Photo by Robert Burroughs
Looking through the pane of glass from the visitor’s side of window number nine in the Vista county jail, it seems hard to believe that thirty-seven-year-old James Edward Kulka should be held here as a prisoner, charged with murder. With an angular face, a high forehead, short gray hair, and wearing glasses, Kulka projects more the image of the college instructor than the criminal. Surprised, almost amazed even, that someone is interested in him, in conversation he shows that his mind has as much a scientific or technical orientation as the literary one he developed studying English literature in college. He is as likely to mention Carl Sagan or Popular Mechanics as he is Barbara Tuchman. And unlike other literary-minded prisoners in recent years, some of whom have used journalists and authors to gain attention (the notorious Jack Abbott, for example), Kulka has never sought a public forum for his case. In nearly the most literal sense, he is alone: both his parents are dead, and his one brother in New York doesn’t even know that Kulka is in trouble, serious trouble.
Represented by a court-appointed public defender, he is presently scheduled to stand trial December 14 for the fatal shooting of Sally Barnes, fifty-two-year-old schoolteacher and Escondido resident. The incident occurred July 28, 1981, in the rugged hills behind Lake Wohlford known as the Old Guejito (wah-hee-toe), where Barnes owned forty-six acres of land she called the “Barnes Mountain Retreat,’’ below which Kulka owned ten acres. Intending to stymie Kulka’s efforts to clear brush off an old dirt road that ran through her land, Barnes hired a contractor to dump tons of dirt at the point at which Kulka’s road forked off to the left from the legally deeded easement. Having dumped a small amount of dirt, the contractor was standing at her side when Kulka appeared. A clump of dirt remains at that spot today, the only reminder that anything ever happened there. Kulka intends to plead innocent by reason of insanity. The other immediate neighbors have been subpoenaed and are expected to testify that Sally Barnes had been antagonizing them for years.
Though they are new, relatively few in number, and limited primarily to people who owned property near his, Jim Kulka’s friends say that press reports — most noticeably those in the Escondido Times-Advocate — have created a negative impression of him in the minds of the public.
In various accounts, the Times-Advocate has described him as “an unemployed Lake Wohlford man as “a caretaker,” and as “formerly a schoolteacher.” These descriptions are not only inaccurate and misleading, argue Kulka's friends, but the articles in which they appeared have failed to present a true account of the events that led up to the shooting.
Likewise, Sally Barnes’s friends, who are many in number and who range from the teachers at Sarah Anthony School (within the confines of Juvenile Hall in San Diego) to the neighbors who lived near her home on Grape Street in Escondido, feel it was the victim who received biased press coverage. Though she had been praised by those who knew her as a teacher and a mother, newspaper articles spoke of her as the perpetrator of feuds on the Old Guejito. Says Sarah Anthony principal Rocco V. Nobile, “Our people were furious. One of the teachers on my staff called me and asked me who was prosecuting the case. She was ready to write a letter to the state attorney general because she felt that all the articles that were written were so derogatory, and it wasn’t right and it wasn’t fair about Sally Barnes.”
Barnes’s friends and neighbors would say this story should not begin with her assailant, but with Sally and her daughter Christina (now an adult, she resides in the house on Grape Street). They may be right, for Barnes was truly a dominant personality who, divorced early in her married life, raised her single child on her own. But from practically the very beginning she had to play three roles: mother, father, special educator, because Christina showed some signs of slowness in her development and clumsiness of speech. In the late 1950s, she began to put herself through college, working at Convair during the day and attending San Diego State at night. Once she got her bachelor’s degree in psychology, she went into teaching; eventually, she got a master’s degree. “She got started with the county working in a program for mentally retarded kids,” explains Nobile. “When that program was phased out in the late Sixties, she was transferred over to our school at Juvenile Hall. It was a good shoo-in because many of the kids we deal with here are slow in their education. They’re not retarded, but they’re slow.”
Jim Kulka and Sally Barnes
To be confined to Juvenile Hall in Linda Vista, young people — ranging in age from ten to eighteen — must have committed a crime for which they would have been fully prosecuted had they been adults, crimes such as burglary, assault and battery, rape, attempted murder, and murder. Housed on the grounds twenty-four hours per day till the juvenile court decides what to do with them, some youths stay only a few days, while others remain for several months. In the meantime, they must go to school like any other youth.
“Teaching a kid is a difficult job,” says Nobile. “He isn’t that motivated. He’s a failure in school. All these kids are somewhat disturbed. At times they’ll freak out and attack another student. When that happens, the teachers pull the little pin they have on their belt, and within seconds they have all kinds of help. But they work alone with the students and they are locked into the classroom. The only way the kid can get out is to force the teacher to give him the key. We haven't had that much of a problem with it because we have a tight security system here, and the kids know it. Yet there’s always that tension and fear. Sally had the same apprehensions and fears that all the teachers here have. These kids can explode at any time.
“The kids she taught, between the ages of ten and fifteen, are the most difficult because they’re so hyper, always acting out their emotions. But with Sally’s background, training, and understanding of human behavior, she had the knack of knowing how to cope with these kids. She had the patience of Job, believe me. She took the job and she did it without complaining. She was the most organized and prepared teacher on our staff. Every single day she had a lesson plan, and that’s difficult in an institution like this, with the constant changeover of kids. ”
Barnes’s fellow teacher. Bob Natwick, who has taught at the school for thirty years, says, “Sally had a wonderful sense of humor. This brought her through a lot of situations because she could get at the level of humor of these kids without degrading herself. She was clever. She made fun of the kids; she made fun of herself. The kids appreciated this so much, and they worked for her. They said, ‘I’m going to do this for Mrs. Barnes. ’ But she didn’t think of it that way. Her joy was that the kid was developing. ”
She was about five-foot three or four and stocky. Her hair was cut short — for practical reasons, not out of any attention to fashion. In fact, fashion meant not a whit to her. Rather than wear heels and dressy clothes to work, she might show up —even in the middle of the summer — in a heavy sweater, slacks, and a pair of boots. Getting ready to commence her English or social studies lesson at the blackboard, she’d overhear some kid making a wisecrack about her boots. Turning around, she’d say, “Well, silly bones, if you were going up to the mountains, you wouldn’t wear moccasins, would you?” Or, if her students were subdued that morning, she’d lead off with some intentionally pointed remark to get things loosened up. “What do all you little goons want to do today?” she might ask. The kids would burst into laughter without realizing she had captured their attention. “I know what you want to do, but this is what we’re going to do today,” she’d add, and zoom right into the day’s lesson.
Paramount to Barnes was her profession and the needs of her delinquent students. She wasn’t there to satisfy the needs of her co-workers, who found it exasperating to work on a committee with her because she had such an inquisitive, fastidious temperament: she pushed, she challenged, she demanded and debated. Even in a staff meeting, with the other fourteen teachers sitting around the table, she would challenge the principal himself. “Sometimes she drove me up a wall,’’ says Nobile. “I would be talking about, let’s say, the policy and procedures regarding kids wearing shorts to school in the summer. I would say that even though the weather is getting warmer, they must continue to wear the clothes issued to them by Juvenile Hall until I put out a memo stating otherwise. And Sally would say, ‘Mr. Nobile, is there a certain date for that? You ’re saying in the summer. Suppose in June we get the Santa Anas and it stays that way for a few days? Do you mean July 1? Is that the summer?’ She drove me up a wall, but she was right: a definition was needed. She didn’t just sit there and let these things go. From that standpoint, she could really push someone.”
Barnes also worked as a representative on the team that negotiated the teachers’ contracts with the county. On that team was a professional negotiator who had worked with hundreds of teachers before. In speaking of Barnes, he said to Natwick and others, “She is the hardest person. She insists absolutely on everything being spelled out to the letter. ” For the teachers this was critical; if the wording were inexact or could be easily misinterpreted, they had a bad contract. Natwick recalls, “She was a stickler for details, and when she was a negotiator, it took a long time to get this language exactly the way it should be. It came out just perfectly, just beautifully, because Sally was guarding, she was the watchdog. Very detailed information was what she wanted.”
Map by Russel Redmond
Because of his respect for her teaching abilities, in April, 1980, Nobile wrote a rare letter of commendation to her and asked the director of personnel to place it in her personnel file. It reads, “Sally, this memo is to acknowledge my appreciation for your dedication and professionalism in the field of education. I have known you for the past ten years and although we have had our differences, I have always recognized your sincere interest and enthusiasm in providing a sound educational program for the children at Sarah Anthony School.
“Many people in Probation have spoken very highly of your skills as a teacher. It is with pleasure that I extend to you my appreciation and commend you as a teacher who is contributing to the betterment of youth.”
As Barnes urged her students to develop their own potential — to read better, if not well — so did she with her own daughter, Christina. To her she gave more liberties than parents usually do to offspring who do not progress as quickly as their peers and, as a consequence, have fewer opportunities. Library technician Michelle Armbrust, who lived directly across the street, says, “She encouraged Chris to be independent, not to just sit in front of the TV all day. Chris would get a job as a dishwasher or other menial labor for a while, but when she was out of work, Sally would always tell her to keep looking.”
Home interior decoration, like fashion in clothes, didn’t intrigue Barnes. The inside of her house was perpetually disheveled; one neighbor described the furniture as ‘‘Early Salvation Army.” In the middle of her living room she had an old couch with a blanket thrown over it to prevent her two small house dogs and numerous stray cats from tearing it up (she had a soft heart for stray cats and kept anywhere from four to eight of them at a time). She was also an inveterate collector who never threw anything away: the garage was stuffed with junk and, until the mice got to it, with a supply of survival-food packages.
The biggest responsibility she had to contend with on Grape Street (other than her daughter) was how to keep at bay four other pets, ferocious guard dogs she had raised since they were pups. “They were real brutes,” recalls Michelle Armbrust. “One time the two males were fighting it out and she couldn’t get them to stop. Finally I told her to pick up the garden hose and spray them in the face with cold water. That worked. ’ ’ Barnes built a double fence to keep them in; however, there was a vacant lot on her north side, in which neighborhood kids would ride their bikes, aggravating the dogs, until Barnes had to go outside and tell them to leave. “Sally was eccentric, and she had her ways,” says Armbrust. “But she didn’t run through the neighborhood waving a gun at people.”
First renting office space in Escondido and later working out of her home, Barnes in her spare time set up a marital counseling service. Creative Counseling. She took clients at night and by appointment only. According to Barnes’s mother, Mrs. Sally Bancroft of Solana Beach, Barnes helped most of the couples she counseled to avert divorce. “She believed in negotiation, in talking things out,” says her mother.
Given the pressures of school and of parenthood, Barnes needed an outlet, a way to retreat now and then. A lapsed Catholic who nevertheless considered herself a strong Christian, she wanted some rural land she could use as a refuge, where she could combine her love for nature and her religious convictions. As a person very attuned to disaster preparedness, she hoped to build on that land an underground home (akin to a bomb shelter) in which she and her daughter could live without assistance in the event society should crumble or be destroyed.
She found her sanctuary out in the Old Guejito. To get there she had to drive her red VW squareback out of Escondido and up the steep Lake Wohlford Road six miles to the lake, continue another two miles, then turn right onto Guejito Road. She passed a dairy farm, houses, fields, and Dr. Jensen’s health ranch until, now on a rough country road, she began another, more gradual, ascent, with overhanging oak trees on either side of her. Driving ten to fifteen minutes more at ten miles per hour, eventually she came to a clearing about 1700 feet above sea level. Beneath her lay rugged, hilly, tree- and brush-covered terrain and a prominent knoll; miles below, she could see the irrigated fields of the San Pasqual Valley.
When she later looked at a parcel map of the area, she could see that it contained seventy-four acres of land within Section 15 of the County of San Diego Division of Land Plat #240-270-1. On the west were three parcels, running north to south: an eight-acre parcel, a nine-acre parcel, and a twenty-acre parcel within which sat the knoll on the northernmost side. On the east was a single thirty-seven acre parcel. On paper what separated the one parcel on the east from the three on the west was a sixty-foot legal easement, or right of way. In reality, there was just dirt road which swung in and out of the easement until it hit the foot of the knoll, at which point it curved off to the right, went up the knoll, and ended. Where it was at variance with the easement, the old dirt road was called a prescriptive easement, which is defined as a road which has been in use openly and continuously for at least five years.
Barnes bought the nine-acre parcel north of the knoll in 1973. Where the dirt road entered her property, she put up signs in the form of a crucifix, notifying interlopers that this was the “Barnes Retreat” — no trespassing, horses, Hondas, smoking, hunting, or shooting was allowed. Farther down, in a grove of oak trees, she set up a camping tent and, about thirty paces away, built three wooden steps; above them she constructed an altar made of rocks and placed upon it a white figurine of the Virgin Mary. In the first years she owned it, she liked to go up to her land on the weekend, camp out in her tent, and watch for the deer that came down out of the hills to drink from the creek that crossed her property. She was a staunch preservationist. For example, she once discovered a rattlesnake on her property but let it live. When it eventually bit and killed one of her small dogs, she accepted the loss philosophically. “The dog was the trespasser,” she told her neighbors.
Sometimes a section of the dirt road between the clearing at the top of the hill and her property would wash out and she’d have to hike down to her land. To make accessibility easier, she bought a green-and-white four-wheel-drive Jeep, and Michelle Armbrust would come to recognize that, when the VW was parked in the driveway and the Jeep was gone, Sally had gone up to her retreat. “To her it was very important,” Armbrust says. “She said that being out on the land was a restful thing. I went up there with her a couple of times and I thought it was kind of neat. I thought it was her reward for having worked hard.”
“Nineteen seventy-three through 1978 were very thoroughly happy years for her,” says Mrs. Bancroft, who went up to the property with her daughter several times in 1973 and 1974, but not thereafter. “She got her spiritual renewal from the hills. Her students were threatening her life all the time. This was her place to get away and be private. She hoped to set up there a nondenominational religious retreat where people could arrange to come on the weekend, hike, and meditate.”
The same year that Sally Barnes bought that nine-acre parcel, Jim Kulka moved to Escondido. Born in Lakewood, New Jersey (sister city to Escondido) in 1944, he grew up in the Bronx and graduated from Fordham Prep, a Jesuit high school, in 1962. Then for six months he joined the Army reserves, which sent him to truck-driving school in Fort Ord, California. (“That’s the Army,” he says. “They send you all the way across the country to learn to drive a truck.”) From 1964 through 1967 he attended the University of New York at Binghamton on a Regent’s Scholarship, where he earned his B.A. and compiled a B + average. But he never used his liberal arts education; after graduation, he went to work for Equitable Life Insurance Company in New York as a trainee computer programmer. Disliking New York and having now had a taste of California, in 1968 he moved to Oakland and went to work as a computer programmer for Blue Cross; however, up north he suffered from a drinking problem, so he came down to Southern California and enrolled at Synanon in Santa Monica for a cure. Then in 1970, he rejoined the Army as an E-1. He narrowly missed being sent to Vietnam and instead went to Fort Shafter on the island of Oahu in Hawaii, where he spend the next three years as a computer programmer, mustering out in June, 1973, as an E-5 with an honorable discharge.
Barnes Retreat sign
Not knowing exactly what he wanted to do with his life, Kulka decided he would attend a tuition-free community college in Southern California and take advantage of the veterans’ educational benefits he qualified for under the GI Bill. He first checked out San Diego City College but felt that “it seemed more like a prison than a school. ” He found Palomar College in San Marcos more to his liking. “It’s nicely laid out, lots of space. And it's got good technical programs. And no guards walking around,” he says.
His hunch at the time was that he might be better off learning a trade, so for the next two years he enrolled in a variety of vocational courses: auto mechanics, engine rebuilding, welding, mechanical drawing, machine shop. He also enrolled in Calculus I, but did not complete the course at this time. While at Palomar he kept pretty much to himself. “I find it hard to open up to other people,” he says. “I’d rather sit and listen to what they have to say. I enjoy talking to people about the things they know and that they’re good at. It’s only when I see that the other person is truly interested in what I’m doing that I really start to loosen up. ” So he went to his classes, worked out in the gym, lifted weights, jogged, and didn’t say much to his fellow students or to his instructors. Larry Bertram, who had him for auto shop and has taught at the school many years, vaguely recalls Kulka’s name but cannot match it to a face.
Broken statue of Virgin Mary
While in Escondido, Kulka periodically stopped in at Ron Bittner’s Gun Shop. Kulka had learned marksmanship in the Army and regarded it as the most valuable thing he'd gotten out of basic training. After he left the service, he bought and sold guns for investment purposes, as well as to practice target shooting. He purchased several automatic pistols from Bittner between 1973 and 1975. Bittner, who is mayor of Escondido, later recalled that Kulka was “quiet, studious, and knowledgeable. . . . Based on the amount of times he came in, I would think he did a lot of recreational shooting.”
Kulka didn't need to work. He had an old ’66 Chevy four-door sedan to get around in, he had no family to support, he was parsimonious with the money he got from the GI Bill. He further managed to keep expenses to a minimum by renting a room for seventy dollars per month from an Escondido furniture upholsterer and land investor, James Sinclair, who owned a home on Anthony Heights Drive. Kulka knew how to parcel out the monthly check from the government; when he came into a lump sum of money, though, he looked around for a place to invest it all at once. Kulka’s father, who passed aw ay just after he got out of the Army, had left him a small inheritance, and the money was, in his words, “burning a hole in my pocket. This was when the stock market was plunging and everyone was investing in gold and silver. I figured, I can’t do too badly by buying some land.”
James Sinclair owned the twenty-acre parcel of land directly south of Sally Barnes’s nine acres. One day Sinclair drove Kulka out to the property and persuaded him to buy the lower ten acres, even though half of it was the steep slope south of the knoll, it had no road, and the only way you could get down to it was by walking through the brush on foot. In May, 1974, Kulka bought the ten acres, which had not yet been surveyed, paying an even $1000 per acre: $5000 in cash; the balance on a ten-year loan at seven percent interest. To get to his property, in the winter of 1974-75 Kulka hired a bulldozing contractor to put in a road. There being no line he could follow, the contractor took the easiest route possible, and dozed through the thirty-seven-acre parcel on the east side, then cut back into Kulka’s land on a diagonal line from northeast to southwest. Kulka did not even know what exact path the bulldozer had taken until the job was completed. It didn’t seem to matter, though. The owner of the thirty-seven-acre parcel didn’t complain, and there was a commonly shared attitude in the Old Guejito: any road was better than no road at all.
One person who didn’t have a casual attitude about the land in Section 15 was Sally Barnes. She didn’t care for the width of the legal easement, feeling that sixty feet was unnecessarily wide. She went to Sinclair, Kulka, and other property owners in Section 15 to try to get them to agree to narrow it to twenty feet; her efforts, however, proved unsuccessful.
In August, 1975, Kulka moved up to northern California. Because of the mechanical courses he’d take at Palomar, he had become more and more interested in the electronics field and had decided to attend Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hills (twenty miles inland from Oakland), which had a good reputation for its electronics courses. He followed his pattern of renting a room in a house and getting by on the GI Bill while he studied at Diablo Valley for the next several years, taking such courses as geology, welding, machine shop, beginning physics and chemistry, electronics technology, and finally passing Calculus I with a grade of B. Things changed out in Section 15 the same year he moved away from Escondido, though: Sally Barnes bought the thirty-seven-acre parcel through which Kulka’s road ran, and combined it and the nine acres she already owned to form one large parcel.
James Sinclair had already managed to sell the ten acres north of Kulka in 1975 to an electrician named Joe Wisnieski and his wife Connie (a high school teacher) for $17,500. They lived then in Cypress, a suburb southeast of Los Angeles, and wanted to buy some land in anticipation of their retirement. Having seen an ad in the paper, they went down to the property with Sinclair's salesman. “We liked the property , and we bought it, “ explains Joe Wisnieski. “We liked the view, and it had that knoll there, as you know. We knew it would not stay as rural as that forever, that within a matter of years it would be fairly well developed back in there. But I don’t mind the dirt roads. I liked the remoteness of it, the quiet — out in the country and away from the city. ’’ Of the owner of the nine-acre parcel on his north, Wisnieski says, “The salesman told me that a lady by the name of Mrs. Barnes owned it, that she was a little weird, but don't pay any attention to her. ... So I figured I wouldn’t. Anyway, one person’s opinion of being weird may not be my opinion of being weird. To what degree is it? I mind my business wherever I am. I figure other people should do the same.”
Wisnieski would soon get his first taste of what Sinclair’s salesman had hinted at. Wisnieski’s two teen-age sons, Harry and David, asked if they could go down to the land and clear it for three dollars per hour in order to earn some spending money. Several of their friends went along. They were up on top of the knoll about six in the evening when, as Wisnieski recalls, “All of a sudden they hear this person shouting, ‘What are you doing up there?’ and firing a rifle on her way up the hill. Up comes Mrs. Barnes, who points the gun right at Harry s stomach and says, ‘Hey, you’re trespassing.’ ” Harry, who was unarmed, tried to explain to her who he was, that he had a right to be there. Though he was frightened and his knees were shaking, he summoned the bravado to say, “You’d better put that gun down or I’ll take it away from you.” She did. When Harry got back to Cypress and told his father what had transpired, the elder Wisnieski didn’t report it to the police, figuring now that she knew who he was, she’d leave him alone.
The relationship with Sally Barnes, however, had only begun. She managed to obtain Wisnieski's home phone number and began peppering him with calls. “She’d always call just at dinner time, when I was halfway through my meal,” says Wisnieski. “That doesn’t sit very well with me. I couldn’t get her off the phone — she’d just talk and talk and talk. Pretty soon the dinner just goes.”
Mrs. Wisnieski felt Barnes had it in for her sons, that because Sally worked with juvenile delinquents, she considered all young people delinquent. On various occasions Barnes charged Harry and David with having dope parties out on the land, of selling dope, of shooting holes in a green trailer she'd placed on her east thirty-seven acres, of shooting at her when they were out practicing skeet shooting — charges Wisnieski says were fictions of her imagination, and he would tell her so.
“Sally was being shot at constantly from 1978 till the day she died,” Mrs. Bancroft claims. “She could hear the bullets. They said it was target practice, but she felt it was coming too close. She told me, ‘Mother, you can’t get protection till there’s a victim. ’ Only on the last weekend of her life was there no shooting up there. ”
The telephone calls continued. “She would call up about the weirdest things,” says Wisnieski. “She’d say, ‘You don’t have a legal lot split. You’ll never be able to build on your property because Sinclair never had the twenty acres legally split. ’ Or, ‘The sixty-foot easement is not a legal easement.’ Or, ‘You’d better not do anything on the knoll because it very well might be that it isn’t yours.’” Alarmed, the Wisnieskis would jump in their car and drive down to the county recorder’s office in San Diego; they didn’t know whether these accusations were right or not. “We’d trusted Sinclair,” says Wisnieski, “but maybe there had been a mistake. When we checked the records, though, we found that everything’s in line, everything’s in line.”
According to the Wisnieskis, Barnes had an underlying motive: she wanted the knoll they owned so she could build a house on it for her daughter. On August 18, 1978, she sent them a letter by certified mail, offering to trade some commercial property she owned in San Marcos for the Wisnieskis’ ten acres. “My intent,” she wrote, “is to move entirely out to the acres above. ... I have also written an inquiry to Mr. Kulka because I would prefer owning the whole twenty acres and leave the south ten acres as is.” If the plan had worked, she would have had near-total seclusion; as it was, neither the Wisnieskis nor Kulka would sell.
Finally the Wisnieskis agreed to meet her in person out at the property. Wisnieski recalls, “I was really amazed. She looked like Annie Oakley. She carried a pistol, a compass, binoculars, and a camera — every time we’d come in, she’d take pictures of us coming and going. She appeared as though she were ready to put one over on you. The wheels were turning . . . how she could get that Wisnieski, how she could get Wisnieski off his property, how she could get Wisnieski to where she could sue him. She had a cunning look. At that time I began to get the idea she was trying to get my property — to force me off it — because she wanted that knoll up there. She wanted it in the worst way.”
From that point on, the Wisnieskis tried to avoid any contact with her, but she’d still call them on the phone. “It got so she was calling every couple of weeks, and it was really getting on my nerves,” says Wisnieski. So he directed his attorney to write to her attorney: “Tell her not to bother me any more, and quit carrying that gun.” This effort backfired, however. Barnes’s attorney would write or call Wisnieski *s attorney, who in turn would bill Wisnieski. Finally, he told his attorney not to accept any more calls or letters. “If you get them, you’re on your own,” said Wisnieski. And though she quit carrying the gun for a while, later they began to see her with it again.
“She needed a pistol because of the rattlesnakes,” reports Mrs. Bancroft. “She carried it until it was either lost or stolen, when she reported it to the police. [Later] she carried a rifle because she needed to. She took target practice but she wasn’t carrying a weapon when she was killed. I found the rifle at her house after the shooting with no [ammunition] clip in it.”
No matter what they tried, they couldn’t avoid Barnes whenever they went down to their land, where they had put up a little prefabricated cabin. As they would start down the final stretch of dirt road in their truck, Barnes would be hiding in the extremely dense brush next to their acreage. Then she’d wait until they were almost abreast of her, at which point she’d burst out of the bushes, camera raised, snapping pictures with a fury. “She’d deliberately step right out in front of the truck, ’ ’ recalls Wisnieski. “I believe she wanted me to hit her so she’d have a good reason to sue me. I soon made it a point that, whenever I came down that road, I’d be going at about three or four miles per hour with my foot on the brake.”
When they got up to their cabin, they’d try to put Barnes out of their minds in order to realize their purpose: to get away from it all, relax, and be comfortable. But then they’d notice the flash of a pair of binoculars off in the distance. Peering closely, they would be able to pick out Barnes hiding behind a rock. “She was watching every move we made,” says Wisnieski. “She’d do it for hours and hours at a time.” Says his wife, “It was so depressing to drive up there and be confronted with her. We’d get to the property and it would be so pretty, but then there she would be, yakking at us about something, telling us this is true or that’s true.”
On one of these occasions about eighteen months ago, the Wisnieskis had to walk in because a section of road had been washed out. On their way back out later, Barnes stopped them and asked, “When do you plan to build up here?”
Wisnieski answered, “I don't know, Mrs. Barnes. We haven’t made any specific plans. We intend to build, but we don’t know when.”
“I’d like to know when you’re going to build,” Barnes responded, “because I can’t afford two lawsuits at the same time. ” (She was engaged in a lawsuit with Paul Loefke, the owner of sixty-seven acres farther north in Section 15; she was seeking “a prescriptive right” through his land.)
Wisnieski continues, “She admitted that once she got through with Loefke, she was going to sue me. Honest to God, just like that. Hey, what’s wrong here? What’s the matter with this woman?”
Finally, Mrs. Wisnieski refused to go down to the property anymore. “It’s far from other people,” she says, “and to have this woman badgering us wasn’t my idea of peacefulness.” So they retreated from their original plan and instead bought two and a half acres in the hills behind Valley Center for $45,000, put a mobile home on the property in June, 1980, and are now living in it while Wisnieski builds the home there that he had intended for the land out on the Old Guejito. They did not sell their hilltop on Old Guejito, however.
By this time, there was a new neighbor on the scene: Escondido fireman Jack Keck, who had bought the eight-acre parcel above Sally Barnes and begun to build an adobe house on the property with resoluteness; every day he had off from the fire department, he’d be out there working on his house. He says of Barnes, “I knew her a little bit better than I wanted to. She came up one day with a Buck knife and six-gun on her hip, a pair of binoculars and a camera around her neck, and a canteen on her back. She said, ‘Hi, my name is Sally Barnes.’ She seemed friendly, but right away she started talking about changing boundary lines, and this neighbor and that neighbor, and how we had to straighten this whole mess out. She left, and I said to myself. There goes trouble.' Then I’d see her down in the rocks below my house, taking pictures of me, or she’d be out on the dirt road sweeping it with a rake, so she’d know later if anybody’s fresh tracks had gone down it.
“I had words with her on several occasions.. She used to cut across a comer of my property to get to her land. I told her that, since she had been doing it, she could continue doing it. But when I'd go down the legal easement to see my neighbor Wisnieski, she'd tell me not to use the road anymore. She and my wife got into a shouting match about this one day, and I had to step between them. She [Barnes] hired Joe Perez to bulldoze a road through an alfalfa crop that Paul Loefke had just planted, and even though I tried to stop them, they went ahead and did it anyway. That sums it up with Sally Barnes: she felt she could go through anybody’s property she wanted, but she didn't want anybody going through her property. That's just the kind of person she was.”
This, however, does not square with Mrs. Bancroft’s recollection of her daughter. “She didn’t think she was always right,” she says. “Those men might be law-abiding in the city, but up there, they are the law. They didn't like the fact that here was one little woman standing up to them.”
Her actions may have seemed peculiar to the other neighbors (indeed. Loefke placed her under citizen’s arrest when he discovered the road through his alfalfa field, though he released her when sheriff’s deputies failed to respond to his call) but they made sense to Barnes. Her position regarding the various parcels in Section 15 evolved over a period of years, but she started from a basic premise: all of them had defective deeds; none of the many surveys that had been done of the section was accurate. The 1979 case of MacGowan v. Jauregui (other property owners in the area) reinforced her conviction; in the decision, a superior court judge ruled that the northeast comer of Section 15 had been incorrectly surveyed; its true comer lay 199 feet to the west. This, to Sally Barnes, made all the section comers invalid. It also invalidated the location of the sixty-foot legal easement running through her property. She proposed that all the property owners get together and establish a common fund to have one single legal record of survey made; then, once it was completed, agree in writing that its findings would be binding upon all of them. She faced one practical problem: getting the others to go along with the plan. As Wisnieski said, “I don’t want my property lines changed, and no one else I spoke to up there wants them changed, either.”
This didn’t deter Sally. She'd corral the neighbors in conversation, or send them long, rambling, single-spaced typewritten letters marred by grammatical and syntactical errors, urging them this way and that, accusing the Kecks, the Wisnieskis, and the Loefkes of being in collusion against her. This even carried over into holiday greeting cards. Her 1980 Christmas card to the Kecks, for instance, said, “Merry Christmas, Sally Barnes and daughter Christina,” on one side; on the other, she warned that, should anyone do something she disapproved of, she’d have to protect her rights. “Anyone found tampering with invalid surveyor pipes and moving them to other places — if caught and proved doing it — can go to prison for impersonating a state-protected professional — a surveyor — if charges are pressed,” she wrote.
By now Keck, Loefke, and Wisnieski felt particularly exasperated; they had just finished redoing a big job in order to appease Barnes. At the point where the dirt road crosses the creekbed at the northeast comer of Keck’s property, the culvert (a transverse drain) had been blown away by storm damage. In order to make the creek safe for year-round passage, they decided to put in a new culvert five feet higher than where the old one had been (at creekbed level). So Keck and Wisnieski bought a new fifty-four-inch-diameter culvert and cleared the area; Loefke paid for the necessary tractor work. It hadn’t been in twenty-four hours when Sally brought out a man from the county flood control district, who told them the job hadn't been engineered; it wasn’t safe. “Sally threatened to sue us if even a shovelful of dirt landed on her property,” says Wisnieski, “so rather than risk that, we had to pay a guy $700 to rip it out again and drop the culvert back down to the creekbed bottom. “ Adds Keck, “She didn’t even cross there. She crossed on the road she had Joe Perez doze through Loefke’s property.”
While the relationship between Sally and the others was building to the breaking point, Jim Kulka had no contact with any of them (he ignored the one letter he’d received from Barnes). After studying at Diablo Valley College for three and a half years (sometimes full time, sometimes part time), in mid-1979 he took a job at Zehntel Corporation in Walnut Creek, a company that builds test equipment that manufacturers of autos, radios, and telephone company equipment use to test circuit-board components. Kulka got hired as a technical programmer at a salary of $6.50 per hour and, for the next year, worked in a unit of eight to ten people.
Then he quit voluntarily, giving his employer the customary two weeks’ notice. “It was interesting for a while,” he says, “but I got tired of it. The job was tedious. It involved looking at a lot of schematics, and it was very tough on my eyes. [Kulka hadn’t had an eye examination since he got out of the Army in 1973.] It was the kind of job that left you very irritable at the end of the day.” So he returned to Diablo Valley College, where he took courses in digital electronics and microelectronics technology, again getting by on the GI Bill and the $2000 he’d saved while working at Zehntel.
As the spring, 1981, semester was concluding, Kulka decided to return to North County and, as he says, “Try to do something with my property.” He arrived in Escondido on the second of June in his ’66 Chevy, with the parts of the motorcycle he owned lying in pieces in the back seat. For the next six days he stayed in several cheap motels and reassembled his motorcycle at a friend's house.
On the eighth of June, Jack Keck glimpsed a man he’d never seen before crossing the dirt road which led down to the creekbed at his northeast comer. He went out to Find out who it was. “Can I help you?” he asked.
“Who are you?”
“Who wants to know?”
“I do. I own the property you’re on right now.”
“My name is Kulka.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Keck. He’d heard of the man who owned the bottom ten acres below Wisnieski’s knoll. “Go ahead. Go on down.”
Keck shouted after him that when he had finished, he should come back up and get something cold to drink. After his return, while Keck had a beer and he a soft drink, Kulka explained he planned to go down and live on his land. Keck recalls, “All he had was what was in his car. I said, ’Hey, it’s hot down there. You don’t have any water. If you want to, you’re more than welcome to stay in the house until we’re ready to move in.” So Keck drove Kulka back to Escondido, where he picked up his motorcycle and, from that night on, he stayed at Keck’s. “I liked him right off the bat,” says Keck. “He was a nice guy, he was easygoing. I didn’t have any reservations at all about letting him stay here.”
In mid-June Kulka rode his bike over to Palomar College, where he registered for a difficult four-unit summer course. Calculus/Analytical Geometry II. Richard Aufmann, Kulka’s instructor, said, “It’s not a ‘grind’ course, but does have a great deal of theory. Three or four semesters of calculus is required if you want to become an electronics engineer.” Kulka wasn’t quite certain that that was what he wanted to do, but he wanted to keep that option open because, as he says, “I like to have as many options as possible.” If he passed, he’d take Calculus/Analytical Geometry III in the fall. He decided to wait to see how he did before signing up for veterans’ benefits; should he complete the two-month course, he’d receive $257 for each month.
From June 22 on, when the course began, Kulka followed a regular schedule. From six to nine in the morning he would work on the dirt road that wound down to his land. Although it had been used in his absence by Sinclair’s land salesman, Wisnieski, Wisnieski’s sons, and Keck on occasion, it was by now overgrown with brush. So, putting on a pair of coveralls, a sweatshirt, and a hat, and taking a brush hook with him, he’d go down and clear it. But the next day he would find the uprooted brush back in the same place he'd cleared it away the day before. Someone was also leaving notes for Kulka: This Is Not a Road to the San Pasqual Valley. This Is No Road. You Are Trespassing. It was, of course, Sally Barnes. He’d been hearing about her from Keck and the others, who’d drawn a profile of a pistol-packing, litigious, land-hungry lady who would stop at nothing until she owned all the land from the Old Guejito to Malibu. Everyone would make joking remarks as she would drive by in her Jeep. “There goes your sister,” someone would say to Keck. And Keck would turn to Kulka and say, “That’s not my sister, that’s your girlfriend.” Kulka stayed clear of her. “When she was here, he wouldn’t go down there because he didn’t want any trouble,” says Keck. “He’d just wait till she was gone and then go on clearing.”
Says Mrs. Bancroft, “She wanted to talk to him. He just cut through her property where he pleased. He didn’t give a damn. She sent him letters by certified mail from 1978 to 1981, which were returned to her unopened. She didn't meet him, though, or even recognize him.”
At 9:00 a.m. Kulka would return to the Keck house, where he’d get his books together, hop on his bike, and head to school. He particularly reveled in the dips and curves of Lake Wohlford Road, the vista at that time of the morning, the sheer openness of North County. His class was from ten to twelve every day except Friday. After class was over, Kulka would go over to the gym, work out a bit, grab a bite to eat, then head back out to the property. He had to do his calculus studying in the afternoon, while it was still light, because there were no lights in the house as of yet.
The other person who stayed in the house was Paulino Mejia, a Mexican worker who was employed by Keck and other landowners. Like Kulka, Mejia was quiet; he didn’t say much. The two of them would converse in pidgin English and sign language. (This, however, frustrated Kulka. He checked out two beginning-Spanish books from the Palomar College library with the intention of conversing more easily with Mejia.) By the time it got dark, Kulka would be out on the floor of the living room, curled up in his sleeping bag, asleep. But about midnight the two men would invariably be awakened by rustling sounds outside in the old hubcap that Jack Keck used as a dog dish for his four dogs: it would be packrats after the day’s uneaten dog food. They made a great noise as they pilfered food, hiding it outside the house in places like the inside of Kulka's boots. So he and Mejia used to take turns with a BB gun, trying to get rid of the rats. It became a nightly ritual, a form of entertainment which, in practical terms, was to no avail. ‘ ‘Those rats are still around, ’ ’ says Kulka.
On Sunday, July 19, Joe Wisnieski drove over from Valley Center to water the trees on his property. Since there was no pump on the well he’d had drilled on his ten acres, he filled up several fifty-five-gallon drums at Keck’s place, then went on down to his land. He had just arrived there when Sally Barnes came out of the brush and addressed him. “Do you know who’s building a road to the San Pasqual Valley through my property?” she asked.
“I don’t know of anybody building a road to the San Pasqual Valley.”
“Were you here yesterday?’’
“Yes, we were.”
“Well, you must have seen who was building this road.”
“I don’t see any road being built here. I don’t know. I’m not here twenty-four hours per day; I’m not a watchdog. I have not seen anyone building a road here.” Barnes started getting nervous and shaky, so Wisnieski added, “Mrs. Barnes, I can see that someone is clearing the brush off the road that has been here since I bought my property six and a half years ago.”
“You think I’m just a pile of shit.”
“Oh, my God, Mrs. Barnes. You just swore. I never heard you swear before.”
“Well, that’s what you’ve been telling the neighbors, that I'm just a pile of shit,” she said, and walked away.
“Her arms were shaking,” Wisnieski recalls. “She was infuriated. I knew that Jim Kulka was clearing the brush off the road that had grown in in the last three or four years. I never saw him doing it. I knew he wasn’t building a road to the San Pasqual Valley. [The valley is several miles below.] If she’d asked me who was clearing the roadway there, I’d have told her who it was.”
The next day, Monday, July 20, began the fifth week of Calculus/Analytical Geometry II, a particularly difficult juncture in the course, says instructor Aufmann. Midweek he gave Kulka and the other twenty students in the class a two-part exam, one hour the first day, one hour the next. Kulka took the first part and handed in his paper, fairly confident he had done well. The next day, however, he ran into trouble: there were a lot of “tedious” computational problems to do. He worked at it for the first forty minutes or so, then, feeling he was getting nowhere, stood up and strode out of the class without turning in his paper, never to return. He headed for the gym for a workout. “That second day really got me,” he says. “They say that calculus is a matter of logic, but it isn’t. You either see it or you don’t. They told me the next chapter in the course would be even harder. I didn’t see any point in continuing.”
Aufmann, nevertheless, did not give him an F for the course; when it ended, he gave him a W, indicating that Kulka had withdrawn from the course. “It’s not uncommon that, when students feel they haven't done well on a test, they don't officially withdraw from the course,” Aufmann says. “They just don’t come back.” Back on the Old Guejito, Kulka was telling Jack Keck, ”I flunked a test. That's it. I flunked a test.” The next weekend Kulka stepped out with a friend of Keck’s named Tony Gossein; upon their return, Gossein mentioned to Keck that Kulka seemed “really bummed out about flunking the test.” It had hurt his ego after the many hours of study he’d put in, hit him in the pocketbook because he wouldn’t get the money from the GI Bill, and meant that, as far as becoming an electronics engineer, “I would have to rethink as far as school is concerned.” His thinking now shifted in the direction of selling his land.
An enormous eucalyptus tree trunk, more than twelve feet tall, dominates Jack Keck’s living room. Its ivory color suggests a massive Greek column. As a conversation piece, it cannot be ignored. When Keck arrived on the morning of Tuesday, July 28, to work on his house, he noticed that one of Sally Barnes’s notes was nailed to the eucalyptus trunk. Keck recalls that he said to Kulka, “I see your girlfriend left you a note,” and that Kulka replied sarcastically, “Yeah, she left me a note.”
“That was unusual,” Keck says now of Kulka’s action. “That wasn’t like Kulka; he had never done that before. She must have gotten to him.”
At about the time Keck discovered the note nailed to the tree, Sally Barnes was in the middle of one of her regular lesson periods at Sarah Anthony School. She worked a full, eventless day, with one exception: she mentioned to one of Rocco Nobile’s two secretaries (with whom she regularly discussed her property battles) that she had an appointment to meet contractor Joe Perez at five o'clock out on her land. She wanted him to dump dirt at the entrance of the road Kulka was clearing. “He hadn’t responded to the letters she’d sent him [Kulka] and she felt there was no other way of making him come to terms,” the secretary says.
Barnes was a great believer in extrasensory perception, in her own powers of clairvoyance. She had studied intensively the work of J.B. Rhine, a Duke University professor regarded as one of the premier researchers in the field. Barnes herself was always making predictions; her moment of glory came when she predicted the sex, the hour, and nearly the minute of the birth of the baby of an employee at school, Mary Beth Harper. She had also made a rather chilling forecast in reference to her own fortunes: she would one day be found dead in the hills on her property.
At 3:00 p.m. she finished her last lesson of the day. The next twenty minutes she spent tidying the schoolroom, putting books, paper, and pencils in their proper place, and the next day’s lesson on the board. She walked past the principal’s office, said goodnight to the two secretaries, then headed for the parking lot and her car.
About that time Jim Kulka was sitting in the rear of Jack Keck’s patio. Kulka had a project: to make markers for each of his four section comers. Having been given by Keck some slats of wood, he was nailing them together into stakes that would be twenty feet high, atop which he would place strips of yellow cloth so the markers could be seen from afar.
He had asked Keck whether he would mind going down with him to put them up once he finished. At first Keck had agreed. Then it got close to 5:00 p.m.; Keck asked to delay it another day. “I wanted to get home [to his apartment in Escondido] and see my wife,” Keck says. “I left with another neighbor, Sterling Sowden. On the way down we saw Joe Perez on his tractor, coming the other way. I said to Sterling, ‘There goes trouble/ Sterling said, ‘Yep, there goes trouble.’ And I said. But I’m not going back now. I’ll just go on into town and phone Jim on the telephone.' I thought I would tease him about it, because I had a pretty good idea of what Joe was going to do. That would be just like Sally Barnes.”
Just about 5:00 p.m. Paulino Mejia saw Barnes drive by in her Jeep, followed a while later by Joe Perez. Then he watched as Kulka walked out to his ’66 Chevy, pulled out a rifle and a pistol, started down the dirt road, then disappeared from sight. “I thought there might be trouble, because he was walking faster than he normally does,” says Mejia.
Even walking at a fast clip, it still takes a few minutes to get from Keck’s house down to the point where Kulka’s road forks off to the left. Perez did a small amount of dumping; then, standing together, he and Barnes started tossing ideas back and forth about where she was going to build a house. Barnes was taking pictures with her camera. Both of them turned around and saw Kulka standing about twelve feet in front of them with a rifle. Kulka said, “Get off my land.” Perez replied, ‘ ‘We’re not on your land; we ’re on her land. ” Then Barnes raised her camera to photograph Kulka; while she brought it upward and aimed, he raised his gun and fired a single, fatal shot, hitting her in the chest. As she stumbled and fell, she snapped a picture (which would later be introduced as evidence against him). Next, Kulka told Perez to raise his arms, then get down on his knees. He asked Perez if he were a family man. Perez recalled later, “I just looked at that barrel and I looked at him. I said, ‘Yes, and I don’t want no part of this.’” Kulka ordered him to get on his tractor and get out of there.
Paulino Mejia had heard the shot. When Kulka got back up to the house, Mejia didn’t know exactly what had happened, but he figured it must have been something bad, because Kulka’s body was shaking. Kulka handed him a twenty-dollar bill. Mejia didn’t understand what he wanted him to do. Another Mexican worker approached, to whom Kulka gave another twenty dollars. “No more work today,” he said. They realized then that he didn’t want them to be around when the sheriffs arrived. As they left they saw Kulka put his rifle back in his car, and sit down to wait. Though he had his motorcycle right there and could have escaped easily before Joe Perez got to the Valley Center sheriff’s station, Kulka made no attempt to leave.
Within a few days, Sally Barnes's body was cremated. No church service was held at this time; however, a month later thirty of her colleagues and friends solemnly arrived at the nondenominational Praise Center at 300 North Broadway in Escondido. Barnes’s mother had asked for no music and no eulogy; the minister was simply to open and end the service with prayer. During the forty minutes in between, each friend would stand up spontaneously and say a few words about Barnes. She was a person I could count on, said one. She got down on her knees and said the Sinner’s Prayer with me, said another. She was a loyal friend, said a third.
Rocco Nobile, who was there, said later, “It was a great loss to me personally. She was organized, she was a motivator, she was concerned. . . . She would never cheat anyone out of anything. Sally wanted to do things in fairness, and not to take advantage of any situation. She was a fighter for righteousness.”
On an autumn morning several months after the shooting, a gloomy peace hangs over Section 15 of the Old Guejito. Though the legend-making has already begun, an old, dilapidated tent, a figurine of the Virgin Mary, and a camouflaged green trailer are the only artifacts to show that Sally Barnes, the fighter for righteousness, had ever been there. A forty-minute motorcycle ride to the west, seven miles past the Palomar College classroom where Richard Aufmann’s students are delving deep into the mysteries of Calculus III, Jim Kulka — the man who loves having options — finds out that, as he waits in his cell in the Vista county jail, his have dwindled to all but a very few.