Ballad of San Leandro
Thomas Calabrese –Zoey Yeager was in her third year at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California. She was working toward her degree in landscape architecture and her studies included the design, planning and protection of the natural and developed environments. This would be the first year that she wasn’t going to stay in the central California area and attend summer school. The main reason for her decision was her father, Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel John Yeager was being deployed on a one year unaccompanied tour. This meant he would have to go alone. His new assignment was AFRICOM, the command responsible for U.S. Department of Defense operations, exercises and security cooperation on the African continent. Zoey wanted to spend some time with her father before he left in September.
Her cellphone rang as Zoey was studying and she would have let it go to voicemail until she saw it was from her father, “Hi Dad.”
Lt. Col.Yeager asked, “I ‘m not disturbing you, am I?
“Never, I’m looking forward to finishing up with my finals and getting on the road.”
“It’s been too long… it’s hard to believe that we haven’t seen each other since Christmas,” Lt. Col. Yeager said.
“We always had Zoom, but it’s not quite the same though,” Zoey said.
“How’s your car…any problems?”
“Surprising that you should ask,” Zoey said, “I took it in for an oil change and tire rotation a couple days ago. The mechanic did a diagnostic check… the transmission is starting to slip and it’s leaking a little oil. Pretty soon, I’m going to have to buy tires and brakes, and yeah before I forget, the air conditioner and heater only work at about 60 per cent efficiency. Other than those few things I can’t really complain. It’s been a good dependable car for almost 200,000 miles.”
“I’ll be gone for a year, why don’t you use my SUV. It only has 20,000 miles on it. We’ve got three cars right now so it’s just going to sit around,” Lt. Col. Yeager said, “Your mom thinks it’s a good idea because it would be one less thing for her to take care of. So actually, you’d be doing both of us a favor.”
Zoey had grown accustomed to her father’s generosity, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t still able to surprise her with his big hearted ways, “Thanks a lot, Dad. I love you.”
“I love you too,” Lt. Col. Yeager replied.
“When I get home, I’ll put a for sale on my car and see what I can get.”
“Don’t wait, you might have a better chance of selling it in a college town than down here.” Lt. Col. Yeager suggested.
“If I sell the car here, then how am I going to get my stuff home? I’ve got too much to take on the train,” Zoey replied.
“There are two options; first one is that I can drive up there, help you load and we can drive back down together,” Lt. Col. Yeager said.
“What’s the second option?” Zoey asked,
“There’s an Enterprise Rent A Car in San Luis Obispo. I’ll book you a reservation, you pick up a car there and drop it off in Vista.” Lt. Col. Yeager said.
“You make things too easy for me,” Zoey said.
“Not really, I’m just trying to take care of the inconsequential things so you can focus on what’s really important. It’s no big deal.” Lt. Col. Yeager responded.
“It is a big deal to me and I appreciate it,” Zoey had a special connection with her father. It was more than just the love between a father and a daughter, they genuinely liked and respected each other.
“Did I ever tell you how proud I am of you,” Lt. Col. Yeager’s voice softened as he spoke.
“Only every time we speak. I love you,” Zoey said.
“I love you too, stay safe,” Lt. Col. Yeager said.
Zoey had taken two of her finals and felt fairly confident that she had done well on both of them. Two more to go and she would be done for this school year. She stopped to get gas at Costco when a young man in his twenties saw the for sale sign in the rear window of her car. He approached, “I’d like to talk to you about buying your car.”
“I’ll pull over there,” Zoey pointed to an empty area of the parking lot, “when I’m done getting my gas.”
The first thing that Zoey told the young man, “This car have got some mechanical issues.”
“I’m more concerned about the body and the interior,” The young man said as he carefully looked over the car.
“My aunt just passed away and she had this model car, same color and same interior. It’s only has 30 thousand miles on it, but she had these two big dogs that literally destroyed the seats and the body is in pretty bad shape.”
“So you’re looking for a parts car?” Zoey asked.
“It’s too expensive to buy new ones. You’re asking 1000 dollars, I’ll give you nine hundred,” The young man offered.
“How about nine fifty?” Zoey countered.
“Deal,” Zoey said.
Zoey finished her last two finals and did like her father suggested and rented a car from Enterprise. She loaded up her belongings, got on the road and called her father, “I should be there in about six hours depending on the traffic.”
Lt. Colonel Yeager said “Let me know when you get to San Clemente. You still got your dependent I.D., but I want to be close by just in case you have any trouble getting through the main gate.”
“Roger that,” Zoey responded.
Zoey was going to take Highway 101 but at the last minute decided to take the coast route along Highway 1 until she had to turn inland. There was a breakfast café called Jenny’s outside Santa Maria that had a great breakfast menu. It could be months before she came this way again so she decided to stop. Zoey sat in a corner booth and ordered the vegetarian omelet and savored every bite. She was totally relaxed and enjoying the day, maybe too relaxed, otherwise she might have noticed the four men that left moments after she did.
Lt. Col. Yeager turned to his wife, Lisa, “We should have heard from Zoey by now. It’s been over seven hours.”
“I’ll call her,” Lisa tried her daughter’s cellphone, but it went straight to voicemail. “I don’t like this.”
Lt. Col. Yeager and his wife stayed up all night waiting to hear from their daughter and when morning came, they were emotionally distraught and overcome with worry. He called Enterprise-Rent-a Car to request that they use Lojack to locate the rented vehicle. When a representative called back several hours later, “We found the car.”
The distraught parents drove to Central California and met with the Highway Patrol. One of the officers briefed them, “We found the car off Highway 1 on a side road and organized a search of the area, but as of yet we haven’t found anything.”
The next week was a blur as Lt. Col Yeager and his wife, Lisa checked in at a local motel, but spent most of their time searching the woods around the area where the car was found. After a week had passed, law enforcement told the Yeagers that they were calling off the search because there were absolutely no leads or eyewitnesses. Lt. Col. Yeager and Lisa stayed one more week and retraced Zoey’s path from the time she left school, but also couldn’t find anything. In frustration they returned to Camp Pendleton.
His world had been turned upside down and Lt. Col. Yeager was now in dark unchartered territory. He went back to work as executive officer of 1st Reconnaissance Battalion and did his best to hide his grief, but it didn’t take long for his Marines to find out what happened. These were warriors who would run through a hail of bullets to save their brother in arms and yet they were powerless to help in this situation. Due the disappearance of his daughter, Lt. Colonel Yeager’s overseas orders were rescinded and he was allowed to stay at his unit and close to his wife.
Gunnery Sergeant Greg Whittington had a professional respect for Lt. Colonel John Yeager and a friendship with the man that was strengthened by their three combat tours together When they were stateside they would often go running at lunchtime or work out at the fitness center on base. Several squads of the elite unit were at Edson Range honing their marksmanship skills and Lt. Colonel Yeager was observing their performances from a distance. Greg saw his friend walk behind a truck and checked to see what was going on. When he peered around the corner, he saw Lt. Colonel Yeager sobbing. Greg decided not to infringe on this intensely private, emotional and vulnerable movement and backed away without being seen. It touched him deeply and he looked up and saw one gray cloud directly above him in an otherwise clear blue sky. Greg felt the chill of being in the shadows and offered a heartfelt prayer, “I’m not much of a religious guy, but I’m not asking for anything for myself. This request is for a good man and a good Marine whose leadership has saved a lot of lives. I don’t know how you keep score up there, but that kind of service and sacrifice has got to be worth something. If you can find a way to ease his pain, I’d deeply appreciate it.” The almighty commandant must have been listening because at that particular moment a ray of sunshine pierced the thick gray cloud and Greg felt the warmth on his face.
Later that day, Greg was walking through the S-4 office when he heard Sergeant DeSerrano ask, “Can somebody give me a ride to Escondido tomorrow?”
“What’s going on?” Greg said.
“It was my girlfriend’s birthday last night and I had a little too much to drink so instead of taking any chances, I got a ride back to the base,” Sergeant DeSerrano explained, “Now I have to go get my car.”
It was Memorial Day weekend and many of the Marines were already on 96 hour leave, “I can give you a ride,” Greg said.
“I’ll meet you here at zero eight hundred hours,” Greg said.
It has almost been a year since Zoey disappeared and the police still haven’t been able to come up with one lead. While driving back on Highway 78, Greg saw the Enterprise sign and felt compelled to stop. It was a boring morning for former Marine Jerry Oland, who was working part-time at the lot and Ashley Patterson as they sat in the office. When they saw Greg drive in, Jerry popped up from his chair, “I got this.”
Ashley protested, “It’s my turn.”
“Don’t worry, you can have the commission,” Jerry promised.
Greg had not even thought about buying a car and didn’t know what he was looking for. Jerry approached, “Good morning, I’ve got something that just came in that you might be interested in seeing.”
The two men walked over to the other end of the lot where a midnight blue Toyota Camry was parked. As soon as he saw the vehicle, Greg knew he had to have it and Jerry was going to make any deal to sell it to him. It took less than 30 minutes to conclude the deal and Enterprise took Greg’s truck as a trade-in. After taking out his personal belonging, Greg was ready to leave.
“Stay safe out there, Marine” Jerry said.
“Semper Fi,” Greg responded and drove off.
There was a distinct aura about the car, natural and pure like flowers in springtime or an ocean breeze. Greg turned on the radio and the song, The Ballad of San Leandro, was playing. This was a one hit wonder by Gary ‘Rock’ Bottoms about a little known California battle that took place in 1883. It was a song that Lt. Colonel Yeager and Zoey used to sing along with whenever they were together and it came on the radio. It had great sentimental value to them. When he changed stations, it was playing simultaneously on each one. What were the chances of that, Greg thought.
When he pulled into the apartment parking lot, Greg parked the Camry in his assigned space and walked twelve steps to his residence. When he opened his front door, he started hearing voices on his cellphone. Even when he turned it off, he still heard talking. Greg went outside to investigate where the interference was coming from. It took him almost an hour to come to the realization that the voices were only audible when he was exactly 12 paces away from the car. It didn’t matter whether he was inside or outside. When he went to sleep, Greg had vivid dreams of women being held hostage by armed guards in a rural area. When he awakened just before dawn, Greg went outside and opened the door to the car. He saw something wedged between the console and the seat and gently pulled it out so he wouldn’t tear it. It was a photograph.
Lt. Colonel Yeager was at home at his government quarters in San Luis Rey base housing when he heard a knock at the front door and answered it, “Hey Gunny, this is a surprise.”
“I wouldn’t have bothered you if it wasn’t important,” Greg said.
“You’re not bothering me, I’m always glad to see you. I thought you might have plans for the Memorial Day weekend.”
Greg handed the photograph to the Marine Corps officer who was left speechless for a minute. He finally asked, “Where did you get this?”
Greg pointed to the car on the street, “It was inside that.”
“I’m confused,” Lt. Col. Yeager said.
“I bought the car at Enterprise yesterday.”
James stared at the photo of his daughter and him happily standing next to each other at the water’s edge on Camp Pendelton’s Del Mar Beach. “That must be the car that she was driving when she disappeared.” James got choked up, “I really appreciate that you brought this by.”
“There’s more to it, sir.” Greg said, “I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting your daughter so I have no idea what she looks like. I had a dream last night of women and girls being held captive.”
“Go on,” Lt. Col. Yeager said.
“Your daughter was one of them.”
“You saw the photo and your subconscious put it in your dream,” Lt. Col. Yeager said.
“That could be true in some other case, but I had the dream last night, I didn’t find the photo until this morning. There is one other thing…can you get your cellphone?”
“Yeah,” Lt. Col. Yeager said.
“Follow me, sir.”
As both men walked toward the car, Lt. Col. Yeager asked, “What’s going on, Gunny?”
Greg pulled out his phone and shut it off, then instructed the Lt. Colonel to do the same with his, “Shut your phone off.”
When they got within twelve steps of the car, both their phones turned back on and they began hearing voices. Lt. Col. Yeager’s face turned ashen white, “That’s my daughter’s voice.”
Later inside the house, Greg didn’t really have any answers, “I wish I could tell you more. I just have this feeling that your daughter is still alive and this is her way of asking us to come get her.”
Lisa broke down in tears, “Where is she! Please bring my baby home!”
“May I make a suggestion sir?” Greg said.
“Absolutely,” Lt. Col. Yeager responded.
“I think we should get in this car and drive to where your daughter disappeared and see what happens from there,” Greg said.
“I’ll be ready to go in ten minutes,” Lisa leaped at the offer.
“Excuse me Ma’am, but in my dream the area where she was being held had armed guards. It might be too dangerous for you.”
“I appreciate your concern, Gunny, but there is no way that I’m staying here and letting you two go without me,” Lisa said defiantly, “If they’ve got guns, we’ve got guns.”
Lt. Col. Yeager turned to Gunny Whittington, “It’s not going to do any good to argue.” then went into the spare bedroom and opened the computerized gun safe and took out two Sig Sauer P226 357SIG and ten magazines with 15 rounds capacity. Lt. Col. Yeager loaded them with armor piercing rounds and offered his fellow Marine, “Take whatever you need, Gunny.”
“Just in case, we were leaving right away, I already put my gear in the trunk.” Greg responded.
“Always the prepared Marine.”
“Especially this time.” Greg smiled
They drove to the area where the Highway Patrol found the car and Greg, Lt. Col.Yeager and Lisa got out and looked around.
“What now?” Lisa asked nervously.
Greg had a hunch, “Let’s walk 12 steps.”
The trio went down the tree lined dirt road and stopped. A crow flew overhead and landed on a branch and knocked off a cellphone. It fell at the feet of Lisa, “This is Zoey’s!”
Flashback one year earlier. After Zoey pulled out of the restaurant parking lot, two men got into a luxury sedan and the other two got into a large 4×4 pick-up truck with a camper shell. They followed her for several miles until the car raced around Zoey and disappeared out of sight. When she rounded a curve, the car was blocking the road, Zoey hit the brakes and the pick-up truck drove up and blocked her retreat. When she saw the four men get out of their vehicles, Zoey sensed trouble and took a video of the car and the truck then exited her car and made a run for it. She managed to run twelve steps before one of the men tasered her. With her last bit of strength, Zoey threw her phone into the thick foliage of a tree and it landed on a branch. Two men grabbed her and put the young girl in the trunk of the car and both vehicles drove off.
Ronald and Robert were twin brothers and descendants of the infamous Krayson crime family. They were in San Luis Obispo to pick up a thousand pounds of high grade fentanyl that had come in from China and was driven down from San Francisco. After making the exchange, the brothers and two of their henchmen stopped off for breakfast at the popular eatery. The Kraysons owned a 200 hundred acre ranch outside of Hemet, California, a distance of 275 miles from San Luis Obispo. The property’s title was held by an offshore shell corporation. It operated as the hub for a variety of criminal enterprises that included narcotics, arms dealing and stolen shipments from ports and interstate commerce. The place was heavily guarded with hardcore career felons and soldiers from the drug cartels protecting their product, but there was a labor problem. The ranch had two dozen warehouses, a large main house, guest houses, dormitories and grounds to maintain. The Kraysons couldn’t just take out a help wanted ad or go to an employment agency to hire people and take the risk of them reporting what they saw to the police so they had to get help another way. When they saw Zoey, a young woman traveling by herself, they looked at her as a target of opportunity. On one particular occasion, thugs that worked for the Kraysons abducted an entire landscaping crew off a county road in Temecula. Those that tried to escape the ranch were immediately shot and if anybody got sick, injured or didn’t do their job, were also eliminated. The surviving captives were always forced to witness the executions as a deterrent. Ronald Krayson once shot three men from the kitchen staff in the back of the head without expressing the slightest emotion. Their only transgression was that he didn’t like the way his steak was cooked. “If you do your jobs right, you’ll stay alive. Otherwise this is what you’ll get.”
Zoey never gave up hope of escaping or that someone would come rescue her. In the meantime, she did her assigned duties as a maid while always keeping her eyes and ears open. She worked seven days a week cleaning and doing laundry for the Kraysons and the others on the ranch. The days were long and hard and when she wasn’t working, she was locked away with eight other women in a double-wide trailer inside a fenced compound. The captive men had two trailers and were located on the other side of the main warehouse.
Lt. Col. Yeager leaned against the car and sighed, “We know she was taken, but where.”
Lisa had a hunch and turned on the car’s GPS “I going to try something.” She inputted the following on the keyboard, Zoey’s location.
Lt. Col. Yeager looked at his wife in puzzlement, “Really?”
Lisa responded, “Something led us here, maybe it will lead us the rest of the way. If you’ve got a better idea, I’m listening.”
Greg noticed an address appear on the screen, “Take a look.”
“You don’t mind if I drive,” Lt. Col. Yeager said.
They followed the directions to the private road and were stopped by a short-tempered armed guard, “Where are you going?”
“We came out for the Memorial Day picnic. Are we on the right road?” Lt. Col. Yeager acted clueless and confused.
“Didn’t you see the No Trespassing sign?”
“It was supposed to be invitation only so we just thought that is why the sign was put up. It’s a good way to keep uninvited guests out,” Lt. Col. Yeager smiled.
Lisa looked at the video on her daughter’s phone again when she noticed that the guard looked familiar. She showed the video to Greg who was sitting in the backseat who nodded. He got out of the car and the guard called out, “Where you going?”
“We’ve been driving a while, I’ve got a cramp and I need to walk it out.” Greg answered.
“Get back in the car and get out of here!”
Greg walked over to the guard and before he could react, punched him in the chest, then flipped him on his back and put his pistol in his mouth, “I need you to think very carefully before you answer.”
The guard trembled and nodded. Lt. Col. Yeager took out the photograph of his daughter and him out of his pocket and held it in front of the guard’s face, “Is this girl here?”
The guard nodded weakly. Greg tied and gagged the guard and put him in the trunk of the car. Lisa asked, “Are we going to call the police?”
“Take too long, they might have to get a warrant to get on the property,” Lt. Col. Yeager responded.
“Well what are we going to do then?” Lisa asked impatiently.
Greg noticed a propane tank behind the guard shack, “Public safety is very important and the spread of fire is especially dangerous in this area. The fire department won’t need a warrant.”
Lt. Col. Yeager parked the guard’s vehicle next to the propane cylinder, stuck a rag in the vehicle’s gas tank and lit it. The trio moved a safe distance away and when the car exploded, it also caused the propane tank to detonate. Flames shot 100 feet into the air. Lisa called 911, “There’s a big fire on Delano Road and it is spreading rapidly. Hurry!”
The Kraysons were in the main house, heard the explosion and saw the black smoke rising into the sky. They ran outside with some of their men to investigate. Sirens could be heard approaching in the distance. The blaze was spreading quickly and Ronald Krayson yelled, “Get that fire out!”
Lt. Col. Yeager instructed his wife, “We’ll need a quick extraction so be ready to move when I call you.”
“I’ll be ready,” Lisa promised.
Armed guards had the fire department stopped at the main gate while the fire burned in the background.The two Marines used this distraction to get on the property. When they were noticed, they shot three guards and continued on. The smoke was getting thick and it helped obscure their movements. Zoey heard gunfire, looked out the window and decided this was the time to make her move. When the Krayson brothers saw her running, they raised their pistols to shoot her. Lt. Colonel Yeager and Gunny Whittington stepped in between them and opened fire. The two brothers died as they had lived…violently and without mercy.
Zoey ran into her father’s arms, “I knew that you would come for me!”
“This is Gunnery Sergeant Whittington.” Lt. Col. Yeager made a quick introduction then called his wife on his cellphone, “We’ve got her and are on the way out.”
The fire department was forced to call the police for assistance as Lt. Col. Yeager and Gunny Whittington killed several more guards during their escape. The police arrived and were immediately greeted by a hail of gunfire while the firefighters found cover behind their trucks. It was a chaotic situation and the other captives saw this as their opportunity to also escape and ran frantically toward the police and fire personnel.
Lisa drove down the dirt road and was overcome with emotion when she finally saw her daughter after one long painful year. She stopped the car and ran to embrace Zoey.
Lt. Colonel Yeager walked over, opened the trunk and pulled the guard out. He cut the ties on his ankles so that he could walk then pulled him off the road. When he reached an area that was obscured from view, he removed his gag. “You kidnapped my daughter…why?”
“It wasn’t personal, I was just doing my job,” The Guard responded. There wasn’t even the slightest tinge of remorse in his voice. In fact he made it sound like it was a common occurrence and no big deal.
“You did your job, now I’ll do mine,” Lt. Colonel Yeager shot the man twice in the chest.
When he go back into the car, Lisa asked, “Where’s the guard?”
“He’s out of work, so I expedited his unemployment benefits.”
As they headed back to the base, Lt Colonel Yeager offered his heartfelt thanks to his fellow Marine, “Gunny, thanks for helping bringing our daughter home.”
“It has been my honor and privilege, sir.”
“I think your new call sign should be 12 Steps,” Lt. Colonel Yeager said.
“I can live with that.”
Zoey asked her parents, “I’ve got a lot of things that I want to tell you, but I have one question first, how did you know where to find me?”
Before anybody could attempt to explain what was unexplainable, the radio started playing The Ballad of San Leandro.
Epilogue -Memorial Day is a time to pay tribute to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. It is also a day to give thanks to those brave men and women who do not hesitate to go into harm’s way for God, family and country.