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 [8/3/02] L.A.Times Article re: Owen Brown Grave/El Prieto Fire Road controversy.  Story w/ illustrations in California section, at "B-4"


Missing Headstone Adds to Dispute



In death, as in life, controversy follows Owen Brown.

Brown, son of famed abolitionist John Brown, took part in a bloody massacre in Kansas and survived his father's ill-fated raid on a government arsenal at Harper's Ferry in what is now West Virginia.


Now 113 years after he was buried on an Altadena hilltop, the headstone marking his grave and the concrete block that held it in place are missing.

The Altadena residents who often visited the grave, which is along a popular hiking trail, are baffled. Local conservationists are enraged. And the landowner, long battling residents about trespassing on his property, says he's "bummed out" about the whole thing.

The marker has been gone at least a month, though no one's quite sure when it disappeared. Everyone involved, however, agrees on one thing: This is a strange twist to a long-running dispute over whether Mike Cichy, the landowner, has the right to prevent hikers from meandering up El Prieto fire road, which winds through his property.

The headstone was at the center of that dispute. Conservationists complained that Cichy couldn't restrict access to a road that has long been established as a public right of way. But Cichy said he was protecting his property from trespassers and vandals, who he added often leave empty beer cans and cigarette butts.

So far, no one is investigating the stone's disappearance. The county doesn't have to look into it if Cichy doesn't file a complaint. The site is not a registered historical landmark, and the county does not recognize it as an official burial ground or cemetery.

Cichy said he noticed that the stone was gone on the Fourth of July and has no plans to file a report. "Sooner or later," he said recently, "stuff surfaces."

Others aren't so sure.

"This incredible site has just fallen through the cracks. It's very sad and very disturbing," said Lori Paul, vice president of the Altadena Foothills Conservancy, one of a handful of groups contesting Cichy's right to cut off access to the fire road.

Some say they suspect that the landowner removed the marker to discourage hikers from visiting the site. If he did, authorities and even his critics agree, he would be within his rights. But Cichy said he is just as bewildered as everyone else.

"I had a lot of respect for Mr. Brown," he said. "I respect the dead."

Owen Brown and his brother Jason were celebrities when they settled first in Pasadena, then moved to Altadena.

Owen was among a handful of survivors of his father's raid on the arsenal at Harper's Ferry in 1859. John Brown hoped that capturing the arsenal would inspire slaves to revolt and force the government to abolish slavery. He was hanged Dec. 2, 1859.

Their father's cause made Owen and Jason famous among the Union veterans who settled in Southern California after the Civil War.

When Owen died of pneumonia in 1889 at the age of 64, about 2,000 mourners reportedly marched in the funeral procession up to Little Roundtop Hill, which was owned by Jason. Ten years later, a marker was placed at the grave site. It read: "Owen Brown, Son of John Brown, the Liberator, died Jan. 9, 1889."

Cichy bought the six-acre property from Mary Vargo in January. He said that when he arrived, hikers were cutting through his property to get to Angeles National Forest. Some were walking their dogs and not picking up after them, he said.

He was also concerned that something could happen to people walking through the rocky terrain, he said. "I got nothing wrong with people visiting" Owen Brown's grave, he said. "Right now it's hazardous. If someone should hurt themselves up here, I'm negligent. I need time to fix it up."

A self-proclaimed civic activist who spends a lot of time in Oregon and on the East Coast, Cichy said he wanted privacy and tranquillity when he purchased the property. He planted flowers at the grave site, he said. Some nights, he camps out underneath a blue tarp.

Sheriff's deputies made several visits to Cichy's property after residents complained that he had been lighting campfires. County zoning officials visited too, because Cichy had been storing building materials on the site.

A Glendale attorney, Paul Ayers--hired by conservationists--alleged that it was illegal for Cichy to camp out on land zoned as a vacant lot.

On July 18, county zoning officials issued a citation to Cichy for keeping junk materials on the property. If he doesn't clean it up in a reasonable amount of time, he could be fined as much as $1,918, said John Gutwein, a county zoning official. If Cichy doesn't pay the bill, he could face a lien against his property.

"I'm emotionally distressed. I'm bummed out over this whole thing," he said.

Ayers said he's mediating "negotiations with Mr. Cichy and interested parties to resolve the problem."

Scott Baggs, who lives in the Meadows community of Altadena and has been in the forefront of the dispute with Cichy, said the headstone's disappearance makes the situation all the more complicated.

"Now we have more reason to try to recover and restore the grave," he said.

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