Mayor George Cryer [Photo courtesy of LAPL]
The 1920s were a time of rapid growth in Los Angeles. During the tenure of the 32nd Mayor of Los Angeles, George E. Cryer (1921-1929), the population of Los Angeles surpassed 1,000,000 and several important civic development projects were undertaken such as the construction of Central Library; City Hall; Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum; Hall of Justice; Mulholland Highway; and the Olympic Auditorium.
The Olympic Auditorium was originally supposed to cost $350,000 to build, $4.8 million in today’s dollars, but overruns pushed it above $500,000. Land for the project was acquired at Grand Avenue and West Eighteenth Street in a twenty-five year lease deal with the Los Angeles Athletic Club. The building was designed to be a combination convention hall, exposition building, and boxing arena and when completed it would be the largest venue of its kind with seating for 15,300 people.
Olympic Auditorium [Photo courtesy LAPL]
The Olympic wasn’t just for mugs and pugs. In May 1925 the Los Angeles Times reported that a “…colossal presentation of ‘Aida’ with elephants and camels, a chorus of more than ninety voices and a ballet of twenty-four dancers…” would be on stage at the auditorium. I love opera and it would have been a treat to see live elephants and camels at the Olympic—it must have been a remarkable night.
Of course now you’re asking “what has civic pride and operatic spectacle got to do with cops behaving badly? “ Alas, not much except to point out that where there is big money there is an opportunity for misbehavior.
The auditorium opened to much fanfare and sold-out crowds, but there was a problem. It was reported that at least sixty contractors had not been compensated for their work. Liens totaling $400,000 had to be paid. It was never made clear in the newspaper accounts exactly why the contractors had been stiffed. It sounds to me as if there was some creative bookkeeping going on, but then I’m a naturally suspicious person.
In any case the way the payments worked was simple enough—Sheriff’s deputies collected the gross box office receipts from the various events held at the auditorium and locked them up in a vault at the Sheriff’s office. Once taxes and overhead had been deducted from the gross the deputies took the balance and applied it to the outstanding claims.
For several months everything went like clockwork. But on April 16, 1926 Mrs. M.Q. Adams, a bookkeeper in the Sheriff’s civil department, noticed that the vault door was partly opened. She immediately called to Chief Civil Deputy Arthur Jewell who discovered that the previous night’s deposit of $1182 was missing. Sheriff Traeger decided not to publicize the burglary—it should be on a need-to-know basis only. Theft of money from his office vault was damned embarrassing.
Undersheriff Biscailuz and Chief Criminal Deputy Wright were assigned to the case. They were certain that whoever had taken the money must have known the combination to the outer door and possessed duplicate keys to the inner door. In other words, it was an inside job.
Deputy Karl Wallich (38), one of the few people who had access to the vault, was immediately a suspect. During questioning Wallich said that after he had left the Hall of Justice in the early morning he had turned back at the Plaza to buy a pack of cigarettes. He couldn’t find a store that was open so he ended up driving to a small market at Fifth and Spring. Wallich’s story didn’t hold up. Deputy Wright found seven stores between the Plaza and Fifth and Spring Streets that were open early in the morning.
Deputy Sheriffs Heller and Johnson dropped in on Karl Wallich at his home to take his statement. They confronted him with his lie about the stores and he caved in on the spot. He wasn’t cut out for a life of crime. He produced half of the missing funds and ratted out his friend and accomplice Harry Adler (19), a civilian clerk, who quickly relinquished the other half.
Adler confessed that he had hidden himself in the vault about 10 o’clock Wednesday night waiting for the auditorium’s receipts to be deposited. Deputy Sheriffs Wallich and Barton came to the vault door about 11:30, locked up, and left the building. Once he figured that everyone had gone Adler took a screw driver and removed the plate from the combination lock and exited the vault. Nobody saw him leave. He then met Karl in front of the Hall of Records where they divvied up the cash.
The most surprising thing about their confessions was that both men insisted that they hadn’t stolen the money to enrich themselves—the theft was meant to be a joke! The pair of merry pranksters said they had only wanted to get even with Deputy George Barton, a co-worker they said had teased and played jokes on them. The theft was their way of getting even. They figured since Barton was the only person who had keys to the inner vault it would be his ass in a sling when the money disappeared. The plan was to let Barton twist in the wind for a bit then return the cash to the vault, but then” things got so hot” they couldn’t see their way out of the mess.
Sheriff Traeger wasn’t amused by Wallich and Adler’s little stunt—he’d covered the full $1182 loss out of his own pocket until the money was returned.
Adler pleaded guilty at his arraignment. He spent ninety days in a Sheriff’s detention center and upon his release he was granted three years probation. Wallich first entered a not guilty but then he changed his mind and entered a guilty plea and requested probation. There was no follow-up story in the newspaper so I don’t know how Wallich fared. My guess is that he got probation.
Of course both Wallich and Adler lost their Sheriff’s Department jobs. I wonder if the men stayed friends or if their criminal misadventure ended it. I like to think that with their penchant for pranks the guys opened a brick and mortar joke shop—the kind that sold whoopee cushions, rubber vomit, joy buzzers, and fake dog poop.
Doesn’t everyone appreciate a good joke?
NOTE: Many thanks to my fellow crime historian, Mike Fratantoni for introducing me to this tale.