Showdown at Cottonwood Creek

In her efforts just to get home, one Cottonwood woman meets opposition at every turn

Candace D’Andrea has to cross Cottonwood Creek twice on foot to get to her home.

Candace D’Andrea has to cross Cottonwood Creek twice on foot to get to her home.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

The sun was warm already at 10 a.m. when Candace D’Andrea and I reached Bowman Road in Cottonwood. We parked next to a bridge over Cottonwood Creek, grabbed our backpacks filled with plenty of water, towels, snacks and a camera carefully sealed in a plastic bag. From here we would walk approximately 1.8 miles, D’Andrea said, to her house.

D’Andrea underwent knee surgery a year ago. At 54, she’s no longer the spry young woman who could hike these hills in a heartbeat. Instead of walking along the creek, she said, it would be better on her knees to take the road—the dirt road on the other side of the creek. So down an embankment, through the rushing water that reached our shins, and back up to the road, which stretches from Bowman nearly to D’Andrea’s property line. A wrought-iron gate at the intersection of Bowman and this driveway, however, was locked with a padlock to which D’Andrea has never been given a key. So, we kept on walking.

Shortly after reaching the flat surface of the driveway, a black SUV rumbled quickly toward us from somewhere up ahead. D’Andrea guessed the neighbor at the edge of the creek had called to warn the others that she was there. We did not get a warm welcome. Inside the vehicle, a woman who identified herself as Kristine Higgins informed us we were trespassing.

“I have every right to be here. I’m walking to my home,” D’Andrea said without a second thought. “If you have a problem with it, call the sheriff.”

I would learn a few weeks later that the sheriff had indeed been called, and that the caller had requested we be arrested for trespassing.

This is how D’Andrea gets home. In the 20 years that she’s lived on this Tehama County ranch, she’s fought tooth and nail for the right to drive to her home. Access to direct routes from the main road—Bowman—to her house was revoked in the 1990s. More recently, a padlocked gate was put in at the entrance to the road she has deeded access to, making it necessary to walk, quite literally, over a river and through the woods to get home. Even then, she gets hassled by neighbors who claim she’s trespassing.

We ambled on uninterrupted for the rest of our journey, which took us through a field of overgrowth and star thistle, down a steep embankment and back into the creek.

This time, with the sun beating down on us and the water waist deep and deeper, we took a swim, marveling at how beautiful this place was. D’Andrea clearly knew the land, pointing out birds by their song as well as signs of deer, pigs and horses.

After the nice break, we resumed our walk, this time in the water, until we reached a spot where we could hoist ourselves under the barbed-wire fence at the edge of her property.

D’Andrea let out a sigh of relief that I had yet to fully understand. In the decades she’s occupied these 135 acres in southern Cottonwood, she’s made this trip thousands of times. She’s been shot at, followed, physically attacked and verbally assaulted while walking this route.

The way back would be easier, she assured me.

Candace D’Andrea’s hike home includes (clockwise from top right): climbing through overgrowth, a float in the creek, being greeted by a vandalized gate, and a path overrun with star thistle.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

Since her surgery, D’Andrea had been home only twice, the last time in December 2009. So by the time we got there, the previously well-worn pathways had been taken over by weeds, now dried out, and more star thistle. We were careful to avoid the wide patches of poison oak.

D’Andrea might have come back more often in the past year, except during an October visit to bring food for her horses she discovered her dear equines missing. A neighbor had apparently alerted Animal Control that they had broken through D’Andrea’s fence (though it appeared to be in order during our visit), and they had been sold to a local woman for $5 apiece.

D’Andrea was able to retrieve her animals, but decided to board them rather than worry for their safety. The creek, passable this time of year, is often 10 feet higher in the winter, making living on the ranch nearly impossible for almost half the year.

As we trudged through the prickly overgrowth, climbing over fallen tree trunks, we talked about family—D’Andrea is the mother of two and grandmother of four. Her father, Eugene Hilchey, had been a special-effects man in Hollywood, and she grew up in a swanky household. Her parents bought the ranch in 1973 and lived there together until they got divorced years later. When D’Andrea moved there, it was all lush pastures; chickens, goats, lambs and horses; strawberry patches and an extensive vegetable garden. We stopped frequently, as D’Andrea’s knees buckled at times, not yet strong enough for this trip, and more than once she began to cry, longing for what she once had.

When we’d finally ascended the “road” and traversed yet another dried-out field, we were standing in front of D’Andrea’s house. The wire gate had been cut open, but no damage was apparent other than what winter—and time—had done. An unused barn stood to the side of the Quonset-hut house, and an old wood cabin could be seen behind yet another fence. That one, D’Andrea said, had been built around 1906, when this land was first settled. It’s seen better days, but she quickly reminded me of the difficulty of bringing home supplies.

We’d made it—our journey was half over. In about an hour, after a good rest, a snack and conversation, we made our way back to our car, this time variously floating downstream and walking in the creek. We had no phone access from sometime before we hit Bowman Road to the time cell service returned on the way toward town. Her phone lines were vandalized nearly a decade ago, so when D’Andrea is home she has no way to call her family, her friends, or in case of an emergency.

The journey was a small adventure for this reporter. The hike was cumbersome at times, but the crisp, clean water in Cottonwood Creek was heavenly. But this is not the Old West, when people, by necessity, walked miles to their homes and were sometimes greeted by gunfire and unfriendly words. This is 2010, and D’Andrea makes this trek to get to her paradise, all the while knowing that she has a legal right to road access to her property. She has a court order—from 1993—saying explicitly that she is “not legally landlocked” because of a road easement to the north.

Nonetheless, that road is off-limits to D’Andrea, locked most days by neighbors who, at the least, don’t believe she deserves access. As the story unfolds, it will also reveal an effort by real-estate agents to sell the land. The sheriff hasn’t helped—in fact, the undersheriff denied the court order is valid.

So begins the story of Candace D’Andrea, a woman who hikes two miles to her house despite the fact that her health prohibits such activity, a woman who has solicited help from everyone from lawyers and judges to local government to governors and state congressmen, a woman who really just wants to go home.

Candace D’Andrea moved to her parents’ ranch in April 1990. Her father had asked her to check on the place, as there had been a break-in recently, the family memorabilia trashed and strewn about. She could live there in exchange for watching over the place. Upon arriving at the 135-acre property, she was greeted by a number of neighbors, one of whom said he believed the ranch belonged to him. She assured him otherwise—her parents, then divorced, had rented out the property over the years since inhabiting it themselves. And, since attempts to sell it met disagreement by one or the other partner, it remained in the Hilchey name.

The neighbor pushed the issue, D’Andrea recalled, even producing a deed to the land, which also included a sizeable parcel to the east. The deed was from the 1960s, before the parcels had been divided, D’Andrea told the man, whose family, she would learn all too well, lived between her and Bowman Road.

Then in her mid-30s, D’Andrea was able to work the land, tend to her animals, sell eggs and other goodies at a nearby farmers’ market, all while raising her two children, Lisa and Rocky, who were about 13 and 16 at the time. Her husband, Ronald D’Andrea, had unexpectedly abandoned the family in 1980, never to be heard from again.

There are two main routes to Starr Ranch: Starr Drive and Kahn Road. D’Andrea lost access to both in the 1990s (the dotted line indicates the part of Starr Drive that is no longer used). Now she’s supposed to use her easement, which ends at the creek. This entrance is blocked by a locked gate.

“We were so in love,” D’Andrea said, tears welling in her eyes. “I miss him every single day.”

She recently found his death certificate in an online search and, since she never remarried, is now a widow.

“After my husband left,” she continued, “I had to live in some ghetto neighborhoods.” The ranch was a respite from all that, a nice, wholesome place to raise her children.

“We had lots of animals,” Lisa D’Andrea recalled during a recent phone interview. “She had sheep and goats and chickens. We rented pasture to cattle ranchers. It was a really nice place to live. We had plenty of space to grow stuff—we had strawberry patches, fig trees.”

For the first three years on the ranch, historically named the Starr Ranch, D’Andrea accessed her property the way her parents had since they bought the place in 1973, via Starr Drive. The ranch’s address, after all, was 17555 Starr Drive, as it was situated at the end of the driveway (see map). In December 1992, however, all that changed when D’Andrea and her parents were sued over the use of Starr Drive by Phillip and Linda Rocke, who would go on to purchase land along Starr Drive late the next year from the Bickers family, who also have an address on Starr.

The suit stalled, taking almost a year to reach judgment. During that time is when the real trouble began.

One Sunday evening in May 1993, when D’Andrea—who had just been granted one-third ownership of the ranch by her parents—and her family were on their way to church, they drove as always east to Bowman Road via Starr Drive. When they reached a particularly narrow stretch, they found it barricaded by a large tree. They got out to clear the way and nine people—at least some of them neighbors she recognized—came out from hiding, guns drawn.

“Bullets were sprayed at us in all directions,” D’Andrea writes in her private blog. “As I exited my truck, [a neighbor named] Annabell Yingling stepped out in the road, looked me in the eye, pointed a handgun at me and pulled the trigger.”

Nobody was hurt, but Lisa, 15 at the time, was scared out of her wits.

“The road was all barricaded and [Yingling] jumped out and I kind of froze,” Lisa recalled. “I was not expecting anything like that to happen. I testified in court with that and they kind of put me down because of my age.”

According to the sheriff’s report, a witness told police that Yingling had brandished what appeared to be either a .22 or .25 caliber pistol, though the report said nothing about firing it. Yingling, now deceased, was arrested and charged with drawing or exhibiting a firearm, but the charges ultimately were dismissed.

Later that year, the judge ruled in the Rockes’ favor, finding that D’Andrea had had a “permissive” easement for the use of Starr Drive and that permission was being revoked. On the family’s deed to the property, a right of way is attached to the north, not the east. Because of this, the court document reads, “the Court finds that the Cross-Complainant, Candace D’Andrea is not legally landlocked.”

D’Andrea’s horses, Earnest and Mouse, outside the barn.

Photo courtesy of CANDACE D’ANDREA

“Everything was fine up there until all of a sudden a [neighbor] found a discrepancy in the deed,” said D’Andrea’s father, Eugene Hilchey, from his home in Glendale. He was referring to the fact that when he bought the place no easement had been recorded for Starr Drive. He continued, recalling that the neighbor “sent me a letter saying Candy was causing problems on the road and that they were removing the permissive right of way. But that was wrong—when you use a road for over seven years, it becomes yours. It’s a prescriptive right of way.”

The road access that was recorded in the deed is problematic because it is on the wrong side of the creek as far as accessing Starr Ranch.

“The right of way is in the wrong place,” Hilchey scoffed.

So D’Andrea started using another route home, Kahn Road, which accesses the southeast corner of her property. This is the route PG&E travels to get to her home, and she remembered her father driving it from time to time when he lived there.

“Kahn Lane goes right to my fence line,” said Hilchey.

His daughter was having a rough time with break-ins and vandalism, and around this time another neighbor who shared Kahn Road offered to buy Starr Ranch for “peanuts,” as Hilchey described it. Although D’Andrea said she was willing to sell, to get out of Dodge and avoid further violence, her father turned down the deal. Shortly thereafter, she encountered blockades on Kahn Road that made it impassable.

With the two direct routes from Bowman Road to her ranch now out of commission, D’Andrea’s last option was to use the road deeded to her, which crosses through two other neighbors’ properties before reaching the creek. During summer months, when the water was low, she could sometimes drive right through the creek to get home. Other times, she parked her car at the end of the road and hoofed it the rest of the way to her house.

But once again she met opposition, this time from a high-powered neighbor—Peter Kasler, now deceased, then a sheriff’s deputy.

Lisa remembered one incident in which Kasler allegedly met them in the road with a large chain. When they approached him, he began to swing it, yelling, before hitting the car with it. A more vivid memory sticks out in her mother’s mind.

“He threatened to kill me and bury me on the back side of my property where no one would ever find me,” she said. She had witnesses, too, in the form of two Animal Control officers who signed sworn statements to that effect. Kasler was eventually fired from his post following a Department of Justice investigation prompted by D’Andrea (that probably didn’t earn her any Brownie points).

For years, the family—Lisa had gotten married and had a child—trekked the way D’Andrea took this reporter. Two miles in, two miles out.

“In the wintertime it was really bad,” Lisa said. “Just to get out to get food you had to walk big cliffs. It would take 2 1/2 hours, and I was carrying [my daughter]. Then coming back in, lugging backpacks full of meat and milk and dog food, it was really hard.”

Lisa D’Andrea and her daughter, Sarah, who spent her first five years on the ranch.

Photo courtesy of CANDACE D’ANDREA

In 1998, D’Andrea sued her neighbors over the right to Kahn Road. She lost, but won on appeal. The victory was short-lived, however, and the appeal decision was quickly overturned. The judge ruled that she should use the road listed in her deed. That same year, her mother died, leaving her another third of the ranch.

Shortly thereafter, Lisa and her family moved away, choosing an easier way of life. Getting home was too tough for a working mother with a daughter ready to enter kindergarten.

“If I wanted to live and support my children, I had to move and leave her by herself,” she said of her mother.

When Kasler passed away in 2001, the deeded road was suddenly open again. The other neighbor who shares the driveway, Lori Pritchett, didn’t give D’Andrea much trouble, and she was once again allowed to park at the end of the road so she would have to walk only a short distance home.

But D’Andrea continued to face opposition. Her telephone line was vandalized, as were her electricity and water pump. She would walk the hills to the sound of gunfire, often with a wagon full of food for her horses—she documented a number of these instances on video, the rifle fire heard clearly in the distance. Finally a gate was installed on Bowman Road and D’Andrea was not given a key.

In 2005, the county Planning Department changed D’Andrea’s address from 17555 Starr Drive to 15911 Bowman Road. The Planning Department also told her that she would have to build a bridge to cross Cottonwood Creek to her property. The price of building such a bridge, she writes in her blog, was prohibitive. And even if she could build a bridge, she couldn’t get onto the road anyway, so the issue was moot.

Over the years, D’Andrea has reached out to everyone she can think of for help in accessing her property. She’s written to the Tehama County Board of Supervisors, called the Sheriff’s Office hundreds of times, sued, written to state representatives and even senators. Some say it’s not their place to help; some don’t believe the problem; and others challenge the right of way altogether.

Some of her neighbors don’t think so highly of her, either. When reached by phone, some suggested that it was not they, but D’Andrea, who had been the aggressor.

“She has terrorized every single neighbor,” said one woman, who wished to remain anonymous. “To get this many people against her, have you thought maybe part of it is her?”

Sure. For one, two neighbors in the early 1990s—the aforementioned Annabell Yingling and Linda Rocke—filed harassment charges against D’Andrea and won (in both cases, mutual restraining orders were awarded). Add to that the fact that D’Andrea feels wronged by her neighbors, she feels betrayed by the system, and, basically, that she’s fallen through the cracks. That’s enough to make anybody crabby. D’Andrea herself admits she’s no angel—there was a time when she associated with the “radical right wing,” something she’s taken flak for in the past although she turned her back on that years ago.

“We’ve been dealing with Candace on this issue for years,” explained Undersheriff Dennis Garton. “She does not have an access easement onto her property.”

Sheriff Clay Parker did not return several phone calls seeking comment.

D’Andrea and her puppy, Jena, on the ranch in 2001.

Photos courtesy of CANDACE D’ANDREA

Nevertheless, D’Andrea says, the Sheriff’s Office has agreed to help serve her northerly neighbors with copies of her court order describing her right to access. Hilchey said the same. For his part, however, he’d rather just get rid of the ranch than bother with fighting for an access road.

“I hate that place,” he said. “There’s no justice up there. It’s nothing but trouble.”

Thus far, he hasn’t been offered what he considers a fair price since the 1980s, when he and his ex-wife had differing opinions on the matter. For the past several years, he’s worked with real-estate agent Linda Pritchett (Lori’s mother) to find a buyer.

“I think it’s a lovely piece of property; I used to ride all over it as a kid,” said Pritchett, who lives on the north side of Bowman Road. “The no access would be disclosed right at the get-go [to potential buyers].”

Hilchey recently spoke to a prospective buyer, found through Pritchett, and told him of the access problems.

“He said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ I’m not sure if he worked out a deal with [one of the neighbors] or what that means.

“It can be very useful to somebody,” he continued about the ranch, “but it’s been landlocked illegally.”

Regardless, D’Andrea, who owns two-thirds of the property, is not ready to sell.

“I can’t sell. It’s the principle,” she said. “My dad taught me that if I believed in something, stand strong for it. If you’re right and you know you’re right, you stand proud and strong—you’re an American.”

Her daughter agrees, though she admitted she hates the idea of her mother trekking up to the ranch alone.

“I don’t like her out there. I don’t know what’s going to happen to her,” she said. “She’s got no telephone, no cell phone service, there’s no way to see if she’s OK. It’s not fair that she has a piece of property in America and she can’t live there.

“Should she sell? Not to those people, not at all. In my opinion that’s what they want her to do. If it’s a choice between her living and not being killed by somebody, then yeah. But if you have to choose between somebody killing your mom or selling the place, that’s not a fair choice to have to make.”

“People up there have always wanted to keep large parcels in the hands of a few,” Hilchey offered.

D’Andrea’s dream is simple: to be able to drive to her house.

“It’s not the 1800s, you know. Nobody has situations like this,” Lisa said.

“I believe in America. I believe there will be a change so no one has to go through this. It’s not right,” D’Andrea said. “I’ve paid taxes for 21 years. I’ve fought bullets. I’m the one who’s standing strong because I believe in the American way.”