April 18, 1932 – July 13, 1995
This story defines the phrase, “Being in the wrong place at the wrong time” on a spectacular level. It’s about the man who caused the death of James Dean.
On September 30, 1955, the world lost the 24-year-old actor, James Dean. He only made three films, two that were not even released yet. He was not rich and famous, nor would he ever be in his lifetime.
At 5:59 pm, a 23-year-old Cal Poly student named Donald Turnupseed made the infamous left turn that would take the life of Dean, making him immortal. Dean died in an ambulance on the way to the hospital.
Donald grew up in a little town nearby called Tulare,
and attended Tulare Union High School.
He spent some time in the Navy, and spent nearly his entire life in that area.
After the accident, Turnupseed, with a scratched nose, was told by a CHP officer to hitchhike home. There was an inquest held, and it was ruled an accident. According to the book The Death of James Dean, “Turnupseed probably would have been cited at the scene for an illegal left turn and perhaps other negligence-related charges, such as failure to signal, failure to see safe movement, and unsafe speed. But because the crash involved a fatality, there was an inquest held. Jimmy was probably speeding (but not the ridiculous speeds some suggest (more like 60-70), and because the Porsche he was driving was so low to the ground, and at that time of day Turnupseed really didn’t realize what hit him (or he hit) until it was too late.
Turnupseed never spoke publicly about the accident. My friend, writer Warren Beath, who penned The Death of James Dean, and last year’s book James Dean in Death, approached Donald once. He was friendly enough, but when asked if he would comment on the accident, Turnupseed’s expression changed to near stone, and he answered simply, “Not a chance.”
There was a correspondence from Turnupseed auctioned off in recent years, in which he addresses the accident. He wrote to a buddy from the Navy:
“I am certainly sorry you have not heard from me before now but I have had quite a bit of excitement in the last year. Or so, first starting back to school then the affair with Dean, Bought another car & a house so I am just now getting time to get my breath.
“I am enclosing some shots of mine & Dean cars. I had my Ford fixed like we had planned on the ship. I salvaged the manifold and carb are all that were left. A brand new set of Offenhouser heads gone, a (H) & M magneto run down the thought of a new eagle cam. But thank God I got out of it in one piece. But that is in the past and as I have said in poker games on the ship ‘that was yesterday.'”
Turnupseed inherited his father’s electrical business and built it into a multi million-dollar company.
Today in some parts of California, it’s quite common to see a utility truck sporting the name so closely associated with James Dean’s demise.
Turnupseed did marry twice, was widowed once, had 3 children, 1 stepson and 5 grandchildren.
He succumbed to lung cancer (he had been diagnosed in late ’93) on July 13, 1995, in his home in Tulare,
without ever discussing the accident publicly.
He was 63 years old.
His body was handled by Miller’s Funeral Home,
and he is buried in the Tulare District Cemetery, next to his first wife and his parents.
Thank you Warren and thank you Harry.
9 thoughts on “Donald Turnupseed”
I just finished watching RAISED ON ROCK: The Burnette Family Legacy, a documentary about the lives and careers of Johnny and Dorsey Burnette, the great rockabilly pioneers.
During one of the interview segments Dorsey’s son Billy mentioned that the family only recently learned (2022) that the driver of the boat that struck Johnny Burnette’s boat (Johnny Burnette died in a boating accident back in August of 1964) was the same person that was driving the car that struck James Dean’s car.
What are the odds?
James Dean was on his way to a race in a Porsche …what else needs said??
Idk were you there to witness it or just making assumptions?
That’s not Donald Turnupseed. That’s Anton LeVay.
This is Turnupseed.
It’s Turnupseed. Look it up.
Its amazing the nonsense some people come up with,Donald Turnupseed simply did not want to talk about the accident period,this guy was involved in the death of one of the most beloved movie stars of all time, nothing to do with Porsche s reputation,im sure crazy fans made his life miserable over the years,probably got death threats to boot,that was simply the reason why he choose to keep quiet.
Not sure why would Porsche pay a dime to anyone just cause someone had a wreck in one of their cars,i had a really bad one in a Ford one time, they never called me to pay me anything, it was a simple case of 2 people not minding their P’s and q’s AKA paying attention ,nothing to do with safety, the spider was a tiny car and the Oldsmobile was a tank,imagine a smart car being hit by a dually truck today,lol, thats about the gist of what happened that day and Dean came out in the losing end.
I think that this guy and Dean’s passenger did not speak because they were being paid by Porsche to keep quiet. We know for sure that the mechanic had to be paid off, so we know there would be no other reason for Turnupseed to not speak unless he were being paid.
What was at stake was not only Porsche’s reputation as faulty or dangerous vehicles, but the three men involved in the accident could sue Porsche and they preferred to pay them off and keep quiet about having negative publicity regarding their brand then to take it to court.
On top of that, I saw a documentary that said that the Spyder Dean drove was kind of heavy in the rear and would have cause problems coming to a sudden stop anyway. When people give no interviews until they die – it usually means that they had an agreement to be quiet while they get paid until they die. The only question is – did James Dean’s family get paid?
Omfg please tell me you aren’t serious. Porsches were known for being fast, not safe. People who bought them were more concerned with speed rather than safety! And MOST cars back in 1955 weren’t concerned with safety anyway. He didn’t want to talk about it because he moved on from something traumatic in his past, simple as that. Get a grip.
What the hell are you talking about? Get a grip? Omfg please tell me you aren’t serious.