The trail for decades has been a shortcut used by hikers and equestrians traveling between the wealthy ranches of Hidden Valley and the miles of dirt paths that traverse the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
In recent years, however, it has become a battleground between neighbors in an escalating spat pitting public access against private property rights.
It has given rise to fences and “No Trespassing” signs, lawsuits and even a state investigation into claims that a deer carcass was dragged onto the Los Robles trail system to lure mountain lions — and in turn to scare off hikers and horseback riders.
Ugly fights over public use of trails that cross into private property are nothing new in the affluent communities on the far western edge of the San Fernando Valley.
“But the dead deer on the trail makes this case bizarre, to put it mildly,” said David Szymanski, superintendent of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
At the heart of this fight is a trail that cuts through the community of Lake Sherwood — a gated development that has been home to celebrities including Sylvester Stallone and hockey great Wayne Gretzky.
David Margulies, 52, a Hidden Valley resident, said he was on horseback in late 2016 when a man warned him that the path was the private property of Sherwood Development Co., a real estate company owned by the billionaire chief executive of Dole Food Co., 95-year-old David Murdock.
According to Margulies, the man said he had no right to be there.
Soon after that encounter, Margulies was the subject of an illegal grading complaint filed with Ventura County related to trail work on paths on his property linking to those on Sherwood Development property.
In April, Margulies filed a lawsuit in Ventura County Superior Court against Sherwood Development, alleging the company has been discouraging public use of the trail as part of an effort to “expedite the development process” and increase the exclusivity and value of the properties it seeks along the hillsides.
The trail is visible in aerial photos taken in 1947 — nearly four decades before the community of Lake Sherwood was developed. Given its history, Margulies argues, hikers and horseback riders have what’s known as a prescriptive right to traverse it even though it is on private property.
Attorneys for Sherwood Development said in court documents that the applicable statute of limitations has expired to debate public use of the contested trail.
It seemed like a run-of-the-mill spat over property rights until the dead deer showed up.
While hiking with friends on the morning of Aug. 4, Margulies said he came across a scene that didn't look quite right.
A dead deer lay across the trail — but there were no signs of ants or flies on the carcass. On the ground nearby were discarded rubber gloves and fresh tire tracks. Attached to trees were three motion-activated cameras trained on the scene.
It looked as if someone had left the deer as bait, he thought, perhaps for a mountain lion.
Margulies should know: As the former chairman of the National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative, he is familiar with the way dead prey can be used to lure large predators.
Without permission, Margulies examined the photos from the motion-activated cameras, which appeared perfectly angled to capture any scavengers that preyed on the carcass.
That episode convinced him to amend the lawsuit last week to allege that Sherwood Development had placed the deer on the trail for two possible reasons, both illegal, he said.
Sherwood Development “intentionally and knowingly set the deer at that location to lure mountain lions to my ranch, in order to create danger to me and my family if we used the trails,” the amended lawsuit reads.
Or, he alleges, the company “deliberately acted with the intention to do harm to the local mountain lion population” by poisoning the deer. He questions in the lawsuit whether there is a connection to the death of a 3-year-old adult male mountain lion, known as P-55, found a mile away by National Park Service officials in July.
Attorneys representing Murdock and Sherwood Development declined to comment. Calls to Sherwood Development were not returned.
As Margulies tells it, there is little doubt Sherwood Development put the deer on the trail.
Margulies points to an email he says he received from Jeff Sikich, a federal biologist with the recreation area and an expert on local mountain lion populations, whom he notified soon after discovering the carcass.
“I just spoke with Lake Sherwood and they said they placed the deer in front of their remote cameras on their property” in order to photograph the scavengers it attracted, Sikich said in the email, which was forwarded to The Times.
Sikich declined to comment. As did Kate Kuykendall, acting deputy superintendent of the recreation area.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife is conducting an investigation into the deer’s death. That includes an ongoing necropsy to determine how the animal died, whether it was hauled to the site and if it was poisoned — perhaps with the intent of harming local mountain lions.
That won’t be easy.
“By the time we took control of the deer carcass, it was pretty badly decomposed,” said Patrick Foy, a spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Our laboratory staffers are not confident we will get good data from the necropsy, which will be completed soon.”
In the meantime, a chain link fence and “No trespassing” signs were recently installed along parts of the trail.
Fights over trail use aren’t uncommon where public lands abut private development. But the claims are extraordinary in an enclave offering stars and big spenders a bit of coveted peace and privacy.
The wealthy ranch communities grew out of the postwar building boom more than six decades ago, when developers transformed rustic retreats into a hub for Los Angeles power brokers and celebrities only an hour’s drive from Hollywood: extravagant mansions, 20-acre lots, clubhouses, golf courses, equestrian trails.
Hollywood even helped give Lake Sherwood its name, thanks to a man-made reservoir that served as the backdrop for medieval England’s Sherwood Forest in a “Robin Hood” film in the 1920s.
The lake was open to the public for picnicking and boating until the 1980s, when it was drained.
In 1985, Murdock bought the lake and refilled it, but he never again reopened it to the public. Today, it is part of the 1,600-acre unincorporated community of roughly 1,500 residents.
Murdock’s interests, both personal and professional, extend beyond real estate. Since 1985, he has controlled Dole — one of the world’s largest producers of fruits and vegetables. It’s a business that neatly fits the philosophy of a health and fitness devotee who has said he eagerly awaits a time when scientific breakthroughs allow people to live as long as 150 years.
Opening public trails through the old forests and chaparral highlands of the Santa Monica Mountains has been a goal of outdoors groups including the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy since the late 1960s.
But efforts to guarantee public access to the trails passing through Lake Sherwood — which cut four miles from the trip between Hidden Valley and the recreation area — have proven unsuccessful over the years.
In 1986, when plans for the development were revealed, the conservancy requested that Sherwood allow the construction of trail connections through its property linking the Los Robles trail system on the north and the mountains on the south.
Those connections were supposed to have been dedicated when tract maps for the development were approved by Ventura County from 1990 to 2005, conservancy deputy director Paul Edelman said in a declaration filed on Margulies’ behalf in Ventura County Superior Court.
However, “no precise easements for these public trails were contained in the maps,” Edelman said.
In 2012, trail easements granted by Sherwood for construction of a public trail to the recreation area were rejected by the conservancy, Edelman said, because they cut across terrain so rugged it could not be connected to the popular Backbone and Los Robles trail systems.
Sherwood recently offered to move the easement into more favorable terrain, but “only to the extent that such changes would not adversely affect any of its lots, infrastructure or occupant privacy,” Edelman said.