What it took to investigate a suspicious town in the Mojave Desert

The creator of the 2020 podcast California City reflects on how she exposed deceptive desert land sales — from the outside.

 

In June 2018, I was sitting at the top of a small, crumbling butte just after sunrise, looking out at the maze of abandoned roads that crisscross the small Mojave Desert town of California City. I was there to dig into rumors I’d heard that, for decades, salespeople here had been using deception and high-pressure sales tactics to sell land. That morning, on that butte, I asked a local woman to tell me what she knew.

She had suspected that something sketchy was going on at Silver Saddle Ranch & Club, a kitschy, rundown dude ranch on the outskirts of town — think taxidermy jackalopes and knock-off wagon wheels. The owner appeared to be using the place as a tool to sell “near-worthless desert land,” as state investigators later put it, at exorbitant prices.

But back then, on the butte, I was still learning the basics of how Silver Saddle worked. When I asked the woman what she knew, she looked around, and, in a whisper, asked to go off the record. She didn’t want to be seen as the kind of person who would gossip to a reporter about a local business. 

“You get to go back to LA,” she told me. “But I have to live here.” 

Radio journalist Emily Guerin stands in front of a billboard in California City, California. Her reporting helped expose a land profit scheme by Silver Saddle Ranch & Club in the Mojave Desert town.
Courtesy of James Kim/LAist

FOR MOST OF MY CAREER as a journalist, I had been the local reporter, the one who “had to live here.”

Before I moved to Los Angeles in 2016, I reported on the oilfield from Bismarck, North Dakota. I watched as journalists from CNN and the New York Times flew into the state, did interviews and then flew home to write their exposés, while I attended yoga classes with the state’s top oil lobbyist — surprisingly flexible, but a loud breather — and drank wine with lawyers suing the state over oil spills.

Part of me envied the national reporters, but another part resented them for the lack of consequences their coverage had on their own lives. It seemed essential, I thought, to live with the people you reported on. But soon after I moved to LA to work for the local NPR station KPCC, I reported a story in California City, 100 miles north of LA, and stumbled across what was happening at Silver Saddle. 

“You get to go back to LA. But I have to live here.” 

Silver Saddle lured prospective buyers from around California with the promise of a free weekend at the ranch. The buyers were nearly all Filipino, Chinese or Latino, and many spoke English as a second language. After a sales tour and high-pressure sales tactics, the salespeople convinced many to buy land — and the company made tens of millions.

For over 60 years, salespeople had been giving a version of this pitch in California City. The town was founded in the late 1950s by a developer who touted it as the next San Fernando Valley. But the growth never came, and the Federal Trade Commission sued the company for deceptive marketing. It declared bankruptcy in the early 1980s, and a former employee purchased much of the land. Today, most of California City is raw desert, and fewer than 15,000 live there. But until very recently, Silver Saddle still sold a version of the Gold Rush-era settlers’ dream: If you buy land here, you’ll be rich one day. How had it evaded state and federal regulators?

Over the next two years, I tried to find out. Along the way, I had to grapple with my role as the big-city reporter. I interviewed dozens of people who’d bought land from Silver Saddle, and read piles of court documents, deeds, old newspaper articles and ads. But it was surprisingly hard to find locals willing to talk. My early experience on the butte kept happening. I began to worry that I was parachuting in, exposing something the residents preferred to keep quiet.

The characteristics that often create comfortable, tight-knit communities sometimes allow wrongdoing to fester in them.

But the more I talked to people who invested with Silver Saddle, including people who spent their life savings there, the more convinced I became that a knowledgeable outsider had to be the one to expose the company. It felt like almost everyone suspected that what Silver Saddle was doing was wrong, if not illegal. But it was too scary, too political or too far outside their job description to intervene.

I’d been reporting for over a year when the California Department of Financial Protection and Innovation filed a sweeping lawsuit against Silver Saddle, accusing it of fraud and shutting it down. I don’t know know how much impact my reporting had, but I heard my digging may have put Silver Saddle on the state’s radar. The case is now working its way through the civil court system. My podcast, California City, came out this summer, and many people who had bought land over the years thanked me for exposing what they felt was a 60-year long swindle.

I’m still wary of parachuting into small towns. But I realize now that the characteristics that often create comfortable, tight-knit communities sometimes allow wrongdoing to fester in them, to become normal. Sometimes, you need a compassionate outsider to pull back the curtain.

Emily Guerin is a senior reporter and makes podcasts at KPCC in Los Angeles. She is a former High Country News intern. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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