Malibu Will Not Soon Forget Its Favorite Hermit

Times Staff Writer

It’s a simple memorial, really--about a dozen bundles of flowers and sympathy cards in a parking place behind a gas station.

Hanging from one branch of a nearby oleander bush is a cork plaque bearing a newspaper photo of an old man and the name, “Malibu Joe.”

“Malibu’s devastated,” G. G. Gundry, a local resident, said Tuesday.

She was referring to the apparent slaying of a 96-year-old hermit known as Malibu Joe who had lived outdoors in the area for more than 30 years.


Joe, who gave his last name as Castello or Costello, died Sept. 4, six days after he was beaten and robbed at the site of the memorial, his last home. Regaining consciousness before dying, he told investigators he couldn’t remember who had assaulted him.

But angry and saddened neighbors are determined that his gritty, go-it-alone saga should not be forgotten, even after the flowers at his last home have died.

A local newspaper, the Malibu Surfside News, has collected more than $1,400 toward the installation of a bench and permanent plaque in his honor.

“If he’d died of old age people would be sad but not as upset as they are now,” Gundry said. “When someone is murdered like that, it makes you realize the world is changing.”

For many, publisher Anne Soble said, Joe symbolized “the rugged individual as well as the individual thumbing his nose at the material ostentatiousness of society. . . . We hope that the bench will ensure that Joe’s story is passed down as oral history.”

The donors have ranged from actress Ali MacGraw to Steve Soboroff, owner of the shopping center where Joe lived.


“When we bought it a year ago, we found this guy living on the property,” Soboroff said. “Our instincts were to tell him to take a hike. But we let him stay when we found out that he was a real part of the community scene.”

Wouldn’t Take Handouts

Joe was famous in part for his refusal to accept handouts. Local realtor Louis Busch once remarked that if Malibu ever incorporated as a city, Joe should be mayor because “nobody can get to him--if you try to give him even a dollar, he gets very upset.”

However, Joe occasionally would accept items left at his spot, near the corner of Pacific Coast Highway and Cross Creek Road.

Born in Italy, he spoke little English, and seemed to prefer to talk to youngsters more than adults. For years, he was a faithful fan of local Little League teams.

In a Times interview in 1983, Joe said he had come to the United States from Genoa, in 1913, after being discharged from the Italian army.

“I landed in New York when I was 21,” he said. He moved west and spent his working life as a field hand, mostly in Central and Southern California.


“I never stayed long in one place,” he said, adding that he had never married.

Around 1956, he came to Malibu for “the beach, the sunshine.”

For years, Joe was a familiar figure bicycling just fast enough to remain upright, his trademark fedora in place and black coat flapping in the breeze. In recent years, he entertained himself with such less-exhausting pursuits as watching people standing impatiently in the long lines at a nearby motion picture theater.

A couple of years ago, Times columnist Al Martinez asked Joe where he went when it rained.

Martinez wrote: “He looked at me as if it were the dumbest damned question he’d ever heard and said irritably and with surprising clarity, ‘Where it isn’t raining.’ ”

Joe was found beaten and semiconscious in his chair near the oleander bush on Aug. 29 and died at County-USC Medical Center. No suspects have been arrested.

“One man came in to the shop the other day and asked where Joe was,” said Phil Campanella, a local florist. “When we told him, he broke down and started crying. He’s a transient, too, and he said that often when he got scared, he would go see Joe and Joe would make him feel better.”

No next of kin have been found.

“He said he once had sisters and brothers in Italy but that he feared they were all dead,” said Campanella, who speaks Italian and often served as a translator for Joe. “I don’t think he had any family here.”

Gene Kent, assistant county public administrator, said that no one has come forward to claim Joe’s body, which is in the possession of the coroner. Kent’s office is checking rumors that Joe had a bank account locally.


Kent added that his office had received inquiries from residents who wish to pay for a private burial for Joe and added that, in the absence of next of kin, such requests can be granted.

In an interview with the Surfside News near the oleander bush a few months ago, Joe said that he didn’t fear death because he believed in an afterlife. Asked where he wanted to spend that afterlife, he smiled and spoke very quickly in Italian.

His friend, Campanella, translated: “He says he’d like to come back right here.”