James Dean's last autograph

James Dean's last autograph

Former local CHP officer wrote Dean a speeding ticket hours before the movie star's death.

This Sunday, it will be 57 years since the world lost its rebel without a cause.

James Dean died after driving through Kern County on September 30, 1955. While it's a date his fans will always remember, it's also an important date for a local man, who all those years ago, didn't know he had a brush with fame.

Just south of Kern County, in the town of Cholame, there's a tribute to movie star James Dean. His life ended just a mile up the road there on September 30, 1955. And, on that day, Otie Hunter was on duty for the California Highway Patrol.

"I was working a 2 to 10 shift south of Bakersfield," said Hunter. "I worked at that time from Greenfield up to the county line up at Lebec, and that's when I ran into Mr. Dean that day."

A documentary made soon after Dean's death shows the legend's love for speed started early. At one point, the announcer says, "They called him One Speed Dean. One speed, wide open."

At age 15, Dean began racing motorcycles in Indiana. As he quickly became a Hollywood icon, his racing kept up with his fast-paced fame, purchasing and racing sports cars.

In an interview shortly before his death, Dean said, "Well, I ran a pretty good race in Palm Springs and Bakersfield. People say racing is dangerous. I'll take my chances on the track any day than on a highway."

That takes us to September 30, 1955. Dean and his racing crew were leaving Hollywood for a race in Salinas. But, Dean, in his Porsche 550 Spyder, and his friend driving a truck pulling the race car's trailer, had to pass through Bakersfield and just happened to speed by Officer Otie Hunter.

"He was running right around 70 miles an hour," said Hunter, "So was the truck behind him. At that time, the vehicle speed was 55 and 45 for a vehicle towing another vehicle. We heard his intent was to get the car here, take it out to Riverside Raceway and run a few laps around the track out there to loosen it up a little bit. But, he never had the time to do it because they said the car was late getting in."

Instead, Dean chose to loosen up his car on Kern County's roads. He made it to Mettler Station on Wheeler Ridge, when Officer Hunter spotted him.

Officer Hunter's traffic stop is marked in the documentary done after Dean's death. Hunter vividly remembers it. But, back then he had no idea he was about to ticket a movie star.

"I told him he shouldn't be running that fast, and he agreed that he was running fast. He told me why, that he was trying to break his car in a little bit so the next day he runs it at Monterey it would be loosened up a little bit," said Hunter. "I told him he shouldn't be doing that. I said that's a good way to get killed or something like that. And, he said ok, he'd slow it down a bit."

Hunter still has a copy of the ticket he wrote Dean. Both of their signatures are clear. The car was registered to Warner Brothers, but it still didn't register to Hunter he'd just ticketed THE James Dean. And, no one knew the Hollywood star only had hours to live.

We drove the rest of Dean's last ride, over the Grapevine and close to what was then, Route 166. Then to Blackwell's Corner, where Dean and his friends stopped for coffee. It was the star's last stop. Today, it's known for that, with Dean's image, like the man, larger than life.

Dean sped on west on Route 466 to Paso Robles, heading toward the intersection of Route 41. That's when Cal Poly student, Donald Turnipseed, turned in Dean's path, just about three hours after Hunter issued his speeding ticket.

It was a near head-on crash that killed Dean. Hunter heard the news when he got back to the CHP station.

"One of the guys said 'did you hear about James Dean today? And, I said what? James Dean got killed. I said who's James Dean?' Then all of a sudden it dawned on me. He said well he's a movie actor. So, I pull my tickets out and sure it was the same James Dean he was talking about," recalled Hunter.

The ticket is likely the last time Dean signed his name. The ticket is what Officer Otie Hunter had hoped would cause the cultural icon to lay off the gas. The ticket is now a piece of Hollywood history, written here in Kern county.

If James Dean were alive, he'd be 81 years old.

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