Finding the Coastguardsman

How Difficult it Was Finding The 420 Coast Guardsman from 45 years ago…A Six Year Search (The short version).

Finding the U.S. Coast Guard member with the cannabis growing project that instigated the original meetings at 4:20 in 1971 was quite a challenge. It took six years of efforts, much determination, and a lot of perseverance to track him down. There were hundreds of leads, cold calls and dead ends. Most people would have given up.

What made the search most difficult, especially in the first few years was that the subject matter was about marijuana– an illegal drug. It was not legalized in any states and not yet decriminalized anywhere. Medical marijuana was in the closet. Vast portions of the public still had never heard of the term ‘420’.
Leads had to be followed with phone calls to people, and those with jobs, mortgages, and children in the house overhearing their phone conversations were totally skeptical about talking to complete strangers calling them up out of the blue to discuss illegal drugs and strange stories. There were a lot of nervous spouses to deal with. Caller ID screening and voice mail systems complicated the process. And getting to talk with people when they had the time in their very busy lives was a challenge. Every single call to every stranger required a carefully-planned well thought out phone script to ease them into the subject matter. The voice had to be modulated when explaining what it was about, and a careful listening and response to every one of their reactions and questions was essential. It all had to work to avoid a hang up, and there were quite a few of them.

The friend (Bill McNulty) who originally presented the Coast Guardsman’s Pt. Reyes Peninsula cannabis map to the Waldos passed in the1980’s. Internet databases generally unavailable to the public were mined and scrutinized in great detail, and county records were pulled and studied. There was one living close relative (Bill’s brother Patrick) but with a multitude of Pats old addresses and phone numbers a lot of calls to strangers went nowhere for many weeks. Finally, there was contact with brother Pat, but initial conversations yielded only limited information. It was confirmed from the first conversation that there was a ‘brother in law’ that was in the Coast Guard at Pt. Reyes Station in 1971 that was married to Bill’s and Pat’s ‘half sister’ Marilyn from one of their parents earlier marriages. We were not informed which one of the parents it was. It did not seem from first conversation that there was much, if any, present-day contact with the half sister. It did not seem appropriate to further press on the matter in an out-of-the blue phone call.

We were told that the Coast Guard member’s name was Gary Newman, but was not given the spelling. Unfortunately, it was a common name and it could be spelled Newman, Numan, Neuman, and any one of them could have two n’s at the end.

In the process of trying to locate Patrick (Bill’s brother) mystery names that were on his internet database reports were called or e mailed…without any understanding as to why they would be listed on Pat’s report. There had to be some life connection to show up on his report. One of the people who called me back was an ex spouse of Patrick. After I explained who I was and what kind of information I was after, she said that she would determine if I was ‘legitimate’ and would call me back if I ‘checked out’. She finally called back a few days later to reveal that I had passed the tests and that I was determined to not be a lunatic or fraudster. She knew the present location of the half sister who was married to the Coast Guardsman at one time. She would not give the phone number to us, but instead called to interview the Coast Guardsman’s wife herself. The report came back that everything I had said was confirmed and solidly verified by the Coast Guardsman’s wife….the time 1971, the place Pt.Reyes Lighthouse Station, the military duty, the marriage, and the Coast Guardsman’s relationship and interaction with his brother-in-law Bill who gave the Waldos the cannabis map.

We were told that the Coast Guardsman was still living somewhere in the greater Sonoma County area….(This piece of information turned out to NOT be true and threw us off for a few years in our search.) Other than these leads, the Coast Guardsman’s ex wife did not want to have anything more to do with us or the story. She was extremely strait laced and would have nothing to do with the illegal world of cannabis. Whether true or not, there was also a hint that there might be some family friction that would impede cooperation.
With this information, there was more mining of database records and then cold phone calls were made to Sonoma County Newmans, Neumans, Numans, and every spelling variation of the name. The age range was limited to those who could have served in the military in the 1970s. Once again, phone scripts were used and people skeptical of fraudsters and lunatics had to be quickly won over in conversation to avoid a hang up. All of the calls yielded nothing, so the difficult cold-call search project was extended into nearby Marin, Mendocino and Napa and Lake Counties. Still nothing.

Hoping that any tidbit of information might help our search, marriage and divorce records were mined. Nothing was found anywhere. Phone calls and e mails were made to Washington D.C. bureaucracies that would have access to Coast Guard records, however, all of the paths ended up as dead ends. Discouraged, our search for the Coast Guardsman ended…. we figured we lost him to time.

About a year later, an e mail came in from a fellow somewhere in the Southern U.S.
He had been reading about the Waldo’s 420 origins in the Huffington Post… and all about the Coast Guard member at Point Reyes USCG station who was growing weed. This Southern fellow had an ex brother-in-law who was in the Coast Guard and was stationed at Pt. Reyes during the same era of the early 70’s. This Coastguardsman he spoke of was living in the limited USCG housing units at Pt. Reyes, and there were troubles on base with the commanding officer related to pot.
So the new question was, ‘is this in any way connected to our Coast Guardsman?’ We had heard years back that our Coast Guardsman, Gary, was not growing alone. He may have had an accomplice(s) in his growing concern. May this be the accomplice?
Filled with hope, we tracked down this USCG service member, still living in California in 2013, and heard quite a story of lives disrupted by the commanding officer. But he did not recognize the name of our Coast Guardsman. From this encounter, we could only surmise that this fellow’s ordeal was the impetus that spooked our Coast Guardsman Gary into thinking that he would be busted (and sparked the decision to draw the map that was turned over to the Waldos.) The end result was that no major leads came out of these conversations.

A bit discouraged, many more months passed by. It was reluctantly accepted that we had forever lost the Coast Guardsman to Father Time, however, there was always a nagging suspicion that maybe there was something more we could have done to locate Gary.

Eventually, a combination of life elements and sociological change reignited the search. The life element was that the oldest of the Waldos, Waldo Steve, had reached sixty years of age in 2014. When people get up to that age level, they often glance at newspaper obituaries to see if anybody they know recently passed. A watch on the obituaries alarmed Steve that people in their fifties and sixties were dropping every single week. The Coast Guardsman would now be well into his sixties because he had to be old enough to be in the Coast Guard in 1971. It was realized that–wherever in the world our Coast Guardsman was–he could drop any day and if we didn’t take bold measures find him right then, we may never ever get the chance to hear his story.
The second element was sociological change. The public was now more tolerant of marijuana and more open to discuss. Medical marijuana was an expanding phenomena in California and in other states. In California especially, so many that you might talk to ‘knew somebody else’ who had a medical marijuana card. Weed in Colorado was being seriously considered for legalization. Many more people had now heard of the term ‘420’. More tolerant baby boomers were now in control of the economy so people were not as paranoid to discuss the subject.

The next round of searching started with the U.S. Government in Washington D.C.. I was aware that you cannot obtain a U.S. Coast Guardsman’s service record unless you are the person who served, or you are immediate next of kin. As Pt. Reyes was such a tiny base and it was a rather narrow window of time (1970-1972), it was hoped that we could get enough government cooperation to just determine the correct spelling of our Coast Guardsman name. Rounds of phone calls, e mails, voice mails, and referrals to other departments and individuals were fruitless. Then more of these same rounds were repeated at other USCG record facilities in St. Louis and South San Francisco. Everything turned up dry…nothing but dead ends. Outside private consultants who make a living specializing in obtaining and analyzing military/government records and historical documents were then found. They too were unable to help.

Not even really knowing the full name of the Coast Guardsman’s wife, internet research was done on the family. Maiden and married names of parents were determined, but second marriages made things confusing. Places lived, and places of birth and death were scrutinized but led to nothing useful. Consultations with counselors at ancestry websites were done but yielded nothing useful either. There were also hours at the County library with microfilms and microfiches that yielded nothing useful. (complicated by the fact that they were all low profile individuals).

Finally, with nothing else to go on, a follow up call with Patrick (Bill’s brother) was made. Whether it was increased awareness of the how much the 420 term had spread in the world, a changed sociological environment or some other factor, the timing was just right. He was able to talk with his half sister who further opened up to provide some key information; the Coast Guardsman’s full name including middle name, age, and where he was originally from. From this information a detailed database report on the individual was pulled which showed many past addresses in the San Jose, CA. area, and what appeared to be a current residential land line phone number. (There were no cell numbers and no e mail addresses.) When we called the number the residents said that he had not lived there for about two years and to the best of their knowledge he was last living in shelters and eating at soup kitchens.
A week later we took a 1.5 hour drive down to San Jose and visited the last known physical residential address listed on our report….only to be told the same thing…that he was surviving with the help of the Salvation Army. and lost to the streets. While talking to the residents, we ran into a friendly individual who knew Gary but had not seen him in over a year but gave us a partial physical description.
Our next visit was the Salvation Army (soup kitchen/shelter). We could not find him there, and talking with various employees yielded no useful information. They mentioned another large soup kitchen/shelter in San Jose called City Lights. We went over there to look for him but he was not found. Friendly discussions with a number of shelter employees and other interesting characters there too yielded nothing for us.

We then went to another house that was listed as a residential address in the past to see if we could learn anything. We quickly befriended the homeowner and he invited us into his home. He talked to us as he fried up a fish dinner. His fearful wife hid behind a half open door and kept asking over and over who we were, and if we were detectives.
Coastguardsman Gary had actually never lived there. The fish-frying guy turned out to be a painting contractor who was a former employer of our Coast Guardsman. He mentioned that the Coast Guardsman had a son (in the region), and told us a bit about the Coast Guardsman’s work habits, lifestyle and attempts to get disability for a bad ankle. He also mentioned the Coast Guardsman’s effort to get social security at about the same time he left the painting contractor (about two years prior).

A second trip to San Jose, CA was planned. A report was pulled on the Coast Guardsman’s son and we believed we had a current address. Phone calls to listed numbers in the report were all disconnected or wrong numbers. The night before the San Jose trip, a very careful letter was written up to leave on the door or mailbox in case we could not reach him when he was at home. We drove down to San Jose. Nobody was home, however we talked to neighbors and the building manager… and it turned out that the son did not actually live there anymore. Notes were left on the apartment unit door with hope that it may turn up any tidbit-lead.
The second stop during the second San Jose trip was to a new physical address that suddenly appeared on the Coast Guardsman’s internet database report. (The database report was pulled repeatedly to see if there was something that we had missed.) Maybe he had finally found a new place to live? We went over there and it turned out to be a totally boarded up house. Interviews with nearby neighbors said that homeless people had been living there illegally, and it was boarded up about a year earlier. A building contractor’s sign on the property had a phone number which was called but that too yielded no useful information. Again, we figured we lost him to the streets forever, with images of him living under a freeway somewhere with a shopping cart full of belongings.

We were ready to go home empty handed, but at the last second decided to go to just ONE more physical address listed for the Coast Guardsman’s son. The house was miles out of the way in a nice residential neighborhood. We knocked on the door of a very nice woman– an older widow– and had to introduce ourselves and our very strange story. She invited us into her home and we went into more detail. She was very understanding and found it all interesting. Strangely enough, it turned out that the Coast Guardsman’s son was coming over to visit her in just a few hours. The son had been friends with, and cared for her own son who had many physical challenges including blindness. When her own son passed on, the Coast Guardsman’s son remained friends with her and would sometimes visit on Sunday afternoons. We went home and phoned back to her home in the evening. We were hoping for any key piece of information about the Coast Guardsman’s location, but were disappointed to learn that his son had lost touch and did not know where Gary was. Again, we figured we would never find Gary ourselves and deemed him ‘lost to the streets forever’.

We returned home and took a break for a few weeks, however, we could not just give up. The fire reignited. I called a woman on a database which we believed to be the Coast Guardsman’s second wife. (The prior employer we met had mentioned that Gary had more than one wife.) In a cold call with another careful scripted introduction, the longer conversation revealed that she was actually an ex in-law. We got quite an earful about the Coast Guardsman’s past lifestyles, but no leads as to where we may find him. She had not seen him in years.

Endlessly dwelling on the next search move, it was remembered that we were told weeks back that the Coast Guardsman was going to apply for Social Security at one time. Knowing his age to be 67 in 2015, it was likely he had it by now. How would he get his check? With no residence, he would have to get it at a P.O. Box or as a direct deposit. Methods and exact timing of Social Security deposits were researched. If it was a direct deposit there would be no reason to go to a P.O. Box. We did a search and did find a P.O. Box, but was not sure if the box was still an open/working box or in his name at the current time. (There were many names associated with the box over several years.) A careful letter was written with strategic motivation to contact us and multiple methods for contacting us 24/7. Two copies were sent; one as a regular letter and one as Certified U.S. mail. At noon the following day, a follow-up call to the USPS revealed an official (Certified mail) acceptance of the letter–it was accepted at a working box. We were still not sure if our fellow owned the box, or if he would pick up the letter, or if he would toss it.

We learned that when Social security payments are mailed out to recipients, they are sent on a staggered basis during the month based on certain criteria. (Everybody doesn’t get their check on the same day, such as the first of the month). Knowing this we waited for the staggered dates to arrive. They arrived and passed with no response or contact from the P.O. box owner. One more time, we accepted that our fellow was lost to time and the streets forever.

Approximately two months later Waldo Steve was getting a bite to eat in an emptied-out saloon/Mexican diner in a dusty old ghost town in far southwest Texas–Terlingua, TX. Huge lightning storms had rolled in and so there were no other customers at the saloon-restaurant. Completely unexpected out-of-the-blue, between claps of thunder, a crackly call came in on the cell phone from a lady named Carol who identified herself as Gary’s (the Coast Guardsman’s) caretaker…and was with him. He had received my letter at his P.O. Box. As we talked, I could hear a rough male voice communicating with her to answer my various questions through her. He could be heard saying, “I can remember everything that happened while in the Coast Guard”. It was agreed that we would all get together when upon return from Texas.

After a return from Texas, she could not be reached for weeks and weeks. Voice mails were never returned. Calls were tried at different times of the day thinking that maybe they were morning people, night owls, only available after 5:00pm when work let out or at the lunch hour, or on the weekend. Very disappointed, it was once again believed we hit a terminal dead end. Then after about a two month break, one random call was made. We reached her and all agreed to meet at Denny’s Restaurant at First and Brokaw in San Jose on the following Saturday.
Hours of preparation were made for the meeting. There were multiple checks of video equipment and back ups. Lists of questions were formed. Detailed topographic maps of Pt. Reyes were purchased for review. There was the ultimate goal of getting Coast Guard records, so websites and forms related to military information requests were studied. And most difficult, all five Waldos would have to be there which required coordination with bosses, wives, families, and individual needs.
As Saturday approached, multiple calls were made to Carol to try to reconfirm the meeting. No pickups and no returned voice mails: nothing but silence. Finally Saturday arrived and we all drove down to Dennys in San Jose. Not knowing what Gary or Carol looked like, the Waldos spent an hour an a half approaching strangers who looked like they could be them. Our Coastguardsman never showed. The day was a bust.

Carol’s last name was not known but we did have her cell number. A trace was done on that number and it appeared that the phone was registered to a Mr. Cummings. When we called what appeared to be a land line, a man answered. We started to explain that we were looking for Carol and Gary (registered to his cell number). The man yelled to somebody nearby that a ‘friend of Gary’s was calling.’ A female voice yelled back to ‘hang up’. A click was heard and dead air. Another dead end.
A very calculated and strategic letter was then written to Cummings and sent. $420 was offered if he could help us to connect with Carol and/or Gary. No result whatsoever. Another dead end.

The next try was another letter to Gary’s P.O. Box. The letter was designed to be as foolproof as could be. It stated that we had all missed the date at Denny’s earlier, and we would like to try again for an interview about Gary’s time in the Coast Guard. It laid out every Saturday and Sunday for an entire month and had a checkbox next to any day he could meet with us. We all opened our weekend schedules for an entire month, for a meeting at any time and any place at his convenience. For a response, we put in a self addressed stamped envelope, and included a pen to check a box…. easy to check a box and put the answer in the mailbox right there at the Post Office. A month rolled by and there was no response whatsoever.

Another few months passed by with no new plans, and then one day it was decided to again randomly try Carol’s mobile number with a new pitch. She answered, and knowing that the call was likely to be extremely short (and that no earlier try for an interview was successful) it was decided to NOT try for an interview ‘about Gary’s history with the Coast Guard’. Instead I launched instantly right into a speech about ‘420’,–what it was, how hugely popular it was, and how Gary was involved with it. Carol got very excited. She said that earlier requests for an interview were always met with skepticism and no enthusiasm because they thought that it might have had something to do with the Vietnam War. Now knowing that it was all about ‘420’, she was excited and instantly headed off into the streets to find him. She said that she knew ‘the bridge that he was living under’, and this did not seem to be just a metaphor but a literal. Late in the afternoon she called back and said she knows that she just missed him by ten minutes, but was unable to contact him.

More weeks went by with no contact, and it was finally decided to hire a licensed Private Investigator. We could hunt down the completely uncooperative Mr.Cummings with the registered cell phone number (of Gary’s supposed caretaker Carol), but each time we would drive to San Jose in Bay Area traffic it could take two hours down and two hours back and whatever time it took to complete any mission in San Jose. The mission for the PI, Julie Jackson of Novato, CA, would be to find Gary on the streets of San Jose and/or to find caretaker Carol without knowing her last name or anything else about her. There was an initial meeting with detective Julie to explain all about ‘420? and our unusual quest, to share all earlier paths taken to find Gary, and all of the database information that was already amassed.
Julie’s first stop were the police departments to find out if they had any encounters with Gary. There were some earlier infractions on his database reports, so it had to be determined what they were and if he was dangerous at all. Comically, at one early booking incident, it said that he refused to provide identity and was therefore originally booked in as ‘Old Fart’. The infractions were not related to any weapons charges and were determined to be minor. Booking information and booking photos provided the first real physical descriptions needed to find him.

Julie dove right in, working the streets. Knowing that Gary had a P.O. Box, his radius could not be too far from the box. Knowing that he had earlier planned to meet us at the Denny’s at First and Brokaw in San Jose, it would likely not be too far from there too. Knowing that he could obtain a meal and/or shelter at certain nearby shelters, and that it was already the middle of the rainy season, he may not be too far from there either.
Julie immediately befriended an older homeless guy knowing that the much older homeless guys tend to know the other older homeless guys, and that most of them have patterns of behavior and locale. (The younger ones are more transient and more unpredictable.) This one older fellow did actually know of Gary and was very helpful in many ways:

Gary’s locales were narrowed down to about a two and a half mile radius.
You just can’t go in and start searching the homeless community alone as they are skeptical and suspicious. If you go in with another homeless person, they are more comfortable with you. Everybody had to be sure that Julie was only a Private Investigator and not a cop. There were a lot of dangerous people, many of them meth heads, so it was better to be with another person.
The older homeless fellow had a cellphone so he could call her or she could him for any updates.

The police department was helpful. They were informed of her activities, knew the transient communities, and wanted her to be safe. They had to stay at a good distance so that the homeless would not think that she was a cop, and at the same time, keep an eye on her from afar while she mixed with dangerous individuals.

Julie understood what really motivated people in these communities. Rather than the offer of a cash reward, it may only be the offer of a certain brand of beer that they really like that motivates them the most. This one older homeless gentleman had a very small cellphone bill that was overdue, and the phone was about to be shut off. Walking right down to the cellphone store with him and taking care of the bill earned his loyalty.
Somehow he really got the word out into the homeless community and within days caretaker Carol called Waldo Steve’s cellphone to say she knows that we were looking for Gary in the streets.

A few more weeks went by with more silence and no responses to calls to Carol or voicemails left. Then one dark rainy Friday night while eating at Cha Ya Vegetarian Restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission District around closing time, a call came in. Carol said she had found Gary by the side of the railroad tracks in the rain and that I should definitely call her tomorrow Saturday morning to arrange for an interview. I said we would pay for a night in a motel room so that we would have a quiet place to interview him (rather than in a noisy restaurant somewhere) and that he could stay in a safe and dry place with a nice bed afterwards. I tried to call her multiple times on Saturday morning as requested but was unable to reach her. Also tried all of the rest of Saturday and all of Sunday with no success. (A few weeks later when she was finally reached, we were told that on that rainy evening by the railroad tracks Gary had run off. He had some money in his pocket and he was afraid that we were going to rob him. I said that if we were going to pay for a motel room for a night it was ridiculous to think that we would do that to take his money. She agreed.)

The focus shifted to finding Carol herself. Julie went to San Jose and somehow did find Carol, and fortunately there was a good level of comfort between the two. They spent the day playing detective together in an attempt to find Gary, but did not find him. Days later, Carol did find him by herself and a Saturday meeting was set up for an interview. The meeting was then canceled which was frustrating after many years of dead ends.

The week before the Superbowl (2016 in San Jose, CA) Julie mentioned that the city would be clearing out the homeless camps to make the city appear better. Knowing that it would possibly be difficult for Gary, we offered again to provide a cheap motel for a quiet filmed interview, and a place for Gary to stay until the Superbowl was over. Carol worked very hard to alleviate any of his fears. We met at the White Way Motel in San Jose. When Waldo Steve asked the motel operator how much it would be to put Gary up in the room for four days the motel operator said, including tax, it would be exactly $420.
We have the receipt!