Another unusual enigma of Santa Cruz County is the history of Holy City. Located off of Highway 17 - the old Santa Cruz Highway. What remains of this historic oddity is merely a few remnants of this former cult compound. Holy City as it was known was dedicated to the belief of a ‘Perfect Christian Divine Way’ – which was later changed to a - “Perfect Christian Divine Science”. The teachings of the Divine Science, consisted of race segregation, abstinence from alcohol, celibacy, communal living and white supremacist perspectives.
Founded by cult leader William E. Riker in 1919, this former one hundred and forty two acre compound, began with as few as, 30 followers and by 1930 expanded to 300 devoted disciples. Prior to founding Holy City, Riker himself, was a self proclaimed preacher, and a master manipulator and bamboozler. Riker’s sorted past led him on a trail across the country of bigamy, street peddling, preaching, mystical and mind reading acts; which easily swayed the unsuspecting; out of their pocket books and into Rikers pocket.
Riker’s original 30 followers of Holy City, were comprised primarily of elderly men, who he happily swindled out of all of their monetary possessions, in exchange for a make shift shack and no worldly possessions of there own- yet he did provide a guaranteed highway to heaven through his strict teachings. A teaching which supported the philosophy of Adolf Hitler, yet also contradicted itself, and was oddly eagerly welcoming to those of the Jewish persuasion.
Riker even went to extreme measures to attract tourists and new fellowship, with a road side attraction which included restaurant, gas station, dance hall, petting zoo and more. There he erected numerous welcoming, 12 foot high Santa Claus figures and friendly carnival signs to provoke the curious. Additional signage announced Holy City as the “New Jerusalem’ and of course he included public bulletins however these, depicted the statement “Asians and Negroes keep out of Holy City until you’ve learned you place”, a reminder to those – who were not welcomed – in Riker’s city of white.
Between 1924 and 1931 while continuing to bleed dry his ever growing fellowship, Father Riker remarried for a third time and he and his wife, Lucille, also known as the “mother” resided in a large, two story house, on the hill top – overlooking the Holy City compound. Here the “Father” shared his sermons’, or more like his fanatical beliefs. Still insisting on celibacy, abstinence and freedom of possessions to his flock; Riker enjoyed all the riches that his sheep provided, including a shiny new Cadillac. Opposing all religious sects but his own; Riker convinced his followers that he was God and they were in his kingdom, a kingdom which would lead them to everlasting life. To spread his beliefs even further, Riker erected a radio station, KFQU and continued his white supremacist epitaph to an even broader audience.
In 1931 further expansion of Holy City was underway and Riker purchased the building material to the Wessendorf & Staffler mortuary on Church Street in Santa Cruz, which was to be demolished. The building was dismantled and the lumber transported to Holy City to be used for further development, including the expansion of a woman’s dorm.
In 1935, according to the Santa Cruz Sentinel, it appeared that Rikers white supremacist followers had grown...and as darkness grew over the skies, a large fiery blaze illuminated in the distance of the Holy City compound. It was reported that a 12 foot cross, engulfed in flames was the center piece of a strange gathering. Fourteen persons, including a 10 year old boy were part of a ritualistic induction to the Ku Klux Klan. Persons adorn with traditional white robes and hoods, some in color, gathered together while chanting – Fifty additional bystanders, also gathered observing the eerie ritual. At the end of the ceremony Father Riker, alongside a Klan member were asked to speak a few words, and when the festivities officially closed, everyone was invited for coffee and cake at the compound.
October 13th of 1942, according to the Santa Cruz Sentinel, the first murder occurred at Holy City between two carpenters who were arguing over the use of a fire ladder, the dispute began when Joseph Witzig age 58, wanted to remove a fire ladder so that he may use it on a project. However, 51 year old Irvin Fischer argued that Witzig must have the permission of Father Riker, before taking the ladder. As a result, a violent argument broke out and Fischer beat Witzig with an iron bar to death.
As the years progressed Riker’s disciples began to dwindle, rumors about his hypocrisy became apparent amongst his commune; Riker preached celibacy to his followers and would not even allow for married men or woman to reside with one another, it would soon be discovered that the “fork tongued father” was enjoying the many pleasures of the female community within his city walls, all to himself.
In March of 1947, it would appear that the stress of the Fathers teachings would prove to be too much for one of his disciples - 55 year old, Italo Christafani a laborer, was found with a noose around his neck, hanging from a tree outside of the home of Father Riker; perhaps he chose this location in the hope of some sort of divine intervention, or perhaps foul play may have been a factor. Alas, no one would ever truly know what the motivation was behind Christafani’s death, according to the coroner, although no note was found; the death was deemed a suicide.
As the years progressed, Father Riker would try to increase his following and put his hat in the political race; running for California state Governor a total of four times – fortunately for California his religious rants left a bad taste in the political ring, and he lost every race he had entered.
Holy City would continue to decline, even being set ablaze on more than one occasion. The fires ultimately destroyed many of the structures located on the compound, the result of arson. Riker would also ultimately be called into court multiple times, stemming from charges of tax evasion to FBI charges of sedition for letters Riker had been writing to his idol “Adolf Hitler” in support of anti-Semitic propaganda.
By 1966, the elderly, self proclaimed “God” of Holy City himself– did a surprising turn about, after decades of convincing others he was the light to everlasting life and the kingdom, after decades of stealing all monetary possessions from those who believed in him as he lined his own pockets, after destroying marriages to pleasure his own needs, and after years of preaching white supremacy and dictating to others… the ailing and feeble shell of a man, Father William E. Riker, who was sent to Agnew State Hospital, as opposed to a rest home, because none could accommodate his "special behavior" - after all of this man's rants and raves - Riker himself, converted his entire belief system to the Catholic church – begging for salvation to the one true God. He was 93 years of age.
Three years later on December 3, 1969 , William E. Riker died, at Agnew State Hospital, After Riker’s death Holy City became nothing but a ghost town, and today all that remains of this odd historic enigma is nothing more than a few old signs, a small abandoned shack with the remains of what is believed to be the “fathers” Model T, and an old functional artisans shop- that still may hold some secrets of William Riker and the legends of Holy City.
According to a 1969 San Jose news article; Rikers 58 year old nephew, Gifford Riker, was in charge of funeral proceedings for his uncle. As it would turn out, Rikers conversion to Roman Catholic proved to be problematic for the nephew, in determining his final resting spot- How ever the nephew did express devote admiration for his uncle and stated he was engaged in writing a new bible entitled "Saint Riker".
Ironically, the man who was always in the lime light, was ultimately buried in an unmarked grave at the Odd Fellows, Santa Cruz Memorial Cemetery, no public funeral announcement was made, not even a marker, According to Carla Robideaux of the SC Memorial Cemetery, Father William E. Riker lies beside his wife, "Mother" Lucille Riker and a few of Holy City disciples, had it not been for looking up Riker's wife Lucille, the Fathers interment would have remained unnoticed .