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Death of James Dean remembered

A panel discussion 2 p.m. Saturday at the SCV Historical Society will discuss James Dean’s last day

Posted: February 27, 2009 5:22 p.m.
Updated: February 27, 2009 2:38 p.m.

Former CHP Officers Ron Nelson and Ernie Tripke near the site of James Dean crash which they investigated in 1955. The duo will appear 2 p.m. Saturday at a panel discussion at the SCV Historical Society.

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Former CHP officers Ernie Tripke and Ron Nelson have been friends for longer than many of us have been alive. Through three-decade long careers with the Highway Patrol, and a similar amount of time in retirement from the force, the two men have remained close friends and frequent companions.

"We've had disagreements from time-to-time, but no big arguments in almost 60 years," said Tripke.

Their friendship was forged as young patrol partners in the CHP in the 1950s. It continued during the two officers' lengthy careers - ones in which they stopped thousands of speeders and investigated hundreds of car accidents. It was during the investigation of what was thought to be a routine crash in 1955 that their names were forever linked to a Hollywood legend.

Tripke and Nelson's lives have run in parallel almost since birth. Tripke, the younger of the two by four years, was born in Cleveland in 1922, but moved with his family to Oakland when he was only five-months old. He spent World War II in the navy as a member of the Naval Air Corps.

Nelson was also born back east in North Dakota 90 years ago. He left the upper-Midwest winters for good on the day he finished high school and later also ended up in the navy.

While serving in 1941, Nelson was stationed at Pearl Harbor aboard the repairship USS Vestal which was moored alongside the battleship USS Arizona. On the morning of Sunday, December 7, Nelson was at the base playing tennis when Japanese fighter pilots attacked without warning. He barely missed being strafed by a Japanese plane when its bullets struck the tennis court. He escaped with only minor injuries.

Back aboard ship, some of his crewmates were not so lucky.

Japanese torpedoes passed below the Vestal and struck the Arizona, sending it to the bottom. Two bombs landed aboard the Vestal and a fire, which started from the ruptured fuel tanks on the Arizona, spread to the ship. In all, seven of Nelson's fellow crewmembers died in the attack, but his ship survived to fight another day. Although it was severely damaged, Comdr. Cassin Young of the Vestal was able to beach the ship to keep it from sinking - an act for which he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Shortly after leaving the navy, both Tripke and Nelson joined a group of 18,000 men who each applied for one of only 1,000 jobs that were up for grabs with the California Highway Patrol. Both men passed the examination and were initially assigned to work the highways in Los Angeles. Tripke transferred a few months later to Paso Robles, and Nelson followed in 1953. It was there that they first met.

"Our office was in San Luis Obispo, but we often worked out of the police department in Paso Robles at the time," says Tripke. "Ron and I were often partnered together when we worked the night shift from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. That's how we became friends."

It was during one of these shifts in 1955 that the two men became part of a morbid chapter in Hollywood's history and were personally on-hand to witness the birth of a tragic legend.

The date was Friday, Sept. 30, and the two men had just reported for work when they got a call about a car crash which had just occurred 30 miles east of Paso Robles. Two cars had struck nearly head-on at the intersection of California 41 and 466 (now California 46). One driver suffered only minor injuries, but the other driver was near death. His name, they would quickly learn, was James Dean.

Hollywood actor James Dean, 24, had been traveling westbound on the 466 driving a Porsche 550 Spyder convertible that he was planning to race in Salinas the following day. His mechanic, 29-year-old Rolf Wutherich, was riding shotgun.

A Cal Poly San Luis Obispo student named Donald Turnupseed was approaching the "Y" intersection of the 41 and the 466 from the west. He failed to see the hip-high silver Porsche's approach in the late afternoon light and crossed into Dean's lane to turn northbound on the 41.

Dean tried to maneuver his car around Turnupseed's Ford, but the impact caught the smaller, lighter Porsche full-force, and hurled Wutherich from the vehicle.

"We got the call about the crash from Paul Moreno," Tripke said. "Paul ran a repair shop and operated an ambulance in Cholame, about a mile from the crash site. I responded first and was the lead investigator, and Ron followed behind in another car and secured the site and took the pictures."

When Tripke arrived at the scene, he found Dean's smashed Porsche at rest along a fence on the north side of the "Y" intersection. Dean was still in the car reclining on the passenger side door.

"He was still alive at the time, but he obviously had a broken neck. But he was not bloody or mangled like I have read. He looked to be in fairly normal shape, except for a few abrasions, and of course, the broken neck," Tripke said..

By the time Nelson arrived on the scene, Dean had been placed on a gurney and was being loaded into the ambulance.

"I didn't get a good look at him, but I could hear him, and he was breathing hard. I speculated that his head had actually made contact with the front of Turnupseed's car, and that he had suffered severe brain damage," Nelson said.

It was a Friday night, and the road had more than normal traffic flow with drivers heading westbound to the race and high school football fans traveling eastbound to a game in Bakersfield. It didn't take long for the dying driver to be identified as James Dean, but Dean, who had only one major film credit at the time of his death, was not universally known.

"I was told that the victim was James Dean," Tripke said, "but the only James Dean I knew about was Jimmy Dean, the sausage maker. But I could see that the driver wasn't him. It wasn't until later when we went to the funeral home in Paso Robles, that the funeral director's wife, who had just read an article in "The Saturday Evening Post" about James Dean, clued me in to who he was."

Tripke remembered that Dean was actually involved in two traffic accidents that day.

"The ambulance that Paul Moreno was driving, which had Dean and Wutherich in the back, was involved in a minor traffic accident on the way to Paso Robles. It was nothing big. The drivers just exchanged information and Moreno drove on to the hospital. It was there that Dean was pronounced dead-on-arrival."

"There was also another traffic fatality that I investigated that night," said Tripke. "It was a young man in the military who was killed, but that was quickly forgotten due to the James Dean crash."

"By the time we got back to the station," Nelson said, "the phone was ringing off the hook. And it didn't seem to stop for months."

Tripke also remembers the constant stream of phone calls he got about the crash until he was promoted to sergeant and transferred to Eureka a few months later.

"I was sorry to see him go," said Nelson, "because that meant that all the phone calls fell to me."

Tripke and Nelson viewed Dean's body after the crash at the funeral home, and Tripke, who spoke German in his home as a child, was later asked to help translate for German-native Wutherich in the hospital. An inquest was held a few days later in a much larger arena than usual due to Dean's fame. The coroner's jury found neither driver to be at fault for the accident.

Tripke transferred several times before retiring as a captain from San Luis Obispo in 1976. Nelson had retired two years earlier, having moved several times around the state, and attaining the rank of lieutenant.

Both men settled in the San Luis Obispo area.

The families of the two men spent much of their retirement years traveling together throughout the west in identical RVs. And the friendship that Nelson and Tripke have maintained has extended to each others' families. Tripke's wife Harriett and Nelson's wife Genece have been close friends for decades, and Tripke's daughter Julie and Nelson's daughter Jenell, are also best friends.

Both men agree that the James Dean crash was the biggest event of their careers. They have often been paired together and asked to recall their memories of the accident for numerous newpapers, television stations, and documentaries. The interest in James Dean followed them into retirement.

"I was told that I could expect to hear about James Dean until 2005, which was the 50th anniversary of his death, and that was the truth," said Tripke. "It seems like after the 50th, the calls stopped like someone had turned off a spigot."

Recently, the two men were again the subject of James Dean interest when I went with Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society President Alan Pollack and Leon Worden of SCVTV in Newhall, to interview them near the site of Dean's crash. We met in a restaurant called the Jack Ranch Café. In 1955, it was the site of Paul Moreno's repair shop.

It was to the repair shop that Dean's Porsche, as well as Turnupseed's Ford, were taken after the crash. There is a picture in the restaurant of the two smashed vehicles sitting side-by-side in the garage in 1955.

Both Tripke and Nelson are very friendly and in remarkably good health with crisp minds that can recall details from a half-century ago without pause. They look decades younger than their ages, and both are blessed to have been married to the same women for more than 60 years, and to live close to other members of their family.

The two men spent much of our time together dispelling myths that have taken on a life of their own about Dean's crash.

"I read a couple of years ago about Dean's "fiery crash" and there wasn't a spark to be found," Tripke said. "I also heard that some people believe that Wutherich was actually driving. This wasn't the case because Dean's feet were tangled up in the clutch and brake pedals, so I knew he had been driving."

It is known that Dean had been speeding earlier in the day because CHP Officer Otie Hunter had cited him for going 65 in a 55 mile per hour zone south of Bakersfield. (We met Hunter, now 94, on the same day we interviewed Tripke and Nelson. He took us to the very spot where he wrote Dean his ticket in 1955.) But Nelson discounts the notion that Dean was speeding at the intersection.

"My investigation of the skid marks indicated that Dean was going no more than 55 miles per hour through the intersection, which was the legal speed. I've heard people say that he was going 90 miles per hour. If he had been, there wouldn't have been anything left of the car."

Another myth about the Dean crash that both men deny was that Dean had been drinking earlier and that his body was so drained of blood by the crash that to test his body for alcohol would have been impossible.

"That was just not the case," Tripke said. "He was not bloody at all and we had no indication that alcohol was involved in the crash. It was customary for a blood test to be performed on all deceased drivers, and Dean's blood came up negative for alcohol."

Since it was still daylight at the time of the crash, and excessive speed and alcohol weren't involved, I asked Officer Nelson what he believes to be the cause of the crash that claimed James Dean's life.

"Because there were no lights on his car," he said. "If James Dean's Porsche would have had its lights on, Turnupseed would have seen him and not pulled into his lane."

It may seem anticlimactic for some to learn that the crash that created the James Dean "rebel" legend could have been prevented by simply turning on headlights, and was not caused by recklessness, excessive speed, or alcohol.

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