Death of a Detective

stock-crash-1929Between 1924 and 1929 the Dow Jones Industrial Average quadrupled and many Americans thought that the prosperity that had characterized the years since the end of WWI would last forever – they were wrong.

On October 28, 1929 prices began to drop precipitously and even companies thought to be impervious to market fluctuations like U.S. Steel and General Electric had taken huge hits. By the end of the day the Dow had dropped 13%, and the tumble into a financial abyss wasn’t over.

During the first thirty minutes of October 29, 1929, remembered now as Black Tuesday, three million shares were traded and millions of dollars disappeared into thin air. Fistfights broke out on the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange and one trader fainted from exhaustion.

When the smoke cleared the news was devastating — $25 billion had been lost. The people who borrowed money so that they could invest in the market and join the non-stop party were completely wiped out — they weren’t even grease stains on Wall Street’s pavement.

The Great Depression had begun, and so had a nationwide crime wave.dillingerwantedposter4

While the most notable bandits of the era confined their criminal activities primarily to the Midwest: Bonnie & Clyde, John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson to name a few, L.A. also suffered at the hands of crooks who terrorized businesses and individual citizens alike.

The Los Angeles Police Daily Bulletins of the 1930s featured a section dedicated to bandits and bandit gangs operating in the city. Whenever possible the Bulletins gave detailed descriptions of the crooks and their names, if known, and the type of weapon or weapons used to commit the offense.

The crime wave in the Midwest may have been getting most of the national press, but L.A. was also dealing with a larger than average number of stick-ups.

00014415_fox wilshireIt was shortly before 10 a.m. on January 11, 1932 when two film collectors, Paul Berry and Dallas Brewer, arrived at the Fox Wilshire Theater in Westwood. They were the guys who picked up the reels for the films that had already been shown, and dropped off the offerings for the next week. They found that the door of the office, located at the rear of the foyer, was locked so they searched for the janitor. The two men found Xoran Soovazian at the back of the stage and asked him if he would use his pass key to let them into the office.

As Berry, Brewer and Soovazian stepped into the office they ran smack into a couple of bandits who had entered through a rear door. The bandits had their pistols drawn. Assuming that Berry was the theater manager one of the crooks ordered him to “Open the safe”. After Berry and Brewer finally convinced the bandits that they were not theater management they were bound and gagged, as was  Soovazian. Then the bandits waited.

About ten minutes later LAPD Detective Hugh Crowley, and his friend R.L. Joyner, drove up in front of the theater. Crowley was acting as a special messenger for Fox and was there to pick-up the weekend box-office receipts on behalf of the head office. Joyner remained in the car. Crowley walked through the foyer to the office and knocked on the door. Just as the three men before him had done he came face to face with the two armed bandits. Crowley was commanded to “Get ’em up”, but of course he didn’t.

Crowley grabbed for the .45 in his shoulder holster. He took one quick step aside, whipped out the weapon and fired. Almost simultaneously Crowley was struck by a couple of rounds. Despite being mortally wounded, Detective Crowley was able to get off a shot injuring one of the bandits.

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Photo of Detective Crowley courtesy of LAPL.

The cop killers rushed out the rear door of the office, ran across a vacant lot and crossed Braxton Street. They ended up about a block away from the entrance to the theater. During their flight they dropped a gray silk handkerchief, a .32 caliber revolver, a white flannel cap and a silk scarf. The handkerchief had been used as a mask by one of the killers. In front of 10930 Le Conte Street the bandits jumped into a parked car belonging to Mrs. R.W. Smith.

Mrs. Smith was walking up to her car just as the crooks were about to drive away. She later told police she had noticed that the face of one of the bandits was extremely pale and his lips were blue — confirmation that Crowley’s bullet had found its mark.

NEXT TIME: The massive manhunt for Crowley’s killers.