The Mirage of 'California City': Deception, Power and Money in the Mojave Desert

28 min
Every time reporter Emily Guerin visited California City for her investigation into real estate schemes, this billboard on the outskirts of town displayed a different Bible verse. (Emily Guerin/KPCC)

In 2017, Ben Perez went to a Mojave Desert resort for a free vacation and ended up signing away his life savings.

He was sold on an idea that a mostly uninhabited, sun-baked desert city might one day become the next Palm Springs, the next Silicon Valley. It turned out Perez is one of tens of thousands of people who've been drawn into this mirage for decades.

The new podcast "California City" follows award-winning journalist Emily Guerin in uncovering the mind-boggling history of a place made up of sprawling suburbs ... with no houses. A place where empty desert land is presented as a ticket to the American Dream.

California City is carved out of the Mojave Desert. It was designed in the late 1950s for hundreds of thousands of people, but today, there are only about 14,000 residents. Many neighborhoods remain unbuilt. Dirt roads lead to nowhere. Some have street signs, but many are unnamed. One former resident remembered standing at the corner of 'blank and blank.' (Chava Sanchez/KPCC)

For decades, real estate developers have gotten rich by selling this fever dream to thousands of people, many of whom are hard-working immigrants looking to build a better future.

But the reality is much different.

The land investments never paid off, and the landowners — many of whom scraped together their life savings to buy a plot of land — were left with next to nothing.

California City is filled with signs advertising vacant land for sale. (Chava Sanchez/KPCC)

California City is just a few miles north of Edwards Air Force Base.

It's the third-largest city in the state by land area, but the population stood at only 14,120 in the last census. It's a one-bar town surrounded by a vast layout of unpaved streets, filled with people too afraid to talk about the heart of the problem.

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It's a story in which victims can be perpetrators and heroes can be villains — from the do-gooder attorney who helped thousands of people before committing a heinous crime of his own, to a former police chief who decided not to investigate an open secret in his own town.

To uncover the full scope of this story, and raise awareness about the thousands of people who were affected, this Western crime noir goes back to where it all got started 60 years ago by an immigrant with a dream of his own.

California City is the third largest city in the state - by land area. But it's never become the thriving community early developers promised it would be. (Chava Sanchez/KPCC)

In this episode of the California Report Magazine, Guerin tells us how salespeople convinced Ben Perez to spend 5 years' worth of his savings in a matter of three hours.

It's an excerpt from the first episode of the California City podcast, an 8-part series from our partners at LAist Studios.