The Burton Gang’s Last Job, Part 1

Photo is not of this case, but typical of the time. Courtesy of LAPL.

Photo is not of this case, but typical of the time. Courtesy of LAPL.

On the evening of July 19, 1922, motorcycle Officer Chester L.. Bandle clocked a coupe speeding through the intersection at Ninth and Hill Streets at a reckless forty miles an hour. He gave chase. The driver pulled over at Seventh and Hill and Officer Bandle walked over to hand the speeder a ticket, but he never got the chance. The driver, aiming a revolver, leaned out of the car and shot Officer Bandle in the right shoulder–then he sped off abandoning the car several blocks away. The car  was  taken to Central Police Station and Officer Bandle was taken to White Memorial Hospital in fair condition, but expected to survive.

The abandoned car was found a few blocks from where the motor officer had been wounded, and a search of the vehicle yielded a few bits of potentially useful information. Charles Mullen, 4124 Washington Street, Fresno, was the registered owner. Was the car stolen? Was the shooter and the owner of the car the same person?   It was up to Sheriff’s investigators to find out.

Detectives learned that Charles Mullen was one of many aliases used by twenty-seven year-old Edward Burton of Chicago.  Burton was well-known to Chicago cops having begun his life of crime there as a teenager. Under one of his aliases, Louis Miller, he was implicated, but never charged, in he 1919 gangland murder of fellow Windy City street thug, Jimmy Cherin.

burton gang_smith and burton

Evelyn Smith and Edward Burton

Like many crooks before him Burton decided to head west, at least for a while. Burton didn’t travel to Los Angeles alone, he brought his girl, Evelyn Smith, and his gang with him. It didn’t take long for the gang to come to the attention of local law enforcement, and for six months cops tried unsuccessfully to catch the gang in the act.

Shortly after the wounding of Officer Bandle, Sheriff Traeger received a hot tip about where the gang was holed up and he and LAPD Chief Oaks formulated a plan.

An early morning joint raid was conducted by Sheriff Traeger and Chief Oaks at two locations. Swarms of deputies and patrolmen arrived at the bungalow in the rear of 1234 West 39th Street and at a rooming house at 533 1/2 South Spring Street. Under the direction of the Sheriff and the Chief of Police, Detective Capt. Home, Capt. Murray, Detective Sgts. Jarvis, Neece, Longuevan and Davis, and Deputy Sheriffs Sweezy and Allen took part in the raid. Arrested on suspicion of robbery were : Edward Burton; J.W. Gilkye; K.B. Fleenor; B.C. Beaucanan, and his wife; William R. Ryan; F.J. Ryan and his wife; and Evelyn Smith. Also at the bungalow was a burglary kit and a stash of weapons including three shotguns, two rifles, and half a dozen revolvers–a good indication that the gang was up to no good. burton gang_arsenal

The recent hold-up of E.E. Hamil and E.C. Harrison, collectors for the Puente Oil Company, netted the bandits $3875 (equivalent to over $56k in current dollars). Hamil and Harrison attended a line-up to see if they could identify any of the suspects as the man who had robbed them. They pointed at Edward Burton.

burton gang_burglar kitBurton was released on $10,000 [equivalent to $145k in current dollars] bail while Sheriff’s investigators continued to dig into his life and the lives of his companions. No one was surprised to find that Burton was a career criminal with numerous aliases–among them, Charles Mullen. Burton/Mullen fit the description of the man who had shot Motor Officer Bandle; and the car found near the scene of the shooting was registered to Mullen. An unlikely coincidence.

Evidence against the gang was mounting. They started to talk about hopping the next train east. Burton agreed that things were getting too hot for them in Los Angeles, but he said before they bid adieu to blue skies, ocean breezes and palm trees, they needed to pull just one more job.

NEXT TIME: Shootout at Union Ice Company.

Marion Linden’s Life of Crime, Part 1

In March 1932 the Elyria, Ohio Chronicle Telegram sang the praises of an Avon High School sophomore for scoring ten field goals, bringing his team to its eleventh straight win for the season. The young man had his whole life ahead of him.

Fast forward to Omaha, Nebraska, April 1936. Marion James Linden, former high school grid iron star from Ohio, was living up to the speed he showed in scoring ten field goals. Unfortunately, the 23-year-old was speeding towards a life of crime. Marion was busted for stealing two automobiles, kidnapping three men and staging a holdup in only 45 minutes. Quite an accomplishment.

News-UT-OG_ST_EX.1936_04_03_LINDEN_headlineWhy was Marion on a crime spree? He told reporters: “I wanted to commit self-destruction in such a way my insurance policy would not be invalidated through the suicide clause.” Suicide by cop would have been his parents the princely sum of $1200 (equivalent to $20,814.77 in current USD). No doubt the cash would have helped his family weather the Depression. Marion entered a guilty plea, but a few days later he reappeared in court and changed his plea to innocent. He was placed on probation for 2 years.

By early February 1937, Marion was living in Denver, Colorado. By mid-February he was in jail on a murder charge. Marion shot Arlene, his 18-year-old bride of two months, in the heart.NEWS-NE-EV_ST_JO.1937_02_22_LINDEN_headline

Marion believed that while he was in Texas trying to find employment as an oil field worker, Arlene was in Denver having an affair. When Marion returned from Texas he immediately went to the home of his in-laws, the Cochrans, where Arlene was staying. He told Detective Captain James E. Childers that he pleaded with Arlene to give up her lover, and when she refused he shot her. But there may have been more to Marion’s motive than jealousy. Capt. Childers quoted Marion as saying that a divorce would have revealed a violation of his Nebraska probation agreement and he would have been compelled to return there to serve out the three year sentence for his mini-crime spree in April 1936.

News-CO-GR_DA_TR.1937_04_24_LINDEN_headlineMarion was convicted of voluntary manslaughter. Judge Henry A. Hicks pronounced sentence–from seven to eight years in the state penitentiary. Lewis D. Mowry, Marion’s attorney, said that the his client had no plans to appeal, nor would he seek a new trial.

After serving only three years of his sentence, Marion was released in 1940. At that point he falls off the radar. Did Marion go straight? As an ex-con he may have found it difficult to get a fresh start, but If he committed any further crimes they weren’t newsworthy.

Marion resurfaced in Los Angeles in 1957 where he would once again be the topic of news stories.

Next time:Marion’s story concludes.

30 More Years of Crime in L.A.

When I  began this blog in December 2012, I arbitrarily chose to examine crime in Los Angeles during the years from 1900 to 1970.  Now, however, I think it is time to expand the purview to include the decades of 1970, 1980 and 1990 to encompass all of the last century. In terms of crime in the City of Angels, the last three decades of the 20th Century are enormously interesting.

The 1970s have been called one of the most violent decades in U.S. history. Homicide rates climbed at an alarming rate and people felt increasingly vulnerable.

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Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry

Hollywood contributed to popular culture, and helped fuel the debate on crime and punishment, with a slew of vigilante films like Dirty Harry and Death Wish. The films  showed bad guys being blown away by impressively large weapons.  It was cathartic, but not terribly realistic.

It was during the ’70s that the bogeyman got a new name when FBI Investigator Robert Ressler coined the term “serial killer”.

In 1978 convicted rapist and registered sex offender, Rodney Alcala, appeared on the Dating Game. Why wasn’t he more thoroughly vetted by the show’s producers? I have no idea. Even more astounding than his appearance was the fact that he won! The bachelorette who selected Rodney ultimately declined to go out with him–she found him “creepy”. He’s currently on California’s death row and is believed to have committed as many as 50 murders.

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Richard Ramirez aka the Night Stalker, flashes a pentagram on his palm.

Some people joined cults where they banded together with like-minded folks for spiritual comfort and to retreat from the scary world-at-large. But there is not always safety in numbers, and evil can assume many guises. In 1978, over 900 members of the People’s Temple died in a mass suicide commanded by their leader, Jim Jones. The group was living in Guyana when they drank cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. The People’s Temple may have been founded in Indiana, but like so many other cults before them they established a presence in L.A.

Jim Jones of the People's Temple

Jim Jones of the People’s Temple

A crack cocaine epidemic swept the country in the early 1980s.  It decimated communities and cost many people their lives. Crack  was inexpensive, easily accessible, and even more addictive than regular cocaine.

The 1980s gave rise to a “satanic panic” which resulted in some of most bizarre prosecutions we’ve seen in this country since the Salem Witch Trials in the 1690s. The McMartin Preschool abuse trial was the most costly ($15 million) ever in the U.S. and resulted, rightfully I believe, in no convictions.

Surprisingly, there was a decline in crime during the 1990s, and it has been attributed to a variety of factors including: increased incarceration; increased numbers of police, growth in income; decreased unemployment, decreased alcohol consumption, and even the unleading of gasoline (due to the Clean Air Act). Despite the decline, there was still enough murder and mayhem to make us uneasy.

oj-simpson-murdeHere in L.A. there was the murder trial of O.J. Simpson, the so-called Trial of the Century. If you remove fame, wealth, and race and reduce the crime to its basic elements you end up with nothing more than a tragic domestic homicide–the type of crime which is altogether too common everywhere–yet the case continues to fascinate.

Heidi Fleiss, the Hollywood Madam, made news in 1993. At her pandering trial actor Charlie Sheen divulged that he had spent in excess of $53,000 for services rendered by Heidi’s girls.

Please join me as I explore the entirety of 20th Century crime in Los Angeles.

Joan

 

 

 

Film Noir Friday: He Walked By Night

he walked_poster

Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open! Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat. Tonight’s feature is HE WALKED BY NIGHT starring Richard Basehart, Scott Brady, and Jack Webb. It was during the making of this film that Jack Webb got the idea for DRAGNET.

The film is based on a true story, the Erwin “Machine Gun” Walker case, which I wrote about a few years ago.

38gunAs of a few months ago I have a personal connection to this movie. I was given the blue steel revolver that belonged to the screenwriter, John C. Higgins — it was a gift from his nephew, Eric, and I’m honored to own it. Higgins wrote the screenplays for T-MEN and RAW DEAL, two terrific films.

Enjoy the movie!

TCM says:

Inspired by the true story of Erwin Walker, a WWII hero who turned to crime and terrorized Los Angeles in 1946, He Walked By Night (1948) is a remarkable low budget, film noir thriller that is often overlooked in film studies of this genre. Besides Richard Basehart’s chilling performance as a meticulous thief of electronics equipment who becomes a wanted cop killer, the film glistens with the stylized black and white cinematography of John Alton whose use of light has been compared to the lighting in Rembrandt paintings. The film could well serve as a primer on how to shoot a film noir since it incorporates all of the familiar elements of the genre so masterfully into the visual design of the film: splintered shadows from Venetian blinds that transform a cozy bedroom into a prison, street lights over patches of wet pavement, a brief pinpoint of light from a hastily lit match in a dark room. Most memorable of all is the chiaroscuro camerawork in the final sequence as Davis Morgan – Richard Basehart’s character – is pursued through the huge drainage canals underneath Los Angeles by the police. This was the first time this unusual locale was used in a film and it would later serve as an equally disturbing setting – the lair of giant mutant ants – for the science fiction thriller, Them! (1954).

 

A Thanksgiving Eve Date with the Gas Chamber, Conclusion

DITSON_WARDAfter shooting Bob Ward to death with a .38, Allen Ditson had to figure out what to do with the body. At least Carlos Cisneros was there to help him. Carlos began to dig a grave with his bare hands until Allen brought him a butcher knife from the car. Once the grave was ready Allen said that they would have to dismember Bob to prevent identification if someone should discover his remains. Using the butcher knife they removed Bob’s head and each arm at the elbow. They buried the remains and then tossed the head and arms into the truck of the car and drove back Allen’s store.

While Allen and Carlos were coping with the dead body, Keith Slaten turned up at the house of his friend Martha Hughes. He told her that he’d been in a fight and wanted to clean up his car. He was covered with blood and shaking like a leaf and Martha told him she didn’t believe he’d been in a fight.  He blurted out: “Well, God damn. All right, so we killed him.” Allen couldn’t keep his mouth shut either. The day after Bob’s murder he told Eugene Bridgeford everything that had happened after he pleaded illness and left.

What happened to Bob’s head and arms? Allen and Carlos took them to the home of Christine Longbrake a few days after the murder. Christine was an acquaintance of Allen’s and a couple of weeks before the crime she’d been in Allen’s shop and he’d told her that “there was someone they had to get rid of” because the man was trying to blackmail him.  Allen asked to use her garage as a place to get rid of the guy but she thought he was kidding. When Allen and Carlos turned up with two boxes Christine knew she couldn’t refuse any request they made. She stayed upstairs while the boxes were taken to the cellar. Allen knocked Bob’s teeth out with a hammer then placed what was left of him in the hole and then poured in a bottle of acid.  When the men came back upstairs Christine smiled nervously and said: “Is it somebody I know?” They smiled back and Allen said that she wouldn’t know him. Then he and Carlos drove out to Hansen Dam and tossed Bob’s teeth and dental plate into a gravel pit.DITSON_PIC

Christine hadn’t seen the last of Allen and Carlos. Not more than a few days after they’d buried the boxes in her cellar Carlos stopped by and told her everything. He even told her what was in the boxes underneath her house. Her nerves weren’t soothed when he told her that he could never kill a woman. In fact she was so unnerved that she told Allen she was going to move “…because I couldn’t stand living in this house …” Allen told her that if it bothered her so much he’d pay her rent if she’d just hang on a bit longer.

A bit longer turned out to be several months. In June 1960 Allen asked George Longbrake, Christine’s brother-in-law, if he would dig up the two arms and head under the house. George agreed and Allen bought him some aluminum foil so he could wrap up the bits of Bob that remained. Then, since it seemed the entire Longbrake family was involved anyway, Allen asked Wynston Longbrake, Christine’s husband, if he’d “help bury something.” Allen, Carlos, and Wynston drove from L.A. on Highway 99 to a place about 14 miles from Castaic Junction. He turned off the highway for about 100 yards. Carlos waited in the car while the other two carried the macabre foil wrapped packages out of sight, then dug a post-hole and buried them.

DITSON_CARLOSBecause Allen and Carlos were incapable of keeping quiet about what they’d done it was only a matter of time before the law caught up with them. The remaining gang members began to fear Allen more than they did the cops. On June 17, 1960 Keith Slaten went to the police and a few days later Eugene Bridgeford did the same. The statements were enough for the police to get a warrant to examine Carlos’ Cadillac–they found traces of human blood in the trunk. One day later the police conducted a similar examination of Keith’s Ford and found human blood on the upholstery. On June 28, “sometime after 1:00 p.m.” Allen and Carlos were taken into custody.

Allen maintained his innocence, but Carlos appeared to be genuinely remorseful and he wanted to talk. In his 1959 book, The Compulsion to Confess, Theodore Reik said “There is … an impulse growing more and more intense suddenly to cry out his secret in the street before all people, or in milder cases, to confide it at least to one person, to free himself from the terrible burden. The work of confession is thus that emotional process in which the social and psychological significance of the crime becomes preconscious and in which all powers that resist the compulsion to confess are conquered.”DITSON_HEADLINE1

Allen’s protestations of innocence didn’t sway the jury of five men and seven women.  He was found guilty and sentenced to death. Carlos was also found guilty in Bob’s murder and sentenced to death. In early November 1962, with their executions imminent, Governor Brown presided over a clemency hearing. Carlos’ remorse saved him. His sentence was commuted to life.

Allen never admitted his guilt to the police, but he did confess to nearly everyone else he knew. On November 21, 1962, without requesting a special holiday meal, Allen kept his Thanksgiving Eve date with the gas chamber.

The First with the Latest! Aggie Underwood, the Los Angeles Herald, and the Sordid Crimes of a City

The First with the Latest! Exhibit Screen Saver“The First with the Latest! Aggie Underwood, the Los Angeles Herald, and the Sordid Crimes of a City,” explores some of the most deranged L.A. stories that were covered by Agness “Aggie” Underwood, a local reporter who rose through the ranks to become the first woman city editor for a major metropolitan newspaper. Curated by yours truly, Joan Renner (Author/Editrix/Publisher of the Deranged L.A. Crimes website, Board Member of Photo Friends), and featuring photos from the Los Angeles Public Library’s Herald Examiner collection.

Join us for light refreshments and brief remarks as we celebrate the reporter who helped the Los Angeles Herald be “The First with the Latest.” An exhibit catalog featuring many never-before-published images from the Herald’s files will be available for purchase.

The reception is on Thursday, August 13, 2015, 6pm-8pm at the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles. Christina Rice,Senior Librarian, Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection; Stephanie Bluestein, Assistant Professor of Journalism at California State University, Northridge, and I  will be making remarks at about 7pm.

I hope to see you there!

Buy the companion book from my Recommendations in the sidebar. 

Antone Christ’s First Venture in Crime

The Great Depression began with the stock market crash on “Black Tuesday”, October 29, 1929. The U.S. stock market collapsed with losses for the month totaling $16 billion–an astronomical sum in any age or by anyone’s measure.

stock_crash_07

By 1932 the nation’s unemployment rate was 23.6% and nearly half of all the banks that had been in business in 1929 had closed their doors. Able-bodied young men and women were having a tough time finding employment, but getting a job was especially difficult for sixty-three year old Antone Christ. He was at a time in his life when he should have been retired, not pounding the pavement looking for work.

Christ, formerly of Miami, Florida, had once been a wealthy businessman but he had lost $100,000 [equivalent to $1.5 million in today’s currency] in a bank failure. To add to his stress, the rapid mathematical calculator (in book form) that he had been attempting to market was evidently a tough sell. I’m guessing that the calculator was a sort of speed math that, once learned, would enable a person to solve fairly difficult calculations mentally–no paper, pencil, or abacus needed.  Perhaps Christ’s calculator failed because the average Joe had nothing positive to enumerate.  No earnings, no savings–just money going out the door.

Antone and his wife had only been married for a couple of years, and had moved to Los Angeles in 1931, presumably, as had so many others, to get a fresh start. Christ’s inability to get a job, and his constant brooding over the fortune he had lost, had made him a desperate man.

A little after 10 a.m. on February 15, 1932, August J. Martz, was in his office on the second floor of the building at 758 West Seventh Street when the door opened suddenly and a man stepped in. The man was Antone Christ and he was holding a gun.

Martz said:

“I thought it was a joke.  He forced me to get up.  Then I had to take from his pocket what appeared to be a bomb.  He forced me to put it in my pocket, but wires extended from it and were attached to what appeared like a detonating contrivance he kept in his pocket.  He had a sling around his neck, through which he put his hand that held the gun he kept trained upon me.  In this fashion we descended the stairs and walked east on Seventh Street for nearly three blocks until we came to the Bank of America.  All the time we were walking he kept cautioning me not to try any funny business; not even so much as a glance sideways.  I don’t know how he knew I had an account at the Bank of America.  I had never seen the man before.  He told me to draw out every cent I had in the bank.”

Christ and Martz entered the bank and walked toward a teller’s window.  Two bank guards, G.J. Fitzpatrick and George Constantineu, watched the pair enter and wondered what the hell was going on. Christ may have been momentarily distracted by the activity in the bank– and Martz saw an opportunity for escape.  He said:

“I saw Fitzpatrick and I made up my mind to take a chance on the bomb and jump.”  

When Martz made his dash the wires that connected him to Christ pulled loose. One, two, three…no explosion. On the chance that the contraption might still detonate, Martz ran to divest himself of the black cylinder he had carried in his pocket. He was relieved to discovered the cylinder was stuffed nothing but paper wadding.

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Fitzpatrick and Constantineau cautiously approached Christ who had produced a nickel-plated .38 caliber pistol  from his pocket and began to wave it above his head.

“Stand back; don’t touch me.”

Fitzpatrick demanded that Atone give up his weapon, but instead Antone took a step backward. He continuing to slowly move back, still holding the gun. Finally he bumped up against a counter and was forced to stop. As dozens of bank employees watched, Antone lifted the gun up to his head and fired.

antone christ headlineStill breathing, Christ was rushed to the Georgia Street Receiving Hospital where he died on the operating table.

Detective Lieutenant Luke searched the dead man’s clothing and found 25 cents and an envelope. On the envelope was a single sentence written in pencil:

“My first venture in crime, or will I suicide?”

Christ’s brief criminal career was over.

The Department of Water and Power Caper, Conclusion

The investigation into the robbery of the Municipal Bureau of Water and Power was bogged down by dead ends and false leads and it was beginning to look like the crooks were going to get away with the crime that had netted them over $73,000 in cash (the equivalent of nearly $1 million dollars in today’s money) — but then an LAPD officer at the Highland Park station noticed something odd about one of his neighbors, Fern Sadler.

sadler picPatrolman John Kopytek wondered how Sadler, who lived with his mother near Kopytek’s home, could afford three new cars when he was unemployed. Kopytek continued to watch Sadler and as he did he became convinced that there was something hinky going on. He couldn’t find anything to explain Sadler’s sudden good fortune, so he took his suspicions to the higher ups at his station. Detectives kept an eye on Sadler for several weeks and he looked suspicious to them too. They finally took him into custody for questioning but failed to wring a confession out of him even after $7800, for which he had no credible explanation, was found in the apartment he had rented on North Avenue  61.

Sadler finally broke and made a full confession, and he also implicated Frank C. Wagoner, 42, of Pasadena; Harvey Schlagel, 43, of, Pasadena; and Gilman Rankin, 42 of Santa Monica.

Rankin denied any involvement in the robbery and immediately requested an attorney. Harvey Schlagel decided it was in his best interest to confess and try to make a deal.

From what they were told by Sadler and Schlagel the detectives were able to piece together the plot of the robbery and it was quite a story. Sadler resigned from the Water and Power Bureau on November 4th, about three weeks following the robbery, and of course he didn’t have to find another job because he had the $7800 that was found in his apartment and another $15k or so that he had buried following the hold-up. Then there were the three cars he’d purchased valued at approximately $3400 total.

Sadler said that he and Rankin had committed the actual robbery and they’d hired Schlagel and Wagner to kidnap payroll guard Fred Kimple  and detain, but not harm, him. For their part in the robbery the two crooks were paid $1,000 each. Right after the robbery Sadler and Rankin went to a hotel room they’d rented prior to the crime and divied up the reminder of the plunder in a 50/50 split.

The grand jury indicted Sadler, Schlagel, Rankin and Wagoner for the robbery.  And to add to Sadler’s legal woes the City of Los Angeles filed a civil suit to recover as much of the stolen loot as possible. In the complaint it was stated that someone (Sadler and a number of “John Does”) had stolen approximately $75,000 from the bureau office, and that part of the money had been found in various banks to the credit of Fern Sadler, and part had been invested in automobiles.city sues

Sadler made the mistake of believing that successfully committing the robbery meant that he and his accomplices were free and clear. He learned the hard way that the actual crime is just the beginning. It was incredibly arrogant of him to think that nobody in his neighborhood would notice that he was living way beyond his unemployed means — it was his bad luck that the neighbor who noticed was an LAPD officer.

Maybe it’s just me but I believe that declarations like: “The check is in the mail”; “I’ll always love you”; and “I’ll never rat you out” should always be met with a healthy dose of skepticism. If Rankin had a little voice that told him to be leery of Sadler’s promisies, he didn’t listen to it. He was blind-sided, and more than a little pissed-off, when Sadler (said to be the brains of the hold-up) suddenly pleaded guilty and turned State’s evidence. The two men, handcuffed together, were being lead from the courtroom by Bailiff Hammon when Rankin suddenly whirled his arm upward and brought the handcuffs smashing down on Sadler’s head.

“I’ll get you yet, you dirty squealer!” he shouted as Bailiff Hammon tried to insert himself between the two felons. Sadler wasn’t badly hurt by Rankin’s attack, but the co-conspirators were separated and extra guards were assigned to the courtroom for the remainder of the trail.

Sadler testified in detail to the planning and execution of the robbery. He’d connected with Rankin by placing a want ad in a local paper asking for the services of a “courageous man” and promising “big money” as a reward.

For squealing on his accomplices Sadler earned the D.A.’s recommendation to be sentenced on the lesser charge of second-degree robbery charge. He took the deal but it wasn’t a great one, because Sadler was sentenced to from seven years to life for masterminding the crime. Schlagel and Wagoner followed Sadler’s lead and changed their pleas to guilty and were sentenced to from one year to life in prison.

rankin guiltyRankin was the last man standing and would have to face the jury alone. He was found guilty of first degree robbery and sentenced to from seven years to life in prison.

The robbery was a success and  the gang could have gotten away with it but, as is often the case, the bad guys weren’t nearly as smart as they thought they were. This is where I say crime doesn’t pay — but then you already knew that.

The Department of Water and Power Caper, Part 1

The 1920s are often recalled as the decade of bob-haired flappers, bootleg booze, and giddy stunts (like flag pole sitting); but it was also a decade of less benign pursuits—like an audacious day-time robbery.

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Chief Ed “Two Gun” Davis, LAPD

On Monday, September 26, 1927, bandits robbed the city’s Department of Water and Power of $73,600 in cash (equivalent to $989,437.79 in current U.S. dollars). That was bad, but what was even worse was the proximity of the scene of the crime to LAPD’s Central Station–just a block away.

To say that Chief Davis was annoyed by the affront to his authority is an understatement. He told assembled reporters and concerned citizens:

“Our men have been sent out to bring into the station every suspected man on the streets, in rooming-houses, bungalow courts, apartments and hotels who cannot give a good account of himself.  We ask all good citizens who carry guns to leave them off because we are going to bring in every man with a gun and try to procure a maximum jail sentence for him.  We will bring in and attempt to get a maximum vagrancy sentence for every person who cannot explain his idleness or presence under suspicious circumstances.  We are going to search automobiles, persons and rooms and ask good citizens to be patient as we are trying to round up an incarcerate all of the type that has been precipitating these crimes.  Policemen have been instructed to be especially courteous and we appeal for public support because the move is for the public good.”

Obviously the Chief wasn’t a big fan of the Fourth Amendment. In fact a few years later, in 1933, when LAPD was hunting a married couple who had spent their honeymoon on a crime spree Davis would be quoted as saying that constitutional rights were of “no benefit to anybody but crooks and criminals”.  While I don’t agree, I understand his frustration with laws that sometimes do a better job of protecting perpetrators than victims.

waterpowerpic

The robbers’ plan was as perfectly choreographed as a performance of the Ballet Russe. It began with the kidnapping of Fred C. Kimple, a watchman for the water and power bureau. As was his routine on paydays Fred left the Clovis and Ninety-Eighth Street warehouse branch at about 6:30 a.m. to go down to the main office and stand guard at the cashier’s office. He only got as far as Ninety-Sixth Street when a sedan with a man on the running board brandishing a blue-steel revolver crowded him to the curb. It must have been frightening when his kidnappers called him by name:

“Come on Fred, let your gun alone and you won’t be hurt.”

Fred asked them who they worked for and they replied:

“Well, we’re from the Aqueduct.  They made bums out of us and we’re going to get even.”

[NOTE: For those of you unfamiliar with the contentious history of the L.A. Aqueduct, I refer you to the 1975 film “Chinatown”; it is a fictionalized version for sure, but you’ll get the idea.]

http://youtu.be/FueLhmwT8E4

Fred was pulled out his car, shoved to the floor of the bandit’s sedan and covered with a robe.  He later  said they didn’t harm him and that after riding around for quite some time he was ordered out of the car. He found himself in the sparsely populated district near the Midwick Country Club.  It took him a while, but he finally found a telephone and raised the alarm.

Meanwhile, Cashier George Pessell arrived at the bureau office at about 7:30 a.m. He entered through a “trick” door into the counter clerk’s compartment that led to the cashier’s room.  George later told police:

“I saw two men seated at the desk with green eyeshades on their heads, and thinking they were clerks, I went on into the cashier’s office. Then the assistant, L.H. Brockway, came in and was opening up the smaller safe and Paymaster S.F. Arthur arrived.  As Arthur stepped in, the two ‘clerks’ came up.  One shoved a gun against his back and the other covered me through the little window, and they made their way inside the cage.”

Once they were inside the robbers worked fast.  They forced rubber balls, though which strings had been run, into the mouths of Pessell, Brockway and Arthur and tied gags on them. With a gun pressed into him Pessell was forced to open the large safe, and then the three employees were bound up with cotton web straps and made to lie on the floor.  One of the crooks pulled out a sugar sack and started cramming it full with every bit of cash he could see.

Milton Fischel, a bureau employee on his way to work, saw two men leaving the building through the entrance onto Broadway, but there was nothing unusual about them so Milton didn’t give them another thought until he found his three bound co-workers.  He released them and then contacted the police.

Police investigators arrived quickly, they were, after all, just a block away. They began to question the employees to find out if they had noticed anything strange. Frank Albith, an employee on the second floor, said he had noticed two men outside of the bureau at about the time of the crime. Police believe the men may have been lookouts for the two bandits who got the money.

Every employee who came in contact with the gangsters cooperated fully with Captains Cato and Curtis, Detectives Malino, Williams and O’Connor who were working the case. One of the employees, Louise Dolan, said she had noticed two men acting suspiciously a few days before—it was thought likely that the crooks had been casing the place.

Detectives were positive that the two inside men were part of a larger group of bandits, but how many and who were they?  At least the investigators were able to get general descriptions of the robbers who had been inside the bureau. One of them had a scar on his cheek, the other’s nose was taped, and both were between the ages of 30 and 35

It wasn’t much, but it would have to do until they got a break.

NEXT TIME:  The search for the bandits continues.

The Black Owl

There were many gun crimes in Los Angeles during the 1930s—even purse snatchers were frequently armed; but there were two crimes which defined the era: kidnapping (the so-called “Snatch Racket”) and bank robbery.  Robbers, motivated by desperation, hunger or good old-fashioned greed, stalked Spring Street, the “Wall Street of the West”, hoping to pull off the perfect bank heist.

Security-First National Bank c. 1930s [photo courtesy of LAPL]

Security-First National Bank on Spring Street c. 1930s [photo courtesy of LAPL]

On December 31, 1931, twenty-four year old Timothy Blevins was finding Old Man Depression a formidable adversary. It seemed that no matter what he did he couldn’t climb out of the financial hole he was in.  The fact that millions of people around the world shared his predicament offered him no consolation. He had recently lost his job as a bus boy in a cafe at 5610 Hollywood Blvd, and then he had taken a job with a county road gang.

Working on a road gang is exhausting work, but he may have stuck with it if his eighteen year old wife, Cornelia, hadn’t left him and gone home to her mother.  She was just fifteen when the couple had married in Ojai, Arizona, much too young to grasp the seriousness of their vows.Even if they’d waited it probably would have ended badly between them. Timothy was moody and no picnic to live with. After three years Cornelia was fed up. Timothy had become terribly despondent and he told her that he was contemplating suicide.  Cornelia couldn’t take any more of her husband’s dark moods and she intended to get their marriage annulled as soon as possible. It wouldn’t be too difficult for an eighteen year old to start over again.

A few days prior to the end of 1931, Cornelia had bumped in to her soon-to-be ex-spouse when she returned to their former home at 1135 South Catalina Street to get some clothing.  She was dismayed, but not surprised, to discover that his mood hadn’t lightened, in fact he appeared to be as morose as ever.

Timothy had been sitting alone in the apartment brooding over how he could change his circumstances—and he had devised a plan.

The Spring Street financial district, located north of Fourth Street and south of Seventh Street, was the beating heart of capitalism in the city in 1931 and there were at least twenty banks concentrated within a few blocks.

It was shortly after 2 pm on the last day of 1931 when Timothy Blevins, clutching a small black case, stepped over the threshold into the crowded lobby of the Security-First National Bank hoping to get lucky.

black owl bomb

The Black Owl’s “infernal machine being shown off by two unnamed LAPD detectives. [Photo courtesy of UCLA Digital Collection]

Tracy Q. Hall, the vice president of the bank, was in his office and there were at least a dozen customers waiting to have a word with him.  Blevins strode up to the rail which enclosed Hall’s office and set the case he had been carrying down near Hall, then he handed the banker a note. The crudely printed note, written on a blank check from the Bank of America, contained a demand for $100,000 and stated that there was enough explosive in the bag to turn the block into smoke and ashes.

Hall quietly read the note and then glanced up slowly to take the measure of the man who would dare to make such a loathsome threat. Blevins decided to drive his point home and reveal the contents of the case; he snapped open the catch and suddenly the “infernal machine” (a bomb) was visible.

The two men continued to hold each other’s gaze but Blevins blinked first. He released his grasp on the case, whirled around and ran for the exit.  Hall grabbed at the fleeing man but just missed him.  The failed robber continued to run, and in his haste he knocked down Peter J. Anderson, a patron of the bank and proprietor of a garage at 221 East Fifth Street.

LAPD Traffic Officer Olson

LAPD Traffic Officer Olsen

Anderson let out a cry, and so did Hall who was in hot pursuit of the fleeing man. Blevins dashed out into Fifth Street and it looked like he was leading a parade. Behind him were Anderson, Hall, and Sam Sulzbacher, the bank’s doorman. When they reached Main Street, Traffic Officer R. W. Olsen joined the chase.

Blevins ducked into a theater on Main Street but Officer Olsen had seen him go into the building. Naturally Blevins tried to blend in with the theater crowd, but it was no use—Olsen found him and took him into custody.

While Blevins was being escorted to police headquarters, Hall turned the infernal machine over to LAPD Captains McCaleb and Malina. Upon examination of the device they found a dry battery wired to a quart jar full of ethyl gasoline. Also inside the case there was an empty milk can and a small bottle of carbide powder; above the quart bottle were two brown sticks of dynamite.

On the lid of the box, printed with black paint, was a bold threat:

 “The Black Owl.  Will deal you death.  Don’t talk”

Then McCaleb and Malina read the note that the suspect had handed to Hall:

 “There are enough explosive here to tear up the block.  Read carefully.  Do exactly as told.  Starting with biggest denominations fill bag.  We will go to the vault first.  When I have enough you will take me out back door.  Get me a taxi.  Then take your time going back, for I have to take care of you.  If you describe me too well this will not fail to work.  There is poison gas to kill every one within.”

At police headquarters Blevins, sullen and mumbling incoherently, refused to make any statement other than to tell the cops: “you can call me Dave Lowre.”  Then he made an attempt to grab Officer Olsen’s weapon, but half a dozen detectives jumped on him and prevented his escape. He became slightly more cooperative following his aborted escape attempt, but he never revealed the inspiration for his nom de felon.

Timothy Blevins, glowering during questioning by an unnamed LAPD detective.  [Photo courtesy of UCLA Digital Collection]

Timothy Blevins, glowering during questioning by an unnamed LAPD detective. [Photo courtesy of UCLA Digital Collection]

Timothy was arraigned in Municipal Court and his bail was fixed at $10,000—he was clearly going nowhere.

The complaint against Blevins charged him with burglary, attempted robbery and violation of Section 601 of the Penal Code in that he transported dynamite into a public building, thereby endangering the lives of others.

Tracy Q. Hall, Vice President of Security-First National Bank

Tracy Q. Hall, Vice President of Security-First National Bank

Timothy originally pleaded insanity, but he decided to withdraw that plea.  Instead he entered a plea of guilty to the charge of illegally transporting dynamite into a public building. The likely reason for his change of plea was that he’d be permitted to file an application for probation if he wasn’t insane.

Obviously Timothy hoped that he’d be granted probation but it was not to be. He was found guilty, denied probation and sentenced to San Quentin Prison.

I haven’t been able to discover the length of Blevin’s prison term (he would not have been given less than one year) but following his release he must have kept his nose clean because his name never again appeared in the local newspapers.

The Black Owl had retired from his brief and unsuccessful life of crime.

NOTE: Many thanks to my fellow crime fiend, Mike Fratantoni, for introducing me to this deranged case.