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Town Longs for Glare to Fade

Cult: Rancho Santa Fe is a world apart from urban problems and lurid news--and people there want intruders 'to go away and leave us alone.'

March 31, 1997|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RANCHO SANTA FE, Calif. — Ed Mayers strode across the luscious green grass at the Rancho Santa Fe Country Club and explained how 39 mass suicides could chip holes in the veneer of privacy built by residents of this exclusive enclave known simply as "the Ranch."

"This is a place where people live in denial of the rest of the world," said the retired manufacturer, lining up a three-foot putt on a glorious morning. "The Ranch is a place where people practice civility in an uncivil world. How ironic that this kind of madness could come visiting here."

How ironic, indeed. That's what many residents repeated Sunday as this tight-knit community of moneyed exteriors celebrated the Easter holiday, scratching their collective heads as they resumed their lives at churches, sand traps and mini-marts after the nation's worst mass suicide--news of which unfolded Wednesday in their own well-groomed backyard.

Because if San Diego is a cul-de-sac of America, a city promoting itself as a theme park, then tiny Rancho Santa Fe is its scrub-brushed, squeaky-clean essence--its Disneyland and Magic Mountain combined.

In Rancho Santa Fe, news is normally made on the society pages, not in screaming headlines and worldwide sound bites about mass deaths and mental hospitals, crew-cutted cultists and aliens from another world.

At the Ranch, uproars usually come in the form of some misguided move to paint all-too-revealing street numbers on the curbs in front of houses, or a drive to allow joggers and walkers to venture onto the venerable country club grounds.

"We just want the whole world to go away and leave us alone, just like always," said Blaine Briggs as he waited for Easter services at the Village Community Presbyterian Church near the heart of the village.

Added another church-goer: "What gives people some solace here is that these people were just renters, not longtime residents. We just feel sorry for the poor guy who rented to them. He was bamboozled into thinking they were a nice clean-cut bunch."

Other people opened their hearts a little wider Sunday and expressed sympathy for the families of the cult members. "Everyone will be praying for those families," said resident Betsy Brown. "And our faith is strong."

"Nobody ever expected that those people would choose our community to take their lives," said another golfer, Gary Madden. "Maybe they did it because it's so beautiful here."

For its 5,000 residents, Rancho Santa Fe is a place of towering eucalyptus trees that shade elegant riding stables, where each sprawling mansion is a gated community to itself.

It's a place that--at $2 a gallon--claims the most expensive gas prices in California, where a hot-selling item was once a locally produced videotape on how to communicate with your Spanish-speaking maid, and newcomers sometimes wait months, even years, before being invited to local parties. Even admission to the Garden Club requires sponsorship.

For three generations, the community has provided safe harbor for a wealthy cadre of residents seeking to escape the constant change of the outside world, many of them attracted by its legendary Covenant, a set of iron-clad rules that for 68 years has strictly maintained status quo throughout the hamlet.

Nestled along the wooded slopes of a winding river valley, five miles east of the Pacific Ocean and half an hour north of downtown San Diego, the town is home to aging Hollywood icons, self-made millionaires, politicians and power brokers as well as celebrated businessmen, doctors and scientists from around the world.

Actor Victor Mature lives there. So do singer Patti Page and broadcaster Dick Enberg. They're all neighbors to former astronaut Wally Schirra, ex-Universal studios president Sy Salkowitz and Glenn Bell, who founded the Taco Bell chain. Janet Jackson lives in nearby Fairbanks Ranch.

Howard Hughes once kept a home at the Ranch. So did Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Bing Crosby--who brought his family to the then-unknown oasis to protect them from the 1930s kidnapping scares.

Most homes within its 10 square miles are built on two acres or more. On the Ranch, where the median house costs $1.35 million and the cheapest home sells for $485,000, many residents can gaze out their front windows and not see another house.

The Chicago Pritzker family--owners of the Hyatt Hotel chain--years ago completed an 18,000-square-foot mansion in which the glass alone cost $100,000.

Even at church, residents are reminded that they don't just live in any community. At the Village Church's 9 a.m. service Sunday, the Rev. M. Paul Nelson told his congregation an aside about the man from Rancho Santa Fe who went to heaven and told the gatekeeper, "This is nice, but can I go home on weekends?"

Nelson read a letter written by Mark Applewhite, son of Heaven's Gate leader Marshall Applewhite, apologizing for his father's "strange bent" and praising God. As he read, the church-goers nodded and sneaked looks at one another.

In the end, Ranch residents know the jokes are out there. They realize their carefully crafted veil of privacy has temporarily blown off and that the world is peering at their everyday lives.

But on Sunday, they assured one another that the grim memory of 39 suicides won't tarnish their self-image for long.

"Those people had their 15 minutes in the spotlight; now we'll get on with our lives," Mayers said. "For those of us who live here, this will luckily be remembered as only a minor and unfortunate footnote in our history."

* MANSION SALE? Two businessmen are seeking to buy, raze house where cultists died. A13

* MORE COVERAGE: A12, A13, D1

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