Ernie Tripke, the retired CHP officer who responded to the traffic collision that killed actor James Dean 55 years ago and spent the rest of his life answering questions about it, has died.
The 88-year-old San Luis Obispo resident died early Tuesday morning at French Hospital Medical Center after spending two weeks there with heart and lung ailments, according to Tripke’s daughter, Julie.
Tripke was born Nov. 3, 1922, in Cleveland and worked as an airplane mechanic during World War II. He joined the CHP in April of 1948 and retired as a captain in charge of the San Luis Obispo office in December 1976.
But it was the accident on Sept. 30, 1955, at the junction of Highways 41 and 466 (now Highway 46) with which Tripke will forever be associated.
Dean was headed toward Paso Robles on Highway 466 approaching the intersection as Cal Poly student Donald Turnupseed — bound for Tulare — turned north on Highway 41.
The two cars collided, and Dean’s aluminum Porsche Spyder careened off the road in a mangled wreck.
The budding movie star suffered fatal injuries, but his passenger, who was ejected, survived.
Tripke and CHP Officer Ron Nelson arrived at 6:20 p.m. As lead investigator, Tripke went over to Dean, who was in the ambulance.
“I figured he had a broken neck,” Tripke said in a 2005 interview. “We weren’t qualified to say that he was deceased, but I think he was darn close to it.”
With Nelson directing traffic, Tripke interviewed witnesses, including Turnupseed, who suffered “very minor injuries,” said the officer. “He said he was making his turn. He just didn’t see Dean coming until the last, split second, and it was too late.”
At the time of the crash neither man knew of the actor, who was not well known then. Dean’s film “East of Eden” had been released, and “Rebel Without a Cause” would make him a household name several weeks after his death. His final film, “Giant,” would not be released until 1956.
“When they said Dean, I thought it was Jimmy Dean, the singer,” Nelson said. “I didn’t know who James Dean was until I got to the mortuary. Neither did Ernie.”
Nelson, who like Tripke found no respite in retirement from the shadow of the Dean collision, misses his friend of 57 years.
“He was a real good friend,” said Nelson, 92, of Atascadero on Thursday. “We both had RVs, and we traveled together a lot.”
Despite protestations to the contrary, according to Julie Tripke, her father secretly savored the attention from fans of Dean and students of the accident.
“He was fine with that,” Julie Tripke said. “He acted like it was a pain in the butt. Even though he would never have admitted it, he loved it.”
In the spring of 2009, the two officers were part of a panel discussion over a rumor that Dean had stopped in Santa Clarita hours before his death, said E.J. Stephens, a writer and member of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society, which sponsored the event. Some 200 people attended.
“To them it was a routine traffic accident,” Stephens said of the officers. “They had no idea that they were bumping into history. They were going about their daily lives, and the next thing you know, they’re right in the middle of the bull wind of history.”
Stephens became friends with Tripke and Nelson as a result.
“It’s so interesting that I was able to meet with and become friends with two of the guys who were on the scene,” he said. “It’s really a huge piece of history.”
Services for Tripke are pending. He is survived by his wife of 65 years, Harriett; two daughters; two grandchildren; and a pair of nieces and nephews. He was preceded in death by a granddaughter.