Death on the Driver’s Side

It was about 2:30 a.m. on February 1, 1931, when Julia Tapia met Manuel Quintanna at Alfonso’s Cafe at Temple and Figueroa Streets in Los Angeles. They wouldn’t know each other for very long.

Twenty-four year old Julia had been out with a few girlfriends night clubbing and drinking before the group stopped in at Alfonso’s for a bite to eat. Prohibition didn’t keep anyone from a bottle of booze who wanted one, and there were dozens of speakeasies in L.A. where a drink could be found. Julia had gone to the cafe to fortify herself, and maybe sober up a bit, before leaving on a quick trip north to Tehachapi (where the women’s prison was under construction). A friend of hers, Harvey Hicks, had missed the train back to his home and Julia had told him that she would drive him there. She didn’t relish the idea of making the return trip on her own, and she later said that the girlfriends she’d been out with were “family girls” and wouldn’t have wanted to take an overnight trip.

Julia didn’t scoff at the family girls, but she knew she wasn’t one herself. She was married, but her husband had gone to Mexico five months earlier and he appeared to have no plans to return. She’d also been vagged (a vagrancy charge, usually prostitution) a couple of times in recent months and had done ten days in county jail rather than shell out $50 for the fine.

Woman driver c. 1930s

Woman driver c. 1930s

She was scanning the cafe for another girl, not the family type, who would be willing to accompany her on the Tehachapi jaunt when she spotted Adeline Ortega. Julia and Adeline weren’t close, but they’d seen each other around and had chatted before at Alfonso’s. Adeline had also been vagged, and was easily persuaded to make an overnight roundtrip to Tehachapi. Adeline had only one request; that her friend Manuel Quintanna be allowed to join them. Julia didn’t object; what the hell, the more the merrier. Four young people in a car, a pint and a half of illegal hootch, and a few hours on a dark highway – it would be a miracle if trouble didn’t find them. Miracles had never happened to Julia.

The trip to Tehachapi was uneventful.  They had taken Harvey to the home of a friend of his and spent about thirty minutes passing a bottle of whiskey around. When it was time to leave, Manuel Quintanna said he was tired and wanted to lie down on the back seat of Julia’s car. Manuel stretched out on the back seat and nodded off, while Julia drove and Adeline kept her company.  It wasn’t too long before Adeline began to get sleepy and switched places with Manuel.

Manuel behaved himself for a quite a while before he began to make a nuisance of himself. He pestered Julia to let him drive her car. She refused. The two had words and Manuel tried to throw the car out of gear and grab the steering wheel.  Julia was accustomed to dealing with men who’d had a few drinks and then felt that they were entitled to push her around. She wasn’t going to stand for it; she told Manuel to cut the crap or she would put him out on the highway. Manuel got belligerent and said he’d get out of the car willingly. Good riddance.

CHEV6_RESIZEJulia drove her car, a 1930 Chevrolet, slowly down the road. She was more of a soft touch than she seemed, and she really didn’t want to leave Quintanna on the side of the road, not if he’d promise to behave. Minutes after Manuel had left her car, Julia saw a light colored Ford or Chevy, with three guys in it, pick-up Manuel.  The car caught up with Julia and Adeline (who was still asleep in the back). When the car pulled up alongside Julia, Manuel shouted to her that he’d left his overcoat and hat behind and he wanted to retrieve them. She reached over to the passenger’s side and grabbed Quintanna’s belongings, which she tossed at him.

juliaManuel was pissed that Julia had thrown his coat and hat at him, and he managed to jump onto the running board of Julia’s car. He was on her side of the car and he shouted abuse at her, reached over and pulled her hair, and then smacked her hard on the jaw. At that point I’d have been tempted to shoot him – Julia gave in to temptation. She later told cops that she’d noticed that Harvey Hicks had left his .38 revolver stuck in the seat cushions. She grabbed the weapon and shot Manuel about one and a half inches above his heart. He dropped to the pavement.

Julia braked the car to a stop and ran over to Manuel who was lying in a pool of blood, wheezing.  He was about two heartbeats away from death. She dragged him to the side of the road. The car that Manuel had hitched a ride on sped off into the night, just as another car with three men in it pulled up to see what was going on. In the car were Dean Markham and his buddies, Joe Frigon, and Bob Tittle.  The trio had been rabbit hunting in Mojave, and they were headed back to L.A.  Markham got out of the car and walked over to speak with Julia. On his way over to talk to the distraught woman he noticed a pool of dark colored liquid on the pavement. He stepped wide; he didn’t think it was water.

The car that the rabbit hunters had been riding in was overheating so they took Julia’s car to go and fetch help in the relatively nearby town of Lancaster.  They arrived at a hotel in Lancaster, and explained to the clerk that they needed a cop. The hotel clerk pointed to a pool hall down the street and told them they’d likely find an officer there.  Markham, Frigon, and Tittle found the officer and gave him a brief summary of the situation they’d left behind.

The good samaratins piled back into Julia’s car and returned to the scene. They could hear the wailing of the siren on the police car ahead of them on the highway.

During the time that Markham and his pals had been gone, Manuel Quintanna had died.

Markham, his friends, and the constable pulled up to the scene of the crime only to discover that there wasn’t much for them to do. Julia and Adeline were standing in the road looking shell-shocked. It was no wonder.  The local undertaker had beaten the cop to the scene, loaded Quintanna’s body into his hearse and driven away.

In the days following Manuel’s death his business partner asked about the $350 that Manuel had been carrying. He was supposed to have made a deposit. The morgue property slip listed the dead man’s belongings, but there was no mention of any $350. In fact, no one could explain what had happened to the money. Nobody who had been at the scene of Quintanna’s death claimed knowledge of the money at all. It was as if it had never existed.

headline

Julia Tapia was indicted for the murder of Manuel Quintanna, and on April 27, 1931 the case was called for trial in Department 27 of Superior Court; Judge Walton J. Wood presiding, Deputy District Attorney Barnes representing the People, and S.S. Hahn representing the defendant. Because the Deputy D.A. who had prepared the case against Tapia was unavailable, Barnes requested a continuance. Judge Wood denied the motion and ordered Barnes to proceed with the trial. Which he did.

Strangely, just prior to the case being submitted to the jury, Deputy D.A. Barnes made a motion for dismissal on the grounds of insufficient evidence! Tapia’s attorney, S.S. Hahn, objected and requested that the judge instruct the jury to return a verdict of not guilty. The motion was granted.

tehachapi_style

Fashion at the Women’s Prison in Tehachapi.

Julia Tapia was freed. The missing $350 was never found.

I don’t know if Aggie reported on this story or not, but it is just the sort of crime story she would cover many times over the years. Aggie would become well acquainted with the women’s prison at Tehachapi. She would get to know many of the staff and inmates, and in the mid-1930s she would write a series of articles for the Herald-Express describing what it was like to be a woman doing time. There will be more on Aggie and Tehachapi in future posts.

NOTE:  Many thanks to Mike F. who knew I’d love a story which involved a bad girl, a car with a running board, and the opportunity to expand my vocabulary to include the term “vagged”.