Sunday, April 15, 2007

An Eventful Week with a Sad Ending

This is going to be long so be prepared.

The week began with us working in the Kiosk here at the park on Monday. It was a pretty routine day with the normal number of visitors and questions. It was a good day and fun to do something other than pick up litter in the park.

Tuesday I was scheduled to work in the Kiosk at Surf Beach, a day use facility just for surfing located about a mile up the beach. I was scheduled to work from 8 am to 4 pm but I arrived early and had the kiosk open by 7:15. Normally Surf Beach is rather quiet during the week but this Tuesday we had some of the biggest, best surfing waves in several months and I got slammed. I barely sat down all day and sold almost $4,000 worth of passes. That was the most in several weeks. Some initiation.

About 4 pm, as I was just getting ready to close up, I saw a young surfer wearing a wet suit walking up the road from the beach. The kiosk is located at the top of the bluff and the road down to the beach is about 1/4 mile long. He walked over to my kiosk and acted very strange. I asked him if I could help him and he said he was lost. I questioned him a bit and he was very, very confused. He did not know how he got there, where he was, what he was doing there or much of anything else.

I radioed for assistance and soon both on-duty lifeguards, who serve as EMT's, arrived. They could find not figure out what was going on either and soon called the paramedics who arrived with a squad truck and a fire engine. They called for an ambulance and he was finally taken to the hospital. By then it was about 5:30 pm and I was still running the kiosk, selling tickets, talking to dispatch on the radio and with all the responders, including a park ranger.

The young man was about 18 and seemed very nice, just confused. My thought, and that of the lifeguards and medics, was that he was either diabetic, on drugs or he had hurt himself in the heavy surf. I had reports all day of people getting pounded in the huge surf so that was a distinct possibility.

Friday morning I had an opportunity to talk with the ranger who had been there. He told me they finally got to the bottom of it and it turned out to be a combination of bad acid and marijuana. It was certainly more excitement than I needed. I worked over 11 hours that day and I did not finish my close out until almost 6:30.

The reason I had an opportunity to talk with the ranger on Friday is the next part of our week. That morning about 9 am we heard emergency vehicles going past our campsite toward the south end of the campground. I took the cart down there and discovered four Military Police cars, two San Diego County Sheriff's cars, two lifeguard trucks, three Park Ranger's cars and the fire engine and paramedic team from Tuesday. I talked to one of the rangers who told me that a body had been found down on the beach. That was about all we knew at that point. There was no identification on the body.

The rest of Friday was pretty routine. We did some litter pickup and I made a run to the post office. It was during our litter pickup runs and while I was driving through the park on the way to the post office that I noticed Don's van sitting at the group camping area.

Don Wells is a park aid who has been here in the park for almost 20 years. He lives in his beat up old motorhome with his 2 dogs in the camping spot right next to us. Don is a very nice guy, although a little reserved. Don and we are the only campers in the park this time of year, except for one other park aide who lives in his Class B motorhome about a mile north of where we stay. We met Don last year when we first arrived and got to know him pretty well. We talked almost every day and saw each other often. We have traded and loaned each other DVD's, discussed park operations, and occasionally talked a little about our personal lives, although not much. Don is a pretty private person. The only relative we know of is a brother who lives in Hawaii who visited him last year. A few weeks ago Don came over and asked us to look up some information on the internet for him. His brother had offered to help him find work in Hawaii if Don wanted to move there. Unfortunately, because of Hawaiian restrictions, Don would not be able to take his dogs with him without incurring a significant expense so he finally decided it would not work out.

Don's dogs are his children. They go everywhere with him and he never leaves them alone for more than a couple hours at a time. Zulu, the male, is a large, mean looking dog, but who is really friendly once he knows you. Bernadette, the female, is a dalmatian cross and a real sweetie.

Seeing Don's van parked near the group camping area was not that unusual. It was a beat up clunker that he had recently purchased. He had already had a lot of trouble with it so I just figured it had broken down again while he was doing his restroom cleaning rounds. It was still there yesterday, Saturday, when Dianna and I were doing some litter pick up in that part of the park. I didn't think much about it at first, but Dianna was concerned and wanted to check it out. It was empty, but then I started thinking about the last time I had seen Don. It was Thursday afternoon. We then realized that we had not seen him walk his dogs on Friday or Saturday and our anxiety levels really started to rise.

We went up to the kiosk and tried to phone the other park aide who has known Don for about 20 years, to see if he knew where he was. This was about 5 pm Saturday night. Unfortunately we were not able to reach him. We went back to our camp site to check on the dogs and see once again if Don had returned. He was not there and we knew we needed to report this. We had a really bad feeling.

I called dispatch at about 6 pm and asked for the duty ranger to be sent down. It was just shift change so the oncoming senior ranger arrived at about 6:45 pm. He also had known Don for about 20 years so when we told him Don was missing, he too immediately realized something was really wrong. With some trepidation I asked him if they had identified the body found on the beach. He said no, but had the same thought I did. He immediately placed a call to the detective who was handling the case. They had done an autopsy in the morning but still did not have an identification. They said it was a man of about 60 with grey hair and mustache, about 5 foot 9 and 200 pounds. At that point we all knew, but no one wanted to say it.

The detectives met the ranger at the main office so they could get Don's personnel file. They then came here to interview us and search Don's motorhome. The detectives confirmed that the picture on Don's drivers license looked like the man that had been found.

At this point there was still an open question as to whether this was a homicide or suicide. The coroner had not made a determination. While we waited for the animal control officers to arrive to remove the dogs from the motorhome, Dianna and I were interviewed by the homicide detectives. That was a first, and hopefully last, for us. We told them all we could about the circumstances and our impressions of Don's mental state, visitors, activities and anything else relevant we could think of.

Just about the time the interview was completed, about 10 pm, the animal control officer arrived. It was tough getting the dogs out of the motorhome. They were scared and confused. Zulu wanted to defend his home so they had to use the rope on a stick to get control of him. While they were removing him, Bernadette managed to get out as well. I called to her and she came right over to me and hid behind me. We really felt sorry for them.

The detectives entered the motorhome and a few minutes later they found a suicide note. It did not say much, just that he was tired of living and didn't want to deal with it any more.

Everyone who knew him is really shocked. No one saw it coming. We will all miss him. He was a kind man who apparently just decided he did not want to live a lonely life anymore.


  1. I'm so sorry. Suicide is such a tragic, senseless ending. I'm sure you and Dianna will be forever impacted by this. I'm glad you were able to help with the dogs. A small comfort.

  2. Apparently no connection between the young man on drugs, and Don Wells, I assume? Just that they both happened in the eventful week.

    Living through something like this reminds us all of our mortality.

  3. You are correct Daryl. There is no connection between the two events except that I was involved in both of them.

  4. I thought that camping was supposed to be relaxing, easy going, leaving the cares of the real world behind, and just sitting around, enjoying. You sure spoiled that theory.

  5. I think if you are lonely it doesn't matter where you are. Too bad he couldn't have gotten to Hawaii. Having family around fills that void.

  6. Wow, is really all I can say. Sorry you had to go through it. I will pray for his family.

  7. I went to High Scool with Don. He was a kind sweet person. This is tragic.

  8. Don ,or Soot as I knew him was a very funny and kind hearted guy. I do not understand his reasoning for ending his life but he will be in my prayers.

  9. I went to school with Don Wells AKA "SOOT" at Oceanside High. We graduated in 1966. There was about a dozen of us in the same class that hung out daily at "Betty's Cafe" on the south side of the Oceanside Pier, where all of us surfed.

    Soot was a key member of our group, we surfed up and down the coast from Cardiff to Trestles. The surf could be real good, flat, over head, even stormy. Soot would always be up for a surf session.

    Soot also became friends with a few younger guys and the only female surfer around in those days. as was the tradition, we would haze and hassel the gremmies. They most often surfed at Tyson Street a couple of blocks south of the pier. Don would occasionaly join them and treat them with respect.

    We renamed Tyson Street after Don, calling it "Soot's Grove". After the gremmies learned to surf, we welcomed them into our world of what sometimes was called the "Pier Boys" Soot always looked out for those kids and was their mentor and good friend.

    I don't remember who gave Don the nickname of "Soot", I'm pretty sure it was because of the way he would reply to a statement some one would make. Normally one would reply to a less then beliveable statement with "yeah I'm sure" or "get real". Soot would make a sound like a sneeze without the aahh, typically sounding like "sshhuu".

    When we all got out of high school, a lot of us went in different directions. Soot eventually ended up living and surfing in Mexico. He met and fell in love and married a pretty little Mexican girl. they worked and travelled yearly back and forth to California and Mexico, often spending months in Mexico. I think maybe they had a child. After a few years his wife wanted the brass ring life, and Soot wouldn't give up the life style he had chosen. I don't recall if they ever divorced.

    When ever our paths would cross it was as if there was no gap in time, since we last had seen each other.
    Soot was always aimmeable, happy, and interested in what was happing in my life. I gotta tell you I always enveyed Soots "Sparten" life style and his freedom as a Gypsy Surfer.

    I never gave it a thought that Soot might be lonely as he and the dogs were constant companions. Never seeming to need the daily life style that the majority of us have choosen.

    I do belive that one can appear to be happy, and yet keep to our selves that some thing is missing in our life. Never sharing that personal greif with any one.

    I'm sorry Soot choose to leave this life. I will miss him and always remember him. I will also forever feel guilty for not sharing more of my life and time with him, and enjoying his tales of surf and travel.

    Aloha and Mahalo Soot, may your next life be the biggest wave you ever rode. Forever you will be in my memories.

    Ed De Vall

  10. I want to thank you, Don's friends, who have found our site and who have left your own memorial to your long-time friend. After reading your comments I can't help but wonder if he knew how many people loved, admired, and respected him he might have been more willing to share with others what was in his thoughts and heart at the end. It's hard to believe it's been a week - a difficult week - since he left us.  We miss him.

  11. Dick & Shirley SaccoApril 30, 2007 at 1:05 PM

    Richard and Dianna, Thank you so much for letting us know about Don. We just arrived at Humboldt and got the land line up and running. Our hearts went out to Don when we first met him. He was easy to be nice to he had such a quiet and unassuming nature. I am so thankful that during our time at the Bluffs we reached out to him brought him into our circle of friendship. He was always so ready to help us and show us the ropes. I am ever so thankful that I went to say good bye to him and he gave me a big hug and wished us well. He even told us he'd see us next year. My heart is broken. And thank you to Ed De Valle for sharing Don's life with us, it was beautiful. It certainly reminds us that the Lord brings people into our lives to share His love with if only for a moment. I will miss you so much Don. I have a Valentine heart box to always remind me of you and the friend we knew our first year at the Bluffs.