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Cowboy's Death Troubles Town

For more than a year, residents of the coastal community of Cambria have debated the cause of rancher Billy Warren's demise.

July 27, 2004|John Johnson | Times Staff Writer

Warren taught Britz how to cut cattle out of a herd. Britz took Warren around the world. One getaway was the annual Charles M. Russell western art auction in Montana. Warren began to build his collection, acquiring valuable bronzes and even a Remington painting. Warren's nephew, Mike Johnson, estimated the value of the collection, which covered every square inch of wall space in Warren's house, to be upwards of $400,000.

"He was quite the guy," said Britz, his eyes watering.

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There were scars on Warren's life, especially as he tried almost single-handedly to keep the ranch going after his father's death in 1996. The land was worth many millions, but the ranch had never been very profitable.

Britz saw the toll the ranch had taken on Warren. "He did all the ranch work for three or four years before he ever got paid," he said. "He rarely had a day off."

With bills mounting, Warren decided to sell off a smaller family property, called the Gamboni Ranch. Warren received two offers of $3.5 million, Britz said. But Warren's sister, Kathryn Greenelsh, balked. "She got the paperwork and refused to sign," Britz said.

Court records, family and friends portray an increasingly bitter relationship between Warren and his sister. A successful businesswoman who operates a Grover Beach company called California Fine Wire, Greenelsh wanted to put the ranch on a proper business footing. But Warren "couldn't figure out how to do that," she said.

Even before the fire's embers had cooled, Britz and Greenelsh confronted each other over the tragedy. "There's nothing of value left in the house," Britz said she told him. "You're not going to get anything anyway."

"I tore into her," Britz said: " 'You never cared for Bill or your father.' "

"Oh yeah, we had words," Greenelsh said. "He's plowing through the glass to find antiques to sell in his store."

Warren's relationship with Britz also was under stress. "In the last couple of years there were some difficult times," Britz said.

Apparently difficult enough that Warren decided to remove Britz from his will. Whatever the reason, he never stopped by his lawyer's office to sign the new will. Then the old will turned up missing from Warren's safe deposit box, said attorney Russell Read. As a result, his mother Florence inherited his estate.

Greenelsh is seeking conservatorship, which would give her authority over her mother's affairs. With legal battles continuing, the future of the ranch is up in the air."Father wanted to save San Simeon Ranch," Greenelsh said. "Now with Billy dying, it screws up the plans." She doesn't want it to happen, but said they might have to sell off some of the ranch.

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On July 17, 2003, Britz was working in an antique shop downtown when he got a call, he said. " 'I love you and I always did,' " he said Warren told him. Warren said he set his house on fire. In disbelief, Britz rushed up the hill to find the house engulfed. "It was just a big ball of flame," he said, adding that he never thought to call 911. A witness later reported seeing a car racing down the mountain at the same time.

By the time the firetrucks arrived, there was little left of Billy Warren and nothing of his precious antiques. Detectives gathered bone fragments and sent them to forensic scientists at UC Santa Cruz.

The forensic analysis found a skull fracture at the back of the head "consistent with bone failure due to gunshot or blunt force trauma." That cemented detectives' belief that Warren committed suicide.

Detective Neufeld speculated that Warren destroyed his precious possessions to make sure his sister didn't get them. Investigators still don't know what to make of the missing will, or of the strange car seen speeding from the scene.

Those aren't the only problems with the suicide theory, according to friends and relatives. Bianchi said Warren would never have allowed his pet rabbit, which burned in the fire, to die that way. Others insisted that if Warren was going to kill himself, he would have done it at Vulture Rock, where he could look out over the untilled rolling hills to the seashore six miles away.

Britz, who said he was the last to talk to Warren, was interviewed for seven hours, Neufeld said. He also passed a polygraph test. "Either he is the greatest liar in history or he wasn't involved," Neufeld said.

"There is a possibility certainly that [Warren] was killed by somebody else who set the fire," Neufeld said. But the case is closed, and he is satisfied with the stated cause of death. A year after Warren's death, Britz said he knows people look at him askance. "I'm sure people are still talking under their breath," he said. As a memorial to his friend and companion, Britz strung yellow ribbons around a pole near the empty lot where the house once stood. But someone quickly tore them down. Britz now hopes to spread Warren's ashes on the ranch. He has the site picked out: Vulture Rock.

"Of all the people involved, no one was innocent," Britz said. "One thing I'll be asking forever is why? Knowing what Bill had up there. He had everything he wanted or needed. It doesn't exist any longer."

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