Saturday, April 20, 2024

O.C. Q&A: South County Edition

Crime scene: Monarch Bay Plaza (shown in 1966). Note United California Bank on the right.

Q:   What was Orange County’s biggest bank heist?

A:  It was a doozy! Here’s the story as told by local historian and former Dana Point mayor Carlos Olvera: President Richard Nixon once talked labor leader Jimmy Hoffa into paying $3 million for a pardon to get out of prison. Once freed, Hoffa wanted his money back. And he knew Nixon had it in safe deposit boxes at United California Bank at Monarch Bay Plaza – now part of Dana Point. A group of thieves from Ohio was enlisted to rob the bank, get Hoffa’s money back, and help themselves to any other loot. 

The crooks cut through the bank’s roof and vault ceiling on Friday night, March 24, 1972 and spent three nights busting into about 500 safety deposit boxes. They took an estimated $30 million.  Accounting for inflation, it was the largest bank heist in U.S. history.

The burglars were later caught and served time. But Hoffa reportedly got about a third of his money back.

Q:  What's the story on the iconic Taj Majal Building in Laguna Hills?

A:  It began as the headquarters of the Rossmoor Corp. -- developers of the Leisure World communities -- which architects Burke, Kober & Nicholais also designed. When the four-story neoclassical contemporary structure at 23521 Paseo De Valencia was built in 1964, it stood out like a sore thumb amid grassy plains and understated tile roofs. The locals soon dubbed it "the Taj Mahal," and the name stuck.  

In 1968, investment broker Joseph Dulaney bought the building, but lost it when his business unraveled. The FBI determined Dulaney was a con man who'd duped nuns and scores of Leisure World residents. Dulaney disappeared, hopscotching around the globe. He was captured in Curacao, but the case was thrown out for insufficient evidence. The building's current owners have officially renamed it the Taj Mahal Medical Center.

Q:  Grandma’s sure white swallows perched on her head at Mission San Juan Capistrano. White swallows!?!

A:  Capistrano’s famed cliff swallows are usually AWOL, so visitors often misidentify any small birds as the expected swallows. The real cliff swallows have iridescent blue backs and crowns, buff colored bodies, red chins, brown wings, and brown tails that are not forked. Local marketing materials create confusion by often depicting fork-tailed barn swallows – a different species altogether. 

But for decades the Mission contributed to the bird-related confusion by providing guests with bird feed for flocks of white doves (i.e. glorified pigeons). Countless thousands of tourists took proto-selfies with the doves and later marked their snapshots, “Swallows at Capistrano.” Before the Mission stopped selling bird feed, seagulls also horned in on the action. But even the tourists didn’t mistake the squawking, web-footed gulls for swallows.

Q:  How did the city of Rancho Santa Margarita get such a long name?

A:  It wasn't their first choice. It was dubbed "Santa Margarita" during its development in the 1980s, in honor of the old Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores. But the existing town of Santa Margarita (founded 1889) near Atascadero defended their unique identity. The battle ended amicably. 

"We have every right to use the name Santa Margarita," wrote Orange County developer Tony Moiso to a San Luis Obispo County Supervisor, "However, we do recognize the worry you have voiced on behalf of [your local] residents. I have modified our postal application to request a Rancho Santa Margarita mailing address." Today, Santa Margarita's population is less than 1,260 and Rancho Santa Margarita's is 47,949.

No comments: