Outdoor journalist and Mono County Sheriff Martin Strelneck wrote the news and was also part of it in a unique civic career that often made national headlines
BY PAT McDONELL
LEE VINING – Outdoor journalist and longtime Mono County sheriff/coroner Martin Strelneck was often in the news, writing about fishing and hunting in the Eastern Sierra for many publications like Western Outdoor News, or being in the national news himself when disaster – or bad boy actor Sean Penn – came to Mono County.
In the gap between his years as Sheriff, following an election loss in 1982, Strelneck supported his family by writing, of all things, the police and crime stories for the local daily paper, and to make extra money, fishing reports and thousands of features for several publications such as WON, the Mono County Herald and Inyo Register. In addition to features and news stories, Strelneck wrote a weekly column in WON titled High Country focusing on the Eastern Sierra. His beat, you might say.
In nearly 30 years writing on the volatile politics of water, fisheries management and fishing in general in the Sierra, the sportsman’s publication never had to run a correction, his editor at WON said. He got it right or didn’t write it.
From top cop in Mono County to police beat reporter and outdoor writer. It’s an unusual career jump unless you realize that interest in opportunities for fish and game management drew him to his deputy sheriff job in Mono County to begin with.
“I lost the election and my job and had to support my family,” he said of his switch to journalism covering the crime beat, “But my very patient editor at the Herald was always having to remind me to stop calling people ‘subjects,’ like I did in police reports. Old habits.”
Strelneck ran again for Sheriff in 1986 and easily won with 84 percent of the vote, and served his post that came with being county coroner and head of the county search and rescue team until his retirement in 1994, all while still writing for various newspapers. He covered every Sierra trout opener traditionally held the last Saturday in April for WON, and produced weekly fishing reports and features, never missing a deadline in three decades of covering the news and promoting the region’s many outdoor attractions. He was himself an avid backcountry fisherman and waterfowler, often jump shooting ducks and geese with friends on the Owens River and with his son David, in Maine.
He was also renowned for his gardening skills, his year-around summer and winter greenhouse crops going to a few select local restaurants like The Restaurant at Convict Lake, and there was the prodigious arrowhead collection he assembled on his many fishing and hunting forays over several decades. And he knew the Sierra waters, every small stream, lake. And every trick to get a fish.
“Martin would always come down early to Bishop the day before the trout opener and come by Culver’s Sporting Goods where I was working to chat, and he would often ask me to lunch across the street at Barbeque Bills,” said Marlon Meade, a Berkley pro staffer who fished with Strelneck many times. “I was lucky spending one hour with him on updating what was going on for the trout opener. Then I would pass it on to the customer. He was always the number-one go-to guy on giving last-minute fishing updates. He knew the Sierra, every trail and side road and pond or creek. He knew what was going on and where. His knowledge of the area was incredible. And no one was nicer than Martin.”
Strelneck was, all too often, on the other side of the news media, as part of his job as Sheriff, jailer, coroner and head of rescue operations in the rugged Sierra Nevada. In 1980 there was the earthquake/volcano hysteria at Mammoth Lakes and then again in 1982 when U.S. Geological Survey scientists were planning to put the area on volcanic “notice” or “watch” status due to earthquake swarms and other monitoring data. Much ado about nothing, but Strelneck was the point man for community safety media relations.
The was also on duty on May 30, 1986 when the national media reported on an accident that killed 21 and injured 22 elderly travelers from Southern California when their chartered tour bus plunged into the icy Walker River about 35 miles south of the Nevada-California state line.
National news media outlets were again drawn to Mono County under Streneck’s tenure on Feb. 20, 1990 with the horrific Camp O’Neal deaths of three parole camp youths and four would-be rescuers who died trying to save the boys at Convict Lake after falling through thin ice.
And there was, of course, the short incarceration in 2010 of Sean Penn in the Bridgeport jail on misdemeanor charges stemming from a 2007 assault of a photographer at the time the actor was married to Madonna. It was before most social media and aggressive paparazzi, but Fox cable and the National Enquirer were among the dozen or so aggressive media outlets camped in town for weeks. The remote Bridgeport jail was selected, at extra cost of $50 a day to Penn, to avoid the crush of media. Penn was the model prisoner, Strelneck told this writer, but the media – especially the Fox News reporter, probably deserved the jail time more than Penn for their underhanded efforts to reach Penn or photograph him in jail. Asked if Penn was receiving any special privileges, Strelneck was quoted in the L.A. Times, “He’s treated the same as everyone else. We’re not running a hotel.” Penn served 33 days of his 60-day sentence at Bridgeport.
Strelneck passed away peacefully in his sleep June 8 living in an assisted living apartment in Garderville, CA due to deteriorating back and leg conditions stemming from an on-duty patrol crash. He had to drive off the edge of June Lake to avoid a head-on collision with an oncoming car passing a Greyhound bus on the narrow two-lane road.
Until the last few months he had lived alone in his Lee Vining home since his wife Beth died in 2013 after a battle with lung cancer. He is survived by his two sons David, who splits is time between Lee Vining and Bath, Maine with his wife and daughters Isabel and Rose, and Eric who lives in Oakland. A third son of Beth and Martin, John, died in 1974 at age 3 from a viral infection.
Martin was born July 27, 1936, in Eugene, Oregon. As the story goes, his parents Martin Sr. and Florence delivered eggs from their chicken farm to pay the doctor. He graduated from Baldwin Park High School, Mt. San Antonio College and the U.S. FBI Academy. He was a patrolman for the Azusa Police Department until taking a job as Deputy Sheriff in Mono County in 1963, and lived in June Lake, simultaneously managing the Birch Creek Cabins with his wife Beth, and for extra money cut firewood for the likes of filmmakers Frank Capra. Jr. and animator (Woody Woodpecker) Walter Lantz. He was appointed Sheriff-Coroner by the Mono County Board of Supervisors in 1976, served and was elected to a four-year term through 1982, lost an election and started his writing career, and then reclaimed his Sheriff’s post in 1988, serving until his retirement in 1994.
He was recognized for his work in law enforcemen, fisheries and journalism by the Attorney General of California, California State Senate, California State Legislature, Trout Unlimited, and the Mono County Board of Supervisors, among others. And he guided many celebrities, including Larry Hagman during his “Dallas” TV fame.
The Strelnecks moved from June Lake to Lee Vining in 1972 where they raised a family and continued to be an integral part of the community as Beth served on the county grand jury. They were a team as they headed up many local fundraisers and events from Bridgeport to Mammoth Lakes. Martin was a member and leadership of the Bishop Elks Lodge, June Lake Lions Club, Lee Vining High School Boosters Club, Winnedumah Masons Lodge #287, and the California State Sheriffs Association. He and Beth were gracious hosts, and an invite to their home for a Beth Strelneck home-cooked dinner was a coveted treat.
“I grew up fishing and hunting Mono County, and the best thing that ever happened during my time at WON was getting to know our Eastern Sierra correspondent Martin Strelneck,” said Rich Holland, a longtime writer for the publication, now retired. “We fished together from Topaz Lake to Crowley. The many other special places and fishing info he shared with me were priceless. I always made sure to bring him my saltwater catches and whatever Sacramento perch I caught — anything but trout. What a great human being. I miss him.”
His family and friends would echo that thought.
“I hope people appreciate the essence of my father,” said his son David who was with his father a week before, flying in from Maine as he often did, taking a trip by car around the Sierra to his favorite fishing spots, visiting friends. “His back and leg injuries got him, but also heart surgery and had leaky valves. He was tough, so tough. But he kept going despite the pain. My dad was renowned for his ability to observe and perceive the circumstances, whether I was outdoors on a fishing stream, or a crime scene, or in a complicated group discussion.”
In recent years, Martin loved and celebrated his granddaughters Isabel and Rose more than anything else in the world, his son David said. He will be buried at the Mono Lake Cemetery with his parents, wife and son. Davis said a memorial event, likely a barbecue (one of Martin’s favorite community and civic gatherings) will be held this summer for friends and family.