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.
– Sonoma Democrat, October 3 1896