The Black Owl

There were many gun crimes in Los Angeles during the 1930s—even purse snatchers were frequently armed; but there were two crimes which defined the era: kidnapping (the so-called “Snatch Racket”) and bank robbery.  Robbers, motivated by desperation, hunger or good old-fashioned greed, stalked Spring Street, the “Wall Street of the West”, hoping to pull off the perfect bank heist.

Security-First National Bank c. 1930s [photo courtesy of LAPL]

Security-First National Bank on Spring Street c. 1930s [photo courtesy of LAPL]

On December 31, 1931, twenty-four year old Timothy Blevins was finding Old Man Depression a formidable adversary. It seemed that no matter what he did he couldn’t climb out of the financial hole he was in.  The fact that millions of people around the world shared his predicament offered him no consolation. He had recently lost his job as a bus boy in a cafe at 5610 Hollywood Blvd, and then he had taken a job with a county road gang.

Working on a road gang is exhausting work, but he may have stuck with it if his eighteen year old wife, Cornelia, hadn’t left him and gone home to her mother.  She was just fifteen when the couple had married in Ojai, Arizona, much too young to grasp the seriousness of their vows.Even if they’d waited it probably would have ended badly between them. Timothy was moody and no picnic to live with. After three years Cornelia was fed up. Timothy had become terribly despondent and he told her that he was contemplating suicide.  Cornelia couldn’t take any more of her husband’s dark moods and she intended to get their marriage annulled as soon as possible. It wouldn’t be too difficult for an eighteen year old to start over again.

A few days prior to the end of 1931, Cornelia had bumped in to her soon-to-be ex-spouse when she returned to their former home at 1135 South Catalina Street to get some clothing.  She was dismayed, but not surprised, to discover that his mood hadn’t lightened, in fact he appeared to be as morose as ever.

Timothy had been sitting alone in the apartment brooding over how he could change his circumstances—and he had devised a plan.

The Spring Street financial district, located north of Fourth Street and south of Seventh Street, was the beating heart of capitalism in the city in 1931 and there were at least twenty banks concentrated within a few blocks.

It was shortly after 2 pm on the last day of 1931 when Timothy Blevins, clutching a small black case, stepped over the threshold into the crowded lobby of the Security-First National Bank hoping to get lucky.

black owl bomb

The Black Owl’s “infernal machine being shown off by two unnamed LAPD detectives. [Photo courtesy of UCLA Digital Collection]

Tracy Q. Hall, the vice president of the bank, was in his office and there were at least a dozen customers waiting to have a word with him.  Blevins strode up to the rail which enclosed Hall’s office and set the case he had been carrying down near Hall, then he handed the banker a note. The crudely printed note, written on a blank check from the Bank of America, contained a demand for $100,000 and stated that there was enough explosive in the bag to turn the block into smoke and ashes.

Hall quietly read the note and then glanced up slowly to take the measure of the man who would dare to make such a loathsome threat. Blevins decided to drive his point home and reveal the contents of the case; he snapped open the catch and suddenly the “infernal machine” (a bomb) was visible.

The two men continued to hold each other’s gaze but Blevins blinked first. He released his grasp on the case, whirled around and ran for the exit.  Hall grabbed at the fleeing man but just missed him.  The failed robber continued to run, and in his haste he knocked down Peter J. Anderson, a patron of the bank and proprietor of a garage at 221 East Fifth Street.

LAPD Traffic Officer Olson

LAPD Traffic Officer Olsen

Anderson let out a cry, and so did Hall who was in hot pursuit of the fleeing man. Blevins dashed out into Fifth Street and it looked like he was leading a parade. Behind him were Anderson, Hall, and Sam Sulzbacher, the bank’s doorman. When they reached Main Street, Traffic Officer R. W. Olsen joined the chase.

Blevins ducked into a theater on Main Street but Officer Olsen had seen him go into the building. Naturally Blevins tried to blend in with the theater crowd, but it was no use—Olsen found him and took him into custody.

While Blevins was being escorted to police headquarters, Hall turned the infernal machine over to LAPD Captains McCaleb and Malina. Upon examination of the device they found a dry battery wired to a quart jar full of ethyl gasoline. Also inside the case there was an empty milk can and a small bottle of carbide powder; above the quart bottle were two brown sticks of dynamite.

On the lid of the box, printed with black paint, was a bold threat:

 “The Black Owl.  Will deal you death.  Don’t talk”

Then McCaleb and Malina read the note that the suspect had handed to Hall:

 “There are enough explosive here to tear up the block.  Read carefully.  Do exactly as told.  Starting with biggest denominations fill bag.  We will go to the vault first.  When I have enough you will take me out back door.  Get me a taxi.  Then take your time going back, for I have to take care of you.  If you describe me too well this will not fail to work.  There is poison gas to kill every one within.”

At police headquarters Blevins, sullen and mumbling incoherently, refused to make any statement other than to tell the cops: “you can call me Dave Lowre.”  Then he made an attempt to grab Officer Olsen’s weapon, but half a dozen detectives jumped on him and prevented his escape. He became slightly more cooperative following his aborted escape attempt, but he never revealed the inspiration for his nom de felon.

Timothy Blevins, glowering during questioning by an unnamed LAPD detective.  [Photo courtesy of UCLA Digital Collection]

Timothy Blevins, glowering during questioning by an unnamed LAPD detective. [Photo courtesy of UCLA Digital Collection]

Timothy was arraigned in Municipal Court and his bail was fixed at $10,000—he was clearly going nowhere.

The complaint against Blevins charged him with burglary, attempted robbery and violation of Section 601 of the Penal Code in that he transported dynamite into a public building, thereby endangering the lives of others.

Tracy Q. Hall, Vice President of Security-First National Bank

Tracy Q. Hall, Vice President of Security-First National Bank

Timothy originally pleaded insanity, but he decided to withdraw that plea.  Instead he entered a plea of guilty to the charge of illegally transporting dynamite into a public building. The likely reason for his change of plea was that he’d be permitted to file an application for probation if he wasn’t insane.

Obviously Timothy hoped that he’d be granted probation but it was not to be. He was found guilty, denied probation and sentenced to San Quentin Prison.

I haven’t been able to discover the length of Blevin’s prison term (he would not have been given less than one year) but following his release he must have kept his nose clean because his name never again appeared in the local newspapers.

The Black Owl had retired from his brief and unsuccessful life of crime.

NOTE: Many thanks to my fellow crime fiend, Mike Fratantoni, for introducing me to this deranged case.