We started chatting, and after a minute or so, I did what I always do. It was always crowded on hot days… which was most days in California City. Nat Mendelsohn’s dream failed to come true. Which Steve thought was weird. EMILY GUERIN: So people complained. So, she asked him to marry her mother. I’m pretty sure he could sell shit to a diaper. The city hall never got built, anyway. 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. Actually, there is a, I wish I had the marketing material with me. You really did drop the ball. And to be clear, Ken was speaking about them as a group. I learned this from a professor who did his dissertation on architecture in California City. EMILY GUERIN: Are you driving back somewhere right now? Literally, there's an evilness to that. EMILY GUERIN: You think your mom was threatened by the California City Development Company? EMILY GUERIN: Most of us don’t really understand the reams of legalese we agree to when we buy a house, or take out a car loan, or sign up for Facebook. TOM MANEY: I just think that’s a terrible thing to say. It’s there when he’s at home, watching Final Table. People listened when she talked. EMILY GUERIN: Don talked like he was letting me in on a little secret. When Steve was making this timeline, he wasn’t totally sure if Silver Saddle had anything to do with Great Western Cities or not. EMILY GUERIN: Ben moved back to California when he was 19. His agency kept prices from sky-rocketing and they rationed tires, sugar and shoes. I mean, you know, it's like a vacant lot. This is where they explain to you exactly what they’re selling. Silver Saddle Ranch. And he couldn’t handle it. Sometimes I think the reason Kathryn fell so hard for Nat and his pitch was timing. To plant trees. Everybody has a family. It is so much easier to just say yes than to say no. He lit our torch. The only grocery store in town is a Dollar General. EMILY GUERIN: Do you think that Nat also genuinely wanted to build a city or do you…. EMILY GUERIN: Wait, wait, sorry, just to clarify, so would he like…. laughs. Nat needed the things that make a t. own a town: kids running in the street, cars on the roads, a place to buy groceries. What if they were wrong? I’ve made this drive, too. Hawaii. She was very friendly. Sun Basket is offering $35 off your order when you go right now to SUNBASKET.com/calcity and enter promo code calcity at checkout. Like the fact that he never lived in California City. It wouldn’t be a place where you can just belt out Karaoke, and then wander home, still singing, on curving, moonlit roads. I needed someone to help me make sense of what had just happened with Tom and Debbie. Which Tom also denied. Just 10 people. EMILY GUERIN: Yeah, I mean, I guess less free will and more just... responsibility? The wind kept rattling the windows. He’s not looking at a floor, any time, anywhere… Very much aware of people around him and their plight. He smelled, EMILY GUERIN: Herb’s mom Marian Lee was one of the most outspoken of the pioneers. And then, after a few years, they’d realize it was just a bad investment. JAMES KIM: And then the other thing we heard a lot about is this place called Silver Saddle Ranch. And I'd do it. Years had passed without any basic accounting at all. A waitress there once told me she served salespeople coffee as they pushed paperwork on potential clients. EMILY GUERIN: Tom is pretty ripped for his age. And given the charges against Silver Saddle, and the dozens of investors I’d talked to, I assumed most people felt this way. The only bar is part of a Chinese restaurant. The Los Angeles Aqueduct. BEN PEREZ: Um, because it's in the middle of nowhere. I see him take off his Homburg hat and mop the sweat from his forehead with a pocket square. He was always reciting little limericks and poems and made some very fun playful faces. EMILY GUERIN: And so I wanted to know what you would like to say about that. So why do people like Antonio still believe? EMILY GUERIN: The Nat who had charmed Alex, the playful grandfather that she’d asked to marry her and her mother, that man was gone. It’s an open secret. The development company employed 35 or 40% of the people in town. Try SimpliSafe today at SimpliSafe.com/CALCITY. He calls his assistant babe, and he calls himself a dirt peddler, no shame. And there's a billboard for the Galileo Project, the landbanking project that Ben Perez and thousands of other people bought into. And he got his photo taken with a cowboy hat on, standing next to Marian Ducreux. I took it outside and I ate it on the curb as the sun set over the empty parking lot. EMILY GUERIN: And you couldn't cancel it. Everybody has a desire to get better than they are today. Tom denied he sold land for up to 100 times what it’s worth. EMILY GUERIN: Just after 10 a.m., the group opened the door and they walked inside. EMILY GUERIN: It feels to me like in this, this story there's, there's people who you think are good guys, and then they're bad guys, or there are people who you think are victims and then they’re perpetrators. One, God keeps making babies and doesn't make any more land. sighs. EMILY GUERIN: The hearing was on October 16 at the San Diego County Superior Court. I drove out here to Silver Saddle and was just shocked again by how far away it is. EMILY GUERIN: I’m Emily Guerin, I’m a reporter. When Cathy gave us another name: Theresa Grimshaw. And Herb’s mom Marian, she didn’t like that idea. EMILY GUERIN: After three hours, we stumbled out into the early spring sunlight. Or ostracized. It's like a thing that that happened... KEN DONNEY: I know. I'm relieved. EMILY GUERIN: Okay, but is Silver Saddle bound by that FTC judgment? And on the Better Business Bureau, and this website called Scamion. But they kept right on selling the landbanking project, according to the DBO. So I asked Kathryn, did you make up that story? EMILY GUERIN: Cathy Yip didn’t want to talk to us about Silver Saddle. DALLON COX: Nat Mendelsohn. He thinks the Ranch is worth way more than $2.5 million. EMILY GUERIN: At the time, James and I did not understand what John was talking about. Share. There were two pieces of paper taped to it. They called her “The Barracuda.”. An old man with olive skin, bushy eyebrows and crazy, Beethoven hair was waving at me from a table. 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. 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. EMILY GUERIN: The houses you do see are the same color as the dirt that surrounds them. Then, they start re-hashing Ken’s marriage, and the events leaving up to the murder. EMILY GUERIN: You weren't that impressed. She was like our mother. Like, and he was trying to like, speak the language in a really crude way, and I was, I just thought it was, like, weird. DALLON COX: If you profit at the expense of people who are being duped then you're evil. We thought he was a very sincere person. So the three of us went out back and we stood in the wet alley beneath the streetlight. Nat was a masterful salesman. After he took a trip to a place called California City. EMILY GUERIN: Ben apologized for it being messy, but it wasn’t messy. So what is that? They would sneak to the top of the concrete waterfall. EMILY GUERIN: After the tour, they drove back into town. And he’d forwarded one of them to the California Department of Real Estate. There was an outdoor skating rink. She had a PhD. Whittier City Hall, Whittier, California. KATHRYN EFFORD: I always believed that God gave Nat the vision that he gave him. Her Zillow page says, “I believe in honesty and fair dealing, not only with my clients, but with everyone connected in a real estate transaction. I don’t see any houses, and then we got to Silver Saddle. He’d been packing up the kitchen, preparing to move out. All, you know. I don’t know where to go. So we hung up. Okay, so let me just explain this: remember how when Ben Perez bought his share of the landbanking project, he spent $31,540? California City sponsors include: DON KUYRKENDALL: They'd fly into Sea-tac and we'd load them up with our Seattle people, we'd fly down to Portland, pick up our Portland people, fly down to Los Angeles. And they'll tell you that. The historical society offered to build a little memorial to the baby boy along this old wagon trail. He accused them of knowingly manufacturing dangerous cars. It could happen to anyone. EMILY GUERIN: Tom is pretty ripped for his age. ANTONIO GARCIA: They were not told that they were going to make money overnight, they were told that they will make money as soon as it is developed. And. As a Filipino people. That’s after a break. They may exaggerate their claims. Kathryn told me she was taking classes at Northwestern University, but when I called, the registrar couldn’t find her. But if you look at the rest of Ken’s life, he was nobody’s hero. EMILY GUERIN: It was another warm, sunny day in Southern California and Silver Saddle was getting shut down. EMILY GUERIN: We did that thing where I was still talking to him on the phone as he walked up. Kings, queens and wars are fought over her. They opened boxes. EMILY GUERIN: They made arrangements to move most of the animals off-site, and feed the ones that stayed behind. I told my mother. EMILY GUERIN: Her salespeople said she would definitely make her money back and then some. 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. BEN PEREZ: I don't know why I bought this land. JAMES KIM: I could see it being a paradise if you don’t like people. But then I met Antonio Garcia. And so for a few weeks, I just hung around, and I lapped up their every word. Officially, my visit was to fact-check. I was standing looking out this wall of glass across the top of Los Angeles, and, and he's talking about building a new, wonderful city. ANTONIO GARCIA: But remember, Las Vegas was a desert before it became Las Vegas. It had high ceilings, french doors, and a massive window in the living room. You know, we've all gone through that. EMILY GUERIN: In fact checking with Kathryn, she said Susan had always been jealous of her. By all accounts, Nat was whatever you needed him to be. EMILY GUERIN: At 10 am, on Wednesday September 25, 2019, eleven people gathered in the parking lot of an industrial office park next to the airport runway in Burbank, California. And then in the 80s, Silver Saddle’s creation. EMILY GUERIN: Was this kind of the thing that convinced you to do it? But nothing had come of it: they’d closed all 17 without taking any disciplinary action against Silver Saddle. How he spent so much of his money on a slice of empty desert land that he somehow believed would make him rich one day. That was a terrible experience. There were boxes everywhere. She told me she appreciated “ethical investigative unbiased journalism.”. Intention, this professional poker player once told me, is really the only difference between a dreamer and a con artist. “Actions speak louder than words,” Ken said at his third parole hearing. He once said, “hey listen,” 38 times in a single phone call. And before Nat built a high school, or a medical center, or a police department, he commissioned a million-dollar city hall. EMILY GUERIN: And there was Nat, the scoundrel. 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. They had nothing there to sell. Or a water park. Nine months later, Nat Mendelsohn died. Although, he could’ve been deflecting. 200,000 acres. LEE SMITH: Um... that's a good question. If you’d like to quote this podcast, please check the corresponding audio first. You wonder, how did this person get my number? An older man offered to buy me something to eat. Theresa’s a real estate agent who specialized in selling land in California City. But how? EMILY GUERIN: One day, Steve talked to one of Silver Saddle’s owners. They will someday be six and eight lane freeways. Fear, rumors, and looking the other way. Maybe Ben would’ve turned to his buddy Clifford and asked, what the hell is that? Oh yeah. That's their language, not mine. EMILY GUERIN: So Kathryn and Al drove out to California City, same way I drove in. Tom never raised his voice. It read, in green spray paint, “No Trespassing. That’s next time on the final episode of California City. EMILY GUERIN: It wasn’t a tragedy that occurred. There weren’t many people, either, except the Basque shepherds who herded their sheep to and from the high country in the Sierra Nevada. Judy’s dad was a quiet civil engineer whose job it was to survey property lines. STEVE COLERICK: Yeah, this was my first sketch that I did. It bothered him nearly as much as losing $31,000. EMILY GUERIN: So when you first saw the Yelp reviews, like how did you feel? A man who got you excited to come be a pioneer, and help him build a city from scratch. It was going to be worth something someday. BEN PEREZ: I really hope to get that money back. Nat Mendelsohn, developer of controversial California City, died Sunday. And then in 2011, he retired. Again, I don't think any of that happened in the Northwest Division. Instead there's an actual "keep out no trespassing" sign, but I know the road to Galileo Hill is still public, so, I drove up here and put the e-break on, and now I'm just standing out here. EMILY GUERIN: Who do you think was making the phone calls? The FTC had issued a cease and desist order. KATHRYN EFFORD: Delete them. 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. Literally there is an evilness to that. EMILY GUERIN: I first talked to him in June 2018. Like a Santa kind of laugh but lower. He said he trusted me. It is so isolated that when you drive out there, you kinda feel like you’re in a horror movie. DON KUYRKENDALL: If, even if there were 1,000 people that sued us it would be a fraction, a minuscule amount of the people that actually participated in the programs and people that bought property from ‘em. When I got home, I took a shower, I made some soup, and I collapsed on the couch. He had a great laugh. Her pink shirt matched her pink toenails, and her white capris seemed untouched by Mojave desert dust. JUNE SUGASAWARA: And we thought it was a golden opportunity and we were gonna make millions off of it. KEN DONNEY: That's fraudulent. RALPH NADER: Well, they don't usually pay attention to this? 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. She told me so. Show support by subscribing wherever you get your podcasts. They told me they believed the world was ending in 2012. It wasn’t his job. It was — even through the tough questions. SOUND OF VOICES TALKING IN CROWDED HALLWAY. The podcast series "California City," an investigative look at the desert city, debuts Monday through LAist Studios, a Southern California Public Radio podcast … My senior producer and I even role-played. I bought groceries at the Dollar General. But I understand why Theresa feels scared. He stopped answering my calls and texts. That’s after a break. Nobody has ever asked me, Emily, what did you do between the time you were 15 and 20. JOHN DAVIDSON: It’s a small town, small community, out in the middle of nowhere. So Ben and his friends reported to the lobby. And he didn’t warn everyone — he just warned his family. And after we hung up, we went our separate ways. It’s in the Mojave desert. KEN DONNEY: So I decided to compose a counterpart to that prayer, as a, as a possible replacement, for kids especially. EMILY GUERIN: Does he remind you of the president in any way? 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. Maybe Silver Saddle had a paper trail. EMILY GUERIN: Ken’s parole hearings have a certain... rhythm. It’s another thing to let down your brother or your cousin. DAVID DAI: She just, you know, said, what they want is, do not do anything just, you know, take the land, take the ranch, then, you know... We're done. He realized it was easier to sell the promise of a city than to build one. But we’ll never know, because Theresa never built that sign. If just given the chance, it will, it will happen. EMILY GUERIN: All the DBO’s findings and evidence show that what Silver Saddle sold, at the price they sold it for, is a bad investment. Okay. He sued GM, and won nearly half a million dollars. t was a weird thing to include on your resume if you know what happened to Nat’s company. KEN DONNEY: Hitting corporate America where it hurts worst. If you have credit card, we can do that.”, EMILY GUERIN: Another classic sales tactic: turn a “no” into a “yes.”. He was everyone’s favorite uncle. He reached under the coffee table and grabbed a tote bag. Part of why they became best friends is there weren’t a ton of other options. I’m going, “I gotta find this, this trail. In fact, anyone else would consider him a villain. In February of 1984, Great Western Cities declared bankruptcy. He’s on unemployment now. But back in 1958, I don’t know, it was different. At the end, Ken asked for a photo. And then, then Ralph Nader intervenes. Their signatures were both on page 21, just centimeters apart. And, I wanted it to be true. I lose hope. How salesmen have sold the fantasy of California City for so long. EMILY GUERIN: My takeaway is that either they really don't know what the sales people are saying, or they're totally bullshitting us. Ok, ok, I just have to read this whole part. I decided to find it. Would his voice sound different? EMILY GUERIN:The place where Ben said he’d been ripped off is called Silver Saddle Ranch and Club. In by the millions. Or maybe, Alex was starting to see Nat the way he’d been the whole time. EMILY GUERIN: Thirty four years since Tom Maney started Silver Saddle. Stopped trying to get his money back. EMILY GUERIN: Right. I'm just saying — I don't, when I read this, I don't think Marian wrote it. It's the majority, actually. I lifted my shirt and the cuffs of my pants, and walked through a metal detector. Ken pled guilty to second degree murder. EMILY GUERIN: Okay. Show support by subscribing wherever you get your podcasts. “What happened to Mr. Donney can happen to anyone”? More than twice the size of Baltimore. Attend a free evening or daytime meeting! EMILY GUERIN: How's your, how's your morning so far? Deep in the Mojave Desert, there is a little town with a big name and a bizarre history: California City. BEN PEREZ: There’s nothing really… thing to do there … they have like, mini golf…. I knew Tom was there during the Federal Trade Commission's investigation. Ok, ok, I just have to read this whole part. It had been on a computer in the Burbank office. EMILY GUERIN: PREVIOUSLY ON CALIFORNIA CITY….. KATHRYN EFFORD: Nat believed with all his heart that God gave him the vision for the city. Cuz she wasn't even talking to me. BEN PEREZ: It’s been a long time. I had never met anyone like them. KATHRYN JANDESKA: I don't have any illusion that it's worth what we paid. Because it's bait and switch. Listen to California City podcast for free on GetPodcast. Marian Ducreux had been making $300,000 a year, according to the DBO. They scanned any document that seemed interesting, and labeled what office it had come from. I knew him. Cause I didn’t, sometimes I didn’t know who was who. THERESA GRIMSHAW: laughs. You’re on a cell phone, right? And it was immediately apparent to me, talking to Kane, why the Mojave Desert News had not investigated Silver Saddle: the former publisher had worked with Tom Maney for years. EMILY GUERIN: laughs. Maybe I have the charisma. ALEX MENDELSHON: I know that he came to this country as a child. ANTONIO GARCIA: Um...we’re going to have a meeting someplace. I'm doing the same thing today I was doing for 50 years ago, I’m looking for the next deal. They said people like Ben Perez had paid around 100 times more than what it was really worth. It was designed by a famous German architect who called it “the eighth wonder of the world.”. This is episode 1 of 7. DON KUYRKENDALL: It was just kinda common sense. Even if they sold the ranch, and sold the vacant land that remained, it wouldn’t generate enough money to pay everyone back in full. laughs. KEN DONNEY ... a guy, who I later found out was former FBI. The salesmen’s lies and misrepresentations. Galileo Hill. The nothingness is what makes the anything possible. Part of the reason we hung out there so much was that, on our first day in town, we’d gotten a tip that the woman who owned the Green Tea Garden knew a lot about Silver Saddle. Ever. HERB LEE:. EMILY GUERIN: They were gonna go to California City. She went to Sacramento to complain to politicians. You’d learn you could make a bunch of money selling land in this place called California City. The man who started California City was named Nat Mendelsohn. Ben lives next to a freeway on a noisy, potholed road. EMILY GUERIN: Will you tell us your name first? MICHAEL VIERNES: Sorry it’s kind of flooded all over the place…. EMILY GUERIN: The older man plopped a huge plastic cup of ice cream, coconut and sweet red beans in front of me. If they weren’t selling drugs or gang banging, I didn’t care. They’d listen to the spiel from the top of Galileo Hill. Their family. Try SimpliSafe today at SimpliSafe.com/CALCITY. He previously worked on KPCC's Repeat and Tell Them, I Am. Ken Donney is a hero to some, but most people would call him a villain. EMILY GUERIN: That good question... is one that state investigators would ask themselves later on. And either way, that wasn’t my point. She didn’t trust him because Nat was trying to get the current residents of California City to pay for the things he wanted built. He didn’t need to, because, according to him, he’d done nothing wrong. And maybe that would be true, if Ken didn’t also imply, with his words, that Nina was partially to blame. We want to believe people are telling us the truth. That word jumped out at me as soon as Kathryn said it. BEN PEREZ: No. Do you think that Nat also genuinely wanted to build a city or do you…, Sylvia was in her late 20s and she was Jackie-O pretty. Please check website home page daily for updated information; Public Works emergencies after hours only: (760) 559-5713; City Hall main number is: (760) 373-8661; Water Bills can be paid online. Why? Apparently they had been preparing to close the Burbank office and move everything out to California City. Pretty early on. He wasn’t a prophet or a dad. EMILY GUERIN: And I've actually been thinking a lot about what the judge said. We went late and the place was nearly empty. KATHRYN EFFORD: California City is sandwiched between three major freeways. You never know if you talk to somebody if you're gonna be beat up. DAVID DAI: Yeah, that means, we want our money back, that's the Chinese. He said, California City is the perfectly located city to build a new city in. In a town called California City. I’m still struggling to make sense of what he did next: he handed me his bankers box of documents, and he told me to make copies of whatever I wanted. While Los Angeles has a population density of 7,544.6 people per square mile, California City… In the driveway, Kathryn’s silver minivan was parked in the shade of a spindly tree. EMILY GUERIN: It just seems like there are a not insignificant number of people that just don't really understand what they're buying. The one where she’d said, quote: “You emailed the company bad about me. California City is a limited series with 8 episodes. EMILY GUERIN: Do you think you're going to? Their books were so disorganized, the DBO’s fraud examiner determined it must be deliberate -- Silver Saddle must have been transferring money between multiple accounts to make it difficult to trace. Sitting in first class on his way home from Denver, Ken popped some champagne to celebrate. And it was nice, good food. It wouldn’t be a place where you can just belt out Karaoke, and then wander home, still singing, on curving, moonlit roads. 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