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What Really Happened to Mike Irvine?

Ponder this Orange County mystery.

For my money, the best Orange County mystery ever involves the death of Myford “Mike” Irvine, which happened more than a half-century ago.

Officially, the coroner at the time labeled the death of the Irvine Company president a suicide, but for years afterward family members and friends debated that determination because of many unanswered questions and oddities surrounding the demise of the 60-year-old in 1959.

First, here’s some quick background on Mike. One of three children born to James Irvine Sr. and Frances Anita Plum, he attended Stanford and went to work in San Francisco managing his father’s offices and his stocks and bonds.

James Sr. wanted his eldest son, Jase (father to Joan Irvine Smith), to eventually take over the Irvine Ranch, which, by the mid-20th century, had become one of the most productive farm and ranch operations in California. Jase loved working the land. Mike did not, preferring city life.

But Jase died of tuberculosis in 1935 (a sister, Katharine Helena, had passed away in 1920 after childbirth), leaving Mike to run the ranch after his father’s death in 1947.

Though he wasn’t his father’s first choice, Mike – a handsome man who wore his dark hair slicked back in the style of the era – did a remarkably good job leading the Irvine Company from its agricultural roots to its beginnings as a major land developer.

In his 11 years as Irvine Company president, he oversaw the building of Irvine Terrace, Cameo Shores, Cameo Highlands, Harbor View Hills, Harbor Highlands, Westcliff, Baycrest, and Irvine Cove; built the Irvine Coast Country Club (now the Newport Beach Country Club); began the search for a site for UC Irvine; and helped bring water from the Colorado River to the ranch, setting into motion master-planned developments in Newport Beach and what’s now the city of Irvine.

He spent about $250,000 to host the 30,000 Boy Scouts for their International Jamboree on the site where Newport Center now sits. The eight miles of road Mike had graded for the event is now called Jamboree.

Mike also was beloved in the local business community for being just one of the guys – despite being one of the richest men in California. He was a regular at the local Kiwanis Club meetings and loved to play golf with friends (though he was so frugal he hated to lose even a single ball, according to Stephen Birmingham’s excellent book, California Rich).

All this made Mike’s gruesome death even more surprising. The facts are these: He was found in the basement of his ranch home (near what’s now the San Joaquin Golf Course in Irvine) with two shotgun blasts in his abdomen and a bullet wound in his right temple.
Here’s where it gets curious. The coroner believed that Mike – a skilled hunter – shot himself twice with a 16-gauge Belgian Browning automatic shotgun. Somehow still alive, Mike staggered a few feet before grabbing a .22-caliber blue steel six-shot revolver with his left hand (though he was right-handed) and shot himself in the right temple – an act of contortion that would have been difficult even without gaping stomach wounds.

There are other troubling aspects to the death. No suicide note. No one at the home heard the three blasts. A few days before his death, Mike said he needed $400,000 in cash immediately and that he was “sitting on a keg of dynamite.” His family and friends didn’t think he was suicidal, and if he were, Mike – a dedicated father – wouldn’t have made such a mess out of it, especially in his own home. The list goes on.

What makes this an especially frustrating mystery is that no one has offered a better explanation than an improbable suicide. After his death, theories arose that tried to make sense of Mike killing himself or being killed: He was heavily drinking and gambling. He couldn’t stand the over-the-top Corona del Mar home his second wife was forcing him to build. He had uncovered illegal business dealings of an associate. He was the victim of a Mafia hit stemming from involvement in the construction of the Caesars Palace hotel in Las Vegas.

Looking for clues, Joan Irvine Smith even had Mike’s body exhumed nine months after his death. None were found.

Personally, I think foul play was involved; there are just too many whys. Why bring two guns to the basement? Why shoot yourself in the stomach and not in the head the first time? Why pick up a pistol with your left hand and then awkwardly shoot yourself in the right temple? Why not leave a note? Why do it at home with your wife, son and hired help there? And why didn’t anyone hear the gunshots?

That said, even after 52 years of guessing, no one has come up with a plausible theory about who killed Mike and why. And that is what makes his death such a powerful mystery over all these years.


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