couldn’t avoid it any longer.

EMILY GUERIN: I, I need to explain to the listeners the reason that you're in prison.

KEN DONNEY: Ah.

EMILY GUERIN: And so I wanted to know what you would like to say about that.

KEN DONNEY: Well, first of all, you're starting to fade away a little bit. So I don't know if you changed, uh. You’re on a cell phone, right?

EMILY GUERIN: He spent the next minute trying to hear me better. Although, he could’ve been deflecting.

EMILY GUERIN: Okay. Can you hear me now?

KEN DONNEY: Obviously, yeah, I hear you but barely.

KEN DONNEY: Interesting question. Again, I was advised by some lawyers not to even do this at all, this podcast interview at all, just for the simple reason that, um, ah high profile anything is is never a good thing for a prisoner.

EMILY GUERIN: Ken worries about his safety in prison. This one time, another inmate bashed his face in with a mop handle. And he’d only been locked up for a year when someone slit his throat, and he needed emergency surgery. He believes he was attacked because he’s a former federal prosecutor.

KEN DONNEY: Um, so I'd like to say — really at this moment, my — I’d just like to say no comment.

MUSIC

EMILY GUERIN: Ken never did tell me exactly what happened. But I read all four of his parole hearing transcripts, plus a bunch of newspaper articles, which is how I know everything I’m about to tell you.

In the summer of 1995, when Ken was 49 years old, his wife, Nina, told him she wanted a divorce.

They both worked at Santa Clara University, in Silicon Valley. He’d taken a job at the law school, and she worked in fundraising. But Nina was unfulfilled. She had a PhD. She wanted to be an academic. She told Ken she wanted to move out of state to get a teaching job. And Ken thought she wanted to take the children with her.

And he couldn’t handle it. He stopped eating. He stopped sleeping. He refused to move out of the house. He tried to talk her out of it, but it wasn’t working.

What happened just after 2 a.m. on the morning of October 27th is...really gruesome.

Nina’s mother believes Nina was asleep in the study when Ken walked in and stabbed her 29 times with a chef’s knife.

Their son, Phil, told police he heard his mom screaming “I don’t want to die.” He says he heard his dad scream back, “You should have thought of that before.”

For years, Ken said he didn’t remember the details.

But at his first parole hearing, in 2008, he told the commissioners he and Nina were arguing when she came at him with the knife.

He said he grabbed the blade, and then blacked out.

Ken pled guilty to second degree murder. He said he didn’t want to put his kids through a trial.

A judge sentenced him to 16 years to life in prison. He’s been locked up for 24.

There’s a story Ken often told me about something the judge said during his sentencing. And I think it says a lot about Ken.

The judge said,

KEN DONNEY: "What happened to Mr. Donney can happen to anybody." Quote unquote. He went on to, and there's a cautionary tale there.

EMILY GUERIN: What did he mean by that? “What happened to Mr. Donney can happen to anyone”?

KEN DONNEY: In other words, um, he's seen it happen before. Maybe not in the exact same way, but in other words none of us — I mean that could be the title of a memoir for me. It could happen to anyone. It could happen to anybody. Meaning, that...

EMILY GUERIN: Can you… what's it?

KEN DONNEY: The tragedy that occurred. The reason I'm in prison.

EMILY GUERIN: But is it something that happened to you?

KEN DONNEY: But that's, those were his words. And, um.

EMILY GUERIN: No, and I, I, I understand, I understand that I guess my, I guess the way my initial reaction to that is...

KEN DONNEY: Yeah, please.

EMILY GUERIN: Sort of framing it, as well, framing it as it could happen to anyone or it happened. It sort of takes the agency out of it. It's like a thing that that happened...

KEN DONNEY: I know

EMILY GUERIN: And not a thing that…

KEN DONNEY: I know.

EMILY GUERIN: … you did.

KEN DONNEY: I know. I know. And I didn't say that. The judge did. So he must have had his reasons. The rhetoric that you just used with regard to agency, with regard to concepts of free will or the lack thereof, and so on? That's what you're talking about. Right?

EMILY GUERIN: Yeah, I mean, I guess less free will and more just... responsibility?

KEN DONNEY: Well, I pled guilty, I accept responsibility.

VOICE: THIS CALL AND YOUR TELEPHONE NUMBER WILL BE MONITORED AND RECORDED.

KEN DONNEY: You can't really take more responsibilities then putting yourself in prison.

EMILY GUERIN: To Ken, the federal prosecutor, pleading guilty is the ultimate form of accepting responsibility. It is showing remorse.

“Actions speak louder than words,” Ken said at his third parole hearing. “It’s ineffable.”

And maybe that would be true, if Ken didn’t also imply, with his words, that Nina was partially to blame.

KEN DONNEY: I possibly could have won a manslaughter and been out in 11 years.

EMILY GUERIN: Hmm.

KEN DONNEY: Alright? I knew that. Um, and nevertheless, and you obviously don't know any of the circumstances of the prelude and so on and so forth of what happened. But you, you don't know the whole story, but bottom line is this: despite my having other choices available to me, I felt too much sorrow and remorse. I've taken another life.

EMILY GUERIN: I read through all four of the transcripts of Ken’s parole hearings. And I see it again and again — Ken referring to the murder as “the tragedy that occurred,” or “what happened,” or “a failure.”

A failure. Like stepping on the gas instead of a brake, and killing a pedestrian. It could happen to anyone.

The Parole Commissioners picked up on this, and they used it as justification for keeping Ken locked up.

“We fail at things all the time, sir,” one Commissioner said, “but the taking of a human life rises to a much higher degree than failure, and it’s noteworthy you chose that word. And ordinarily, we don’t nitpick words when it comes to our hearings, but it’s noteworthy that we’re not speaking to an unintelligent man... suggesting you don’t choose your words lightly.”

Sighs. I felt like if Ken wouldn’t say what he did, I had to.

EMILY GUERIN: And I've actually been thinking a lot about what the judge said. I mean, do you, do you really think that anybody could just snap and kill their wife?

KEN DONNEY: Huh...um.

VOICE: YOU HAVE 60 SECONDS REMAINING.

KEN DONNEY: That's what a judge who had been a family law judge before became a criminal law said. So I'm not gonna disagree with him.

Ken gets three, 15-minute phone calls each time we talk. We had time for one more. So we hung up. I didn’t think he would call back, given what I’d just asked him. But then, 50 seconds later…

VOICE: THIS IS GLOBAL TEL LINK. YOU HAVE A PREPAID CALL FROM:

KEN DONNEY: Ken for Emily.

VOICE: AN INMATE AT THE CALIFORNIA HEALTH CARE FACILITY STOCKTON CALIFORNIA. TO ACCEPT THIS CALL SAY OR DIAL FIVE NOW. BEEP. BEEP.

VOICE: THANK YOU FOR USING GLOBAL TEL LINK.

KEN DONNEY: Hello. Are you there?

EMILY GUERIN: Hello, I'm here.

KEN DONNEY: Yeah. So, to finish my thoughts. In no way, Emily, I think you're, you might be misjudging what I'm telling you versus how I'm feeling. Alright?

EMILY GUERIN: Okay.

EMILY GUERIN: Ken worried I didn’t understand how he felt about the tragedy that occurred.” He said he wasn’t the kind of person who showed emotion, especially in public.

KEN DONNEY: And I'm not, on a radio interview, in a room full of other inmates. And guards prancing around and noise… You can't possibly believe that my ability to emote in this interview with you is not somehow affected by the circumstances in which we're talking. So don't take what I'm saying in any way, Emily, as minimizing what I consider to be my offense.

MUSIC

EMILY GUERIN: The first three times Ken was up for parole, they denied him.

But on May 8th, 2019, something changed.

That’s after a break.

BREAK

EMILY GUERIN: Ken’s parole hearings have a certain... rhythm.

MUSIC

First, the commissioners have everyone in the room introduce themselves.

Front row, lawyers.

Back row, friends and family.

Ken’s son, Phil.

Nina’s sister, Abby.

Then, the commissioners go over paperwork. Ken’s behavior in prison, his anger management and victim’s awareness classes, the psychologist’s assessment that Ken is at low risk of reoffending if he gets out.

Then, they start re-hashing Ken’s marriage, and the events leaving up to the murder.

But in Ken’s fourth parole hearing, the way he talked about the crime, I don’t know, it just felt different.

Where as before, he might mention that Nina wasn’t taking her medication...

Or how he’d been in a near catatonic state on the night of the murder...

Or how he’d lost 30 pounds…

This time, he didn’t offer any excuses.

He said, quote, “I murdered Nina. I did it and I’m forever ashamed and there’s nothing I can do to remedy that.”

“I was in a rage about her not loving me anymore and wanting to leave.”

“I was controlling.”

“I was manipulative.”

“Angry.”

This time, he said he was the one who grabbed the knife out of a box while they were arguing. He’d been packing up the kitchen, preparing to move out.

I was really surprised. I mean, it was such a reversal from “the tragedy that occurred.” And at the end of the three hour and 40 minute hearing, the parole commissioners decided to grant him parole.

KEN DONNEY: I laid my head on my forearm on the table, and, and sobbed for a couple of minutes while the commissioner continued his decision.

EMILY GUERIN: I talked to Ken two days after his parole hearing.

KEN DONNEY: I'm on cloud nine. I'm in seventh heaven. I'm happy. I'm grateful. I'm relieved. And I have nothing but hope. Which, you know, prior to the hearing I didn't have.

EMILY GUERIN: But Ken wasn’t out yet. In California, the governor can deny the parole of anyone in prison on a life sentence.

So for three months, from May until August of 2019, Ken waited anxiously to see if Governor Gavin Newsom was going to let him out.

In July, I went to visit him in prison.

Officially, my visit was to fact-check. Unofficially, it was because I was curious. What did Ken look like? Would his voice sound different? Would he be more open with me in person?

As I drove up Highway 99 through the Central Valley, I thought about all the hours we’d spent on the phone.



EMILY GUERIN: How are you?

KEN DONNEY: Fair to middling. How's that?

EMILY GUERIN: Fair enough.

KEN DONNEY: laughs.

EMILY GUERIN: How's your, how's your morning so far?

KEN DONNEY: Oh, it's just been a thrill a minute. Wish you were here, as we say on the shores of Tahiti.

EMILY GUERIN: His favorite brand of prison coffee.

KEN DONNEY: Keefe, K-E-E-F-E, it's a freeze dried instant coffee.

EMILY GUERIN: His sexist compliments.

KEN DONNEY: And I hope you don't take this the wrong way: good girl.

EMILY GUERIN: laughs.

KEN DONNEY: Ah, it seems silly saying good lady or good woman or whatever.

EMILY GUERIN: Good job works, too. Good job.

KEN DONNEY: Hah! There you go. Thank you.

EMILY GUERIN: His own thoughts on death and God.

MUSIC CHANGES, SOUND OF PIANO BUILDS

KEN DONNEY: You know the prayer… Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, but if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. Have you ever heard that prayer?

EMILY GUERIN: Yeah,

KEN DONNEY: Okay. Well as a kid, and later I always thought that was a little morbid, about the, “if I die before I wake” business? I mean, I'm not the only one to think of that. It's been said many times by many different people.

EMILY GUERIN: Yeah.

KEN DONNEY: So I decided to compose a counterpart to that prayer, as a, as a possible replacement, for kids especially. And it goes like this: Dear loving God with your sweet might, please stay with me throughout the night, help me sleep and dream away, till I wake up with you to pray. Amen! And that is entitled "Dream Away."

At 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning, in July, I arrived.

I was wearing the outfit that I’d selected based on the prison guard’s recommendations.

No red, orange, blue or green, to avoid being confused for an inmate or guard.

No underwire bra.

No electronics, so I couldn’t record.

No cup of coffee for Ken, to save him from Keefe.

10 pieces of paper only.

Nine one-dollar bills, in a ziploc bag.

Inside, the visitor’s waiting room was filled with women, small children, and hard plastic chairs.

I checked in at the desk, where a guard cataloged my accessories: one hairband, two earrings, and a watch. I lifted my shirt and the cuffs of my pants, and walked through a metal detector. I stepped through a series of doors that closed behind me, before another one opened. I followed a long sidewalk to another building, and a guard buzzed me into the visiting room.

An old man with olive skin, bushy eyebrows and crazy, Beethoven hair was waving at me from a table.

Ken.

He was smaller than I imagined, and his voice was softer than it was on the phone.

I offered to buy coffee, so we walked over to the vending machine, which was behind a thick red line that only I could cross.

When Ken stepped on it, a guard barked at him to move back.

We sat down with styrofoam cups and a pack of powdered donuts. A prison guard handed me a freshly-sharpened pencil, and I pulled out my 10 sheets of paper with facts about Ken that needed checking.

Without the time restrictions of the prison phone calls, Ken went into professor mode, lecturing me on the fine details of his life.

It was… sighs. It was exhausting. And after three hours, I was completely drained.

At the end, Ken asked for a photo. He flagged down the inmate who carried around a point and shoot camera, and I handed over the tokens I’d purchased at the front desk. We stood with our shoulders nearly touching, in front of a large, abstract painting, and Ken told the guy, over and over, “count to three before you press the shutter,” as if he had never held a camera before.

The photo seemed like a perfect time to say goodbye. I folded my 10 sheets of paper, I returned my pencil, and told Ken I had a six hour drive ahead of me. But Ken didn’t get the hint. He asked about public radio. He asked if I’d ever considered becoming a lawyer. I was a sponge, and he was a strong pair of hands, wringing every last drop out of me.

In early August 2019, Ken got word. Parole denied.

In a letter explaining why, Governor Newsom said he was still troubled by Ken’s lack of insight into his crime. Until he can explain why he violently murdered his wife, he remains a danger to society.

Ken is appealing the decision.

Because Ken has been locked up since 1995, he had no idea what was happening in California City.

Ken had no idea that salesmen at Silver Saddle were selling a modern-day version of Nat Mendelsohn’s dream.

He had no idea that state investigators believe more than 2,000 people have spent nearly $60 million on that dream in the past eight years alone.

He didn’t know that the guy in charge of it all, the president of Silver Saddle, was someone he’d met years ago, during his negotiations with Great Western Cities.

MUSIC SWELLS

SINGER: Dear loving God… with your sweet might… please stay with me… throughout the night… help me to sleep… and dream away… till I wake up, with you to pray… Amen! Amen… Amen....

No one in California City is all bad or all good.

That’s next time on California City.

MUSIC FADES

EPISODE 4Soldiers of the Sale
Nat builds an army of salespeople to sell his dream. And then, then Ralph Nader intervenes. California City is a limited series with 8 episodes. Show support by subscribing wherever you get your podcasts. California City sponsors include: Sun Basket is offering $35 off your order when you go right now to SUNBASKET.com/calcity and enter promo code calcity at checkout.
EPISODE 3A Man with a Dream
The vision that Ben Perez was sold in 2017 began in 1958, with one man's dream to build a utopian desert city from scratch.
EPISODE 2Turning Desert Dust Into Gold
In 2017 Ben Perez goes to a Mojave Desert resort for a free vacation and ends up signing away his life savings. Turns out Ben is one of tens of thousands to believe a version of this dream over the past 60 years.
EPISODE 1How I Found Out About California City
It was supposed to be a simple story about the California drought. Instead, reporter Emily Guerin became obsessed with the bizarre history of a sprawling, half-built desert city.
View All Episodes
Meet The Team
Emily Guerin - Senior Reporter & HostEmily Guerin is the host of California City and a senior reporter at KPCC. Before moving to Los Angeles, she reported on the oilfield in North Dakota for Prairie Public Radio and Inside Energy. Before that, she wrote for a small newspaper in Maine, and lived on the Western Slope of Colorado while reporting for High Country News. She's received a national Edward R. Murrow award for her work on wildfires, and was a finalist for the Daniel Schorr Journalism Prize for her work on mysterious oilfield deaths.
Arwen Nicks - Senior ProducerArwen Nicks is an independent podcast producer and editor. Her previous work includes The Big One, Tell Them, I Am, The Sub Pop Podcast and How's Your Day? After working on California City she is nearly positive she will be buying Ralph Nader's cookbook.
James Kim - ProducerJames Kim is a podcast producer based in Los Angeles. He previously worked on KPCC's Repeat and Tell Them, I Am. The first public radio job he ever had was in 2011 working as an intern for KPCC's weekend show Off-Ramp hosted by John Rabe.
Mike Kessler - EditorMike Kessler is Senior Editor of Investigations and Projects at KPCC and LAist.com. He is the host, co-reporter, and co-writer of the investigative podcast The Running Man, coming soon from ESPN; his work for ESPN.com will be featured in the book Best American Sports Writing 2020; and a 30-minute documentary he reported with ESPN is a finalist for a 2020 Sports Emmy. Kessler’s work has twice been a finalist for the National Magazine Award, and included in several anthologies. An L.A. native and former writer-at-large for Los Angeles magazine, he has been working in journalism since 1996.
Valentino Rivera - EngineerValentino is a mixing/mastering engineer that has a strong passion for sound and storytelling. His credits include “The Big One: Your Survival Guide” and “Tell Them I Am.”
Gabriel Dunatov - Producer and Fact CheckerGabriel Dunatov is a public radio producer, researcher and fact-checker based in Pasadena. Before working on California City he contributed to KPCC’s Take Two. He used to work for NPR’s Morning Edition in Washington, D.C. and the NPR West bureau as a news assistant. His first experience in public radio was as an intern for Morning Edition.
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