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Ever since its founding as a railroad resort for millionaires back in 1915, Rancho Santa Fe, primarily known these days as America's wealthiest zip code, has had plenty of misery to go along with its money. Is the money responsible for the misery, or vice versa? Scheming divorcées, swindlers, and purported spies have all made troubled homes amidst the fragrant eucalyptus trees. Reports of marital bliss, however, have been rare. Sometimes it seems that the Ranch is just plain cursed.

There was Nancy Hoover, the real estate lady and onetime Del Mar mayor who in 1983 left her husband George to shack up in a cozy house on the Ranch with "foreign currency expert" J. David Dominelli, who stole millions of dollars from the greedy and gullible locals before being packed off to federal prison. After Hoover got out of the pen for assisting Dominelli's stealing, she married a trash baron from Santa Barbara and perhaps has lived happily ever after. And there was Clifford Graham, the ex­body builder from San Bernardino who married the daughter of 1950s-era workout pioneer Vic Tanny and befriended Republican politicos such as onetime congressman Jack Kemp and downtown real estate mogul Malin Burnham. In May 1985 he disappeared forever, following a federal indictment for a celebrated fraud in which Graham convinced investors he could make gold from sand. Graham's historic 17-acre Osuna Ranch estate was sold by his creditors, and his wife departed the Ranch for a high-rise condo in an expensive Long Island suburb.

In 1992, international arms dealer and alleged con man Ian Spiro, 46, was found dead in his car in the Anza-Borrego Desert, a small vial of cyanide at his side. His flashy blonde wife, Gail, 42, and their three children, Sara, 16, Adam, 14, and Dina, 10, had been shot to death days before in their Rancho Santa Fe home. For years, there was talk that he was a spy for the CIA and a friend of Lieutenant Oliver North. Some accounts said he had been killed by pre-9/11 Arab agents. But Spiro also was purportedly $5 million in debt and wasn't getting on with his wife, which the sheriff concluded had led him to murder his family and commit suicide.

And now comes the case of Ralph Victor Whitworth and Wendy Walker Whitworth. A year ago in February, they made headlines around the world when Ralph threw a 50th birthday party for Wendy at Delicias, the tony eatery in the Ranch's neat little commercial village. All of Wendy's 150 closest friends were present, including her special chum, Today Show hostess and Wendy's former ABC co-worker, Katie Couric; Larry King's wife, Shawn; and "security expert" Chuck Vance, an ex­Secret Service agent once married to ex-president Gerald Ford's daughter Susan, whom he guarded at the White House.

They were all surprised when ex-Beatle Paul McCartney suddenly appeared from behind a curtain and began to sing 19 tunes from his repertory of aging standards, including "Yesterday," "Hey Jude," "Let It Be," "Hello Goodbye," and "I Saw Her Standing There." At the end of the evening, Wendy danced with Ralph -- who reportedly had donated $1 million to McCartney's favorite charity -- as Paul sang the Beatle's version of "Birthday."

Afterward Wendy was quoted as saying, "Paul McCartney walked onstage and I thought somebody was playing a trick on me. It was so exciting. How would you feel? You can't believe it." Said McCartney, "Normally I don't do this sort of gig, but I was chuffed to do it because it was a 'win-win' show. Ralph gets to be the great husband for organizing the surprise, his wife gets a rocking party, I get to rehearse the band for the tour, and most important, Adopt-A-Minefield gets one million dollars."

Added Ralph, "I wanted to do something special for her 50th birthday. I'll say I have another 50 years to come up with something else like this."

Alas, less than 12 months later the Whitworths, as have thousands of their Rancho Santa Fe forebears, trudged off toward the dreary halls of the San Diego County divorce court up the freeway in Vista. This is Wendy's first divorce. (Her boss Larry King has been married six times. That puts him only one or two divorces behind the likes of Zsa Zsa Gabor, Mickey Rooney, and Liz Taylor.)

Ralph Whitworth is a partner in Relational Investors, LLC, which is generally said to be a money-management firm. What does that mean? According to descriptions of its operation in the business press, the firm is given large amounts of cash --billions of dollars, actually -- to invest by outfits like the California Public Employees' Retirement System. Instead of just "passively" investing the money, Relational is said to seek out public companies that Whitworth and his associates think are being mismanaged.

Then, after buying a piece of the target firms, Relational begins to pressure management for changes intended to jack up the price of the stock. This obviously doesn't make Whitworth the most popular figure among those inside corporate types who guide the fate of American enterprise, but it has garnered considerable admiration from various members of the media. In fact, Whitworth's press has been glowing.

This year, for example, Relational bought a 9 percent interest in CNF Inc., a Palo Alto trucking company, and began pressuring management to sell off various "underperforming" business assets. Back in 1989, CNF had bought Emery, a freight-forwarding firm, but the combined operation hasn't made much money, and Whitworth saw an opportunity. "There isn't any real strategic reason to have a trucking business hooked up to a forwarding business," said Whitworth.

He's also been spending a lot of time badgering a Bay Area company called National Semiconductor to sell off its "non-core enterprise networking division and digital appliance business." He threatened to nominate himself for a seat on the board of directors if the company doesn't comply with his demands. His is not a particularly warm and cuddly business, but it makes a lot of money.

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