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Death in a desert bunker

Abandoned structure near Apple Valley was a teen hangout. Then two were shot to death.

January 18, 2008|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

HELENDALE, CALIF. — For more than 20 years the bunker has stood alone in this remote stretch of desert, a crumbling relic from another era with graffiti-scarred walls, hidden alcoves and a warren of dark hallways leading nowhere.

Gaping holes puncture the concrete roof, creating 30-foot drops to the floor below. Thousands of bullet casings crunch underfoot. Shattered glass forms a jagged carpet inside and out.

Over time the abandoned Air Force installation has become the haunt of bored teenagers, target shooters and outlaws.

And sometimes worlds collide.

That may have happened in the early morning hours of Jan. 5, when 30 or 40 teenagers from this small community between Barstow and Victorville held a birthday party at the bunker. By dawn two teenagers lay dead inside. Both were shot in the head at close range. The crime scene was so harrowing, it rattled even hardened homicide investigators.

According to the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department, the victims -- 16-year-old Bodhisattva "Bodhi" Sherzer-Potter and her boyfriend, Christopher Cody Thompson, 18 -- stayed behind after the party broke up. Some time before dawn they were killed.

Both enjoyed stellar reputations at the top-flight charter school where they met and among those who knew them. Sherzer-Potter, of Silver Lakes, was an aspiring filmmaker who routinely studied until 11 p.m. and whose mother rarely let her out of her sight.

Thompson, from Apple Valley, was a guitar-playing introvert who listened more than he talked and treated his girlfriend well.

"It's really an extraordinary case," sheriff's spokesman Sgt. Rick Ells said. "I worked homicide for years and if you take away gangs and drugs you eliminate about 80% of the cases. But these two kids were really squared away."

Authorities have ruled out murder-suicide and have been interviewing everyone who attended the party. They also seized computers from the victims' homes.

Det. Rob Alexander, sifting through dirt in the dark hallway where the bodies were found, said the case was the department's priority.

"We have put everything aside to work on this," he said. "Emotions are running high."

Many local adults learned of the bunker only after the slayings and were shocked that it had been allowed to sit open for so long.

"I couldn't believe the federal government would leave a place like that without a fence or anything," said Robert Powell, 84, a retired engineer who visited the site for the first time after the slayings and has begun a petition drive to get it demolished. "When I saw the hole in the top, it really unnerved me. The sheriff and police are well aware that this place exists and should be in the forefront of closing it."

Some teenagers said they had encountered armed skinheads at the bunker.

"I was out there a year ago and there were some guys who came up on us," said a 16-year-old who identified himself only as Matt. "They had shaved heads and looked like Nazi Lowriders."

The Nazi Lowriders are a white supremacist gang active in the high desert. Swastikas can be seen scrawled on the bunker. "R.I.P. Bodhi" is spray-painted on one wall and "Dead Body in Here," with an arrow pointing the way, on another.

Authorities say they know gang members have frequented the site, but they have received no complaints of trouble in the last 18 months.

"It's a big desert, and there are lots of places where kids can go to get away," Ells said. "If you were to close this one, another place would open up. I don't think you can foresee this kind of thing happening."

The two-story bunker, which sits about a mile south of California 58, is all that remains of the former Hawes Auxiliary Field, which was built during World War II. The complex once included a 1,226-foot-tall radio tower used by the Strategic Air Command. The bunker housed generators and wiring for the tower, which ceased operations som time in the mid-1980s.

Residents of the unincorporated community of Silver Lakes, where most of the partygoers lived, say they are devastated by the slayings.

"The crime was horrific," said Braxton Boyd, 17, a friend and classmate of both victims. "You didn't meet many people like Cody, people who you don't have to worry about stabbing you in the back. I never went to the bunker, but Bodhi was into weird and spooky stuff."

Thompson and Sherzer-Potter attended the Lewis Center for Educational Research, a charter school in Apple Valley with 1,000 students and a waiting list of 3,000.

Sherzer-Potter, a sophomore, was known for her sunny disposition and the avant-garde movies she made in school. She and Thompson met in a film class taught by Steve Orsinelli.

"Cody mentioned a year ago that he went out to the bunker and I freaked out. I wouldn't go out there," Orsinelli said. "He said it was no big deal that it was abandoned. That's no big shocker in the desert. We have abandoned mines, bombing ranges, old military bases all over the place. But I never saw a bunker like this."

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