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Newhall Incident: Murders left former reporter numb

Posted: April 6, 2008 12:12 a.m.
Updated: June 7, 2008 5:02 a.m.

Signs mark a section of Interstate 5 that is now named after four California Highway Patrol officers who were killed in the Santa Clarita Valley on April 6, 1970. The dedication ceremony was held on Friday.

Sometimes it takes decades to even remotely feel pain. Although I wrote many of the words used by Southern California news media and, in turn, by the national television and radio networks in describing the massacre of four young California Highway Patrol officers, my emotions surrounding the episode were fleeting.

After all, as an editor at City News Service of Los Angeles, a job that, coupled with on-and-off stints at The Signal provided college tuition money, I had covered tragedies that had seemingly become as much a part of Southern California as palm trees.

The downside of Southern California life had included fatal race riots in East Los Angeles, wanton killings by the Charles Manson gang, brush fires that swept from the Newhall foothills to burn to death firefighters and residents alike, assassinations of political figures and three grisly jetliner disasters. One of my stumbling feet had even stepped on a severed body part at a private plane crash near where the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff's Station now stands.

In April 1970, there was a peripheral friendship that grew from the day-to-day journalistic relationship between me as a reporter for The Signal and law enforcement officers out of the Newhall station, including James E. Pence Jr., Roger D. Gore, Walter Frago and George Alleyn.

With officers Frago and Gore, that friendship was enhanced by having roots and kin in the same neck of the woods - the Yosemite region of Central California.

So occasionally we would meet up for mid-shift coffee at the Way Station in Newhall. The last such gathering was on the weekend before they were killed.

By a quirk and due to having two media employers, The Signal and the wire service, I had dinner with them one night and then a night or so later was writing the news copy, describing their terrible deaths, that electronically flowed to countless television stations, radio stations and newspapers.

However, beyond the coffee shop conversation typical of a chow session involving a reporter and highway patrolmen - despite similarities in our ages - not much had ever been discussed about roots, the family basis of human existence.

So it was that over time, perhaps all too short a time, memories of the massacre - even while driving by the old CHP station and negotiating Interstate 5 at Magic Mountain Parkway - diminished and perhaps were shunted aside.

All those emotions were brought back suddenly a few years back when I noticed that the driver of a Yosemite Regional Transit System bus was carrying a backpack marked "DON FRAGO."

Overcoming hesitancy that I would be intruding into a subject area of deep personal intensity, nonetheless I asked this bus driver if just perchance he had known of a young highway patrol officer who on a spring night many, many years ago had been gunned down with three others.

Don Frago, a retired National Park Service ranger who had never really left his "Yosemite Gateway" home town of Merced, quickly came to attention in his driver's seat.

Over time, on many other trips I took to Yosemite he grasped for details of that coffee shop respite I had taken with his brother Walter in the waning hours of the upbeat highway patrolman's young life. Don Frago was with the U.S. Army in Vietnam when the ironic notification came to him that his brother had been felled by bullets that spring night, in what had been known as a suburb far more quiet than even what was then the Norman Rockwell world of Northridge and Granada Hills in the San Fernando Valley.

"I've asked what good came out of it all," Don tells me occasionally.

"But the Lord moves in awesome ways. What happened was the wake-up call for the California Highway Patrol."

The longing by Don Frago to learn those details of the Way Station dinner that I had taken so much for granted has been reiterated and magnified in inquiries by other family members.

Those calls bring home the reality that the rush of reporting the news can never bring forth the right words in a news story.

The right words would contain catalysts for somehow sensing amplitude and longevity of emotional pain borne of a lifetime cut inexplicably short.

Such words, however, may by definition be beyond human capability.

Like it or not, an insufficiently human vocabulary bonds all news people in such occasions.

Kenneth A. Gosting is a former Signal staff writer and editor at City News Service. After leaving journalism, he became special assistant to Gov. Jerry Brown, focusing on reforms in the California Highway Patrol. Gosting now is executive director of Transportation Involves Everyone. His column represents his own opinions and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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