Three days after the election and the day before Pennsylvania was called for Biden, I took a break from hitting refresh on election results to listen to this court hearing about the sale of Silver Saddle Ranch.
People of the state of California versus Silver Saddle commercial development case. I'm running four nine one five one Cauca.
You know, by this point, it had been over a year since the California Department of Business Oversight accused Silver Saddle of fraud and shut them down. The trial was still months away, but the company's headquarters were closed in. The ranch was empty, except for two security guards and a single lonely sheep. A company called Regulatory Resolutions was now in charge of Silver Saddles assets. They were the court appointed receiver and they had decided to sell the ranch because it was super expensive to maintain.
By mid-October, there was a final offer on the table and now it was up to a San Diego County Superior Court judge named Joel will file to approve the sale. Because of coronavirus, the hearing was held on a conference call, there were eight lawyers, two people who had invested with Silver Saddle and me on the phone, and it was a little bit of a mess getting everybody unmuted and introduced, huh? All right. So one is lost.
Yes, Your Honor. Mark 080 appearing by myself on behalf of Thomas Mooney, Silver Saddle. Yes, Your Honor. We brought him here on behalf of the receiver. And thank you, Your Honor. Robert looks up half of the people. Yes, Your Honor. Good morning. I'm Tony Garcia from behalf about myself. Yeah, that Antonio Garcia, the guy who still had the vision, the guy who somehow still believed that silver saddle and all the land around it was a good investment.
For over a year, Antonio had been trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to convince a judge will file not to approve the sale of the ranch. Instead, he argued, the judge should give it to him and all the other people who'd invested with Silver Saddle so they could run it themselves. They believe that in the right hands, their hands, they make all their money back. So far, the judge hadn't been persuaded. So two weeks before this hearing, Antonio had organized one last ditch effort.
Right now I'm not going to go around. Oh, so I didn't go to the protest, but I watched hours of the video.
And I have to say it felt like a perfect distillation of what was going on in America just before the election.
A small group of people were convinced that there was collusion and fraud at all levels of government. They didn't believe what they read in the news. Instead, they believed that the institutions that were supposed to be helping them were actually victimizing them even further, which was honestly hard for me to understand because around the time of the protest, I learned something pretty disturbing about Silver Saddle.
It was something I hadn't yet seen in court documents, something that, if it was true, is almost certainly a federal crime. I'm Emily Guerin and welcome back to California City. That's actually my five year old baby. I awoke five years just to sleep. Five years things. The genius of the original land developer screen was a white collar crook named Mendels Knapp, believed with all his heart that God gave him the vision for the city. You know, whether we are immigrants and that we stopped in America, we cannot imagine just happened to us.
Why do people believe that they know or believe to be false? It's because we have a default to truth. After the break, the protest. On Servants of God, we talk to the people behind the podcast that are shaping the culture. I think men need to get over this personally. This is going to be a generation defining event. We're building on the biases of the whole industry that came before it.
And it was quite fun. So I gave a go. And that's sort of how I found out about audio porn. Subscribe to serve in a pod with Nicoya from Aliased Studios wherever you get your podcasts. We are excited, Elías Studios, California Love is a best podcast of 20-20 by Apple podcast and Spotify.
What you find the hidden secret is like, Oh, this is here. Oh, you have an oasis, join Walter Thompson Hernandez for a transcendent journey, experience California, love wherever you get your podcasts. All right, so where are you right now in front of the simpliciter Rotary Club, and these are the protesters, the land owners. And as you can see, there's seniors, Alderney. Yes.
And Mr. Antonio, the protesters started early on the morning of Saturday, October 24th. There were about 40 of them, mostly older folks. And they driven in from Las Vegas and around California. They parked their sedans and their minivans just outside the entrance to Silver Saddle and set up little shade tarps on the cracked pavement. They wore masks for coronavirus and hats for the sun, and they held up handwritten posters that flapped in the wind robbing us blind.
Help us, please.
A woman walked around reading them off as she live streamed. Most of them said something about the California Department of Business Oversight, or the DBO, which is the former name of the agency suing Silver Saddle for fraud. They just changed it recently to the Department of Financial Protection and Innovation, which I know is super confusing. So let's just go with DBO.
So it said here, collusions receiver already broke or biodiesel didn't investigate. My future has been stolen. Yes, that's right. LEDEBOER figures fairly give us back our investment that was supposed to protect us against us.
The protesters walked in slow circles, pumping their signs up and down.
They took turns yelling into a bullhorn, addressing I think judge will file, but there was no one there to hear them except the Raybans.
No more or more.
Just by going door to door, an old man in a white button down tucked his wooden cane under his arm and picked up the bullhorn, told me a little bit of pushing it until we belong to this ranch, he yelled.
We've been paying for years. I've paid more than twenty seven thousand dollars and I paid in cash all my effort, everything I've saved and earned, I put into this ranch. But I've realized that here in the U.S. and California, they're also defrauding the vulnerable and the elderly. They're taking it from us, he says. They're stealing our money.
I'm going to do so. And then the crowd started chanting because that's a classic, because we just because we trust people.
When I was little, my dad used to tell me this story about a girl who dove deep into a pond and swam through a portal into a parallel world. It looked identical to her world, except everything was upside down. The houses sat in the sky, horses grazed where the clouds should be. Water flowed upwards against gravity.
In the world most of us live in, which, by the way, is the same world that state investigators live in, Silver Saddle is the perpetrator. The state says over eight years, Silver Saddle convinced more than two thousand people to spend more than fifty six million dollars on nearly worthless desert land. Its sales people made false promises and they used high pressure sales tactics. But then the state shut the company down and now they're trying to help the victims get as much money back as possible.
That's why the ranches for sale, that money, it's supposed to be for my future. And now I lose my future. I lose hope. But the people protesting live in this parallel world and in this world, it's the DBO, the judge and the court appointed receiver who are the perpetrators, and they're guilty of an even worse offense than Silver Saddle because they're taking the ranch away from the people who still believe it's worth something.
In most people's world, it's Silver Saddle who stole the future of people like Ben Perez. But in the parallel world, it's the state of California. It was kind of confounding this difference in world views, especially because just that week I talked to a woman who used to work for Silver Saddle and she claimed she'd been asked to do some pretty shady things. And now I was even more convinced that Silver Saddle would stop at nothing to make a sale. This woman's name was Becky Suarez, and she'd messaged me on Twitter right after the podcast came out.
She said she worked at Silver Saddle from twenty seventeen to twenty nineteen doing it. Not my proudest period of time, she wrote, but you have to pay bills and eat right.
Looking back now, I'm ashamed that I worked for them. I helped perpetuate what they were doing. I didn't know at the time.
And then by the time I knew, I felt kind of stuck because I have a family, I have rent to pay, I have to keep the electric on. And calcitriol is kind of a dead end place. It's where everybody ends up getting pushed to when they don't have other options.
Becky and her husband, Anthony, moved to California City in 2015, mostly because it was cheap for 600 bucks a month, they could rent an entire two bedroom house from a landlord who didn't mind four cats and a rescue pit bull named Daisy.
At the time, Becky worked in the IT department of a company that built huge solar farms.
She spent a lot of time on the road and it was tiring, all those empty desert miles. So in August 2017, when a friend told her that this resort right in California city was looking for someone to help fix their Internet, she was interested.
Almost immediately, Becky says she started hearing a lot of complaints from Sellersville guests.
They were complaining about the Wi-Fi in the phone service, especially out at the sales pavilion.
The sales pavilion is the room where it happened.
It's where sales agents divided people up by ethnicity, showed them a PowerPoint about Elon Musk and Bill Gates supposedly having interest in the area and then pressured them into buying a piece of desert land that was stressed to every single person who worked at the ranch.
That at the end of the day, we were all there to support the sales pavilion and the sales that they made.
Ben Perez had told me he couldn't get Internet while he was in the sales pavilion.
And I'd also read that in a letter that his home health nurse wrote to Silver Saddle when she was trying to get her money back.
She said, quote, There was no Wi-Fi service, so I cannot check the property value in the area.
And this is even mentioned in a class action lawsuit filed against Silver Saddle, quote, Plaintiff alleges she did not want to do the investment, but continued to be pressured and did not have any phone signal to do any research.
So Becky told her bosses she could at least extend the Wi-Fi to the sales pavilion. She says they weren't interested.
They said we just want people to be focused on the sales presentation. We want people to be focused. We don't want them to be distracted.
The sales pavilion was basically a dead zone. And Becky told me that that seemed to be her silver subtle. Wanted it because later when she was upgrading the ancient land lines, she said her bosses asked her to make it difficult for people to get through to the sales pavilion on weekends.
I was being told, hey, from Saturday morning to Sunday night, we don't want any outside phone lines to be able to call into us. We don't want anybody to reach the sales pavilion or the finance admin office. Becky suspected that this was to keep people from calling to cancel their contracts. I thought this is slimy.
This feels wrong if you're OK with what you're doing, you shouldn't have a problem with people contacting you about it.
But the weirdest thing of all actually happened on her very first day at Silver Saddle.
Becky said she was poking around in this dungeon crawl space underneath the sales pavilion where the Internet and the phone lines come into the building. And while I was in there working, I found three different cell jammer devices, cell phone jammers, thick black plastic bricks with little dials and antennas, they're designed to interrupt cell signals and stop phones from working. And Becky said all three were plugged in. She went back later and unplugged them as soon as they lost power.
I got like three messages from Anthony, actually. I remember my phone just suddenly go, beep, beep, beep.
So as soon as you unplug them, you basically had service. I wanted to check Becky's story with someone else, so I called Anthony. That's her husband. And he remembers that day because he says Becky came home with dirt on her pants from kneeling in the crawlspace. He remembers her describing the jammers and saying, I'm not sure those are entirely legal. I'm pretty sure they're not the Federal Communications Commission says blocking cell phone signals is a violation of federal law.
You can't use a jammer at home or in your business or in your car. And if you do, you can be fined hundreds of thousands of dollars or even sent to prison. And remember, state regulators have only accused silver saddle of civil fraud. So far, not a crime. So if Beck right. And they really were cell phone jammers, that could be a pretty big deal. Because Becky didn't take any photos of the jammers or have any physical evidence, they existed.
I wanted to just confirm with one other person. So I called up Silver Saddles, former controller, a woman named Jamie Wendon. Jamie told me that although she'd never seen the jammers herself, she didn't doubt Becky. For a second, she told me that Silver Saddles owner Tom Máni and other managers talked all the time about making sure potential buyers didn't have phone service. We have to make sure they can't get a signal. She remembers them saying in meetings, we have to make sure their phones don't have any bars.
I asked him and his lawyer about this, but he didn't respond. When Becky found the jammers, she didn't report them. I mean, it was her first day at work, she was too new to be suspicious.
I didn't think at the time that anybody had put them in there intentionally or knowing what they were not to talk trash about the people who contracted me. But they were not the most technically savvy folks. So I thought, oh, well, maybe it was a mistake. Maybe they thought it was a booster or some sort like that.
I said, you thought kind of like maybe these people are just kind of inept and they don't really know what these are or what they do.
Yeah, but honestly, that was an impression that was left with me about a lot of the ranch until April of twenty nineteen. What happened in April.
A couple of things. Becky told me that's when Tom Máni asked her to come to his house in Lancaster, he was having trouble with his home printer and his TV.
And then I got into his office where there's just paperwork strewn everywhere, just all sorts of legal documents all over his desk. And there were letters from lawyers advising him that he needed to stop immediately. And it's like printouts of emails saying we're starting to get questioned on this. Investigators are looking into things. We need to cut back on our advertising in this area because people are getting suspicious and we're meeting too much resistance. She fixed the printer quickly and got out of there.
She didn't want to get caught snooping around. The whole car ride home, she drove in silence past the windmills with their eerie red blinking lights past the Joshua trees and the barbed wire fences past the gold mine and the freight trains in the long, dark shadow of the mountains. My phone was dead, so I couldn't listen to podcast. There was nothing good on the radio and I couldn't find any good cities to listen to. So I was stuck in the car with myself for over an hour.
And at some point I had to say, you've got to stop lying. There's something happening here. And if this were above board, they wouldn't be operating like this. And from there on out, I think was the beginning of the end for me in August twenty nineteen, Becky got let go officially silverside. I told her it was a, quote, business layoff.
I saw the email unofficially. Becky thought it was because after that day and Tom Mamie's office, she'd started being insubordinate. He stopped blocking incoming calls on weekends when potential buyers were there, she turned on the Wi-Fi at the sales pavilion and went silver saddles.
Managers confronted her about it. She played dumb.
And I'm sure I made myself look incompetent because suddenly I developed all of these icky problems I just couldn't solve. I felt like I was backed into a corner. I felt like I only had so many options available to me. And so I took what I thought I could or couldn't be directly confrontational. I couldn't call them out. So I started being sneaky about it, Becky brought up the feeling of being stock, of not having other options beyond Silver Saddle 12 times during our conversation.
People with money don't end up in Cow City. They just don't. I mean, this is where dreams go to die. It's not where they're born and it's not where they come true. That's not really to say that there's not good things about Cow City. There are good people out here, but. They're good people out here hanging on because this is the last thing they. Not because they got to choose from a lot of potential.
I think now that this is part of how Silver Saddle got away with it. This is part of how they made so much money.
Not only did they hire aggressive sales agents, not only did they operate in a desolate, overlooked corner of California, and not only were people in California city afraid to talk, but Silver Saddle hired people who couldn't afford to confront them.
I don't know exactly why I reached out to you, except for it's kind of like purging and giving all of this out of me and and admitting that, yeah, I have a hand in this underhanded, shady shit. But I think there's one other reason why Silver Saddle got away with it for so long and I realized it while I was watching one of the many videos of the protest outside the ranch.
This one wasn't really a video, actually. It was a montage of photos set to supermarket music, something your uncle might have made in the early 2000s after coming back from a trip to Cancun. The photos were from after the protest, when everyone gathered under a shade tarp around folding tables, there was a woman lining up towers of red solo cups and rows of bananas. A teenage girl on a folding chair flashing a peace sign. An older man and woman with their arms around each other's shoulders, a son squinty smile and their eyes.
It didn't look like a protest anymore. It looked like a family reunion or a tailgate party. It looked fun. And that's when it hit me. And I felt stupid for not realizing it earlier. These people really love Silver Saddle. It's where they sing Don McClain during Friday night. Karaoke is where the photos on their yearly Christmas cards were taken. It's where their mothers celebrated, turning 80 and their grandson's 10.
So, of course, they're upset the ranch is getting sold.
Of course, they don't feel like the state is helping them by getting rid of it. Like everyone else in the story, they're complicated. Yes, they may have spent tens of thousands of dollars on what was by any measure a bad investment, but maybe they didn't see it that way. Maybe this sense of belonging made it worth it. And in that way, Silver Saddle really wasn't that different from that Mendleson, they became a community for the people who craved one.
They promised a bright future to a young man with a dream. They provided a stable job for a woman who really needed it. It seems like they would be whatever you needed them to be, as long as it served them. On November 6th, just 21 minutes into the court hearing, Judge George will file approved the sale of Silver Saddle Ranch.
Buyer was a guy who once sold medical cannabis in L.A. named Aaron Mamon, he paid two point one million for the ranch and another nine hundred thousand for all the vacant land that surrounded it, which is a lot less than the 56 million silver saddle made when I called Mammone. Afterwards, he cut me off after 37 seconds and he never picked up again. So I don't know exactly what his plans are for Silver Saddle, and I still don't know how the state's lawsuit against the company will end or exactly how much money people will get back, if any.
But selling Silver Saddle Ranch feels like the end of an era. For the first time in more than 30 years, this little oasis in the desert is no longer a tool to sell thousands of unsuspecting people a deceptive dream. This episode of California City was written and reported by me, Emily Guerin editing by Mike Kessler, mixing and production by Valentino Rivera, original music by Andrew Ebon. The Jane and Ron Olson Center for Investigative Reporting helped make California city possible.
Ron Olson is an honorary trustee for Southern California Public Radio, and the Olsson's do not have any editorial input on the stories we cover. California City is a production of L.A. 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.
The Cowboys. Good morning.
I brought L.A. wherever I travel to around the world as a journalist, and now I'm back home.
And I said, look, look, those cowboys, there are black cowboys.
I taught them how to do everything he knows. Can you imagine, like, being exercised from your home when you're a baby and then all of a sudden you just get released into the world?
Kobe's Kobe, Kobe, Kobe. Kobe made people feel as confident as he was. How do you dress? He's like, you know, like a casual gangster.
No, I'm Walter Thompson. Hernandez. The show is about trying to understand what it means for me to call L.A. my home from Alere Studios. This is California Love. Listen, wherever you get your podcast.