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Podcasts California City
Where Dreams Go To Die
California City
Episode 10
24:31
Where Dreams Go To Die
Silver Saddle Ranch gets sold, and the people who still believe it’s worth something stage a protest. Plus, a former employee comes forward with a disturbing story.

CALIFORNIA CITY
Episode 10 Transcript: Where Dreams Go To Die
BONUS EPISODE 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.

EMILY GUERIN: Three days after the election, and the day before Pennsylvania was called for Biden, I took a break from hitting refresh on election results to listen to this court hearing about the sale of Silver Saddle Ranch.

JUDGE JOEL WOHLFEIL: People of the State of California vs. Silver Saddle Commercial Development, case number ending 49151…

EMILY GUERIN: By this point, it had been over a year since the California Department of Business Oversight accused Silver Saddle of fraud and shut them down. The trial was still months away, but the company’s headquarters were closed. And the ranch was empty, except for two security guards and a single, lonely sheep. A company called Regulatory Resolutions was now in charge of Silver Saddle’s assets. They were the court-appointed receiver. And they had decided to sell the ranch, because it was super expensive to maintain. By mid October, there was a final offer on the table. Now, it was up to a San Diego County Superior Court Judge, Joel Wohfeil, to approve the sale.

Because of coronavirus, the hearing was held on a conference call. There were eight lawyers, two people who had invested with Silver Saddle and me on the phone. And it was a little bit of a mess getting everyone unmuted and introduced.

JUDGE JOEL WOHLFEIL: Ughh.

WOMAN ON PHONE: Counsel’s line is live.

LAWYER 1: Yes your honor Mark Hiradie appearing by myself on behalf of Thomas Maney, Silver Saddle…

LAWYER 2: Yes your honor Emily Gordon here on behalf of the receiver…

LAWYER 4: Thank you your honor Robert Lux on behalf of the people…

ANTONIO GARCIA: Yes your honor, Antonio Garcia appearing on behalf of myself.

EMILY GUERIN: Yeah, that Antonio Garcia. The guy who still had the vision. The guy who somehow still believed Silver Saddle and all the land around it was a good investment. For over a year, Antonio had been trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to convince Judge Wohlfeil not to approve the sale of the ranch. Instead, he argued, the judge should give it to him and all the other people who had invested with Silver Saddle so they could run it themselves. They believed that in the right hands -- their hands -- they’d make all their money back.

So far, the judge hadn’t been persuaded. So, two weeks before this hearing, Antonio had organized one last-ditch effort.

CROWD CHANTING: Don’t sell the ranch! Don’t sell the ranch!

EMILY GUERIN: I didn’t go to the protest, but I watched hours of the video. And I have to say, it felt like a perfect distillation of what was going on in America just before the election.

A small group of people were convinced that there was collusion and fraud in all levels of government. They didn’t believe what they’d read in the news. Instead, they believed that the institutions that were supposed to be helping them were actually victimizing them even further.

Which was honestly hard for me to understand, because around the time of the protest, I’d learned something pretty disturbing about Silver Saddle. It was something I hadn’t yet seen in court documents. Something that, if it was true, is almost certainly a federal crime.

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

BEN PEREZ: That’s actually my 5 years savings. I work 5 years just to save that $30K.

EMILY GUERIN: That’s your 5 year savings?!

KEN DONNEY: The "Genius" of the original land development scheme was a white collar crook named Mendelsohn.

KATHRYN EFFORD: Nat believed with all his heart that God gave him the vision for the city.

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

DARRYL HOROWITT: Why do people believe things that they know are believed to be false? It's because we have a default to truth.

EMILY GUERIN: After the break: the protest.

AD BREAK

WOMAN FILMING: Alright! We’re here right now in front of the Silver Saddle Ranch and Club, and these are the protesters, the land unit owners. And as you can see there are seniors, elderlies, and Mr. Antonio.

EMILY GUERIN: The protesters started early on the morning on Saturday, October 24th. There were about 40 of them, mostly older folks, and they’d driven from Las Vegas and around California. They parked their sedans and their minivans just outside the entrance to Silver Saddle, and set up little shade tarps on the cracked pavement. They wore masks for coronavirus, and hats for the sun. And they held up hand-written posters that flapped in the wind.

A woman walked around reading them off as she live-streamed. Most of them said something about the California Department of Business Oversight, or the DBO, which is the former name of the agency suing Silver Saddle for fraud. They just changed it recently to the Department of Financial Protection and Innovation, which I know, it’s super confusing, so let’s just go with DBO.

WOMAN FILMING: So it says here: collusions, receiver, RE broker, buyer, DBO, they need to investigate. “My future has been stolen!” Yes! That’s right! Please DBO! Treat seniors fairly! Give us back our investment! The DBO is supposed to protect us instead they’re against us!

EMILY GUERIN: The protestors walked in slow circles, pumping their signs up and down. They took turns yelling into a bullhorn, addressing, I think, Judge Wohlfeil. But there was no one there to hear them, except the ravens.

MAN YELLING INTO BULLHORN: Nosotros pertenecemos a este rancho. Muchos años hemos estado pagando. Yo he pagado más de 27 mil dólares. Yo lo pagué al contado.

EMILY GUERIN: An old man in a white button down tucked his wooden cane under his arm and picked up the bullhorn.

MAN YELLING INTO BULLHORN: Todo mi esfuerzo. Todo lo que acumulé y guardé, lo puse en este rancho...pero me doy cuenta de aquí, en los EEUU California, están también defraudando a los que son incapacitados, a los que son ya de la tercera edad. Aquí vemos muchas personas de la tercera edad que hemos dado nuestro sacrificio a este rancho. Y nos están quitando. Nos están robando el dinero.

EMILY GUERIN: “We belong to this ranch,” he yelled. “We’ve been paying for years. I’ve paid more than 27,000. And I paid in cash. All my effort. Everything I’ve saved and earned, I put into this ranch. But I’ve realized that here in the U.S, in California, they’re also defrauding the vulnerable, and the elderly. They’re taking it from us,” he says. “They’re stealing our money.”

And then the crowd started chanting.

CROWD CHANTING: Because we trusted! Because we trusted!

EMILY GUERIN: When I was little, my dad used to tell me this story about a girl who dove deep into a pond and swam through a portal into a parallel world. It looked identical to her world, except everything was upside down. The houses sat in the sky. Horses grazed where the clouds should be. Water flowed upwards, against gravity.

In the world most of us live in, which by the way is the same world that state investigators live in, Silver Saddle is the perpetrator. The state says over eight years, Silver Saddle convinced more than 2,000 people to spend more than $56 million dollars on nearly worthless desert land. It’s salespeople made false promises, and they used high pressure sales tactics. But then the state shut the company down. And now, they’re trying to help the victims get as much money back as possible. That’s why the ranch was for sale.

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

EMILY GUERIN: But the people protesting live in this parallel world. And in this world, the DBO, the judge, and the court-appointed receiver who are the perpetrators. And they’re guilty of an even worse offense than Silver Saddle. Because they’re taking the ranch away from the people who still believe it’s worth something.

In most people’s world, it’s Silver Saddle who stole the future of people like Ben Perez. In their world, it’s the state of California.

It was kind of confounding, this difference in world views, especially because just that week, I’d talked to a woman who used to work for Silver Saddle, who claimed she’d been asked to do some pretty shady things. And now, I was even more convinced that they would stop at nothing to make a sale.

This woman’s name was Bekki Suorez, and she’d messaged me on Twitter right after the podcast came out. She said she worked at Silver Saddle from 2017 to 2019, doing IT.

“Not my proudest period of time,” she wrote, “but you have to pay bills and eat, right?”

BEKKI SUOREZ: Looking back now, I’m ashamed I worked for them. I helped perpetuate what they were doing. I didn't know at the time, and then by the time I knew, I felt kind of stuck because you know, I have a family, I have rent to pay. I have to keep the electric on and Cal City is kind of a dead end place. It's where everybody ends up getting pushed to when they don't have other options.

EMILY GUERIN: Bekki and her husband Anthony moved to California City in 2015, mostly because it was cheap. For $600 a month, they could rent an entire, 2-bedroom house, from a landlord who didn’t mind 4 cats and a rescue pitbull named Daisy.

At the time, Bekki worked in the IT department of a company that built huge solar farms. She spent a lot of time on the road, and it was tiring, all those empty desert miles. So in August 2017, when a friend told her that this resort right in California City was looking for someone to help fix their internet, she was interested.

Almost immediately, Bekki said she started hearing a lot of complaints from Silver Saddle guests. They were complaining about the WiFi and the phone service, especially out at the sales pavilion.

The sales pavilion is the room where it happened. It’s where sales agents divided people up by ethnicity, showed them a powerpoint about Elon Musk and Bill Gates supposedly having interests in the area, and then pressured them into buying a piece of empty desert land.

BEKKI SUOREZ: It was stressed to every single person who worked at the ranch that at the end of the day, we were all there to support the sales pavilion and the sales that they made.

EMILY GUERIN: Okay.

BEKKI SUOREZ: Sales is where all of our money comes from, sales is how we survive.

Ben Perez had told me he couldn’t get internet while he was in the sales pavilion. And I’d also read that in a letter that this home-health nurse wrote to Silver Saddle when she was trying to get her money back. She said, “There was no WiFi service so I cannot check the property value in the area.” And this is even mentioned in a class action lawsuit filed against Silver Saddle, “plaintiff alleges she did not want to do the investment, but continued to be pressured and did not have any phone signal to do any research.”

So Bekki told her bosses she could at least extend the WiFi to the sales pavilion. She says they weren’t interested.

BEKKI SUOREZ: They said, “we just want people to be focused on the sales presentation, we want people to be focused, we don't want them to be distracted.”

EMILY GUERIN: The sales pavilion was basically a dead zone. And Bekki told me that seemed to be how Silver Saddle wanted it. Because later, when she was upgrading the ancient landlines, she said her bosses asked her to make it difficult for people to get through to the sales pavilion on the weekends.

BEKKI SUOREZ: I was being told, “Hey, from Saturday morning to Sunday night, we don't want any outside phone lines to be able to call in to us. We don't want anybody to be able reach the sales pavilion or the finance/admin office.”

EMILY GUERIN: Bekki suspected that this was to keep people from calling to cancel their contracts.

BEKKI SUOREZ: I thought this is slimy. This feels wrong. If you're okay with what you're doing, you shouldn't have a problem with people contacting you about it.

EMILY GUERIN: But the weirdest thing of all actually happened on her very first day at Silver Saddle. Bekki said she was poking around in this dungeony crawl space underneath the sales pavilion where the internet and phone lines came into the building.

BEKKI SUOREZ: And while I was in there working, I found three different cell jammer devices.

EMILY GUERIN: Cell phone jammers. Thick black plastic bricks with little dials and antennas. They’re designed to interrupt cell signals and stop phones from working. And Bekki said all three were plugged in. She went back later and unplugged them.

BEKKI SUOREZ: As soon as they lost power, I got like 3 messages from Anthony actually. I just remember my phone going, beep beep beep.

EMILY GUERIN: So as soon as you unplugged them, you basically had service.

BEKKI SUOREZ: Mmhmm.

EMILY GUERIN: I wanted to check Bekki’s story with someone else. So I called Anthony -- her husband. And he remembers that day because he says Bekki came home with dirt on her pants from kneeling in the crawl space. He remembers her describing the jammers and saying, “I’m not sure those are entirely legal.”

I’m pretty sure they’re not. The Federal Communications Commission says blocking cell phone signals is a violation of federal law. You can’t use a jammer at home, or in your business, or in your car, and if you do, you can be fined hundreds of thousands of dollars, or even sent to prison. And remember -- state regulators have only accused Silver Saddle of civil fraud so far, not a crime. So, if Bekki’s right, and they really were cellphone jammers, that could be a pretty big deal.

Because Bekki didn’t take any photos of the jammers, or have any physical evidence they existed, I wanted to just confirm with one other person. So I called up Silver Saddle’s former controller, a woman named Jamie Winton. Jamie told me that although she’d never seen the jammers herself, she didn’t doubt Bekki for a second. She told me that Silver Saddle’s owner, Tom Maney, and other managers talked all the time about making sure potential buyers didn’t have phone service.

“We have to make sure they can’t get a signal,” she remembers them saying in meetings, “we have to make sure their phones don’t have any bars.”

I asked Tom Maney’s lawyer about this, but he didn’t respond.

When Bekki found the jammers, she didn’t report them. I mean, it was her first day at work. She was too new to be suspicious.

BEKKI SUOREZ: I didn't think at the time that anybody had put them in there intentionally or knowing what they were. Not to talk trash about the people who contracted me, but they were not the most technically savvy folks. So I thought, oh, well, maybe it was a mistake. Maybe they thought it was a booster, or some sort like that.

EMILY GUERIN: I see, you thought kind of like, maybe these people are kind of inept, and they don’t really know what these are, or what they do.

BEKKI SUOREZ: Yeah, that honestly that was an impression that was left with me about a lot of the ranch until April 2019.

EMILY GUERIN: What happened in April 2019?

BEKKI SUOREZ: A couple of things.

EMILY GUERIN: Bekki told me that’s when Tom Maney asked her to come to his house in Lancaster. He was having trouble with his home printer and his TV.

BEKKI SUOREZ: And then I got into his office where there's just paperwork strewn everywhere. Just all sorts of legal documents all over his desk. And there were letters from lawyers advising him that he needed to stop immediately. And it's like printouts of emails saying, you know, we're starting to get questioned on this, investigators are looking into things. We need to cut back on our advertising in this area because people are getting suspicious and we're meeting too much resistance.

EMILY GUERIN: She fixed the printer quickly and got out of there. She didn’t want to get caught snooping around. The whole car ride home, she drove in silence. Past the windmills with their eerie red blinking lights. Past the Joshua trees and the barbed wire fences. Past the gold mine and freight trains and the long dark shadow of the mountains.

BEKKI SUOREZ: My phone was dead. So I couldn't listen to podcasts. There was nothing good on the radio, and I couldn't find any good CDs to listen to. So I was stuck in the car with myself for over an hour. And at some point I had to say, you got to stop lying. There's something happening here. And if this were above board, they wouldn't be operating like this. And from there on out, I think, was the beginning of the end for me.

EMILY GUERIN: In August 2019, Bekki got let go. Officially, Silver Saddle told her it was a “business lay-off.” I saw the email. Unofficially, Bekki thought it was because after that day in Tom Maney’s office, she’d started being insubordinate.

She stopped blocking incoming calls on weekends when potential buyers were there. She turned on the WiFi at the sales pavilion. And when Silver Saddle’s managers confronted her about it, she played dumb.

BEKKI SUOREZ: And I'm sure I made myself look incompetent because suddenly I developed all of these IT problems I just couldn't solve.

EMILY GUERIN: Mmhmm.

BEKKI SUOREZ: I felt like I was backed into a corner.

EMILY GUERIN: Yeah.

BEKKI SUOREZ: I felt like I only had so many options available to me and so I took what I thought I could. I couldn't be directly confrontational, I couldn't call them out. So I started being sneaky about it.

EMILY GUERIN: Bekki brought up the feeling of being stuck, of not having other options beyond Silver Saddle, 12 times during our conversation.

BEKKI SUOREZ: People with money don’t end up in Cal City. They just don’t... I mean, this is where dreams go to die. It's not where they're born. And it's not where they come true.

EMILY GUERIN: That’s really---

BEKKI SUOREZ: That’s not to say that there's not good things about Cal City. There are good people out here. But there are good people out here hanging on because this is the last thing they have. Not because they got to choose from a lot of potential.

EMILY GUERIN: I think now that this is part of how Silver Saddle got away with it. This is part of how they made so much money. Not only did they hire aggressive sales agents. Not only did they operate in a desolate, overlooked corner of California. And not only were people in California City afraid to talk. But Silver Saddle hired people who couldn’t afford to confront them.

BEKKI SUOREZ: I don’t know exactly why I reached out to you except that it’s like purging a wound.

EMILY GUERIN: laughs

BEKKI SUOREZ: Getting all of this out of me, and admitting that yeah, I had a hand in all this underhanded shady shit.

EMILY GUERIN: But I think there’s one other reason why Silver Saddle got away with it for so long. And I realized it while I was watching one of many videos of the protest outside the ranch.

This one wasn’t really a video at all, actually. It was a montage of photos set to supermarket muzak: something your uncle might have made in the early 2000s, after coming back from a trip to Cancún. The photos were from after the protest, when everyone gathered under a shade tarp around folding tables. There was a woman lining up towers of red solo cups and rows of bananas. A teenage girl in a folding chair flashing a peace sign. An older man and woman, with their arms around each other’s shoulders, a sun-squinty smile in their eyes.

It didn’t look like a protest anymore. It looked like...a family reunion, or a tailgate party. It looked...fun. And that’s when it hit me, and I felt stupid for not realizing it earlier: these people really love Silver Saddle.

It’s where they sing Don McLean during Friday night Karaoke. It’s where the photos on their yearly Christmas cards were taken. It’s where their mothers celebrated turning eighty, and their grandsons, ten. So, of course they’re upset the ranch is getting sold. Of course they don’t feel like the state is helping them by getting rid of it.

Like everyone else in this story, they’re complicated. Yes, they may have spent tens of thousands of dollars on what was, by any measure, a bad investment. But maybe they didn’t see it that way. Maybe the sense of belonging made it worth it.

And in that way, Silver Saddle really wasn’t that different from Nat Mendelsohn. They became a community for the people who craved one. They promised a bright future to a young man with a dream. They provided a stable job for a woman who really needed it. It seemed like they would be whatever you needed them to be — as long as it served them.

On November 6, just 21 minutes into the court hearing, Judge Joel Wohfeil approved the sale of the Silver Saddle ranch. The buyer was a guy who once sold medical cannabis in LA named Aaron Mamann. He paid $2.1 million for the ranch, and another $900,000 for all the vacant land that surrounded it. Which is a lot less than the $56 million Silver Saddle made.

When I called Mamann afterwards, he cut me off after 37 seconds, and never picked up again. So I don’t know exactly what his plans are for Silver Saddle. And I still don’t know how the state’s lawsuit against the company will end, or exactly how much money people will get back, if any.

But selling Silver Saddle ranch feels like the end of an era: for the first time in more than 30 years, this little oasis in the desert is no longer a tool to sell thousands of unsuspecting people a deceptive dream.

This episode of California City was written and reported by me, Emily Guerin.

Editing by Mike Kessler.

Mixing and production by Valentino Rivera.

Original music by Andrew Eapen.

The Jane and Ron Olson Center for Investigative Reporting helped make California City possible. Ron Olson is an honorary trustee for Southern California Public Radio. And the Olsons do not have any editorial input on the stories we cover.

California City is a production of LAist Studios.

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