At 13, Jim Mattern was selling punk rock fanzines. At 16, he said he ran a lucrative pornography website. He saw himself as a born entrepreneur, and so, after moving to California in 2008, the desert became his product.
In 2012, he pitched himself as Death Valley Jim and led paying customers on trips to remote archaeological sites, Old West ruins, abandoned mines and natural wonders deep within the national parks of Death Valley and Joshua Tree and the Mojave National Preserve.
He became widely known for his Jeep tours, self-published books and a weekly radio program. In 2016, Newsweek magazine described Mattern the California desert’s “last best hope.”
Death Valley Jim’s mythmakers apparently never realized this expert tour guide never obtained the federal permits required to lead his tours. His downfall came in 2016 when a seemingly cheery young couple hired him to take them on a tour of Death Valley’s petroglyphs.
“They seemed to really like me; we were friends,” Mattern, 41, recalled in a recent interview. “I was shocked to later learn they were undercover officers.”
In November, Mattern pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Fresno to a criminal charge of receiving payment for unpermitted tours within a national park. He was sentenced to one year of unsupervised probation, fined $1,000 and ordered to cease operation of his Death Valley Jim website, according to court documents.
In addition, he was banished from Death Valley National Park, Joshua Tree National Park and Mojave National Preserve for the length of his probation.
But that is not the only the punishment he faces. Mattern said he is keeping an extremely low profile because of a ugly feud with an ex-wife. He now works as a short-haul truck driver because his probation terms prohibit him from leaving the state.
“I’m a ghost, man” said Mattern, who lives near Fresno. “And I prefer to keep it that way.”
Perhaps because of its isolation, the Mojave Desert has long attracted flamboyant characters, including charlatans and hustlers peddling hidden treasure. Scotty’s Castle in Death Valley, for example, is named for Walter Scott, who lured investors into financing bogus gold mines and later occupied the castle, turning himself into a local tourist attraction.
Mattern contends he never deceived any of his customers and doesn’t fall into that category. But that is not the story told by his ex-wife, a self-described wiccan pagan, who publicizes his whereabouts on social media and calls Mattern “a con man, braggart, narcissist, misogynist and worse.”
In a recent interview, Meghan Mattern, 37, said she vowed to make his life miserable after he disclosed he had fallen in love with a 20-year-old woman.
That was the last straw, and it came after Meghan discovered that Mattern had launched a book project that involved photographing nude women in the desert. Beyond that, critics were sounding the alarm that his books and tours invited vandalism of sensitive desert sites by listing their GPS coordinates.
“You know what, Jim?” she said she told him. “That Death Valley Jim act of yours is history. I’m coming after you with seven hells behind my back to tear apart everything you do from now on.”
A few weeks after their divorce was finalized in May 2018, Mattern married the woman half his age. But as he tells it, his ex-wife continues to follow him on social media, tormenting him wherever she can.
“She has no reason to contact me,” he complained.
“But somehow,” he added glumly, “she manages to find me.”
Mattern grew up in Pennsylvania, the precocious son of an Air Force officer.
At 13, he was publishing punk rock fanzines that were sold via mail order and word of mouth. Three years later, he transformed a punk rock website into a porn hub of material he bought from networks of providers. “It started making serious money,” he recalled. “So, I built more of those sites.”
“By 18, I was pulling $10,000 a month,” he said, “which I blew as fast as it was coming in on the best of everything: fancy restaurants with friends, leather sofas, hardwood furniture and $200 sunglasses.”
James Bradley Mattern was 18 and Meghan Elizabeth Russel was 14 when they met on an online chat room. Even before she cast eyes on the stocky man with a goatee and crew cut, the slender, fresh-faced teenager said she felt something confident, smart and inviting in his words.
Those words seemed to reach out of the computer and grab ahold of a girl who had endured what she said was “a very, very rough childhood.”
“I was looking for someone to love me and take care of me,” she recalled. “Jim promised all those things. He said, ‘When you’re old enough, you can live with me.’”
Meghan said she was impressed by Mattern’s claim that he’d sold one of his porn sites for $25,000 and shut down the rest.
Shortly after they married in 2002, however, she learned that he had shut the websites down in 1999, around the time he was charged in Pennsylvania with a count of sex with an underage person.
In an interview, Mattern declined to comment on the matter except to confirm that he was convicted and served 11 months in jail, details that were corroborated by Centre County, Pa., court documents.
In 2008, the couple moved to California, where Mattern became infatuated with the desert spots with alluring names featured in naturalist Bill Mann’s 1998 book, “Guide to 50 Interesting and Mysterious Sites in the Mojave.” Among them: Afton Indian Trail. Birdman Petroglyph. Spooky Canyon. The Rock Igloo.
“As a joke, I started calling him ‘Death Valley Jim,’” his ex-wife said. He ended up adopting it as a handle in a new career as a desert tour guide, radio program celebrity, movie location scout and author of self-published books such as “Secret Places in the Mojave Desert” and “Hidden Joshua Tree.”
Between 2014 and 2016, the “Death Valley Jim Radio Program” aired weekly on AM radio across the desert from Palm Springs to Twenty-nine Palms. It opened with punchy heavy metal rock music and provided desert characters of every stripe with a platform from which to pitch their agendas, businesses and books.
Among them was Joshua Tree National Park Supt. David Smith, who took that position in 2014. “I was on Jim’s show once or twice, and I enjoyed it,” Smith said in an interview. “I found him to be very engaging and knowledgeable about the desert. We talked about hiking, safety and wildlife at a time when we were experiencing a huge upswing in visitation.”
The National Park Service launched its investigation of Mattern in 2016, after Newsweek published its profile of Death Valley Jim.
“There was a lot of concern about archaeological sites,” Smith said. “We’re precluded by law from revealing the locations of such sites to the public on public lands.”
Critics felt Mattern’s ruminations were sophomoric, and he had a tendency to mispronounce names of people and places.
“I had friends who didn’t think Jim was on the up and up,” filmmaker Robert Lundahl said. “Red flags went up in their minds, for example, when he’d say ‘Chemy Wabe tribe’ instead of Chemehuevi tribe.”
Meghan came to believe the critics were right, and she let him know it. “You’re a phony, Jim,” she claims to have told him.
Looking back, Mattern said he has no regrets about his life as Death Valley Jim, the tangible remnants of which include stacks of books and promotional materials that he said are “gathering dust in a storage locker.”
“People have a right to visit the places I took them to on public lands,” he said. “I did a lot of good things. I helped organize cleanup efforts and educational programs, and showed people places they might not have known about.”
He also says he alerted officials about archaeological sites that had been looted.
But he has no intention of stepping foot in Death Valley when his probation expires in October.
“My passion for the desert was quashed,” he said, “not by the National Park Service, but by my ex-wife, who won’t stop slamming me on the internet.”
To hear her tell it, “Jim is no oracle of the desert. Never was.”