The Tragic History of Mike Warnke
By Jon Trott & Mike Hertenstein
Copyright 1992 by Jon Trott & Mike Hertenstein.
Mike Moves in with the Schraders
During the summer of 1959, Mike went to live with his half sister and her family near Riverside, California. Shirley confirms Warnke's story of how his Aunt Edna sent him to California loaded down with anti-Catholic materials.
Shirley Schrader took the boys to church--that is, she took her eleven-year-old son Keith with her to Catholic mass and allowed thirteen-year-old Mike to attend a nearby Protestant church, "And that was fine for as long as he wanted to do it, because we weren't going to force religion on him."
In Riverside, Keith, Jr., attended a parochial school--St. Francis De Sales. Mike eventually decided he wanted to go to that same parochial school. "He went for a year until we moved up on the mountain." says Shirley.
In February of 1961, the Schraders and fourteen-year-old Mike moved to Crestline, a small community planted among the pine trees atop the San Bernardino Mountains overlooking the vast San Bernardino Valley.
The Schraders were well respected in Crestline. Community pillars, they ran a tight ship at home. Keith, Sr., head of the Pilot Rock Conservation Camp, was in charge of minimum security inmates assigned to fight forest fires. "We took the boys on camping trips. We rock hounded. We did things together," recalls Shirley. "We sat them down and had the sex talk. We had the talk about alcohol. We were a regular family."
Keith, Jr., recalls, "Mike and I had a good time growing up together. We were real close during high school--when we weren't fighting."
Mike Warnke attended Rim of the World High School. His best friends through these years were Tim Smith and Jeff Nesmith. "We'd spend lots of time at each other's houses," says Jeff Nesmith, "go to school dances together, proms, and one summer Mike and I worked for my dad in the construction business. We weren't hellions, but we weren't angels either. We had our parties, gate crashed some dances."
All of Mike's friends and family we were able to contact denied his assertion that he drifted at one point to a "rougher" crowd. In fact, most of the kids Mike hung out with were, by all reports, good, clean, Catholic boys. Tim Smith and another local boy, David Goodwin, were altar boys at St. Francis Cabrini Church. "Tim and I went to morning mass every day before school," says Goodwin. "Sometimes Mike Warnke attended mass with us." Tim's sister Terri explains, "I believe Mike got interested in Catholicism from hanging out with us. He was like a piece of furniture at our house."
One day Mike announced to the Schraders that he, too, wanted to become a Catholic. In the spring of his senior year in high school, Warnke was confirmed in the Catholic Church. His sponsor was Tim's dad, Paul "Jerry" Smith. Two months after being confirmed, Mike graduated with the rest of his class at Rim High in the class of '65.
Everybody we talked to who knew Mike Warnke at "Rim" remembers him first and foremost as a chronic storyteller. His high school partner in various escapades was Jeff Nesmith. Once, says Jeff, Mike had a date but no car, and Jeff had his parent's Lincoln. "Mike talked me into dropping him and his date off at a restaurant and them picking them up after dinner. Before we picked up Mike's date, we stopped at a local uniform store and got me a chauffeur's cap. From the moment the girl got into the car, Mike spun this wild tale about me being an orphan boy and how his family had taken me in, and how I sometimes performed various services for them such as being their chauffeur. She just soaked it all in."
The thing that always struck Nesmith about his pal was that Warnke would never break out of character. "We'd go into some restaurant, and Mike would pretend to be a Russian immigrant who couldn't speak English. I'd translate Mike's order into English for the waitress. Sometimes--just to get him--I'd order something I knew he'd hate. But Mike was always enough of a pro that he'd stick with it and wouldn't say anything...until we got outside the restaurant and he'd yell at me."
The Schraders also knew Mike as a boy with the gift of gab. "Michael is a showman," says Shirley. "He is an actor, and he always swore he would never make a living with his hands, that he would make his living with his mouth." Keith, Jr., adds: "Mike is the kind of guy that can sell somebody the Golden Gate Bridge. Or swamp land in Florida. I gotta hand it to him. I wish I as a good a salesman."
In high school, storytelling had been a diversion, a way to get by. According to his friends in college, it would increasingly become a part of Mike Warnke's identityMike Warnke at College