Joe Rokumoto was at the wheel of his small Ford sedan on June 16, 1929. He was on Serrano Street, attempting to cross Sunset Boulevard. He either didn’t see the Stutz coupe bearing down on him or saw it and was unable to evade it. The much larger auto completely demolished Joe’s car and caused injuries to everyone in it. Those injured in the crash included: Joe, 44; his wife, Karuko, 35; daughters Grace, 8, and Mary, 13. Also in the car with the Rokumoto family was Kiku Kawaguchi, 31, and her two kids, Hachiyoko, 7, and George, 9. The three adults were taken to Sylvan Lodge Hospital. The children who, despite the severity of the accident, received mostly minor lacerations and were sent home with friends.
Lois Pantages, who had been observed driving recklessly for several blocks before finally plowing into Joe’s car, was treated for a broken nose, lacerated upper lip and a slight concussion and sent home. She wasn’t home for long when the police knocked on her door and arrested her for driving while intoxicated. She was booked and then released on her own recognizance.
The damage to Joe’s car was complete. Lois’s Stutz sustained front end damage but was otherwise repairable. While Joe’s car was a total loss at least everyone had survived the accident. But that would changed when, a couple of days later, Joe died during the surgery to repair his broken hip. An inquest was held and Coroner’s jury concluded that his death was a direct result of the accident, despite the possible contributing causes of a tubercular abscess of the pleura and tuberculosis of the lower spinal vertebrae. In their verdict the jury said: “…the Stutz was driven on the left-hand side of the highway, and we find the accident was due to reckless driving on the part of the driver of said Stutz automobile.”
The jury didn’t offer any recommendation for further action by the authorities; but it didn’t matter because the D.A. had already taken steps to submit the case to the grand jury for an indictment. Detective Lieutenant J.R. Stephens interviewed the survivors in Joe’s car, but he had not been able to get near Lois Pantages who was, allegedly, too ill to be questioned. The initial report indicated that Lois had sustained only minor injuries in the crash, but her condition was upgraded to serious as the charge of second degree murder loomed large before her. The court was informed that she was hospitalized and unavailable for questioning. She had supposedly undergone surgery, although it wasn’t made clear exactly why she would need an operation for a split lip and a broken nose. If you’re thinking it was her attorney’s ploy to keep her away from the cops then we’re on the same page.
District Attorney Buron Fitts said: “I have gone into the matter of Mrs. Pantages since my return this morning from the district attorneys’ convention and I am convinced that the facts justify a prosecution on the charge of murder in the second degree.”
Lois’s preliminary hearing was delayed because her doctor hadn’t cleared her for release from the hospital. The D.A. wasn’t especially concerned, he had his officers continue to question witnesses. He’d also put a stop to scheduled repairs on the Stutz. Joe’s Ford sedan was beyond fixing, it was a crumpled mass of metal. Both vehicles would be held by the police until the case was concluded.
On July 7 newspapers broke the story that a former police officer had been arrested for attempting to bribe one of the witnesses against Lois. William R. (Paddy) McGee of 1015 East 78th Street was a former special deputy sheriff and a bail bondsman. Paddy claimed to have been friends with Alexander Pantages for 35 years, and maybe he had been, but once his name appeared in connection with attempted bribery he was persona non grata as far as the Pantages were concerned. Alexander said: “My attention was called to the paper this afternoon wherein a man named McGee claims he was investigating the case for me. McGee was never employed by me or authorized to have anything to do with the case.”
The assertion was that Paddy had approached William H. Dutton, an officer at LAPD’s Hollywood Division, in an attempt to influence his testimony. Dutton was one of the arresting officers in the case and his testimony was going to be important for the prosecution. Paddy allegedly told Officer Dutton that “There will be plenty on the line” — meaning, of course, that the officer could earn big bucks by changing his testimony.
Paddy denied making any overture to Officer Dutton. The former lawman, and brother-in-law of Tom Finn, ex-Sheriff of San Francisco, stated: “I heard they were looking for me at the District Attorney’s office and went down there voluntarily to see what they wanted. There is no truth in the statement that I tried to bribe anyone.” The D.A. disagreed and Paddy was remanded into custody.
Shortly after noon on July 17, Lois Pantages, surrounded by her family, was wheeled into Judge Holland’s court for her preliminary hearing. Her attorney spoke for her and pleaded not guilty to driving while intoxicated and murder. She was released on $50,000 bail–that’s equivalent to nearly $700,000 in current dollars. Alexander Pantages was wealthy enough to make bail for his wife, and could afford the best attorneys. With the wealth and power of the Pantages fortune behind her would Lois escape justice?
NEXT TIME: The wheels of justice grind slowly on, and another member of the Pantages family ends up in the slammer.