In the days immediately following Roy’s death, I was in a state of disbelief and hastily began moving to my new home.
As fate would have it, I arrived at the Dulzura post office just as a woman was taking my "notice to caretake" announcement off the bulletin board. It was May of 1989, and I was looking for a job in the area that would give me a place to live and to board my Arabian horse. I introduced myself to the woman and learned that she was Sally Anderson-Monahan of Del Mar. She and her husband owned a large ranch nearby, known as the old hog farm, and they needed someone to live there and handle some light duties in exchange for free rent. I arranged to meet them at the ranch an hour later and discuss the details.
Having a little time to kill, I sauntered over to Camp's Grove, where the annual Dulzura Memorial Day Festival was going on, a real old-fashioned hoedown. It was there that I met Roy Johnson, a slightly retarded, hard-of-hearing, gnome-like man. Roy was difficult to communicate with at first, but I was completely taken with his lack of guile and his childlike openness as we talked. He would be my working partner on the Monahans' ranch.
An hour or so later, I set off for the property to see what I had gotten myself into. The forsaken farm looked as if it had been deposited in Dulzura for lack of a better place and then forgotten by time. The ranch covered some 400 acres of barren earth a mile and a half from the nearest paved road. Its back side was graced with miles of rugged canyons stretching to the Mexican border. There were dozens of decaying pens and barns that seemed to be sinking right into the ground. The farmhouse was a drafty, dusty, two-story, turn-of-the-century model in need of lots of care. But it was habitable and free. And there was a hauntingly beautiful aspect to it all that appealed to my secret desire to live in the "Old West." So the population of the old hog farm now included some 600 pigs, 40 head of cattle, a Brahma bull, four horses, and one new caretaker.
The Monahans and I agreed that I would live there and supervise Roy in his duties. I would take care of the cows and horses, and Roy would attend to the pigs. Roy was 69 years old and a dedicated worker, but because of his learning disabilities he sometimes became confused. He also seemed to have his own little world into which he would shift from time to time, so some guidance was required.
I mentioned to the Monahans that as I'd driven up the road leading to the ranch, I had been accosted by about five dogs that chased the car with more than the usual amount of enthusiasm. They said that the dogs, mixed-breed Shepherds, belonged to their nearest neighbor, Charles Duarte, and that they believed the dogs were particularly vicious. Sally Monahan said she had seen Duarte patrolling his property with something resembling an automatic rifle and that he didn't want anyone near his ranch. They suggested that I have nothing to do with him and that I try to ignore his dogs. This was much easier said than done, since the only access to the hog farm was the dirt easement road that ran through the Duarte property, and his dogs chased anything that moved.
Within a few days after moving into the ranch house and settling into something of a daily routine, I decided it was time for me to get a dog as well, for companionship and as a watchdog, since I was now living on the cutting edge, on a route favored by two-legged "coyotes" and the aliens they were smuggling. At the Bonita animal shelter, I found a black-and-tan Doberman that needed a home and seemed to have a good disposition. On the way home, I named him Mr. Lucky, since he was lucky to be going from the shelter out to the country. The Monahans had entrusted me with an ancient .22 rifle, and with Mr. Lucky sleeping outside, I felt somewhat secure and started to appreciate the rustic beauty of the property and the absolute stillness of the nights.
My morning routine was to feed the cows and horses, put on a pot of coffee, and to take my truck out to Highway 94 to pick up the newspaper that was delivered to my mailbox each day. Mr. Lucky would follow along for exercise. The dogs on the Duarte ranch began lying in wait, usually four to six of them, and when they could catch up to us, they would go after Mr. Lucky. At that point, I would have to put my dog in the back of the truck and continue on. I assumed that in time they would become accustomed to us and would discontinue this practice. But Mr. Lucky had taken some pretty good licks from Duarte's dogs, so I resolved to talk to him as soon as I saw him. Duarte owned a chemical laboratory in Long Beach and was only at the ranch on weekends.
But before I had a chance to talk to him, an acquaintance suggested that I might also want to adopt a racing greyhound, since I lived on such a large piece of property. The Greyhound Pets of America Society rescues young dogs whose owners kill the animals when they can no longer win races. At their shelter in Ramona, I found a sweet female named Gaelic Glory who had fallen out of favor with her owner because she had never won a race for him. Now I had two athletic dogs, but the Duarte dogs ruled the road, and I could not use it to exercise my animals.
Finally one Saturday as I was driving home, I got the opportunity to meet Charles Duarte. Four men were standing in the roadway; one of them stepped out of the pack and hailed my truck with a strong sense of authority. He introduced himself as Chuck Duarte and told me he was my neighbor. The discussion was rather amicable, but I did question him about the behavior of his dogs and mentioned that I thought their aggressiveness was due in part to the fact that he owned such a large number of them, eight in all. He said that a person needed that many dogs for protection in this part of the country. He told me that I should not use the road to run my dogs and horses, even though the Monahans had a legal easement to use the road. I didn't argue the point and left, hoping that we could peacefully co-exist, though I was skeptical.
Aside from the daily ordeal with Duarte's animals, I was enjoying life on the ranch and in particular my relationship with Roy. He was like some old farmer teleported here from a bygone era. He showed up every morning with his two dogs, Barney and Freddy, and joined me for coffee. He told stories about illegal aliens, coyotes, and even an occasional mountain lion that he would encounter on his way to work. Roy walked two miles each way to his job and even walked home for lunch - eight miles a day, fending off the Duarte dogs on each trip as he passed their ranch. He probably averaged another three miles of walking each day while chasing the hogs and cows that got loose because of the ranch's fencing, which seemed to have been neglected for years. Seven days a week, Roy cared for the hundreds of hogs, cleaning and repairing the pens, feeding and rotating the stock. (It was always best to sit upwind of Roy whenever possible.) He came to me constantly to talk about new litters, as proud of each one as most grandmothers are of their new descendants. On this broken-down ranch, breathing the constant dust, and listening to Roy, I had the feeling of living in another era, possibly Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl period.
Roy was born in Iowa in 1920 to a farming family and knew no other life. He came to San Diego County about ten years ago to be near his sister, a schoolteacher from La Mesa. He lived in a trailer behind the home of his niece Deanna and her husband Pete. Roy's job at the Monahan ranch gave him a feeling of independence and a sense of accomplishment. He worked seven days a week, with an occasional day off to go fishing or attend family outings. The highlight of Roy's year was the annual speedboat race at Mission Bay Park, which he went to with Pete and Deanna in their motorhome.
Roy told his stories with the unmistakable twang of a lifelong sodbuster, and he shouted because of his hearing impairment. But I awaited his arrival each morning knowing that his tales would transport me back to a time when things were simpler and we weren't in such a hurry to get somewhere.
It was on August 29 that the Duarte dogs drew the first human blood that I was aware of. My friend Cynthia was visiting the ranch for a peaceful day in the country. She wanted to take a ride on my mountain bike and asked about the problem of the dogs on the road. I told her just to yell at them if they bothered her; from my experience, they wouldn't chase me on my bike if I yelled at them. But as Cynthia rode past the Duarte ranch, she was bitten several times on her legs. Terrorized, she managed to make it to the highway, where she was helped by the man who was delivering my newspaper. He returned her to the ranch house in his van. After washing Cynthia's wounds, I reported the biting incident to the Bonita animal shelter and then took Cynthia to her doctor's office in Point Loma.
This was the first reported incident of the Duarte dogs biting someone, and, by law, the only thing animal control authorities were allowed to do was to quarantine the animals for ten days to ensure that they didn't carry rabies. The dogs were unlicensed, and the Duartes could not prove that they had been given the necessary shots. Since so many dogs were involved (Cynthia estimated five or six), the animal control officer allowed the workers at the Duarte ranch to lock the dogs in a secure pen on the ranch for the ten-day period of quarantine. It was midweek when Cynthia was attacked, and Charles Duarte was still in Long Beach.
On Friday evening, as I was driving up the road to the Monahans' ranch, the ever-vigilant canine patrol was there to greet me. Saturday morning I was on the phone to animal control to report that the dogs had broken quarantine and were on the loose. The officer, Laura Andrews, asked me to meet her at the highway, since she didn't know exactly where the dogs were. I had a feeling that Duarte would round up his dogs when he saw the animal control vehicle approaching, so I put my greyhound in the back of my truck as ''bait,'' knowing that the Duarte dogs could not resist chasing her and that they could not catch her, since I had clocked her at 40 miles an hour running alongside my truck. Sure enough, the dogs started to chase the greyhound as I drove down the road, and not far behind was a frustrated Charles Duarte, waving his arms and trying in vain to call his dogs back to the ranch.
When Officer Andrews told Mr. Duarte that she would have to take all of the dogs into the shelter for ten days, he became irate and directed his anger at me. He denied that his dogs could have bitten Cynthia, and if by chance they had, I was the one who had "set him up" by having Cynthia ride the bicycle down the road. He screamed and pointed at me, telling me that I was responsible for his predicament and that it was extremely "heavy." Feeling threatened, I left. The animal control officer loaded the dogs into her vehicle and took them to Bonita to be impounded.
I knew I had crossed a line with Mr. Duarte by calling the authorities and feared there would be repercussions. They weren't long in coming. Several hours after Duarte's dogs were removed from the ranch, I took a load of trash to the Dulzura dump. As I was returning, I saw Mr. Duarte walking very briskly toward my truck with a raging scowl on his face. Not wanting any more discussions with the man, I speeded up to avoid meeting him. While unlocking the gate to the Monahan property, I heard some pistol shots coming from the general direction of where I had last seen Duarte. Once again feeling threatened, I called the sheriff's station and explained my situation, conveying my fears about living alone in such an isolated area and having to cross the Duarte property every day. A sheriff's deputy came out and had a talk with Mr. Duarte, making me feel a little more secure.
The quarantined dogs were returned to Mr. Duarte after the ten-day period, and soon afterwards he introduced two young, predominantly Doberman mixed breeds into the pack. At that point, I saw the demeanor of the group become even more assertive, but there was nothing more that could be done, either by me or animal control or the sheriff's department. I was able to talk to Duarte's ranch manager a few times about the potential for future attacks, but he proved to be as unyielding as his boss on the subject. He did make a strange comment once, while showing me their hog operation. He said with a certain sense of bravado that nothing goes to waste on their ranch and that all the pigs that died were fed to the dogs. I was very uneasy with the idea of feeding dogs raw flesh.
By December I was frustrated enough with the situation that I decided it was time to move a little closer to the center of commerce and get a real joh I found a nice place in Jamul with reasonable rent, nice landlords, and room for my horse. On December 11,I put down a deposit on the new place and resolved to tell Roy on the following morning that I would be moving.
On the morning of December 12, I started the day in my usual fashion, putting on the coffee and driving out to get my newspaper. As I passed the Duarte ranch, I noticed the dogs seemed more agitated than usual. I also saw a pile of debris on the roadway. Thinking that the dogs had gotten into some garbage, I drove on. It was about 8:30 a.m., and I didn't see Roy on the road coming to work. When I got back home, I called Deanna to see if he'd be in that day. She said he had left over an hour ago; could he possibly have fallen and hurt himself? I went looking for him, intending to scour the canyons to see if he was herding the Monahans' cows, which often strayed. On this trip, I again noticed the pile of debris by the side of the road, but this time something made me stop and take a closer look. I found Roy's bloodied jacket, ripped to shreds. An examination of the area yielded a gruesome sight that still haunts me - my friend's mutilated body lying by a pipe fence on the Duarte ranch. It looked like he had stepped on a land mine.
I wasn't positive that Roy was dead, but if there was any life left in him, there was nothing that I could do to help. I raced to Deanna's house to call authorities and inform her of the tragedy. She was in a state of shock when I broke the news to her. As I alternately tried to answer her questions and tell the 911 operator what had happened, Deanna's neighbor came to see what all the commotion was about. The neighbor, John Slough, was a San Diego police officer, and he hurried to where the body was while I stationed myself on the highway to direct the emergency vehicles.
When Slough arrived, two of Duarte's dogs were near Roy's body, and he shot them. Animal control officers rounded up the six remaining dogs on the Duarte ranch and took them to the Bonita shelter for forensic tests to determine if they were, in fact, the animals that attacked Roy, since there were no witnesses to the event. In an autopsy of one of the dogs shot by the officer, a remnant of a baby pig was found in the animal's stomach. But blood on the dogs' muzzles and fur proved to be human blood.
In the days immediately following Roy’s death, I was in a state of disbelief and hastily began moving to my new home. Charles Duarte and his companion Cynthia Ward were each charged with involuntary manslaughter and "death by mischievous dogs." Duarte presented a convoluted theory to the sheriff's investigators and to the press that it was actually my dogs that had killed Roy and that I had loaded the body into my truck and dumped it on the Duarte ranch in order to implicate them. They also claimed I had enlisted the aid of John Slough to shoot two of the dogs in order to further the cause against Duarte. Since there was no evidence to support their claims, neither the press nor investigators pursued them.
Finally this spring, more than a year after Roy's death, the two defendants faced a Superior Court jury in El Cajon. Though Duarte continually denied ownership and responsibility for the dogs, on May 21 the jury found him guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the death of Roy Johnson. They were deadlocked on the one remaining charge against Duarte and both counts against Ward. At the end of June, sentencing was postponed when the judge ordered Duarte to undergo psychological tests. Both defendants are scheduled to be retried on the unresolved counts beginning this week. Duarte's dogs are still in the Bonita shelter, where they have been for the last 17 months.
Investigators estimate that it took about eight minutes for Roy Johnson to die from the dog attack. A veteran sheriff's deputy said the mutilation was the worst he had seen in his career. It's ironic that a man who had spent his life caring for animals should die because someone else's animals were not cared for properly. Animal control officers told me that similar situations exist throughout the county, but they are helpless to take definitive action until there is an attack. If anything is to be gained by the death of Roy Johnson, it is not the incarceration of Charles Duarte but the possibility that some other dog owner will learn from it and take control of a potentially lethal animal before he too is in court.