The Camarillo State Mental Hospital was known by a number of names, both officially and unofficially. Two of the better known monikers were “The Hotel California” and “Hotel Camarillo.” The hospital was built in 1935 and finally opened in 1936, to house the mentally insane and disabled. Sadly, in the earlier years, many took advantage of the lax commitment laws, which also allowed those who suffered physical disabilities, autism, mental retardation, epilepsy, minor depression, premenstrual syndrome, alcoholism, drug addiction, tuberculosis and polio to be committed. Sometimes people used it as a way to have “troublesome” family members or spouses locked away who had no mental problems at all. In one case a non-English speaking man from Mexico, who was actually a millionaire, was committed simply because he could not speak English. His wife in Mexico finally managed to get him released after he had been there for quite some time and unable to communicate with anyone. Even young children were housed here in special living quarters, and one girl was impregnated by a staff member and forced to go through an abortion.
Typical treatments included hydrotherapy, hydro-shock therapy, shock treatment, various drug cocktails, restraints and isolation. Lobotomies were also performed here. The hospital also used some experimental therapies that today would horrify us, such as insulin injections on those who were not diabetic. It was said that these injections caused a “shaking in the brain.” They also injected those suffering from syphilis with malaria to “try and effect a cure.”
Is it any wonder that many consider Camarillo to be haunted? It isn’t a question of who, or what, haunts its old halls, but of who DOESN’T?
Newspaper accounts tell us of the many deaths that happened there. Some were accidental, some were due to abuses dished out on the inmates by cruel staff, and others were by suicide. However, it isn’t just inmates who died there. I find it interesting, and a bit chilling, that a number of staff members died in automobile accidents either while leaving the property or entering it. Some staff lived on the premises in small apartments, where at least one committed suicide.
One also has to take into account the long history of human habitation on the land before it became the Camarillo State Mental Hospital. The Chumash lived here in one of their small seasonal camps, that they named Satwiwa. Contrary to popular belief, there was no burial ground here. The Chumash, much like Europeans, had very specific burial grounds used by members of all the various tribal branches. After the Chumash the land was owned by Ysabel Yorba, who was granted the land in 1836 under a Mexican Land Grant. The property was known as Rancho Guadalasca. In 1906 the northern portion of the property was sold to Joseph F. Lewis. In 1932 the State of California purchased an acre of the Lewis ranch property and built the hospital on it.
The possibility of the identities of those who haunt the location cannot be limited to just those who were in some way connected to the hospital.
Then there is the so-called “Scary Dairy,” which was part of the hospital’s farm, where inmates would help grow and harvest produce, as well as work with the livestock as part of their therapy. Some have asserted that the animals were only there to produce milk, cheese, butter and eggs. But the fact is that there was indeed a slaughter house where animals were killed for their meat. I find it shocking that inmates with mental issues were involved in the bloody work of slaughtering the animals, considering that some of the patients should never have been here, and should have instead been sent straight to Atascadero, where the criminally insane were housed. Photos below show the stables, barn and slaughter house.
Before we get into deaths at the hospital, lets check out the previous owners of the land.
Before the arrival of Europeans the land where the former Camarillo State Mental Asylum sits was the home of the Chumash, who lived in this area for over 9000 years.
During the era of European land grants Rancho Guadalasca was a 30,594-acre Mexican land grant in present-day Ventura County, California given in 1836 by Governor Mariano Chico to Ysabel Yorba. The grant was in the southern part of the county, bordering on Los Angeles County. The grant extended along the Pacific coast near Point Mugu for about eight miles, and extending into the interior along Guadalasca Creek in the Santa Monica Mountains for about ten miles.
Ysabel Yorba (1789–1871), (the daughter of José Antonio Yorba a European immigrant from Catalonia and his second wife, Maria Josefa Grijalva, an espanola,) was born in San Diego. She married Jose Joaquin Maitorena in 1805 while he was still a cadet in the Spanish army. Maitorena reached the rank of lieutenant in 1827 and was stationed at the Presidio of Santa Barbara. Maitorena was sent to Mexico as a member of congress for 1829–30, and died there of apoplexy.
After his death, the newly widowed Yorba petitioned the governor for a land grant based on Maitorena’s military service, citing the justification: “That being the owner of 500 head of cattle, and 40 head of broken horses, and some mares, and having no place for said stock…” On the 5 July 1836 then Governor, Chico, granted Rancho Guadalasca to Ysabel Yorba excluding land described as the lagoon and plain owing to the acting Mission’s need for those lands. The next year guardianship of the mission changed hands from Father Ordaz to a new leader who believed the lagoon and plain as unrequired and open for purchase. Yorba applied to acquire the land soon after this, and was granted the additional area to enlarge the total size of the Rancho to 30,573 acres. By 1837 she built a palizada house, and an adobe house the year after that. The locations of the houses have yet to be found but their existence is documented. Statistical records from an 1860 document list Yorba as having 925 head of cattle valued at $22,000 and approximately 70 horses.
She adopted Isabel Lugo and four other children after she received her 1836 land grant, then added Josefina Bonilla and Isabel “Jennie” Dominguez later. Before her death at age 82, Ysabel Yorba sold her rancho for $28,000 in US gold coin, while her large estate was left to her four adopted daughters. Yorba was illiterate, yet operated Rancho Guadalasca from Santa Barbara. J.N. Bowman referred to her as one of the most prominent women of early California history.
By the 1870s Rancho owners and their heirs and descendants came under pressure to sell or relinquish their land holdings to new immigrants. The slow process and lawyer fees put pressure on landholders to give up on their land grants and created a land boom which would in turn lead to a population increase and result in the breakup of Ventura and Santa Barbara County in 1873. Upon the breakup of the counties Rancho El Conejo along with Guadalasca were sold off and parceled out to investors.
An 8,200-acre northern part was purchased by Joseph F. Lewis in 1906. Lewis was a business associate of Adolfo Camarillo. Joseph Lewis is the man who brought the lima bean to California, and was one of the farmers responsible for helping Ventura County earn its former title of Lima Bean Capital of the World. During the Great Depression the bank foreclosed on the ranch when Joseph Lewis fell into financial difficulties. In 1932, the State of California purchased 1,760 acres of the Lewis ranch for $415,000 and established the Camarillo State Mental Hospital.
Two sons of Joseph Lewis, Searles & Guy, along with their wives, brought scandal to the family ranch starting in 1918. Newspaper accounts of the time describe marital dysfunctions, accusations of immoral behavior, a death some viewed as suspicious and a dirty divorce.
On April 8th, 1917, Guy’s first wife, Lena, was driving their son Harold to Sunday school. Just as she began to cross over the train tracks, located on the road to the family ranch, she saw a train coming. It is believed that in her effort to back up the car’s engine stalled, leaving her trapped on the tracks. The train, no. 77, struck her car and she was killed on impact. Son Harold was hospitalized with a fractured skull and knee. It was reported that Len’a body had been thrown about 75 feet and her neck was broken. The car was so badly damaged that the front axle was bent into the shape of the letter “S.” Oddly, this is the same train crossing where her father-in-law Joseph Lewis, sister-in-law Lulu Lewis and Josie Martinez were struck by the same train, no. 77, in August 1916. None of the parties were seriously injured. This same section of train crossing, now located on the site of the Camarillo State Mental Asylum, would feature in many fatal accidents during the years that the asylum operated, leading some to believe that this area is cursed.
Apparently Guy Lewis had known his new wife many years previously when they were children. Shortly after learning of the death of Guy’s first wife Dorothy phoned him and invited him to meet with her. On January 21st, 1918, Guy Lewis married Dorothy Allen Marshall Todd, a widowed woman.
On February 1st, 1918, Searles Lewis married Mariam Dunbar Spencer. Mariam was a friend of Dorothy Lewis, wife of Searles’ brother Guy, and it was through Dorothy that Mariam met Searles at the family ranch.
Sometime in 1918 Searles and his brother Guy found reason to hire private detectives to follow and report on the activities of their wives. Both women were known to party hard and were not adverse to sharing their “charms” with other men. It was also reported in the newspaper that Dorothy Lewis was known for doing an improper and immoral dance known as “the Shimmy.” Both women had reputations of also being very heavy drinkers.
Mariam, wife of Searles Lewis died on the property on January 4th, 1919. The newspapers reported that her death was caused by pneumonia. However, there were some who believed that Searles may have helped her to “meet her maker” due to his belief that he had married a woman of scandalous character.
Shortly after the death of Mariam both Guy and Dorothy filed petitions with the court for a divorce, which lead to about two years of salacious and juicy reports in the newspapers of Dorothy and Mariam participating in wild parties, drunken debaucheries and sexual threesomes. In the end, the court stated that they believed Guy Lewis had been “vamped” by Dorothy, who only married him for his money and was witnessed by many to mistreat her husband. The judge declined to allow them to divorce, which then caused a couple of years of Dorothy battling in the courts for alimony and support payments.
As mentioned earlier, in 1932, the state of California purchased 1 acre of the Lewis Ranch and established the Camarillo State Mental Hospital. Joseph Lewis was hired as Farm Manager. The hospital was in use from 1936 to 1997 and in the 1950s and 1960s, it was at the forefront of treating illnesses that were previously thought to be incurable, including a drug for people suffering from schizophrenia. In the 1940s, children became patients of the hospital and a whole new area was added to the hospital to keep the children separated from the adults. Adolescents were also separated from the children, in their own building, and eventually a high school was added to the property. The most fundamental change at the state hospital occurred in 1967 when the hospital began to house patients with developmental disabilities. The main north complex was chosen to house the “DD” population. Patients suffering from mental retardation, autism, organic brain disorders, and other disabilities comprised this group. Some were profoundly affected by their disorders and were very low functioning. They would require constant supervision and assistance to perform even simple activities of daily living. Many others were high functioning and were able to lead relatively happy lives at the hospital. Educational programs were created for these high-functioning patients including a variety of vocational programs. There were workshops in the north complex where they would learn arts and crafts as well as other skills which helped prepare them for entry into the outside world. Some of the items the DD patients produced in the workshops became popular in the communities beyond the hospital grounds. In particular their wind chimes as well as small “pebble people” (collections of stones with painted faces) were in steady demand.
Today, the former hospital is now a university, and many students claim to experience paranormal phenomena, which have been attributed to a number of deaths that took place on the grounds of the hospital. Children’s voices have reportedly been heard around the children’s center, near the bell tower an old woman is often reportedly seen asking for directions to the chapel, and another old woman is often said to be seen wandering the halls.
Over the years a great number of investigations had been conducted at Camarillo State Mental Asylum into reported abuses, deaths and other irregularities. It would take days to include every investigation, so we are just going to highlight just a couple of them.
On April 17th, 1959, the Los Angeles Times newspaper reported that an investigation was being conducted due to charges of illicit use of narcotics, practices of sexual abnormalities and brutality towards patients, which came to light after two private investigators were hired to work undercover as employees by the Attorney Genreral of California. Investigators Miles Hollister and Saul Diskin reported witnessing numerous incidents of physical abuse where patients were beaten and attacked with punches, kicks and jabs carried out with fists, feet and broomsticks.
On November 5th, 1976, the Santa Cruz Sentinel newspaper reported a statement from a patient… “They strapped my hands behind my back and strapped me on my stomach. I had to lay that way all night. They gave me a shot which hurt in the back of my skull. I banged my head on the wall because it hurt so bad. The doctor came the next morning and said that I was imagining the pain.” Scores of similar cases had been reported.
During this investigation a Camarillo psychiatric technician was arrested after a witness saw her beat a female patient with a fly swatter and an ice tray, and then looped a towel around her neck and choked her. A registered nurse employed at Camarillo explained that “choking out,” using a stranglehold to render a patient unconscious, was often used to quiet ‘rebellious’ patients. Also reported were beatings, verbal abuse, tying patients to beds with painfully tight restraints, and sexual advances to and rapes of mentally disturbed patients.
The Grand Jury was also presented with cases of questionable deaths and brutal treatment at Camarillo State Mental Hospital. The probe was carried out to determine if criminal negligence or worse was involved in the many deaths from strangulation, drug overdoses, drownings and other causes over a four year period.
On November 8th, 1976, the Bakersfield Californian newspaper reported… “Results of a year long investigation into 75 patient deaths at Camarillo State Hospital were given today to a grand jury investigating charges of criminal negligence in the deaths. According to the investigation, the deaths resulted from drug overdoses, asphyxiations, drowings, and other causes.”
It subsequently came to light that patients were being given a three-drug shot known as Serentil #1.
The Oxnard Press Courier reported on February 13th, 1957…
Jacob Honigsfeld, age 57 – committed suicide at Camarillo State Mental Hospital by hanging himself from a tree. On November 5th, 1956, he was listed as an escapee. Three months later another patient found his decomposing body in a bunch of thick bushes, where the body fell. He had used a clothesline rope to hang himself. Some believed that he may have been killed.
From the San Bernardino County Sun, dated August 8th, 1957…
Jack Moore, age 28 – died when he was burned to death in the incinerator at the Camarillo State Mental Hospital. It was claimed that Moore was thrown head first into the incinerator, while staff claimed that he committed suicide by throwing himself into the incinerator.
The Oxnard Press Courier reported on April 19th, 1958…
William Snyder, age 40 – committed suicide at Camarillo State Mental Hospital by jumping under the tires of a truck being driven by a Camarillo employee.
Reported November 11th, 1976, by the Los Angeles Times…
Steven Miller, age 33 – died in 1974 from dehydration and inanition (similar to starvation) after being forced to take strong tranquilizers that caused dehydration. Staff had failed to make sure he was drinking enough fluids to prevent dehydration. When he refused to eat or drink staff assumed he had been “sneaking food and liquids on the sly.” Intravenous feedings were not administered and Miller died on his 10th day of being a patient in the hospital.
Artemy Cross, age 35 – died in September 1974 from smoke inhalation in a small “seclusion room” after apparently setting fire to his sheets with matches. Psychiatric technician Francis Hartwell, who was on duty during the incident, reported that “he thought he had confiscated Cross’ matches and cigarettes before putting him in the seclusion room.” The hospital fire chief reported that two cigarette butts had been found in the room.
David P. Dugan, age 37 – died in August 1974 from an epileptic seizure after being strapped to his bed. During the seizure he tumbled halfway over the side of the bed. Because the restraint had been strapped too tight across his stomach it was believed this caused the seizure and added so much stress to his heart that the seizure became fatal. Dugan had been dead for several hours before anyone noticed or checked on him.
The Ventura County Adviser newspaper reported on November 11th, 1976…
Clarence Cormier, Jr., age 34 – died on February 18th, 1974, from strangulation after three employees restrained him. Three employees testified that when Cormier became violent they helped to restrain him and denied ever choking him or restraining him by holding his neck or head in any way. However, County Medical Examiner Ronald Kornblum performed the autopsy and testified that Cormier died due to external force applied to his neck and that his injuries were consistent with being in a forearm stranglehold. Cause of death was strangulation and listed as a homicide. It was also later revealed that one of the employees had punched Cormier in the stomach during the struggle.
The Los Angeles Times reported on December 30th, 1976 that the family of David Mettayer were suing…
David Mettayer, age 75 – died June 17th, 1973, from internal injuries when the hospital failed to diagnose a strangulated hernia and intestinal obstruction. It was claimed that he was forced to perform duties that aggravated his condition and that after the fact employees attempted to conceal the facts surrounding his death.
From the Los Angeles Times, November 16th, 1976…
Thomas Riddle, age 37 – died February 4th, 1976, only two hours after being admitted to the hospital for detoxification. He dead body was found shackled at the hands and feet in an isolation room in the acute psychotic ward. The coroner ruled that Riddle had died from asphyxia due to compression of the neck and multiple drug overdose.
The Bakerfield Californian newspaper reported on May 27th, 1976…
State health officials have begun a probe after parents of autistic children report abuses. It was claimed that the children were suffering from poor care and neglect, and that 60 of them were housed in only two units with minimal care. Parents found their children unwashed, heavily drugged and only partially clothed.
The Los Angeles Times reported on November 18th, 1976…
Ralph Cabuto, age 35 – died May 13th, 1976 after using his belt to commit suicide in a shower stall. Although Cabuto had tried to commit suicide three previous times before admitting himself to the hospital on May 12th, the admitting doctor did not feel he needed to instruct special precautions in regards to monitoring Cabuto.
The Los Angeles Times reported on November 19th, 1976…
Mandi Wright, age 33 – died May 30th, 1976 of a drug overdose administered to her four days after being admitted. A staff member claimed she had to be subdued. She was found dead in an isolation room on the acute psychotic ward.
The Los Angeles Times reported on May 2nd, 1990…
Rosemary Terraza, age 35 – reported in the newspaper as a mentally retarded young woman with the mental age of a 2 1/2 year old, Terraza was raped at Camarillo State Mental Hospital and then forced to undergo an abortion, without permission granted by herself or her mother.
Cecil Berry, an emloyee at Camarillo State Mental Hospital, lived in Home #8 on the hospital grounds. He died January 10th, 1959 of a heart attack while dining in a Camarillo restaurant.
Donald Mitchell, age 56, an employee at Camarillo State Hospital, died November 3rd, 1990 on the hospital grounds. He was intoxicated and drove his car into a tree.
Dorothy Bennett, an employee at Camarillo who also lived on the grounds died in the hospital in February 1958.
Elizabeth LaBorde, a laundress at Camarillo State Mental Hospital, found dead of suicide on June 8th, 1946. LaBorde was a widow who lived in a room in one of the employee housing units on the grounds of the hospital. She shot herself through the temple with a gun, leaving behind a suicide note which said… “I always seem to lose. This is one time I win.” She then left instructions for contacting her niece in San Francisco.
Nieva Albea, age 54 of Oxnard, was pronounced dead on March 26th, 1992 after being involved in a head-on collision. Albea, on her way to deliver lad specimens to the hospital, was driving just east of the entrance to the grounds when she crossed a double yellow line and struck an oncoming vehicle head-on.
Genevieve Warren, age 69, a nursing supervisor at Camarillo State Mental Hospital, was killed on April 20th, 1964 when her car went out of control and drove into a drainage ditch at Lewis Road & 5th Street.
Warren Sanders, age 25, an employee at Camarillo State Mental Hospital, was killed on April 23rd, 1958 when the car he was a passenger in somehow hurtled 60 feet , smashing through a telephone pole and snapping it off 9 feet above ground. The pole snapped and collapsed on the car. Sanders died from multiple internal and external injuries, including skull fractures.
Relatives of Patients
Phyllis Gilbert, age 78, was killed on January 12th, 1992 when her car was struck by a train at the railroad crossing near the entrance to Camarillo State Mental Hospital. She was on her way to visit with her developmentally disabled son when the accident occurred.
Delora Mae Campbell, (born Delores Campbell) age 16 – On December 30th, 1951 Delora Mae Campbell strangled to death 6 year old Donna Joyce Ishell while she slept, with a sock belonging to the child’s father. Doctors stated Campbell was declared legally sane but driven by an irresistible impulse. In April 1952 she was committed to Camarillo. Two years later, in April 1954, she managed to escape but was quickly captured and returned to the hospital. At some point she was released but I have been unable to determine when this happened, other than sometime before 8/13/1957. If she was using the alias of Delora Camel, as I believe she was, then she was released by Sept. 4th, 1956, when she appears in an automobile accident report in the Greeley Daily Tribune (Colorado). I had previously believed that she had died unmarried, but it turns out that this is not the case. Not only did she marry, on August 13, 1957, , but she also had five (maybe 6) children. Her husband’s grave has space for two people in the plot and the gravestone has room for her name, but she is not buried with him. Further research shows that she and her husband divorced on 15 Dec 1969 in Morgan County, Colorado. She later remarried and can be found in later records under this new husband’s name. She died in Greeley, Colorado on February 18th, 1984. I am not including the names of husbands or children in order to spare living family members any embarrassment.
Gloria Quinn, age 16, was committed to Camarillo in August 1946. Referred to as the “Child-Bride” in newspapers, she was placed in Camarillo for 90 days observation after shooting her 19 year old husband, Detrick Quinn. Gloria had recently filed for an annulment of the marriage at the instigation of her mother, but the young couple were still meeting for dates. At the end of their last date, when Detrick refused to kiss her good bye Gloria pulled out the gun and shot him. He ended up in the hospital in critical condition with a .45 bullet wound to the chest.
The Camarillo State Hospital Collection has many more photos that you can view in order to get a good idea of how the hospital grounds used to look. Please visit their fantastic site at Camarillo State Hospital Collection.
You can also visit the Camarillo State University Channel Islands Flickr page.