2004-04-02 / Neighbors

The ‘barefoot boys of Box Canyon

By Michelle Knight
knight@theacorn.com

By Michelle Knight knight@theacorn.com

Photos by MICHAEL COONS/Simi Valley Acorn  NOT WELCOME HERE-From the Fountain of the World cult house entrance: "Ye who enter here enter in upon holy ground."Photos by MICHAEL COONS/Simi Valley Acorn NOT WELCOME HERE-From the Fountain of the World cult house entrance: "Ye who enter here enter in upon holy ground."

It was decades ago, but fire- fighter Larry Dransfeldt still remembers the warning he heard as his fire engine pulled out of Station 42 in Moorpark to fight a house fire on the twisting Box Canyon Road in eastern Simi Valley.

"Be careful," the station captain warned. "I don’t know what you’ll find."

Prior to his arrival in the early morning hours of Dec. 10, 1958, an explosion had ripped the home and touched off a fire that ran up the rugged hillside toward the Rocketdyne testing facility. Dransfeldt remembers children watching nearby with stunned faces as he and others worked feverishly to put the fire out. He also remembers finding body parts hidden in the darkness.

Members of a cult known as Wisdom, Knowledge, Faith, Love Fountain of the World had lived for five years in a canyon compound that consisted of eight simple buildings located one-half mile from the Los Angeles county line. Following a leader known as Krishna Venta—in the decade before the hippie movement began—the believers left behind jobs as nurses, lawyers, musicians and engineers to walk barefoot, wear monklike robes and, ironically, assist in fighting fires. Years earlier, the robed workers had helped survivors of a downed airplane reach safety.


RESPONDED TO THE CALL-Retired Ventura County firefighters Larry Dransfeldt, left, and Willard Burkhart recall the night Ralph Muller strapped himself with dynamite and killed nine members of the Fountain of the World cult in December 1958 in Box Canyon.RESPONDED TO THE CALL-Retired Ventura County firefighters Larry Dransfeldt, left, and Willard Burkhart recall the night Ralph Muller strapped himself with dynamite and killed nine members of the Fountain of the World cult in December 1958 in Box Canyon.

The day before the Box Canyon explosion, Venta had asked county supervisors for permission to once again fight fires. The group had been banned from the practice for two years because barefooted and robed firefighters presented a liability that the county wanted to avoid. Venta was told he could take his request up with the county fire chief if he liked.

The cult leader never did. The explosion occurred the next day.

According to police reports, two former members who were seeking revenge for indiscretions that Venta had committed with their wives detonated 20 sticks of dynamite as they confronted him on the steps of the cult’s headquarters. The report said one stick was enough to do the job.

Venta was identified through a dental plate. Nine other people, including two children and the two assailants, died in the blast. Police said the dynamite was wrapped around the body of one of the assailants.


MICHAEL COONS/Simi Valley Acorn  CRASH PADS-Members of the Fountain of the World cult house slept in caves above their home in Box Canyon.MICHAEL COONS/Simi Valley Acorn CRASH PADS-Members of the Fountain of the World cult house slept in caves above their home in Box Canyon.

In an ironic twist, a small fire station sat directly across the street from the compound, but immediate help was delayed because the explosion threw the huge door of the fire station off its hinges. One firefighter had to lift the door while another drove the engine out.

Willard Burkhart, who was a Simi Valley volunteer firefighter at the time, recalls the cult members as being somewhat odd folk, but hard workers.

"It would be as cold as the devil and they would ride around in an open truck," Burkhart said. They rummaged for food inside one grocery store dumpster after another. "I tried to stay away from them."

The followers constructed their own dwellings, he said, not bothering toobtain building permits. Several of the structures still stand today, as does the stone-gulley wash that acts like a moat in front of one of the remaining buildings.

Burkhart and Dransfeldt recently returned to the scene of the crime, and although more than half a century has passed, they still recall the "barefoot boys of Box Canyon" and the horror that occurred that day.

Mystery Unraveled

Venta claimed to have been born in Nepal, India, having traveled to Earth thousands of years earlier from another planet. He said he was Jesus Christ.

In reality, Venta was born in 1911 as one Francis Pencovic. According to police, he had minor brushes with the law and was arrested and convicted on charges of burglary, petty theft and fictitious check writing. He was married twice and had a brief stay in jail for non-support of his first wife and their two children. He told the judge that regular work violated his religious beliefs. He married again and had six more children.

With the cult’s population growing, Venta’s operation began expanding. He opened a branch in Alaska and sent 45 people to live there, including his wife and children. The group continued their custom of going without shoes even in the dead of Alaska winter.

According to the rules of the cult, followers had to sign over all possessions to the charismatic Venta, who preached love and acceptance at a time when uncertainty and upheaval were beginning to sweep the country. Visitors were welcomed to the cult; in fact, when the two assassins went to the main house in the wee hours of the morning, no one gave it a second thought since visitors often showed up at all hours of the day and night.

Memories Among the Ruins

On the property today, visitors are greeted by a large wood beam carved with a message of welcome. Charles Manson is purported to have spent time with the cult, cared for and fed by the few members that remained there during the years after Venta’s death. Manson went on to start his own infamous commune at nearby Spahn Ranch.

Venta was once quoted as saying that much of the group’s activity was just a gimmick to sell his promise for a better way of life. But the two men who carried the sticks of dynamite to their death that day complained that Venta had engaged in illicit sex acts and had allowed his followers to fall ill and die due lack of proper medical care.

The disenfranchised followers had gone to newspapers and law enforcement officials seeking help. A Los Angeles law enforcement official reportedly told the men to bring a signed confession from Venta and then he would prosecute. The assailants chose to handle their problems with dynamite instead.

After his death, Venta’s followers dwindled to a tenacious few. The Alaska devotees soon went their separate ways, though several continued to live by the group’s simple philosophy of service toward others.

Brother Asaiah, a cult member who had been at the compound the day of the blast and later moved to Alaska, died four years ago at the age of 78. He had been held in high regard by city officials and environmentalists alike.

The legacy of Krishna Venta remains sullied at best.

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