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150 years of misfortune in L.A.’s Griffith Park: A curse, ghosts and, now, an unknown woman’s skull

The Bronson Canyon Trail in Griffith Park. (Laura Randall)

There are caves carved in canyons, sheer cliffs, twisting trails and craggy peaks, all of it barely more than a mile from the freeway but seemingly a world a way. That’s what makes the rugged, mountainous Griffith Park so appealing to filmmakers — it’s been home to the Bat Cave, a hiding place for Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter in the original “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” a Klingon penal colony in the Star Trek series.

But the Los Angeles park has enough strange and sometimes grim history for a movie of its own. It’s said to be inhabited by ghosts and haunted by a 150-old curse. And it’s been the scene of a number of murder mysteries in the past few years, including one that’s still unfolding.

It began earlier this month, when a pair of hikers stumbled upon a human skull laying partially uncovered on a little-used side trail within a stone’s throw of the park’s famous Hollywood sign. Investigators for the Los Angeles Police Department and Coroner’s Office swarmed to the spot, according to KPCC, searching for evidence of a crime scene. But they found nothing.

A little more than a week later, a forensic anthropologist with the coroner’s office says that the skull belonged to a woman who was at least 20 at the time of her death, according to the Los Angeles Times. The fragment of bone has been lying in the park for at least one year, and as many as 10. But it’s still not clear who the woman was, or how she died.

When reporters trekked up into the canyon the morning after the skull was found, the hikers they encountered seemed spooked but not entirely surprised by the discovery.

“It’s pretty rugged. And a lot of shrubberies and bush,” Paula Mindays told KABC. “Once you get off the beaten trail anything could be happening there.”

Griffith Park is one of the country’s largest urban parks — 4,210 acres of rocky, rubble-strewn mountains and chaparral-covered slopes. A zoo, an observatory, museums and an amphitheater dot the park’s border. But its interior is rugged and remote.

The park is said to have been cursed since its beginnings. In the mid-19th century it was a vast, rich ranch belonging to a wealthy bachelor, Don Antonio Feliz, who lived there with his housekeeper and his niece Petranilla. In 1863, as the Don lay dying of smallpox, an influential local politician named Antonio Coronel came to draw up Feliz’s will. Coronel and his lawyer claimed that Feliz gave his assent to the document, which left the ranch to the politician and nothing for Petranilla. But others say that a stick was attached to the ailing man’s head, forcing him to nod as the will was read aloud for his approval.

Either way, Petronilla was infuriated by the outcome: “The substance of the Feliz family shall be your curse!” she swore, according to legend (as reported by the Glendale News-Press). “The wrath of heaven and the vengeance of hell shall fall upon this place.”

The curse of the Felizes may be nothing but a myth. But it is true that the ranch that would become Griffith Park changed hands with disconcerting rapidity over the next 30 years — and that its many owners kept meeting nasty fates. Coronel swiftly ceded the property to his lawyer, who was shot and killed while celebrating the sale of the land’s water rights. The next owner attempted to turn the ranch into a dairy business, but the cattle sickened and died, and grasshoppers and fires demolished the crops. During the tenure of its last owner, Griffith J. Griffith, a lightning storm brought down huge stands of trees and sent a wall of water cascading through the canyons, ruining much of the ranch. According to the book Victorian Los Angeles, ranch hands claimed they saw Feliz’s ghost riding the waves down a hillside, cheering his successor’s demise.

Afterward, Griffith would only visit the property during the day, and in 1896 — apparently having decided that the land was more trouble than it was worth — he donated it to Los Angeles as a Christmas present.

Once in public hands, the misfortunes at Griffith Park seemed to recede. But the rumors did not. The Felizes’ curse was blamed after 29 Civilian Conservation Corps workers died in a 1933 wildfire. The death of a young couple who were crushed by a falling tree while making love on a picnic table in 1976 only added to the tales that the place was haunted.

But in 2002, Griffith Park’s Chief Ranger Albert Torres scoffed at the notion that visitors had anything to fear from the park’s undead inhabitants.

“Frankly I’m not afraid of any make-believe demons as much as I am of some of the living and breathing human monsters who come here,” he told the L.A. Times. “If you knew even a quarter of the stuff we find within the park’s perimeter you’d never set foot in it again. Animal sacrifices, satanic cults, murders, prostitution … with stuff like that happening on a regular basis it makes a pair of 30-year-old ghosts look like good times.”

In 2012, two women walking their dog made a gruesome discovery on one of the park’s hiking trails below the Hollywood sign: it was a severed head, wrapped in a plastic bag. A day later, investigators scouring the scene found more body parts: a right hand and feet buried in a shallow grave. The left hand was found just hours after, according to the L.A. Times. A fingerprint test would identify the remains as belonging to 66-year-old Hervey Medellin, a former Mexicana Airlines employee. But no one knew who would have wanted him dead.

Rumors swirled that Medellin was a member of a Mexican drug cartel, or a victim of a “Canadian cannibal killer” who was also accused of dismembering and eating a Chinese graduate student.

It would be three years before police convicted the real killer: Medellin’s live-in boyfriend, Gabriel Campos-Martinez, who prosecutors said typed out an Internet search on how to “Butcher a Human Carcass for Human Consumption” the day after Medellin was last seen alive, according to KABC. Campos-Martinez is now serving a prison sentence of 25 years-to-life.

Another man’s body found in the park last year turned out to belong to a 24-year-old who had been convicted of meeting minors for sex, according to LAist. The Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office said that it was an apparent suicide.

The mysteries of other remains found in the park are still unsolved. In 2010, hikers found a man’s skull on the park’s Skyline Trail. Authorities told KABC that the skull had likely been in the park for as many as two years — an exhaustive search turned up no other remains.

At the time, Assistant Chief Ed Winter of the coroner’s office told the TV station that his office would attempt to match the skull’s DNA and dental work to the profiles of people reported missing in the area.

“It could take us years to locate and figure out who this person is,” he said.

He was right: Six years later, authorities still don’t know.

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