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A vortex for trouble 

Intrigue is nothing new to the former Air Force base property now in the spotlight

Salty winds blow steadily off the Pacific, rustling the dried grass and occasionally stirring up dust as they pass over the site of the defunct Cambria Air Force Base, just south of Cambria. The 34-acre Cold War relic maintains an eerie calm, belying the excitement of recent raids by officials from the Air Pollution Control District, allegations of illegal asbestos mismanagement that recently led the county to close the place, and, about a year ago, a raid by the FBI for reasons never made public.

click to enlarge LAND OF OPPORTUNITY? :  This Cambria property--making headlines for asbestos investigations--is no stranger to unusual circumstances. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • LAND OF OPPORTUNITY? : This Cambria property--making headlines for asbestos investigations--is no stranger to unusual circumstances.

# Only property manager Luther Akers has been allowed to stay on the broken hilltop--with his immediate family--and he does so dutifully, pacing the trails that wind around the buildings and keeping watch for the next problem.

Since the late '70s, when the Air Force sold the property to private owners, there's been a procession of idealists and entrepreneurs who have claimed a stake in the property, but so far each has faced stumbling blocks that seem to eclipse their vision. Even as an Air Force base, the post was peculiar--it doesn't even have a landing strip. Still, for any idealist or dreamer with a little capital, the property seems to continue to hold nearly unlimited potential.

Over the years, it's harbored what some locals refer to as a cult--members of the church in question reject the title. Two Hollywood refugees have owned it, and it's played host to unusual businesses--one of which proposed laying fiber-optic cable to China. Another has laid plans for a research facility. In spite of all of the great expectations, however, the site has yielded little productive use since it ceased operating as a secret radar station. As the ideas and owners have come and gone, it's increasingly fallen into disrepair.

The most recent of the land's stewards is Bernd Schaefers, best known for his role as producer of the classic children's film The Never Ending Story, a metaphor that may well serve him again in his current role. Schaefers bought the tainted parcel in 2005 from another Hollywood visionary, George "Buck" Vaile.

Maybe the Hollywood connections are appropriate. The land could easily be the set of a horror flick a la Deliverance or the backdrop for an honest story of hard redemption. For now, however, it's a story in need of an ending. The barracks are boarded up tight with signs nailed over the doors reading "Danger: this structure is unsafe." In all, more than 90,000 square feet of abandoned buildings, ranging from radar sites to dormitories, litter the property.

Schaefers' plans for the land were modest by previous landlords' standards. He hoped to turn it into a community resource center. By July of this year, a group of well-respected board members from all around the county were meeting to discuss plans for the Cambria Vocational Center. That's where Schaefers met Rick Holiday, a self-proclaimed whistle-blower in what's only the latest accusation of illegal asbestos abatement on the property.

Holiday was starting a for-profit youth vocational program on the property, the remnants of which are still scattered outside one of the mint green buildings in the form of equipment and projects. In retrospect, Holiday sees that his deal--$200 a month for a woodshop with an ocean view--was too sweet.

In early August, Holiday got word that workers were scraping the ceiling tiles of barrack 212, where a family was living. On his own authority, Holiday collected a sample of dust from the tiles and sent it to a private lab for asbestos testing. When it came back positive, Holiday said, he alerted the county.

Attorney James McKiernan, who represents Schaefers, provided New Times with a letter to SLO County Department of Planning and Building's Art Trinidade that refutes the illegal asbestos removal allegations. The letter highlights asbestos removal prior to Schaefers' ownership, acts of vandalism on the property, and measures taken to legally remove asbestos. The overall thrust of the letter is to disavow any knowledge of illegal asbestos removal, the suspicion of which predates Schaefers. Holiday isn't the first to allege problems.

Richard Figueroa brought attention to a similar issue when he was still part owner of the property in 2002. Five years later, he remains angry at how the situation turned out, but he still remembers precisely how he found the place.

"I was coming home from Disneyland, and I decided to drive up Highway 1," Figueroa recalled. "I was with my wife and kids, and we saw this sign that said 'Harmony for sale.'"

Figueroa never found Harmony. Instead he found his way to Julin Lane, a snaking 2-mile stretch of cratered asphalt that cuts through shaded cow pastures and finally arrives at the bent chain link fence that sits at the entrance to the base.

"It was about 2:30 in the afternoon and this was in the late fall, 1997," Figueroa said. "We came to this dirt road and the first gate was opened so we went through, and what got me was the road was paved. So we drove up, we got up to the second gate, and the view was just breathtaking."

In 1999, he bought the property and planned to make it the location of a fiber-optic cable landing that would hardwire Cambria to China.

Unfortunately, Figueroa said, communications broke down between him and his business partner, Vaile--an Academy Award winner for his hand in The Matrix. With the business meltdown came a property battle. And Figueroa--living in the house now occupied by by property manager Akers--said he was ordered to stay within a red line painted 10 feet around the perimeter of the house while on the property.

When the dust settled, Figueroa was gone, the property was changing hands yet again, and Akers was living at the base, cleaning up, and trying to stay under the radar.

On March 16 of last year, the fragile peace that held in spite of two separate asbestos abatement citations was abruptly shattered with the early morning arrival of a cadre of federal and local law enforcement officers.

Owen Kelly was living and working on the base, along with three other men, just up the trail from where Akers and his family lived. While no public statement was made--and recent calls went unanswered--as to why at least three dozen armed and armored badges showed up, kicked in doors, and left that morning, the action didn't seem to be about asbestos.

"It was 5:30 in the morning," Kelly said flatly. "I didn't hear anything. I just got up and went to get some coffee and there was this parole officer standing there. He walked me down to one of the police cars and sat me on the hood. I knew I wasn't in trouble, so I just watched all the action."

Kelly said there were 30 to 40 officers involved, and, in addition to sheriff's deputies, some were clearly FBI, but he also believes IRS agents were involved.

Kelly said that agents went directly to Akers' office, and his computer, then his home computer. Swaddled in protective costumes, they turned the base upside down.

"The sheriff had every reason to be out there because there were parolees," Kelly said.

Based on what he saw, he thinks police were out there because of the church, because "they don't believe in man's law."

For at least two years, the church--a branch of Christianity born in the California Men's Colony more than 40 years ago--congregated weekly at the base, and Kelly said they participated in "church work days," cleaning around the property. Recent estimates by King's Way members put the congregation at about 50 people, including women--who wear long sleeves, pants, or skirts that cover most of their skin--and kids. The church's founder, Gary Rice, did not return a phone call, but Akers, a member of the church since the late '80s, dismissed outside claims that the King's Way Church was a cult.

"You can say that about every church in the world," Akers said. "If you go by the definition of what a cult is--it's an open door, anyone can come. The gates are closed because we can't have anyone else on the property."

For his part, Akers said he doesn't know why the Feds raided the base last year.

Regardless, what's mounting now in terms of asbestsos may be the biggest storm yet to hit the base. The EPA has been poking around, and whispers of a civil suit have floated from the lips of individuals who believe they were knowingly exposed to the carcinogenic substance.

Still, for those who have enjoyed the spoils of the property--the 180-degree view, the wildlife, and the unmatched serenity at the top of the hill--the allure is still there.

"I was out there recently, in the area," Figueroa said sheepishly. "And the gate was open, so I had a look."

Staff Writer Kylie Mendonca can be reached at kmendonca@newtimesslo.com.

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