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Trail's End : Deep in a Wild Canyon West of Malibu, a Controversial Law Brought Together a Zealous Sheriff's Deputy and an Eccentric Recluse. A Few Seconds Later, Donald Scott Was Dead.

August 01, 1993|Michael Fessier Jr. | Michael Fessier Jr. is a free-lance writer living in Santa Barbara. His new book, "The Big Ride: Everybody Gets Off on Murder," will be published by Turtle Point Press in the fall.

SURFERS AT LEO CARRILLO State Beach were paddling out for the first waves of the morning when the unmarked black van turned off the coast road onto Mulholland Highway and headed up into the mountains. It was 8:30 a.m., Friday, last Oct. 2, and following the van came a caravan of 15 vehicles--black-and-white police cars, civilian Hondas, four-wheel-drive Broncos--a strung-out convoy traveling at a leisurely pace that some might have taken for a funeral procession.

Three miles or so up the road, just past the "Camp Bloomfield" sign, was an open gate in a chain-link fence. One after another, the cars proceeded through the gate and down a sharp embankment, where they bumped across a dry creek bed before continuing uphill on the dusty road.

That road is a mile-long driveway leading to three properties tucked away in the otherwise largely uninhabited Arroyo Sequit, one of the last canyons before the Santa Monica Mountains dip into the sea, the place where Los Angeles and Ventura counties meet. The first property is 36 acres, the second 28 and, as substantial as they are, they do not compare to the 200-acre stronghold that begins beyond the last gate: Trail's End Ranch.

That gate was padlocked, and the procession stopped there while a man in olive-green pants, black shoes and an olive-drab vest with S-H-E-R-I-F-F written across it in four-inch yellow letters got out to snip the lock with bolt cutters. Now, as a kind of de facto proprietor, he pushed open the gate so the others could drive in.

THE HOUSE WHERE 61-YEAR-OLD DONALD Scott and his 38-year-old wife Frances slept is a quarter of a mile or so up the road beyond the gate. It is more of a large cabin, really, with a tiny kitchen just beyond a screened-in porch and a big, square living room with pictures of Indians on the walls and a rugged stone fireplace. At the back of the living room are two small bedrooms, one of them still filled with stuffed toy animals that belonged to Scott's now-grown children, and next to it, the Scotts' own corner bedroom.

It could be a fishing camp in the Sierra or the headquarters of some playful New Age sect (the top of the wooden flagpole in front is wrapped in a coyote pelt and decorated with deer antlers). It's the sort of place where dogs roam free and birds make the only noise on an otherwise still morning.

The cabin and, down next to a stream, the funky bunkhouse are built on a narrow tongue of land, three or four acres, thick with pines, oaks and sycamores. Much of Trail's End is inaccessible scrub surrounded on three sides by rocky bluffs 700 to 800 feet high. Perhaps 100 feet up from the main cabin is the property's most unusual feature: a 75-foot waterfall, spring-fed. It's the bluffs that give the ranch its remarkable sense of privacy, suggesting the sort of box-canyon hide-out that movie cowboys have favored.

An occasional airplane passing high overhead was for most of Scott's time here the closest thing he had to an intruder, and when the winter rains came and the streams grew too high to cross, it was not uncommon for Scott to get marooned at the ranch for days and even weeks. Trail's End was the castle; the streams served as moats. And he was the king.

WHEN FRANCES SCOTT WOKE THAT morning, she heard the dogs barking, all 22 of them, and felt the cabin shaking violently, and it made her think: "Here it is, the Big One." Her husband was soon awake, and then both of them realized the thump-thump-thump shaking the cabin was coming from the front door.

She was first up, grabbing a pair of overalls and a shirt and dressing as she moved into the still morning-dark living room. Scott, meanwhile, was slipping into his jeans and muttering something about "those damned process servers," perhaps figuring that the early morning assault on his home had something to do with his never-ending legal battles with his second wife. On the other hand, who really knew who might be after him and for what reason? There had been some unexplained intrusions on the property lately. He reached for the .38 Colt Detective Special he kept on the bedside table.

Everything happened quickly then. What Frances remembers includes seeing a man's face in the window next to the front door and hearing a man's voice whisper: "Let Gary go first."

A FIVE-MEMBER "ENTRY TEAM" FROM THE LOS ANGELES COUNTY SHERiff's Department--the Narcotics Bureau of the department, to be exact--was at the cabin door, while a second team surrounded the bunkhouse and the junk-filled barn next to it. Up the road about 200 yards were federal and state narcotics agents, LAPD officers (accompanied by dope-detecting dogs), men and women from the law enforcement wings of the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service and the California National Guard--some 30 officers in all. All this, according to the search warrant, in pursuit of 50 marijuana plants growing somewhere on the Trail's End property.

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