Sunset Diaries
Episode Seven: Character Is Destiny
By Michael Swartz
Jun 1, 2003 - 5:35:00 PM

Welcome back to episode seven of "Sunset Diaries."

In 1997 Joe Ralph caused an accident while cycling that killed Maria Gibson, wife of local TV anchor Steve Gibson, and her male passenger. Joe was convicted of manslaughter and served two years in prison. Released in 2000 Joe pledged to spend the rest of his life helping people in an attempt to redeem himself. The stories unfold via emails and the journal that Joe calls "Sunset Diaries."

Episode six ended on Monday, October 1, 2001, 20 days after 9/11.

Episode six recap: On Friday 9.28.01 Steve Gibson, now a US Congressman, gave Joe a final warning: either prevent Gibson's young staffer Josie from going public with the affair she had with the recently remarried Gibson or suffer the consequences. Joe refused to intervene and accepted that at best he'd be evicted and lose the organization he'd set up to help people and at worst it was back to jail. Josie had until Tuesday 10.2.01 to decide whether or not to go public.

On Sunday night 9.30.01 the lunatic that had been stalking Joe finally struck, firing a shot while Joe was at a coffee shop. Joe was only slightly injured, but the gunman got away and was still on the loose.

Joe knew Gibson would try and destroy him after Josie's story broke and Tuesday would be his "High Noon." On that day Joe had plans to have breakfast with Merle, the wealthy plastic surgeon whose life Joe had recently saved, lunch with Scooter, a high school acquaintance who needed Joe's help (and an arrangement that Joe hoped would create some cash flow) and, if possible he'd take a bike ride, despite his recent injuries.

The weather remained hot and sticky and feelings were still raw from 9/11. On top of all that, Tuesday October 2, 2001 was going to be a full moon night, rising at 7:07 p.m.

Episode seven takes place on Monday October 2, 2006, the fifth anniversary of the day Joe Ralph performed an amazing and heroic feat on live television, a deed that still resonated years later. To commemorate the anniversary, the local ABC-TV station did a retrospective of the events of 10.2.01, and included an update on Joe, who had been missing since July 2006.

Today's episode features only one email -- an email letter from Betty Clausen (the grandma with Glaucoma that Joe supplied with pot in the early days) to Trudy Ralph, Joe's mom in Indiana. Betty was active in an organization called Friends Of Joe Ralph, whose goal was to keep Joe's name in the public eye and eventually find him and bring him home.

From: Betty Clausen

To: Trudy Ralph

Sent: Monday, October 2, 2006 8:14 PM

Subject: Joe

Dear Mrs. Ralph,

Excuse me for intruding, my name is Betty Clausen and I'm a friend of your boy Joe. I'm an old lady with fading eyesight. I have 3 grown kids, 7 grandkids and a great grandkid due in November! Joe was very kind to me over the years and we became dear friends. I got your email addy from Joe's friend Traci and I hope you don't mind me sending you this.

I wanted to let you know how things stand with the search for Joe as I guess you and Kris must feel very far away back there in Indiana. I'm part of a group of Joe's friends trying to keep his name in the news, that's how these things get solved. I wish there was something good to tell you, but there's nothing new. We hope Joe's story will soon be on "America's Most Wanted" and we just heard that Mayor Magic Johnson will attend the benefit concert we're planning. The group remains optimistic and we're working hard, plastering everywhere with posters and flyers.

I understand you and Joe had your problems but I know he loved you and Kris and his late dad and he spoke of you all often. As a mom I can't imagine how painful all of this must be for you, but please don't give up hope. I just know one day Joe will be back, smiling that Joe smile.

I thought I'd send you something from our local TV station's email newsletter and some of Joe's private journal that he called Sunset Diaries.

Hello again, today is Monday October 2, 2006 and it's the fifth anniversary of missing local man and ex-con Joe Ralph's amazing act of heroism, when he almost single-handedly foiled the kidnapping of a baby.

Here are some excerpts from KABC-TV's 6:00 p.m. on-air News Report from October 2, 2001. Anchors Rick Angel and Angie Walker were just wrapping up the top stories and were about to go to Capt. Kyle McHoul for a traffic report:

Rick: It's 6:30 and topping our news, the heat wave continues to bake the Southland and the baby kidnapped in a daring crime just hours ago in Sherman Oaks remains missing. More on those stories in the coming half hour.

Angie: Now let's go to Capt. Kyle McHoul for a traffic report. Capt. you're usually our "eye in the sky" but today you're our "man in the van!"

Kyle: That's right Angie, due to the continuing ban on flying choppers since 9/11, we're up here on beautiful Mulholland Drive in our Eyewitness news van to get as close to a birds-eye-view as possible! We're traveling eastbound on Mulholland just past Coldwater approaching the Barbara A. Fine Overlook at the Summit, and we can see some trouble on the 134 at Laurel Canyon, a fender bender is causing a major tie up and I suggest taking...WHOA! DAVE, LOOK OUT! (Muffled noises including the sound of the mic slamming against something, yelling, tires screeching, bumping sounds. The picture swerves from a long shot of the freeway back to Mulholland.)

Rick: Kyle are you ok? What happened?

Kyle: Rick we just barely escaped being in a horrific accident as a black Suburban passed us from behind and then nearly crashed into traffic in the westbound lane. Luckily we made it to the shoulder in time.

Angie: Thank goodness you're ok. Rick, was I seeing things? It looked like the SUV was racing or being pursued a guy on a bike, is that right?

Kyle: Yes Angie I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes! And with the very able assistance of cameraman Bart Bonnell and driver Phil Woodley we'll try and follow this remarkable "man bites dog" story that's developing. Dave, let's go!

6:35 p.m.:

Kyle: Dave, keep to the right!

Angie: Kyle, I know you've got your hands full but how safe is it for the cyclist?

Kyle: No question, he's risking life and limb and you've also got to wonder why someone in a Suburban would appear to be running so desperately from a guy on bike? If this weren't so dangerous it would be comical. We're following at a safe distance at speeds of between 35-38 mph around hairpin turns on this narrow two-lane highway. This is no game and it could have deadly consequences.

Rick: How is it possible for the bike to stay with the truck?

Kyle: You can see as we pass the radio antenna, he's faster than the truck in the turns and he's got a pretty strong tailwind. But it's a risky game these idiots are playing.

Rick: Kyle we've just been informed that LAPD is on the way to the scene and there is word that the Suburban might match the description of the vehicle that was spotted at the baby kidnapping in Sherman Oaks. Maybe that's why the bike is chasing the truck, huh?...

6:37 p.m.:

Kyle: Oh! Did you see that?! The driver of the SUV is completely out of control, he narrowly missed a collision with oncoming traffic. Anyone driving on Mulholland between Coldwater and Laurel Canyon is in real danger.

Angie: Yes, LAPD has asked that no one drive anywhere near the scene...

Rick: Oh! The SUV just leaped the curb and smashed through some rose bushes at Laurel Pass and he just keeps right on going He's certainly anxious to get away from the guy on the bike. The determined cyclist never broke stride and he's staying with the Suburban, a strange odd couple speeding along Mulholland!

6:39 p.m.

Rick: Kyle the Suburban is only seconds away from the intersection of Laurel Canyon and Mulholland and I hate to think what might happen next.

Kyle: That's right Rick. Oh! The Suburban ran the red and two cars have collided, no doubt injuring both drivers! This is a chaotic scene! Somehow the cyclist, weaving like a NASCAR driver made it though and is staying right behind the truck! We'll stay here until it's safe to cross...

6:40 p.m.

Angie: Where are you now Capt. McHoul?

Kyle: We're still eastbound on Mulholland passing Fire Station #97 and we can see the Suburban and the cyclist just ahead of us, some eastbound traffic has the Suburban bottled up.

Angie: Kyle, any sign of the police?

Kyle: Angie we can hear sirens and they're almost here so, Dave, pull over here and let the two motorcycle cops go by!

6:41 p.m.

Kyle: We're crossing Wrightwood and we can see the Suburban, the cyclist and the two motorcycles just now passing the Universal City Overlook at speeds close to 40 mph. I tell you this is the most remarkable thing I think I've ever seen!

6:43 p.m.:

Rick: Kyle, we can't see anything, what's with the dust and what are we looking at?

Kyle: We're at the Runyon Canyon parking lot Rick and it appears this strange odyssey is over! The SUV is lying on the driver's side after apparently spinning, rolling over and kicking up dust on the gravel parking lot. There is glass and debris everywhere and this is as close as we should go, the driver could be armed.

Rick: No, stay where you are, stay safe! Kyle, where is the cyclist and where are the two cops?

Kyle: I don't know there's so much dust from the crash that it's hard to see anything. Wait, wait a minute, it looks like the cyclist is on top of the truck and he appears to be pulling something from the Suburban. It's hard to see, but it looks like...

Rick: Kyle, the cyclist got the baby, the cyclist has the baby!

Kyle: Yes, yes he does! He's got the baby! He's running over to the cops, both of whom were apparently shaken up in the accident. Their bikes are on the ground but they appear ok...

Rick: Sorry to interrupt Kyle, but we've just gotten confirmation of the obvious at this point, the baby you just saw being carried by the cyclist was in fact the baby kidnapped earlier today! What a remarkable and incredible story we've all just witnessed on live TV these past few minutes! Truly ladies and gentleman, in my 25 years in the TV news business this is the most amazing footage I've ever seen.

Angie: A happy ending that surely could have gone horribly wrong. I bet that baby's mom is one relieved and happy lady! I still can't believe what I saw...

7:07 p.m.

Angie: Kyle just behind you I can see the hero cyclist who got this whole thing going. Can you get a word with him?

Kyle: I'll try Angie. Excuse me, sir! Sir! Can you come over and speak to me? We're on live TV.

Joe: Ok.

Kyle: What's your name and what happened?

Joe: Joe Ralph. I was just riding my bike when I thought I saw what might be truck from the kidnapping parked at the overlook past Coldwater. I pulled over and the guy bolted and I went after him

Kyle: But you were on your bike!

Joe: I know, but I just reacted. There wasn't much I could do but try and get someone's attention and after we passed your news van I just stayed with him for as long as my legs would hold out...

LAPD Officer: (Pulling Joe away) You can talk to him later, but first we want to get him checked out and...

Rick: Thanks Kyle and thanks Joe Ralph for that amazing story. I'm sure we'll be hearing more about that young hero and what happened later. After a short break we'll check on sports with...

Joe's incredible story of courage and daring touched the city of LA, the nation and the world, as the footage played endlessly all over the globe. The young hero was Joe Ralph, en ex-con who was seeking redemption through good deeds, and this event certainly qualified!

Mayor Hahn celebrated Joe's heroism with a special Joe Ralph day at City Hall, which was attended by celebrities like Magic Johnson and Congressman Steve Gibson (ironically it was Gibson's wife who was tragically killed in the accident that sent Joe to prison). Eventually Joe's profile receded and he returned to his old life and virtual anonymity.

But unfortunately Joe Ralph's name came back in the news in July 2006. He was reported missing on July 4th and hasn't been seen or heard from since. The gunman who'd taken a shot at Joe in 2001 was still on the loose and remains the main suspect in Joe's disappearance. It was discovered that the man, Sid Nerts was angry at Joe, blaming him for taking the life of Maria Gibson, a woman Sid had worshipped from afar.

An organization called Friends of Joe Ralph has been set up and they have a website if you'd like more information on how to help find Joe Ralph.

Trudy, I don't know if you ever saw the tape of the chase but it was really miraculous. You should be very proud of your son. Joe's story became well known, a guy who'd made a mistake and vowed to redeem himself. Typical Joe he turned down most of the offers for money and instead used his fame to help with the causes he loved, helping as he'd always say "the homeless, the down and out and the dispossessed."

Joe never completely confided in me, but I knew something bad was going on at the time of the kidnapping. But the event seemed to give him a lift and offered Joe a temporary reprieve from his troubles. The life Joe chose after prison guaranteed a hand-to-mouth existence, but he seemed happier afterwards than he'd been for awhile. It was only later that I learned what was really going on.

Here are some excerpts from Joe's journals and some of the emails that he highlighted. I hope you don't find anything too disturbing:

Sunset Diaries 10.3.01:

Full Moon rides are usually different, but last night tops them all.

By late Tuesday afternoon I still hadn't heard from Josie. The weather was hot and miserable in the valley and I needed a chance to think and get out of the heat so I decided to take a ride.

Riding along steaming Ventura I thought about my life, about the pain I'd caused innocent people and then compared it to the few good things I'd done and I figured my karmic books were still lousy. Maybe redemption wasn't meant to be, maybe I'd just fade away, maybe my life wasn't worth living. I thought, I'm a ghost and it doesn't matter if I live or die, I'm already dead. The future felt bleak.

That morning I had a nice breakfast with Merle. She was very gracious and offered to help me, but I didn't want to involve another innocent person in my mess so I passed. Later I had lunch plans with Scott Morita to meet at the Fortune House. I should have sensed what kind of a day was in store for me when minutes before we arrived a car swerved out of control and smashed into the Fortune House injuring two people. Scooter and I ended up having lunch at McDonald's.

Scott was my last best hope for some cash and a little breathing room, but that too was not meant to be. It turned out Scooter only needed me to set him up with some of my FBI buddies so he could get out in front of a financial scandal brewing that he said would blow the lid off the financial markets. He was calm and laughing as he described the vast wealth he'd accumulated and how he was willing to take a lesser sentence for turning state's evidence against the higher ups in his company. My life seemed to be over hearing Scott's news.

Old Scooter was doing the right thing for the wrong reason. I laughed as I rode on the blazing hot Ventura Boulevard thinking how absurd and naive it had been to hope that Scott Morita would be my salvation! I've already set the wheels in motion for Scott and I hope he enjoys the time he'll spend at the Federal prison of his choice.

So, that was it, it was done and the only thing left to do was to feel sorry for myself, which I was doing as I passed the Bank of America in Sherman Oaks. But I saw something out of the corner of my eye that didn't look right. A heavy set man hurried into a black Suburban carrying a baby like a sack of wheat, shut the door and rolled out of the parking lot. Something didn't seem right, but nobody else seemed out of sorts so I rode on.

A few minutes later while waiting for a light on Valley Vista and Sepulveda I heard a news bulletin coming from a radio in the car next to me -- something about a kidnapped baby. But I didn't hear where it had happened and the light changed and I didn't connect the dots. But it gave me something other than myself to think about as I rode up Sepulveda.

I made my way onto Mulholland and went east, enjoying the cool breeze. I crossed over Coldwater onto Mulholland East and pulled over at the Barbara Fine Overlook. That's when I saw the black suburban again and suddenly it clicked. I went over to the driver's side and looked inside, but the windows were too dark to see anything. I knocked on the window and the engine started and tore out of the parking lot. It happened so fast that I didn't have time to think, I just reacted, got on my bike and went after him. Later the cops told me that the kidnapper was meeting someone there to hand off the baby - the father was an Afghani citizen who was trying to kidnap the baby, whose mom was American, and take him to Afghanistan.

It's too exhausting to retell the whole story but as soon as the Suburban took off, he nearly hit a news van and I hoped they'd get the story out to the cops. But all I knew was to not let the bastard out of my sight. And just as the big, gorgeous full moon was rising a little after 7:00 p.m. it was over, the baby was safe with the police and would soon be reunited with his mom. It felt great to be alive!

Trudy, here are some of the emails Joe saved in his journal:

From: Josie Earnhardt

To: Joe Ralph

Sent: Wednesday, October 3, 2001 6:15 PM

Subject: Wow!

Dear Joey -- You're amazing! You are such a hero and I'm so proud of you! It's funny, I got a call from Steve the creep after it was over and we got to talking and it was the old sweet Steve. He's really not a bad guy, and he only married that woman because she has the money and contacts he'll need to take the next steps in his political career. You know despite everything I think he'd make a really great president. Anyway i've got to run, but I wanted to let you know that I've decided not to sign off on the story, it's just not me and I don't want to hurt Steve. I think I may still love him and I think he still loves me too. I'm kind of a mess right now and I don't know what to think but Joey thanks for all your support and everything. You're such a great friend. Talk soon. Love Josie

From: CP

To: Joe Ralph

Sent: Friday, October 5, 2001 10:37 AM

Subject: Character Is Destiny

Dear Joe,

Well my friend things have a funny way of turning out, no? It seems that your heroics would have made it very difficult for me to continue to apply the pressure, and then sweet Josie decides not to go public, no thanks to you. And it appears Josie still has feelings for me and of course I remain very fond of her too. I look forward to seeing you both at the little Joe Ralph Day at City Hall.

So, for now, coup de torchon, Joe, you have a clean slate. But I have no doubt that you'll fuck up again and we'll be right back where we were before. You see Joe one of the main lessons I've learned in my life is that character is destiny. Our lives are not determined by genetics or environment, it's not how much money or power that you have, and it's not how good looking or popular you are. No Joe, the value of our lives is dependent solely on personal character.

And Joe you and I know that your character is weak, and your destiny is to fail and to fuck up. So, until the next time.


From: Ice Man

To: Skinny

Sent: Monday, October 8, 2001 12:13 PM

Subject: Amazing News

Hey Skinny - while you were out doing your Superman thing, Carl and I nabbed up Sig and Juanita and we even recovered some of Laura's money. In fact the scum bags were staying at a house on Mulholland and Laurel Pass, the house behind the rose bushes that the Suburban wiped out during your chase. But by the time you guys passed by we were already at Police headquarters and Sig and Juanita were on there way to a nice long stay on the state. Thanks for letting Carl and me crash at your crib. One last thing, Laura and I are getting married! Shit man I can't even believe it myself, but what are you going to do? I'll let you know more when I do. Hey Skinny, your still my dog so you better plan on coming to the wedding. Peace. Ice

From: Kirk

To: Joe Ralph

Sent: May 29, 2002 8:56 PM

Subject: Life

Dear Joe,

I'm checking in with you one last time as a "free" man. You made me question what I was doing and last week I finally had to ask myself, what was the point of evading arrest, if that's all I was doing with my life? I still don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, you know Joe?

I'm about to turn myself in and accept my fate. Wish me luck Joe and wish us all peace.


Finally Trudy, here's Joe's last journal entry from July 4, 2006.

Sunset Diaries 7.4.06:

Just a quickie today, as it's a busy weekend...

I've been thinking a lot about what happened five years ago, the memories triggered when a KABC-TV reporter called me about a retrospective of the events of 10.2.01 they were planning. It seems so long ago, longer than just five years.

I guess that day was my crucible and I came out ok. But it's always bothered me what Steve said about my character and I guess I'm haunted about his email, feeling like my life might be a fraud and he was right. But on the most simplistic level, when I've done good, good things have happened and vice-versa. It maybe didn't appear to be true at the time, but looking back I can now see how karma works. At least I think I do.

I don't know if there will ever come a day that I'll feel I've redeemed myself, the truth is I live with the guilt of my actions everyday of my life. But, I'm using it as motivation to keep trying to get there, even if the goal remains illusive.

And now, as I approach turning 40, I'm excited about what the future promises. But for now, I have to go, more later...

Trudy, that was the last anyone ever heard from Joe. Please let me know if you need anything or just want to chat.

One more thing, from a kind of impartial observer. I do think Joe's character was his destiny and his legacy too, and I say thank goodness that Joe Ralph lived and was a part of my life, and what else can you say about someone?

Stay connected to to read future installments of "Sunset Diaries," as more stories from the road unfold...

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