LONE PINE, Calif. — Mention the name Mark Berry to old-timers at Jake’s Saloon in Lone Pine and you get winks and knowing smiles.
His treacherous exploit has been whispered around the Owens Valley for nearly four decades, though Berry never talked about it much.
On a warm autumn afternoon recently, Berry settled into a lawn chair under a massive shade tree behind his home in the eastern Sierra. He took a deep breath and told his story.
“It wasn’t a planned deal,” said Berry, now 54. “I was an impressionable kid at the time, just 17.”
Berry and his friend, Robert Howe, were caught up in the anger that then hung over the Owens Valley. The environmental damage caused by the Los Angeles Aqueduct, built in the early 1900s to divert much of the water from the region to the growing metropolis 200 miles away, was worsening and Owens Valley residents were exasperated.
“Things got out of hand,” Berry recalled.
The friends stole two cases of dynamite and headed to the aqueduct.
The night of Sept. 14, 1976, Berry and Howe, 20, were waiting for their girlfriends to get off work at an ice cream parlor.
To kill time, they bought a six-pack and drove to a secluded spot along the Owens River. The two walked along a bone-dry river channel where water should have been flowing.
“Robert got real mad about that,” Berry recalled. “He yelled, ‘I can’t believe this. They’re not letting any water out. I’m going to fix this once and for all.’ ”
In Howe’s root-beer-brown Ford Pinto, the friends drove to a hut on the western outskirts of town where Inyo County stored dynamite used to build trails and dislodge boulders and logs.
In recollections supported by court documents, Berry said Howe used a crowbar to break the hut’s locks. They grabbed two cases of dynamite, blasting caps and about 20 feet of fuse.