This was only supposed to be a story about water, but in California, stories about water always end up being about money, power and deception.
It was June 2016 and I was new to California. I'd driven into Los Angeles just a month earlier from North Dakota with my two cats, cowboy boots and a wedding dress. I'd been hired as the environment reporter at a public radio station. In the first assignment my new editor gave me was Go cover the drought. We're in an historic drought. Governor Jerry Brown wants to cut the state's overall water usage by 20. It was the worst anyone could remember.
Lakes were evaporating before our very eyes. Entire forests were dying and thousands of wells were running dry.
We're standing on dry grass and we should be standing in five feet of snow. California owes its very existence to hubris, to the relentless battle we've waged for decades to make this desert our garden. But during the drought, people started to wonder if we were going to lose that battle.
Maybe the California dream really was a mirage. This one town I had never heard of, a Wahabi desert town called California City. It was wasting a ton of water. So I drove out there to figure out why.
I had been expecting a small town, a small town with a bustling main street where you could drink a beer, get a haircut and buy a shovel. Along the same block, California's city. It wasn't like that. It was a quiet, sprawling, uneasy place.
It's the third largest city in the state, but with only about 14000 people.
It's just a massive amount of land. That's all here. And the roads just there's so many roads on every single direction. They're all leading to nothing. It turned out that California city was haunted, haunted by the decision of one man more than 60 years ago to build a city for half a million people. Way out here in the desert.
That man's name was Nat Mendelson.
Believed with all his heart that God gave him the vision for the city.
He bought the land. He built the roads, the water lines. He built an airport and a lake. He was a dreamer.
But he made dreamers of us all in the beginning. Rate cut. He lit our torch.
He hired thousands of salesmen to sell his vision.
Hey, listen, you don't sell the state. You sell the sizzle. That's what sales are about. They sold land to tens of thousands of people. My. Was a golden opportunity. And we're going to make millions off of it. But most of those people never moved to California City. And a lot of them came to think they'd been deceived. It was a scam.
I mean, it was just a scare. And I bet.
And now the waterlines that Nat Mendelson had built were rusting and leaking. That's why California City was wasting so much water.
But I learned something else on that first trip to California City, something I really didn't expect at all. I learned that sales people were still selling a version of Nat Mendelson's dream, the idea that this place was going to boom one day. And if you bought land now, you'd get rich. I learned that these sales people, they targeted a very specific group of people, you know, whether we are immigrants or we thought, you know, America, we cannot imagine, just happened to us.
So they tried to market it to a I guess, a vulnerable and noble group of people. I have a plan for the money to open a food truck business, but I feel like I just hope my dream is not going to happen anymore. I would spend the next three years trying to figure out exactly what had happened in California city, what had gone wrong. And along the way I would meet a saleswoman. So shrewd people called her the barracuda.
I'd need a former prosecutor who later murdered his wife, a retired police chief who quietly decided not to investigate an open secret in his own town. An immigrant who spent his life savings on a dream, a dream he realized was too good to be true. And I would meet the government officials trying to stop this once and for all.
I'm Emily Guerin from L.A. Studios. This is California City, the dark side of the American Dream. A story of money, power and deception. Listen, wherever you get your podcasts. Money messes with everything, especially these days. This is uncomfortable, tells those stories like how the economic downturn affects romances and friendships and how getting laid off or having to lay people off can change the way you see yourself.
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