One Remote Spot in San Diego County Wilderness Saw Two OC Men Meet the Same Tragic Fate
Leonard Duguay's 84th 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 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 to this day. The trail begins at the end of a paved road and leads to a site so remote it isn't 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, then left for their son's La Quinta home on Mother's Day 2015, but 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. His Honda Accord was discovered on July 31 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.
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Investigators are still trying to unravel the mystery of how they managed to get here. In each instance, Knutson and Duguay left Highway 79 to enter a winding two-lane asphalt road leading to the reservation. The asphalt finishes at the reservation's campground and continues for 8 miles as a dirt road that narrows to a hiking trail in spots. The dirt road is graded and passable at its beginning, but it 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.
Duguay and Knutson somehow plowed their compact cars through a road used by off-road and four-wheel-drive vehicles. Both incidents ended within 200 feet of each other. In another strange twist, each car was stuck near a massive boulder, which marks the end of the trail. A wooden sign with the boulder's ominous name, Turning Rock, etched on it is staked at the base of the promontory.
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; 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. Besides, authorities said, it's unlikely 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. 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 the men were able to drive their cars through ruts, holes and ravines and over rocks when it was obvious the craggy road 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 3,000 feet to 4,200 feet.
Off-roading is sporadic, and weeks can go by before hikers pass through the area. There is no cell service, and even 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.
"You don't expect this to happen in the first place," says Los Coyotes Police Department Chief Raymond S. Allen. "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."
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The mysterious boulder
Bedwell told rescuers it was stubbornness that prevented her husband from turning around. The two, married 27 years, were on their way to dinner at their son's desert home and had with them a bag of oranges, a pie and no water. Authorities launched a massive search when they failed to arrive, but the couple wasn't 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, 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 article were unsuccessful. But in an October 2015 appearance on the TV tabloid show Inside Edition, she said she 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 that she drank her own urine to survive.
"It should've been a clue" for Knutson that he was in trouble when he left the paved road, says 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, [it wasn't] until they got stuck [that] 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, says Bedwell asked if her husband was alive. "We didn't answer her. We didn't want to be the ones to tell her," he says.
He and his partner headed to the reservation for help while others stayed behind with Bedwell. Hartzler says they made several unsuccessful attempts along the way to dial 911 on a cellphone. "We couldn't pick up a signal. We didn't see anybody until we hit the pavement [by the campground]," he recalled. "It was one of the police officers getting out of his vehicle."
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 to maneuver a four-wheel-drive police SUV down there to get Bedwell. Six men had to carry her up the treacherous slope on a stretcher. She was evacuated via the back seat of a police SUV. It was a slow, torturous ride to the campground.
The officer driving the SUV tried unsuccessfully several times to call emergency medical personnel using the police radio. Upon arriving at the campground, he was finally able to reach 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," says Hartzler.
The couple had written a note and placed it on the dashboard in case they died before rescue came. Hartzler says 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 says. "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.
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Duguay’s Modjeska Canyon home
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. The 6,535-foot-high summit and the surrounding mountains can create their own weather. During the summer, nighttime temperatures can drop into the 40s and 50s 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. Despite being in his 80s, the French Canadian was in incredible 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 also 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 and still followed the sport. He liked music in general, Celine Dion in particular. In his car, he had Elton John and Eagles CDs, as well as several hand tools and water bottles.
If anything could defeat him, it was the dementia that was slowly wearing him down, says his daughter Ghislaine Joiner, of San Clemente. The signs of Duguay's memory loss had become more obvious in the past two years. Joiner says sometimes he asked the same question over and over.
David Boris, a friend and canyon resident, says 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, says Joiner's husband, Steve. Duguay used Saddleback Mountain as a navigation aid. Steve believes his father-in-law may have relied on a mountain—perhaps Hot Springs Mountain—in the San Diego County back country 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," says 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," says 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 says Duguay had at times called him from Mission Viejo, Dana Point and the 57 freeway. "He would get in his car and get lost. He just couldn't remember where he was at," he says. "He needed to be taken to the doctor, but he fought everybody on that."
Ghislaine agreed, noting 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 says. 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 says 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 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, says he helped Duguay and his son build their home and built another 13 homes with him, most of them in the canyon. "Leonard's house stood out," he says. He was in awe of Duguay's skill as a craftsman, especially his ability to "estimate cuts on great big beams."
He says Modjeska Canyon residents were rocked by Duguay's disappearance. Some of them printed missing posters and passed them out. "When everybody found out that he was gone, people went out and looked for him," Boris says. "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," he added. "I checked a couple of days and stopped at every point along the road. I couldn't find him. . . . 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."
Gloria Ranck dated Duguay for nine years after his wife died. Ranck, 79, 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," the Fullerton resident says. "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 gotten 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 says 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 says.
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 says. "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 says 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," he says. "I wondered if he got into a bad area and somebody got a hold 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," says Steve.
Though Duguay remains missing, the couple say they were relieved when his 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, says Ghislaine.
"Our biggest fear was that somebody had taken advantage of him, hurt him or something," says Steve. "To know that he drove out somewhere and got lost; that's not pleasant, but it's better than the alternative."
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Duguay the fisherman
Courtesy of J.P. Duguay
The Joiners believe it would be fitting for Duguay to meet his fate on the mountain. "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," says Steve.
Knowing Duguay's wilderness and survival skills makes the possibility that he died on the mountain difficult to accept, says Boris. "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 that 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 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.
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