Canyon of death

Two separate tragedies on the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation

Leonard Duguay’s car was found on a remote road near Warner Springs. Duguay was never found.
  • Leonard Duguay’s car was found on a remote road near Warner Springs. Duguay was never found.
  • Image by H.G. Reza

Leonard Duguay’s 85th birthday came and went on July 5, 2016, without celebration. The Modjeska Canyon resident had disappeared and the search for him took a mysterious turn weeks later when his car was found at the same wilderness site where a Fullerton couple met a tragic end 13 months earlier.

Duguay did not know Cecil Knutson and neither had ties to the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation near Warner Springs in San Diego County. But each Orange County man ended up at the reservation and took a compact car on the same rocky, mountain trail that led to their misfortune, leaving investigators baffled. The trail begins at the end of a paved road and leads to a site so remote it is not patrolled by tribal police officers.

Authorities expressed surprise that the compact cars made it as far as they did down this road.

Authorities expressed surprise that the compact cars made it as far as they did down this road.

Knutson, 79, died while his wife, Dianna Bedwell, 68, survived. They were missing for two weeks and stranded without food or water in a ravine where Knutson had driven their Hyundai Sonata. The couple had gone to the Valley View Casino in Valley Center and afterward were driving to their son’s La Quinta home on Mother’s Day 2015 when Knutson took what he thought was a shortcut over the mountains.

They should have turned back at Turning Rock, but Duguay and Cecil Knutson pressed on.

They should have turned back at Turning Rock, but Duguay and Cecil Knutson pressed on.

Duguay, in the early stages of dementia, left his home on June 13, 2016, to have breakfast at a local restaurant and was never seen again. His Honda Accord was discovered on July 31, 100 miles away at the same site where the Fullerton couple was found a year earlier. The car is still in a ravine, but two searches of the area found no trace of Duguay.

After Duguay’s car was found by Turning Rock, reservation officials put a lock on a gate that stretches across the dirt road just before it becomes impassable.

After Duguay’s car was found by Turning Rock, reservation officials put a lock on a gate that stretches across the dirt road just before it becomes impassable.

The incidents occurred within 200 feet of each other. In another strange twist, each car got stuck near a massive boulder with the ominous name Turning Rock, which marks the end of the trail. A wooden sign with “Turning Rock” etched on it is staked at the base of the promontory. Duguay and Knutson plowed their compact cars through a road used by off-road and four-wheel-drive vehicles.

“The guy is a genius. He can repair anything,” said a friend of Duguay, who built himself this house in Orange County’s Modjeska Canyon.

“The guy is a genius. He can repair anything,” said a friend of Duguay, who built himself this house in Orange County’s Modjeska Canyon.

Investigators are still trying to unravel the mystery of how they managed to get there, and why they did not turn around earlier. In each instance, Knutson and Duguay left Highway 79 to a winding two-lane asphalt road leading to the reservation. The asphalt ends at the reservation’s campground and continues for eight miles as a dirt road that narrows to a hiking trail in spots. The dirt road is graded and passable at its beginning but starts to deteriorate after a few miles. Except for one house a couple of miles north of the campground, the area is wilderness with no signs of human activity.

Duguay’s daughter Ghislaine Joiner says dementia was slowly wearing down her once-mighty father.

Duguay’s daughter Ghislaine Joiner says dementia was slowly wearing down her once-mighty father.

Instead of turning around, Knutson went right at Turning Rock, down into a ravine. He then started driving uphill on a rocky path lined with shrubs but backed up and the car got stuck on a rock when he tried turning around. He and his wife, beset with medical and physical problems, were unable to walk up the steep slope to the road above. Authorities said it’s unlikely that Knutson could have driven the car up the slope and back onto the road.

David Boris, a friend, said Duguay visited him five times in one day and did not remember his previous visits.

David Boris, a friend, said Duguay visited him five times in one day and did not remember his previous visits.

Duguay turned left at Turning Rock and drove down a similar path as Knutson. His car was swallowed by thick brush and ended up next to a huge granite boulder. The climb to the road from the car is steeper and rockier than the climb that challenged the Fullerton couple.

Authorities were stunned that the men were able to drive their cars through ruts, holes, ravines and over rocks. Once stranded there they were on their own. Off-roading is sporadic, and weeks can go by before hikers pass through the area. There is no cell service, and emergency communications are spotty.

A reporter took a slow, bumpy ride to the site with a reservation official in November. It was a brutal trip; the passenger’s head smacked the ceiling of the SUV several times as the vehicle bounced in and out of holes and over rocks.

Authorities are flummoxed by Knutson’s and Duguay’s decision to continue driving on the craggy road when it was obvious that it was leading to the middle of nowhere. The vegetation along the sides changes gradually from grass to manzanita, scrub oak, conifers, and oak trees as the elevation increases from about 3000 to 4200 feet.

“You don’t expect this to happen in the first place. But at some point you’d think that they would’ve realized, ‘Hey this doesn’t look good’ and turned around. But for it to happen again a year later — well, that’s strange and very sad,” said Los Coyotes Police Department chief Raymond S. Allen.

Terminal stubbornness

Bedwell told rescuers it was stubbornness that prevented her husband from turning around. The two, married 27 years, had spent the day at the casino before leaving for their son’s desert home, where they were going to have dinner. They had a bag of oranges, a pie, and no water. Knutson was looking for a shortcut through the mountains but took a turn into the reservation instead. Authorities launched a massive search when they failed to arrive, but the couple was not found until two weeks later, when a party in off-road vehicles came across them while returning to the reservation campground.

Knutson was dead; his body was lying on the ground and his head resting on the sill of the open driver’s door. Bedwell was sitting in the passenger seat, severely dehydrated and barely clinging to life.

One of the rescuers said, “This was not a car that should’ve been out there.” At first they thought it had been stolen and dumped. A police report described Bedwell as “in obvious severe medical distress, labored breathing, mumbled and slurred speech,” and she kept repeating, “Help me, help us” to her rescuers.

Several attempts to contact Bedwell through her son for this story were unsuccessful. In an appearance on the TV tabloid show Inside Edition, she said she had begged her husband to turn around and return to the paved road on the reservation. In other interviews, Bedwell said she was prepared to die with her husband and forgave him for the situation he put them in. She said they collected rainwater, which was sparse, and drank her own urine to survive.

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Comments

It is amazing how some folks can get ordinary cars into some really rugged spots. When I go out in my high-clearance 4X4, there are times when I start to lose my nerve, even though there's little danger of getting stuck. On a couple recent occasions out in the desert I saw Priuses parked along the rugged traces, their operators having taken off to hike. Those have just about no clearance, and look fragile to me, but they were driven to those spots with no apparent damage done, and got back out, too. If you are determined enough, you can take a car into some rough places.

These two stories are really strange. I'd guess that Knutson was also suffering from a degree of dementia. There are times when a road will get really bad and then improve again, but that doesn't often occur nowadays, nor in So Cal. Thinking that will happen isn't "thinking" at all, it's just ignoring reality.

While things that others attribute to coincidence often turn out to be anything but, this time there seems to be no common denominator in them. And while I don't usually buy coincidence as a factor, this time what else could it be? Something from the occult? Aliens from space? Evil spirits?

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