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THE ELIOT NESS OF SONOMA COUNTY

When the history of Prohibition in Sonoma County is written, one name will appear more than any other: John W. Pemberton, County Detective – the nemesis of bootleggers and rum-runners and the scourge of anyone with a blind pig or backroom speakeasy.

Technically the County Detective was the investigator for the District Attorney but “Jock” Pemberton was like our resident G-man, on hand whenever federal Prohibition Agents conducted local raids (in the photo above Pemberton is the man on the right next to the feds). He also was often alongside the sheriff or Santa Rosa police chief during harrowing moments while they were trying to apprehend the most dangerous criminals.

Yet the most important moment of his career happened after his retirement, when he gave crucial testimony showing the California Attorney General was so corrupt he was running a protection racket out of his office.

In 1926, the peak year of Prohibition here, Pemberton was appointed County Detective although he seemed an unlikely prospect for the job. He was 49 when he took the position, with no background in investigating crime; his only experience in law enforcement being a dozen years as Santa Rosa constable, ending in 1923. He had the gregarious personality of a salesman, which is what he was before and after being constable (real estate, then autos). Jock held high rank in both the Elks and Eagles; he and wife Maude were constantly mentioned in the society columns for attending or hosting parties and whatnot.

pembertonduck(RIGHT: Duck hunter in a three-piece suit. 1923 photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)

Not long after being hired, though, he showed his worth. A 27 year-old man named Jasper Parkins was found dead in his bedroom with a bullet wound to his right temple. The sheriff pegged it as an obvious suicide, even though the dead guy didn’t seem troubled and was about to take a walk along the railroad tracks with his brother and niece. Pemberton argued Parkins had his little target pistol in hand when he bent over to pick something up from the floor and bumped his elbow against the edge of the bed. The coroner’s jury ruled it an accidental death.

A few weeks later came the bust of the most famous bootlegging operation in county history. In March 1927 Pemberton led a raid on the old Kawana Springs resort where he and the sheriff’s department found the long-closed hotel had been retrofitted for a three-story copper still that produced 1,400 gallons of pure alcohol/day. The booze was then trucked to San Francisco and LA where it was processed and bottled as “genuine Gordon gin.”

And that wasn’t all. There were two other stills with 250/150 gallon daily capacity, all fed by mash held in seven 2,000 gallon tanks. The big still had a steam boiler weighing two tons; that and the smaller boilers for the auxillary stills were fueled by gravity-fed oil tanks. It was a massive – and ingenious – operation.

The Press Democrat reported, “Pemberton had had the place under surveillance for some time, and had spent several nights in the vicinity of the resort to make certain of its use before the raid was made.”

The only person arrested was a San Francisco steamfitter named George Darnell, who insisted he was only hired to dismantle the equipment (everything had been drained from the tanks and stills). And no, he didn’t know who had hired him. Darnell was held for a few days and released after paying a $500 fine.

Not resting on his laurels, the same week Pemberton arrested a farmer from Cloverdale hauling thirty gallons of “jackass brandy” – a day after busting bootlegger Joe Garayalde near Sebastopol with 800 gallons of “jack” and three stills.

And that set the pace for the following years. It was a rare week when readers of the PD didn’t see at least one story about Pemberton making a liquor arrest, and it was not infrequent for there to be two or three. Just as he once was a familiar name on the society backpages, he was now a regular on page one. As County Detective he investigated other crimes as well and judging from news coverage, Gentle Reader would be forgiven for mistaking him as being the top lawman in the area.

Pemberton had an uncanny knack for discovering hiding places. He found liquor hidden behind false walls in closets and in secret panels that popped open when a button or push latch was pressed. In one restaurant kitchen, a yank on a roller towel opened a cabinet with cases of whiskey.

He also used his nose to find stills, as fermenting mash has a strong, distinctive odor. In a barn near the Shiloh cemetery in Windsor he found one even larger than the monster at Kawana Springs, and this one was still operating (although not producing as much alcohol). Other places where it was hoped strong smells would mask the stink were chicken coops and old outhouses, sometimes further disguised with open buckets of sheep dip or creosote.

Most of the items about him and the sheriff busting up stills and arresting people aren’t so interesting – unless, of course, you knew the bootlegger, which would have been true for many people in small, rural Sonoma County. Here are a few vignettes from those years that appeared in the PD:

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Dolly Allen of El Verano is a fortune teller. But she failed to see far enough into the future to know that she was going to be raided last night…a party was in progress in Dolly’s place when County Detective John W. Pemberton and Deputy Sheriff W. A. Shulte burst in and seized wine, “jackass” and gin as evidence and confiscated three slot machines. Dolly said afterwards that she had had a “hunch” the raiders were coming, but, according to officers, she apparently didn’t believe enough in her own forecasting power to dump the evidence. (1927)
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“Readin’, ‘Ritin,’ ‘Rithmetic, Rum” – “pupils of a little rural school two miles east of Petaluma carried word to their parents that liquor was being made near the school, and that the odors crept through the windows during class hours, and that one might, if one was careful, sneak up to the windows, of the adjoining house and see forbidden juices dripping from the coil of a little still. County Detective John W. Pemberton and Deputy Sheriff Phil Varner, to whom the children’s tales eventually drifted investigated yesterday and found, they reported, a 50-gallon still, boiling merrily, and about 20 gallons of hard liquor…” (1928)
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Mrs. A. Garayalde, living on the Guerneville highway, yesterday came to the sheriff’s office here to claim an automobile truck picked up Wednesday when it was found abandoned on a roadside near Windsor, loaded with 390 gallons of wine. She asserted that the machine had been stolen from her garage and that she knew nothing about its wine cargo. (1929 – remember the Garayaldes from above, and Joe would be charged again for having a still in 1932)

(As far as I can tell, neither Pemberton nor District Attorney Carl Barnard were temperance zealots or had any moral objections to drinking. Their aggressive number of arrests, however, brought in a substantial amount of money to the county treasury. Fines generally were in the $100-500 range and in 1927, $100 was the equivalent of about $1,600 today.)

As the 1920s wained the adventures of Jock Pemberton began to look less thrilling. There were fewer busts of even middling-size bootlegging operations; what jackass stills he found were usually small and amateurish. Finding a stash of a few hundred gallons of ordinary wine in a farmer’s shed was now considered a big deal. By end of 1929 Pemberton was arresting drinkers caught with a jug (or even a pint) of moonshine and mainly searching the cars and homes of those he knew as repeat offenders, also busting hotel restaurant owners who likewise had been caught before.

His run as County Detective paused for about eight months in early 1931 as a new District Attorney took office and appointed someone else. In that time Pemberton opened a private detective agency out of his house at 435 (West) College Ave. After that D.A. died in a car crash the new prosecutor brought Pemberton back to his old job, where he resumed knocking over little stills and re-arresting The Usual Suspects over petty (but lucrative) quantities of wine or hootch.

The last hurrah of bootlegging here was the 1932 discovery of a 1,000 gallon rum still near Fulton. His final liquor bust was at the end of that year, when 70 year-old Emil Gerhman, a rancher near Healdsburg, was arrested after three five-gallon cans of jack were found in his cellar. He was fined $100.

Once FDR was elected president, Congress easily passed a bill to repeal the 18th Amendment. Pemberton was 55 when Prohibition officially ended in December 1933.

As tempting as it might be to view him as merely a local “Revenuer,” Pemberton packed a gun and acted like any member of law enforcement at the time. During the Prohibition years he and a deputy pumped four bullets into a car with two bootleggers fleeing the site of a still, shattering the rear window and nearly killing one of them. (The County Treasurer was surely grateful he missed.)

In February 1933 two brothers held up the gas station at the Santa Rosa Municipal Airport, getting away with all of $27.75. Knowing the pair were ex-cons who lived near Cloverdale, the police chief from there and Deputy Sheriff Harry Patteson joined Pemberton in his “heavy sedan” to search for them. The culprits were spotted in a car on a gravel road and Pemberton gave chase, the officers and the robbers locked in a running gunfight. After the suspect’s auto was hit by five bullets they ditched the car and ran into the brush, pursued by the three lawmen as the shooting continued on foot. After one of the brothers was killed the other surrendered, with Pemberton handling the arrest and taking him to county jail.

As Prohibition was winding down in 1933, the county decided to eliminate the County Detective position – but at the same time create a post for a deputy sheriff charged with criminal investigations. “It was generally understood that Pemberton would be transferred to the sheriff’s staff when his present position was wiped out,” reported the PD. In February 1935 he was appointed investigator for Sheriff Harry L. Patteson, who earlier as a deputy had been something of a partner to him during all those bootlegging arrests.

pembertonaxe(LEFT: Chief Deputy Melvin Flohr, James Charles and John Pemberton, left to right. Photo Santa Rosa Republican, March 17, 1936)

Pemberton was well suited for the investigations he made over the next few years, but it wasn’t exciting work. He found out who was passing bad checks, stealing cars and burglarizing houses; he looked into suicides and a couple cases of bigamy. He served warrants on suspects wanted for crimes elsewhere and often was the guard who transported them back to whence they came.

The most notable event in those years was when he obtained a full confession from James Charles, who had murdered his brother with an axe. (Pemberton got him to talk only by assuring the 28 year-old he wouldn’t be hanged.) An insanity trial was held a week later and after the jury deliberated for ten minutes, Charles was committed to the Mendocino State Hospital for the Insane. The reason for the killing, BTW, was that the brother didn’t come home on time that Sunday and Charles was very upset that dinner was late.

The last chapter in his career began in 1943, when he was rehired as a deputy sheriff. John and Maude had gone into semi-retirement four years earlier when there was a surprise election upset and Sheriff Patteson lost to a forest ranger. The Pembertons rented their Santa Rosa home and went to live at their ranch on route 128 near Kellogg, where they intended to start a large rabbit farm. Once Patteson was elected again they were back in Santa Rosa and life resumed as before. Sort of.

John was almost 65 and his dangerous days of running gun battles were over. Now he was mainly a court bailiff and sometimes a deputy jailer; he apparently took care of the Sheriff’s Office mascot, a black cat named “Black Bart” (yuk, yuk). He retired without fanfare in mid-1948, around the time he turned 70.

And here’s where his story gets really interesting.

Another of Pemberton’s duties in those final years was serving as an escort and driver for visiting law officers, so it wasn’t unusual when a special agent from the Attorney General’s office showed up on October 9, 1947. Agent Charles Hoy wanted a ride to specific places in Occidental and between Santa Rosa-Petaluma he had on a list. All (or nearly all?) were taverns.

After each stop, Hoy returned to the car with an armful of punchboards. Pemberton noted the agent seemed interested in nothing else but those things, so when he couldn’t find a place on the list and popped in to an inn to ask directions, he told the agent, “if it is punchboards you want, they got plenty of them in there.” Hoy replied, “I don’t want them.” Pemberton later said Hoy “showed no interest” in places not on his list. After they had hit all the locations, Hoy dropped the punchboards on Sheriff Patteson’s desk saying, “you can have them now,” and left.1


WHAT’S A PUNCHBOARD?

Punchboards were a common form of gambling in the first half of the 20th century, found in taverns, cigar stores, pool halls, even barbershops and lunch counters across America.

They were like primitive versions of today’s lottery scratchers; a colorful sheet – often with a cheesecake picture or sports theme – was glued on a piece of wood. Punchboards bought by Young had titles including: Big Hit, Win Er Bust, Nice Curves, High Bidder and Gold Bucket.

On each were many tiny holes stuffed with slips of paper. A gambler used a little stylus to punch through the top sheet and hopefully find a winning number. There were myriad variations; sometimes there were few holes but a higher cost to play, or a great many holes to punch very cheaply. But always the odds favored the owner of the board; on the example seen here, the chances of winning anything on a brand-new board was 1 in 50.

The “branding” described here was a crude way to establish a monopoly and says nothing about whether the punchboards were rigged by the manufacturer. Few (or even none) of the winning numbers might be on the punchboard, or they might be sold together with a key to which holes had winners so the gambler could pay extra for a tip as to where to punch.

In California punchboards were illegal “lottery devices” – but as in many states, using them was only a misdemeanor not rigorously enforced. Some owners tried to skirt the law by offering payouts in cigarettes, candy, glasses of beer or trinkets instead of cash.

Vintage punchboard, courtesy S. David O'Shea/Pinterest
Vintage punchboard, courtesy S. David O’Shea/Pinterest

What Pemberton and the sheriff didn’t realize at the time was they had witnessed part of a criminal conspiracy that reached to the top of the state Department of Justice.

Attorney General Fred N. Howser (the “N” stood for Napoleon!) entered office in 1947 vowing to keep organized crime out of California. More likely he wanted to keep other foxes out of his henhouse; he had a long history of corruption involving gaming interests. Knowing this, Governor Earl Warren set up the “Special Crime Study Commission on Organized Crime.” The final 1950 report has an entire chapter on the “state-wide plan for racket protection under the cloak of the Attorney General’s Office” which is quite jaw-dropping to read.2

Exactly a week before Pemberton was chauffeuring agent Hoy around Sonoma County, a man named Thompson Norman Young was making a deal in San Francisco to obtain a monopoly on punchboards up in the Marysville area. Later he would testify being told at that meeting they were part of a syndicate which gave Howser $50,000 in exchange for a virtual statewide monopoly on punchboards.

Young would also testify how the racket worked. After a dealer bought punchboards from the syndicate, they would be “branded” – meaning a serial number would be burned into the back of the board with an electric woodburning tool. This was for “protection;” should a local sheriff or police chief bust the dealer, the Attorney General wouldn’t prosecute. And as an extra incentive, a special agent from the A.G.’s office would first sweep through the territory confiscating all other punchboards so the dealer would have a monopoly. One of those former agents testified that indeed happened in Marysville, under orders from Howser’s chief enforcement officer.

Besides the cost of the punchboards, Young was told he would have to pay protection money on each. According to him, the sales pitch was, “…it costs you around a dollar and a half for the brand. That is around seven dollars; you can make forty dollars on a board. You can put five or six boards in each location. Each location should bring you a hundred or two hundred dollars a week.”3

After Young agreed to sign up, he drove the syndicate men to Sonoma County. Their destination was the Buckhorn saloon; besides being the first watering hole in Petaluma a thirsty driver encountered, it was where the punchboards were being branded. (The Buckhorn tavern is still there at 615 Petaluma Blvd South. Virtually unchanged since that time and with its walls covered in old photos, stop by for a taste of Petaluma’s colorful history you won’t find on a tour of the West Side’s elegant Victorian neighborhoods.)

All of this came out because Young turned informant on the syndicate after he contacted the Crime Commission, then became the first witness to testify to the Sonoma County Grand Jury in February, 1950. That ended up with indictments of four men on criminal conspiracy, including Mervyn McCoy, owner of the Buckhorn.

On the day of the indictments, Superior Court Judge Hilliard Comstock signed a search and seizure warrant on the Buckhorn, and the surprise raid netted five tons of branded punchboards from a backroom of the bar – so many the county had to rent a moving van to haul them away. They also found a large stash of “winnings” that could be given away to lucky gamblers, including watches, rings and novelty statuettes. “Among the latter was one of a shapely sea-island hula girl, with electrically operated hips,” the Press Democrat gamely reported.

What appears here only barely skims the surface of a complex and gripping crime story that dominated local news almost daily for five months in 1950. All credit to the PD for its excellent coverage of the case – they even printed every word of the Grand Jury transcript on the front page.4

The punchboard investigations and prosecution in Sonoma County also drew widespread statewide and national attention because Howser’s corruption had become household news. After popular muckraking broadcaster Drew Pearson revealed the Attorney General had taken a bribe, Howser sued him for $300,000 damages in libel (Howser would lose the suit).5

Howser also didn’t have the sense to keep his mouth shut and kept drawing attention to the upcoming trial in Sonoma County. He insisted the charges were trumped up and an attempt to “smear” him during an election year, running a full-page ad in the PD denouncing District Attorney McGoldrick for “foul political calumny.”

howserad(RIGHT: Political ad from Attorney General Fred Howser that appeared in the Press Democrat, March 30, 1950)

Nor did it escape attention that Howser was desperately trying to get one of his boys in to “interview” Young without any other witnesses present. D.A. McGoldrick responded by assigning a 24-hour guard for his star witness. Pause for a minute to let that sink in: The District Attorney in little Sonoma County is protecting a prosecution witness from being – bribed? threatened? harmed? – by the Attorney General of the state of California.

The trial lasted exactly a month, spanning June-July 1950. In the dock sat Merv McCoy of the Buckhorn, charged with being a punchboard distributor. Another distributor from Los Angeles was also there, along with an ex-LA cop who worked for him. The fourth defendant was the Chicago punchboard manufacturer who was supposedly the ringleader and the man who gave Howser the $50k bribe.

The prosecution’s case closely followed what had been heard earlier by the Grand Jury, including Pemberton’s testimony of driving agent Hoy around the county to confiscate punchboards at specific places. Items about his testimony appeared in papers across the state, although the UP newswire screwed up badly and implied he was working for the syndicate. “ExDeputy Sheriff Admits Picking Up Punchboards,” read the headline in the Fresno Bee.

The surprise witness was Thomas Judge, an undercover investigator for the Crime Commission who met with McCoy while posing as someone who wanted to get in on the branded punchboard racket. McCoy sold him some punchboards and allegedly said their operation was safe because Howser was “getting a cut out of the scheme.” When Judge scoffed that Howser was personally involved, McCoy told him Howser would send a letter on the Attorney General’s stationery to anyone he wanted – and that McCoy had indeed provided the name of a friend who received such a letter.

It seemed an open-and-shut case, particularly since the defense apparently had no strategy other than sowing confusion. Jurors were told District Attorney McGoldrick and Assistant District Attorney Dennis Keegan would be called as hostile witnesses (they weren’t). That Thomas Judge was completely drunk when he met with McCoy (he wasn’t). That Young was in cahoots with Drew Pearson, who had “nurtured” Young’s story (which the lawyers said he had completely made up). And there was an uproar when a defense lawyer tossed out an odd remark that a witness had a striking resemblance to Pearson, implying the famed journalist was testifying under a fake name.

And then it was verdict time: After debating five hours, the jury announced they were “hopelessly deadlocked,” 10-2 in favor of acquittal.

Comments by Judge Don Geary and D.A. McGoldrick both politely expressed shock at the decision. But the jury foreman told the PD that jurors “didn’t show much interest” in the testimony of either Young or Thomas Judge and “didn’t believe part of Young’s testimony.” In deliberation “very, very little of Judge’s testimony came up.”6

And so it was all over. Howser’s hopes to continue his corrupt career had actually ended a week before the trial began, when he came in a distant second in the Republican primary. His involvement in punchboard and slot machine rackets were part of the Senate hearings on organized crime the following year, but he was never indicted.

Pemberton lived another ten years. The PD ran a nice photo of Maude and John on their Sept. 20, 1953 golden wedding anniversary. His name occasionally appeared in the “this day in history” newspaper columns. Johnson Watson Marvin Pemberton died on June 23, 1961 and is buried in the Odd Fellows’ Cemetery.

 


1 Pemberton testimony to Grand Jury as reported in the Press Democrat, March 25, 1950
2 Howser shamelessly used his staff to support and coverup criminal activity. One outrageous example from the Commission report noted another of Howser’s agents was convicted of attempting to bribe the Mendocino County sheriff to allow slot machines in Ukiah. Before the trial Howser sent more than a dozen investigators there to dig up information helpful for his agent’s defense, evidence which was not shared with prosecutors.
3 Thompson Norman Young testimony to Grand Jury as reported in the Press Democrat, March 26, 1950
4 Only the testimony of ex-agent Charles Hoy was not made public for reasons unexplained, but his attorney commented to the press “he did what his superiors told him to do.”
5 Pearson had even more evidence against Howser which was not made public until decades later. See: “Howser Hit by Kefauver Committee, Loses Libel Action Against Drew Pearson
6 Press Democrat, July 12, 1950

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