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[00:00:00]

I wish I'd met Ben Perez before this all happened, when he still had dreams he thought he could make come true, when he still believed people were mostly good. But I didn't. I met him after after he was betrayed by someone he trusted after he signed away his life savings, after he took a trip to a place called California City. Hi, Ben. Hello. I first talked to him in June 2018. It was less than a year after he said he'd been tricked into buying a worthless piece of desert land.

[00:00:44]

I got your name because you wrote a rip off report review. Yes. Right. Rip off report. Is this Web site people go to to write scathing complaints when they feel like they got ripped off. Hence the name. Ben told me he lost around thirty one thousand dollars and despite his best effort, he hadn't gotten that money back. That's actually my five years. I worked five years just to save that day that I was five years having spent.

[00:01:12]

So I went to open a food and I lost all that money. And now I'm back to, you know, I only have one thousand dollars to be made. I lost all that money. So they went a really wonderful openness with and making it happen. And what I'm so sorry. What kind of food truck Japanese are very happy with. Ben is a cook at the Google headquarters in Mountain View, or he was before coronavirus. But ever since he'd arrived in California from the Philippines in 2011, he'd been dreaming of something better, something bigger.

[00:01:48]

He wants to be his own boss. He wants to support his family. He wants to invest in his future. And the Japanese teriyaki truck. That's Ben's version of the American Dream, a dream that would end up being used against him, leaving him with nothing.

[00:02:06]

I really hope to hit my knee that I don't know what to do. You know, no one can help me. I don't know where to go. The place where Ben said he'd been ripped off is called Silver Saddle Ranch and Club. It's a dude ranch. It's basically this rundown kitschy hotel where you can shoot guns and ride horses. And it's way out there. One hundred miles north of Los Angeles in the Mojave Desert town of California city, it is so isolated that when you drive out there, you kind of feel like you're in a horror movie.

[00:02:52]

After I talk to Ben, I talk to a lot of other people who also claimed they'd been scammed at Silver Saddle. They wrote complaints on Ripoff Report to and on Yelp and on the Better Business Bureau. And this Web site called Scam On. And it's kind of crazy how much their stories have in common. A lot of them start like this. You get a phone call from someone who sounds just like you.

[00:03:16]

Sorry to bother you at the dinner time. We like to offer you opportunity for the real estate investment.

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The voice on the phone is calling from Silver Saddle Ranch, and they invite you to a hotel to learn about a real estate opportunity. And at the hotel, they'll offer you a free weekend at a resort in the desert.

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You wonder, how did this person get my number?

[00:03:40]

Probably from that Filipino grocery store. Turns out that raffle you signed up for by buying groceries, it was for this. Or maybe it's not a phone call. Maybe it's a friend who invites you out to the ranch. They tell you it'll be fun. Come on.

[00:03:55]

And she's like, oh, it's gonna be cold, is it? It's free. And I was like, OK, you can hurt, right?

[00:04:01]

What the hell? Sounds fun. So you go you drive out to the desert expecting something elaborate, something stunning, a fancy resort like the ones in Palm Springs. But when you get there, it feels like a ghost town.

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It's vacant. I mean, you know, it's like a vacant lot. A lot of brown, like a lot of dirt.

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Oh, my gosh. Is it's really the resort. So you check in and you notice that most of the people there are Filipino or Latino or Chinese. There's a lot of elderly people and a lot of people who don't speak English super well. And of course, you can't tell by looking, but they just don't seem like a savvy investor types.

[00:04:46]

So they try to market it to a I guess, a vulnerable whole Nervo group of people. By the end of the weekend, you will come to believe that you will get rich if you buy a piece of land out here. Then they're saying how it's going to be very developed. A lot of people are coming in and for us to get in early would be the smartest thing to do. You will try to get your money back, but you will fail and you will feel ashamed and angry and betrayed.

[00:05:18]

How do you pay your bill of a buy ends like that was a terrible experience.

[00:05:22]

I would never recommend that to anyone, you know, whether we are immigrants. We thought, you know, America, we cannot imagine just happened to us.

[00:05:37]

I talked to more than twenty five people who invested with Silver Saddle, but it was Ben's story that stuck with me. Maybe because it was still so fresh. It had happened just a year before I met him. Or maybe it was because the money he said he lost had meant so much to him. Or maybe it was that he had asked me for help. I wanted to ask, how do you think I can do it? They'll get me.

[00:06:03]

Should I fly a lawyer? His phone cut out a little, but he asked me what he could do to get his money back. I wasn't sure what to tell him beyond what I always tell people when I'm reporting that maybe together we can bring some attention to this and maybe enough people will notice and something will change. I had no idea how hard that would be. I didn't know that there are thousands of people like Ben all around the world.

[00:06:36]

I didn't know that the way some of them were pressured into buying land. It wasn't just unethical. It was illegal. I didn't know that people in the past had tried and failed to put a stop to it.

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I told Ben I would try to figure it out, OK. All right. I'm really glad you emailed. Thank you so much for talking. And I will be in touch very soon. Yeah, just e-mail. OK. Over. OK, I will. Thank you, sir. Let us talk to you. Thank you. Bye. Oh, my God. I'm Emily Guerin. Welcome to California City. This is Episode one of seven. A global pandemic.

[00:07:41]

Protests across the country. A nationwide recession. So far, 20 20 has felt like 10 or 15 years. Wrapped up in one. And I think we should talk it all out. I'm Sam Sanders. I host an NPR podcast called It's Been a Minute. Each week on my show, I have conversations with all kinds of people to make sense of the news and the culture without making you feel overwhelmed. Join us every Tuesday and Friday. Listen and subscribe now.

[00:08:07]

It's been a minute. From NPR. I knew Ben had spent a lot of money. I knew his dreams of selling teriyaki on the streets of San Jose had taken a serious setback.

[00:08:25]

But what I could not get my head around was how a guy who was so dead set on saving this money could go away for a weekend and come back broke. I needed to know exactly how it happened. So last January, I flew to visit Ben in San Jose. The morning I met him was bleak and foggy and cold by California standards, not the kind of weather people imagine when they moved here to chase their dreams.

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Oh, OK. Cool. Bye. I waited for him on the sidewalk outside his apartment. Ben lives next to a freeway on a noisy, potholed road. He lives in one of those boxy early 80s condo villages where every building looks identical and forgettable. I'm in the parking lot. I'm looking at the building. It says 464 on the side. And then there's there's like four apartments. Oh, is this you okay?

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We did that thing where I was still talking to him on the phone as he walked up. Hi. Nice to meet you. Finally. Is it this one? Okay.

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Ben was 26, but he looked younger than I imagined. He had the kind of stubble men have when they can't really grow a beard. He wore a black hoodie, baggy track pants and a red baseball hat, and he had a small stud in one ear. We walked into his apartment to grab something. The curtains were drawn, so I couldn't really make anything out, and I awkwardly complimented the first thing I saw.

[00:10:03]

Nice Christmas tree.

[00:10:05]

Ben apologized for being messy, but it wasn't messy. He reached under the coffee table and grabbed a tote bag that they got from silverside.

[00:10:14]

Then I have all the elements here. I want to show it to you later. OK, so you can. They can do. Yeah. It's like kind of a nice bag. Well, should we, like, drive around a little bit?

[00:10:28]

We left and walked out to his car. A seven year old Audi sedan that was giving him trouble. He didn't have the money to fix it. Ben wanted to take me to the mall to get coffee. So I tried to fill the silence as we drove. So how many people live with you in your apartment now?

[00:10:45]

There's five of us, and it's a two bedroom apartment. So how do you split up the bedrooms? Ben was living with his three brothers and a sister. Now his mom is there, too. He sleeps on the couch. And when I asked him how they decided who got the couch. He just shrugged and said. You just were gold. I'll take the couch. Yes, I was surprised by how shy he was. He'd been so much more forthcoming on the phone and in his online reviews of Silver Saddle.

[00:11:17]

I mean, his anger was practically jumping off the screen. Bunch of liars. He wrote on Yelp, I work hard for that money. And everything went to waste. Now I feel stupid and ashamed about myself. And then he wrote in all caps. You destroyed my life. I just couldn't square angry Internet, Ben, with this whisper of a man who averted his eyes and mumbled.

[00:11:41]

Do you like coffee? Honestly, I was getting a little nervous. I mean, I'd flown all the way up here from L.A. and he was giving me one word answers. It wasn't until we were waiting for our coffee at Starbucks and I asked him about what he likes to cook, that he began to open up or the closest thing to opening up, I think Ben ever gets.

[00:12:07]

You said you developed some recipes. What are some of your favorites? Chicken, the and Curry, which is really good beef, brevity, chicken brownie. I added a lot of stuff I need that will make it more delicious and serve a fine dining experience tubulars.

[00:12:30]

I realized how seriously Ben takes his job. Cooking for Google's. But he has bigger dreams. He wants to be on the show final table, which is the showdown between famous chefs.

[00:12:42]

You want to be on that show. You want to be like one of the best chefs in the world. Yeah. Do you think you're going to get the mall was kind of noisy, so we ended up sitting in his car. He slouched in the driver's seat and spun the coffee sleeve around his cup. One short sentence at a time. I slowly learned more about Ben. He was born in Glendale, which is a suburb of L.A., but when he was four, his parents moved back to the Philippines because his dad lost his job at an architecture firm.

[00:13:17]

They thought it would be easier there, but it wasn't. We oxidase try again. I think there's times that we own it once a day.

[00:13:29]

And then Ben was super into math as a kid. And he especially liked algebra, but his classes were chaotic. And a lot of the time, the teacher didn't even show up. There weren't enough desks. So kids were sharing chairs and writing on scrap paper on their laps. And Ben wrote really, really small on his scrap paper to make it last longer.

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I want to be like engineer or a doctor when I was saying. But scenes of the life of education, the only thing that I was thinking to do when I grew up is to be a chef. And that's what I am doing right now.

[00:14:09]

Then move back to California when he was 19. In the beginning, he slept on his aunt's couch in San Jose. And he did a lot of random stuff, unloaded clothes at Martial's and catered events at a law firm. He worked until midnight moving tables and cleaning up other people's messes. And then he got the job in the kitchen at Google. So instead of being an engineer, Ben is a chef who cooks for engineers. Ben had been saving money for more than five years for Teriyaki Food Truck when in July 2017, his friend invited him to this free resort in the desert a 24 hours a day that would change the rest of his life.

[00:14:51]

But Ben had no idea what was coming. That's after a break.

[00:15:05]

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.

[00:15:22]

This is uncomfortable as a weekly show for Marketplace about life and how money messes with it.

[00:15:28]

The show was funny, a little tense and just a little uncomfortable, like talking about money is in the first place. Subscribe to this is uncomfortable wherever you get your podcasts. Ben didn't know it yet, but his food truck dreams started to crumble when his friend Clifford invited him and two other friends to spend a free weekend at this place called Silver Saddle Ranch and Club.

[00:16:02]

Hey, Ben. Clifford said it's a free vacation. There's gonna be free food and free giveaways. I got a hold of Clifford, but I don't know. He sounded afraid to me. He told me his lawyer told him not to talk to me. And then he hung up. Anyway, so Ben and Clifford and two of their buddies set out for Silver Saddle on the Fourth of July weekend in twenty. Seventeen. Thousands of unsuspecting people have made this pilgrimage over the years.

[00:16:34]

Silver Saddle is a six hour drive south of San Jose. It's in the Mojave Desert in a town called California City. I've made this drive, too, and each time I'd notice a strange new detail. Fields of cows waiting to be slaughtered. Breathing air that reeks of manure. Entire forests that have died, weakened by drought and eaten alive by beetles. The Los Angeles aqueduct. That flume of stolen water that allowed that city to boom. An airplane graveyard.

[00:17:07]

And if you listen, you can hear the wind whistle through broken cockpit windows. And finally, after turning east on to California City Boulevard, there's a billboard. It reads. Take heed that no man deceive you. So imagine any suburb you've ever been in in America. Now remove the houses from that scene and remove the cars and the trees, the lawns and the sidewalks. Remove the people, remove everything. So all that's left is roads and street signs.

[00:17:44]

Darwin Drive, DaVinci Place, Gold Rush Avenue.

[00:17:49]

They're very like civilized suburban names. There's nothing there. I remember the first time I drove those roads with producer James Kim. It was dusk and he kept creeping ourselves out.

[00:18:03]

Just people right there behind the bush. One. Freaked me out. I'm telling you the truth. I just feel like I'm in the zone. It did feel like a zombie movie or maybe a city after a bomb went off all across that empty flat plain. You see these faded land for sale signs that swing from one hinge on peeling wooden posts. The kind of look like the white crosses people put up to mark the site of fatal car accidents in the desert is covered with them.

[00:18:39]

What was for sale?

[00:18:40]

So where those arrows point, all the houses you do see are the same color as the dirt that surrounds them?

[00:18:49]

I can see it being a paradise if you don't like people on the city SEAL. There's a sailboat on a lake in front of a waterfall. And later you will pass that lake. It's thick with algae and choked with reeds. The waterfall, you realize, is artificial and it's gone dry. And on the top, in the concrete. Someone has scrawled the words, Lord, I'm sorry for all I've done. California city is the third largest city by land area in the state.

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It's enormous, but it's empty.

[00:19:24]

Only about 14000 people live there. The only grocery store in town is a dollar general. The only bar is part of a Chinese restaurant. The only thing there isn't and only of his churches.

[00:19:39]

There's a Baptist church, a Pentecostal church, a Catholic church, a Kingdoms Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses and a little white shack out in the middle of the desert where on the 13th of every month, women in white robes claim to see the Virgin Mary in the sky. You pass all of that as you drive to Silver Saddle. As you get closer, your cell signal drops to one bar and then disappears. Actually, I'm actually very. Like, scared, I would say.

[00:20:12]

Where are we going? I don't see any houses. And then we got to silverside. The dirt in scrubby bushes disappear and there are big leafy trees, succulent gardens in a duck pond called Lake Maney. They have 80 hotel rooms out here with loud AC is an old box TV's. They have a pool. They have paddleboats. They have a corral with friendly horses. They have karaoke in English, Tagalog and Spanish. And they have an upright piano with sheet music for Journey's Don't Stop Believing.

[00:20:50]

Which is pretty cool. The resort is a nice place for families with young kids.

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But Ben and his friends thought it was super lame. The horseback ride was just two laps around a dusty circle. The paddleboats got old after five minutes. Even the shooting range was lame. You shot the gun? Yeah. Was it fun? No, it's only three shots. Let's see. It was not the kind of weekend Ben was expecting. So they ended up spending a lot of time in their rooms for 20 something boys in the middle of the desert with no Wi-Fi and no cell service.

[00:21:30]

It was so boring that Ben got bored just telling me about it. There's nothing really thing to do there. You were there for us? No, not at all.

[00:21:43]

But for a free weekend, it was OK. Ben told me that on Sunday morning the phone rang in their room. It was the woman at the front desk reminding them not to be late for the tour. Ben didn't know about any tour, but the woman on the phone said if he didn't go, he'd have to pay for his day. So Ben and his friends reported to the lobby. There were vans waiting outside and they all got in the vans, took them to this long, low wooden building on the ranch.

[00:22:16]

One that's kind of removed from everything else. It's called the sales pavilion. And I think this moment was the beginning of Ben losing his money. Silver Saddle wouldn't let me take the tour. They said it was private. But more than a dozen people described it to me.

[00:22:33]

And I have to say their stories are nearly identical. The tour takes around three hours and it has four steps. Step one, divide and conquer. In this step, the sales agents start separating people into smaller groups. They have one for trainees. They have one for less than one for each. So then the English one and the guy one with all the Filipino people. Why did they hurt everyone by ethnicity into different rooms? And I was like, what is this like the 50s or something like Reanna Roebling's, one on the tour with her parents in 2016.

[00:23:12]

And she says they got sucked into. But she thought the whole thing was bullshit, like Ben. She got put in the Filipino room. She said it was this small little movie theater and it was really dark and the seats were weirdly velvety. And then they had, like, this white guy just trying to appeal to us, like in our language, like, oh, like the Philippines, Rae. Like, he was like trying to, like, speak the language in a really crude way.

[00:23:36]

And so I just thought it was kind of like weird.

[00:23:39]

The white guy turned on a video.

[00:23:42]

I don't remember all the details, but I remember a really bad PowerPoint like showing like these wind turbines and like throwing around like Elon Musk and also using a lot of musk. And I like now I'm just like, oh, I know who he is. But he was like, Yeah. Bill Gates. And like, this is going to be the next Silicon Valley in like the third round.

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These really big names like the billionaires.

[00:24:01]

Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, is expanding his interests into the area and then there being a Google in the space industry.

[00:24:14]

Reanna told me after the presentation they broke for lunch, hotdogs, soda, party, packs of chips, hardly final table. And then this woman with dark straight hair, thick fuchsia lipstick and a watch embedded with Swarovski crystals got up and introduced herself. I marry in the crew. I'm a real estate broker here in California. And I do land sales.

[00:24:41]

Marion Decru isn't just any real estate broker. She is the top selling sales agent at Silver Saddle. She's been doing it for almost 30 years. And almost everyone I talked to had a Merrion story. We loved her to death.

[00:24:55]

She was like our mothers. She was very friendly. She made us feel at home and she made sure that we were taken care of. I guess you can say she wrapped us around her little pinky.

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I think she was doing that to me, too. When we were texting about where to meet up, she sent me a heart eyes emoji. And then at Panera Bread, inside this strip mall near where she lives, an hour or so east of L.A., she walked in slowly, taking small steps that made her seem older than she is. She spoke quietly and she didn't interrupt. I've been expecting this slick saleswoman, but instead she was more of an auntie.

[00:25:34]

Is it a good job? It is. It's fun. You know, I meet a lot of people and a lot of my clients are like family to me already. And if you don't mind me asking, like, does it pay well, too? It's for me. Yes, because I have a lot of clients, you know.

[00:25:55]

How many do you think you have? In so many years, probably thousands already. Really? Yes. Wow. Is. I didn't know then how much money Marion made. But it looks like she spent a lot. I know. Because I follow her son on Instagram. He also works at Silver Saddle. And I know that sounds weird, but whatever. I'm a reporter. Marian's son has posted pictures of her in front of the glass pyramid at the Louvre, a cobblestone street in Lisbon, and posing with lumberjacks and sled dogs on an eight day Alaskan cruise.

[00:26:30]

But my favorite post of his merrion is standing in the middle of the road outside what I'm pretty sure is her million dollar house in Corona cupping her hand. So it looks like she's holding up the end of a rainbow. So back it's over saddle. Marianne tells Ben and his friends that it's time for the next part of the tour. She was gonna take them to visit some model homes a mile away. And this is part two, the neighborhood.

[00:26:57]

A way for you to imagine what this place could look like in the future. Yeah, they put us until like this kind of we were all kind of squished in. There was a really hot first.

[00:27:09]

We were all really awkward because we didn't want to be near each other. They drove us. I don't really remember how far it was. It wasn't too far. But I remember the houses. They weren't built next to each other.

[00:27:18]

Like there's a lot of, like, space in between them, but they're still in the same lake like neighborhood.

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I've been there, too. There is maybe 20 houses on hundreds of empty lots. Some of them were boarded up. Some had barbed wire holding the gates shut.

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One had a deflated football in the driveway, but some had tomatoes growing out front and freshly watered flowers.

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Ben said on his tour they stopped in front of this one big house and Marianne told everyone it was her house and they were all kind of impressed.

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They walked inside.

[00:27:50]

The AC was blasting and the carpets were freshly vacuumed.

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Ben and his friends flopped on the beds and took goofy pictures of themselves. Reanna peeked inside the bathroom.

[00:28:01]

They brought us up and they said like, oh, well, here in California city, you know, you can take like a Hollywood shower. A Hollywood shower. Yeah, that's what they called it, a Hollywood shower. And they're like air forces are like Foley.

[00:28:12]

Like they were talking about how they had a lot of water. Yeah. Yeah. And I thought those kind of ironic. Fairly middle of the desert.

[00:28:18]

And we were in a drought at that time on the way out.

[00:28:21]

Reanna noticed a nice SUV parks next door with groceries in the back.

[00:28:26]

She wondered if it was some sort of prop because it didn't seem like anyone lived there. The whole thing felt staged. Part three is the vision. Ben and his friends got back in the vans and they drove with their salespeople to the tour's third location, Gallileo Hill. Legend has it that the founder of California City loved going up here and looking out at his creation.

[00:28:53]

It really is a great view. You can see for miles far across the empty desert plain, you can see the sunset over the southern Sierra Nevada to the west and the distant glow from Los Angeles. But mostly what you notice is the spider web of roads. It's what James and I noticed our first time up there. 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.

[00:29:27]

Everyone I talked to told me a similar version of what happens up here on Gallileo Hill, your sales agent tells you there's a future here. Just close your eyes and you can see it. You can be a part of it. Almost every city in California started out empty like this. Palm Springs, the San Fernando Valley, Irvine. Can you imagine if you had bought land in one of those places before they boomed? Imagine how much money you would have.

[00:29:58]

What's so amazing to me about this pitch is that you are looking out at absolutely nothing. And sometimes I think that's the reason this pitch worked so well because of how empty it is up there looking out from Gallileo Hill. It makes anything's impossible. A city, a space exploration center, a field of wind turbines, whatever. This empty desert is a blank canvas that the sales people can paint a dream on. Lingle's a good primarily a good investment. Like saying like, oh, if you buy this land now, it's going to skyrocket later.

[00:30:33]

Kind of like bells can leave their whole appeal. They may be worthless now. What is it to be worth a lot of money later.

[00:30:41]

Part four is the clothes you get back to Silver Saddle, a different room, one with a lot of small cafe tables and tall windows. I've seen pictures of this room. The wall is covered in photos. There's Walt Disney. And then there's all these rich dudes from the Philippines under these big silver letters that say land barons. There's a huge gong hanging from the ceiling. And whenever anyone close their deal, their sales agent would get up, walk over and strike it with a mallet.

[00:31:12]

This is where they explain to you exactly what they're selling, because by now you've heard about Elon Musk and Google. You've seen the Hollywood shower. You've heard about the other people like you who made it big when they bought land early. And after the break, it's your turn. Everybody has a podcast now. Right? Every celebrity, every what you do in college.

[00:31:49]

There are literally hundreds of thousands of podcasts out there.

[00:31:53]

And yeah, it's a bit of a mess. I'm Nick Quar at my new show. So for the pod, we'll give you the most interesting and important stories in podcasting. And I'll tell you why you should care. Servant a pod, everything podcast from L.A., a studio. So here's something I learned a lot about when I was trying to figure out what exactly Ben was buying into land banking, land banking is where a bunch of people jointly own a huge chunk of land.

[00:32:31]

Kind of like being an owner and a co-op apartment, except what you own cooperatively isn't a building. It's land. In this case, the land was the 1020 acres of empty desert that you could see from the top of Gallileo Hill, including the Silver Saddle Ranch property. And it was divided into four thousand shares. They give you this pamphlet saying one day this land will be worth a lot of money. And then when you sell it to a developer, you and your three thousand nine hundred ninety nine co-owners will all get rich.

[00:33:05]

But Ben, I don't know. He told me he just wasn't convinced. How come? Because it's in the middle of nowhere and there's nothing really to do there. You need to travel like 25 miles away from that location to go to the stores. So he was like, fuck it, I'm out. And he got up to leave. But as Ben was walking out the door, Marian started calling after him. Ben, don't go. We're gonna do a raffle, a TV, a night in Vegas, a cruise.

[00:33:41]

Don't you want to stay for the raffle? And in a moment, he would come to regret. Ben decided to stay. I didn't realize that you were about to walk out and that they somehow changed your mind.

[00:33:54]

Yeah. I actually don't know what happened, really. I don't know why I bought this land. I think because they're offering me a lot of free stuff.

[00:34:06]

So we walked back in. And what happened next? Sounds like a how to guide for high pressure sales. Ben says Marianne told him there was a promotion going on, but only if he bought today. So they were trying to say, if you buy it today, it's Jetter, they're going to give you ten thousand dollars off. And she said, this is only for today. If you go here tomorrow or the following days, it's going to be back to three to five thousand dollars.

[00:34:35]

Ben told her he didn't have that kind of money.

[00:34:37]

But then I told them I don't have the cash. And then they said, oh, credit card work. If up credit card, we can do it. Another classic sales tactic, turn a no into a yes at some point. Marion switched to to colleague. She told him they would work together and she'd help him make money. She even called him my son. He listen, my son, you can make good money, my son. You can trust me.

[00:35:03]

Her strategies make people to fall in love with her. Trust her. And she's saying, I owe half of the day. Mid-State my people. I want you to meet my needs. I want you guys to become rich. So you need to trust me like that.

[00:35:22]

I asked Marianne, how do you do it? How do you get people to trust you? I don't know, maybe I have the charisma. Maybe it runs in my blood and I tell them my experiences in land and they can relate to me because a lot of people in the Philippines, they were farmers, but they inherited big land that was nothing before. And now they have hundreds of millions of bessus. That's why I think the Filipinos, they loved to buy land.

[00:35:55]

Me too. I love to buy land. I buy land wherever I can. I looked at all of Ben's receipts and his share of the land banking project cost him twenty four thousand nine hundred ninety dollars. But with all silver saddles, escrow charges and lender fees and contributions to something called the Capital Improvement Fund, it came to thirty one thousand five hundred forty dollars total. But he said it. Merian assured him he would make that money back. All he needed to do was bring in new customers.

[00:36:26]

Was this kind of the thing that convinced you to do it, that you would get your money back? Yeah, she told me, like, this is super easy, guys, just 10 people. And then you're going to get 20000 plus additional 10000 dollars for each referral.

[00:36:40]

Who bought into Silver Saddle? Ben would get two thousand dollars. And with that, he was in the sales manager got up and walked over to the gong. He hit it loud and hard. And then a different guy came over and placed a giant stack of paper in front of Ben and started flipping through it.

[00:37:03]

You can just they just on me like, oh, I initial here, initial here, initial here.

[00:37:08]

How fast were they going through this? Thank superfast. Here's the first faced picture initial here. Hey, here's the next page. In addition. Ignacia. Nisha. Nisha. Sign in the. So they didn't really let you read it? No. Did you feel like they were rushing you? Yeah. They were rushing me.

[00:37:30]

But at the same time, since they're Filipino, I'm Filipino. Whereas speaking with a guide dog. And once you're speaking together, it's like you really trust that person. So all they did is just trust. Trust them and do what they want me to sign. Are everything. Most of us don't really understand the reams of legalese we agree to when we buy a house or take out a car loan or sign up for Facebook.

[00:37:56]

And Ben was no different. He says he didn't remember initialing all kinds of things in his contract, like the disclosure that his one four thousandth share of the land banking project would be very difficult to resell. Like that, there was no cancellation period like that. He was obligated to pay forty one dollars a month in membership fees to Silver Saddle Ranch for the rest of his life. To avoid Silver Saddles. Fifteen point nine percent interest rate, which was five times higher than a car loan at the time and paid the purchase price in full.

[00:38:32]

Thirty one thousand five hundred and forty dollars gone. What he got was a 40 inch TV and a camera that he said didn't really work.

[00:38:42]

He got his photo taken with a cowboy hat on standing next to Marion Decru. Ben, Ben got home. He was finally able to Google Silver Saddle, he's really excited, but then he found their Yelp page. Guess you're looking at this review because you got a call from Silver Saddle stating that you won a consolation prize in the super longer, rather early Neier make money. It's a good the. Shame on you guys, because you were preying on your cover by I saw a lot of red flags.

[00:39:12]

They conducted business with me knowing that I was a gross.

[00:39:18]

There's going to be the big I live there are the. So when you first saw the Yelp reviews, like how did you feel? Oh, my God. This is a scam.

[00:39:33]

And with that panic thought. Ben sat down and wrote an email, said hi. I think I got scammed. And I want to ask if I can get my money back. I found out that your company had a lot of complaints and lawsuit regards.

[00:39:47]

Benjamin Perez gave me no. And then there's no response. But a few days later, his phone buzzed. Just before 11:00 p.m., it was Marion texting him. You e-mailed the company bad about me. She wrote, I treated you right. And now you're telling people I lied. I will sue you for defamation of character and false accusations if you will not stop this. You signed a valid legal contract on your own free will. Nobody forced you.

[00:40:17]

Were you surprised that she threatened you because she had been so nice to you? Yes. I feel I feel like you're not the person that I first met. You were very nice to me. Ended up deciding your guess who me. And I feel like you're you're a bad person. You're doing this to your people, less afraid of people. When Ben told me about that text from Marianne, it was the closest I got to see angry Internet Ben.

[00:40:44]

It bothered him nearly as much as losing thirty one thousand dollars. Marianne, who called him son, who he trusted. She was threatening him. I got to see this side of her, too. She told me she owned a share of the land banking project, but I couldn't find the deed in the assessor's database. And there wasn't one for the model home nor Silver Saddle that she told Ben she owned. When I texted her about it, she responded that it was none of my business.

[00:41:12]

And she called me a liar. She said she had paperwork proving she owned a share, but then she refused to show it to me. And then she wrote, quote, I will refer you to my attorney if you continue harassing me. No more heart, eyes emojis. For me, it was just unsettling. But for Ben, it was traumatizing. That's his word. He said he stopped contacting Marianne, stopped contacting Silver Saddle, stopped trying to get his money back.

[00:41:44]

But he didn't stop thinking about it.

[00:41:49]

I feel like I lost hope. I feel like I'm I must do a better person and I feel buried down for giving away my money.

[00:42:04]

What do you mean when you say you lost hope? That my needs supposed to be for my future and now I lose my future. I lose hope. So it's very a big, big deal for me. Do you ever, like, have dreams about it? Yeah. Like nightmares. Like what happens in those dreams.

[00:42:30]

I feel like I'm buried down. I feel like I'm gone. I look at a beast for who I am right now as a low person without any money and without being successful any more than what I thought before. So I have nightmares about that. Like you said, you're like you're this way for the rest of your life. Yeah.

[00:42:56]

I'm going to be stuck like this when Ben says low class person. I don't think he just means poor. He means a failure, a disappointment, someone with big dreams that will never come true.

[00:43:10]

I don't think you're a low class person. I feel I really feel like this could happen to anybody. Yeah. Yeah. It really affects me. You can see I always have this under the table, really, if I.

[00:43:22]

He pointed to the tote bag of Silver Saddle brochures and contracts. The one he grabbed before we went to the mall. It was under the coffee table next to the couch. The couch. That's also his bed. It's nice.

[00:43:35]

And they're here that they. The silver saddles that's always under the table. Silver Saddle is there when he's awake. It's there when he's asleep. It's there when he's at work cooking chicken teriyaki for gigglers. It's there when he's at home watching final table. It's easy now to understand why Ben mumbles. He's not shy. He thinks he's a low class person. It's like he wrote in his Yelp review. Now I feel stupid and ashamed about myself. I later learned that state investigators believe more than 2000 people have bought into Silver Saddle since 2011.

[00:44:25]

They believe that each of those people spent up to thirty thousand dollars on a slice of empty desert land that they thought would make them rich. And they believe it was actually Silver Saddle. Who is making the money? Fifty six million five hundred seventeen thousand one hundred and forty eight dollars, to be precise. Like I said, I told Ben I'd try to figure out what happened to him, and I did try. I spent years looking into it, weeks staying in California city.

[00:44:57]

I'd paid a guy with a string ego te 40 bucks to fly me over California city in a Cessna so I could see what it looked like from the air. I drank shots of Jack Daniels with Arthur, the bartender at the Green Tea Garden, the town's only Chinese restaurant, saying Goodbye Earl, which is my go to Dixie Chicks song karaoke at the American Legion. I bought groceries at the Dollar General. I talked with more than one hundred and fifty people.

[00:45:25]

I'd pored over hundreds of pages of government filings and court documents, tax records, land records, blueprints, emails, texts, even a dissertation on the architecture of California city. And in the process, I realized that this desert real estate investment that Ben got wrapped up in, it didn't start 10 years ago, and it's way bigger than Silver Saddle. Its roots spread out all over California City. It's been going on for 60 years, long before Silver Saddle existed in tens of thousands of people all around the country, all around the world have paid the price.

[00:46:08]

So what year did you buy the land to fix the sky? My mother purchased the lot in the early 90s. I can't even give it away. We bought the lot in March of seventy one. It gave us a free lunch, which, you know, there's no such thing as free lunch. The whole thing was that was going to do. The land was going to become very valuable in just a matter of a year or two. When we die it was a golden opportunity and we're going to make millions off of it.

[00:46:46]

Yeah, this old division. That's what they were selling. They had nothing there. So I feel like I've invested into a giant hole that's getting deeper to understand Ben's experience. I had to know how Silver Saddle came into existence. I had to go back to 1958 to meet the man who first stood on Gallileo Hill. A man in a dark suit wearing a homburg hat, a chuckles Slovakian immigrant, so charismatic, so convincing that some people believed he'd been given a vision from God.

[00:47:23]

A man with a dream, a dream to build a utopian city from scratch in the Mojave Desert, a dream that evolved into a scam, a scam that robbed so many other people of their dreams. Next time on California City, Nat Mendelson, the man who started it all. California City was written and reported by me. Emily Guerin, our win champion, Knicks and James can get our sound design, production and story editing. Mike Kesler was the editor fact checking and additional production by Gabriel Dunn.

[00:48:16]

A tough Valentino Rivera is our engineer. Original Music by Andrew Eappen. Our Web site is elitist dot com slash California City. It was designed by Andy Cheatwood in the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Go there to see old ads and marketing material from California City over the years, as well as beautiful photos by Jarvis Sanchez. Leo Gomes designed our visuals and our logo. Thanks to all the people who read our Yelp ads. Carla Javier.

[00:48:48]

Leo Duran. Timika Adams. Laura Galarraga. Yanji Wayne and Travis Sanchez. De Jane and Ron Olsen. Center for Investigative Reporting helped make California City possible. Ron Olson is an honorary trustee for Southern California Public Radio. The Olson do not have any editorial input on the stories we cover. California City is a production of Aliased Studios. L.A. is where I was born and raised. For years, it's where I've documented life in this city, not the pop culture headlines, but the stories of people and communities that hardly get recognized.

[00:49:56]

Copy cowboys. Good morning.

[00:49:58]

I brought Ali where ever I traveled to around the world as a journalist, and now I'm back home.

[00:50:06]

And I said, look, look at those cowboys. There are black cowboys. I taught him how to do everything that he knows. You can imagine like being exercised from your home when you're a baby. And then all of sudden you just get released into the world.

[00:50:22]

Kobe, Kobe, Kobe, Kobe made people feel as confident as he was. How do you dress? Like, you know, like a casual gangster?

[00:50:31]

No, I am Walter Thompson Hernandez. This show is about trying to understand what it means for me to call L.A. my home. From Alyea studios. This is tough when you love. Listen, wherever you get your podcast.