Leonard Duguay’s 85th birthday came and went on July 5, 2016, without celebration. The Modjeska Canyon resident had disappeared and the search for him took a mysterious turn weeks later when his car was found at the same wilderness site where a Fullerton couple met a tragic end 13 months earlier.
Duguay did not know Cecil Knutson and neither had ties to the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation near Warner Springs in San Diego County. But each Orange County man ended up at the reservation and took a compact car on the same rocky, mountain trail that led to their misfortune, leaving investigators baffled. The trail begins at the end of a paved road and leads to a site so remote it is not patrolled by tribal police officers.
Knutson, 79, died while his wife, Dianna Bedwell, 68, survived. They were missing for two weeks and stranded without food or water in a ravine where Knutson had driven their Hyundai Sonata. The couple had gone to the Valley View Casino in Valley Center and afterward were driving to their son’s La Quinta home on Mother’s Day 2015 when Knutson took what he thought was a shortcut over the mountains.
Duguay, in the early stages of dementia, left his home on June 13, 2016, to have breakfast at a local restaurant and was never seen again. His Honda Accord was discovered on July 31, 100 miles away at the same site where the Fullerton couple was found a year earlier. The car is still in a ravine, but two searches of the area found no trace of Duguay.
The incidents occurred within 200 feet of each other. In another strange twist, each car got stuck near a massive boulder with the ominous name Turning Rock, which marks the end of the trail. A wooden sign with “Turning Rock” etched on it is staked at the base of the promontory. Duguay and Knutson plowed their compact cars through a road used by off-road and four-wheel-drive vehicles.
Investigators are still trying to unravel the mystery of how they managed to get there, and why they did not turn around earlier. In each instance, Knutson and Duguay left Highway 79 to a winding two-lane asphalt road leading to the reservation. The asphalt ends at the reservation’s campground and continues for eight miles as a dirt road that narrows to a hiking trail in spots. The dirt road is graded and passable at its beginning but starts to deteriorate after a few miles. Except for one house a couple of miles north of the campground, the area is wilderness with no signs of human activity.
Instead of turning around, Knutson went right at Turning Rock, down into a ravine. He then started driving uphill on a rocky path lined with shrubs but backed up and the car got stuck on a rock when he tried turning around. He and his wife, beset with medical and physical problems, were unable to walk up the steep slope to the road above. Authorities said it’s unlikely that Knutson could have driven the car up the slope and back onto the road.
Duguay turned left at Turning Rock and drove down a similar path as Knutson. His car was swallowed by thick brush and ended up next to a huge granite boulder. The climb to the road from the car is steeper and rockier than the climb that challenged the Fullerton couple.
Authorities were stunned that the men were able to drive their cars through ruts, holes, ravines and over rocks. Once stranded there they were on their own. Off-roading is sporadic, and weeks can go by before hikers pass through the area. There is no cell service, and emergency communications are spotty.
A reporter took a slow, bumpy ride to the site with a reservation official in November. It was a brutal trip; the passenger’s head smacked the ceiling of the SUV several times as the vehicle bounced in and out of holes and over rocks.
Authorities are flummoxed by Knutson’s and Duguay’s decision to continue driving on the craggy road when it was obvious that it was leading to the middle of nowhere. The vegetation along the sides changes gradually from grass to manzanita, scrub oak, conifers, and oak trees as the elevation increases from about 3000 to 4200 feet.
“You don’t expect this to happen in the first place. But at some point you’d think that they would’ve realized, ‘Hey this doesn’t look good’ and turned around. But for it to happen again a year later — well, that’s strange and very sad,” said Los Coyotes Police Department chief Raymond S. Allen.
Bedwell told rescuers it was stubbornness that prevented her husband from turning around. The two, married 27 years, had spent the day at the casino before leaving for their son’s desert home, where they were going to have dinner. They had a bag of oranges, a pie, and no water. Knutson was looking for a shortcut through the mountains but took a turn into the reservation instead. Authorities launched a massive search when they failed to arrive, but the couple was not found until two weeks later, when a party in off-road vehicles came across them while returning to the reservation campground.
Knutson was dead; his body was lying on the ground and his head resting on the sill of the open driver’s door. Bedwell was sitting in the passenger seat, severely dehydrated and barely clinging to life.
One of the rescuers said, “This was not a car that should’ve been out there.” At first they thought it had been stolen and dumped. A police report described Bedwell as “in obvious severe medical distress, labored breathing, mumbled and slurred speech,” and she kept repeating, “Help me, help us” to her rescuers.
Several attempts to contact Bedwell through her son for this story were unsuccessful. In an appearance on the TV tabloid show Inside Edition, she said she had begged her husband to turn around and return to the paved road on the reservation. In other interviews, Bedwell said she was prepared to die with her husband and forgave him for the situation he put them in. She said they collected rainwater, which was sparse, and drank her own urine to survive.
“It should’ve been a clue” for Knutson that he was in trouble when his car left the paved road for the dirt road, said Edwin Hartzler, one of the off-roaders who rescued Bedwell. “She said he was very stubborn. He insisted he knew where he was going and kept going. She said, ‘I kept telling him, “You need to turn around. This isn’t right.”’ Unfortunately, until they got stuck, he finally admitted that he’d done the wrong thing. He apologized to her and was very remorseful for what he had done.”
Hartzler, who lives in Escondido, said Bedwell asked if her husband was alive. “We didn’t answer her. We didn’t want to be the ones to tell her,” he said.
He and his partner headed to the reservation for help while others stayed behind with Bedwell. Hartzler said they made several unsuccessful attempts along the way to dial 911 on a cell phone.
“We couldn’t pick up a signal. We didn’t see anybody until we hit the pavement [by the campground]. It was one of the police officers getting out of his vehicle,” he said.
After hearing the men’s story, the officer radioed a fellow officer who was at Warner Springs, 11 miles away. Hartzler and his friend led the officer to the site, and the second officer arrived minutes later. The police memo of the incident described the area where Knutson’s car was as “too steep and dangerous” to try and maneuver a four-wheel drive police SUV down there to get Bedwell. Six men had to carry her up the slope on a stretcher. She had to be evacuated in the back seat of a police SUV. It was a slow ride to the campground.
The officer driving the SUV tried unsuccessfully several times to call emergency medical personnel using the police radio to ask that they meet the patient at the campground. Upon arriving at the campground, he was able to radio the Warner Springs Fire Station to tell them he was transporting Bedwell there. She was treated by paramedics and flown by helicopter to an Escondido hospital.
“She was so muddled mentally, but you could tell she was euphoric that we were there. She was just so grateful that we were there,” said Hartzler.
The couple had written a note and placed it on the dashboard in case they died before rescue came. Hartzler said it had their names and an explanation of how they had left the casino on Mother’s Day for their son’s home.
“They had a couple of small containers on the cowl in front of the windshield to collect rainwater for drinking,” he said. “It wasn’t enough to sustain them. We found out they were both diabetic. She survived, but barely.”
Knutson’s walker was found outside the car.
Not surprised he kept going
In Duguay’s case family members believe a mountain may have played a role in his disappearance. The trail he and Knutson were on leads to Hot Springs Mountain, the highest peak in San Diego County and located on the reservation. The 6535-foot-high summit and the surrounding mountains can create their own weather. Nighttime temperatures can drop into the 40s and 50s during the summer and reach 100 during the day. The mountains’ reverse slopes drop steeply into the Anza-Borrego Desert.
But if anyone could survive the ordeal of being stranded in that wilderness it was Duguay. He was 84, but the French-Canadian was in strong physical shape. He was a hunter and fisherman used to portaging a canoe in his native Canada, where he learned to survive in the forest. He jogged, worked out at a gym, and lifted weights at home.
He was a familiar figure in Modjeska Canyon. Though he only had a sixth-grade education, Duguay designed and built his home on an acre on Olive Grove Lane with his son, J.P., who lived with him. The retired lineman could just as easily wire a home as he did the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant, where he worked during its construction, or string line across transmission towers. He had huge working man’s hands with thick and calloused fingers. Friends say he could repair anything. He played hockey as a young man in Canada and still followed the sport. He liked music in general and (fellow French-Canadian) Celine Dion in particular. He left Elton John and Eagles CDs in his car along with several hand tools and water bottles.
If anything could defeat Duguay, it was the dementia that was slowly wearing him down, said his daughter Ghislaine Joiner of San Clemente. The signs of Duguay’s memory loss had become more obvious in the two years before his death. Joiner said sometimes he asked the same question over and over. David Boris, a friend and canyon resident, said Duguay visited him five times in one day and did not remember his previous visits.
His memory loss caused him to get lost while driving, said Joiner’s husband, Steve. Duguay used Saddleback Mountain as a navigation aid to help him find his way home. Steve believes his father-in-law may have relied on a mountain — perhaps Hot Springs Mountain — in the San Diego County backcountry to find his way home. Saddleback and Hot Springs mountains have a remarkably similar profile when seen from afar.
“I think he got down there and was mistaken about where he was. He saw a mountain and headed in that direction,” said Steve. “I know this guy pretty well. It would be just like him to keep going. The fact that he would try to keep going didn’t surprise me. If he thought home was that way, he’d keep going.”
“He did get lost a couple of times,” said Ghislaine, who mentioned her father had to be brought back from Corona a few times. “I would call him and ask him, ‘Where are you,’ and he’d say, ‘Oh, I’m five minutes from home.’ He’d give me the name of the street and cross street and I’d look it up. I’d tell him that he was like an hour from home.”
Boris said Duguay called him from Mission Viejo, Dana Point, and from the 57 freeway on occasions he’d become lost. “Leonard had a problem. He would get in his car and get lost. He just couldn’t remember where he was. He needed to be taken to the doctor, but he fought everybody on that.”
Ghislaine agreed, saying that her father was wary of doctors after his wife died of a staph infection following heart surgery. Her mother’s death left Duguay “depressed and very lonely,” she said. But her father could also be hard-headed. “Dad didn’t want anyone telling him what to do. He did what he wanted to do. That was just him. He wasn’t one to be pushed around.”
There are conflicting accounts of when Duguay drove to the reservation. His daughter said authorities told the family a witness saw him driving on the dirt road on June 13, the day he went missing. Investigators also told the family that a license-plate reader recorded Duguay’s car driving southbound on Pacific Coast Highway in Orange County that afternoon. However, a missing-person alert by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department said Duguay may have been in Laguna Beach on June 14.
Boris, a construction worker, said he helped Duguay and his son build their home and built another 13 homes with him, most of them in the canyon. He was in awe of Duguay’s skill as a craftsman, especially his ability to “estimate cuts on great big beams.”
He said Modjeska Canyon residents were rocked by Duguay’s disappearance. Some of them printed missing posters and passed them out.
“Leonard’s house stood out. People knew he lived there. All the restaurants and people in the canyon knew him. When everybody found out that he was gone, people went out and looked for him. I rode my motorcycle up and down looking for him.
“There’s a lot of places on Santiago [Canyon Road] where you can go off the road and they won’t find your car,” Boris added. “I checked a couple of days and stopped at every point along the road. I couldn’t find him.”
He said just about everyone who knew Duguay was aware that he was having problems with his memory.
“You gotta understand, everybody in the canyon knew and liked Leonard. They knew Leonard had problems, but nobody would say anything to him. They’d just treat him like a person that had some problems, and everybody would watch out for him. It’s a tight-knit community out here,” he said.
Gloria Ranck dated Duguay for nine years after his wife died. Ranck, 79 and a Fullerton resident, began seeing him two years after her husband’s death, but their relationship ended in December 2014.
“He was very lonely, and I had just lost my husband,” she said. “We helped each other heal. Leonard was very good to me and is a wonderful human being. He would do repairs for people just to help them out. The guy is a genius. He can repair anything.”
Many unanswered questions remain about Duguay’s disappearance, especially why he drove 100 miles to a wilderness site where he is believed to have perished. One possibility is that he may have driven to Vista to see his brother, Ray, and became confused. Vista is off Highway 78, which connects with Highway 79 farther east at Santa Ysabel. Warner Springs and the Los Coyotes Reservation are about 20 miles north on Highway 79 from there.
Ghislaine Joiner said she has accepted the fact that her father is probably dead. “The sheriff told us that the case is now in the recovery stage,” she said.
However, Boris is not convinced that his friend of 25 years drove willingly to his doom. Duguay would join him and others from Modjeska Canyon on fishing trips to the Sierra Nevada and Colorado River.
“Leonard wouldn’t try to off-road in a car,” he said. “When we went fishing, he wouldn’t even launch the boat. He’d make me do it. Any kind of off-roading when we were towing the boat, he’d give up the wheel in a heartbeat.”
Boris said he was concerned about Duguay’s habit of carrying a large amount of cash in his wallet and his friendly demeanor.
“I worried about that. I wondered if he got into a bad area and somebody got ahold of him. Leonard talked to everybody, and I’ve wondered if someone took advantage of his friendly ways.”
Ghislaine and Steve Joiner had the same concern.
“He liked to talk to people. He would get to be friends with people, and for some con person he would be an easy mark,” said Steve.
Though Duguay remains missing, the Joiners said they were relieved when Leonard’s car was found by a different group of off-roaders more than a month after his disappearance. Not knowing anything about what happened to her father was worse, said Ghislaine.
“Our biggest fear was that somebody had taken advantage of him, hurt him or something,” said Steve. “To know that he drove out somewhere and got lost, that’s not pleasant, but it’s better than the alternative.”
It is fitting in a way if Duguay met his fate on the mountain, the Joiners said.
“He loved nature and loved to be in the woods. My thought of him is that when he got on the mountain he just got really tired and drifted away. He’s in an environment that’s suitable for him. It’s kind of where he belongs,” said Steve.
Knowing Duguay’s wilderness and survival skills makes the possibility that he died on the mountain difficult to accept, said Boris. “It’s hard to believe. He was slipping, so maybe he got up there and panicked and just tried to make it. I just don’t know. He deserved to stay at home and live his life out, [but] he just drove off and never came back.”
Los Coyotes is the largest reservation in San Diego County — 25,000 acres that are mostly rugged and uninhabitable. Knutson and Bedwell journeyed there about the time the tribe opened up the outlying areas to off-roading. Though hiking trails have been accessible to the public for years, there has never been a tragedy like the one that befell Duguay and the couple.
There probably is no way to explain why two elderly men — albeit one with symptoms of dementia — drove to the same remote wilderness site where they had never been before and met a sad and tragic end a year apart. Tribal officials recognize how bizarre the stories are, but without an explanation for why it happened, they can only say that Duguay and Knutson got lost. Perhaps it is the only explanation that makes sense.
After Duguay’s car was found by Turning Rock, reservation officials put a lock on a gate that stretches across the dirt road just before it becomes impassable for any but off-road and four-wheel-drive vehicles.