Sherry Richardson wanted a change in her life, wanted to get away from the States for a while. She had a woman friend in Mexico she could stay with as long as she wanted, so during the early summer of 1984, Richardson, who was thirty-seven at the time, sold her downtown cosmetology shop and laid out the plans for a trip south. She intended to live in Yelapa, a tiny, isolated fishing village in the state of Jalisco, sixteen miles by boat south of Puerto Vallarta on the west coast of Mexico. She would travel in the Toyota Land Cruiser of her friend, John Holmes, a La Mesa chiropractor. She and Holmes would go south on Highway 1 to Cabo San Lucas, ride the ferry to Puerto Vallarta, then board a twenty-foot panga for the ride along the coastal jungle, past the mouth of the Rio Tomatlan, to Yelapa.
The woman Richardson was going to stay with in Yelapa was the mother of her friend Susan Grendon. Grendon and Richardson had known each other almost two years. Grendon. who lived in her art studio on Camino Del Mar in Del Mar, had just finished a lucrative commission making stained-glass windows for a home in Rancho Santa Fe, and she wanted to go to Mexico. The trip was to be for her new business — Grendon was planning to organize wilderness trips to Baja, expeditions on which she would make her clients feel the power of the natural world.
Everything for the trip came together beautifully. Grendon’s boyfriend, forty-four-year-old Steve Johnson, had also finished a lucrative commission — a computer consulting contract — and had purchased a Toyota Land Cruiser. Ever since meeting in 1978, the two had wanted to travel together, and a trip to Mexico sounded good. For Johnson, the trip was a holiday. For Grendon, the trip was what she called the “ultimate four-wheel-drive journey down Baja.”
The two couples left San Diego and headed south on Highway 1 on October 25, 1984. Two days later, they reached Bahia Concepcion, on Baja’s east coast. halfway between Mulege and Loreto. On a day highlighted by a pale, empty sky, a strong salt scent, and faraway mountains shimmering a dull silver, they slipped on party hats and plastic leis that Grendon had sneaked down to celebrate Johnson’s forty-fifth birthday. They pulled strings on party poppers. They drank champagne from fragile stemware. They swam. They were happy and a little drunk.
The following day they reached La Paz. Holmes called the ferry office in Cabo San Lucas to make sure the ferry was on schedule. The ferry was canceled, he learned. They would have to wait a week. They drove south to Cabo Pulmo, a primitive coastal region, sixty miles south of Cabo San Lucas, and the next day they set up camp in a small stone hut at one end of the beach.
Susan Grendon later recounted the afternoon of Wednesday, October 30.
“We lazed around all day and snorkeled around the point and sat in the sun and read and slept in the hammocks and just had another lousy day in paradise. Around three we headed down to the beach. We all wanted to snorkel down to the reef. It was the largest living reef in Baja. We were really excited to get out there and see the reef. It was maybe fifty yards offshore. I was ahead and went west up-current and followed the reef. Then I came back down. I was going to pick up Steve on the way back, but I couldn’t see him anywhere in the water, and I thought he had gone back in. So I went back to the beach.
“From the shore I could see Steve.... It looked like he was just snorkeling along. I thought I saw him kicking at one point.” But when she looked again, she didn’t see his feet kicking; he was drifting. “There was something wrong. He wasn’t looking around. He was just drifting down the beach. I swam back out and came back down behind him.... He was limp in the water and floating [face] down.
“I scrambled up on the reef with him and tried to give him mouth- to-mouth, but the swells kept hitting us, and it was impossible to do in the water.” Quickly, John Holmes swam out to help; together they lifted Johnson over the reef and carried him to the sand.
Sherry Richardson, who left the water first, was standing near the Land Cruisers at one end of the beach. She recalls seeing “a figure leaning over another body. I knew immediately that it was John doing CPR on Steve and Susan assisting him.”
The wind blew, and waves broke upon the shore. Gulls circled overhead, calling raucously. It was a bad location, pinched in against the bluffs, but they kept on trying to revive Johnson. Eventually the sun set and the tide came in too high to continue. They carried Johnson’s body to a fisherman’s camp and set it on the sand. Night fell.
Grendon clutched Johnson’s body. “Come on, Steve. Come on,’’ she pleaded. Johnson had been dead nearly an hour. Richardson recalls those moments. “It was like, as long as Sue could see the body, he was not dead yet; the flesh still was warm, and a part of her still refused to accept that it could actually have happened so fast. How could this man who appeared so strong and whose heart was so open to life now be lying dead on the beach?
“For the next several hours, time seemed to stop,” she continues. “All our movements seemed to be happening in slow motion. John went for help. We sat on the beach. Sue did not break down or cry or anything. Time had stopped. She held him and talked.
“Some Mexicans helped bring the body to the ramada and then went to the town of La Ribera to find the delegado [sheriff], who returned after a short time. John and Sue slipped Steve’s body inside a plastic mummy bag cover he had been using to protect the fabric of his sleeping bag. Then they put Steve’s body on a foam pad in back of his Land’Cruiser.”