A scenic road winding through mountains, pine forests and pastoral valleys, connecting South County and Lake Elsinore, is a crucial link for commuters, and a weekend thrill ride for motorcyclists, and also a dumping ground used by criminals who wait for the cover of night. It is the stuff of mystery novels, a place where people with secrets push them over steep cliffs or bury them under a thick layer of brush.
The 44-mile Ortega Highway is a twisting two-lane stretch that connects Riverside and Orange counties via the Cleveland National Forest — and it has a killer reputation.
I did a search for waterfalls in Orange County. A few came up, but one in particular caught my eye. Chiquito Falls near Lake Elsinore. For me to get to the falls I would have to drive the infamous Ortega Highway, or Hwy 74. Known for its beautiful views, dangerous curves and haunted history, it didn’t take much more convincing. I was on my way to Chiquito Falls.
Winding through the Santa Ana Mountains and a wilderness park, the highway remains largely undeveloped, with a few shops and cabins scattered along it.
Those who drive the road at night have reported seeing a clown on the side of the road. He’s said to always disappear like a mirage, as you get closer. The clown never did anything malignant, but nevertheless strikes fear into the hearts of those passing by. I know it would me if I happened to see it, but no luck this time.
Hwy 74 has a lot of dark history. It’s eerie driving the 44 miles after reading about everything that has happened over the years. People have found busted-open safes, incriminating evidence, and more bodies than anyone has cared to count.
In the late 1980s when serial killer Randy Kraft walked into the El Cariso Mountain Restaurant and ordered an avocado sandwich and Coke, he complimented the cook and left a $2 tip.
On May 13, 1989, Kraft’s picture was splashed across newspapers, a day after he was convicted of torturing and murdering 16 young men. Kraft’s first suspected victim: Wayne Joseph Dukette, 30, a bartender from Long Beach, whose body was found at the bottom of a ravine off Ortega Highway in 1971.
Patrick Kearney, the “Trash Bag Killer” who terrorized Southern California in the 1970s, stuffed one of his earliest victims in an industrial-sized plastic bag and dumped him along the highway in 1977.
Milepost 16.50, is where William Bonin, the infamous “Freeway Killer,” dumped 14-year-old Glen Norman Barker of Huntington Beach in 1980 after molesting and strangling him. Bonin dumped at least four of his 21 victims along Ortega Highway between 1979 and 1980.
Unlucky call box 74-88 is where Kenneth Stahl and Carolyn Oppy-Stahl were found shot to death in their car in 1999 and a CHP officer was beaten by a pair of motorcyclists two years later.
At milepost 14, is where two men disposed of their headless, handless mother in 2003.
A medium in the area that gives psychic readings online, studied under a yogi in Peru, to learn how to interact with spirits. She later learned she had the gift to interact with the spirits. During an interview about Ortega Highway she had some scary things to say.
“You think that clown on the side of the road is bad – and you’re right; he’s evil, and would kill if he could. But the thing that climbs up that pole every night and looks down on the people who drive by…it’s like a skeleton, only it’s not. It’s more like a moving carcass, but made up of some things that just don’t exist in this world. That one…I do believe that thing would do a great deal more than just kill you. I think it would take your soul.”
I’m sad to say I didn’t see anything unusual during my drive on the highway, but I did see some seriously amazing views of Lake Elsinore and the snow-capped mountains.