Santa Rosa is tinkering with Fourth street again, hoping to keep its moribund business district from completely withering away during the Age of Coronavirus. The latest effort is to close off traffic on the 500 and 700 blocks (but not the 600 block), allowing restaurants and bars to setup more outside tables. The city will keep the blocks closed at least until January 31, 2021 but according to the PD, over 70% of the businesses on those blocks want the street closure to be permanent.
Go back about four decades, however, and tell people that Santa Rosa was going to block cars from Fourth street in 2020 and expect surprised reactions – because they would have expected the city had already done that.
Our story begins almost exactly 45 years ago in 1975, as the City Council clears the last major obstacle to final planning for the Santa Rosa Plaza Mall. The city would allow the developer to sink Third street so part of the shopping center could be built above it while lower Fifth street and A street would be folded into the mall plans. The matter of a Fourth street passageway between B street and Railroad Square was still unsettled – that’s a major story by itself and will be handled in a future article.
As much of the money to pay for that would come from the federal government, the Housing and Urban Development Dept. (HUD) had to give its blessing to the project. Its report from earlier that same year declared the mall would be generally a good thing for Santa Rosa, but there was concern that having it downtown could suck the life out of the existing business district: “…the older area could lose business, tenants would move elsewhere and the decline of another area of Santa Rosa would begin, possibly recreating a situation similar to that which necessitated urban renewal in the first place.”
To mitigate those concerns, the city and the Downtown Development Association – DDA to its friends – hired a respected San Francisco urban planning company, EDAW Inc. Their mission was to create “a complete, cohesive physical design plan” to “provide the necessary linkage” between the mall and the downtown core. So once again it was time to play Let’s Redesign Downtown – that ever-popular game in the 1960s that had enriched many out-of-town consultants. (Those layouts were discussed here in the series, “YESTERDAY IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER.”)
Given what they had to work with, their redesign was innovative. Like earlier plans there was an emphasis on streetscaping with lots of trees (primarily plums and magnolias). There was far more parking than we have today and it envisioned a free “people mover” shuttle looping continually between the garages and the stores.
But the highlight was turning Fourth street into a “meandering semi-mall” closed to traffic except for the people mover. Riley street would also become pedestrian only.
Another unique feature was the absence of traffic lights, which were only found where Mendocino ave. and D street crossed Fourth. There was also a pedestrian bridge across B street, linking the presumed entrance to the mall with Fourth street. Otherwise, traffic flow was completely controlled by roundabouts. The plan further placed an emphasis on preserving and restoring heritage buildings.
The cost for all this would have been $2.7M and during the 1977 presentation, raising that financing didn’t seem to be a worry. Thus: In sum it was a practical and affordable design which would have greatly perked up the old downtown without much disruption (no major realignments of streets or utilities) and might have helped keep the business district competitive, no matter what temptations the future mall might fling at shoppers. The downtown property owners particularly loved the semi-mall and most signed a petition to tax themselves via a special assessment district to help pay for it (the major holdout was the telephone company).
Spoiler alert: Absolutely none of that happened.
While the semi-mall and the rest of the plan remained popular with enthusiastic backing from DDA members, its chances of being built began to slip away with the 1978 passage of Proposition 13, which shut off city funding – it would have died right there, if not for a ray of hope thanks to Santa Rosa getting a windfall $40M due to Pacific Telephone’s expansion. By 1979 the inflation cost was now $3.3M and some merchants had turned into naysayers, griping that closing Fourth street would eliminate about eighty parking spaces in front of their stores. The death sentence came in 1980, when semi-mall came to just mean there would be wider sidewalks because the street was being narrowed to two lanes. Fourth could sometimes be closed for street sales or other special events. And that’s what we still have today.
The Santa Rosa Plaza opened in 1982, and it didn’t take long for downtown merchants to realize they would not be riding its coat tails to prosperity. The city had given the developer everything he demanded and the downtown ended up with less than nothing, given that Railroad Square was now isolated on the wrong side of the Great Wall of B Street.
In 1988 the City Council hired consultants and formed committees “to figure out something to make the downtown a busy, happy place” and the Press Democrat invited five architects to come up with ideas. Some of the plans weren’t very functional (yes, we really needed an underground art gallery) but Joel DeSilva came up with an innovative design that embraced and enhanced Rapp’s meandering Fourth street. As described in the PD, he thought “parks are the way to invite people into the downtown:”
…He starts with a miniature, tree-lined lake at the entrance of the mall on B Street. The lake feeds a creek that meanders the length of Fourth Street (which he closes to traffic) as far as the library on E Street. There are benches and little restaurants with outdoor eating space along the creek. “There has to be something to draw people out of the plaza and down to the rest of downtown. Something impulsive. You see something there and it looks interesting,” DeSilva said.
DeSilva also followed Rapp in placing a walkway over B Street from the Plaza, as well as a covered skywalk overlooking Courthouse Square.
No mention of Fourth street in the 1970s is complete without talking about cruising, which was either innocent fun or a sure sign that Santa Rosa had gone to wrack and ruin. (I polled a few friends who were here back in the day and FWIW all remembered it as the former, and were shocked when I read some of the details reported in the Press Democrat.) But cruising was intertwined with the semi-mall story, and likely was a big part of the reason the design was abandoned.
Cruising began here c. 1963, with the first letter-to-the-ed in the Press Democrat complaining about youths “tooling Fourth street” in 1965. By the end of the decade it was both Friday and Saturday nights, drawing 200-500 kids each evening. The street was so jammed that sometimes only two cars were able to crawl through a green light.
In 1970 the PD ran a titillating series, “Santa Rosa After Dark” (topless go-go girls at the Stone House, “the home of dirty ankle sex in Santa Rosa”!) that described a scene very much like the movie American Graffiti – which would be partially filmed in Petaluma two years later. It was mainly bored kids who said they were there only because there was nothing else to do in Santa Rosa, so why not watch the street-rod parade while hanging out with the gang and guzzling beer. Written by Dick Torkelson, the colorful prose in the series is best read while imagining the voice of Dragnet’s Joe Friday:
…It’s the scene for the raked rears, the big meats, the high springs, the throaty burble of the glass-pack mufflers. It’s where the Chrysler hemis sometimes vie with the Goats as they call the GTO’s. It’s where the Mustang 390’s and the 428’s snort to a lead foot…Occasionally two cars will pull to a stop, the drivers glance across, size each other up and down like two roosters in a pit. The sign changes and one will hit it in low, lay just a blip of rubber, then ease off. Then the other will nip it, down hard, then up. Just a hint of what there is…
Every year the situation grew more concerning. In April 1977 – just three months after Charlie Rapp made the semi-mall presentation to the DDA – the police barricaded downtown Fourth street for the first time. They soon found out that was a mistake: The action just moved to more residential streets, particularly Summerfield Road with the kids hanging out in the Howarth Park parking lot.
That summer there were about 1,800 arrests and citations, most related to alcohol and particularly underage drinking. Also on the police blotter were cruising while drunk, urinating in public, fighting, noise (cruising involved lots’a honking at friends), hurling bottles, graffiti, smashing store windows, possession of illegal weapons (including sawed-off shotguns) and 18 cases of stolen cars. Driving a stolen car in a parade being heavily monitored by cops deserves its own category in the Darwin Awards.
Costs for policing all this were adding up. By the time the police tried closing the street the city was paying an extra $3,000 every weekend (nearly $13k today), mainly in police overtime. The City Council approved hiring three more officers and purchasing a new patrol car. By Thanksgiving of 1977 there were 21 officers on patrol during Friday and Saturday nights to book up to 50 arrests and write 100 citations.
The crackdown also included new city ordinances. A ban on left u-turns on Fourth during cruise nights proved to be a really dumb idea because the cruisers just used residential cross streets to turn around instead. The City Council added a prohibition on “pandemoniac vehicles” (squealing tires, an ordinance still on the books – sideshow haters, take note). At first the Council balked at restricting Friday and Saturday street parking on the downtown blocks of Fourth, but finally enacted a ban on what Police Chief Sal Rosano quipped were “portable beer dispensing machines.”
But nothing seemed to discourage the partying, which used to wind down around midnight but now went on until 2:30. Prevailing wisdom seemed to be that Fourth street cruising would go on forever and probably get worse.
All that was in the air in 1980, when it came time to decide the fate of the semi-mall. Considering a permanent closure of those blocks to traffic must have now seemed like folly – they had seen how that only moved cruising into the neighborhoods. Keeping the street open but squeezing it into two lanes was a classic technique of “traffic calming” which might (hopefully) discourage cruising through downtown. At least, I presume that was their thinking; nothing about the decision-making was reported at the time. Or who knows? Perhaps the hope was that a narrower Fourth street would give downtown more of its pre-1906 earthquake look, matching the ersatz cobblestones that used to rattle your teeth while driving through Courthouse Square.
Downtown Fourth was closed for six months as the work was done, and sure enough, the police fielded more calls about raucous street parties in residential areas. The PD had a later story that some local cruisers went down to Petaluma to check out the parade on Petaluma Boulevard, but the scene felt too alien. “They were all wearing cowboy hats,” a cruiser said.
When Fourth reopened in November, 1981 there were still police barricades on Friday and Saturday nights, but to the surprise of everyone, very few cruisers showed up – cruising “disappeared just entirely when Fourth Street closed for the mall [construction],” Police Captain Sanderson told the PD in March 1982.
What killed off cruising? More than anything else it was video games.
Video arcades and home game consoles were becoming the rage in later 1981 and exploded in popularity in 1982. Seemingly overnight arcades were everywhere; Aladdin’s Castle in the Plaza was the largest with sixty games, but a machine or three could be found in barbershops, hardware stores and coffee shops. Restaurants cleared out mop closets to make room for Frogger and Donkey Kong. The Safeway on Mendocino Ave. not only had a row of arcade games by the bathrooms but shoppers could pick up an Atari and a few game cartridges as well.
Santa Rosa’s history in the 20th century was marked by a long series of unfortunate planning decisions, and abandoning the “meandering semi-mall” is high among them. Yet it makes for an unusual Believe-it-or-Not! question to ponder: Would it have been built if only the final decision was made a year later, or Pac Man came around a year earlier?
There’s a tale Bill Soberanes loved to tell in his Argus-Courier columns that went something like this:
During Prohibition a lawyer was defending a man accused of bootlegging. When the prosecutor introduced a bottle of the moonshine as evidence the lawyer picked it up, put it to his lips and drank it dry. “That wasn’t whiskey,” he told the court. Case dismissed for lack of evidence.
Odds of that story being true are probably nil (or at least, I can’t find anything close to it in the newspapers of the day) but it’s the kind of thing people liked to say about Gil P. Hall. Most often he was called some riff on being “a colorful character” and people meant that in a nice way. During the 1910s and 1920s he was the top defense attorney in Sonoma county and rarely lost in court, particularly if it involved a jury trial. He was such a legal hotshot that courtrooms were packed when he defended a high-profile case. “There was only one Gil Hall, and I don’t think there will ever be another like him,” said the last surviving pre-Prohibition Petaluma bar owner in 1967. “Some of his cases would make Perry Mason look very tame.”
In the 1920s Hall defended so many liquor scofflaws that he had a reputation as being the bootlegger’s lawyer, but that’s not really fair – it seems he took on any and all. While he’s best known for high-profile cases his bread and butter was mundane legal work – representing people seeking a divorce, handling probate paperwork, and arguing a farmer had a right to dig a culvert under a county road.
He won an acquittal for Fannie Brown, who was charged with running a “house of ill-fame” at First and C streets in Petaluma. In the murder trial of two doctors charged with the death of a woman from an abortion (“the illegal operation”) the courtroom spectators burst into prolonged applause when the jury found them innocent. Even when he lost he usually managed to salvage some kind of victory. The owner of Speedway Hotel in Cotati was caught red-handed selling 72 proof jackass brandy (“with a trace of fuel oil”) and had to pay a fine, but Hall blocked the government from shutting down his business – which continued to be busted for selling hootch year after year.
A man who knew him, Petaluma Justice of the Peace Rolland Webb, said “he won most of his cases by outsmarting the young lawyers who came up against him,” so it’s a pity the newspapers didn’t write up some of his Perry Mason-y courtroom arguments. The one sample we have comes from an unusual case – the county election of 1926.
A recount was ordered because the votes for sheriff were almost tied. Hall and lawyers for the other candidate went over the ballots carefully, agreeing to toss three for being “scurrilous” – the voters had added an obscenity next to a candidate’s name. Then they found someone had written in the name of Andy Gump for Justice of the Peace. Andy Gump was an ultra-popular comic strip character who was a lovable idiot; in the 1920s the storyline had him running silly campaigns for the senate and the presidency. But the name was written on a ballot for Hall’s candidate, so he made a fine speech why it should be accepted:
…Andy Gump is one of the best loved characters in the United States. His name is a household word, and of loved memory. All of his actions have been those of a gentleman… Therefore, I cannot conclude with counsel that the writing of Andrew Gump created an atmosphere of scurrility about this ballot. Whether there is an Andrew Gump in Sonoma county I do not know. If there were more Andrew Gumps, in character and thought, Sonoma county would probably be a better county than it is…
His candidate lost the election by 16 votes, but the Andy Gump ballot was counted.
Gil Hall was in his heyday during the Roaring Twenties although he was past 60 years old (b. 1859 in Missouri). He was president of the County Bar Association 1924-5 and threw lavish, four-hour dinner parties for judges and fellow attorneys on his large houseboat named “Ark of Peace” (!) which was moored on the Petaluma River and was connected to permanent buildings on the wharf. When he would rehearse his courtroom arguments on the boat he was loud enough to frighten passing boaters, so reread the Andy Gump speech and imagine lots of shouting.
In his younger days it was expected he would someday be a Congressman; he was well-connected vis his father-in-law (Petaluma banker Dan Brown) and said to be politically ambitious, being appointed as Petaluma’s postmaster at age 27. But Gilbert P. Hall had a closet with skeletons ready to spill out during any campaign for public office; he was wise not to crack that door open.
This is the obl. Believe-it-or-Not! portion of the article, and not just because of some deed by Gil Hall; it’s also because this chapter of his life was so quickly and utterly forgotten and forgiven. Nothing about it was mentioned in any obituary or by 20th century Hall aficionados like Bill Soberanes – in fact, I don’t think this story’s ever been fully told before; I only stumbled across it while researching the previous article about the county treasurer who may have faked a robbery.
In 1890 Gil P. Hall was elected County Recorder/Auditor. The job was a perfect way for a novice politician to take off his training wheels – all it required was staying out of the way of the desk clerk and accepting payment of the recording fees. He was reelected in 1892 but lost the election of November, 1894. Take note that starting in January 1895 someone else would be running the office.
Every two years the county had used an outside auditor named Baldwin to examine the books of all offices, but in 1895 they hired someone else and he found something strange – there was a huge gap in Hall’s accounts. Except for a few entries made after he first took office, there were no fee payments listed until he lost reelection. Specifically, an entire ledger was missing: “Fee Book 13”.
The Grand Jury heard testimony that sometimes months went by without Hall making a deposit to the county treasury. Also, Baldwin looked at the books only during evenings when Hall was also there. Meanwhile, accounting experts were combing through all transactions during Hall’s four year tenure. Their audit showed that for his second term alone, $10,199.50 had been received but only $5,651.75 was deposited. That meant there was a missing $4613.38 (about $140k today).
County officers were held personally liable for any funds found missing during their term in office, and Hall had Petaluma businessmen who backed him with bonds for significant losses. The county sued them for about $1,200, which represented only the last few months of Hall’s first term – it was now March, 1896, and the clock was ticking down on the four-year statute of limitations for this type of suit.
A few months later the county filed a second lawsuit to recover the $4613.38. That was followed by a third lawsuit for $4.5k to pay for the cost of reconstructing Fee Book 13.
Gil P. Hall was now indicted on two counts of felony embezzlement and free on $1,500 bail bonds.
The story grabbed the laser-like focus of San Francisco’s yellow press, and the Examiner did a full page story on him with the subhed, “Rise and Fall of an Able Man.” According to their story, the formerly mild-mannered Hall had become “a high-riding swashbuckler, who cavaliered it through Petaluma to the astonishment of the wondering townspeople” and was known for throwing dinner parties that “endeared himself to a certain class.”
I will spare Gentle Reader details of the grinding legal gears during 1897-1899, which consumed a week of my precious life as I labored over a spreadsheet in a futile attempt to track all the doings. The Grand Jury found him guilty of embezzlement; the location of his trial was moved to Ukiah and there was a hung jury and a retrial; Hall insisted he didn’t remember anything (including the names of his clerks); his lead defense attorney, ex-Congressman Thomas J. Geary, embraced a strategy of continually barking “objection!” like a yappy dog. The big surprise came in November 1897, when Fee Book 13 was discovered and reportedly was in the Auditor’s office the whole time. This was, of course, conveniently after the facsimile had been reconstructed.
By the turn of the century there was remorse in some corners that the county had pursued restitution instead of just sending him to prison. It was now approaching the statute of limitations from the time of the indictments. Appeals were made to the state Supreme Court to extend the deadlines which the court first denied – then a few weeks later reversed itself and said the county could indeed reopen the case. Oh, law.
Over objections from the District Attorney, the Board of Supervisors finally threw in the towel in 1901, proclaiming there would be no more litigation because it was costing the county too much. That was followed by another Supreme Court ruling that the statute of limitations had indeed run out, and Hall and his bondsmen were not legally bound to pay back any money he allegedly stole.
As was permissible under the law. Hall then presented the county with a bill for his lawyer’s fees and court expenses. The Board agreed to pay him $850, which was the legal max.
Thus: Gil P. Hall not only got away with allegedly filching a small fortune from the public, but the county paid him for the pleasure of having done so. Believe it or Not!
An older – and presumably wiser – Gil Hall was behind the defense table again in 1927, this time accused of bribing witnesses.
The charge this time was that he had paid two 16 year-old boys $30 each to deny they had bought homemade wine from a Petaluma farmer. The Grand Jury handed down two indictments against him, although one was thrown out on a technicality.
On the witness stand the boys contradicted their earlier statements and each other. Hall had/had not given them money; Hall had promised one of the boys he “would take care of him” if he lost his job, or he hadn’t promised anything at all. And then, in true Perry Mason fashion, there was a shocking courtroom confession: One of the boys had a vendetta against Gil Hall because he had defended an auto driver accused of causing the death of his baby brother. “His admission that he had for years had a bitter feeling against the accused Petaluma attorney caused a profound stir,” reported the Argus-Courier.
The Grand Jury retired to the jury room and returned to court six minutes later with a verdict of innocent. It was the shortest jury deliberation anyone could recall.
Although Gil Hall’s professional life centered around the county courthouse in Santa Rosa, he grew up and lived most of his life in Petaluma. Besides Soberanes, fellow A-C columnist Ed Mannion sometimes tipped his hat to Gil for being among the most colorful residents in the city’s history. Mannion wrote, “he once entered the door of a Main Street pharmacy and was met by a fusillade of shots from the druggist’s’ pistol.”
Mannion told a couple of other stories that can be dated to 1913. The Maze Department Store on the corner of Washington and Main had an art department and was selling prints of “September Morn,” a wildly-popular painting of a nude woman standing in a lake – the sort of artwork someone buys while thinking, “this will really class up the joint.”
The store had a copy in their window display until “the good ladies trying to protect the town’s morals” (Mannion’s words) protested. Their taking offense apparently offended Hall, who talked the store into placing the picture with its back to the window – but in front of a mirror, so the image was plainly in view from the street. Selling at $1.75 each, the store had trouble keeping up with demand.
(RIGHT: Dressed statue of the goddess Hebe. Courtesy Sonoma County Library)
But Gil was not done with tweaking Petaluma’s blue noses. Outside the department store on the Washington street side was the WCTU water fountain, which had at its top a 5-foot bronze statue of the nude Greek goddess Hebe. With two co-conspirators Gil placed a Mother Hubbard dress over the statue. Wags promptly dubbed the censored statue “August Morn.”
That pre-Prohibition barkeep also said, “if I were a writer, I’d do Gil Hall’s life, and I’d have a best seller on my hands.” Well, get in line, bub – Soberanes and Mannion both wanted to write The Legend of the Fabulous Gil Hall and asked readers to send in Hall stories (apparently no one did). Justice of the Peace Webb had a number of stories so if any member of the Webb family recall an old manuscript up in the attic, contact me.
Santa Rosa made national news in the days after Christmas, 1894. Hundreds of newspapers nationwide, from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to the Wah-shah-she News in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, ran a wire story that began this way:
Santa Rosa, Cal., Dec. 28.—Santa Rosa had the biggest sensation in its history today. The county treasury was robbed of nearly $8000 and County Treasurer Stofen was left insensible in the vault to suffocate by the robbers, who locked the door of the vault on him. The robbery occurred about 9 o’clock this morning, but was not discovered until about 5 o’clock this afternoon. All this time Treasurer Stofen lay on the floor of the vault gasping for breath, fearing every moment during conscious intervals would be his last.
Stofen told reporters the next day that he had opened his office at the county courthouse as usual on Dec. 28 and was bringing coin trays out of the vault (it was 1894, remember, and “money” meant gold and silver coins, not greenback dollars). Suddenly there was a man in front of him holding a large dagger. “Drop that money,” he ordered. The 58 year-old Stofen put the tray down and either was struck on the head or fainted. The next thing he knew was waking up to discover he was locked in the vault.
“I pounded on the door, but of course no one could hear me,” he told reporters. He knew there was a faint draught at the bottom of the door and lay with his face near it. He passed out again.
Meanwhile, his two kids stopped by at noon to drop off his lunch. Not finding dad in the office and the door locked, they hung around waiting for him. A man from San Francisco wanted to make a payment and was annoyed to find the office closed, as he did not want to make another trip to Santa Rosa. The sheriff – whose office was next door – suggested he give the money to Stofen’s 18 year-old daughter which he did, since it’s 1894 and you can trust a teenager you don’t know with making cash deposits and there’s another reason I wish we were all living back then.
In the middle of the afternoon Mrs. Stofen drops by the office after a day trip to Cloverdale. Finding his lunch outside the door, she goes home, fearing he might be ill. Not finding him there either, she rushes back to the courthouse and learns no one had seen him since morning. She has the janitor open the door and finds the office in disarray. “Then I screamed and immediately heard knocks coming from the vault,” she told the SF Examiner.
She tries the combination of the vault, since it’s 1894, of course the wife of the country treasurer knows the combination to the county vault and is the only other person who does. It doesn’t work. She tries again, and this time the door opens. “When we got Mr. Stofen out,” the janitor told the Sonoma Democrat, “he looked pale and much prostrated. The meeting between Mr. and Mrs. Stofen was one of the most painful things I ever saw in all my life.”
It was decided that the robber got away with $8400.79 total – over a quarter-million dollars today. Of that $7,815.79 belonged to the treasury; also taken was $585 of Stofen’s own money and non-treasury accounts, such as unclaimed funds collected on behalf of estates.
Stofen and the sheriff formed a theory that the robber had been in the courthouse for hours, maybe overnight. Between the treasurer’s office and the sheriff’s there was a closet-sized gap, as each office had its own lockable door. The space was used only for light storage. There was also the question of the three push-button alarms in the treasurer’s office; it was discovered a corner of the carpet was ripped up near that little passageway and the wires connecting it to the sheriff had been cut.
Stofen was all but useless in providing a description of the robber. In the few seconds before he was clubbed or fainted, he fixated on the knife blade with its sharp edge. “The closest description I can give of him is that he was a large man, had chin whiskers and had no shoes on his feet.”
Assorted suspicious characters were recalled. Assistant DA Leppo saw “a German looking man” walking up steps inside the courthouse turn around when he seemed to notice he was being observed. Two men were reported driving away quickly in a buggy. Another German-ish stranger matching the vague description was supposedly hanging out around the train station before dawn. Given that seven hours had passed since Stofen was locked in the vault the sheriff assumed the robber(s) were far away, and sent out telegrams to be on the lookout.
The robbery also caused legal problems for Stofen. County officers were held personally liable for any funds found missing during their term in office; Stofen and other candidates had to show they were bonded for significant losses. As a member of Santa Rosa’s monied elite, his bondsmen were five of the top bankers and investors in town.1
A petition began circulating which asked the legislature to make up for the loss but nothing came of it. In mid-March – ten weeks after the robbery – the Board of Supervisors filed a lawsuit against Stofen and the bondsmen for the recovery of $7,815.79.
At the first hearing for that case it was revealed the defense would argue Stofen and the bondsmen were not liable because it had been a robbery. California law was unclear if that was a valid defense – in fact, a similar case was then waiting to be heard by the state Supreme Court which involved the robbery of the Healdsburg treasurer a year earlier. (In that theft everything was stolen except for some petty cash, leaving the town so flat broke it had to release prisoners because the jailer could no longer afford to feed them.)2
It took the Supreme Court months to decide, but in the summer of 1896 they ruled that yes, robbery is a valid defense – but it must be proven that a robbery indeed took place.
By that time there was growing suspicion that Stofen was either an accomplice to the theft or had made up the robbery story to cover up embezzlement.
The Daily/Sonoma Democrat was firmly in Stofen’s corner from the beginning. A few days after he was found in the vault the paper offered a long item praising his good character: “The boon of a good name was never more fully shown than in the case of County Treasurer Stofen. No man in this city who knows the treasurer, for a moment doubts his thorough honesty…” The Democrat went so far as to downplay or ignore new details that contradicted his story; fortunately all of the major San Francisco papers were interested in the case and had stringers reporting from here.
Light-fingered treasurers were surprisingly common; in 1857 the Sonoma County Treasurer was convicted of stealing state money, county money, and county school funds, a perfect trifecta of embezzlement. Crooked treasurers also had a habit of making up dime novel-type stories about stickups to hide their crime. The San Francisco Chronicle remarked, “in nearly every instance investigation of detectives has shown that the robbery was mythical.”
Several aspects of Stofen’s story didn’t jibe. He kept adding more details; although he first said he only noticed the robber’s whiskers and lack of shoes, a year later he described him as about six feet, stout and wearing a pistol on his hip. Except for a “slight swelling” on his head he was uninjured, casting doubt on whether he had been knocked out. And then there was the matter of trying to get help.
He said initially he had “pounded on the door,” but experiments were made with someone locked in the vault and hitting the door; the noise could be easily heard on that floor of the courthouse. Attorney Frances McG. Martin was in her nearby office that day and heard nothing, nor did the deputy sheriff on duty next door.
The Grand Jury looked at the noise question and passed an inconclusive resolution that it could have been either a “real or pretended robbery.” When the lawsuit hearings resumed, most of the testimony centered on whether door pounding could be heard in the corridor just a few feet away.
In Dec. 1896 – almost two years after the incident – Judge Dougherty ruled in favor of the county. Stofen had not proven that a robbery had taken place, as the only evidence that it really happened was his word.
Stofen and the bond boys requested a jury trial, citing the usual sorts of legal hairsplitting. While that was being considered, there was a sensational twist: A witness came forward to say he saw the likely robber leaving the treasurer’s office.
George Peery, who was taking his brother’s place as courthouse engineer that day, claimed a stranger with a big satchel came out of the treasurer’s office. (If the stolen money was mainly $20 gold pieces, the haul would have weighed around 30 pounds.) In his statement he described the man as rather small and wearing a light overcoat. Peery claimed he asked if the treasurer was in his office and the stranger said he was.
Asked why he had waited over two years before coming forward, Peery said he did not want to get involved, but claimed at the time he had spoken about it to his late wife and a friend in Santa Cruz. Peery’s affidavit was added to the bundle of documents filed with the court asking for a new trial. It’s unknown whether anyone realized at the time that Peery was a crazy drunk who made up stuff. He would spend much of the next five years in an asylum.3
In August 1897 Judge Dougherty denied the motion for a new trial, saying nothing had changed since his original decision. “No person but Stofen knows what the truth about the matter is. No other person can say that he was robbed or was not robbed. If he was robbed it is his misfortune.” An appeal was made to the state Supreme Court, and in 1899 they affirmed Dougherty’s decision.
With about $12k now due thanks to four and a half years’ interest, the bondsmen made a deal to settle with the county for $8,089.24. Under the civil code they could sue Stofen for repayment, and one of them did. He signed over the deed to his house on Third street, although the family had been living in San Francisco for at least three years.
The Stofen robbery – um, the alleged Stofen robbery – is an intriguing little whodunnit.
(RIGHT: Peter N. Stofen, detail from photo of 1900 family picnic. Image: Sonoma County Library)
At the time of the robbery Peter Stofen had been the county treasurer for six years, but it probably wasn’t because he needed the paycheck. He was called “Captain Stofen” because he and his brother famously owned steamers and schooners running to San Francisco from Petaluma and Sonoma; there is spot on Sonoma Creek still called Stofen’s Landing. He had owned houses on Second and Third street, a ranch around Schellville (where he died), and spent his last years in San Francisco while traveling frequently. In short: He didn’t appear to need the missing money, and even losing the Third street house – which likely had a value around $1,200-$1,500 – would not have caused serious financial harm.
There’s no question his story was shaky and the court and Grand Jury were right to focus on proving he had not “pounded” on the vault door to draw attention. And even if they thought in 1897 that Peery was a credible witness, his account of the mysterious stranger with the satchel wasn’t proof of anything.
But as a graduate of ACU/Wingback (Agatha Christie University, Armchair campus), I find two other details stand out as suspicious – yet were not mentioned in any coverage of the case.
The incident occurred when there were just four business days remaining in his term in office. If Stofen knew there was a shortage – intentional or no – it would soon be discovered by the incoming treasurer. If he had embezzled the money, the imminent handover would have been a motive to fake the robbery.
There was also the curious bit about $585 of his own money being stolen as well. Why did he keep so much personal cash around the office? That was the equivalent to a full year’s pay for most skilled workers at the time.
One possibility is that the $585 wasn’t there at all – it was a fib to make the robbery look more real by giving him the chance to say, “hey, I lost money as well” (h/t to Ray Owen for suggesting this).
Another theory is that Stofen had some private business on the side that required ready access to cash. Two that come to mind are loansharking or gambling – the latter either by placing large bets himself or acting as the bank for bookies. This was turn-of-the-century Santa Rosa, remember, and the town had a sizable underground economy centered around gambling and prostitution, as has been hashed over here many times. And 1894 was a major year for sporting events; besides lots of horse racing, the craze for competition bicycle racing was catching fire. So in this scenario perhaps there really was a robbery by one of his clients, but Stofen couldn’t reveal who did it without risk of exposing his own crime.
Peter N. Stofen died in 1910 and is buried at the Mountain Cemetery in Sonoma. None of the money was ever recovered and no one was ever identified as a suspect. None of his obituaries mentioned the robbery, only that he was a well-respected member in the community.
1 Peter Stofen’s bondsmen were Matt Doyle, A. P. Overton, Con Shea, J. H. Brush and Hollis Hitchcock.
2 In October 1893, the Healdsburg city marshal discovered the iron doors of the city treasury open but Treasurer George V. Mulligan could not be found. Much of the town joined the search party that found him handcuffed to a manzanita tree in the park next to the cemetery, but otherwise uninjured. Mulligan said he had been jumped by two men with pistols who forced him to open the safe. According to the San Francisco newspapers the town was divided between those who thought he was scrupulously honest and those who believed he was an accomplice. Strong circumstantial evidence suggested one of the two men who found him shackled to the tree was involved in the robbery. Mulligan died five months later with stomach cancer and the missing $3,560 was never recovered. After his death the Superior Court ruled his estate and the bondsmen were liable for the loss, as the robbery could not be proven. A lawsuit followed where a jury ruled for the city. The bondsmen settled in 1897 and agreed to pay $4.6k.
3 George E. Peery – a sometimes insurance agent, schoolteacher and reporter – was first committed to the Mendocino State Hospital in Ukiah by Judge Dougherty in 1898. He was diagnosed as having “alcoholic insanity” and addiction to narcotics. During his hospital stays of 1898-1899 and 1901-1902 notes on his records state he had delusions of grandiosity, spoke with imaginary persons, and was called in 1902 a “mental wreck.”
THE COIN ROBBERY. Treasurer Stofen Interviewed at His Home. He Offers a Reward for the Arrest and Conviction ot the Robber. Attorney Leppo Saw a Suspicious Stranger in the Courthouse — Janitor Hassett’s Story.
Captain Stofen was seen by a Democrat representative on Saturday morning at 11:30 a. m., and lying in his bed told again the now oft-told story of his terrible experience, which was in substance as already stated.
As to the looks of the villain, the Captain has not the slightest recollection. His attention was directed to the knife, which he says was a double-edged dirk with a blade probably six or seven inches in length, held in the man’s right hand with the blade downward, ready to do its deadly work at the slightest movement of non-compliance. The captain does not remember putting the money on the floor, but says the glance he caught of the man’s clothes was that they were dark and that he was in his stocking feet. Then everything became blank. The Captain does not know whether he received a blow or fainted from the effects of the shock. His head had received a bump, but that might have been caused by his being pushed into the vault. He has no idea when he awoke, as he seems to have been only partially conscious for some time; but an intense coldness of his feet made him try to pull off his boots, which were wet with perspiration, as was also his whole body, and rub them as hard as he could; he seemed unable to get his blood to circulate. Then came the sound of voices and making as much noise as possible to attract their attention, he heard the combination click and recognized his wife’s voice, and when it missed and did not open he sank back utterly exhausted, but another try, which was more successful, brought the sunlight with wife and friends.
Treasurer Stofen is resting quietly and it is expected he will he able to go to his office in a few days.
In discussing the robbery with a number of citizens the general opinion is that the robbers had got such a good start after the deed was done that it would be a difficult matter to overtake them.
Sheriff Allen has telegraphed to all the chief points where the robbers might be headed off.
The following notice has been sent out offering a reward:
ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS REWARD.
The above sum will be paid for the arrest and conviction of the person or persons who assaulted County Treasurer P. N. Stofen and robbed the Treasurer’s office of Sonoma County, California, on Friday, December 28, 1894. Signed,
P. N. Stofen.
Dated Santa Rosa, Cal., Dec. 29, 1894.
While Mrs. Stofen was visiting at Cloverdale a friend invited her to go to Ukiah to spend Friday and at one time she had almost decided to go. Had she accepted the invitation her husband would have died, as no one else would have discovered the robbery and no one else knew the combination of the vault.
No clue has yet been found. There was a report on the street Saturday night that a man had been arrested on suspicion in Vallejo who had considerable coin on his person, but no confirmation of the report could be obtained from the officers here.
Assistant District Attorney Leppo told a Democrat reporter Saturday that he noticed a German looking man on the landing of the stair leading to his office, as he started to come down stairs. The man changed his mind, apparently, when he saw Mr. Leppo, for instead of continuing his ascent he turned and went down stairs again. His notions struck Mr. Leppo at the time as being rather peculiar, and he recalled the man and his actions as soon as he heard of the robbery later in the day.
Mr. Stofen had a number of friends to call upon him Saturday, but he is not in any condition to see many people.
Janitor Hassett says the night before the treasury robbery he left the building at 7 p. m. He returned at 2 o’clock the next morning to begin his work. He went in by the lower Fourth street entrance, going first into the sheriff’s office; cleaned it up, and was in there an hour. Leaving there he went to the surveyor’s and then to the district attorney’s office, then went into the third story; came down after 5 o’clock, and during this time he did not hear a sound or see anything out of the usual run. He remained in the building until 8 o’clock, then went to the hall of records, and returned to the courthouse at 7:30 o’clock. The janitor only cleans the treasurer’s office on Sunday, and so did not go into that office. Mr. Hassett thinks the robber got into the private office with a skeleton key. Mr. Hassett saw Captain Stofen’s mail and lunch at the door during the day but gave it no thought, as Mr. Stofen was in the habit of going away without saying anything about it. He did not know, nor did others, when the treasurer went to Sacramento and returned. The janitor opened the door and went in with Mrs. Stofen. “When we got Mr. Stofen out,” says Mr. Hassett, “he looked pale and much prostrated. The meeting between Mr. and Mrs. Stofen was one of the most painful things I ever saw in all my life.”
Treasurer Stofen was able to be at his office Monday. It is now known that the robber or robbers got away with $7,200 on Friday last. No definite clue has yet been found of the perpetrators. It is the opinion of some that the robbers are not fifty miles away from Santa Rosa. It is hoped they will be caught when perhaps some of the coin will be recovered.
– Sonoma Democrat, January 5 1895
A GOOD NAME.
The boon of a good name was never more fully shown than in the case of County Treasurer Stofen. No man in this city who knows the treasurer, for a moment doubts his thorough honesty. He is exact, punctual, economical and careful in his methods to an unusual degree. The misfortune which came upon him is in no way his fault. So fully is this recognised that at least three of his five bondsmen, Matt Doyle, Mr. Hitchcock and Con Shea have been heard to say since the robbery that sooner than see Mr. Stofen give up his home they would willingly draw their checks for $1,530 each, their share of the loss. No doubt his other bondsmen feel the same way. They all, so far as they have spoken, have the utmost confidence in Mr. Stofen. At the time this unfortunate occurrence took place the treasurer had nearly $200,000 in the banks at his command. The actual amount of cash in the safe in the office was, fortunately, on that day much below the average usually kept there. The expressions of confidence in the treasurer by Messrs. Doyle, Hitchcock and Shea must be extremely gratifying to Mr Stofen in this time of his great misfortune. It is only at such times that true friendship and good will can be shown. Of those who know Captain Stofen not one will pass him by on the other side. His friends here and in Sonoma, and everywhere he is known, have the most unlimited confidence in his integrity and the deepest sympathy for his misfortune.
– Sonoma Democrat, January 12 1895
…[Sheriff Sam Allen] wore a puzzled look yesterday when he was asked if there were yet any clews to the big robbery of the County Treasurer’s office, which occurred about a year ago.
“It is a mystery yet,” he said, “and as much a mystery as It was on December 28, 1894, when it was committed. I have employed different detectives and have followed all the clews, but all the work counts for nothing.
“It is as strange still as when the safe was unlocked and Captain Stofen, the County Treasurer, was taken out of the vault.
“I have gone over the entire field. It has cost considerable to investigate the matter, but that wouldn’t count for anything if we had caught the guilty persons. I am at a loss today to tell about it.
“The robbers got $8000. We followed a good many different clews, but we always came up against a stone wall.
“We didn’t discover anybody who was spending any unusual amount of money, and if the offenders are yet in the county they have always been too smart to spend the money. They are either staying there and laying low, or else have goi out of the county entirely. I do not know which.
– The San Francisco Call, December 28, 1895
…There have been doubts openly expressed whether there really was a robbery or not.
Of these doubts the Jury seem to have taken cognizance of for they made some experiments In regard to the doors locks ventilation and acoustic qualities of the vault, intended to test the probability of the account of his robbery which Mr Stofen gave. Just what conclusion if any the Jurors came to as the result of these experiments they failed to make known in their report. It would seem however that their belief in the reality of the robbery was not made complete by their use of the expression “alleged robbery.” Suit has beep begun for the shortage and the question of whether there really was a robbery or not may be made an issue in the trial.
– San Francisco Chronicle, February 16, 1896
…One of the Grand Jurymen was locked in the vault and his hammering on the walls could be heard on the second floor of the Courthouse. Stofen claimed that he was unable to make noise enough to attract the attention of passers-by in the passage within a few feet of him.
At our last session we passed the following resolutions: That having spent much time in the examination of witnesses in connection with the alleged robbery of the county treasury, and having heard the supplementary report of the expert on the accounts of ex-Treasurer Stofen, this Grand Jury hereby records its opinion that the accounts of ex-Treasurer Stofen are correct up to 1894, and we could find no explanation of the reported deficiency of nearly $8000, except a real or pretended robbery.
– Sonoma Democrat, February 22 1896
THE TREASURY CASE. Sonoma County vs P. N. Stofen and Bondsmen. Numerous Witnesses Called and the Case Submitted Without Argument.
The case of Sonoma County vs P. N. Stofen and bondsmen came up regularly in Department Two of the Superior Court Thursday.
The Supreme Court decided in the Mulligan case that robbery could be plead as a defense, and the Stofen case being a parallel one, that part of the case was eliminated from the present trial and the only point left to decide was whether it was robbery or not.
Captain Stofen was the first witness called and testified to the main facts of the robbery, also as to how his books were kept and the amount of money he had on hand on December 28, 1894, the day of the robbery.
Mrs. F. McG. Martin testified that she was in her office during the day of the robbery, but heard no unusual noises in the treasurer’s office.
Deputy Sheriff Brophy also testified to this.
Messrs. B. M. Spencer, W. T. Mears, Ben S. Wood Jr., James Hassett, L. E. Ricksecker, E. F. Woodward and W. V, Griffith were called as witnesses. They had all been present when experiments had been made with the vault in the treasurer’s office to test how far the sounds of pounding in the vault could be heard in different parts of the court house.
After the testimony was all in the case was submitted without argument.