Alfred Hitchcock made the wrong movie in Santa Rosa. Yes, Shadow of a Doubt is a great film, one of the greatest ever made, critics believe. While he chose Santa Rosa because it looked like an idyllic small American town, during filming here he must have heard about what had happened a couple of decades earlier – or at least, the condensed version still retold today. That gangsters gunned down some lawmen in cold blood, that vigilantes stormed the jail, that the bad men were lynched in an old cemetery.
But there was far more to the tale, and it had all the elements that Hitchcock loved to work into the plots of his thrillers. Once the wheels of the story were set in motion, there was no stopping what was about to happen. Guilt and innocence were sometimes ambiguous and people uninvolved with the crimes found themselves suddenly caught in situations where their lives were in peril. There was even a MacGuffin – a psychopath who was waving around a handgun so large he could barely hold it.
THERE WILL BE PRICES PAID
Series on the 1920 lynchings in Santa Rosa
This is the third chapter of the series, “THERE WILL BE PRICES PAID” about the 1920 Santa Rosa lynchings. And like Shadow of a Doubt, this part began as a smoke-puffing train pulled into the depot at Railroad Square.
It was soon after Thanksgiving when three men stepped off the train. They were all ex-cons – one of them had been out of prison only a few weeks – and they came to Santa Rosa to hide from the San Francisco police. The city had erupted in outrage that holiday weekend when it was revealed two women had been brutally assaulted and one of them gang raped by what the press called the “Howard Street Gang.” There was a police dragnet for anyone believed associated with the group and a list of suspects went out to authorities statewide shortly thereafter. All of these developments were explored in the previous chapter.
They were led here by Terrance Fitts. He was from Santa Rosa and visited here regularly – when he wasn’t behind bars. Just two weeks earlier he had returned home to learn his father had unexpectedly died, leaving him nothing in the will. But the family home on College Ave. would be vacant until the end of the year and had more than enough room for the three of them (see chapter one).
Of the three it would be a toss-up as to which of them had done more prison time – Terry Fitts or George Boyd. Both had criminal records marked by brutal robberies for very little gain. Boyd knocked a laborer unconscious just to go through his pockets for $18. Fitts nearly killed a 70 year-old man after he discovered the victim had no money on him. Prison boards declared Fitts was incorrigible and called Boyd an “all-around bad man.”
George Boyd was a complete mystery – we can’t be sure of his age, where he was from or even his real name. He served prison sentences under the aliases of Jack Slaven and George Barron. He variously claimed to be from Australia or from Seattle, where he provided an address for his mother on 23rd street (there is a 23rd AVENUE in Seattle). Then weeks after he was lynched, the warden of Folsom prison received a letter supposedly from a Mrs. Elizabeth Barron in Australia, asking about the whereabouts of her son. The Sonoma County Coroner replied by stating simply her son had died in Santa Rosa.1
The other gangster hiding here was Charles Valento; of the three he was the only one actively being sought by the San Francisco police. Misnamed as “Valenti” in early newspaper accounts, he was believed to be the owner or tenant of the Howard Street place – although the true connection was his brother-in-law, a real estate investor who owned the building and (supposedly) had no knowledge that it was a speakeasy and hangout for hoodlums.
Valento was likewise an ex-con but never charged with violent robberies like Boyd and Fitts. He was now 33 but in his teens he was a notorious San Francisco burglar, an agile second-story man known as “the porch climber” who robbed $30-40k in valuables over just a few months. After serving five years for grand larceny he had a clean record and the 1920 census taker recorded him as being a waterfront stevedore living with his brother’s family. When it came out that he was one of the men involved in the murders, much was made of him being in Santa Rosa a few weeks earlier when his San Francisco amateur baseball team played here.
And so began their languid gangster’s holiday in Santa Rosa. Fitts played host and tour guide; being a hometown boy he knew the place and the people. He also had fistfuls of money, probably for the first time in his miserable life. His father’s estate was worth about a half million dollars in today’s currency, and he was pressuring one or both of his sisters for a share. When he and Valento took a day trip to San Francisco he happened to meet the former physician of San Quentin, who remembered him; when asked about his current doings, Fitts told the doctor “he had fallen heir to some money and was getting along fine.”
It was early in their Santa Rosa stay when Fitts bought The Gun. Later the Press Democrat remarked, “Many witnesses have been found who have seen defendant Fitts with the monster .44 Smith & Wesson special…” The thing scared the willies out of everyone who saw it and it was likened to a “monster” more than once. It was over a foot long – about a half-inch larger than the “Dirty Harry” gun in the movies (see photo below).2 Besides Valento’s link to the Howard street building, it was Fitts’ reckless handling of this fearsome-looking weapon which drew the attention of law enforcement to their sorry group.
In one of his later confessions Boyd said he had been drinking all week and it’s a pretty safe bet they all were drunk most of the time. Accomplishing that was somewhat a challenge, being as it was the first year of Prohibition. During the days they hung out in Santa Rosa’s Italian neighborhood, particularly the Toscano Hotel at West Seventh and Adams streets (current location of Stark’s steakhouse).3 Besides offering a bocce ball court for sport, the Toscano had a bar which would have served “soft drinks” (wink, wink). In coming years that hotel and the Torino hotel at the other end of the block would be busted repeatedly for selling booze – the Torino bar was found to have a stash hidden behind a wall panel that opened and closed via an electric switch.
At night, however, the boys headed for Casassa’s place out on Guerneville Road. Domenico Casassa was 71 years old and the best known wine maker in the area at the time, aside from Kanaye Nagasawa. His original winery was destroyed in the catastrophic Woolen Mill fire of 1909, which threatened to take out much of the Italian district; afterwards he built the Torino hotel there, which was also his legal residence. (Long-time readers might remember the bizarre incident in 1906 when he was arrested for sending a box of dead robins to San Francisco, where authorities believed he was planning to have them cooked for a banquet – and was caught only because he tried to cheat on the shipping rate by labeling the contents as dried apples).
Casassa’s newer winery was six miles west of Santa Rosa, near Olivet Road. Wine production was shut down by Prohibition but he still had a substantial wine cellar which was supplying his speakeasy on the ranch. It had already drawn attention of the authorities, when he had been charged a few months earlier for selling wine to Indians.4 That trial was still pending while he was entertaining Fitts and the others.
It came out that Casassa was indirectly the source of Fitts’ money, as he was cashing hundreds of dollars in checks which presumably came from the sisters. Casassa told the Santa Rosa Republican he was helping Fitts because he had known the gangster since he was a boy and believed he had reformed. The old man also let Fitts crash at the ranch some nights when he was too drunk to go home.
One time he should have stayed overnight was Wednesday, December 1st. He called for a taxi and Lem Close arrived at Casassa’s. The driver later told the Press Democrat what happened next:
When Fitts got into the car he showed plainly that he had been drinking heavily. He placed a revolver to my head and said in Chicago they made the taxi drivers take them wherever they wanted to go, and not where the drivers liked. He asked me if I was game and I naturally replied that I was. He kept the gun at my head and told me to ’step on her.’ I did and took him to the Toscano hotel where I left him.
Whatever demons were sometimes whispering to Fitts were now screaming in his head and would not shut up. The PD continued by describing what happened the next morning:
|Fitts had called at a private residence Thursday morning where he went through the place and flourished his gun with threats that he was going to get the girl or her mother before he left.|
What to make of this? In a Hitchcock screenplay the woman would be one of his sisters and he would be trying to extort yet another check – except neither sister had children. Or since the family home was about to be transferred to the new owners in a few weeks it could have been a woman hired by the sisters to prepare for moving out family belongings. Whatever the story, Fitts went back to that house Friday night and tried to get in; failing that he eventually gave up and slept on the porch.
Meanwhile, taxi driver Lem Close had contacted Santa Rosa attorney William Cockrill and told him about his encounter with Fitts and the monster gun. On Saturday the lawyer called Sheriff Petray, asking him to come by his office on an urgent matter.
Cockrill told the sheriff something was deeply wrong with Terry Fitts and he should be considered “an extremely dangerous man”. Sheriff Petray passed this on to the Santa Rosa police, and “Chief of Police G. W. Matthews spent an hour or more Saturday night in the vicinity of the [Toscano] hotel, looking for Terry Fitts, who was reported to be running wild with a weapon, and it was feared he would do harm to some one unless he was detained.”
Sheriff Petray also contacted the San Francisco detectives who were working fulltime on tracking down gangsters involved with the Howard street speakeasy. Deputy Sheriff Marvin Robinson testified before the Grand Jury:5 “…we made arrangements with the detective from San Francisco to come up, we were pretty sure we had located some of this Howard Street Gang they were looking for, we had information they were friends of Fitts, and Terry Fitts was staying out here at Casassa’s…”
Sunday was lining up to be a pretty big day for Santa Rosa – every arrest connected to Howard street made the headlines in all the Bay Area papers. “I’m going to have a mighty good story for you tomorrow afternoon about 3 o’clock,” Petray told a Press Democrat reporter.
It was to be a mighty big story, but certainly not the one he expected. At the predicted time, Sheriff James A. Petray would be lying dead on a floor with a bullet in his head. A bullet from Terry Fitts’ gun.
|1 The Australian letter from Mrs. Elizabeth Barron was likely a ruse to discover the whereabouts of Boyd’s remains – see chapter eight.|
2 The gun was a Smith & Wesson “New Century 1st Model Hand Ejector .44 Special.” See this collector’s webpage for all you’ll ever need to know about this weapon and others like it.
|3 Prohibition had a devastating impact on Santa Rosa’s Italian hotels, which largely depended financially on serving dinners with wine. Some closed and others, such as Hotel La Rosa, converted to being a rooming house. Prior to the dry law the Toscano had been operated by the Guidotti family; after closing for a few months it was leased to a Guidotti in-law and Pietro Basignani, who were running it during the week when the gangsters were here. The Guidotti family resumed direct control in 1921.|
4 A 1908 county law made it illegal to sell alcohol to Indians, including anyone with as little as one-fourth Native American blood or someone who was associated with such a person.
5 Deputy Sheriff Robinson’s testimony to the Grand Jury contained several errors. He said Petray called the San Francisco detectives on Sunday when it had to have been the day earlier, that the bullets were purchased at Dan Behmer’s Gun Store although that business had been closed for a year, and so on. While these mistakes seem mostly trivial, it calls into doubt the complete accuracy of any testimony concerning events where he was not personally involved.