Tragedy on the Rivas Ranch

Pieces of the Past

June 30, 2011 

Throughout its 118-year history, officials of Madera County have had to deal with a variety of crises. Lawmen, firefighters and various elected officials have from time to time been called upon to perform tasks that demanded dedication above and beyond the call of duty. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the history of the coroner's office.

One of Madera County's first coroners was Richard Curtis Jay, founder of Jay's Chapel and a pioneer in this area. Upon the retirement of the elder Jay, his son, Robert Seldon Jay, assumed the business, as well as the position of coroner and one day in early December 1915, the younger Jay learned the full implications of holding his father's office.

It was in the afternoon of Dec. 8, that Jay received a call from a frantic young lady by the name of Inez Rivas, informing him that she had found a man dead near a cabin not far from her home. The Rivas family knew the deceased to be one G.L. Burke, age 55, who had been living on his homestead in the hills for a number of years. He had been in poor health for as long as the Rivas family had known him, having come to the foothills of Madera County on account of a respiratory condition.

Jay announced to the Madera Mercury that he would be traveling to the O'Neals area to conduct an inquest into Burke's death and to bring the remains down to Madera for burial. Nobody here suspected that this would be anything more than a routine assignment. Little did they know.

The young coroner made his way past O'Neals to the Rivas ranch, which is now known as Yosemite Lakes Estates. When he arrived on the scene, Jay found that this assignment was going to require all of the intestinal fortitude he could muster. The mortician-coroner was facing one of the most gruesome sights of his life.

It was evident to Jay that Burke had been dead for several days, although the body was still lying on a trail not far from his "shanty" of a cabin. The flesh of the old man's face had been totally devoured, as had one leg. Inside the cabin, a handwritten note, intending to inform someone of his whereabouts, had been written by Burke.

"Am feeling very bad. Am at the spring. Come up." Jay left everything as it was and returned to the Rivas house. It was there that he learned the entire story. Inez had been sent to the Burke cabin to check on the old man, since his poor health was a matter of concern to all who knew him.

As she walked down the trail, she saw Burke's pet pig rooting along the ground. Thinking nothing of it, the girl continued her walk until she was within a few yards of the animal. Then she was shocked beyond measure. Burke's pet pig was feasting on his remains.

Inez, retching with every step, returned to her home to tell her family. Her father ran to the scene, drove the pig away, and penned him up. At that point, Jay was contacted, and within a few hours, the coroner was on the scene.

Jay's first task was to gather up the remains and bring them to Madera. After that he held a coroner's inquest utilizing the services of Vic Sunia Jr., Elmer Amer, Will Aiken, A.E. Preciado, F. E. Norton, and O.D. Chetworth as jurors.

The jury determined that Burke had died of "tuberculosis of the lungs, chronic pericarditis and chronic myocarditis." It was evident to the men that Burke was either on the way to the spring or returning from it when he collapsed.

It was further concluded that since it was Burke's custom to feed his pig at the cabin, the animal came to the door in search of its normal ration of food. After several days of nothing to eat, it was reasoned that "extreme hunger" caused the pig to dine on Burke's body.

It fell upon Jay to contact the closest living relative of the deceased, one Frank Guitarg of Oakland and to inform him of Burke's demise. Guitarg arranged for the funeral, which was held in Madera on Friday, Dec. 10, 1915.

Robert Seldon Jay, as Madera County Coroner, went on to carry out his duties, both as mortician and public official, and no doubt he encountered many other difficult situations before he retired and turned the family business over to his son. None, however, could have been more bizarre than the "pet pig that ate its master."

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