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The Hunted Becomes The Hunter
California City
Episode 6
The 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.
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Emily confronts the owner of Silver Saddle and walks away doubting herself. Plus, Ben becomes part of Silver Saddle's sales machine.

Episode 6 Transcript: The Hunted Becomes The Hunter

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.


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.


EMILY GUERIN: You ready, James?

JAMES KIM: Let's do it.

EMILY GUERIN: 8:53. Time to go.


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.


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.


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: 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.


JAMES KIM: It's really beautiful right now.


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.


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.


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.



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!


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.


JAMES KIM: Hey how's it going?



EMILY: Hi. Are you 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.”


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.


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.


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?


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.


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.



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: 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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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

KEN DONNEY: Oh you 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?


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?


KEN DONNEY: May I just say?


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.


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.


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!


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


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: 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."


EMILY GUERIN: Do you know what I mean?


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.


This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.