FOR SOME, SHADOW FROM DEAN’S DEATH INESCAPABLE
Published: Sunday, October 2, 2005
Donald Gene Turnupseed was exonerated from any criminal responsibility of the death of James Dean. But that didn’t mean that this intensely private man didn’t pay a price for his role in the famous accident. Turnupseed, then a Cal Poly student, drove his car into the path of Dean’s Porsche Spyder on Sept. 30, 1955.
The Ford Donald Turnupseed was driving when he collided with James Dean. Photo by Sanford Roth, courtesy Seita Ohnishi
“That’s something that bothered him his whole life,” Wally Nelson, president of Turnupseed Electric Service in Tulare, said last week in a phone interview.
When asked to comment further about his former boss, Nelson sighed.
“I just can’t believe they don’t let him die. Don was a private person, and I just want to keep it that way.”
Turnupseed helped build the electrical contracting firm his parents began 58 years ago into a successful business known across the San Joaquin Valley with offices in Tulare, Bakersfield and Fresno.
For most of his life he avoided talking about the crash. He died in July 1995 at age 63 from lung cancer.
Turnupseed was born in Porterville and moved to Tulare, where he was reared. He later served six years in the U.S. Navy, including time aboard a hospital ship in Korea. He was a 23-year-old Cal Poly electrical engineering freshman living in Morro Bay at the time of the crash.
San Luis Obispo lawyer Peter Andre was retained to represent the young man during the coroner’s inquest held a week and a half after Dean’s death.
Jim Andre didn’t know his father played a role in the accident until a book mentioned Peter Andre by name in the mid-1980s.
“I said, ‘Was it really clear-cut? Was it only Dean’s fault or was it the other kid’s fault?’” Jim Andre said, recalling what he asked his father. “Dad said it was an accident, and they both had some part in it.”
After the coroner’s inquest, the accident was the subject of a civil suit, C.R. “Budgie” Sturgeon, a partner in Spuhler and Sturgeon Insurance, which had a policy on Turnupseed’s Ford, told the Tulare Advance-Register in 1995.
“It was never established whose fault it was,” he told the paper. “It just died.”
But Donald Turnupseed’s name will always be linked to the death of James Dean.
They bore the badge
Retired CHP officers Rob Nelson and Ernie Tripke, who were called to the scene of the accident. Courtesy photo
Photo by Sanford Roth, courtesy Seita Ohnishi
The two California Highway Patrol officers who figure most prominently in the case are county residents. A third has a South County vacation home.
Ernie Tripke, 82, the lead investigator on the case, lives in San Luis Obispo. His partner, Ron Nelson, 87, a Pearl Harbor veteran who photographed the wrecked cars, lives in Atascadero. And Otie V. Hunter, who received Dean’s final autograph on the speeding ticket he issued to the actor, has a vacation home in Arroyo Grande.
The trio are reluctant players in the mythology surrounding Dean’s death. Each is not a great fan of the actor, but through their recollections and on-the-job photos they have done much to keep alive the legacy of the 50-year-old accident.
For years it came with the job, no matter where their CHP assignment took them. They have found no respite in retirement, as sometimes their reputations preceded them.
For example, Tripke took a part-time job in 1988 at the California Conservation Corps. On his first day the young office manager needed no introduction to his new co-worker.
“‘How do you know all about me, I just met you,’” Tripke recalled telling the man. “‘Well, I’m the president of the local James Dean fan club …’”
A mortician’s memories
Martin Kuehl, 84, is the mortician who took care of Dean’s body.
Every year the lifelong Paso resident takes calls from people wanting to know about the role he played. Some callers seek what he and his wife call the “gory details” about the actor, who died of a broken neck. The simple answer is he doesn’t remember any of them.
“I guess I should, but I don’t,” Kuehl said.
His father opened the family mortuary at 17th and Spring streets in 1929, and Kuehl later assumed responsibility for the business, which he kept until 1971.
“In this business you have to be your own psychiatrist. When you see things that are real bad … what you do is within the next 15 minutes, you make your mind forget it.
“If you try to remember everything of everybody, you’d be in la-la land.”
What one witness observed
Tom Frederick witnessed the crash and is frequently sought for interviews. His story has been consistent for the past 50 years — Dean was the passenger. And over the years he has taken grief for it.
“I’d just as soon hadn’t seen it,” said Frederick, 78, who lives in Fruitland, Idaho. “Now I know why witnesses don’t come forward. Because there is no end to it. And they didn’t do me any favors taking me into the inquest and … treating me like I should know more than I did.”
A lesson in myth and reality
On Sept. 30, 1955, Paso Robles policeman Bud Requa was nearing the end of his shift when he stopped by the mortuary to look at the city’s celebrity corpse.
“He didn’t look bad,” recalled Requa, 75, whose wife, Marie, was one of the first people on the scene of the crash. “They had him partially covered with a sheet. … His chest was discolored, purple like a bruise. There was a little bit of blood around his head, but not bad.”
More than 10 years later a young couple walked into the police department seeking information about Dean.
“They said back east in a certain place — they named this hospital — (Dean’s) in confinement and seclusion there. He was really mangled badly, and he’s lucky to be alive,” Requa said.
Dean was dead, he corrected them.
“‘How do you know?’” they asked. “‘Because I saw him in the morgue.’
“They looked at each other just like the world’s going to end tomorrow. They said thank you and they left.
“What do you say to these people?”
A family connection to the crash
Sherry Spann is the granddaughter of Collier “Buster” Davidson, the attendant who was riding with Dean in the back of the ambulance when the actor is believed to have died. She grew up knowing about her family’s connection to the famous accident, but “nobody believes us when we tell people about it,” Spann said.
Cancer claimed her grandfather in 1967; he is buried with his wife in the Shandon Cemetery, not far from where Dean crashed.
Spann’s aunt is Helen Hopper, who is Davidson’s daughter. Hopper was living with her mother and father in Cholame in 1955. She said the accident upset her dad, but he shared little about the experience.
Just hours after he returned from the accident, Davidson had made up his mind about one thing. “He wasn’t going to drive the ambulance again,” she said. “It was too much for him. I guess the sight of what they found and the whole situation just bothered him. It was horrible.”
Karen Coombe’s 15 minutes of fame
Karen Coombe’s mother, Kay, was the nurse who tried to help Dean as he lay dying in the crushed Porsche. Karen attended Paso Robles High School only long enough to get her picture in the yearbook. In it, she said she wanted to be a nurse like her mom and her older sister, Diane.
Classmates remember that Karen told many at the Sept. 30, 1955, football game in Bakersfield that Dean had been killed. When school resumed after the Christmas break in early 1956, Karen had transferred to Santa Barbara High School.
Ultimately she settled in a small Illinois town to be near her son and grandchildren. Cancer ended her life a few years ago.
But she never forgot the night James Dean died.
“This was my mom’s 15 minutes of fame,” said her son, Drew Seal of Rushville, Ill. “This was such a huge thing to her. It was just indelible. She always talked about that.”
Two men’s tragic ends on a deadly highway
Ken Hord was 13 years old and a passenger in his father’s car when Dean forced their Pontiac off Highway 466 seconds before he crashed into another car. Despite the near collision, later observing the actor’s bloody body, Hord rarely thinks of the crash.
A few years ago he watched a television documentary that attempted to depict Dean as a “hero in that wreck,” the Creston resident said. “He was wrong. It’s unfortunate. He had a terrific career in front of him. It’s just lucky he took himself out and nobody else.”
Hord’s father, Cliff, who was uninjured in the near-crash with Dean, would later die in his own automobile accident at age 85.
The elder Hord was traveling east on Highway 46 West after a day of branding calves when fog obscured his vision atop the Green Valley grade just after 8 p.m. on March 31, 1991.
“He couldn’t see,” his son said. “He got in that fog and just run off the road, up the bank and turned over.”
James Dean’s crash ‘was just another case’
Gary Hoving is one of the chief deputies in the Sheriff’s Department and the office’s unofficial historian. He was also a friend of the late Al Call, who represented the department in the Dean investigation.
Hoving said Call told him the incident was not considered “that big of a deal” in 1955.
“It was just another case. But it turned out to be one of the biggest traffic accidents in this country — if not the world. It was a bigger deal later,” Hoving said. “Everybody now knows about James Dean.”
Monument to a legend
Seita Ohnishi leads a toast to Dean at Stella’s Country Kitchen in Cholame, Oct. 1 1980.
For the first 20 years after Dean’s death, makeshift monuments to the actor occasionally popped up — typically taped to the barbed wire fence near the intersection of Highways 41 and 46. That changed in September 1977 when Japanese businessman and Dean megafan Seita Ohnishi installed a monument around a tree near the cafe in Cholame. It reportedly cost $13,000 and reflected in its mirrored surface the crash site less than a mile away.
The monument celebrates the life of Dean in three ways: “his agony, his glory and his tragic ending — all existing for eternity,” Ohnishi told The Tribune. “The monument itself forms a circle around the Tree of Heaven … and when viewed from a certain angle it takes the shape of the symbol for infinity. At the back, there is an angled cut for a life tragically incomplete.”
He hopes the burnished stainless steel and aluminum work inspires fans to lobby for a posthumous Academy Award for Dean, who was nominated for best actor honors in “East of Eden” in 1955 and the next year in “Giant.”
“If he never gets an Oscar, then at least he will have the memorial,” Ohnishi said. “However, I believe there is still a chance for an Oscar for Jimmy, so I am not going to give up.”
His plans include setting up a Web site (OscarForJimmy.com) to display his collection of James Dean photos “so that his fans can truly enjoy his legacy.”
REVISITING ONE OF THE BIGGEST NEWS STORIES TO OCCUR IN SLO COUNTY
The James Dean memorial sits under a tree of heaven next to the Jack Ranch Cafe on Highways 41/46 in Cholame. David Middlecamp 8-24-05
Jay Thompson has been a copy editor at The Tribune for 11 years, including three years as editor of The Cambrian. He became interested in James Dean’s death after reading a book about it. For this series, Thompson interviewed more than 70 people over seven months.