The Plot to Kidnap America’s Sweetheart, Conclusion

pickford ovation

Mary Pickford leaves the courtroom after testifying. Deputy Sheriff Joe Coyle “clearing the way” for Mary. On Mary’s left is John G. Mott, her attorney.
Inset: Mary on the witness stand.

On July 29, 1925, Mary Pickford made her much-anticipated appearance in the courtroom where the three men who had plotted to kidnap her were being tried. The star arrived shortly after 2 p.m. accompanied by her husband, Douglas Fairbanks, Mrs. Charolotte Pickford, her mother, and Robert Fairbanks, Doug’s brother.

Mary’s testimony would offer virtually nothing to cement the case against the kidnappers; not that it mattered–all anyone had to do was to imagine America’s Sweetheart in the clutches of the three desperadoes to want to see them locked up forever.

"Mary and Doug" premiere at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

“Mary and Doug” premiere at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

The morning of Pickford’s appearance had been a long one for Bailiff Charles Bryant and Deputy Sheriffs Joe Coyle and Henry Dennison as they struggled to keep the crowd (estimated at nearly 1000) contained; but it was no use and the scene outside of the Hall of Records resembled one of Mary’s movie premieres.

Buster Keaton in THE CAMERAMAN emulates real life newspaper photogs trying to get a scoop.

Buster Keaton in THE CAMERAMAN emulates real life newspaper photogs trying to get a scoop.

Cameras whirred and clicked as newspaper photogs captured the moments of Pickford’s arrival.  The star, attired in a dark brown, two-piece suit, brown velour hat, dark brown shoes and tan silk hose, made her way into the building occasionally reaching out to shake a proffered hand or smile at one of her admirers.

Mary Katherine Clough leading the way to meet Pickford--eight stories above Broadway.

Mary Katherine Clough leading the way to meet Pickford–eight stories above Broadway.

Several women, not close enough to catch a glimpse of Pickford on the street, took their lives in their hands when they climbed out over the window sill and onto the little roof that bridged the gap between the two wings of the Hall of Records, eight stories above the ground.

A janitor attempted to shoo the women off of their perch, but they were as persistent as downtown pigeons. The women were identified as Mary Kathryn Clough, Catherine C. Marshall and Mrs. Alice Spellman (all three serving as jurors on a manslaughter case being tried in the building). Miraculously they managed to get to the judge’s window where Mary and Doug were waiting to be escorted to the courtroom. Mary Clough, the de facto leader of the intrepid trio of climbers, sighed “She is the sweetest thing!” and explained that all she wanted to do was to shake hands with her golden-haired idol.

Mary thanked the women for making the Herculean effort to meet her. That they had literally risked death seemed to delight rather than horrify Pickford who said: “It is wonderful to feel that they are so interested.  It makes you thrill–inside.  You know, we live in another world, apart, and so much enthusiasm is encouraging.”

Fortunately no one died.

Once inside the packed courtroom Mary was called to the witness chair and testified that she was at the studio on the day the men were arrested outside the gate. That particular point had been a bone of contention between the prosecution and the defense. The defense wanted to impress upon the jury that although the men had been at the studio they couldn’t have kidnapped Pickford if she wasn’t even there–but that tactic failed as did every other straw that S.S. Hahn grasped on behalf of the accused. The judge’s decision to allow the confessions was a particularly bitter defeat.

The defense rallied as much as they could. Their argument was two-pronged; the confessions should be inadmissible because they had been coerced, and the charges were a farce because the corpus delicti had not been established.  The judge delivered the coup de grace when he ruled that the confessions could be admitted as evidence.  The rest of the trial was a fait acompli.

On August 14, 1925 C.Z. Stevens and C.A. Holcomb were sentenced to from ten to fifty years in San Quentin for conspiracy to kidnap Mary Pickford for $200,000 ransom. The third defendant, A.J. Wood, was exonerated.

Stevens’ wife Pauline took the verdict hard. Tears ran down her face as she listened to the jury foreman pronounce the sentence.  She knew that she would lose her husband for a decade or more. It must have seemed particularly cruel to the couple to be separated once again–they had only been reunited for a year or so since losing touch during WWI.

The defense team immediately began to craft an appeal. They intended to use the same arguments they’d used unsuccessfully at trial: the coerced confessions and the contention that no overt act had been proved.

In June 1926 the Second District Court of Appeal handed down their opinion–Charles Z. Stevens and Claude Arthur Holcomb were guilty of conspiracy. The court agreed in part with the the defense when they concurred that the purchase of a revolver by Adrian Wood, who had been acquitted at trial, was not an overt act as had been charged.

However, the court asserted that there was sufficient evidence to warrant a conviction on the conspiracy charge, and the fact that the conspirators had waited outside Mary’s studio in an automobile was proof of an overt act.

Stevens and Holcomb left for San Quentin on September 3, 1926 to begin their sentences.

Film Noir Friday: The Killers [1946]

The Killers Swedish Movie 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 THE KILLERS based on a story by Ernest Hemingway. Directed by Robert Siodmak and starring Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien, Albert Dekker and Sam Levene, THE KILLERS is a terrific film.   Enjoy the movie!

TCM says:

Two hitmen, Al and Max, drive into Brentwood, New Jersey, in search of Pete “Swede” Lund, and stake out a diner he frequents, questioning, among others, customer Nick Adams about Swede’s whereabouts. After the men leave, Nick races to Swede’s boardinghouse room to warn him and is stunned when Swede seems resigned to his fate. Shortly after Nick’s departure, Al and Max find Swede waiting in his room and shoot him to death. When it is discovered Swede had a small life insurance policy with Atlantic Casual, insurance investigator James Riordan begins investigating his murder.

http://youtu.be/jJm3ixVQKnw

The Cold Turkey Pinch

What’s a cold turkey pinch? In 1930s cop speak it referred to an officer who made an arrest without any effort–no gathering of evidence, no investigation, nothing. Read on…

cold turkey pinchThanksgiving Day on “The Nickel” (Fifth Street) in 1937 was desperate living personified. LAPD Detective Lieutenants Bailey and Olson sat in the Chicago Cafe at 209 Fifth and watched as drunks shuffled past oblivious to those who would do them harm. Thanks to Old Man Depression there was more than enough misery to go around and The Nickel lacked all of the warmth, joy, and delicious aromas evident in other neighborhoods in the city.

The detectives sipped their coffees and kept their eyes peeled for the predators who preyed on helpless drunks. Known as drunk rollers the vultures robbed Skid Row inebriates of their few possessions. A man, seemingly down on his luck, seated himself beside Bailey and said: “you wouldn’t mind staking a thirsty guy to a nickel beer would you.”  After looking the stranger up and down, Bailey bought the man a brew.

http://jpg1.lapl.org/00097/00097526.jpg

Chicago Cafe at 209 Fifth Street c. 1937. [Photo is from Schultheis collection at the LAPL]

The man sat quietly nursing his beer, then he turned to Bailey and pointed at a man in a booth who had obviously passed out.  “Watch me”, the beer drinker said–then he walked over to the unconscious boozer and searched through his clothing.

When he returned to his seat he grinned at Bailey and Olson and said: “See what I got?” and held up a dollar bill. “Now I guess it’s my treat.”

“Yes, brother, I sure guess it’s your treat all right,” said Bailey as pulled out his badge and arrested his would-be benefactor.

Jack Orchard, 35, was booked at the City Jail on suspicion of robbery.

May your Thanksgiving be much happier than Jack Orchard’s (although he did get a free beer!)  Have a great Holiday and stay safe, those Black Friday sales can be murder!

I’ll pick up the story of the Mary Pickford kidnapping conspiracy in my next post.

NOTE: Amy Condit — the “desperate living” is for you.

The Plot to Kidnap America’s Sweetheart, Part 3

There may have been no corpus delicti and no overt act but Charles Z. Stevens, Claude Holcomb and Adrian Woods were going to be tried for conspiracy to commit kidnapping anyway.

kidnappers pic

The accusations against C.Z. were taking a toll on his wife. The sight of her husband behind bars was too much for her–she collapsed in the County Jail and had to be taken home.

While Pauline was getting over the initial shock of seeing C.Z. in jail, a Sheriff’s deputy had been attempting to serve Mary with a subpoena. Mary’s fame gave her privileges not enjoyed by mere mortals. The subpoena was supposed be delivered personally but the deputy was unable to get anywhere near the star. Finally, in frustration, he handed the summons to Mary’s secretary.  To ease judicial fears her attorney guaranteed her attendance in court if needed.

Mary Pickford conferring with defense attorney S.S. Hahn. [Photo courtesy of UCLA Digital Collection]

Mary Pickford conferring with defense attorney S.S. Hahn. [Photo courtesy of UCLA Digital Collection]

The trial was originally scheduled to be held in Department 17 in the Hall of Justice on Buena Vista Street, but it was deemed too small to accommodate the crowd that was expected to turn out to see Mary and Doug.  The trial was moved to the larger courtroom of Judge York on the eighth floor of the Hall of Records.

L.A. County Courthouse flanked by Hall of Records (L). [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

L.A. County Courthouse flanked by Hall of Records (L). [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

Attorneys on both sides began trying their cases in the press.  Some things never change.  S.S. Hahn told reporters that he had new evidence that he would reveal later, and the Deputy District Attorney announced that he was ready to unequivocally prove the State’s case.

Glen G. Gravatt, a police department stenographer and secretary to Chief of Detectives Home, was the first to take the stand. He read from notes he had taken while he was listening through a physician’s stethoscope under the door of the room in the Hayward Hotel where the conspirators were meeting. With the stethoscope he was able to eavesdrop on Stevens, Holcomb, Woods and another possible conspirator, Louis Geck (aka “Louis the Spider”), and he got an earful.

As Gravatt continued to listen and take notes Geck asked Claude “Fat” Holcomb what he’d do if Mary Pickford “…picked up a big .45″. Holcomb replied: “I’d have to shoot her just like anybody else, that’s all.”

In an effort to speed up the trial the defense attorneys agreed to combine their efforts and offer the same defense for each of the men simultaneously. The attorneys also agreed to divvy up the responsibilities: S.S. Hahn would conduct all the direct examinations, Public Defender Aggeler would handle the cross-examinations and John A. Holland would prepare the rebuttal.

Defense attorneys Vercoe, Holland, Hahn and Aggeler [Photo courtesy of UCLA Digital Collection]

Defense attorneys Vercoe, Holland, Hahn and Aggeler [Photo courtesy of UCLA Digital Collection]

The defense made a motion to acquit the defendants based on an interpretation of the laws governing conspiracy.  They argued that because no overt act had been committed the charges should be dropped and the men released. But the defense arguments didn’t pass muster and the trial went forward.

third degree

Failing to get the kidnapping charges dropped, S.S. Hahn then accused Detective Harry Raymond of beating confessions out of Stevens and Holcomb. Jurors leaned forward in their seats as Holcomb told his story:

“I was brought down to Chief Home’s office and Harry Raymond said to me, ‘Fat, we want a statement out of you and we want to get it free and voluntarily.'”

Holcomb continued:

“We went there (the movie studio) with Louie (aka The Spider) to see a friend of his about a job.  Then he (Raymond) struck me in the nose. I threw up my hand to protect my face and Mayer stopped me.  Mayer then took me to the wash bowl and washed the blood from my face and coat by using water and paper.  The George Home came in.  He looked at Raymond and smiled.  Then he went out and bought me some cigarettes.”Holcomb said that he had made and signed his confession because he was beaten up and because he was afraid that Raymond would “stomp the hell out of me every day until I did.”

Was there any truth to Holcomb’s accusations?  It’s difficult to say. During the 1920s it would not have been unheard of for a detective to smack a suspect around to gain a confession; but unfortunately for Holcomb and the others it was incumbent upon the defense to prove that the beatings had actually occurred–which they failed to do.

NEXT TIME:  Mary and Doug in court and the outcome of the trial.

The Plot to Kidnap America’s Sweetheart, Part 2

Los Angeles Police investigators had been following three men whom they felt sure were conspiring to kidnap either actress, and “America’s Sweetheart”, Mary Pickford, or the grandchildren of oil magnate Edward L. Doheny.

Mary_Pickford_-_Aug_1916_Motion_PictureCaptain Home and Detectives Harry Raymond and George Mayer of the LAPD had learned that at least one of the conspirators had recently purchased a gun. The officers followed C.Z. Stevens, Claude Holcomb and Adrian Woods to the Hayward Hotel  downtown and from an adjoining room they eavesdropped as the plot was discussed. The men had decided to take Mary Pickford, rather than the Doheny grandchildren, in part because they knew that they’d have an easier time grabbing Pickford off the street.

Their plan was ingenious. There was a Shriner convention in town and so the kidnappers were going to don Fezzes, decorate their car with banners and pretend to be fun-loving conventioneers. They would follow Mary when she left the studio and before she reached Pickfair they would force her car into a curb and grab her. They’d be armed, just in case there was any resistance, and Fairbanks would be contacted by letter. The goal was to walk away with $200,000.

Shriners,_1925

Los Angeles’ Shriner’s Arab Patrol in costume in the midst dance with people looking on, circa 1925 [Photo courtesy Wikipedia]

There was no way that the cops were going to allow three men, at least one of whom would be armed, to get anywhere near Pickford so they had to act fast.  Stevens and Holcomb were arrested outside of the studio and their co-conspirator,  Woods, was busted at his home in Alhambra.

Woods was the youngest of the gang and he confessed to his part in the plan immediately. Holcomb followed suit, with Stevens being the last domino to fall.pauline stevens

Pauline, Stevens wife of just one year, wouldn’t believe that her husband could be party to a kidnap plot, let alone be the “brains” of the operation. She said:

“Oh, it must be wrong; there must be some mistake–he couldn’t have done that!  We were pals, he was the best and most honorable of husbands.”

Pauline told a reporter from the Los Angeles Times that she and her husband had met on the battlefields of WWI–he was a lieutenant in the aviation corps and she was a Red Cross nurse.  It’s nearly impossible to conduct a romance during wartime, and Pauline and C.Z. lost touch. After the war Pauline settled in Los Angeles and eventually C.Z. did too. By a happy coincidence he located her in the city and the couple resumed their courtship, and then married.

Other than being occasionally moody and depressed, as were many veterans of the “Great War”, C.Z. was described by Pauline as being a model husband, ambitious and hardworking. Being willing to work doesn’t guarantee success and C.Z. had had some business reversals before he and Pauline reconnected. He had worked in a Mexican oil field for a Texas-based company and by the time he returned Dallas in 1921 he had saved $10,000. He used the money to invest in a gas station but the business tanked and C.Z. lost every dime.

When she was shown photographs of the other alleged conspirators she recognized Holcomb as a man C.Z. had employed as a truck driver a couple of years earlier in yet another failed business venture.

A man down on his luck, as C.Z. was, may have easily become desperate enough to commit a crime.

A special session of the grand jury was convened, and with three confessions in hand the district attorney asked for indictments. Mary Pickford, who was working on a new film, was too busy to attend the courtroom proceedings, but Doug was there. Fairbanks testified to having seen two of the three conspirators loitering outside the gates of the studio.

Detective Harry Raymond c. 1928 [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

Detective Harry Raymond c. 1928 [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

Captain Holmes and Detectives Raymond and Mayer each took the stand and identified the men and testified to the plot they had overheard.

The grand jury handed down three indictments–Stevens, Holcomb and Woods were held on $50,000 bond each.

The case was a complicated one because it appeared that corpus delicti had not been established. Corpus delicti is the principle that a crime must have been proven to have occurred before a person can be convicted of committing that crime.  Additionally, the men no overt act had been committed by the men.  Could they really be tried?

Pauline was taking no chances that her husband might be released on a legal technicality.  She hired a well-known local attorney, S.S. Hahn, to represent him.  The three conspirators, if tried and found guilty, could conceivably spend 50 years in prison. That’s hard time by anyone’s  measure.

NEXT TIME: The case against the kidnap plotters continues.

Film Noir Friday: The Capture [1950]

 

THE CAPTURE

Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open for a rare Saturday matinee. Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat.

Tonight’s feature is THE CAPTURE (“Another Violent story by the author of “Duel in the Sun”) starring Lew Ayres and Teresa Wright.  Enjoy the movie!

TCM says:

Pursued by police across Mexican range land, American Linley Vanner seeks refuge in the adobe hut of Father Gomez. That night, an exhausted Lin, whose arm is injured, finally reveals his story to the priest: A year earlier, Lin is working as a supervisor at an oil field when he hears that the company’s payroll has been stolen and several guards who were protecting it, murdered. Lin is coaxed by his fiancée Luana to join the robbery posse, which is being led by company president Earl C. Mahoney. At first Lin refuses to consider the idea, but changes his mind when he develops a strong feeling about where the robber, whom witness Mahoney has described as “American,” might have gone.

 

The Plot to Kidnap America’s Sweetheart

00061653_doheny chester place color

Doheny Chester Place mansion. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

It was spring 1925, and if the Doheny family didn’t have an uneasy feeling that they were being watched they should have. Three men were staking out the oil tycoon’s mansion on Chester Place and stalking his two grandchildren. The shadow men even followed the kids to church.  They were planning a kidnapping and the oil magnate’s family was an obvious target. But three men loitering in a parked in a car near the Doheny manse wouldn’t escape notice for long.

To kill time as they surveilled the Doheny grandchildren the conspirators discussed other possible victims, even bad guys need a Plan B.  Actress Pola Negri was one, and popular child star Jackie Coogan was another, but in the end Mary Pickford was considered to be the best victim. She was rich and she was more easily accessible than the Doheny grandchildren.

00063861_mary doug home

Doug and Mary on Pickfair lawn. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

By 1925 Mary Pickford was five years into her marriage to her second husband Douglas Fairbanks, and she was one of the most beloved actresses on the planet. She was often referred to in newspapers and magazines as “Our Mary” and “America’s Sweetheart”  Pickford and Fairbanks were comfortably ensconced in their 18 acre Beverly Hills estate “Pickfair”. The home was described by Life Magazine as “a gathering place only slightly less important than the White House, and much more fun.”  It wasn’t hyperbole; Pickfair’s guest list was every bit as stellar as that of the White House and guests included near neighbor Charlie Chaplin and some of the crowned heads of Europe.

pickford 1922Mary and Doug were frequently in the news and one item in particular caught the attention of the kidnap conspirators. They had read that the couple had over $2M in Liberty Bonds, and the kidnappers weren’t going to be greedy–they planned to demand only $200,000 [equivalent to $2.67 million in today’s money]. Surely Doug would pay the ransom to bring his wife home.

Director Raoul Walsh

Raoul Walsh [Photo courtesy of raoulwalsh.com]

What the conspirators hadn’t counted on was that the police would be tipped off to their existence. They thought that they were being cagey, but hanging around outside Edward Doheny’s home was a sure way to get noticed.

Captain Home of the LAPD received information that some suspicious looking men had been seen outside the Chester Place home. The men didn’t appear to have business with the tycoon or any of his neighbors–one of whom was director Raoul Walsh (who was renting Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s home).

The Captain sent two of his best detectives, Harry Raymond and George Mayer, to investigate. Raymond and Mayer spent several boring days and nights on a stake-out, but it paid off. One night they spotted a closed car and ran the license plate–it belonged to a man named C.Z. Stevens an automobile salesman who lived at 4671 Hollywood Blvd.

Stevens was followed by Captain Home and his detectives. The cops saw Stevens meet up with two men they later identified as Claud Arthur Holcomb and Adrian James Woods.  The trio appeared to be casing  the Pickford-Fairbanks studio as well as Edward Doheny’s home and it seemed a sure thing that they were up to no good.

Edward Steichen photo of Pola Negri. Vanity Fair magazine June 1925.

Edward Steichen photo of Pola Negri. Vanity Fair magazine June 1925.

LAPD’s surveillance of the conspirators continued over several weeks. Captain Home told Edward Doheny about the plot and the multimillionaire contacted a couple of his former employees to guard him and his family.  The men were said to be proficient with firearms. Doheny was extremely security conscious–his family had been the target of kidnappers in the past. But the tycoon increased security following the births of his grandchildren.  Fortunately, his grand-kids were being tutored at home so they didn’t have to go out very often; however, the family was careful to keep to their routines so that nothing they did would signal to the would-be kidnappers that the plot had been discovered.

Mary and Doug were also told about the plot and they too cooperated fully with the law. LAPD officers guarded Mary, the grounds of Pickfair and were stationed to keep an eye on the studio.

As far as the law could determine the kidnappers had decided to focus their efforts on Mary, but the gang had vacillated between Pickford and Dohney for a few months so they could still change their minds.  And what if they abandoned both of those potential victims in favor of someone else?

The police were aware of the kidnappers plan but that didn’t mean that the targeted victims were safe, especially after it was discovered that one of the men had recently purchased a gun.

NEXT TIME: The kidnapping plot unravels.

 

Film Noir Saturday Matineee: Kansas City Confidential [1952]

Film Noir Poster - Kansas City Confidential_01

Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open for a rare Saturday matinee. Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat.

Tonight’s feature is KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (aka THE SECRET FOUR) starring John Payne, Coleen Gray and Preston Foster. Billed as ” The picture that hits with bullet force and blackjack fury!”  The film inspired Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs  Enjoy the movie!

TCM says:

For over a week, retired Kansas City police captain Tim Foster watches the Southwest Bank and the flower shop next door to ascertain the timing of each business’s delivery trucks. Satisfied that each truck leaves at exactly the same time every day, he then assembles a trio of criminals to help him rob the bank of its deposit: Pete Harris, a gambling addict; Tony Romano, a ladies’ man; and Boyd Kane, a cold-blooded killer.

You just know that mayhem will ensure…

Film Noir Friday: Fall Guy [1947]

 FALL GUY 1947

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 FALL GUY starring Leo Penn (billed as Clifford Penn), Robert Armstrong, Teala Loring and Elisha Cook, Jr. Enjoy the movie!

TCM says:

Tom Cochrane, full of dope (cocaine) and covered with blood, is picked up by the police and then questioned by detectives Shannon (Douglas Fowley) and Taylor (Harry Strang), but manages to escape. His girl friend Lois Walter (Teala Loring), against the wishes of her guardian, Jim Grosset (Charles Arnt), assists Tom and his police-officer brother-in-law Mac (Robert Armstrong) in trying to clear Tom of a possible murder charge. Tom only recalls meeting a man in a bar and going to a party.

http://youtu.be/tCJp824nYE4

Cops Behaving Badly: The Jokers

00037046_cryer

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]

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.jokers olympic

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.

jokers wallichDeputy 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.

jokers robbery

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.jokers adler

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?

 poopoo

 NOTE:  Many thanks to my fellow crime historian, Mike Fratantoni for introducing me to this tale.