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Fear Comes to Town After Man Disappears : Mystery: Rancher Larry Kuhn, known in Three Points for his generosity, vanished in September on the day he was to leave on a gambling trip. His car later was found in the East Valley.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Larry Kuhn, for 40 years a rancher in this isolated mountain town, loved to wash down a good day’s work with a few beers and tell war stories about his days in the Navy.

But these days Kuhn’s favorite bar stool sits empty, and people in this community about 20 miles east of Gorman spend much of their time talking about what could have happened to him. The 83-year-old rancher hasn’t been seen since Sept. 26, the Sunday he was supposed to leave for a two-day gambling trip to Laughlin.

His disappearance has spooked this community of 150 people, prompting some to fret about big city problems invading a place that is little more than a dot on the map.

“I never locked our doors before this happened,” said Suzie Gardner, standing up to smoke a cigarette after a hearty breakfast at Nancy’s Up The Road Cafe, the only business in Three Points. “These days, we’re all locking our doors.”

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Her husband Ralph, wearing a cowboy hat and boots, chimed in, “I don’t care if they (police) stop me, I’ve started carrying a side arm since that happened.” Cafe owner Nancy Green, a round-faced woman with bright blue eyes, said she too had purchased a pistol.

Affectionately dubbed the “Commander” because it was his naval ranking, Kuhn was reported missing Sept. 29 when he failed to return from Laughlin.

Detectives Lynn Reeder and Woodrow West, who are investigating Kuhn’s disappearance for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, talk about the case too. “We think he’s dead,” Reeder said. “We think his body is buried somewhere out in the desert.”

And he doesn’t hold much hope of finding a body. “Even the quake didn’t make him rise to the surface,” Reeder said.

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The last slaying anyone can remember anywhere near these parts was almost 11 years ago, when a 16-year-old inmate escaped from a county probation camp and killed a local rancher in Lake Hughes, a town about 10 miles to the east. But that was different, folks say. The culprit was an outsider.

The culprit here, if there is one, could be local. “We had a murder here,” said Merlin Pinnell, who helps run Nancy’s, to no one in particular one afternoon. “Could have been one of our own. Hmmm.”

Larry Kuhn was a popular man in Three Points, a generous man who often picked up hitchhikers and lent a hand to folks down on their luck. “He was the kind of guy that, even though he didn’t know you, he’d give you something to do,” said a former employee. Even if Kuhn really didn’t need any work done on the ranch, friends and family say, he would hire someone anyway just to give them a job.

But in January, 1993, Kuhn really needed help and took out a newspaper ad asking for caretakers to run the ranch, which became too much of a chore after his wife of 54 years, Fran, became ill.

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He hired James and Linda Keck, a married couple who had moved to California from Kentucky. Nearly a year later, sheriff’s deputies would announce that they had arrested the Kecks on suspicion of murder in the old man’s disappearance. The pair was released Dec. 4 and the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office declined to file any charges, citing lack of evidence, not to mention the lack of a body. Reeder considers the case open and says the Kecks remain suspects.

Before their arrest, the Kecks were a barely noticeable addition to Three Points, located a few miles below the southern edge of Kern County, in the mountains overlooking the Antelope Valley.

The couple were described by local residents as quiet people who never engaged in small talk and kept to themselves. They rarely visited the cafe, and Jeff Jones, Kuhn’s hired hand, said they showed no interest in establishing a friendship with him or neighbors. In fact, Jones recalls, Linda Keck, who is 25 years younger than her 71-year-old spouse, hardly ever left the ranch and spent most of her time inside Kuhn’s house.

Relatives and investigators say James Keck is a slightly built man who suffered from Parkinson’s disease, which caused his hands to shake uncontrollably at times.

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“He’s weak and doesn’t walk very well,” said Laurie Keck, his daughter-in-law, of Barstow. “He’s had heart attacks in the past, and sometimes his hands shake so badly he can hardly hold silverware.”

His wife Linda is a wide-shouldered woman who, despite her California upbringing, spoke with a thick Southern accent.

But there was another side to them that people in Three Points didn’t see, according to investigators and family.

“He spoke to me of loving to play craps,” said Laurie Keck. “I also know that he went to Atlantic City several times and she said that they both loved to gamble.” Dixie Clifton, of Erlanger, Ky., where the Kecks lived for about two years, remembers several trips the couple took to Atlantic City.

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And like most gamblers, the couple often asked relatives for loans, said Laurie Keck. The couple borrowed money from relatives on several occasions--including Laurie Keck’s family--and she told investigators that Kuhn had loaned them money at least twice.

The couple had worked for Kuhn a few months when Kuhn placed his wife in a convalescent home in late May. Shortly after her death on June 23, say friends and authorities, his life began to unravel with small, seemingly insignificant things that grew bigger with each incident.

As Nancy Green tells it, Kuhn walked into her cafe one sunny morning last summer confused and angry.

“Nancy, what do you see?” Kuhn said as he opened his wallet.

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“Nothing, Commander,” Green said.

“That’s right, and I had a whole bunch of money in there earlier today,” he told her.

First, relatively small amounts of money were missing, and when Green and others at the cafe tried to warn Kuhn about befriending strangers and picking up hitchhikers, he shrugged off their concerns, saying, “Oh, you worry too much,” Green recalled.

Kuhn was mentally alert and maintained immaculate business records, said Reeder. For instance, Kuhn took and filed meticulous notes about conversations he had with auto mechanics. John Kuhn of Prescott, Ariz., said his father had been like that all his life, a habit developed from a regimented and well-ordered military career that began when he was graduated from the Naval Academy in 1933.

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In spite of his penchant for order, investigators cannot find any of Kuhn’s financial records dating from July until his disappearance, Reeder said.

Over the course of last summer, strange things seemed to happen that would separate Kuhn from his cash. On one occasion, Jones remembers Kuhn finding his wallet up in a tree in the front yard. It was empty.

On another, Kuhn pulled out what he believed was a $20 bill at Nancy’s only to find that it was a $1 bill with the ends of a $20 bill taped on the corners. He showed the bill to everyone there.

Detectives said another distinct departure from Kuhn’s traditional way of doing things was a postdated check for $3,000 made out to the Kecks--a loan the Kecks claim that Kuhn made to them to help them purchase a new truck.

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Relatives called such a check out of character. “My father never postdated a check in his life, and when me or my brother borrowed money from him, he made us sign a contract and pay interest,” John Kuhn said.

Kuhn never publicly confronted the Kecks about the losses, but once walked into a crowded Nancy’s and accused Jones, the hired hand, of stealing his money. Jones denied it. And then three weeks before his disappearance, his son says, Kuhn canceled all of his credit and bank cards and had new cards issued.

After Kuhn disappeared, investigators discovered that about $8,000 in automatic teller withdrawals and questionable checks had been drawn against Kuhn’s account, leaving him with a negative balance of about $900 by late September, the month he vanished.

Reeder soon launched a search at the Kuhn ranch, but the dogs and deputies turned up nothing. A few weeks later investigators found Kuhn’s car, a 1987 Pontiac Bonneville, abandoned in the east San Fernando Valley.

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After the Kecks were arrested and released, they left Three Points in mid-December. The last anyone heard from them was a phone call received by Laurie’s husband, John Keck, placed from Las Vegas a few days before Christmas. They needed money, he said, because their trailer had been destroyed in a traffic accident.

John Keck refused and hung up.

*

Life’s just not the same in Three Points these days. People sadly reminisce about the Commander, and the rustic decor at Nancy’s includes a poster asking for information on his whereabouts.

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Life has certainly changed for Jones, who was interviewed by deputies and is not considered a suspect in Kuhn’s disappearance. Even so, he was eighty-sixed from Nancy’s some time ago, a cruel fate in Three Points, and now claims he’s been blacklisted and is having trouble finding work.

So Jones spends time in the Quonset hut at the Kuhn ranch and says he has one friend who lives nearby. Green says Jones is not welcome at her cafe because of his behavior, but Jones says simply, “She never did like me.”

So why not leave? “I like it here,” said the 42-year-old ranch hand. “And I really have no place to go.”

For Ken and Connie Stanley, residents of Three Points for 33 years, and neighbor Dave Rozum, Kuhn’s eerie disappearance is a dramatic shift from the days in the 1960s when the Kuhns operated a summer 4-H camp at the ranch, which was then a sprawling 200 acres.

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“You just don’t expect it out here,” said Connie Stanley. “I don’t feel as safe as I did when we first moved here.”

“Is there really any likely place?” asked her husband, Ken, referring to the random nature of crime.

Sheriff’s Deputy Gerald Newbold, whose patrol area from the Gorman substation includes Three Points, also has noticed the change in the community.

“I know that they’re spooked--almost like a superstitious kind of spooking,” he said.

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Most of all, people here just want the investigation to end, however it turns out.

“Everybody wants it to go away because it’s driving people crazy,” said Green, the cafe owner. “People here are looking at each other going ‘Hmmmmmmmmm.’ ”

In the meantime, the folks at Nancy’s still hoist a beer in the air and raise a toast to Kuhn, one of their own.

“I’d like to think that he’s in Panama sitting on the beach sipping a mai tai and laughing it up,” said Pauline Metcalfe, 63, as she sipped down a 10-ounce beer.

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“I don’t think that’s where he is, but I hope that’s where he is.”


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