"This was really a mystical experience for Steve."
  • "This was really a mystical experience for Steve."
  • Image by David Diaz
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

Sherry Richardson wanted a change in her life, wanted to get away from the States for a while. She had a woman friend in Mexico she could stay with as long as she wanted, so during the early summer of 1984, Richardson, who was thirty-seven at the time, sold her downtown cosmetology shop and laid out the plans for a trip south. She intended to live in Yelapa, a tiny, isolated fishing village in the state of Jalisco, sixteen miles by boat south of Puerto Vallarta on the west coast of Mexico. She would travel in the Toyota Land Cruiser of her friend, John Holmes, a La Mesa chiropractor. She and Holmes would go south on Highway 1 to Cabo San Lucas, ride the ferry to Puerto Vallarta, then board a twenty-foot panga for the ride along the coastal jungle, past the mouth of the Rio Tomatlan, to Yelapa.

The handlebars of Susan's bike became entangled between the trailer ties.

The handlebars of Susan's bike became entangled between the trailer ties.

The woman Richardson was going to stay with in Yelapa was the mother of her friend Susan Grendon. Grendon and Richardson had known each other almost two years. Grendon. who lived in her art studio on Camino Del Mar in Del Mar, had just finished a lucrative commission making stained-glass windows for a home in Rancho Santa Fe, and she wanted to go to Mexico. The trip was to be for her new business — Grendon was planning to organize wilderness trips to Baja, expeditions on which she would make her clients feel the power of the natural world.

Steve Johnson

Steve Johnson

Everything for the trip came together beautifully. Grendon’s boyfriend, forty-four-year-old Steve Johnson, had also finished a lucrative commission — a computer consulting contract — and had purchased a Toyota Land Cruiser. Ever since meeting in 1978, the two had wanted to travel together, and a trip to Mexico sounded good. For Johnson, the trip was a holiday. For Grendon, the trip was what she called the “ultimate four-wheel-drive journey down Baja.”

Susan Grendon

Susan Grendon

The two couples left San Diego and headed south on Highway 1 on October 25, 1984. Two days later, they reached Bahia Concepcion, on Baja’s east coast. halfway between Mulege and Loreto. On a day highlighted by a pale, empty sky, a strong salt scent, and faraway mountains shimmering a dull silver, they slipped on party hats and plastic leis that Grendon had sneaked down to celebrate Johnson’s forty-fifth birthday. They pulled strings on party poppers. They drank champagne from fragile stemware. They swam. They were happy and a little drunk.

The following day they reached La Paz. Holmes called the ferry office in Cabo San Lucas to make sure the ferry was on schedule. The ferry was canceled, he learned. They would have to wait a week. They drove south to Cabo Pulmo, a primitive coastal region, sixty miles south of Cabo San Lucas, and the next day they set up camp in a small stone hut at one end of the beach.

Susan Grendon later recounted the afternoon of Wednesday, October 30.

“We lazed around all day and snorkeled around the point and sat in the sun and read and slept in the hammocks and just had another lousy day in paradise. Around three we headed down to the beach. We all wanted to snorkel down to the reef. It was the largest living reef in Baja. We were really excited to get out there and see the reef. It was maybe fifty yards offshore. I was ahead and went west up-current and followed the reef. Then I came back down. I was going to pick up Steve on the way back, but I couldn’t see him anywhere in the water, and I thought he had gone back in. So I went back to the beach.

“From the shore I could see Steve.... It looked like he was just snorkeling along. I thought I saw him kicking at one point.” But when she looked again, she didn’t see his feet kicking; he was drifting. “There was something wrong. He wasn’t looking around. He was just drifting down the beach. I swam back out and came back down behind him.... He was limp in the water and floating [face] down.

“I scrambled up on the reef with him and tried to give him mouth- to-mouth, but the swells kept hitting us, and it was impossible to do in the water.” Quickly, John Holmes swam out to help; together they lifted Johnson over the reef and carried him to the sand.

Sherry Richardson, who left the water first, was standing near the Land Cruisers at one end of the beach. She recalls seeing “a figure leaning over another body. I knew immediately that it was John doing CPR on Steve and Susan assisting him.”

The wind blew, and waves broke upon the shore. Gulls circled overhead, calling raucously. It was a bad location, pinched in against the bluffs, but they kept on trying to revive Johnson. Eventually the sun set and the tide came in too high to continue. They carried Johnson’s body to a fisherman’s camp and set it on the sand. Night fell.

Grendon clutched Johnson’s body. “Come on, Steve. Come on,’’ she pleaded. Johnson had been dead nearly an hour. Richardson recalls those moments. “It was like, as long as Sue could see the body, he was not dead yet; the flesh still was warm, and a part of her still refused to accept that it could actually have happened so fast. How could this man who appeared so strong and whose heart was so open to life now be lying dead on the beach?

“For the next several hours, time seemed to stop,” she continues. “All our movements seemed to be happening in slow motion. John went for help. We sat on the beach. Sue did not break down or cry or anything. Time had stopped. She held him and talked.

“Some Mexicans helped bring the body to the ramada and then went to the town of La Ribera to find the delegado [sheriff], who returned after a short time. John and Sue slipped Steve’s body inside a plastic mummy bag cover he had been using to protect the fabric of his sleeping bag. Then they put Steve’s body on a foam pad in back of his Land’Cruiser.”

There must be an autopsy, the delegado said, so they had to take the body to La Paz. For four hours Grendon and Richardson drove Johnson’s Land Cruiser over a bumpy, rutted, winding road the hundred miles to La Paz. Holmes and the sheriff followed in the other vehicle. “Sue kept asking, ‘Why? How could this happen?’ ” Richardson remembers.

They arrived in La Paz at midnight.

At the hospital, an aide dressed in green and a doctor lifted Johnson’s body from his Land Cruiser. Grendon looked at the sky, glimmering with stars that looked as though they were melting. Then, as she looked back at Earth, she watched the doctor and his aide, along with Johnson’s body, disappear inside the hospital. “I can’t believe I’m never going to see him again,” she said, and then she cried.

The next day, the vehicle arrived that they had ordered to transport Johnson’s body from the hospital to the mortuary. When Grendon saw it, she began to laugh uproariously. Then Richardson started laughing. They had expected some kind of shiny new hearse, as though they were in the States, but instead here was a beat-up old clunker, a ’57 hearse with a bubble top and dented body. The last twenty-four hours had begun to seem so surreal. All the way back to the hospital, Susan Grendon shook her head, laughing and crying at the same time.

At the hospital, the doctor who performed the autopsy said Johnson died from shallow-water blackout, a phenomenon not uncommon even among very experienced snorkelers and free divers. It’s something like rapture of the deep in scuba diving, he explained, in which the diver’s oxygen-carbon dioxide ratio gets unbalanced. The snorkeler who experiences shallow-water blackout can pass out with no warning and no distress; he goes unconscious, breathes in water, and drowns.

A few minutes after the doctor’s explanation, Sherry Richardson turned to view Johnson’s body as hospital aides slid him inside the back of the hearse. She recalls blood dripping from his head from an incision that had been made during the autopsy. “Sue, don’t look,’’ she said.

“Well, can’t I at least touch him?’’ Grendon asked. All the way to the funeral home, Grendon held on to Johnson’s body behind her, but she never turned around to look at the dead I man in the back of the hearse.

The funeral home was primitive, one small room for the body and another for the embalming. Johnson had said once that he wanted to be cremated, but there wasn’t a crematorium in La Paz, the tiny woman at the funeral home said. The body would need to go to Guadalajara, Tijuana, or the United States. She recommended they send the body to Tijuana. The two fromen agreed.

On November 3, Grendon called her mother, Isabelle Jordan, who lived in Yelapa and whom the group had intended to visit. Jordan said she would come north on the next ferry from Puerto Vallarta. She arrived the next day, and Richardson and Holmes departed on the ferry for the return trip to Puerto Vallarta. From there they would go on to Yelapa and stay at Jordan’s home. Mother and daughter flew via Aeromexico to Tijuana.

From the Tijuana airport, they took a cab downtown. Jordan waited for her

daughter, who came out with Johnson’s ashes in a small cardboard box. “Here he is,” Grendon said, smiling wryly, sliding back into the cab and showing her mother the box. Chunks of bones remained, and she pulled some of them out to show her mother. “Some of the bones are beautiful, aren’t they?” Grendon remarked.

She wrapped a Guatemalan shawl around the box and together they walked across the border without revealing what they were bringing back. A friend picked them up. Later that day, Susan Grendon told Johnson’s former wife that he was dead, and then she called his mother and told her the news.

Because Susan Grendon was adopted when she was ten days old, she had always harbored a secret feeling that she was a spy among kids who had real families. She was raised in Sacramento in what a friend calls a strict, scientific family in which “right was right and there was only the right way to do things.” Her father was an army officer. Her adoptive mother, Jeanette Grendon, who is now in her seventies and still lives in Sacramento, was “a very military type woman,” says the friend. She was “austere, as sharp as anybody you would want to meet. Very strong. She had a severe haircut. She chainsmoked. She had a husky, driving voice and was overweight. But Jeanette also loved Susan very much. She couldn’t have loved her any more if she’d been her natural mother.”

Another friend recalls the early days of his relationship with Susan Grendon. “Sue still was very much the product of her military upbringing when we first met in 1971,” says Glenn Henderson, who now lives in El Cajon. “She couldn’t speak above a whisper. She was extremely inhibited and intimidated by everything. She was very unhappy with her work at the [UCSD] Medical Center. She was working with lab animals. Her job was to perform cardiovascular experiments with dogs — vivisections — in which she sent radioisotopes into the dog’s heart at the same time they were simulating the stress conditions of heart attacks. She had very short cropped hair and wore thick glasses and baggy jeans and hiking boots. I asked her what kind of work she was doing. She said she didn’t want to talk about it. But she was really drawn to any kind of emotional expression and freedom, so then I came along from the Sixties with hair down to my waist. To Sue, I represented courage and the will to be what you wanted, not what other people wanted.” In 1972 Grendon and Henderson purchased twenty acres in the mountains near Santa Ysabel. They were hired by a San Diego pharmaceutical manufacturing firm to raise rabbits, goats, and sheep and extract plasma enzymes from their blood. The work was a natural for Grendon, whose master’s degree from UC Riverside was in animal behavior. They called their ranch Rivendell, after an enchanted land from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. ‘‘They were so close,” recalls Isabelle Jordan. “They had very little company. They lived almost like hermits.”

Life on Rivendell was the beginning of their acquaintance with death. It started with the death of their animals. Their rabbits and sheep and goats were well taken care of, but extracting their blood weakened the animals. Henderson would eventually have to euthanize the ailing ones, and then their dogs and

cats died also, victims of cars or disease. Death was something the couple never got used to.

In 1978 their relationship changed radically. They found they could no longer live together, and Grendon moved to Del Mar. Occasionally she would come out to Rivendell to stay the weekend “to recharge her batteries,” but most of her time was spent on the coast. She become an apprentice at Vance Southwick’s Architectural Stained Glass studio in Del Mar and began singing and performing with her guitar, earning a reputation throughout North County as a blossoming, talented artist. She made several film documentaries on marine turtles and Alaskan Eskimos.

In 1981 Henderson married. Two years later his first child was stillborn. The baby was cremated, and Henderson, his wife, and Grendon sailed toward the Coronado Islands with the infant’s ashes. There they scattered its remains over the ocean waters while Grendon recited words of blessing.

Grendon’s life was changing in other ways, also. Besides becoming familiar with death, she had begun to lose the feeling that she was an alien among men and women with real families. The change actually began years before, in 1967, when she met Isabelle Jordan. Grendon was twenty-one, Jordan was thirty-eight. At the time Grendon didn’t know Jordan had arranged their first meeting. All she knew was that a man who claimed to represent a company that was conducting a ski weekend contest had called the Grendon home in Sacramento a few weeks earlier. The man informed Jeanette Grendon that her daughter Susan had won an all-expenses-paid ski weekend to Lake Tahoe. Susan was married at the time (she had wed immediately upon graduating from high school), and with her husband she went to Harrah’s, on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe.

As Grendon and her husband dined, Isabelle Jordan and her husband were seated at a nearby table. Jordan kept her eyes glued upon the younger woman. Later that night they started a conversation, and, at the end of the night, Jordan suggested that they see each other more frequently. She gave her daughter (who did not know Jordan’s true identity) her address and telephone number and said to come camp on her land in Santa Cruz. They became friends and visited each other from time to time.

“One day at my home in Santa Cruz [in 1971] we were in my bedroom," Jordan recalls. “I sat on the bed. I asked Susan whether she knew much about her parents. Susan confessed that no, she knew nothing about her real parents. She sat on the bed by me and

waited.... I told her that one time, while I still lived in the East, when 1 was seventeen, there had been a man I loved, with whom I’d spent a weekend before he left for overseas military duty. Although I loved the man, I knew the marriage wouldn’t work. Later, when I met my husband, I told him I was pregnant, and he said he could not love another man’s child as much as his own children and that if we were to marry, I must give away my child. Ten days after my daughter’s birth, I gave my baby up for adoption through the Salvation Army.”

As she signed the adoption papers, Jordan quickly flipped the pages and

found the name of the adopting couple, Grendon. She would always remember that Jeanette Grendon’s husband was a former military officer. “I told Sue I began my search when I knew she was eighteen. I used the resources of a friend who had access to military files. I discovered she lived in Sacramento. My husband and I drove to Sacramento. We passed the Grendon home. We did not stop. We went to an ice cream parlor. I told the counter girl I needed to find a friend but that I couldn't recall her name. I said that if I saw the face of my friend, that might help. I suggested to the counter girl that if she had a school yearbook, I could look through it. She went around the corner to her home and brought one back. I found out she [Susan] was a member of the ski club.

“That day in 1971, while we were sitting on the bed [in Santa Cruz], I confessed that the ski weekend Susan had won four years earlier really could have had only her as the winner.” It was Jordan’s husband who had called the Grendon home. “I asked Susan what she was thinking. Susan said that we'd both been waiting, we’d been waiting for years.”

On November 9, 1984, Susan Grendon and Isabelle Jordan left San Diego and flew to Puerto Vallarta. They then drove to the mouth of Rio Tomatlan, boarded Jordan’s twenty-two-foot panga, and returned to Yelapa. Jordan’s home was on a hillside in the jungle above the beach.

The next morning the two women climbed a mountain overlooking Yelapa Bay. They faced in each direction of the compass and tossed Steve Johnson’s ashes free in the breeze at the same time that frigate birds and boobies were gliding in the breeze below where they'd climbed. “It’s a great feeling,’’ Grendon recalled later. “You say, i set you free’ and just let him go.”

Eight days later Grendon told her mother good-bye. Sherry Richardson and John Holmes had been staying in Yelapa while Grendon and her mother had traveled back to San Diego. The three now went by panga back to Puerto Vallarta, where they'd left Holmes’s Land Cruiser. Richardson, who was going to stay behind in Yelapa, watched Grendon and Holmes walk toward the Land Cruiser, then board the ferry. As the ferry pulled away for the journey across the water, they all waved goodbye. Sherry Richardson sat on a rock and cried.

Two weeks passed. On November 26, at the Silvergate Yacht Club on Shelter Island, ninety people gathered to celebrate the life and death of Steve Johnson. Susan Grendon, who was once emotionally inhibited and never spoke above a whisper, had brought them together that day, and now she was strumming her guitar and singing Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game.” She had a delicate voice, lilting, fine, vulnerable as a child’s. It was emotional singing, the voice of a small woman. She was thirty-eight years old, a lithe, athletic lady who loved to swim and ride her bicycle. Her dark, curly hair, once severely cropped in the style of her adopted mother, now fell, dark and lustrous, upon her shoulders.

She put down her guitar and said, “I have to start by saying that the whole event and everything leading up to it since then has been just special and so magical and so profound that I keep feeling like I’m witnessing a miracle. I don’t know how to put it other than Steve just peaked out. I have a sense that it really was a mystical experience for him. It was freedom and achieving all his goals and surmounting all his obstacles and resolving all his karma. I see him going out in a blaze of white light, hearing this great crescendo, like an orchestra playing a grand finale.

“We have to rejoice for him because he’s flying. He’s doing great. He never has to get old or sick or hurt. I see him now and sense him as this glowing ball of fiery red energy. Just radiating love. I think he got really close to perfecting it.’’

Frank White first met Susan Grendon in 1969. Grendon, I having finished her master’s work, was hired to work for a UCSD pathology professor as a lab technician, conducting research into blood coagulation. Her office was next door to White’s. Later, when Grendon quit her scientific work to make stained glass and she was so frequently without funds. White loaned her money or hired her to do work he needed done for his Solana Beach home — drawing blueprints, obtaining building permits, once even constructing a fence around his yard. White owns some of her stained-glass work. The windows in the front door of his home on Seabright show a wetlands scene in which graceful snowy egrets dip their beaks in the shallow waters of a lagoon.

That fall of 1984, he hadn’t known she was in North County until one evening in November, when he came home from his job as a research pathologist at UCSD. He found a note on his door:

Frank, I just had the most incredible adventure in Mexico. I’ve learned so much. Most of it is okay. Some things have happened that I can’t tell you about now. But Steven has gone to visit with other friends. But Steve is okay. I'll see you soon.

Love. Sue.

One of her habits was to drive her ’69 Volkswagen van two or three afternoons a week from her stained-glass studio in Del Mar to White’s home in Solana Beach, where she did her laundry. She had been coming to White’s home ever since he’d gotten a washer and dryer two years earlier.

She liked to bring her bicycle, a Nishiki ten-speed, in her van, and while her clothes were washing, she would ride her bicycle along the Coast Highway. On Tuesday, November 28, she stuffed her dirty clothing in the,washer, left her purse on top, and lifted her Nishiki out of her van. It was a sunny, summerlike day. She wore ber-mudas, earrings, and a wooden talisman.

She rode south on Seabright, turned west on Cliff, south on Cedros, then west on Lomas Santa Fe. At precisely the same moment Grendon turned on Lomas Santa Fe, truck driver James Hull was making a routine delivery to Solana Lumber. According to the report filed by the California Highway Patrol, Hull was driving his tractor-trailer west between five and ten miles per hour, parallel to Grendon. She was riding her Nishiki west in the bicycle lane at one mile per hour. Hull moved to the right to start his turn. His tractor-trailer occupied the bike lane. That much is known.

Much of what happened next remains murky. The truck’s blinkers showed a right turn was about to be made, some witnesses believe. Other witnesses didn’t remember seeing the truck’s turn signals. Perhaps Grendon was confused, because she probably never noticed that some sixty feet before the turn north onto the Coast Highway, just east of the railroad crossing gate, another turn leads into a lot next to Solana Lumber where trucks unload merchandise. Trucks cut the turn tightly, crossing the bicycle lane. All four of the witnesses agreed Grendon probably thought the truck was going to turn on the Coast Highway and that she kept cruising, unmindful that the truck was turning. The handlebars of her bicycle became entangled in between the trailer tires; Grendon was trapped. She was dragged seventy-five feet into the lot. Her death came instantaneously.

When Frank White came home that evening, Grendon’s van was parked in front. Her clothing remained in the washer, and there was nothing he felt was unusual. He went to bed. The next day the Coast Dispatch reported that a woman who had been killed on Lomas Santa Fe while riding her bicycle hadn’t been identified. White went to the garage. Her clothes still were in the washing machine. He found her purse. He knew.

He called the coroner’s office. No, he was told, the woman wasn’t his friend, Susan Grendon. The dead woman had been identified as the wife of an Iranian national. Three days passed. Grendon's purse and van remained. White called the coroner's office again. There had been a misidentification, he was told, very rare, but these things happened. The identification of the body as the wife of an Iranian national was wrong. Perhaps Mr. White should come to the office and make the identification.

Susan's and Steve's deaths, their friends agree, were cause for a celebration of life, so they got together at Susan’s shop in Del Mar. Sherry Richardson came up from Mexico to attend, and with her she brought a Mexican gourd in which she kept some of Steve Johnson’s ashes. Into the gourd she mixed Grendon’s ashes. Other friends filled helium balloons and wrote messages and tied flowers on them. Steve Johnson’s two sons by a former marriage scrawled messages on the balloons. They wrote that if Sue saw their dad, she should say hello to him for them. They rented a bubble-blowing machine and played tapes of her music. “She’s there,” Isabelle Jordan says. “She’s waiting to show the way.”

  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it


Sign in to comment

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader