2007 fires, Heaven’s Gate among top challenges of Rancho Santa Fe Patrol Chief’s 35 years

Chief Matt Wellhouser is in his 35th year with the Rancho Santa Fe Patrol. Pictured: Wellhouser in his early Rancho Santa Fe Patrol days. Courtesy photos
Chief Matt Wellhouser is in his 35th year with the Rancho Santa Fe Patrol. Courtesy photo

In September 1980, Jimmy Carter was president, John McEnroe defeated Bjorn Borg to win the U.S. Open, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad opened at Disneyland, “Les Misérables” premiered in Paris, and Matt Wellhouser joined the Rancho Santa Fe Patrol.

Now serving and protecting as its chief, Wellhouser has been with the Patrol since he was a “young pup,” working his first day as a 23-year-old on Sept. 2, 1980.

“They’ve treated me very well, and by and large, this is a place I look forward to coming to work,” Wellhouser said, reflecting as he marked his 35-year anniversary with the patrol. “I’ve really enjoyed working here. If you have a community that supports you, that makes the job easier.”

Wellhouser grew up in Solana Beach and graduated from San Dieguito High School. He was still in college when he started his law enforcement career at the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department as a deputy in the weapons training unit, also working patrol and as a reserve deputy.

Law enforcement seemed to be in his blood.

His grandfather was a deputy sheriff in Montana in the late 1800s, riding a horse to patrol; and two of his second cousins are deputies in Oregon. While his father, Harry Wellhouser, worked the bulk of his career as an engineer and nuclear scientist with General Atomics, after he retired he was a reserve deputy sheriff for 10 years and helped start the Senior Volunteer Program.

Harry passed away on June 30 at age 93, and Wellhouser now keeps his father’s badge on his office desk.

While working at the sheriff’s department, Wellhouser heard about the opening for an officer at the Rancho Santa Fe Patrol, fairly new at the time, as it was founded in 1976. He was engaged to his future wife, Dawn (they married in November 1980), and was looking for a job with stability and benefits.

“I thought I would stay here for a couple of years,” he said. “But this turned out to be a really good place to work; it kind of grows on you.”

In 1980, homes in the Covenant did not have addresses, and Wellhouser and the Patrol worked off just people’s names.

“For every single house in the Covenant, I could tell you their names,” he said. Internally, the Patrol assigned pin numbers to the homes, which made locating them a little easier; but it could still be a challenge finding homes in the night or in the fog. Street numbers wouldn’t arrive until 1984, when the 911 system came online in the Ranch.

Five years after he started with the Patrol, he was promoted to sergeant and soon would take the reins as chief.

The Patrol used to be run by both the RSF Fire Protection District and the Association, but in the late 1980s, the Association assumed full control. Then-Association Manager Walt Ekard promoted Wellhouser to chief.

In his time at the Patrol, he served under RSF Fire Protection District Chiefs Jim Fox and then his son, Peter Fox, Association Managers Rea Mowery, George Parish, Ekard, Pete Smith, Acting Manager Ivan Holler and Bill Overton, as well as a new Association board almost every three years.

“I don’t think I would’ve lasted this long if I didn’t have a really good relationship with the Association,” Wellhouser said. “I’m very lucky that my personality seems to fit in here.”

He is also an active member of the Rancho Santa Fe Rotary and served as president in 2012-13.

Over the years, the biggest challenges he has faced were during the 2007 wildfires and the 1997 Heaven’s Gate incident, when the bodies of 39 members of a religious group were found after a mass suicide in a Rancho Santa Fe mansion.

“The fires were just your worst nightmare, and we were fortunate that it worked out and no one was harmed or killed,” Wellhouser said of that stressful, sleepless time.

In 1997, Wellhouser was coaching a Little League game when his pager went off. He used his primitive mobile phone to call and find out there had been a serious incident on Colina Norte. He arrived to find Lago Lindo closed off, cop cars everywhere and four helicopters circling the home. He recalls being briefed by the county sheriff’s lieutenant in his car as if it were a movie, the lieutenant casually eating his lunch while describing an extremely rare event for the Ranch.

After the county administrators had left, Wellhouser was left to manage the some 40 news trucks and seemingly hundreds of reporters who remained. Through coordination with the county and California Highway Patrol, he gave them 20 minutes in front of the home before they were all forced to leave — Wellhouser’s main priority was representing the interests of the surrounding homeowners, to clear the area of the mass of invasive press.

Working in Rancho Santa Fe has also given him plenty of experience with a menagerie of wildlife. He’s learned how to stop an escaped tortoise and has wrangled geese, ducks, pot belly pigs, horses, cattle and llamas.

“Llamas are tough, that’s a challenge there,” Wellhouser said. “We’ve dealt with birds in houses, lizards in the stove, deer and coyotes stuck in fences.”

The Patrol fields plenty of strange requests (which he would not disclose) and also helps put on the annual Fourth of July and Halloween Parades, a bigger job than one might expect.

While the work has its lighthearted aspects, the job is a serious one. Wellhouser carries a weapon and understands that those wearing a uniform can sometimes become a target.

“This job is inherently dangerous and you have to be careful,” he said, noting that over the years, RSF Patrol cars have been shot at twice, although thankfully neither incident resulted in an injury to an officer. “This is a very nice community, and knock on wood, there’s a very low crime rate.”

As dedicated as he is to his post, Wellhouser is just as dedicated to his family. He is grateful for the backing and understanding given by his two children, Christina and Ryan, and his wife.

“She’s been my rock,” Wellhouser said of Dawn. “All of the Patrol officers have missed holidays, birthdays, special occasions, and the wives have taken up the slack. They’re kind of like a military wife, and I think they get forgotten about.”

Wellhouser got emotional speaking about how she has supported his career for 35 years, through the long hours and during events such as the 2007 wildfires when he didn’t see her for more than five minutes for about a week: “She’s a good gal,” he said.

For years, he has called himself “The Hood Ornament” of the Patrol, deflecting praise and attention to his team of officers.

“Out of all of these guys, I’m like the punk kid,” he said, noting that his officers come from various law enforcement backgrounds like homicide, SWAT, narcotics, motorcycle units and military service. “We’re very fortunate to have the kinds of people who work here … their maturity and professionalism comes through to the membership and that’s important because a lot of people don’t go to Association meetings or even know where the Association office is and their only contact with he Association is us. So our first impression and how we interact with the membership ... it’s important that it’s a positive experience.

“That’s what I’m proud of. I’ve worked here for 35 years and to get to that point, we’ve been very picky with who we’ve hired. The Patrol gets very positive ratings in Association surveys and good feedback; it’s rare that I get complaints … People in Rancho Santa Fe are so nice and very supportive, and we get compliments all the time. It’s a good thing.”