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Isolated Canyons' Allure Can Pose Risks

The Region

Crime: The recent savage attack on two boys and two girls in Orange County shows the danger of being cut off from help.

July 22, 2001|JANET WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Back in 1875, a beekeeper named Frank Carpenter built an adobe hut in a leafy glade tucked into a canyon in the Santa Ana Mountains. The canyon was called Black Star for the deep vein of lustrous coal discovered there.

Today, a solitary beekeeper still carefully places white wooden hives along Black Star Canyon's twisting ravines and jagged crests. It could be a walk back into the 19th century but for the smashed windshield glass and the satanic symbols and gang graffiti scrawled at the canyon's mouth.

On July 3, two teenage couples left the Block in Orange, a hip hangout mall, and drove into the dark canyon many miles to the east. They took a walk, searching for an old house they'd heard was haunted, they later said. Orange County historian Jim Sleeper says they might have been looking for the old beekeeper's place.

"Any old adobe has always got a resident ghost and buried treasure," Sleeper said. "The [one] built by Frank Carpenter is not far from the gate there."

They never made it to the ruined fireplace and abandoned well on the probable site of Carpenter's home. Instead, the 16- and 17-year-old boys from Mission Viejo were viciously beaten with a rock and metal rod, and the 13- and 15-year-old girls from Tustin were raped. Two men and three boys believed to be members of a loosely affiliated tagging crew--Los Traviosos Krew--have been arrested.

Two of the suspects confessed in jailhouse interviews to drinking and drug-taking while hanging out in the remote canyon area before the brutal attacks. It is the sort of crime and tragedy that over the years has contributed to dark stories about such remote spots.

From fictional tales such as "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" to "The Blair Witch Project," kids have always been drawn to mysterious places full of lore about haunted houses and ghosts.

In Southern California, those atmospheric locales are often canyons. Many Southland natives grew up playing in steep neighborhood gullies and arroyos, exploring the abandoned Houdini House in Laurel Canyon, or searching for glimpses of Big Foot in the Antelope Valley's Big Rock Canyon.

For teenagers, canyons also are places to go to party or for romance--"To watch the stars and kiss and make out," Orange County Sheriff's Lt. Dennis DeMaio said.

DeMaio thinks the Black Star Canyon attack was an isolated case of "everyone being in the wrong place at the same time--including the bad guys."

In a region where the bulldozer is king, the canyons sometimes offer wisps of the past. The ghost of a Spanish woman in a blue shawl is said to have been seen floating along Plum Canyon in Saugus. Tahquitz Canyon in Palm Springs takes its name from a malicious spirit that Native Americans and others believe inhabits the mountain.

Modern canyon dwellers sometimes are people living on the fringe in more ways than one: poets, hermits, circus animal trainers and, occasionally, serial killers.

"The best and the worst [people] are in the canyons, none of the in-betweeners," said Dave Belna, owner for 26 years of the Whispering Pines ranch between Santiago and Black Star canyons.

T. Jefferson Parker, author of nine best-selling murder mysteries and a former longtime resident of Laguna Canyon, said of canyons: "The mudslides are worse, the people who come and go occasionally are worse. There's an out-of-the-way edge feeling when you live in a canyon. You're literally on the edge."

Fellow author and retired Los Angeles Times arts editor and film writer Charles Champlin, who reviewed murder mysteries for the paper for six years, said just driving through Malibu Canyon instills a sense of foreboding in him.

"Even though they are usually as tame as a row of sunflowers, I think canyons speak to that latent fear of the unknown," he said. "The narrower they are, the darker they are, the scarier they are. [Director Alfred] Hitchcock always made use of the fact that we are a little bit suspicious of nature."

Hitchcock would have appreciated Black Star.

A narrow, twisting ravine, it unfolds in a series of switchbacks for eight miles before finally opening into a lovely mountain valley near the divide between Orange and Riverside counties. It can be traversed only by a one-lane, mostly dirt road with dizzying drop-offs into the unknown.

"If you go off the road in Black Star, you'd starve to death before you hit bottom," says historian Sleeper.

If there is a canyon with a dark side in the sleepy, somewhat scruffy canyons at the rural edge of Orange County, it is this one.

It has only a handful of old cabins and compounds and one small ranch called Hidden Valley. There are no campgrounds or amenities for day-trippers. Gates block entry.

"Black Star Canyon Road--This Is Not Maintained--Orange County Is Not Responsible for Any Loss or Injury Suffered," read signs pockmarked with shotgun pellets that are posted at regular intervals, like real-life versions of the Wicked Witch of the West's "Turn Back" signs in "The Wizard of Oz."

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