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Death of a Survivalist: Only Lapse Proved to Be His Last

January 20, 1990|JESSE KATZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kenneth Obney was a survivalist, a trainer of attack dogs and a man so concerned with security that he carried a bullet-proof vest with him whenever he traveled from his isolated desert home.

The one time he let his guard down, someone dressed in a Santa Claus suit pointed a gift-wrapped box at him in front of a coffee shop and pumped five shots from a semiautomatic rifle into his chest.

On Sunday, friends of Obney, who was 36 when he was slain Dec. 21 in Bakersfield, will hold a benefit for his family at a San Gabriel Valley restaurant and bar, not far from where he grew up in San Dimas.

The gathering, from 2 to 8 p.m. at Mr. Mike's in Covina, will feature entertainment from several musicians who shared mutual friends with Obney, including David Hidalgo, guitarist and singer for Los Lobos. The $5 admission will go to Obney's widow, Mona, and their two teen-age children.

"Hopefully, it will be somewhat of a happy occasion," said Patrick Savant, a longtime friend who helped organize the event. "I don't want it to be depressing. I just wanted to do something to help the family."

Police investigating the Christmastime attack do not believe it was a random shooting. But they have no suspects and little to go on, apart from witnesses saying the assailant was tall, wearing a Santa suit and tennis shoes.

"You should have heard how many reports of people with Santa suits we got that day," said Bakersfield Police Sgt. Brad Singleton, head of the homicide division. "Something like 14 million. Santa was seen all over the place."

When Obney left the San Gabriel Valley in 1975, it was to escape the lunacy of city life. A former auto repossession man for a collection agency, he found peace on 15 acres of desert land in Joshua Tree, where he wore his hair shoulder-length, his beard bushy and built up a cache of weapons and canned food to be used in the event of a natural disaster or emergency.

He also purchased his first German shepherd, one of hundreds that he would eventually breed and train at his own kennel, Obney Shepherds Inc. Most of the dogs were sold for protection to businesses and celebrities throughout the country. But some of his clients, friends said, were unsavory characters.

"In selling these dogs, he realized how much bad stuff and how many bad people were out there," said his sister, Barbara Flotow. "That made him angry. The main thing in his life was helping people protect themselves from that bad element."

Four days before Christmas, Obney and a partner drove to Bakersfield with two German shepherd pups that they had arranged to sell to someone at a Denny's Restaurant. Obney left the dogs, his bullet-proof vest and .38-caliber revolver on the floor of his Chevy Blazer. Then they went into the restaurant and waited.

Sometime after 4 p.m., a man telephoned Denny's and told Obney to keep waiting. About 45 minutes later, he called again and said he was having car problems. He gave Obney directions where to find him.

"Things just didn't seem right," said Obney's partner, who was wounded in the arm during the attack and asked that his name not be used. "I can't tell you what it was. It was just like a gut feeling."

As they walked out of the restaurant at about 5:15 p.m., a man in a Santa outfit and false beard approached them, carrying a gold gift-wrapped box, tied with a red ribbon, under his arm.

The weapon never left the box. The shots ripped out of the cardboard about 12 feet from Obney. The gunman disappeared into the thick fog that enveloped the San Joaquin Valley community that night. Obney died shortly after arriving at Mercy Hospital in Bakersfield.

At his funeral, the casket was open and someone placed a tiny cloth German shepherd on his chest.

"He believed everyone needed complete and total security," said Dave Messer, who met Obney in seventh grade. "Sometimes I think he went a little overboard. But it wasn't paranoia. It was awareness. He knew you could get blown away for no reason at all."

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