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There were 49 prisoners awaiting execution but only one was a woman. That woman was Iva Kroeger.

On May 1, 1963 she was sentenced to death for the murders of Mildred and Jay Arneson and sent to the California Institution for Women at Frontera (AKA Corona State Prison) to await a decision on her appeal to the California Supreme Court. And to the surprise of many, the justices ordered her sentence be reconsidered on a technicality.

The court agreed her trial was fair and did not dispute her first degree murder conviction. But when giving instructions to the jury during the penalty phase of the trial, the judge erred by telling them a sentence to life imprisonment would make Iva eligible for parole, so there was a chance – however microscopic – she could be back on the streets in as little as seven years. Iva soon found herself headed back to San Francisco for a new (partial) trial.

But first: More medical reports – and guess what? The new experts contradicted all the previous experts!

Doctors at the state prison declared Iva had “chronic brain syndrome and central nervous system syphilis.” Her history of syphilis came up during the trial. A quarter-century earlier she was treated at a hospital and the medic at the San Francisco jail infirmary thought she had signs of paresis, which is a kind of chronic brain inflammation often found in late neurosyphilis. A doctor at the trial testified he didn’t believe it because she didn’t display the typical symptoms: “I won’t mention them unless you make me,” he said, “because she might have them tomorrow if I do.”

Iva was also seen by two new court-ordered psychiatrists. The three who had examined her before the trial said in court she was a “pathological liar” and a criminal sociopath putting on a show in hopes of avoiding punishment. The new crop of experts diagnosed her as fully psychotic.

Now certifiably physically and psychologically impaired, Iva was once again before Judge Neubarth, who had sentenced her to death almost exactly a year prior. This time she had two lawyers, one of them being famed litigator Melvin Belli whose law firm had also represented her in the damage suit over the injury that caused her incurable limp, which seemed to come and go.

Neubarth and the prosecutor had already agreed it would be a bench trial, as she was such a “mental defect” it would be inhumane to risk a new jury condemning her to death because such a verdict would be easily overturned on appeal. With no objections from her lawyers, Judge Neubarth reduced her sentence to life without parole. “When I say life, I mean life,” Neubarth stated. “She should never be returned to society. I am going to file a special report in which I will urge that she never be released.”

The hearing was over in 25 minutes and the shortened proceedings deprived Iva of a stage where she could perform for her fan club in the gallery. Still, she “…trundled into court in a wheelchair with her left leg bandaged heavily (apparently her own idea and not that of Corona physicians),” according to the San Francisco Examiner.

Afterwards she spoke with reporters in the hallway. “I never had a trial…I don’t believe the judge knowed the truth. I have 108 witnesses to prove my innocence.”

(Curiously, the Press Democrat didn’t have Bony Saludes or any other reporter at the hearing, choosing to print only a 150-word wire service brief which appeared in many other papers.)


Iva and Ralph Kroeger were tried together for the Arneson murders, shared the same lawyer and both received a death penalty, but their trial judge rejected the jury’s decision and commuted his sentence to life imprisonment. The couple also filed their appeals to the California Supreme Court together – although the reasons asking for a mistrial were quite different.

Iva’s appeal had eight arguments that a white shoe lawyer might call desperatis precibus – let’s throw everything against the wall and see if anything sticks. Some of them were that she was forced to testify against herself, she didn’t have her own attorney, Ralph testified although he was her spouse and she deserved a sanity hearing even though the experts said she was not crazy. Most of these pleas were rejected because she had not brought them up as objections during the trial.

Ralph’s appeal had a single point: He should have had a separate trial. As summed up by the Supreme Court, he argued “…it is reasonable to believe he would have received a different verdict had the case been tried in the usual tranquil atmosphere of the courtroom, but that Iva’s misconduct during the trial so inflamed the jury that it returned its verdict against him out of passion and bias.” Again the high court tossed the argument because there weren’t earlier objections.

No one considered Ralph had any role in planning or committing the murders, and two of the newspaper reporters who covered the entire trial expected him to be acquitted. But he did tell deliberate lies in court and during questioning. Some of his statements and actions were likely to appease his volatile wife (see “The Hapless Husband” section in chapter two) but others point to him covering up crimes or suggest he knew more than he was willing to admit. Some examples:

*   In the summer of 1962 he claimed not to know the whereabouts of Iva, which he told authorities probably meant she was dead. In truth she was apparently hiding at the San Francisco house until she left on her cross-country bus trip in late June. Similarly Ralph said he never knew about or saw her two grandsons, even though a neighbor viewed Iva and Ralph with the kids through a window in August.

*   He said he believed Iva when she told him she was managing the Santa Rosa motel for a physician who bought it from Mildred Arneson in February, 1962. The prosecutor confronted Ralph for having said the mysterious doctor was paying for motel equipment two months before his supposed involvement.

*   Ralph denied cosigning bank loans from the Santa Rosa branch of Bank of America and the Exchange Bank. Handwriting experts testified it was indeed his signature under the name “Ralph Long,” the alias he and Iva used in Santa Rosa.

*   He never noticed the two crude concrete patches in his garage/basement, he insisted. Yet when the cement contractor came to pour a new floor and “picked up a sledgehammer and began to break some of the old cement,” stated the Supreme Court case overview, “The Kroegers angrily stopped him and said they did not want the concrete broken.”

So Iva went back to prison where she was supposed to stay until she died. Not that she minded it much; also in her hallway interview she said, “…I’ll be happy when I go back [to Corona] because they treat people like human beings down there.” In that era it was described as being like a college campus and the cell blocks like dormitories. It’s not hard to find interviews with prisoners insisting that no, it wasn’t all lollipops and puppies and yes, taxpayers should be assured they were being adequately punished.

A 1966 profile quoted the superintendent as saying she “looks very well.” Iva was being her usual sociable self according to the Oakland Tribune, “acting as a runner for the other sixty inmates in her cottage, carrying notes or going on errands.” Ralph wrote to her weekly and tapped his small pension to send her pin money to get cosmetics and such at the prison canteen. Later that year Ralph died of cancer at Folsom State Prison; he is buried at the Lakeside Memorial Lawn Cemetery in Folsom.

The article didn’t mention Iva’s trademark limp, but the superintendent said she was using crutches. She also told the paper that Iva was going blind. “She can’t see from one eye at all. We’re getting her started learning Braille.”

Gentle Reader may recall Iva had a permanently blown out left pupil (a condition known as anisocoria) but neither eye reacted to light. There are several possible causes of the condition; most often it’s from some sort of traumatic brain injury. During her months in Santa Rosa Iva incessantly complained she had to have an operation to fix her gimpy leg, but immediately after being apprehended by the FBI she switched gears – now some sort of expensive eye surgery was needed to save her vision. Anisocoria does not cause blindness.

Time passed. Iva and her horrible deeds were still rehashed in tabloid crime magazines. When reporters and cops who worked on the case retired or died, new details or observations emerged from interviews and obits: “She had 97 different personae. She could be anything she wanted to be.” “Every day was something new. She turned out to be a class A psychopath.” “She even admitted in court, when her husband was sentenced with her, that she had done it all by herself. ‘I lowered them into the hole with wires,’ she screamed.” Were all of those things true? Yeah, maybe. Sure.

The San Francisco Examiner kept track of her for awhile, with little items noting her first parole hearing in 1972 and how she always sent a Christmas poem to Judge Neubarth and birthday greetings to prosecutor Frank Shaw. When Governor Pat Brown made an inspection tour she told him “I was convicted by the newspapers,” and he muttered something that encouraged her to start boasting she would “have a job in the Brown administration” once she got out of the joint.

But it was the Press Democrat and not the Examiner that turned up the real scoop. Gaye LeBaron made an idle query in 1977 to find out how the state might treat a geriatric psychopathic killer. She was surprised to hear “the strange, stumpy, gabby little woman” was paroled in August, 1975. She had served 12 years and three months.

She’s 56 now [Ed: she was actually 59] and totally blind, perhaps from the same disease that killed her husband. Her parole officer says she uses her middle name, Lucille, makes no trouble, “she’s just a bit of a nuisance.” She rides all over Riverside on the city buses with her white cane and likes to tell people how she “served 13 years for a crime she didn’t commit.” She’s going to college, taking sociology classes at UC Riverside and UCLA both, and writing a book about her life which ought to be some story. She has become an active Scientologist and holds much hope for the future…

LeBaron remarked the terms of Iva’s parole (supposedly) legally enjoined her from returning to Northern California, but news that “Grandma” Kroeger was loose still caused “some sweaty palms in town.” The widow of Herbert Willsmore, the tradesman Iva threatened to shoot, said he believed to his dying day he was going to be her next murder victim. The Forestville couple who held the actual mortgage on the Santa Rosa Ave. motel likewise feared she was going to come after them.

In a subsequent column Gaye explained she tried to find out why the parole board released Iva despite her lack of contrition for the gruesome crimes and Judge Neubarth’s plea to toss away the cell door key after locking her up forever. Alas, LeBaron was told details of those prison records were lost in a fire. All we know is the board’s decision was “based on her behavior while she was incarcerated.”

Yet it’s très facile to picture the scene at the parole hearing – after all, she had rehearsed for this performance all of her adult life. Iva walks in – sorry, LIMPS in – with her white cane, probably leaning on the arm of an officer. She is so darn sweet and lovable and has suffered such a difficult life the most hard-hearted member of the parole board wants to reach out to give her a big hug and promise everything will be better. She is the kindest kind of grandmother and arises each dewy morn with a prayer that she will find new ways to inspire everyone to be their better selves. If such a saint doesn’t deserve clemency, then who?

(RIGHT: Iva Kroeger shortly after her 1962 arrest in San Diego. Photo enhanced using HotPot AI)ivaflutter

The most interesting question to debate is how much her near total blindness weighed in the board’s decision. It surely was impossible for her to offend again (not that she would!) and releasing a severely handicapped prisoner would save the Dept. of Corrections more than a few bucks – Gov. Brown was warning there was a need for “public sacrifice” in 1975 because of a very tight budget, even as the California prison population was growing year over year. On the flip side, she had no close family to help care for her and might require even more support from the state once freed.1

As Gaye LeBaron revealed, it turned out Iva was able to get along just fine. After her column appeared the Examiner followed with more details in its own Iva update. Her parole officer told the paper she lived alone in a small apartment in Riverside with an income of $334/mo. from Social Security and disability. “She has extremely limited vision, but she has gone to the Braille Institute and reads Braille very well.” Nonetheless, she had a B+ average at UC/Riverside and was majoring in sociology. And, of course, “she maintains her innocence to everyone.”

The saga of Iva Kroeger might have ended with her continuing on that path for the remainder of her life – content to be out of jail with no worries of being destitute, which seemed to be her driving fear. Free to pursue her offbeat metaphysical beliefs and pestering strangers for attention by wailing about her unjust fate.

But there’s a final chapter to her story that’s on par with many of the other outrageous stunts she pulled. Only this time there was an underlying question about herself that dwarfed the actual crime: Was Iva actually blind – or even visually impaired at all? Had she fooled prison officials, doctors and even the Braille Institute, she was unquestionably one of the greatest confidence artists of all time.

She disappeared after her parole ended in the early 1980s. Her former parole agent told LeBaron she was then living in Long Beach and a religious group in Hawaii offered a permanent administrative job (clue #1 she might not be totally blind). But she instead reverted to her original scam which was impersonating a nurse. She traveled around the country by bus, picking up convalescent jobs.

On one of those bus rides she met a real nurse from San Diego named Edna Weitzel and claimed to be a wealthy landlord who needed a trustworthy assistant to help manage her extensive real estate portfolio. Edna agreed to work for her and they spent a couple of days together gambling in Las Vegas before Iva disappeared. At the time Edna was unaware Iva had swiped her credentials until months later when she was notified by police looking for Iva.2







By 1983 she was mainly working in Florida, where she had relatives. Gentle Reader might recall when Iva was on the lam in 1962 she visited her son who lived near Fort Meyers, taking his young sons back to California with her, where she promptly abandoned them. Whether by coincidence or no, her brother and his extended family also had a home in a different Ft. Meyers suburb. That two branches of her family happened to be near each other would later confuse investigators and newspapers who assumed they must be the same.3

A crisis began in July 1986 when the 18 month-old daughter of Iva’s nephew drowned in a swimming pool. Her father was co-owner of a grocery in Cape Coral and was at work on the day of the child’s death. The nephew and his family didn’t believe his long hours played a role in the accident but Iva took the notion the toddler wouldn’t have died had he been home. Specifically, she blamed his partner Andy Pitcher for scheduling her nephew to be at the store at the time.

And then the death threats began. Instead of her usual M.O. of using an alias, she started calling the Pitcher home and making sure they knew it was Iva Kroeger on the line. “I’m an old woman and I’ve already served 16 years [sic] and the only thing I haven’t decided is how I’m going to kill you.” She had nothing to lose and “if you don’t believe me, check the records. I’ve killed before,” she reportedly said, before describing exactly how she murdered the Arnesons.

Iva told the family she knew “who took the kids to and from day care” and even “where he sat at church.” Pitcher bought a gun and told the kids not to play outside. Their housekeeper took their youngest children, age four and six, to stay with someone on the other side of the state.

Those harassing calls went on for weeks until there was a knock on the door at 12:30 AM. Andy Pitcher opened the door to see an elderly woman. When she asked if Andy lived there, he knew it was Iva. He noticed she was carrying a plastic bag with what appeared to be the barrel of a handgun sticking out the top.

“Hey, you’ve got the wrong house,” he told her.

Incredibly, the bluff worked. Iva wandered away and began waking up neighbors, claiming to be an aunt trying to find Andy’s house. He immediately called the police.

“This lady’s Iva Kroeger and she’s here to kill me!” Pitcher told the policeman answering the call, just as Iva was returning to his house.

Iva – always the most adroit of liars when cornered – gave the officer a fake name, said she was from out of town and lost, trying to find her nephew. She didn’t know anything about this Andy Pitcher fellow or why he was saying bad things about her.

The rookie cop believed the sweet old lady completely. He didn’t look in her bag and gave her a lift to a downtown Holiday Inn. And true to form, she disappeared. That was the last contact law enforcement would ever have with the infamous Iva Kroeger.

It took several weeks for word to reach California that Iva had resurfaced and was again threatening to kill someone. Both the Examiner and Press Democrat refreshed reader’s memories of the 25 year old Iva murder saga, while Gaye LeBaron tied up a crucial loose end: “Police in Cape Coral, Fla., said yesterday there was nothing to indicate she had difficulty seeing when she went to the home of a man she had declared responsible for the death of her grandnephew [sic] and threatened him with a gun.”


We know about her Florida escapades thanks to Cape Coral police detective David Stadelman. After Pitcher’s complaint reached his desk, Stadelman tumbled down the Iva Kroeger rabbit hole, spending a month looking into the history of the killer grandma before seeking a warrant for felony aggravated assault.

Detective Stadelman was a thorough investigator, although delving into Iva-ology from Florida couldn’t have been easy in 1987, sans internet and the ability to read all the old newspaper coverage of her life and crimes. He presumably contacted the San Francisco police and likely the FBI and Sonoma County sheriff as well. He soaked up all he could from the Pitchers and the family of Iva’s nephew. He studied her diaries and mementos left behind when she fled. And one of the things he found revealed she had been back to Santa Rosa.

She may have been (supposedly) prohibited from returning to Northern California but that was just while on parole. So although there was no legal prohibition from her being here afterward, it raises the question why she would want to do so – it’s a strain to imagine she had any friends in the area dating back to her crime spree a couple of decades earlier. And how was she supporting herself? Was she working here in nursing homes under an alias, as she did elsewhere?

Let’s jump now to 1989, over two years since she was last seen in Florida. Charlie Raudebaugh, the San Francisco Chronicle reporter who had covered all of Iva’s 1963 murder trial was now retired and living in Oakmont. One February morning he was at Montgomery Village where “he spotted two women about 10 feet away, obviously killing time waiting for a shop to open,” as he said to Gaye LeBaron. Here’s what else he told her:

… One was tall and white haired, quite well dressed. He said he thought, “There’s a dignified-looking middle-aged lady taking her mother out,” and then he realized the “mother” was Iva Kroeger. “Her gestures were the same. She had the same gimp (Kroeger was lame). She moves her hands in an unmistakable scoop-like fashion.” He is absolutely certain it is the same woman who led police on a nationwide chase and made horrifying headlines so many years ago. She realized she was being watched and looked at Raudebaugh. “There was a light of recognition,” Charlie said. “Her gaze intensified and then she turned away”…The woman Raudebaugh saw Monday had no white cane.

As with the Press Democrat’s Bony Saludes, the trial was arguably the biggest and most memorable story of his career. Counting the court hearings before and after, Raudebaugh spent about three months within a few feet of Iva. Sure, he possibly could have mistaken someone else for her – goddesses know so many people did when she was a fugitive – but there were few who could be considered a more reliable witness to identify her. But again, why in the world would she be comfortable being back in Santa Rosa?

Whether or not he really spotted Iva here in 1989, she was then 71 years old and a woman with few options left. It’s impossible to imagine the family would have anything more to do with her. She probably couldn’t get anyone to hire her; even with a stolen or fake ID stating she was younger (and you just know she would have had one) she was a petite and frail-looking old lady who hardly seemed capable of the long hours and physical rigors of convalescent nursing. Perhaps that “dignified-looking middle-aged lady” was someone she conned into supporting her, at least for the moment.

Hard times were on the horizon. We know that in Oct. 1991 she was in contact with Social Security, probably to update records on where her checks should be sent. She was then living in Boston at the Pine St. Inn. It was a homeless shelter.

The charity had a “Women in Transition” program, funded by HUD and the Massachusetts welfare dept. where indigent women could stay up to two years until permanent housing could be found. Iva had reverted to using her birth name Lucille and had also reverted to using a white cane. A May 20, 1993 article in the Boston Globe mentioned her: “Lucille Kroeger, 69, and a Women in Transition guest, is blind and listens to tapes from the Perkins School for the Blind in her cheerfully-decorated room. She has written 418 poems, many at the inn.”

Shortly after that she was moved to St. Helena’s House, a 73 apartment building for the elderly owned by the Boston Archdiocese. Iva lived there the rest of her life.

Iva Lucille Kroeger died June 26, 2000 at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston, which was Harvard’s teaching hospital. She had cervical cancer but her cause of death was a heart attack. Her remains were cremated.

True to form, her death certificate contained multiple lies. She was 81 (not 77). She had taken a couple of years of college classes but had not completed two years towards a specific degree. She wasn’t a homemaker. She didn’t own a house. And her name was never legally Iva. In death as in life, she wrapped herself in fog.


1 A 1974 paper in Stanford Law Review stated paroled inmates in California were required to participate in a work or training furlough program on release. That article, however, was specifically about men and does not say what conditions were imposed on those who were disabled and/or elderly.

2 Curiously, no articles about the 1986 incidents can be found in any Florida newspapers currently online. Besides the Press Democrat items cited below, the main source of information came from the Feb. 15 1987 San Francisco Examiner.

3 “The Florida police say she isn’t a Grandma at all, that the children she traveled with in 1962 and abandoned in Oakland weren’t her grandsons but her nephews. One of them may be the father of the drowned child which set her off on her latest rampage.” Gaye LeBaron, Feb. 18 1987




(Press Democrat articles related to this chapter only)




KROEGER RETRIAL TO START (May 13 1964, no byline)

IVA ESCAPES GAS CHAMBER (July 3 1964, no byline)

IVA KROEGER GOING BLIND IN PRISON (February 27 1966, Oakland Tribune reprint)

SR KILLER DIES IN PRISON (August 26 1966, no byline)

GAYE LEBARON (October 16 1977)

GAYE LEBARON (October 28 1977)

GAYE LEBARON (October 14 1984)

GAYE LEBARON (October 24 1984)

KILLER GRANDMA HUNTED IN FLORIDA (February 16 1987, Robert Digitale byline)

GAYE LEBARON (February 18 1987)

‘SWEET’ IVA KROEGER’S GRIM CAREER (February 22 1987, Bony Saludes byline)


GAYE LEBARON (March 2 1987)

GAYE LEBARON (February 15 1989)

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During the first days of 1970, the Press Democrat asked several of Santa Rosa’s movers ‘n’ shakers what changes they thought would come about in the new decade. The city manager believed the population would grow by 40 percent (it actually increased by two-thirds). The assistant city manager imagined they probably would get a computer and use it for payroll and other accounting tasks. And the city planning director predicted by 1980 they were going to wipe away an older section of the downtown core.

Say what?!?

It had been barely three months since the Oct. 1969 quakes hit Santa Rosa, causing moderate damage. Building inspector Ray Baker had said about 17 commercial buildings and 28 homes around town were in such bad shape they needed to be demolished, but most property owners were scrambling to arrange repairs. The city had just started talks with federal officials about designating the area west of B Street an urban renewal zone to pay for improvements, but nothing had been said about plans to “wipe away” that part of downtown. (Those developments were covered in the previous chapter, “MONEY FIRST, PLANS LATER.”)

Planning Director Ken Blackman continued: “By 1980, redevelopment will be viewed as a continuing effort by all major cities to combat deterioration and blight.” Ah, the “B Word” – the incantation that turned historic homes, neighborhoods and districts into cash dispensers. To quote myself from an earlier article:

…[In the 1960s] the nation was gripped by a collective madness called “urban renewal”. Anything new would be better than anything old simply because. There was also free federal money available as long as the magic words were spoken: “urban blight.” So cities across America declared large swathes of their communities were indeed filled with areas injurious to public welfare because of being unfit, unsafe, obsolete, deteriorating, underdeveloped (read: undertaxed), subject to flooding or otherwise terribly blighted. File your blight report and don’t forget to include the address where Washington can send the money.

Santa Rosa had already received $8 million for redevelopment east and south of Courthouse Square – the bank buildings and government offices still in use today. Now that the city was asking for a new tranche of redevelopment money, the earlier project began to be called Phase I, with the west of B St. area dubbed Phase II. There was also mention made of potential Phase III, IV and V later.

These two images (and only these) were used repeatedly by the Urban Renewal Agency and the Press Democrat to show urban blight in the Phase II area west of B St. It was never identified where the photos were taken or when
These two images (and only these) were used repeatedly by the Urban Renewal Agency and the Press Democrat to show urban blight in the Phase II area west of B St. It was never identified where the photos were taken or when

Thus the day came to pass when Santa Rosa’s mall-destined future was cast in stone: March 10, 1970. That’s when the City Council unanimously passed ordinance 1439, which declared “…the area is a blighted area and that it is detrimental and a menace to the safety, health, and welfare of the inhabitants and users thereof…”

It allowed for the city agency to condemn buildings and force the owners to sell the property via eminent domain. It stated that a program would aid those living in the area move to somewhere else “not generally less desirable.” It promised “due consideration” would be given to providing new parks and recreational facilities “with special consideration for the health, safety, and welfare of children residing in the general vicinity.”

By the time the new ordinance passed, the city had raised the total of buildings needing demolition to “more than 75” of the 89 found in just the Phase II area – all but ensuring Blackman’s vow made at the start of the year to “wipe away” that part of downtown. Yet still there were no plans at all of what to build in its place, aside from vague notions of “a community center, hotel-motel complex, major retail store with allied retail, a restaurant and a service station.” (See the layout shown at the end of the previous article.)

Some downtown buildings outside of Phase II were also condemned. The earliest demolitions began right after the first of the year and were the Wards Department Store at 411 Mendocino Ave. (now the parking lot adjacent to the Press Democrat building) and a building at the SW corner of Third and Santa Rosa Ave. The Roxy Theater at the NE corner of Fifth and B was also red-tagged although the place only had cosmetic exterior damage, along with some ceiling plaster falling. Politics may have played a role in the decision; there had been no end to the fuss after the theater switched to an “adult art” format in the summer of 1969, and the PD regularly printed letters penned by furiously offended citizens. After the quakes someone wrote the building’s damage was clearly a sign of god’s wrath.

Another quake casualty in the downtown core was the building east of Mac’s Deli on Fourth street. Although it was supposedly so badly damaged as to be unsafe, the structure proved remarkably difficult to tear down in January 1970. “It’s coming down slow,” the contractor told the Press Democrat, “it’s a tough building.” Since the property owner couldn’t afford the cost of demolition the city hired the company and added $12,000 to the owner’s tax bill (about $88k today). The City Council soon discovered this was a really bad idea; besides losing rental income, some landlords claimed the tax surcharge would make them go broke. The rule was changed so the city would buy a property and pay to have it cleared, then resell the vacant lot to an investor.

toymodelFor over a decade that building had been home to the Toy & Model Shop, and after it was condemned the store reopened quickly at the corner of Third and B. Recall at that time the risk of demolition was considered a rare and worst-case option; the toy sellers couldn’t know that just a few months later Santa Rosa would declare a swath of the city “blighted,” including their new address. The shop remained there until moving to Coddingtown in 1971, and was the only business displaced twice by the disaster.

“Where do we go?” Was a pressing question for every business located in Phase II after the City Council passed the 1970 ordinance declaring the area blighted. Despite Phase I redevelopment filling up a section of downtown with banks and government buildings, there was space available east of B street; a PD article before the earthquakes compared downtown to “swiss cheese” because there were so many vacant storefronts, some of which had been empty for years.

The 1973 document on the renewal project estimated there were 169 businesses, offices and whatnot that had already moved out of Phase II or would need to do so. About a third closed instead of relocating, so the property buyout and dislocation payment “acted as a windfall profit” in the view of the report written for the city.*

Many of those lost businesses had been around for years – sometimes decades – at the same location so it was probably insulting to frame their forced closure as if it were like winning a lottery scratcher. The report also discounted the hundreds of people living in the Phase II area; losing an apartment building with twelve units counted as a single business in the city’s view. Ditto the hotels, which had 203 permanent residents after the quakes. No mention was made of the private homes that would soon disappear under the bulldozers.


Places in the Phase II area that moved elsewhere in Santa Rosa (M) or did not reopen after the building was demolished (X)

433 Club (X)
Alec’s Sewing Center (X)
The Alibi Tavern (X)
Alice-Marie Shop (X)
Alpha-Redwood Welding Supplies (X)
Art’s This and That Shop (M)
Audio Spectrums (M)
B Street Coffee Shop (X)
J. Berger Furs (X)
Berkey Photo (X)
Bill’s Thrift Shop (X)
Bishop-Hansel Ford (M)
Bonanza 88-Cent Store (M)
The Brake Shop (X)
Brown’s Motorcycle Repair (M)
Bruner’s Frame Store (M)
Cal Barber Shop (X)
California Club (X)
California Hearing Aid (M)
California Hotel (X)
California Theater (X)
J. C. Campbell Dental Office (M)
Carl’s Salads Sandwiches Soups (X)
Carousel Color Corp. (X)
Charles Shoe Repair (X)
R.J. Chase Printing (X)
Church of the Pattern (X)
The Cinnabar (X)
Cipriano Book Store (M)
Cole’s Silver Shop (X)
Countryside Pet Shop (X)
County Bugle (M)
David’s Piano (M)
Deardorff Office Supply (M)
Dhanken’s (M)
Elite Linen (X)
Empire Electric (M)
Evans Market (X)
Fourth Street Flower Shop (X)
Frenchy’s Phillips 66 (X)
Garden Apartments (X – 12 tenants)
Garden Cafe (X)
Gardner Printing (M)
Haircutter’s Unlimited (M)
Hardisty’s (M)
Herald Printing (X)
Hodges Tires (X)
Holt’s Used Clothing (X)
Humane Society Thrift Shop (X)
J&J Billiards & Lunch Counter (X)
Jerry’s Bazaar (X)
Jobbers Electric (X)
Kasbah Cocktail Lounge (X)
Kurlander Printing (M)
Kurlander Tobacco (M)
Langwell Ceramics (X)
The Laton Shop (X)
Levin Hardware (M)
Al Lewis Trucking (M)
Lou’s Sporting Goods (X)
Lucky’s Richfield Gas Station (X)
Lueger’s Clock Shop (M)
Mac Martin (X)
Majestic Hotel (X)
Mansion Apartments (X – 18 tenants)
Mazatlan Restaurant (X)
Merchandise Sales and Loan (M)
Mohawk Rubber Stamp Co. (M)
The Money Tree (M)
Motor Brake and Wheel (X)
My Kitchen (X)
N&J Tire Recapping (X)
Nagel’s Mailing Service (X)
Nelligan Brothers Feed & Seed (X)
Occidental Hotel (X)
O.K. Barber Shop (M)
Oliver Hotel (X)
Ostarello’s Harvey-Davidson (X)
Paul’s Restaurant (X)
Fred Plante Electronics (M)
Powell’s Furniture (X)
Qualitone Photo Processing (X)
Ray’s Cafe (X)
Ryan Outdoor Advertising (M)
Saare Body Shop (M)
Salvation Army Thrift Store (M)
Sam’s Barber Shop (X)
Santa Rosa Auto Parts (M)
Santa Rosa Bearing (X)
Santa Rosa Book & Bible Store (M)
Santa Rosa Hotel (X)
Santa Rosa School of Ballet (X)
Savoy Hotel (X)
Schank Brothers Garage (M)
Sears (M)
Selby Barber Shop (X)
Shorty’s Beer Parlor (X)
The Silver Dollar tavern (X)
The Snack Shop (X)
Sonoma County Senior Activities Center (X)
Southern Style Bar-B-Que (X)
Strebel’s Garage (X)
Sue’s Thrift Shop (X)
Sunrise Sound (M)
Surprise Body Shop (X)
Sutcliffe’s Sporting Goods (M)
Swift’s Garage (M)
The Toggery (X – menswear)
Tom’s Used Furniture (X)
Third Street Apartments (X – 12 tenants)
Tomasco Drugs (M)
Tony’s Liquors (X)
Toy & Model Shop (M)
Traverso’s (M)
Trembley Auto Parts (M)
Western Union (M)
Wig Discount Center (X)
Wink Processing Company (M)

Not counted: 10 private homes on First, Second and A


This list attempts to name every business and residence in the Phase II urban renewal project area that existed in the years immediately prior to demolition. It includes everything which could be reasonably considered as being open to the public; omitted are warehouses, lodge halls and offices. Some businesses moved to another town or may have reopened in Santa Rosa under a different name. Primary sources were the Polk 1970 and 1972 street directories and issues of the Press Democrat from 1973-1974 that mentioned business relocations or SBA loan recipients. Any corrections or additions would be gratefully welcomed.

It’s also quite a slanted way of measuring the true impact. To get a better idea, I assembled a list of Phase II storefront businesses and living spaces that existed before the quakes and in the year following. My list and the official estimate nearly agree on permanent closures; the report said there were 69 and I found 75.

The big difference is the official count of 169 includes every warehouse, lodge hall and back office – but if you consider only places which were actually open to the public, the total was 118. This means the percentage of tax-paying businesses lost because of Phase II destruction was nearly twice as many than the city would admit (63% vs. 35%). And unmentioned in the report was that all those businesses had customers who would be seeking those goods and services elsewhere, maybe outside of Santa Rosa. So much for the hoopla of urban renewal being such a great boon to the local economy.

The Press Democrat was the loudest cheerleader for redevelopment so there was nary a discouraging word from businesses forced to move, aside from Elwin Hardisty’s remark that “it was a bitter pill to take” since they had remodeled their houseware store just a short time earlier. Fred Plante, who sold many local folks their first (reasonably decent) home stereo system, saw his business improve after moving to Mendocino Ave. He told the PD more women were coming in because he now had “a location that all my customers feel safe to visit.” Louis Traverso was reassured by his clientele “no matter where you decide to go, we’ll find you.”

The paper also glossed over the costs of setting up at a new location, which could be considerable. Passing mention was made of several stores applying for low-interest SBA (Small Business Administration) federal loans but only twice were figures mentioned: Plante went into debt for $83,000 to reopen and Hardisty’s loan was $189,000 – almost $1.3M today. Perhaps the reporter misunderstood and this was what Elwin actually meant by his “bitter pill” comment.

Phase II demolition began in early March, 1972. Slated for that first round were buildings on Fourth between A and B Streets, plus an apartment building and ten homes on First, Second and A St. Within days, a lawsuit was filed to stop the destruction.

The suit was filed on behalf of those living at the Occidental and Santa Rosa Hotels. An earlier survey had found there were 203 hotel residents with three out of four elderly or disabled, and that 1970 ordinance had assured them the city would find apartments comparable in quality and cost. A lawyer for the group told the PD those efforts were “completely inadequate” and resulted in tenants scrambling to find housing on their own. Rather than helping as promised, the city was instead trying to “temporarily” pack all of them into the Occidental because the Renewal Agency wanted to vacate the Santa Rosa Hotel. Not only that, the living situation was made worse because nearby restaurants, pharmacies, barber shops and other essential businesses were now boarded up and sidewalks were blocked off.

Six weeks later the group dropped the suit after the city convinced them it would fast track two senior citizen housing projects. One was the Salvation Army Tower, AKA Silvercrest Housing, at 1050 Third St. which had been rejected not long before. The other was Lamplighter Senior Citizens Inn on Range Avenue near Coddingtown (since 2014 it’s been the Parc Station Apartments). Newly built Bethlehem Tower on Tupper Street also promised to take in dozens of relocated tenants.

(Unrelated but interesting sidenote: At that same time another redevelopment project was ruffling feathers all over town – The Press Democrat reported there were plans to raze the McDonald mansion and build a “townhouse development of some kind.” The PD commented demolition was inevitable because “it is a dinosaur, unadaptable to the twentieth century marketplace.” The paper further endeared itself to history buffs by claiming “Mapleton was built in 1869 or ’77 or ’78, depending on the source.” As Gentle Reader knows well, Mableton was built in 1879.)

As the seniors watched their world being dismantled from hotel windows, Santa Rosa continued to rake in federal money, including another $1.5M for land acquisition and relocation. By Labor Day 1973 there were still over a hundred living at the Occidental. Some had been placed in Bethlehem Tower, some had enough income to rent a modest apartment somewhere. Some had died. Two years after that there were still 35 tenants and most went to Silvercrest. All told, it had been three and a half years since the seniors agreed to drop their lawsuit after the city promised to make good on the fundamental condition that it would find them new places to live.

The demolitions dragged on until 1978. Eminent domain was used (at least) six times to force a sale, including an apartment building on Third Street. Except for that original City Council meeting ‘way back in 1970 there had been no public hearings, and the legally required Environmental Impact Report was not prepared until two-thirds of the buildings had been already demolished.

The Cal was torn down over the course of several weeks in November 1977 (MORE). The Occidental Hotel – the oldest building in the project area and the last to be destroyed – fell on December 14 of that same year.

* Environmental Impact Report, Santa Rosa Center Renewal Project; URS Research Company, December 1973; Volume 1, page IV-3
Phase II area as seen in 1971 before the start of demolitions. Image courtesy Sonoma County Library (enhanced)
Phase II area as seen in 1971 before the start of demolitions. Image courtesy Sonoma County Library (enhanced)


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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.

1977 Santa Rosa redesign by Charles A. Rapp/EDAW Inc. Fourth street "semi-mall" shown in green
1977 Santa Rosa redesign by Charles A. Rapp/EDAW Inc. Fourth street “semi-mall” shown in green

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.

Joel DeSilva's 1988 design for downtown Fourth street, with footbridges over an artificial creek
Joel DeSilva’s 1988 design for downtown Fourth street, with footbridges over an artificial creek

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?

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