Caretaker Didn’t Have Church Permission for Big Gathering

Times Staff Writers

The caretaker of a mountain campsite buried in a Christmas Day mudslide in the San Bernardino Mountains was not authorized to hold any large gatherings at the facility, where 12 people -- including several children -- perished, a church official said Sunday.

The disclosure came as search crews recovered five more bodies, including those of a boy and a girl, and authorities stepped up warnings that an approaching storm could trigger more flash floods and mudslides this week across a 30-mile stretch of fire-scorched mountains from Devore to east of San Bernardino.

Father John Bakas, dean of St. Sophia Cathedral of Los Angeles, said Jorge Monzon, who had lived at the camp with his family since 1997, knew he was not allowed to throw parties at the year-round retreat.


“He only had a little apartment there with a living room, two bedrooms and a kitchen,” Bakas said. “There was never any authority to bring in the numbers who were there.... He knew anytime we had any groups up there they had to be supervised.”

The bodies of Monzon, 41, and his wife, Clara, 40, were found Sunday, according to the San Bernardino County coroner’s office. Monzon’s daughters, Wendy, 17, and Raquel, 9, had been reported dead earlier by authorities; his baby son is listed as missing.

Search crews so far have recovered 12 bodies of the 14 people reported missing. One of those still missing is an 8-month-old boy, authorities said.

The ban on unauthorized gatherings, Bakas said, was part of a long-standing church policy governing use of the St. Sophia Camp and Retreat in Waterman Canyon.

Officials said 23 people gathered for a celebration at Monzon’s home at the camp on Christmas Day. Of those, at least 12 were killed after a flash flood sent mud, boulders and logs from the surrounding hillsides cascading onto the 26-acre campground, tearing Monzon’s home off its foundation.

Bakas said he was unaware of Monzon holding other parties at the retreat, which the Greek Orthodox cathedral has operated for more than four decades. Monzon had been a model employee, he said.

Bakas was at a loss for an explanation when asked why his caretaker had broken church rules. “I have no idea. I wish I knew. These are the mysteries,” he said.

Meanwhile, dozens of searchers using dogs and earth-moving equipment continued Sunday to dig and sift through mud, boulders and tangles of tree limbs in the canyon.

About a mile below the camp, search crews picked through “strainer areas” for bodies that could have become tangled against dams of uprooted trees, rocks, brush and other debris.

About 20 family members of victims were taken to the camp in a bus to see the destruction firsthand. The group held a brief prayer service inside the vehicle.

Down the mountain, about 600 members of Iglesia de Dios de la Profecia, where 10 of the dead and missing were congregants, gathered for an emotional two-hour prayer service at their modest San Bernardino church housed in a former grocery store.

Pastor Emilio Ruedas described his Spanish-speaking congregation as a united family, one that has been gripped by the tragedy of the past days, but that is resolved to remain strong.

“It’s been a difficult weekend. We didn’t plan it this way,” he told those assembled Sunday afternoon.

He only indirectly spoke of the victims and the tragedy that had brought them together in prayer Sunday afternoon.

“Many of us are asking, ‘Why is this going on? When will this all be explained to us?’ ” Ruedas said. “I do not know the answers.... But we must pray that God will show himself.”

During their song, many wept. Some families embraced. Several of the victims’ families were in attendance, but Ruedas asked them to stay seated “because we know you are tired.”

The other victims who have been identified by the San Bernardino County coroner’s officials are Rosa Najera-Juarez, 40, and Ramon Meza, 30, both of San Bernardino; and Pablo Navarro, 11, and Ivan Navarro, 13, both of Fontana.

Another storm is expected to drop up to 6 inches of rain by Tuesday, and authorities are anticipating more slides in areas burned bare of shrubbery, trees and vegetation from the wildfires that devastated San Bernardino County in October.

Two people were killed in a second mudslide last week at the KOA campground in Devore, seven miles west of Waterman Canyon.

“We’re concerned that people be prepared when the storms roll in. We don’t know where the floods will hit, but it’s very likely we’ll have some more serious flooding,” said Tracey Martinez, a spokeswoman for the San Bernardino County Fire Department.

A light rain is expected to start falling Monday evening in the San Bernardino Mountains, but by Tuesday heavy downpours are predicted, which could cause flash flooding, said a meteorologist for the National Weather Service.

“In the worst-case scenario, up to 6 inches of rain could fall Tuesday on some of the slopes,” meteorologist Philip Gonsalves said.

“If they do get that amount, it’s almost certain there will be flash flooding.”

On Sunday, county authorities blamed the devastation at St. Sophia Camp and Retreat on a deadly flash flood, which triggered the mudslides of trees and rocks the size of refrigerators.

The rush of mud and water carried many of the victims several miles, said Chip Patterson, a spokesman for the San Bernardino County Fire Department.

“A mudslide would be much more localized,” he said. “This was a flash flood of immense proportions, with the power to move boulders like they were grains of sand.”

Officials said the flash flood hit the St. Sophia camp like an explosive punch, knocking out the cabin that housed many of the missing.

The mudslide mangled a yard of playground equipment nearby, where children had been playing moments before heavy rains forced them to go inside.

Roger Saindon of the San Bernardino County Fire Department said the deluge was so powerful and yet so narrow that land on either side of demolished camp buildings could have provided a safe haven.

Many of the survivors scrambled to bungalows about 15 feet from the demolished building and climbed up a hill, where they were met by rescuers, Saindon said.

The mudslide destroyed a campsite that had become something more than a home and workplace to Jorge Monzon.

Church officials said the Guatemala native looked after the picturesque grounds as if they were his own. He planted most of the flowers on the property, and raised his family in a wing of the camp’s main building, a converted motel.

After growing tired of city life in the San Fernando Valley, he was happy to bring up his children in the camp’s rural setting.

When summertime came and young campers arrived, Monzon worried for their safety. He fretted about the snakes and bears that sometimes wandered in from the woods.

“He got a dog that would bark at the bears to alert us,” said Father Bakas. “It became a joke. He would talk about baptizing the bears Christian so they wouldn’t bite anybody.”

Though much of his life revolved around the Greek Orthodox camp, Monzon was a devoted evangelical Christian.

From 1994 to 1999, he attended Iglesia de Dios de la Profecia in Van Nuys, a small church on Van Nuys Boulevard. He later joined its sister church in San Bernardino.

The pastor of the Van Nuys church, Miguel Garcia, said Monzon and his wife immediately made an impression on the congregation, with Monzon becoming a co-pastor within a year of joining. Jovania Garcia, the pastor’s wife, said Jorge and Clara Monzon were model church members.

“He was, as we say here, very straight, in all his actions and behavior,” she said. “Theirs was a model matrimony. They were beloved.”

St. Sophia Cathedral has established a fund to help victims. Tax-deductible donations may be sent to the cathedral at 1324 S. Normandie Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90006. Checks should be made out to the cathedral, with “Mudslide Victims Fund” written on the information line.

Times staff writers Richard Fausset, Daniel Hernandez, Michael Krikorian, Claire Luna and Richard Marosi contributed to this report.