James Dean's death: Former CHP officer who investigated crash dies

CHP Officer Ron Nelson, shown around the time of the accident.
CHP Officer Ron Nelson, shown around the time of the accident. Courtesy of the Nelson family

Longtime Atascadero resident Ron Nelson, a Pearl Harbor survivor who gained even greater recognition for his role in the 1955 accident that transformed James Dean from actor to icon, has died. He was 94.

Nelson died Aug. 7, a week after suffering a stroke.

“He was a great father, and he was a very special man to a lot of people,” said son Rolfe Nelson, a former Atascadero mayor. “Everyone liked him.”

Ron Nelson was born April 25, 1918, on a farm just east of Coleharbor, N.D. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1938 and was assigned to the USS Vestal, a repair ship that on Dec. 7, 1941, was tied up to the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor. Nelson was playing tennis on the base when Japanese planes strafed the court, and later sank the Arizona and damaged the Vestal.

After the war, Nelson joined the California Highway Patrol. In 1952, he transferred to the CHP’s Paso Robles substation, where he responded to lots of accidents on the county’s narrow roadways.

In 1955, there had been 26 traffic deaths in the county by late September — but No. 27 would change Nelson’s life. On Sept. 30, he and CHP officer Ernie Tripke were dispatched to the junction of Highways 41 and 466 where a Ford sedan driven by a Cal Poly student had collided with Dean’s westbound Porsche Spyder.

Nelson helped write what would become one of the most famous accident reports in CHP history. His photos of the crash site also became famous, though he didn’t profit from them and is rarely credited for their use: The actor’s roadster was crushed like an aluminum can — its dash twisted, making it appear the car had right-hand drive; the Porsche’s trunk was folded forward and its rear cowling was ripped open.

During a 26-year CHP career, Nelson dutifully discussed the Dean crash, but it wasn’t until “the last 10 or 15 years” that he began to really enjoy it, said his son.

“I think it gave him some notoriety and some attention,” Rolfe Nelson said. “Dad was very humble about everything that he did. If people wanted to talk about it, he would give them his opinion.”

And over the years he did just that.

He and Tripke, who died in 2010, were frequently called upon to share what they knew for new generations of James Dean fans. County supervisors in a 2005 resolution honored the investigating officers for their work in “one of the most notable accidents in San Luis Obispo County, reminding us of the absolute need to drive safely and responsibly at all times.”

Nelson is survived by his wife of 65 years, Genece; son Rolfe and wife Christine; daughter Jenell; four grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

A service of celebration and thanksgiving is scheduled 11 a.m. Aug. 25 at Atascadero United Methodist Church, 11605 El Camino Real, followed by a reception at Atascadero Elks Lodge No. 2733, 1516 El Camino Real.

Watch a video of Ron Nelson reading from the James Dean accident report »

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