Car Dealer Was Shot to Death, Police Say : Homicides: Investigators search for clues in the slaying of Tony Bridges of Santa Paula, whose body was found in a field.


Tony Bridges, a prominent Santa Paula auto dealer whose body was discovered in a farm field near Oxnard on Thursday, had been shot to death, a Ventura County sheriff's official said Friday.

Bridges, 45, had two small-caliber bullet wounds in his upper chest a few inches apart, Lt. Joe Harwell said after an autopsy was conducted.

Harwell, chief of the sheriff's major crimes unit, said the site where Bridges' nude body was discovered Thursday morning--a cilantro field in the unincorporated community of El Rio--was not where Bridges was killed.

He did not elaborate, except to say that "we're treating it as a homicide."

Investigators do not know the location of the slaying scene, and the weapon has not been recovered, Harwell said.

Sheriff's detectives on Friday were searching for a motive for the slaying.

Kay Wilson-Bolton, a former mayor of Santa Paula who knew Bridges for several years, characterized him as "a reserved person, but friendly, particularly with people he knew."

"He was a very dedicated community activist," said Wilson-Bolton, a Santa Paula realtor, adding that he gave money to the Santa Paula Boys & Girls Club and helped sponsor the city's Fourth of July festival. "He was quiet about the things he did for the community. He didn't need the publicity.

"I never heard anyone say anything bad about him."

Bridges, a Missouri native who moved to Santa Paula as a youth, owned a Chevrolet dealership in Santa Paula for more than two decades.

"He was the best guy I ever worked for," General Manager Gary Gruner said Friday.

Gruner said he knew of no financial problems that his boss might have encountered.

"It's a well-run dealership," he said. The dealership will remain open at the same location and will remain in the Bridges family, he said.

According to court records, Bridges was married three times and had three children, Lisa, 25, Leslie, 21, and Justin, 18.

On Friday, the two older children were in their father's Spanish hacienda-style home on Say Road in Santa Paula, called Villa Pietra, but declined to talk to a reporter.

Sgt. Lance Young, a sheriff's investigator who was at the house, said Bridges lived alone at the residence, which is on a quiet street lined with oak trees.

A neighbor described Bridges as somewhat of a loner.

Bridges was last seen at his dealership on Harvard Boulevard the evening of Dec. 18, according to Harwell.

The following day, his daughter Lisa, who was staying with him during a break from college, filed a missing-person report with the Santa Paula Police Department, according to Police Chief Walter H. Adair.

Adair said in a prepared release that he then asked for investigative help from the sheriff. He said the missing-person report was initially kept private for fear that releasing it "could hamper the investigation."

Bridges' body was dumped in a field near the 200 block of Stroube Street in El Rio, the Sheriff's Department said.

The body, which was in the field two to five days, was found by a farm worker about 50 yards down a dirt access road, Harwell said.

Because so much time had elapsed since the slaying, investigators were not able to examine the area for clues such as tire prints, he said.

Bridges' car, a white 1989 Chevrolet Cavalier with license plate 2NZC441, is still missing, he said.

Dr. Ronald O'Halloran, the assistant medical examiner-coroner for Ventura County, declined to discuss any details of the autopsy.

Under an agreement with sheriff's investigators, he said no further information would be immediately released.

Times staff writer Gary Gorman contributed to this story.

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