THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931)
“Why you, I oughta…”
Tough guy talk and a shiv concealed in a shoe, shirt, or somewhere truly unsavory (where the sun don’t shine) may be gangster film cliches, but those moments are based on truth. The bad guy patter has become more profanity laced over the decades, but criminals are true to type whether they’re celluloid or flesh and blood. Hoods hold grudges and pay-back is a point of pride.
On May 12, 1958, in Department 42 of the Hall of Justice, two punks from East L.A. were on trial for a murder committed during the course of a robbery. Fifty-one year old Jose Castellanos, a local groceryman, had been shot to death by twenty-three year old Gregory Valenzuela. Castellanos and his wife were in their store at 435 S. McDonnell Avenue when two would-be robbers came in and demanded money. Castellanos leaped for a counter and pulled out his own gun to fend off the crooks; he managed to fire a round before being mortally wounded. Mrs. Castellanos watched in horror as her husband died.
Gregory Valenzuela [Photo courtesy USC Digital Archive]
Sheriff’s Detective Sgts. N.L. Peterson and Ned Lovretovich rolled to the scene of the shooting and began their investigation. Valenzuela was ID’d by Castellanos’ widow, and within a couple of days he was located hiding with four other young men in an empty house behind the home of a friend, Joseph Lozano.
Valenzuela told officers that he and an unnamed accomplice decided “to hit” the Castellanos’ grocery store.
It’s possible that Valenzuela and his accomplice were members of White Fence (aka WF), one of the oldest street gangs in East Los Angeles. Even though the gang claims it goes back to 1911, it didn’t emerge until the 1930s when it began as a male sports team associated with the La Purisima Church. The WF name supposedly derives from a white picket fence that surrounded the church. The moniker makes the gang sound benign; but nothing could be further from the truth.
By 1957, when Castellanos was murdered, White Fence was one of the most powerful and violent gangs in the the area with criminal enterprises ranging from auto theft to murder. Over the years WF hasn’t vanished, it has thrived. It now has members in Las Vegas, El Paso, Florida, and Guatemala.
It was diligent police work by detectives Peterson and Lovretovich that resulted in the ID of Valenzuela’s accomplice — twenty-three year old Augustine Acosta. As killers will do, Acosta and Valenzuela developed a grudge against the cops who had arrested them, especially Sgt. Ned Lovretovich — and they were determined to get him.
Det. Sgt. Ned Lovretovich [Photo courtesy USC Digital Photo Archive]
On May 12, 1958, following the afternoon recess, as the defendants Valenzuela and Acosta were being led back into the courtroom by the bailiff they suddenly broke away and attacked Det. Sgt. Ned Lovretovich with sharpened metal spoons — shivs! Lovretovich was not seriously injured, he received a stab wound to his right shoulder and an abrasion on his cheek. Valenzuela and Acosta were subdued by force and taken away.
When questioned Gregory Valenzuela characterized the courtroom stabbing incident as “Just a misunderstanding”. He claimed not to recall much of what had happened and said that he didn’t know why he’d jumped Lovretovich; later he would say that the motive was that the detective was framing him. Classic.
Acosta’s interview was considerably more colorful than Valenzuela’s had been. When he was asked if he’d care to tell the investigators what happened in the courtroom, Acosta replied:
“No. Fuck everybody. I don’t give a shit.”
Where did Acosta get the spoon he’d sharpened into a shiv?
“It’s for you to find out. You’re the law, not me.”
Acosta gave the same motive for the attack on Lovretovich as Valenzuela had:
“Because the punk knows I’m not guilty and is railroading me.”
During the course of the questioning, Acosta unequivocally stated his reason for attacking the detective:
“…I meant to kill the motherfucker.”
The interview ended when Acosta expressed his desire to return to his cell:
“Let me go back to the tank…”
Gregory Huerta Valenzuela and Augustine Acosta were found guilty of first degree murder in the death of Jose Castellanos and sentenced to life in state prison. The two also plead guilty to assault w/intent to commit murder and injury to a county employee for the attack on Lovretovich — they received sentences to run concurrently with their life terms.
I have no idea if or when Valenzuela and Acosta were released from prison. Det. Sgt. Lovretovich not only survived the attack on him, he lived to be 90 years old.
NOTE: Many thanks to Mike Fratantoni for sharing this deranged tale with me.