JOHN BOSTON: LAYING DOWN THE LAW IN EARLY SANTA CLARITA
[BACK TO BOSTON][THE LAW: PART 1][THE LAW: PART 2][THE LAW: PART 3]
3. Keeping the Peace During Wartime
Deputy Jim Biddison enjoyed the grand opening of the brand-spanking new sheriff's sub-station at the corner of 6th and San Fernando on August 23, 1926. They still used the old jailhouse on 11th and Spruce for storage and for keeping low-risk prisoners. (The practice was stopped in 1939 when the county pointed out you couldn't have unguarded prisoners and Newhall couldn't spare the extra manpower watching essentially harmless drunks and penny-ante crooks.)
"The new officers are a jolly bunch of fellows," noted Signal editor A.B. Thatcher, "unless you happen to be transacting your business with them on the wrong end of a sawed-off shotgun."
New officers to kick off the new station were "Howard, Fox, Ernst, Stockwell, Knus, Nester and Aikens."
The station nearly burned to the ground in 1937, but quick-acting officers saved much of the building.
The Great Depression of the 1930s hit everyone pretty hard, sheriff's deputies included. Many were forced to take wage cuts. They still had to work full time, but were only paid 80 percent of their salary.
They also had to wear thick wool uniforms, heavy boots, leather suspenders and a tie. The county sheriff would give them a small reprieve, allowing them to ditch the tie when the thermometer topped 110.
Say it with me.
"No air conditioning in the squad cars."
On the bright side, it was easier calling them during an emergency. Today, we have to fumble with three whole numbers to dial 911. Back in the 1920s and '30s, the local Newhall Sheriff's office number was 23 — a full 33 percent more efficient.
In the 1930s, the local sheriff's department was involved in a wee bit of over-response. Witness this anecdote. It seems an all-points bulletin was put out on a man suspected in the kidnapping and grisly murder of a small girl in Los Angeles. Reports at the Newhall sub-station were that he was on a train that would soon pass through Saugus.
Word quickly passed through town and besides the three deputies on shift, a mob of more than 100 armed men formed and was waiting at the Saugus train depot. The train stopped. A man fitting the description got off. He saw the posse and immediately sprinted across the street, with the mob in hot pursuit. It was reported over 100 shots were fired, many going into the Saugus Cafe. They cornered the suspect behind the famous coffee shop where he surrendered. Afraid for his life and stuttering, he asked what kind of "law-and-order town was this?" to be met by a 100-man mob.
It seems the gentleman in question was no kidnapper, but he had stolen a car in Bakersfield and thought the impressive posse was just for him.
Funny how one of the deputies in that circus could have missed. Deputy Story won the 1935 William S. Hart Cup for sharpshooters. Story stole the show with a 19th-century revolver, described as "an ancient death-dealing machine of some outlaw." The handle was studded with diamonds. While some gun enthusiasts ogled at the piece, others teased Story with pre-Liberace innuendo.
In the same local Bill Hart marksmanship contest, by the way, the following year, a Deputy Summers was given the special "Tootsie Prize" for shooting himself in the foot.
Officer Story, albeit a limping Officer Story, would later redeem himself, arresting a drunk for flipping his car on Sierra Highway. The perp's name was Peter Paul Kennedy. The judge's name who handled his case was Arthur C. Kennedy. The jurist gave the drinker 10 days in jail for drunk and disorderly conduct, reckless driving and "having the names of two saints and a judge and driving like a sinner."
Jumping ahead a decade, there was another rather nifty anecdote about our local sharpshooting lawmen.
In March of 1942, Deputy Allan Greer shot himself one airplane.
The sub-station got a call about an airplane at old Newhall International Airport (on what would be near McBean Parkway at Granary Square today) that had lurched from its moorings at was running pilotless in circles. Several deputies attempted to shoot something vital but weren't up to the task. They called in Greer, the local turkey-shoot champion. Greer calmly walked to his car, pulled out his target rifle from the trunk and calmly shot the quarter-inch fuel line in half from 50 yards away — on a moving airplane.
Even today, there are back canyons in the Santa Clarita Valley that are downright treacherous, unreachable by anything surrounding an internal combustion engine.
For more than a century, we've had some version of the Sheriff's Mounted Posse. It has helped citizens of the Santa Clarita, rescuing hikers in distant mountain thickets, packing in supplies to residents stranded by overflowing creeks and even patrolling the streets for terrorists during World War II. During the 1940s, the SMP had an offshoot of their organization called "The Footprinters." The Footprinters used their expertise in tracking to help find everything from lost cattle and kids to rustlers and bank robbers hiding out in the boonies.
Lots of famous folks rode in Newhall's Sheriff's Mounted Posse. Actors William. S. Hart, Tom Mix and Harry Carey. Cowboy Hall of Fame member Andy Jauregui. The last two rode on perhaps the grimmest detail in the local horse police's history.
On Jan. 15, 1945, they and other members rode out to retrieve the bodies from an American Airlines crash in the local mountains. They had to snugly wrap the bodies of 24 victims, some burned beyond recognition, others "the consistency of jelly," into blankets and carry them out on pack horses. A newspaper reporter noted: "Despite the sickening nature of their work, not a single posseman faltered."
The posse was used for a large manhunt up at Vasquez Rocks after the Second World War. Someone had taken potshots at a government hunter, and a basic battalion of local and outside deputies rode for days in the back gullies and narrow trails of Agua Dulce, searching for the attempted murderer.
The fugitive turned out the be the leader of the hunt and foreman of the Kreig ranch. He had a lengthy sheet.
You don't see them anymore but we used to have several L.A. County Sheriff's motorcycle units patrolling the SCV from the late 1920s into the early 1950s. Deputy Chief Roger Murdock was in charge of the 60 bike cops who covered the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys in 1935.
Angry over an inordinate amount of traffic fatalities, Murdock penned an order making it mandatory that his five dozen bikers would have to write 7,200 traffic tickets — every month — or get off the force. Local motorcycle officers were quick to do the math. That worked out to 23 tickets per man, every day (or 86,400 tickets per year by the force of 60). Murdock later denied that he had invented any quota system.
The sheriffs had another trick up their sleeve to stop speeders racing through the Santa Clarita Valley. They had blockades at both ends of the valley. Every driver was given a slip of paper with the time of day on it. If the traveler made it to the checkpoint at the other end of the valley before a certain time, he was ticketed. You could pretty much drive 5,000 mph around the onion fields here, but you better not sign in at that checkpoint too quickly.
You also won't find this in training manuals anywhere, but what in part makes a good lawman is the ability to know when to look away. Such was the case of the head sheriff out here on July 4, 1955.
We won't name him because he didn't bust us.
The SCV has the largest 4th of July parade in California every year and has a string of near-unbroken parades dating back to 1932. (We didn't stage a parade during the WW2 years of 1943 and '44.) But in 1955, due to apathy, we almost didn't have one. Midmorning on Independence Day, Signal editor Fred Trueblood got some friends and family together to keep that streak alive. They got some musical instruments, garbage can lids (back when they were metal) and some American flags and launched an impromptu parade right down the middle of the main drag, San Fernando Road.
People ran from their houses and businesses to join the Trueblood celebratory line. There were maybe 75 people in the unofficial parade, yelling, cheering and straddling the double-yellow line through town. That's when the head sheriff came driving up the other direction. Call it patriotism. Call it too much paperwork to even imagine. The good-hearted officer took his hat off and covered the left side of his face so he wouldn't have to see the parade as he motored by.
There are a lot of little gee-whiz anecdotes involving our local sheriff's department.
In the late 1940s, members of a San Fernando street gang came up to Newhall and raped a young woman, then threatened the lady and her mother not to go to the police. The threat came in the form of a letter, signed and addressed by the gang leader. An unofficial source involved in the incident stretched the truth mirthfully, noting the fellow "was promptly arrested, beaten and sent to prison."
More often than not, it's usually the deputies who are on the wrong end of physical confrontation.
Peter Pitchess-Wayside detainee Johnnie Lee holds perhaps the local record for injuring deputies. When he was told in the late 1940s he had miscalculated his stay and had another six months to serve, Lee went berserk, beating up eight deputies in his one-man riot. He was given another time-out of two years to his six months.
Then there was Mighty Joe Eaton.
In June of 1957, Deputies Thompson and Sommers answered one of those calls officers just hate attending.
"A very gigantic man is destroying the bar and throwing patrons through windows," the police scanner announced. The two lawmen found themselves mopping the countertop of a local bar by one drunk "Mighty" Joe Eaton, 6-foot 9-inches, 350 pounds and a local oil worker. Eaton pretty much shredded Thompson and Sommers along with a variety of undeputized helpers. Deputy Sommers later reported that Eaton's wrists were four times larger than his handcuffs.
Judge Art Miller gave Eaton a suspended sentence after he made restitution but banished him for life from the SCV. They could do that back then.
And poor Deputy Sommers. Just a month later, he gets another a B.A.S.C. (Barflies Acting Stupid Call) and has to break up fisticuffs between two men weighing a quarter ton. Sommers tips the scales at 135. One of the brawlers swings, misses and hits the Barney Fife-sized Sommers clean canary out.
Now here's something you don't see every day in a headline: "White Slavers Chased Out of Town in Swank Buick Convertible."
It was January 1946 and some gangsters had rented a house on Newhall's poshest street, Arcadia. They were using the rental as a prostitute training ground — right next door to local Judge Art C. Miller. The crooks even joked about how dumb the judge must be to have all this debauchery going on right under his nose.
What they didn't realize was that the local sheriff's office was running a wire tap. Back in 1946, a wire tap in Newhall consisted of a microphone taped to the outside of the kitchen window with a long cord stretching into the judge's living room. The jurist even manned the wiretap while the lawmen went out for sandwiches.
Needless to say, when the defense attorneys discovered Miller's part in gathering evidence, they were livid, demanding he step down from the case. Eventually, Miller did, but more so because he was being pestered by calls and letters from all over the country. Seems most of them were requests for pictures of the "White Slave Girls."
The bad guys were eventually found guilty and one, Lon Gamble, escaped from the Newhall courthouse on Market Street by vaulting the banister and jumping into a new Buick convertible he had waiting outside. Sheriff's deputies caught up with him a couple of miles out of town.
Speaking of fine speech making against the criminal element, local Capt. Ambrose Pierce issued an ultimatum against out-of-town crooks that he would have no pity on them. That was when famed racketeer and mobland murderer Ben "Bugsy" Siegel lived on tony Arcadia Street with his girlfriend, Virginia Hill.
That would be right down the street from Judge Miller.
TV is full of those shows featuring the world's dumbest criminals. Deputy Eugene Halsch answered a call in December 1956 of a bomb threat. Halsch seemed to think the voice belonged to a male of high-school age. He called to warn he had planted a bomb "big enough to blow up the entire school (Hart High)." How dumb was the kid? He called in his threat at night for the PTA meeting instead of during the day when classes were in session.
One of the most metaphorically significant calls the sheriff's department has ever had to answer occurred on Dec. 28, 1967. Valencia was a brand new community and the old ranching values of Newhall were just starting to bump heads with the hordes of immigrating Yuppies.
Tom Hanson called to complain that a mystery herd of cattle had somehow gained access to his back yard and was tearing up his clay tennis court "with their hooves." Hanson also complained that their mooing and chewing on his grass kept him awake.
The Mighty Signal has done its best to help the local gendarmes fight drunk driving. On Dec. 14, 1977, this newspaper started a column called "Demon Rum." It was a listing of all the drunken-driving arrests for the week. It had some effects, we're told, on keeping down driving under the influence. But, somebody's pie-eating attorney threatened to sue the paper, noting that his stinking-drunk client had been arrested but not convicted.
In the early 1970s, right before the sheriff's station moved over to its posh location on Valencia Boulevard, officers took a complaint from a woman about nude bathers. "I can see them plain as day with my binoculars," she said.
Ten thousand words whittled down to half, if not near blind I've got sore eyes from all the research. So many stories. At the end, I marvel how we choose.
The hilarious. The frightening. The odd happenstance or plain weird and unfair ending to a life. All those anecdotes. So many facts. So little Truth.
After a century and a half of archival digging, how many stories did I come upon about the life lived well and simply? I sifted through thousands of small tales, but very few if any of a cop listening patiently to two married people, angry, sadly no longer in love with one another and trying just to help them find ground-zero.
Lots of shoot-outs, but no covering a freezing drunk with a blanket while he sleeps. No statistics on toys given to children, or standing for a trillion hours along a parade route, school ground or closed road for a mishap that may never happen and might not just because they are there. Being cursed, yelled at, accused, second-guessed and somehow managing a smile at that particular moment.
Going into the dark to save someone you don't even know.
Standing tall at watch over one of the most bizarre and frequently ungrateful concepts ever invented, the human.
There was a great definition of a hero passed on to me. "What makes a hero is that knowing he is doomed to failure, he tries anyway."
©2000 JOHN BOSTON & SCV HISTORICAL SOCIETY | RIGHTS RESERVED.