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In the Time of the Irresponsibles

Tree Frog Johnson, aka Luis Reynaldo, was a free range pedophile who established himself in the Boonville area in the early 70s, mostly staying with his sanctioned catamite on the property of a back-to-the-land family in the hills a few minutes west of Boonville. Johnson was a much more visible public presence in Mendocino County than the other reclusive, peripatetic perv, Kenneth Parnell, who worked as a night clerk at motels on the Mendocino Coast and, when he was arrested, as night man at the Palace Hotel in Ukiah. Both would become infamous. 

A black man in his early 30s when he appeared in Boonville with a small white boy in tow, Tree Frog was immediately embraced by the counterculture as a sort of wise man cum naturalist. And an eager baby sitter. 

Tree Frog’s silent child companion, Alex Cabarga, hadn't been kidnapped, he’d been turned over to Tree Frog by his parents, Ted and Diane Cabarga of San Francisco. They seemed to think their son would be better off with Tree Frog. 

The abandoned little boy and his guardian lived in a half-finished cabin on the property of the Colfax family of Boonville, three of whose home-schooled sons went on to Harvard. The Colfaxes said they supported themselves by raising goats, but most of their neighbors supported themselves by growing marijuana.

David Colfax went on to become a three-term Mendocino County supervisor. Before that he spent twelve years on the Mendocino County School Board. He has always said he had no idea that his tenant preyed on the small boy with him, and was just as unaware that Tree Frog preyed on as many sons of the counterculture as were put within molesting distance of him.

Boonville counterculture people can claim they didn’t know that Tree Frog was a walking evil, but that opinion doesn’t explain why the hippies “shunned” Tree Frog when they finally figured out that Frog was an ongoing menace to children. Shunning was supposed to be a kind of internal exile, but the hapless, undefended Cabarga, instead of being retrieved from a childhood of terror and forced sex, was shunned right along with his captor. It apparently didn't occur to anyone to call “The Man.” Better to leave a child with a criminal than a quick call to 911.

Tree Frog Johnson

The Boonville hippies shunned Frog all the way to Albion, a 30 minute hop from the Anderson Valley, where Tree Frog and his diminutive sex slave lived in Tree Frog’s step-van at Albion’s “alternative” Whale School for another year before they moved to San Francisco where, months after kidnapping an East Bay child named Tara Burke three months before her third birthday, they were finally arrested.

With Tree Frog the lead story on television and newspapers everywhere in the country, Alex Cabarga, now in his 20s, was described by Chronicle columnist Art Hoppe as “soft-featured and slow-eyed” when he appeared in court on kidnapping charges. Cabarga’s formative years, like Steven Stayner’s, had been spent in the hills of Mendocino County with a sexual psychopath. But Cabarga was 9-years-old when his parents turned the boy over to Tree Frog because, Mom said, the boy needed a father, and who could be a better dad than this guy? 

It was Alex Cabarga at age 17 who, as always doing what Tree Frog told him to do, had run out of Tree Frog’s step-van and snatched little Tara Burke from her parent’s car at a shopping center parking lot. Tara's parents had left her in the car with her 9-year-old brother. Cabarga tapped on the window, telling the 9-year-old that his mother wanted him. When the kid opened the car door, Cabarga grabbed his little sister and ran off with her. 

Cabarga’s oblivious mother, Diane Cabarga, writing as if she were an innocent bystander, summed up: “If the tragedy of my son’s life, his arrest and conviction for kidnapping and sexually molesting 2-year-old Tara Burke, has any purpose at all, it may be that it will help to focus public attention on a social problem which has reached a magnitude that is beyond belief. In 1982 in California, the Department of Social Services received 119,000 reports of cases of child abuse (and, of course, there were many more unreported cases). A large percentage of these involved sexual abuse, most of them perpetrated by a family member. Usually, by the child’s father, step-father, or by a close and trusted friend of the family, a baby sitter or a teacher.

“While Alex’s case is extremely unusual in many ways, there are certain aspects which are classic. Luis Tree Frog Johnson, who already has been sentenced to 527 years in prison for his offenses against the little girl, was a trusted friend who was accepted as a surrogate parent for Alex from the time the boy was nine years old. Not until their arrest the day after Alex’s 18th birthday, on December 18, 1982, did we discover that he had been sexually molested and beaten up all of that time by Tree Frog.

“Our son’s case is but a sensational example of this very widespread problem. For one thing, it brings to light the fact that both men and occasionally women are seducing and raping both boys and girls at very early ages, as early as infancy. Secondly, it demonstrates how hidden the sexual relationship can be, both from other family members and from members of the community. There are signs to indicate the problem exists, but they are subtle and one has to be aware of the syndrome before being able to recognize them. Unfortunately, we were not.

“When an adult, especially a trusted parent figure, has sex with a child (called incest), he is using the power of his size, age and respected position to betray the child’s innocence. One of the first noticeable signs in the child is the change from a free, outgoing innocence to a withdrawn, fearful distrust. The offender always makes the child swear not to tell anyone, which is obviously necessary to protect his crime from being discovered as well as to allow the acts to continue. In addition, there is the psychological manipulation used on the child to create guilt and to arouse a binding sense of loyalty. The child is soon totally under the control of the adult, and has lost his or her will and self-esteem to such an extent that the child feels completely helpless and trapped. Children will rarely admit what is happening even when a loved and trusted parent or teacher tries to find out what is bothering them.”

Tara Burke was with Tree Frog and Cabarga while all three were in and out of the Whale School in Albion, a counterculture enterprise at the center of the so-called Albion Nation. Nobody said a word. Never, ever would a true hippie go to The Man. Heck, Frog was just doing his thing, as was at least one more child molester at the Whale School who serially molested a young, loosely supervised pre-teen girl over a period of years. When that child’s stoned parents tardily discovered that the nice photographer who was so kind to their child was not the disinterested teacher they’d thought he was, instead of having him arrested, they settled on a long-term financial settlement, the matter being resolved “within the community,” as the hippie propagandist Beth Bosk would later describe the crime’s mercenary resolution.

I would see Tree Frog around Boonville on his under-sized motorcycle, the little white boy riding pillion behind him. I knew who they were, wasn’t much interested in who they were. So many unusual visuals presented themselves in those days that this improbable couple was simply one more among the passing parade. And in this case, to ask who they were was to risk accusations of racism.

“What’s strange about a black man and a little white boy?”

Nothing cabrones, but que pasa? Is he the step-father or what? Looks like a weirdo to me, and not a man to be in charge of a small boy. Which was judgmental and extremely “uptight,” as moral equivalence was called then.

As it happened, I had a step-van for sale in the Boonville time of The Frog. It had been given to me by a social worker who had only occasionally gone camping in it. But I could never get it to reliably run, and I wanted to get rid of it before it became a permanent part of my front yard. I put it up for sale. Tree Frog came to look at it.

A man had called to say a friend of his wanted to look at my step-van. Two men soon appeared, one of them a standard-issue longhair, amiable, pleasant. The other was introduced simply as Tree Frog. He was an unimposing, silent, dark, Latin-looking man with a round face, a long pig tail and quick, furtive movements that prevented me from looking at him straight on. Years later when Tree Frog was arrested I was surprised to read his description as black, but I wasn’t surprised that his real name was Luis Johnson.

The white hippie did all the talking while Tree Frog examined the van. He never said a word in the ten minutes he and his pal were there, never so much as looked in my direction. Later, when I saw the white hippie downtown, as Boonville’s one bar, one market and post office was called, I asked him if his friend was some kind of mute. “No, he just doesn’t like straight people. He never talks when are straights around.”

Several years later, city detectives investigating the Tree Frog and Cabarga kidnapping case came to Boonville with a portfolio of photos of nude children, many of them Boonville kids, the rest of them, I supposed, from the Mendocino Coast. The cops spent a couple of days in Boonville attaching names to the pictures, then they went out to the Whale School at Albion where they were denied access to the property and where nobody would talk to them about the man who had undoubtedly preyed on their children, too.

Tree Frog got a royal flush of life sentences, Cabarga, clearly one of the many victims of the monster, spent almost two decades in prison. He has married and, I'm told, lives a conventional life.

Alex Cabarga Today

One Comment

  1. Heather Mckenzie March 14, 2023

    It’s hard to know Where to begin and what to say about an article like this. Enlightening the Public with history, Violence to children, And depth into the hippie community Took my breath away. Alex would appear to be a very strong and resilient man to overcome his tragic childhood. I think the death penalty for child molesters is appropriate.

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