See heartbreaking photos from the crash that killed James Dean in SLO County
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About six decades ago, movie star James Dean met his untimely end flying down a highway northeast of Paso Robles — forging an eternal link between the actor and San Luis Obispo County.
Countless fans and tourists stop at the metal memorial next to the Jack Ranch Cafe. And mementos are still left at the crash site near the present-day Cholame “Y” intersection of Highways 41 and 46, where two signs noting “James Dean Memorial Junction” were placed in 2005.
But Cholame isn’t the only place you can find remnants of Dean’s brief, tragic passage through the area. The original coroner’s inquest into Dean’s death is kept at San Luis Obispo Superior Court — under lock and key — and you can request your own copy for 50 cents a page.
Up until about 10 years ago, the original inquest was on a shelf in the courthouse for anyone to look at — though it’s since been stored away for safekeeping, “as it is of historical value,” according to Superior Court CEO Michael Powell.
The numbers of requests were higher in the past. In the last five years, the court has only seen one request this year and one to two requests each in the last few years, Powell said.
While the original inquest is kept away from public view in a locked exhibit room, it can be viewed — but not handled — via public request, Powell said in an email.
The inquest was held in front of a jury to determine the cause of and facts surrounding Dean’s death on Sept. 30, 1955.
The inquest document includes the entire transcription of the testimony given by witnesses to the crash, CHP officers and the driver whose car hit Dean’s, as well as maps of the crash site and Dean’s last autograph. The latter can be found on the traffic citation Dean was given earlier that day on Highway 99 about 20 miles south of Bakersfield; CHP officer Otie V. Hunter cited the actor for going 65 mph in a 55 mph zone.
Dean and his mechanic, Rolf Wuetherich, were traveling through the area in Dean’s Porsche 550 Spyder en route to a car race in Salinas. The pair planned to have dinner in Paso Robles with Bill Hickman and photographer Sanford Roth that night — but that didn’t happen.
As Dean and Wuetherich traveled westbound on the now-nonexistent Route 466 toward Route 41, near the intersection of present-day Highways 46 and 41, Donald Turnupseed, a 23-year-old Cal Poly student, was trying to turn from Route 466 onto Route 41. He pulled his Ford Tudor right in front of the Spyder.
The resulting collision would end Dean’s life at age 24.
But as you peruse the coroner’s inquest, you’ll find that it wasn’t the last crash Dean was in that night.
In the inquest, Paul Moreno, a self-employed Cholame man who ran a garage, service station, grocery and ambulance service, describes driving Dean and the gravely injured Wuetherich, to the now-gone War Memorial Hospital in Paso Robles.
While they were en route to the hospital, the ambulance was sideswiped by an unknown vehicle. Moreno said he didn’t stop at the time, but later pulled over to check the damage.
“I did not stop at the scene of the accident, I couldn’t stop there. I proceeded to the top of the hill and stopped and surveyed the damage and seen that I could proceed,” Moreno testified. He kept driving.
Moreno’s assistant in the ambulance, Buster Davidson, is not quoted in the testimony. But his daughter, Helen Hooper, told The Tribune in 2005 that he described picking Dean up as like “picking up a limp noodle.”
The loss of “a young life is what bothered him,” Hooper said. “That’s when he said he wouldn’t drive the ambulance again.”
Turnupseed wasn’t injured in the crash, and caught a ride home that night with Pismo Beach resident Dale “Blackie” Kimes, according to a 1995 Tribune article. Wuetherich survived the crash only to die in another car crash in Germany in 1981.
At the time of Dean’s death, just one of his movies had been released in theaters: “East of Eden.” “Rebel Without a Cause” didn’t come out until about a month after his death, and “Giant” was released in 1956. Dean received posthumous Oscar nominations for “Rebel Without a Cause” and “East of Eden,” and was awarded a posthumous star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.
The jury in the coroner’s inquest exonerated Turnupseed in the crash, announcing they found “no indication that James Dean met death through any criminal act of another, and that he died of a fractured neck and other injuries received.”’
Turnupseed gave just one interview following the crash, to the Tulare Advance-Register, and never spoke about it publicly again. He died of lung cancer at age 63 in 1995.
In 2005, The Tribune spoke to then-92-year-old Dorothy Schwartz, who was working at radio station KPRL when it broke the news of Dean’s death.
“It was a little vague,” she said of the inquest. “The testimony was clear, but there were some things that didn’t add up to what we were expecting. We wanted everything to be clear and above board, and people were hemming and hawing and not giving direct answers.”
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