It’s not easy to dwell on Monterey California’s criminal underbelly when picturing the angelic shoreline found along the Central Coast, but even windswept beauty has its ugly side. As a reporter I learned this firsthand when I worked the crime beat in Sedona, Arizona.
Never trust the postcard.
Monterey has had its share of interesting crimes over the years, from cold cases to mysterious fires that have destroyed communities and lives. Below are five of the area’s most interesting crimes and criminals, culled from a variety of sources. Some glamorous, others terrifying, these Central Coast stories are the stuff of legend.
The outlaw Tiburcio Vasquez
Vasquez started his criminal career at the young age of 17 after fleeing the scene of a murder with his cousin, the outlaw Anastacio Garcia. Thus began a bloody, dangerous life of crime and womanizing, the latter of which became something of a trademark for the man and would ultimately lead to his downfall. He was hanged in 1875. His last breath consisted of a single word, “Pronto.”
While his deeds took him far and wide, Tiburcio would often stay in Monterey County. His family lived across the street from the Monterey County Jail in downtown Monterey. Tiburcio was quite familiar with both locations.
What happened in Massacre Cave? Newspaper accounts reported a number of skeletons found there near the long-lost town of Manchester, which suspiciously burned to the ground around 1900, leaving a few people missing in the process. Decades later, the skeletal discovery occurred, leaving many to speculate as to what exactly occurred during this gold-crazy era of Monterey County’s history. It should also be noted there are those who claim the area is not the site of a murder but a Native burial ground.
A determined crowd converged on the Monterey Jail in 1873 to settle things with alleged murderer, Matthew Tarpey, who had been jailed for shooting a woman in the back over a land squabble. Tarpey, a well-to-do member of a vigilante squad that operated in Santa Cruz and Monterey County, expected help to come for him. It didn’t. He was hung on a Monday evening after being forcibly removed from the jail by a lynch mob.
Arson was believed to be the cause of the Carmel Canning Company fire in 1967 that caused more than $250 million in damages to Cannery Row, which happened to be a tad seedier than the tourist mecca it is today. Despite being less than glamorous, more than 65 firefighters responded to the scene and quickly doused the Christmas Eve fire. Perhaps too quickly for the liking of whoever set the blaze.
The year 1977 wasn’t an ordinary one for residents of Seaside, California. While crime was more common there than it is today, the discovery of four female family members stabbed to death made for shocking, horrifying headlines. Grandmother Josephine Smith, her daughter Suzanne Harris, Suzanne’s daughter Rachel Harris, and Suzanne’s niece Renee Ferguson were each found murdered in their home. While a family relative was eventually captured, the murders had the small community on edge.
There’s definitely a top five when it comes to the most haunted spots in Monterey County, but that’s not what I’m writing about today. Instead, I’m going to get a little personal. I’m going to delve into my thoughts on banging out my upcoming book, Haunted Monterey County (coming October 2019 from The History Press). A Top 5 Most Haunted Monterey County – Locations is coming, however, being that there are easily five that rise to the top – it’s just coming later.
Below are the top five things that surprised me while prepping for the book:
Rest stops – If someone told me I’d be writing a book on ghosts and hauntings in the county, I wouldn’t have been surprised. I grew up hungry for Randall Reinstedt’s books. If someone told me that research would bring me to a rest stop outside of King City and that I would actually have fun going there, I would have spit out my coffee. Those who know me know I’m never without coffee. But as Han Solo once said, “All of it. It’s all true.” I did have a good time. It’s always fun to get out on a sunny Sunday for an adventure of the weird kind. You never know what can happen.
The Googles – Google may not know I’m working on a book, but the Googles helped me locate many of the sites and forums where Central Coast-specific ghost stories are shared. This means, from now until the Googles is goggled (or the end of time), I will get alerts about ghosts. This isn’t a bad thing really, since I’ve already come across creepy stories I’ve never heard before – usually from places on the east coast. Why the hell is that? I still get alerts about Bakugan too, though it’s been years since my son wanted one.
Excitement and some of the opposite – I wasn’t sure what kind of reaction I’d get when news of this new addition to Monterey County’s ghost book collection broke, but the level of interest has given me a little bit of a pre-publishing high. Thank you to everyone who made that happen. There’s the opposite too, some who are less than thrilled to see another book on haunts summoned out of the Netherworld. I appreciate the curmudgeons! I am one. My hope is the book will appeal to them as well. There are stories in it that have appeared nowhere else. There’s history as well, plenty of it, which is why I enjoyed taking on this project. If the curmudgeons come away entertained, I’ll get even more high.
Paul’s talent – Just doing the ghost book, and paying tribute to Mr. Reinstedt, was enough, but then the idea came along to get some art in it. There are photos, quite a few taken when I visited the haunted sites (like the rest stop), but having one of California’s top talents on board made it even cooler. Paul Van de Carr is an incredible artist as you’ll see in the pages of the book.
The believers – I’m the first to admit I’ve never had a paranormal experience that I can recall. It’s not that I don’t believe, it’s just I don’t have the eyes for it. I can’t decorate my house in a fashionable way either. Don’t have the eyes for it. But there are plenty who do have the sight. They’ve seen a lot over the years too. While writing this book, I was (and still am) surprised at just how many people have stories, tales of that time they experienced something they just couldn’t explain. This book tells their stories, just as it tells history’s story.
“Poughkeepsie Shuffle weaves a violent tale about banged up people with hearts full of rust. Crossing the border between bleak and bleaker, Kalteis effortlessly shifts gears from broken dreams to petty schemes with a rhythmic voice that’s all his own. If you read one book about gun smuggling, used car sales and hair restoration this year — make it this one.” — S.W. Lauden, author of the Greg Salem punk rock P.I. series
Dietrich Kalteis is a prolific writer. He’s a guy who knows how to get to the meat of a story without wasting a lot of real estate on the page. His latest book, Poughkeepsie Shuffle, starts off sharp (I’m looking at you, finger scene) and stays sharp until the end. You relate when his characters make a crazy-ass decision. We’ve all been there at one point or another. At the same time, these aren’t the sort you’d invite over for a game of Scrabble – no matter how bad you feel for them. Kalteis is that kind of author. He makes you sympathize with someone you’d never want to hang with.
SIDENOTE! Those in Monterey, CA, on October 26th, can meet Dietrich at this year’s Noir at the Bar, which will be held from 7-10 p.m. at the East Village Coffee Lounge in downtown! More details here on the website soon.
See my interview with the author below and learn what drew him into the fine world of crime writing.
WHITEHURST: Poughkeepsie Shuffle deals with ex-con Jeff Nichols, a guy who jumps from a notorious jail right back into the criminal elements. What led you down that path when it came time to write your new book? For that matter, what got you into crime writing in the first place?
KALTEIS: I grew up in Toronto where the story’s set, and I wanted to recreate the city the way I remembered it back in the mid-eighties. It was a grittier, character-filled place back then, before the meatpacking plants and rail lines that once lined the land below Front Street started disappearing, giving way to gentrification and leaving behind its industrial heritage.
And being across the lake from Niagara and Buffalo, the city has easy access to the US, making it the perfect setting for a story revolving around smuggling. I read an article a few years ago about a gunrunning ring that operated between upstate New York and Ontario, being taken down by the OPP and several U.S. law enforcement agencies. And I remember news stories about the increasing gang violence back then, and I wanted to work that into the story.
Then there were a couple of real-life characters that I fictionalized and weaved into this one. For instance, I did meet a guy who claimed he stumbled onto this South American miracle cure for hair restoration. He was so gung-ho about it and spent a fortune and a lot of time trying to launch it, but instead of the riches he expected, he just kept running into a lot of red tape.
Then there’s the Conway character who I loosely based on a guy I met who wanted to teach the world to sing, offering to hire me to help market his new company in exchange for singing lessons. Needless to say, I declined, and I still sing like shit. And there’s the Elvis impersonator, a character based on this guy I met one morning in a copy shop.
I didn’t set out to write crime stories. At first, I wrote a lot of short stories trying to find what worked for me, trying different styles and genres. There was often dark humor in the stories, and that just seemed to fit into a crime story. Plus I’ve got a soft spot for the lowlife characters that usually end up in my crime stories.
WHITEHURST: Say you’re in line at the grocery store and some guy with a case of beer and a bag of Doritos asks you to describe your newest book, what do you tell him?
KALTEIS: Assuming the guy in line offers to share the beer and Doritos, I could give him my elevator pitch after I stopped chewing, It would go something like this: Jeff Nichols, an ex-con recently released from the Don Jail, is discontent with his used-car sales job. Not one to let past mistakes stand in the way of a good score, he’s soon caught up in a gun-running scheme. As things spin out of control, Jeff hangs on, determined to not let anything stop him from hitting the motherlode.
WHITEHURST: Steven Spielberg gives you a jingle one day and wants to film a movie of the book, but he’s not sure who to cast. Anyone you’d recommend for the role of Nichols?
KALTEIS: Bob Odenkirk from Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad fame would make the perfect Jeff.
WHITEHURST: Research is crucial when it comes to great writing, especially writing about bygone eras and seamlessly plopping your readers smack dab in the past, which you do well in this and your other books; how do you get the flow of history into your books (even the 1980s!) without it coming off like a term paper?
KALTEIS: I do the research, then I don’t let it get in the way. I limit how much goes in and I keep descriptions to the barest of details. Too much tends to bog the pace so there has to be this balance. I want to include details that lend credibility, and sometimes they just need a mention, without going into a lot of explanation. And some details give the scene color, creating vivid pictures for the reader.
WHITEHURST: Music. A lot of writers create a soundtrack for their books, others click away at the keyboard in perfect silence. What do you listen to?
KALTEIS: For me, there’s a silence in the music. When I put on my headphones, I play what works with the scene I’m working on. It lets me slip into the story, blocking out the white noise that interrupts everyday life: voices, phones, cars and emergency vehicles going by on the street. For Poughkeepsie Shuffle there was no real theme or soundtrack. And although I like many kinds of music, I was never much for the dance music, post-disco and techno of the era. Instead I went for Springsteen, Warren Zevon, George Thorogood and Stevie Ray Vaughan. And there were a few sixties bands like the Kinks and the Beach Boys making a comeback in the eighties that I still liked.
WHITEHURST: Is there a part of Poughkeepsie Shuffle you like best, a chunk of the book that made you sit back and smile?
KALTEIS: One scene that makes me smile is when Jeff walks into the barber shop and meets the Elvis impersonator. That scene was inspired by this time I took my then five-year-old son to a copy shop, running into Elvis waiting his turn. I got to talking to him, the man standing in his flip-flops, looking like he was coming off a rhinestoned night, with his hair and sideburns askew. He was running off flyers for an upcoming Vegas show at a nearby hotel lounge, so we chatted a bit, then I wished him good luck and got back a bona fide “Thank you very much.” When he left to tack up and pass out the flyers around the neighborhood, I asked my son, “You know who that was?” And I got a very matter-of fact, “Sure, Elvis.”
What happens to us when we die? That’s the big question. Some of us, many believe, might stick around after we die. Some of us might become the next generation of ghosts! When that happens, some of us will find a place to haunt, be it a favorite home, an old workplace, or possibly a cemetery.
Resting comfortably among the cypress, eucalyptus, Monterey oak, and pines trees of the California coast is the Monterey Peninsula. It’s changed little over the years but grown large in notoriety. The AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am is held here every year, car shows are a daily part of life in the summer months, and festivals bring both music and food. Sailing, kayaking, and exploring sea life are pastimes enjoyed by residents and tourists alike. The Central Coast has a long, sometimes sordid, history, but people love it. It’s been featured in a number of films and television shows, including Turner & Hooch, Basic Instinct, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Play Misty for Me, Big Little Lies, and more.
My newest book, Haunted Monterey County, will explore the many haunted locations found in this popular California community. Due in bookstores around Halloween 2019, this book will join a distinguished library of haunted, ghostly collections published by The History Press, a number of which I have enjoyed in the past. The nearest such book, Haunted Santa Cruz California, by Maryanne Porter, is a wonderfully spooky read! Their Haunted America series runs from the East Coast to the West!
In Monterey, I am hard at work on stories surrounding a number of haunted sites, including the Custom House near Old Fisherman’s Wharf, Tor House, Steinbeck’s home in Salinas, Los Coches Adobe, and many other locations said to be inhabited by the restless dead.
I plan to write updates as I progress, so be sure to check in on me from time to time!
The Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History book, which Arcadia Publishing released earlier this year, got a nice write-up in Carmel Magazine. Thank you to writer Renee Brincks and photographer Kelli Uldall for making it so easy! You two rock!
An official launch for the Arcadia Images of America book, The Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History, will be held at the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History on Thursday, April 26th, starting at 5:30 p.m. with a booksigning and copies for sale in the Museum Store.
There are plenty of paths to success when on deadline. Some prefer to wait until the last minute, as pressure makes them produce. Others prefer the slow boil, working at a snail’s pace until it all comes to a head, but only one of these techniques helps when it comes to historical non-fiction, particularly the sort that require finding a lot of photographs and documents from a certain era. If you have to work with others, particularly organizations, start early. You never know what will happen, photos can be misplaced, just plain gone, and the documents you thought would help may prove lifeless.
With my Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History book, forthcoming from Arcadia Publishing, I lit a fire under my chair the week I got back the contract. As the Museum book marks my third Images of America challenge, I thought I would share five tips to making the process an easy one.
1. Be confident you can get the materials and photographs you need before submitting a proposal. This way you’ll go into the work without a forehead vein popping out. Keep a bibliography document open at all times so you can add your sources without a drop of stress sweat. 2. Start writing. Write early and write more than you need. I tap out a longer chapter first, then take a weed whacker to it. Stray bits of information can always be saved for the photo captions, where I believe the meat of the research resides. Copy and paste those bits to a separate document for later use. I create individual documents first, then marry them to a master doc at the end. 3. Pay attention to the important deadlines. With Images of America, there are usually a few of them. Try to get there early. You’ll feel good about yourself. 4. Spend the clock talking to the people who know a great deal about the subject. Buy them dinner if they seem up for it, or just smile warmly, but make sure they’re included. This way they’ll remember you over the coming months when they unearth something that would be cool in the book. Answer their emails, send them emails, just talk to them. 5. Be a photo wizard. You don’t need a wand, just a lot of pics. Gather more than you need, maybe a hundred more, or maybe just bunches more. It gives you a chance to weed out the so-so pics for the strong ones. In the newspaper business, editors prefer faces to be as big as a quarter, or failing that a dime, but any historic photograph that gets your heart hammering is a good photograph.
Imagine the world before the Internet, before modern medicine and modern science as we know it today; pre-cars, pre-phones, pre-fast food, and you’ve got the world that saw one of the first natural history museums on the California coast. The Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History has been a part of the Monterey Peninsula since 1883, nearly as long as Monterey County has been in existence.
I’ve been lucky enough to work for the Museum since 2014 and am happy to announce I’ll be depicting the history of this amazing place through writing and more than 150 historic photographs. In the short period of time I’ve been here, as the awesome story of this place soaked in, I’ve realized just how lucky I am to be a part of this local institution. History has always been a thing with me, no matter if it’s the history of 1940s and 1980s pulp novels or the history of Tusayanand Williams, Arizona. I daydream about what it would be like to live and thrive in an era where things moved a little slower, but were harder at the same time – for nearly everyone. I can’t think of any writer/bibliophile who hasn’t dreamed about living in a small cabin near a stream or rocky shoreline.
History is a learning curve without a shelf life. It’s a way for us to see what’s happened, good and bad, and carry it with us as we move forward. At the museum, history is preserved with just such a mission in mind. Taxidermy, geology, plants, Native peoples; they’re all there.
“The Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History”, will be published in 2018 by Arcadia Publishing in their Images of America series. It’s an exciting project, which I expect to have completed by October, and I’m very thankful to be the one who gets to write it. From the first Museum building to the arrival of Sandy the Whale, this book is long overdue.