Photos from the Vault

In 1955, James Dean crash investigation took less than 2 weeks to settle on a cause

The scene of James Dean’s fatal crash on Sept. 30, 1955, is now a ranch field.
The scene of James Dean’s fatal crash on Sept. 30, 1955, is now a ranch field. Courtesy of Seita Ohnishi

Fans wandered on the shoulders of two busy highways, little children in tow. They were trying to get closer to an icon, who had died here exactly 50 years earlier.

He was dead before most present had been born.

At the time of the Sept. 30, 1955, accident, the public had only seen one James Dean movie, “East of Eden.”

“Rebel Without a Cause” was released a month after the accident. “Giant” would appear over a year after the fatal crash.

In 2005 a fan brought a transparency of the accident photo and tried to line it up with the hills.

The actual accident site is presently a ranch field, the highway having been realigned in following years. Traces of the old winding 466 Highway can sometimes be seen parallel and south of the current Highway 46.

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When the exact hour of the accident was at hand, a replica car drove west on Highway 46 to the junction with Highway 41.

The low-slung silver Porsche reflected the sky, blending with the roadway, almost invisible to my eyes. Sunlight was streaming straight in the Porsche driver’s eyes as the car came downhill to the anticipated relief of shade in the valley floor.

All that remained was the intersection with Highway 41 and fate.

In today’s celebrity culture, a story would include a photo and occupy a prominent piece of real estate on the front page.

In 1955, neither the first-day story nor the investigation story had a photo and both were tossed into the jumble that was 1950s page design.

On Oct. 11, 1955, mixed in on A1 with 14 other stories, weather, an events calendar and a stand-alone photo was the result of the investigation into the accident that killed James Dean.

The inquest was complete less than two weeks after the accident. Today, accident investigations are managed by the CHP and toxicology reports alone take longer to process.

This is a republication of an earlier blog post, slightly rewritten and now including the complete 1955 article. The 1955 story contained an error, corrected here. Donald G. Turnupseed was the driver of the car that collided with Dean’s, not Harold Turnupseed.

Jury finds Dean death accidental

PASO ROBLES, Oct. 11 — After deliberating only 24 minutes, a verdict of “accidental death with no criminal intent” was returned in the coroner’s inquest into the death of movie star James Dean here this morning.

Returning the verdict was Don Orcutt Sr., foreman.

The jury went out at 12:27 p.m. to deliberate after hearing testimony of California highway patrolman O. Hunter of Bakersfield. Hunter made the arrest of Dean near Bakersfield on highway 99 for speeding at 3:30 p.m., two hours before the fatal accident occurred.

Hunter fixed the distance from the place where he had given Dean a speeding ticket to the intersection of Highway 41 and 466 where the movie star collided with the car of Donald Turnupseed, 24-year-old Cal Poly student of Tulare, at 108 miles.

Tom Fredericks of Shandon told of driving in back of the Turnupseed car, which was coming off Highway 41.

Fredericks, a Shandon beekeeper and his brother-in-law, Donald Dooley, were traveling east when Turnupseed passed them at 60 miles an hour, the testimony brought out. Turnupseed slowed down to less than 40 miles an hour before he came to the intersection where the accident occurred.

Fredericks said that Turnupseed appeared to attempt to get out of the path of the oncoming sports car.

Dooley, who took the stand at his own request, and Fredericks testified that (Dean’s mechanic Rolf) Wuetherich had been the driver of the car. They said that Wuetherich had on a red tee shirt while Dean was wearing a white tee shirt.

Wuetherich, now in a Glendale hospital, is unable to speak English but his statements were taken through an interpreter, the Rev. M.J. Galle of the First Mennonite church of Paso Robles.

Wuetherich said they had stopped at Blackwell’s corner for a soft drink and an apple while coming over 466 from Bakersfield. He said they stopped for approximately 15 minutes. According to the coroner’s inquest, this fixed the speed of Dean’s car at 85 to 86 miles per hour.

Another witness, Clifford Hord of Paso Robles, testified he was on his way to Bakersfield and was abreast of the intersection when the accident occurred.

The color of the movie star’s small sports car was a factor in his death, California highway patrolman Ernest Tripke indicated in his testimony.

Dean, according to Tripke who testified along with fellow highway patrolman Ron Nelson in details of the Sept. 30 two-car accident which took the screen star’s life, was driving a silver gray sports car and its color blended with the mountains at that time of day — 5:59 p.m.

Nelson also said that according to Turnupseed’s account at the scene of the crash, he had tried to avoid hitting the car but had not seen it approaching until too late.

First witness when the inquest opened at 10 a.m. today in the civic center here was Paul Moreno, driver of the ambulance which took Dean to the War Memorial Hospital here (Paso Robles). Moreno recounted his part in the tragedy which occurred at the intersection of Highway 41 and 446 when Dean’s small car crashed into one driven by Donald Turnupseed, 24-year-old Cal Poly student from Tulare.

Moreno said that Dean’s body was on the right side of his German make sports car, face down, after the accident although the car was a left-hand drive. Dean’s mechanic Rolf Weutherich, who received serious injuries in the crash, was lying face down six feet away from the car when he arrived, Moreno recalled.

Conducting the inquest before some 30 spectators was sheriff-coroner Paul E. Merrick, district attorney H.C. Grundell and deputy district attorney Harry Murphy.

Turnupseed, accompanied at the inquest by his parents, is represented by Pete Andre, attorney of San Luis Obispo.

Members of the three-woman, nine-man jury included Mrs. Arthur Eddy, Mrs. Allen Dale, Miss Dorothy Schwartz, Cliff Bickell, Jerry Brush, Don Orcutt Sr., Gil Hanson, Mac Marzorini, Ray Samp, Les Dauth, Charles Ashton and Kenneth Harris.

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David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942, dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com, @DavidMiddlecamp

Visit www.sanluisobispo.com/photos-from-the-vault to see old photos and read selected archives.

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