Devil’s Gate is an Arroyo Seco rock formation with a profile some might describe as satanic, and it holds dark secrets: the brutal murders there of the barely pubescent Donald Baker and Brenda Howell in 1952 and the unsolved disappearances of two other boys a few years later led some to believe the Arroyo was cursed. Factor in the unconventional sexual rituals of Jack Parsons, a cofounder of Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and Parsons’ affiliation with controversial Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, and Devil’s Gate is crawling with conjecture.
It was the Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portola who named the area the Arroyo Seco, meaning “dry streambed,” in 1770. But it was Judge B. S. Eaton (Eaton Canyon was named for him) who named the rock Devil’s Gate in 1858, because it reminded him of the Devil’s Gate on Sweetwater Creek in Wyoming, Hiram Reid wrote in his History of Pasadena (1895). (That Devil’s Gate was a rock formation Eaton passed during his migration to California from the East Coast, but neither Devil’s Gate really resembles the “prince of darkness.”)
The Arroyo, however, was not always dry; it often flooded, particularly in 1914 and 1916, which prompted the Los Angeles County Flood Control District to construct Devil’s Gate Dam. Completed in 1920, it was designed to “reduce downstream flooding” during a major deluge, according to the L.A. Department of Water and Power. The devil’s stone profile is adjacent to a locked tunnel, part of the dam. But to some it is an entryway to another world.
In 1936 the Arroyo Seco was just a 25-mile-long swath of land with a seasonal river running through it. But in October of that year, three scientists gathered in the Arroyo to perform their own secret experiments. “The ‘rocket boys’ were an unusual bunch,” according to Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s website (jpl.nasa.gov). “Frank Malina was studying aerodynamics, Jack Parsons was a self-taught chemist and Ed Forman was an excellent mechanic. They scraped together cheap engine parts, and on Oct. 31, 1936, drove to the Arroyo Seco. Four times that day they tried to test-fire their small rocket motor. These were the first rocket experiments in the history of JPL.” Caltech had purchased land in the Arroyo to build JPL, but it was Jack Parsons who turned Devil’s Gate into an urban legend.
By all accounts Parsons was a brilliant, self-taught rocket scientist, though he’s been written out of most of JPL’s history due to his obsession with the occult, his affiliation with Scientology’s Hubbard and rituals involving sex, blood and classical music. Parsons was also a devotee of controversial British occultist Aleister Crowley, joining Crowley’s Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO) society in 1941. Parsons lived at 1003 South Orange Grove Ave., which became notorious for its “sex magick” ceremonies. In his 1946 essay, The Book of Babalon, Parsons writes: “I had been engaged in the study and practice of Magick for seven years, and in the supervision and operation of an occult lodge for four years.” Part of Crowley’s Thelemic beliefs involved goddess worship, specifically of Babalon, a.k.a. the Mother of Abominations. Parsons, like Crowley, believed it was possible to summon Babalon into human form via the use of sexual rituals, leading to the overthrow of Judeo-Christian civilization and the rise of Thelema, exhorting followers to “do what thou wilt.”
In August 1945, Parsons met former Navy man and writer of lurid fiction, Lafayette Ronald Hubbard. Parsons wanted to include L. Ron Hubbard in the rituals and wrote to Crowley: “I deduced that [Hubbard] is in direct touch with some higher intelligence. He is the most Thelemic person I have ever met and is in complete accord with our own principles.” Using background music from Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev, Parsons sought to invoke Babalon through incantations and blood sacrifice. At the end of one ritual, Parsons wrote, “And thus was I Antichrist loosed in the world; and to this I am pledged, that the work of the Beast 666 shall be fulfilled, and the way for the coming of Babalon be made open and I shall not cease or rest until these things are accomplished.” We contacted the Church of Scientology to clarify Hubbard’s involvement. They did not respond, though the official line since the 1960s was that Hubbard, on leave from the Navy, was sent to infiltrate Parsons’ rituals, record the activities and report back to the government. Whatever Parsons and Hubbard were up to, a belief germinated that they had opened a portal to hell, and the negative energies loosed from Devil’s Gate would not be denied.
On August 5, 1956, 13-year-old Donald Baker and 11-year-old Brenda Howell went for a bike ride at Devil’s Gate Dam. When they didn’t come home, their parents contacted police and hundreds of volunteers searched for them in vain. All that was found were their bicycles and Brenda’s jacket. Just seven months later, on March 23, 1957, 8-year-old Tommy Bowman disappeared. Tommy was hiking with his family around Devil’s Gate and ran several yards ahead of them, rounded a corner and vanished. It was about 5 p.m. The ensuing searches were in vain. News outlets reported that Tommy disappeared after rounding a bend in the trail. But according to the Pasadena Star-News, two sisters reported they saw Tommy around 5:30 that evening. He was crying and standing at the entrance to the ranger station. But Tommy was never seen again.
Then three years later, in July 1960, 6-year-old Bruce Kremen was on a hike with his YMCA group not far from where Tommy disappeared. Bruce was lagging behind so the group leader told him to return to camp — a mere 300 yards away. Bruce never made it. Nine years later, Mack Ray Edwards confessed to kidnapping and killing Donald and Brenda along with three other children and burying their bodies in highway construction land about to be paved over. Convicted and sentenced to death, he hanged himself in his cell in 1971.
There have been subsequent reports of suicides (typically, hearsay) at Devil’s Gate, and many people who have hiked there have reported that, amid the trash and mud, burned Bibles have been observed as well as the occasional ritual. A cyclist’s body was found there in 1998 under mysterious circumstances, and para-
normal practitioners have lugged equipment to the rock, delighted when they were able to record “evidence” of otherworldly energies.
On Friday June 20, 1952, four years before the murders of Donald and Brenda, Parsons was experimenting in his laboratory. At 5:08 p.m., an explosion rocked Pasadena, killing Parsons, who was 37 at the time. Conspiracy theories formed immediately; Parsons was assassinated; some claimed suicide; Howard Hughes supposedly had Parsons killed for stealing secrets. One thing for sure: it was Parsons who seeded Devil’s Gate’s mythology. Are the stories surrounding this rock foolish, or prophetic? In his 1950 essay collection, Freedom is a Two-Edged Sword, Parsons wrote: “No man is worthy to fight in the cause of freedom unless he has conquered his internal drives. He must learn to control and discipline the disastrous passions that would lead him to folly and ruin.” Jack Parsons did not discipline his “disastrous passions”; he died broke, a mere footnote to aerospace history. But he did lay the foundation for myth and speculation of black arts in the Arroyo.