The Shootings that Shook Malibu Creek State Park
When a father of two was shot through his tent in the Southern California park last year, the murder revealed a mysterious trail of previously unpublicized incidents that had happened nearby—and sparked a $90 million lawsuit.
The campground at Malibu Creek State Park, 25 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, can feel like the most peaceful place on earth. Tucked into a canyon halfway between the celebrityvilles of Calabasas (population 24,000) and Malibu (population 13,000), it’s a natural oasis in one of the most crowded regions in America. Every year the state park, part of which used to be owned by 20th Century Fox and was the set of M*A*S*H for more than a decade, hosts 300,000 visitors who come to hike, bike, fish, and camp.
“It doesn’t get any more chill than around here,” says Henry Jenkinson, a 21-year-old construction worker and surfer who’s lived at the Blue Dude Community, a cluster of 13 mobile homes next to the park, since he was 12. “Ten minutes to the beach, ten minutes to do errands over the hill. You can’t beat it.”
When I visited the state park on a warm morning in February, rugged summits poked through the clouds and encased a lush, green canyon floor. Normally, the 63-site campground would have been humming with people on a day like this, but bundles of firewood rested unused next to pits, and the tent platforms had sprouted grass. Other than a red-tailed hawk hovering above, scanning the ground for breakfast, the place was deserted.
I walked the perimeter of the campground, skirting charred trees decimated by last fall’s Woolsey Fire. Eventually I reached site 51, marked by five valley oaks. The Malibu Creek State Park campground had officially been closed since June 22, 2018, when someone shot a father of two through his tent at this site, leaving behind a mystery and a $90 million accusation that the murder never should have happened.
On June 21, 2018, Irvine chemist Tristan Beaudette, 35, packed up his daughters, ages two and four, and drove them to Malibu Creek State Park, where the family planned to camp for a night. They were joined by Beaudette’s brother-in-law, Scott McCurdy, and McCurdy’s two young sons. Beaudette, a passionate backpacker and outdoorsman, had recently quit his job as an associate director for a pharmaceutical company. He and his wife, an ob-gyn named Erica Wu, were about to move to the Bay Area and start new jobs. Wu was finishing her fellowship at the University of California at Irvine and had stayed home that night to study for an exam.
The dry spring had taken a toll on the campground’s grass, and Beaudette pitched his tent on a bare spot directly behind the picnic table at site 51. He was asleep, with his daughters resting next to him, when a bullet struck his head at 4:44 A.M. on June 22. Confusion followed as other campers woke up and realized what had happened.
No one knew who had fired the shot or where it had come from. Los Angeles County Fire Department captain Rick Mullen, Malibu’s then mayor, was among the first emergency responders to arrive at the campground. He pronounced Beaudette dead at the scene. Aerial photos of the site taken later that day show a pair of shoes outside the tent and six chairs set up around the campfire ring.
Wu, who met Beaudette when they were teenagers in Fresno, California, where he graduated high school as valedictorian, later wrote of her husband in an e-mail: “I wish that there was some way for me to convey just how truly good of a person he was, in every sense of the word. He was so passionate about the things that he loved—and nothing brought him more joy than being able to share those things with our girls.”
About 18 hours after Beaudette died, accounts of additional, previously unpublicized shootings in and around the state park started trickling onto the Facebook page of a local news site run by Cece Woods, a 14-year Malibu resident. The first report described a Tesla that had been shot adjacent to the campground on Malibu Canyon Road four days before Beaudette was killed, at around the same time of day. Soon the public would learn that there had been seven shootings and one casualty in less than two years all within roughly the same one-mile radius. Why, some wondered, hadn’t the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) or California State Parks warned the public?
The first shooting happened on November 3, 2016, according to a criminal complaint filed in January. James Rogers, a wildlife biologist, was hiking the 67-mile Backbone Trail when he stopped for the night in Tapia Park, a popular picnic spot within Malibu Creek State Park. Sleeping in a hammock about 200 yards from Malibu Canyon Road, Rogers awoke to a searing pain in his arm around 3 A.M., he told multiple news outlets after Beaudette’s murder. He immediately walked around the site, listening for any sign of another person. He heard nothing. He packed up camp and walked to the hospital, where he was given a rabies shot and antibiotics for a suspected animal bite. It wasn’t until he found metal pellets in his arm a few weeks later that he realized he’d been shot, likely with three-millimeter bird shot from a shotgun. At that time, he reported the shooting to a State Parks employee.
Six days after Rogers’s shooting, someone at the campground fired into a car while a person slept inside, according to a Los Angeles Times story. (No one was injured, and the shooting was reported to law enforcement, though it’s unclear to which agency.)
Two months later, on January 7, 2017, Meliss Tatangelo, 22, and Frank Vargas, 40, were camping at the park in their Honda HR-V. They’d done the same at least a dozen times before, using the preserve as a quick escape from their home in the valley a half-hour away. On that rainy winter night, they parked at site 56, a bit removed from the other campers. Tatangelo says she and Vargas had no idea that two people had been targeted within the prior two months in the same area where they were sleeping.
A tremendous blast woke them up around 5 A.M. Tatangelo recalls hearing “the ringing of metal, almost like a baseball bat being hit on the ground. Then I smelled something burning, which, in retrospect, was the rubber where the slug came through my car.” She and Vargas, startled but groggy, didn’t see anything unusual and went back to sleep. It wasn’t until they drove to a coffee shop in the morning and they heard something rolling around below their bed that they discovered the shotgun slug. Based on the gaping hole in her trunk, Tatangelo estimates the bullet missed her by an inch.
Tatangelo called 911. But because the shooting took place within the state park, the dispatcher told her to call California State Parks instead, she says. State Parks sent a pair of rangers to meet her at the campground, but it took them two hours to arrive, she says. She told them what happened, and they collected the slug—without gloves on, Tatangelo claims—and left. “One guy gave me his business card and said I could look up my case online,” she told me. “But that was it. There was never a follow-up.” State Parks declined to comment on Tatangelo’s account.
Tatangelo’s close call, and the fact that it happened in basically the same place as the first two incidents, was part of a pattern in the eyes of Jim Royal, a lieutenant detective at the nearby Lost Hills/Malibu Sheriff Station. Royal would later claim in a lawsuit alleging retaliation by his department that he “immediately told his supervisors” about the first three shootings and requested permission to warn the public. His supervisors, according to Royal, declined, saying it was a “State Parks problem.”
Five months passed without any more shootings, and then a Porsche was struck in early June 2017. No one was injured, but the shooting was reported to police. Then a BMW carrying two people got hit on July 22—again with no injuries. Nine days later, another shot was reported at the campground.
The shootings then appear to have ceased for almost a year, but according to the January criminal complaint, on June 18, 2018, Ian Kincaid, a Hollywood gaffer who has worked on some of the biggest films of the past 20 years, including Django Unchained and A Few Good Men, was driving his Tesla past the park when a bullet slammed into the car. He didn’t realize his car had been shot until he found the hole later.
Three days later, on the summer solstice, Beaudette drove 70 miles north to the Santa Monica Mountains with his daughters.
In August 2018, two months after Beaudette’s death, Lieutenant Detective Royal told the public at a town-hall meeting that there was still “no confirmed connection” between the various shootings, despite rampant speculation among locals—and Royal himself, according to the lawsuit he would file.
To make matters more complicated, at around the same time as the shootings, from October 2016 to October 2018, a series of burglaries plagued the area. As the break-ins increased, people started wondering whether all the crimes were connected. Some Malibu restaurant owners told their employees to stop driving through Malibu Canyon at night due to the shootings, one manager told me. Blue Dude residents were locking their doors and windows, in spite of the heat.
The burglaries targeted commercial buildings after business hours, like Las Virgenes Water District’s Tapia Reclamation Facility, just south of the state park on Malibu Canyon Road. There, at 2:36 A.M. on September 24, 2018, security cameras captured a masked man entering the property and prying open a door to get inside. He raided the refrigerator, freezer, and cupboards, taking frozen chicken tenders, Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwiches, leftover pizza, ramen noodles, and salad—but leaving a computer. He triggered a security alarm, but more significantly, he was also caught on footage with a rifle slung over his shoulder, an image that created a sudden sense of urgency among law enforcement.
Three more burglaries occurred the following week, including another in which the burglar was recorded on security footage carrying a rifle. The flurry triggered a pair of high-profile manhunts by SWAT teams the first week of October—increasing the scrutiny on investigators when they proved unsuccessful. Then a final burglary occurred early on the morning of October 9, when someone smashed a vending machine at the Agoura Hills/Calabasas Community Center—the fourth location burglarized in three weeks.
During the spate of crimes, a local who lived near the park submitted a tip to law enforcement about an apparently homeless man he’d seen in a field not far from the campground. The man seemed “out of place,” the resident told me. (He asked to remain anonymous because he was trying to collect a $30,000 reward, funded in part by the City of Malibu.) While it’s not uncommon to see transients living in Malibu or Calabasas, rarely do they venture into the park, which is miles away from either city. The fact that he saw this guy “at night in the middle of nowhere with all his stuff” made him think the man was living there.
On the afternoon of October 10, sheriff’s deputies arrested 42-year-old Anthony Rauda, a convicted felon on probation, almost exactly where the resident said he’d seen the man—just west of Liberty Canyon, a short hike from the campground. Rauda was dressed in black and possessed a rifle and two loaded nine-millimeter magazines, according to LASD, which is leading the investigation. Nine government officials stood in front of the media to announce the arrest. Of Rauda’s possible involvement with the shootings, Sheriff Jim McDonnell said, “We can’t say no at this point.”
Residents remained on edge until January 7, when the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office charged Rauda with one count of murder and ten counts of attempted murder from the seven shootings over a period of 20 months. This included one count for each of Beaudette’s daughters. Rauda was also charged in connection with the burglaries. He pleaded not guilty to all charges, a position he reiterated to me in a letter and phone interviews from jail.
Due to a number of factors—including that a shotgun was used in the early shootings and that two deputies involved with Rauda’s capture were later placed under an internal-affairs investigation and transferred to other stations for reasons reportedly related to his case—some locals wondered if Rauda, who remains in jail on $10 million bail, was merely a fall guy: a homeless man hanging around the park at the wrong time. “He just seems like a lost soul who needs some help,” local writer Cece Woods says.
The time line seemed to make sense, however. Rauda, a former Army reservist with firearms and explosives convictions, got out of state prison in late June 2016, after serving two years for felony possession of a loaded black-powder musket. He was a drifter: he’d hiked up and down the East and West Coasts over the past two decades, staying in Salvation Armys and relying on soup kitchens for food, he told me. It’s unclear when, exactly, he landed in Malibu Creek State Park after his release from prison, but he said he hiked its trails often. “I know what I was doing out there,” he told me. “I have no incentive to hurt innocent people.”
On December 21, 2018, Erica Wu filed a $90 million civil lawsuit against the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, California State Park Police, the Department of Parks and Recreation, and the California State Parks and Recreation Commission, alleging that the failure to warn the public about the shootings had caused her husband’s death. He never would have taken his daughters camping there if he’d known, his family claimed. “Tristan… believed that campgrounds were the definition of a sanctuary where people could feel safe and secure,” Wu said in a statement after the crime.
Even after Rauda’s arrest, locals fumed that the two government agencies—LASD and State Parks—had not notified the public about the shootings within the popular outdoor-recreation area. It didn’t help that the sheriff’s station in question, Lost Hills, had been criticized for its handling of past high-profile cases. “There should’ve been, if not a warning, a community press conference,” said one longtime Blue Dude resident, requesting anonymity for fear of retribution. “Or at least they should’ve gone around to the neighborhood and said, ‘Lock your doors, be careful, there’s a prowler on the loose.’”
People also wondered how much the agencies were or weren’t communicating about the shootings. A longtime LASD deputy who knows the dynamic and asked to remain anonymous told me, “In my opinion, you had State Parks trying to keep the park system clean and not reporting things.”
“California State Parks is thankful to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and allied agencies for the arrest of Anthony Rauda,” State Parks spokesperson Gloria Sandoval wrote in an e-mail in response to my question about the relationship between the two agencies. “We will continue to work closely with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.” LASD declined to comment.
Both James Rogers and Meliss Tatangelo grew frustrated with the lack of cooperation they received from law enforcement after their incidents. When Tatangelo heard about Beaudette’s murder, she called LASD to emphasize the similarities between his killing and her shooting, which had happened just a few campsites away. She says it took three months before a detective contacted her, asking to meet at the campground. Their schedules conflicted. “We kind of just lost touch, and I haven’t heard from him since,” Tatangelo told me this spring. “It’s not my job to reach out.” LASD declined to make the detective available for comment.
In February, when I visited Malibu Creek State Park, I asked employees whether they were aware of the shootings or other suspicious incidents before Beaudette’s murder. Most didn’t want to talk, but a young man working at the welcome hut said that rangers had been searching for an unidentified man in the spring of 2018. “They knew that someone was living out back here,” he said, pointing toward the hills above the campground, “but they couldn’t find him.”
Before the murder? I asked to clarify.
“Yeah, before the murder.”
The California Department of Parks and Recreation declined to comment on the accuracy of this statement.
In early June 2019, Royal and another Lost Hills veteran, Sergeant Tui Wright, filed separate lawsuits against LASD, claiming they had attempted to warn the public before Beaudette’s murder and were retaliated against after Wu’s civil suit was filed, an attempt by their department to sully them as potential witnesses, with $90 million at stake. Both were placed under internal-affairs investigations and transferred to different stations. (Both declined comment through their attorneys.)
After Royal’s first attempt to warn the public—17 months prior to Beaudette’s death, according to his lawsuit—the shootings continued. Royal claims he then lobbied Lost Hills captain Josh Thai to issue a public-safety statement. Sometime after the BMW was shot on July 22, 2017, Thai and Royal drove downtown to LASD headquarters and met with Commander Patrick Nelson and Division Chief John Benedict, a 37-year LASD veteran. Again Royal made his case to issue a warning, according to his claim. “The request was denied,” it states. Royal, a then 24-year veteran who was making just over $270,000 in salary and benefits to “protect and serve,” followed his superiors’ orders.
Royal says that after Wu filed her claim, LASD removed his detective title and forced him to commute about 100 miles a day to Santa Clarita—a punitive practice known in law enforcement as “freeway therapy.” Both Royal’s and Wright’s claims name Chief Benedict as a defendant, but only Wright names former Sheriff McDonnell. Benedict retired in March and did not respond to multiple requests for comment. I reached McDonnell by phone the day before the claims were made public. “There’s litigation around this thing, so it wouldn’t be proper for me to comment,” he said.
Two thousand eighteen was an election year for McDonnell, and during the campaign, his underdog opponent, retired LASD lieutenant Alex Villanueva, lambasted McDonnell’s handling of the shootings. Villanueva even held a press conference at Malibu Creek State Park the day after Rauda’s capture, doubling down on his criticism. “We had seven separate shootings that occurred in the general vicinity of this park,” Villanueva said on KBUU radio. “And if you plot those on a map, that should stick out like a sore thumb. But the response that the community received from the sheriff’s department was none. Nothing. No one was alerted. The park wasn’t closed.”
A month after he made those remarks, Villanueva stunned McDonnell at the polls, becoming L.A.’s first Democratic sheriff in 138 years—and making McDonnell the first incumbent in a century to lose.
A preliminary hearing in the criminal case against Rauda was scheduled for later this month but has been postponed until March 2020. Wu’s civil suit can’t proceed until after the criminal case is decided, which might not happen until late 2020 or 2021.
There are some who believe the shooter—or shooters—remains at large. This includes Cece Woods, who published a story in May citing an anonymous State Parks source who said rangers were still “scared” inside the park. A resident who lives near the park told me in February that he still sees helicopters searching the park with floodlights late at night. “You go, Well, maybe they’re not so sure they got him,” said the resident, who asked to remain anonymous. Much of the answer could hinge on whether LASD has a ballistics match between Rauda’s rifle and the murder weapon, a detail the department has yet to make public.
Wu, meanwhile, moved to Northern California after Beaudette’s murder to work as a physician as planned. We spoke off the record for an hour on Valentine’s Day this year, after she’d put her daughters to bed. She was scattered and exhausted and heartbroken, unsure what to think of the investigation or law enforcement’s decision to keep the prior shootings secret. “Everything about this has all been so crazy,” she wrote later in an e-mail.
When I visited Malibu Creek State Park in February, there was no shrine at site 51. There was nothing to suggest that something horrific had happened there, just a couple old pieces of twine hanging on the valley oaks.
The park reopened its campground in May, just in time for Memorial Day weekend, on a first-come, first-served basis. And as they had before the shootings, visitors flocked to secure an overnight sanctuary and a fleeting sense of peace.