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FATEFUL KNOCK ON A COTTAGE DOOR

Once that door is opened, events will be set in motion that are impossible to stop. Three men will be dead or dying within minutes, another three hanging by their necks by the end of the week. The town’s cultivated image as the lovely City of the Roses will soon be shattered as the savagery of its citizens is revealed. It is about three o’clock in the afternoon of Sunday, December 5, 1920 in Santa Rosa as Sheriff Jim Petray raises his arm to knock on that door.


THERE WILL BE PRICES PAID
Series on the 1920 lynchings in Santa Rosa

BAD TO THE BONE
THE WOLVES OF THANKSGIVING
A FORESHADOW OF TERRIBLE DAYS
FATEFUL KNOCK ON A COTTAGE DOOR
MOB SIEGE OF THE JAIL
96 HOURS TO HANGTOWN
VENGEANCE FOR SUNNY JIM
CONSPIRACIES OF SILENCE
    HIDDEN GRAVES
    A WELL-ORDERED MILITIA

This is the fourth chapter in the series “THERE WILL BE PRICES PAID” about the 1920 lynching in Santa Rosa. As this part of the story began, the front pages of Bay Area newspapers had been filled for days about the police dragnet to track down members of the San Francisco “Howard Street Gang,” who had gang raped a woman on Thanksgiving and two other women a few weeks prior. Five suspects had been caught and arraigned with another twenty believed at large.

San Francisco Detective Lester Dorman and Detective Sergeant Miles Jackson were working fulltime on the pursuit of the gangsters, and the day before these events Sheriff Petray notified them that some of the wanted men were reportedly in Santa Rosa. It was agreed the officers would drive up with three of the victims expected to ID them.

The man they expected to find was Charles Valento, who they mistakenly believed was in charge of the Howard street speakeasy. They also believed they would nab Louis Lazarus, who had been in Santa Rosa for part of the week and may have left as recently as that Sunday morning. It was reported in the Examiner that one of the rape victims had recognized him via his mug photo. (It’s unclear whether he was identified before the Santa Rosa visit or if he was wanted only because he was known to be associated with the speakeasy.)

There were two others in our cast of characters you need to know: George Boyd (see previous chapter) and Dorothy Quinlan. Although it turned out she was innocent of any wrongdoing, she was first suspected of being a gang member herself. Had the mob succeeded in breaking into the jail Sunday night it’s not inconceivable she might have been lynched along with the men.

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After her capture, rumors flew that Dorothy Quinlan was part of the Howard Street Gang and tasked with procuring young women to come to their lair. She drew further suspicion when it became known she worked at the Hale Bros. department store in San Francisco, and the night she was in Santa Rosa it was robbed by a team of four safe-crackers who seemed very familiar with the store and the night watchman situation. While she was only a waitress at the store’s cafeteria, much was made in the press that her out-of-town trip seemed timed for someone wanting to create an alibi.

In truth she was Valento’s girlfriend, having known him for about a month. “He telephoned me that there was to be a party at the home of a friend of his in Santa Rosa and invited me to go. I thought he was all right,” she later told reporters. Part of her attraction was knowing he was a bootlegger. “I was a lonesome woman in a large city and I liked a good time. I was invited to a San Francisco resort where drinks were served and there met Valento,” she told the PD. “He made a fuss over me and I thought that he liked me.”

On that evening before the horrors began, all of our players were having a memorable Saturday night. Terry Fitts – the Santa Rosa hoodlum who brought the gangsters here – arranged a special dinner (its specialness undoubtedly meaning it included lots of illegal booze) to be served for Quinlan, Valento, Boyd and himself. Afterwards the four went to Casassa’s speakeasy on Guerneville Road where they drank and danced until 2AM. When the party returned to Santa Rosa, Dorothy and boyfriend Valento scooted over to the La Rosa hotel.

Elsewhere on that rainy and blustery night in Santa Rosa, Jim Petray and his deputies were at a banquet in honor of his close friend, State Senator Herb Slater. It was “a most happy gathering,” according to the PD.

All that was the quiet. Now comes the storm.

On Sunday morning Sheriff Petray welcomed the group from San Francisco.1 Besides Detectives Dorman and Jackson, Policewoman Kate O’Conner was the escort for the three women.

After Petray and everyone from San Francisco had a noontime Sunday dinner at a hotel restaurant, the sheriff and two deputies, the Santa Rosa police chief and the detectives set off on their hunt. As Terry Fitts and the others had no auto and were taking taxis everywhere it was well known where the gangsters were hanging out.

The first place they tried was Casassa’s ranch, where they learned the gangsters had been there until very late and there was now a woman with them. Back to Santa Rosa and its Italian district. On Adams street they searched the Torino hotel (which was owned by Casassa) and then the Toscano hotel, where Fitts and the others had that “special” dinner.

“While there a bystander asked the officer if they were looking for a ‘little black fellow'” who had just entered the house next to the hotel, the Press Democrat reported. It was first presumed this was a description of Louis Lazarus, but testimony at the Coroner’s Inquest revealed he was never there – the man spotted going in to the Guidotti home was Valento.2


THE SCENE OF THE CRIME

A galling mistake still told about these events is that the murders happened at the Guidotti place because the gangsters were staying there. Even if Pete and Jennie Guidotti wanted to harbor the criminals they had no room for guests – the tiny house (about 900 sq. ft.) only had two bedrooms, no bath, and their family included two children, the youngest barely three years old.

Pete Guidotti’s connection to Fitts is unknown, although everyone in Santa Rosa seemed to be familiar with the infamous hoodlum. The association was probably via the Toscano hotel (the current location of Stark’s Steakhouse) being the gang’s favorite hangout and next door to their home. Pete and his two brothers were the hotel’s proprietors until early 1920 when they leased it out, although it was still commonly known as “Guidotti’s Hotel”.

What Pete Guidotti did for a living at the time of the murders is unknown. He and/or Jennie might have been employees at the Toscano but it’s more likely his source of income involved bootlegging. A few months after the family retook control of the hotel in 1921, a Prohibition search found seven 10-gallon casks of hooch in the tank house. Several times in the following years Pete would be accused of serving alcohol and sometimes arrested.

Just before the lawmen settled on a plan for approaching the house where the suspects were, a family friend of the Guidotti’s innocently popped by for a Sunday afternoon visit. When the bullets began whizzing around it was by great good luck that Dan FitzGerald was not injured (some might remember his children who spent their lives here and died in the 1990s: Abraham Lincoln “Dink” FitzGerald and Vera Moors).

The Guidottis had never met Valento or Boyd but they knew Fitts, who pulled Pete Guidotti aside in the kitchen. The reason they were there, Fitts explained, was because he wanted to borrow a thousand dollars, which would be secured by a note endorsed by his relatives – presumably the sisters were no longer feeling so generous about splitting their inheritance with their crazy, no-account brother. “I said it was out of the question, so let it go,” Guidotti recalled telling Fitts.

And very shortly thereafter there was a knock on the front door.

The Guidotti home in 1920. Photo: Hamilton H. Dobbin collection, California State Library.
The Guidotti home in 1920. Photo: Hamilton H. Dobbin collection, California State Library.

The description here of the shootings is a composite from accounts given to reporters by FitzGerald and both Guidottis within the first hours of the murders. Great coverage appeared in the San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle but neither matched the excellent Dec. 6 reporting in the Press Democrat, transcribed below. Factual differences between the versions of what happened in those few minutes are trivial.

Pete Guidotti answered the door to see Petray and the two San Francisco detectives. “What do you want, Sheriff?” He asked.

“There are two boys in your house here that I want,” Jim Petray replied, with a disarming, easy laugh.

The law officers stepped into the small living room, where Boyd was reclining on a couch. FitzGerald and Valento came in from the kitchen and all the suspects except Boyd sat around a table with the lawmen, while Dorothy Quinlan and the Guidottis remained in the kitchen.

The cops didn’t know who FitzGerald or Boyd were, but the head detective and Fitts immediately recognized each other.

“I’m Miles Jackson.”

“I remember you,” said Fitts. “You sent me up for a jolt once and I was innocent.”

“No, you were not innocent,” replied Jackson. “You were sent to prison for breaking your parole.” (This was a 1914 incident where Fitts was part of a gang plotting to rob a jewelry store, and Jackson was shot and wounded by a gang member – see chapter six for more.)

Guidotti heard Petray (or Jackson?) arguing with Fitts and he stepped into the room to ask what was the matter.

“Just a little trouble,” Petray assured. Guidotti returned to the kitchen and heard raised voices again.

Detective Dorman stood and said to Valento: “Well, we want you to come along to the station [meaning the Sheriff’s Office and County Jail]. If the girls don’t identify you we’ll let you go.”

Sergeant Jackson added, “We’d better take the rest of them, too.” Valento and Fitts rose to go with the officers as Jackson went to the kitchen to summon the two deputies who had been stationed outside the backdoor.

George Boyd – who had remained silently lounging on the sofa as tensions in the room grew – swung to his feet. From underneath a pillow he drew Fitts’ 44 special Smith & Wesson “monster” and began firing as fast as he could pull the trigger and with uncanny accuracy, all the more remarkable because he would claim to be so drunk he didn’t know what he was doing.

Detective Dorman was hit, calling out to his partner as he fell, “Oh, Miles…”

Sheriff Petray, standing next to the Guidotti’s phonograph, was shot in the head and groin.

Jackson pulled his revolver and turned back from the kitchen. Boyd shot him as he stepped into the doorway. As he collapsed he fired twice. One bullet struck Boyd in the abdomen.

Deputy Robinson – waiting outside the backdoor – later testified at the Coroner’s Inquest,

All of a sudden we heard this disastrous shooting – eight shots very close together. We rushed to the door to get in and as we rushed to the door this blonde lady and Mrs. Guidotti, and she had a little girl by the arm, came out of the house hollering…Pete come running out. His wife had fallen down with the youngster. I told Pete ‘you better take care of your wife and get out of here.’

As the two deputies rushed in through the kitchen door, they ran into Fitts and Valento trying to escape. The other deputy handcuffed them together as Robinson entered the house. He found Boyd bent over in pain and repeating, “I haven’t done nothing. I haven’t done nothing.” The deputy hit him hard before locking on handcuffs.

Throughout this, Dan FitzGerald was paralyzed in fear. “Boyd looked at me pretty straight,” he told the PD, “and may have thought I came with the officers.”

Petray was face down. Deputy Robinson rolled him partially over and asked: “Are you done for, Jim?” The only sign of life was some hand motion and groaning. Robinson ordered FitzGerald: “Help me pack him out of here.”

They carried the Sheriff out to one of the police cars and someone raced him to the Mary Jesse hospital at the corner of Fifth and King streets. Jim Petray would die a few minutes after being hefted onto the operating table.

Detective Dorman was also taken there and survived a few hours, long enough for his wife to reach him from San Francisco. Miles Jackson died in the house, a bullet through both lungs.

Of the five shots fired by Boyd, four struck the law enforcement officers. The gun belonged to Fitts, but it was Valento who purchased the bullets at a Fourth street gun store a couple of days before – and he bought the soft-nosed kind that expands upon impact and causes the most terrible damage. Yet so powerful was that big gun all/most of the bullets passed through the bodies and were now embedded in Guidotti’s walls, ceiling and floor.

guidottiroom(RIGHT: “Santa Rosa’s Death Room” SF Call, December 7, 1920)

The three gangsters were taken to the County Jail. FitzGerald and Pete Guidotti were also held and questioned. Deputy Robinson found Dorothy at the train station crouching in a telephone booth and brought her in as well.

Word of the killings ripped through Santa Rosa and the Redwood Empire beyond – if someone wasn’t telephoning you about what happened, it was because you already knew and were on the line telling someone else. Even though there was only about an hour left before dark, a photo shows a crowd of men milling on the sidewalk outside the jail.

One soul who somehow didn’t hear about it immediately was Ransom Petray, Jim’s 16 year-old son. The family had moved into a house at the corner of Benton and Slater streets that October and Ransom was in the habit of going downtown at 5 o’clock to walk home with his father. “He was surprised to see the crowd and learned the sad news from those gathered there,” reported the PD. “He broke completely, and deputies led him to a private room.”

As the news continued to spread, more people in Santa Rosa headed downtown. Those living farther away drove towards here in their autos or jumped aboard the electric trolley.

Night fell and they kept on coming. And coming. And coming. And they did not stop.

 

1In some accounts the group arrived in Santa Rosa on Saturday night, but the presence of Petray and the deputies at the banquet along with the foul weather for driving make that very unlikely.
2As seen in his mug shot in the previous chapter, Valento had a Mediterranean complexion with both his parents being from Trieste; his nickname was “Spani,” being short for “Spanish.” The Republican referred to the 5’2″ Valento as a “diminutive black looking specimen of humanity.”

NEXT: MOB SIEGE OF THE JAIL

 

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“COLD BLOODED MURDER” EYE WITNESS DECLARES IN DESCRIBING TRAGEDY

Dan Fitz Gerald, who was in the room when the shooting occurred, gives a graphic description of the terrible affair.

“When the officers came in,” he said, “they began talking. We were all seated around the room, and when they ordered Boyd to stand up he started to obey, but as he got up he pulled his gun and, quick as a flash, began firing. He picked them out fast, and it was ‘pop, pop, pop,’ as quick as he could press the trigger. Then, as it seemed to me, he turned his gun on himself and shot himself through the stomach. Anyhow, when I looked at him he was toppling over and doubling up, and his pistol was in his hand and seemed to be pointed toward his stomach.”

“It was cold-blooded murder, and nothing else.”

“I helped the officers pick up the wounded men and carry them to the automobile, and also helped carry Jackson into the hospital.”

A fact tending to weaken the theory that Boyd turned his pistol upon himself is the finding of a bullet under the carpet in the dining room. The bullet came at an angle from the kitchen door, near where the slain officers were standing, gouged a small hole in the carpet, and lodged in the flooring but a few inches from where it first struck.

A complete search of the dining room failed to disclose evidence of another bullet fired in this direction, or the mark of a bullet in the walls of the room.

The room was not disarranged and shows no signs of any struggle or quick movements. Cut glass sitting on the table between the officers and the men was not disturbed.

But another bullet struck the dining room door leading to the kitchen and imbedded itself in the wall. The two bullet holes and a pool of blood on the carpel near where Sheriff Petray was said to have fallen were the only evidences of the terrible crime visible in the house.

SAYS JACKSON SHOT BOYD

“Jackson shot Boyd from the kitchen door, declared Guidotti to a Press Democrat representative, “and I saw him do it. I was out in the kitchen helping my wife with the dishes and I saw Jackson pull his gun and fire. Jackson was on the floor, and partly sitting up when he pulled his gun and fired. I think shot twice.”

“Fitts came in with two men, and said he wanted to talk to me about money. He asked me if I could [illegible microfilm] note for a thousand dollars and I said it was out of the question, so let it go.’ Then he said, ‘How about a little soup? I told him all right, to sit down and have some. They sat down and had a plate of soup, and it was only a little while after this that the officers came in.”

Guidotti’s statement that Detective Jackson fired the shot that “got” Boyd, is borne out by the direction taken by the bullet found beneath the carpet in the room in which the shooting occurred.

MRS GUIDOTTI INTERVIEWED

Mrs. Guidotti states that she did not know any of the men except Fitts. He came to the house, she said, just a few minutes before the arrival of the officers, accompanied by two strangers. Fitts requested the loan of a sum of money, which was refused.

There was a knock on the front door, she said, and Pete Guidotti went to the door and admitted the officers. They walked in and told the three men they wanted to see them. One of the men replied, according to Mrs. Guidotti. “Well, take us up town to the proper place. Let’s have no argument in this lady’s house.”

Mrs. Guidotti immediately went to the kitchen and picked up her small child. Just then she heard shots, and with the baby in her arms rushed frantically out of the house.

According to other witnesses, who were on the scene immediately after the tragedy. Sheriff Petray fell beside a phonograph, Jackson staggered into the kitchen and dropped. The three men made a break for the back door and were captured by Deputy Sheriffs Marvin Robinson and Robert Dickson.

FITZ GERALD FEARS THE GANG

Fitz Gerald, who is said to be an old friend of the Guidotti family and a frequent visitor at their home, dropped in only a few moments before the officers arrived. Fitts, Boyd and the others were already there. He expressed himself after the shooting as of the opinion that the San Francisco gang might try to make it appear that he had something to do with the raid. “Boyd looked at me pretty straight,” said Fitz Gerald, “and may have thought I came with the officers. If he had taken a shot at me, I would not have been greatly surprised, under the circumstances. I guess I am lucky to have escaped.”

VALENTO HERE THURSDAY

Dr. W. S. Stone, Northwestern Pacific physician, and surgeon at San Quentin for six years, says that Thursday he made a trip from Healdsburg to San Rafael, accompanied by his wife.

He says that at Santa Rosa Terry Fitts and Charles Valento boarded the train for San Francisco. Stone says that he spoke to Fitts and was introduced to Valento. The men said they were going to San Francisco but would return to Santa Rosa in the evening. Stone asked Fitts how he had been getting along since he left the penitentiary and, he says, Fitts replied that he had fallen heir to some money and was getting along fine.

Statements from all the arrested men were taken by District Attorney Geo. W. Hoyle. It is said that Fitts and Valento denied knowing anything about who did the shooting, saying there was so much smoke and confusion that they were more concerned about getting out of the way.

BOYD ADMITS SHOT

Boyd at first told a lurid tale of knowing who did the shooting and said that he could identify the man. He later is said to have admitted that he fired one shot at Sergeant Miles. Boyd said that he was intoxicated and did not know how the trouble started, according to Dr. Jackson Temple, Boyd is evidently a dope fiend, carrying many marks of the needle on his arms.

The gun with which the officers were killed was a 44 special Smith & Wesson, a long barreled weapon. According to officers, it has been identified as [illegible microfilm] to Fitts. Just how it came into the hands of Boyd will have to be explained.

Among the contents of Boyd’s suit case, which was secured by the officers and taken to the county jail, was a box of 44-calibre shells, with one round missing. The box originally contained fifty shells, and now contains but forty-four. The bullets are of the soft-nose variety and capable of doing great damage.

Sheriff Petray received information Saturday that members of the Howard street gang who had assaulted several girls in San Francisco recently were in hiding here or in this vicinity. He notified the San Francisco police, and made an appointment to meet representatives from the San Francisco department and three, of the girls who had been attacked. The officers arrived here Sunday morning in a police automobile.

The San Francisco party included Detective Sergeant Miles Jackson, Policewoman Katherine O’Connor, Detective Lester Dorman, who was chauffeur of the police automobile, and three of the girls who were victims of the gang, Jean Montgomery, who formerly lived at Petaluma, Pearl Hanley and Edna Fullmer.

After dinner Sheriff Petray led a raiding party composed of the two San Francisco officers, Deputy Sheriffs Robert Dickson and Marvin Robinson and Chief of Police George Matthews, on a hunt for the gangsters.

Petray and the detectives went first to the Torino hotel. The others went to the Cassasa place. At Cassasa’s they were told that the men described had left at 1 o’clock Sunday morning and had not been back. At the Toscano hotel they were informed that the men had been there, but had left.

FOUND AT GUIDOTTI’S

While there a bystander asked the officer if they were looking for a “little black fellow.” and stated that such a man had just gone into Pete Guidotti’s residence. adjoining the hotel.

Sheriff Petray and the detectives were informed and went to Guidotti’s door, while the deputies spread out, planning to surround the place. Guidotti talked with the officers, who entered the house, and found Terrance Fitts, Dan Fitz Gerald, Charles Valento, George Boyd, and a woman giving the name of Dorothy Quinlan and Mrs. Guidotti.

Robinson and Dickson walked around to the rear of the house while the conference was going on inside and had reached the rear door when they heard a number of shots fired in quick succession. Instantly the officers broke in the back door and faced Boyd, Fitts and Valento. With drawn revolvers the officers ordered hands up and Robinson clapped his irons on Boyd, while Dickson, assisted by Robinson, handcuffed Valento and Fitts together.

The sight Which met the deputies eyes almost paralyzed them. On the floor lay Sheriff Petray and the two detectives.

PETRAY UNCONSCIOUS

Deputy Robinson turned Petray partly on his side and asked: “Are you done for, Jim?”

The only response was a groan. So far as is known Petray never recovered consciousness. He was picked up by Robinson and Fitz Gerald and carried to a waiting automobile in which he was rushed to the Mary Jesse hospital. Dr. G. W. Mallory, who was at the hospital, said he was alive when placed on the operating table, but breathed his last after a few minutes, without speaking.

The two officers were picked up and rushed to the hospital in other machines. Jackson was dead when taken into the hospital, and Dorman was found to be critically wounded, a bullet having struck him in his right shoulder, and ranging across the breast and hitting the opposite bone and dropping downward. It was said about 1 o’clock by the attending physician that his condition was critical and the district attorney’s office was advised to secure a statement if they desired his testimony in the case.

DORMAN’S STATEMENT

Deputy District Attorney Ross Campbell and Harry A. Scott, one of the official court reporters, took down the statement as it was uttered.

George Boyd, who claims to be an engineer from Seattle, is charged by Dan Fitzgerald with having done the shooting. Jackson, after he was mortally wounded, is said to have fired a shot which entered Boyd’s right side and ranged into the liver. His injury is said by Dr. Jackson Temple, who attended him in the county jail, not to be serious.

Dan Fitz Gerald had been at the Guidotti home only for a short time when Valento entered, and is said by the officers not to be involved in any manner in the trouble. The same is said regarding Pete Guidotti, but both men went to the county jail, where they were detained and thoroughly questioned by District Attorney George W. Hoyle, who had their statements taken down in shorthand.

As the news spread through the city and the county, phone calls to the sheriff’s office and The Press Democrat came pouring in for particulars, and soon a great crowd had assembled around the county Jail eager to gain any bit of information possible. Relatives and friends of the dead sheriff were soon here from Healdsburg, and some strong talk was indulged in, but a number of deputy sheriffs and the local police were placed on guard and the sidewalks and porch cleared of all, and no one allowed to enter who did not have business in the office.

CONSTABLES SWORN IN

As soon us it was known that Sheriff Petray was dead Judge Seawell was summoned and advised that the deputies all be sworn in at once as deputy constables, and assisted Oscar Mathews in drawing appointments for the deputies as fast as they reported to the office, so as to provide a lawful police force for the county as the jurisdiction of all deputies die [sic] with the chief under the law.

Coroner F. H. Phillips reached Santa Rosa at 5 o’clock, and assumed temporary charge of the sheriff’s office upon the theory that in such case the coroner automatically becomes sheriff.

Superior Judge Emmet Seawell ruled that Phillips has power only to serve official papers. At the same time he conferred with Constable Mathews who had sworn in all former deputy sheriffs os constables, and John M. Boyes, deputy, and former Santa Rosa chief of police, was appointed as officer in charge of all constables for the night.

A meeting of the board of supervisors has been called for 10 o’clock this morning when the immediate appointment of a sheriff to conduct the office will be taken up.

WEAPONS LOCKED UP

Deputy Sheriff Robinson picked up four revolvers he found lying on the floor of the Guidotti dining room after he had handcuffed the prisoners and sent the wounded officers to the hospital. These were taken to the county jail with the prisoners and locked up in the vault for safe keeping, and as evidence later when required. Robinson examined the weapons in the presence of other deputies and the Press Democrat representative. One weapon, long barrelled, was found to have five empty shells, while another held two. The former is said to be that of Geo. Boyd by both Dan Fitz Gerald and Pete Guidotti, who declared Boyd drew a long-barrel weapon and fired the five slots as rapidly as be could pull the trigger. The other is said to be the weapon of Detective Jackson.

Chief of Police G. W. Matthews spent an hour or more Saturday night in the vicinity of tho Guidotti hotel, looking for Terry Fitts, who was reported to be running wild with a weapon, and it was feared he would do harm io some one unless he was detained.

NO PREMONITION

That Sheriff James A. Petray had no premonition of any trouble in rounding up members of tho Howard street gang here, still less of death and disaster, was indicated Saturday when he gave Press Democrat representatives confidential information that two or three members of the gang had been located here, and that they would be arrested Sunday afternoon.

“I’m going to have a mighty good story for you tomorrow afternoon about 3 o’clock,” he said to one reporter. But at 3 o’clock Sunday Jim Petray was dead, slain by one at the gangsters he sought in the performance of his duty.

HIS LAST DINNER WITH DEPUTIES

Mixed with the sadness of Petray’s office staff is their happiness in having gathered with him at a dinner party Saturday evening, arranged in honor of Senator Herbert Slater. All of the deputies gathered at the table with the sheriff and the guest of honor, who has long been a close friend of the slain officer. Assemblyman A. F. Stevens and Assemblyman-elect L. E. Fulwider, were also guests of honor for the occasion, which was a most happy gathering.

CLOSE MAKES CHARGE

L. A. Close, the taxi driver, had an exciting experience with Fitts Wednesday night when he was called to Casassa’s by phone for a passenger.

“When Fitts got into the car he showed plainly that he had been drinking heavily,” said Close, telling of his experience with the man. “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.”

Reports were made to the officers that 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. It was also reported that he went to the same house Friday night and when he could not gain an entrance laid down and went to sleep on the porch.

Captain Duncan Matheson of tho San Francisco office force, accompanied by Mrs. Lester Dorman, wife of the wounded officer, and the mother of the officer, arrived here with a party of friends on the late train from San Francisco, Sunday evening and hurried to the county jail, where the captain had a conference with H. M. Boyes, acting head of the office, after which he accompanied Mrs. Dorman and her friends to the Mary Jesse hospital, arriving there shortly before 9 o’clock.

DORMAN SUCCUMBS

When Captain Matheson was taken to the room of the wounded officer he greeted the officer encouragingly. Dorman appeared to rally slightly and recognize Matheson with a weak smile. When his wife stepped to his side he showed he recognized her, but was not able to speak so as to be heard. Within half an hour the end had come. Larry Jackson, a brother of Detective Jackson, was the first one from San Francisco to arrive at the county Jail after the shooting. He was completely broken up but bore up bravely, He was taken to the morgue as soon as possible where the body of his brother had been removed from the hospital.

When taken into the presence of the body he fell on his knees and wept like a child, repeatedly kissing the dead face, and crying out, “Oh, Brother, My Brother,” time and again as he continued to weep. Those who accompanied him wept silently in sympathy.

SON IS PROSTRATED

Ransome Petray, oldest son of the sheriff, came to the county jail Sunday afternoon about 5 o’clock to meet his father, something he frequently did since coming to Santa Rosa to reside. He was surprised to see the crowd and learned the sad news from those gathered there. He broke completely, and deputies led him to a private room.

Word was telephoned to Edward Petray of Healdsburg, brother of the Sheriff, and Frank Petray, another brother, came to town and visited the jail with a party of friends. Later they visited the morgue, where the body of their brother had been removed from the hospital.

MANY OFFICERS HERE

Ed Faught, chief of the Northwestern Pacific Railroad Police force, and Nick and Jahil Yeager, came to Santa Rosa from Sausalito on the night train and remained over night to see the prisoners, so as to be able to identify them in the future if necessity arises.

As news of the tragedy spread like wildfire throughout the county the deputies reported by phone, and many made haste to reach Santa Rosa. Among those who visited the jail were… and many others.

HOYLE’S STATEMENT

District Attorney George W. Hoyle at one o’clock Monday morning, having concluded the work of taking statements from all the persons who could be found whom had any knowledge of the shooting, said:

“From the best information available I believe that Sergeant Dorman was the first man shot, while Sheriff Petray went down next. Sergeant Jackson had undoubtedly stepped from the room into the kitchen, either to call the officers on guard, or to get an opportunity from door or window to get his man. Hearing the cry from Sergeant Dorman, “Oh Miles,” he must have turned and stepped to the door to receive the bullet which killed him, and as he fell fired the shot which hit Boyd. As two chambers of his revolver were empty he must have fired two shots before he became unconscious.

The news of the tragedy created a sensation in San Francisco, and the newspapers hurried a staff of writers and photographers by auto to Santa Rosa as soon as their local representatives began getting the story on the wires. Representatives of The Associated Press, The Examiner, The Chronicle, The Call and The Bulletin arrived in rapid succession and remained over night to handle further details today.

Dr. A. B. Herrick and Dr. R. M. Bonar were among the doctors at the Mary Jesse hospital who attended the wounded men on their arrival there.

– Press Democrat, December 6 1920

 

 

 

MRS. QUINLAN HAS EXCELLENT RECORD

SAN FRANCISCO, Dec. 7. News that Mrs. Dorothy Quinlan had been arrested by the police in Santa Rosa, Sunday, upon being found with the Howard street gangsters who murdered officers attempting to capture them, came as a great surprise to the persons who had known her at the Essex Hotel, Ellis and Larkin streets, where she was living, and those who were acquainted with her at the department store where she bad worked for about two years.

Mrs. Quinlan is the mother of two children, a girl 14 years old, who attends school, and a boy, 15, who works. Last evening the children had received no word from their mother, who is being held in Santa Rosa. Friends of the mother have taken the girl to their home. Both children lived with their mother at her apartments in the Essex hotel.

Mrs. Quinlan is a woman about 40 years of age, and at the hotel where she has lived for more than eight months was known as a quiet, respectable person, who went to and from her work with great regularity, and did not go out often and seldom had any callers. She was liked by all who knew her.

– Press Democrat, December 8 1920

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trainshadowofdoubt

A FORESHADOW OF TERRIBLE DAYS

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

BAD TO THE BONE
THE WOLVES OF THANKSGIVING
A FORESHADOW OF TERRIBLE DAYS
FATEFUL KNOCK ON A COTTAGE DOOR
MOB SIEGE OF THE JAIL
96 HOURS TO HANGTOWN
VENGEANCE FOR SUNNY JIM
CONSPIRACIES OF SILENCE
    HIDDEN GRAVES
    A WELL-ORDERED MILITIA

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).

georgeboyd(RIGHT: George Boyd, AKA Jack Slaven, AKA George Barron)

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.

charlesvalento(RIGHT: Only known photos of Charles Valento, taken 12 years before events in Santa Rosa)

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.

NEXT: FATEFUL KNOCK ON A COTTAGE DOOR

 

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.
The Sonoma County Sheriff's Office had for many years a display case in its lobby showing the murder weapon, nooses, and other artifacts of the 1920 lynching. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library
The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office had for many years a display case in its lobby showing the murder weapon, nooses, and other artifacts of the 1920 lynching. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library

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THE WOLVES OF THANKSGIVING

She stumbled down the darkened street, her face bloody and swollen. This was an industrialized section of San Francisco and no workers were around at such an early morning hour, particularly on that day because it was Thanksgiving. Nearly two blocks away she found an apartment building on a cross street where she roused a middle-age couple and begged them to telephone the police.


THERE WILL BE PRICES PAID
Series on the 1920 lynchings in Santa Rosa

BAD TO THE BONE
THE WOLVES OF THANKSGIVING
A FORESHADOW OF TERRIBLE DAYS
FATEFUL KNOCK ON A COTTAGE DOOR
MOB SIEGE OF THE JAIL
96 HOURS TO HANGTOWN
VENGEANCE FOR SUNNY JIM
CONSPIRACIES OF SILENCE
    HIDDEN GRAVES
    A WELL-ORDERED MILITIA

The woman was 22 year-old Jean Stanley. She had just escaped from a gang hangout where her friend, Jessie Montgomery, had been repeatedly raped. The public outrage following that vicious assault would set into motion the events which would soon lead to six men dead in Santa Rosa, three of them slain by a gangster’s bullets and three hanging by their necks in the Rural Cemetery.

This is the second part of the series, “THERE WILL BE PRICES PAID” about the 1920 Santa Rosa lynchings. Although everything described below happened in San Francisco, this chapter aims to clear up misinformation concerning the crime and its victims, which were the sparks that lit a very short fuse.

For research I scoured all news coverage in the San Francisco Examiner, San Francisco Call and San Francisco Chronicle between November 1920 and February 1921. I found almost everything written about the events since then has mostly relied upon the earliest accounts – which often had errors large and small. More trustworthy details appeared in trial testimony and particularly the summary prepared by the state Attorney General’s office (transcribed below for the first time), although even that report didn’t cover some critical and shocking facts that came out late in the proceedings.

A broader goal is to offer context about what else was going on around the time of the lynchings, particularly to show the vigilante act in Santa Rosa happened amid a wave of vigilantism which suddenly swept across other cities in the state. And finally, before we get started, please note the stories about the gangsters who committed the crime and their punishments are not found here; for that background I again point Gentle Reader to the e-book, “The Fall of San Francisco’s Notorious Howard Street Gang.” Only two of the six men are mentioned here by name; from the viewpoint of our narrative, the rest can be thought of as interchangeable, faceless monsters.

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IT WAS SUCH A DIFFERENT WORLD

American culture has changed greatly since 1920, and here are some differences particularly relevant to understanding this series:

DANCE HALLS were favorite places for Jennie and June to spend their evenings. The Winter Garden (it was formerly an ice skating rink, hence the name) near Pacific Heights was highly popular and considered a respectable place, complete with a checkroom for babies (!) while the parents were dancing. It had nice floors and live bands, charging admission for both men and women except for Monday and Wednesday being Ladies Night. More controversial were the eight “closed” dance halls in the city, where men bought tickets to dance with women who worked there on commission. In other cities they were sometimes the target of vice raids which turned up wanted criminals, prostitutes and runaway teenage girls.

BOXING enjoyed a popularity in 1920 that’s hard to imagine today. Public interest in boxers went far beyond how well they performed in the ring; prizefighters were regarded as celebrities. Sports writers obsessively reported on where they were and what they were doing, conditions of their health and how they were feeling. Besides being outraged by the details of the Howard street crimes, most people were likely shocked to learn two well known pro boxers were not only involved but the most guilty players.

PROHIBITION and the long reach of its destructive effects play out in every step of this story, including the Howard street crime scene being a safe haven for the gangsters because it was chosen as a secluded location needed to operate a speakeasy. And besides turning bootlegging into a major industry, it sharply increased violent gangsterism, up 25 percent in 1920 alone. Fun Fact: Prohibition not only cost the U.S. economy billions in lost revenue, it even created a tax-free security backed by booze. Since pre-Prohibition liquor was legal, some 69 million gallons of it had been deposited before 1920 in government bonded warehouses, where it could be withdrawn by the person holding the deposit receipt. Just before the events in this story the Supreme Court ruled those certificates could be sold in a manner similar to gold bullion, and as a result most of the receipts ended up held by banks which accepted them as collateral for loans.

Rewind the tape; it is now a couple of hours before Jean Stanley is running down an unfamiliar street looking for someone to help. She and her friend and roommate, Jessie Montgomery, are waiting outside the streetcar transfer station at 16th and Mission to go home, having spent the evening at the Winter Garden dance hall. A man pulls up in an auto and offers them a ride; they hop in because Jessie remembers him as being a nice guy from having danced together earlier.

But he drives in the opposite direction instead, stopping at a poolhall. He wants to introduce them to a pal of his, who also climbs into the car. It’s now around midnight on Thanksgiving morning.

The driver parks outside a café and the four of them go in. They all have a sherry (illegal – this is Prohibition, never forget) and the men order other drinks, which the women decline.

Two other men enter the café and join them. Both are prizefighters, which is to say they are Bay Area celebrities. One is Edmund “Spud” Murphy, a welterweight who could be a boxer straight from Central Casting; he has coarse, puffy features that make his face appear as if it had been recently pounded with a rock. The other man is larger and has movie star good looks – at least, compared to other boxers at the time; he is Edward “Kayo” Kruvosky (as in “Knockout” or “K.O.”).

There is a whispered conversation between the four men which the women can’t overhear. As they leave the café yet another man shows up and goes with them, with all seven people squeezing into the car. It would be uncomfortably tight for a long drive but they are only going about a block away.

The car stops and the three men from the café enter a small nondescript house, leaving the women alone with the driver and his poolhall pal. They entice the women to go in by one of the men saying, “oh, it’s just a refreshment parlor and I know every one in the place” and promising them ice cream. Once they are inside the door is locked behind them.

The little front room is nearly bare, with just a table, a few chairs and a rolled up mattress. A man they had not seen before comes out with a round of drinks. This brings the number of men in the house to six.

Jean refuses the gin fizz but Jessie drinks half a glass. The rest Kruvosky pours down her throat as her head is tilted back and her arms are held. Another glass is brought in and it is done again. And then she is led into the kitchen, where Murphy is waiting.

[I am herewith skipping the rest of what followed – I doubt you want to read the details and I certainly don’t want to write about them. Anyone who just has to know what happened can review the Attorney General’s summary of their testimony. What needs to be known here is that Murphy and Kruvosky used their fists; Murphy hit Jessie and knocked her down twice, then punched Jean so hard her nose was broken. Kruvosky also struck Jean, leaving her with a black eye and a broken tooth. Kruvosky initiated the sexual assaults against Jessie in the bathroom before turning her over to Murphy and the others. Jean managed to escape by breaking a window while she was left alone in another room. Jean was not raped; Jessie was raped by five of the six men.]

During one of the later trials a prosecutor tells a jury, “It was the psychology of the wolf pack that night in the Howard street shack,” meaning the rest of the men understood their lesser places in the hierarchy, patiently waiting for their turn to perform their unspeakable acts.

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News about the assault started appearing the day after Thanksgiving and updates would appear daily for more than a month. Most of the reporting mistakes from those first accounts would be cleared up in later stories (although some of those errors continue to be repeated today).1

San Francisco reacted in horror, although it was a city not easily shocked. Every police captain told patrolmen to give highest priority to finding the suspects as a dragnet stretched over the city. Jessie Montgomery was taken by police from her hospital bed that night to attend an amateur boxing match and scan the audience for their faces. The Police Chief assigned Detective Sergeant Miles Jackson and Detective Lester Dorman to the case fulltime. A few days later, both would be shot to death in Santa Rosa by one of the guilty men.

Over that post-Thanksgiving weekend every law enforcement agency in the state received the names and descriptions of the wanted men, even though this info was not released to the public. That was when the (soon to be lynched) group left the city for up here.

ednaperl(RIGHT: Pearl Hanley and Edna Fullmer)

Police announced they were investigating claims of more than twenty other women who said they likewise had been gang raped at Howard street, but it appears only two were considered credible.2 A week later they were named as Pearl Hanley and Edna Fullmer from Southern California. They described being similarly attacked on November 10, two weeks before Jessie and Jean, and said they never reported it because they wanted to avoid the shame and publicity.

Early in the investigation Detective Jackson said the police believed the gang maintained the Howard street shack to lure girls there for the purpose of assaulting them. That might have been partially true, but his remarks need clarification on several points.

Detectives later clarified the place was a speakeasy – specifically a “blind pig,” where liquor was usually sold through a walk-up window or via a pass-through. The day before the attacks on Jessie and Jean, the proprietor (who was also among the rapists) spent $1,100 on hootch – the equivalent to over $14k today – to prepare for the expected surge of customers over the holiday weekend.3

Newspapers were quick to call the building a “shack” and that label is still used by modern writers. But today most of us would call 1256½ Howard street a granny unit. It was small but from the photos appeared well tended; it had indoor plumbing, which was no given thing in 1920. The previous tenant was a hat maker and his family. It was behind and to the side of 1256 Howard, which at the time was the Eastern Broom Factory (surprisingly, it appears that building is still there).

Nor was the Howard Street Gang really a gang, except in the sense the men who hung out there coalesced as a rape gang on two or more occasions. Early on the papers took to calling Spud Murphy the gang’s leader, but there was no evidence anyone was giving orders – as the prosecutor said, they were more akin to a wolf pack on the lookout for prey. From mentions in the newspapers it seemed a Runyonesque set of characters drifted in and out of the Howard street speakeasy: Boxers and wannabes, hardened criminals, touts, toughs, hangers-on and every kind of idle, strutting bullyboy loser in between.

“Gang,” however, was quickly becoming the buzzword of 1920. San Francisco and other cities had experienced a significant uptick in all types of crime ever since Prohibition began at the start of the year. Stories about bootlegger arrests were daily fodder (contender for most outrageous headline of the year: “200-Pound Woman, Caught in Act of Making Brandy, Fights Off 6 Officers for Half Hour” – SF Chronicle, Nov. 27). There were an increasing number of reports about groups of men joining together to plot armed robberies, burglaries and commit gang rapes. Besides the intense coverage of the Howard street crime, newspapers around the state (including the Press Democrat and Healdsburg Tribune) used barrels of ink reporting on the prosecution of a particularly notorious gang in Fresno.

Big crime stories always make it easy to sell papers, and the reporting frequently slopped over the line into sensationalist yellow journalism. But a good thing was that it also brought a new awareness that violence against women was horrifically commonplace. As noted in the SF Examiner, in the latter half of 1920 there were 100 men jailed for abuse of women or children in the city, including 56 for contributing to the delinquency of young women, 11 for “tampering” (!) with little girls and 16 for attempted assault – with police saying there were many more but the assailant escaped. Los Angeles began offering police escorts to any women who had to be out after dark.

Vigilantism was in air the air before the lawmen were murdered in Santa Rosa, but it grew worse during the days following. In San Francisco vagrants and crooks were rounded up by police and told to “get to work or get out of town.” Prizefighting was temporarily banned in San Francisco, Oakland, Sacramento and other places simply because of its association with Murphy and Kruvosky. The American Legion offered to aid in a “clean-up of undesirables” and the VFW said crimes against women were increasing because of lax enforcement, while pledging “active co-operation in any capacity.”

A Woman’s Vigilant Committee was formed in San Francisco to call for a greatly expanded police presence – although the force was already maxed out, with officers given only one day off every two weeks. The Committee further overreached by insisting the city government adopt their intolerant views of acceptable behavior and morality. There should be a strictly enforced 8PM curfew for children under 16 and a prohibition on “three or more minor youths from causing any disturbance at night.” They wanted the city zoned according to their “vice map” which would establish the degree of policing by neighborhood. They insisted pool halls be shut down along with the “closed” dance halls where they (falsely) accused the women working there of all being prostitutes.4

While this was brewing in December 1920, the Howard street trials were underway, with all five defendants charged with the same crimes.5 Security was tight in the courtroom, with extra bailiffs – Kruvosky’s father had threatened to kill him for bringing disgrace to the family.

The jury trials rolled along smoothly and four were convicted quickly – the exception was found innocent, guilty at his retrial, and finally had the charges dropped in 1922, after having spent a year and a half in county jail (he claimed to have gained 25 pounds behind bars because the food was so good).6 The gangsters mostly offered stupid-criminal alibis; they were at Howard street but left before the women were assaulted, they were there but in a different room in the tiny house and didn’t see or hear anything.

Jean Stanley and Jessie Montgomery testified eight times in all and none of the defense attorneys could shake their stories. Each time they both told exactly same story: the offer of a ride home, the stop at the poolroom, the café, being lured inside the speakeasy, the booze poured down Jessie’s throat, the beatings, the rapes, Jean’s escape.

Then after the trials were over came the real shocker: They both lied under oath, and had conspired to do so.

Front and side of 1256½ Howard street, San Francisco in 1920. The window that Jean Stanley broke to escape can be seen here boarded up. Photo: California state archives
Front and side of 1256½ Howard street, San Francisco in 1920. The window that Jean Stanley broke to escape can be seen here boarded up. Photo: California state archives

Let’s rewind the tape again, this time all the way back to the start of 1920.

In January, boxing promoter Billy Murray leased the top floor of a building on E. Washington in Petaluma as a boxing gym with an exhibition ring.

Petaluma could not have been happier; this would surely bring fame and fortune to the town because he was the former middleweight champ and a nationally-known figure. Articles about him appeared in the local papers almost every day that winter, particularly as the date approached for a series of bouts at the Unique Theatre on March 19, “an evening for the ladies as well as the men.”

Living in Petaluma at that time was Jessie Montgomery. Her father had been the Salvation Army captain in the town a couple of years earlier but his current assignment was in Eureka, where the family received a telegram from her in early February: “We are married, forget and forgive.” She had married Arthur Matthias, co-owner of an auto dealership in Petaluma, who she had only known for a few weeks.

She was 15 years old at the time.

After Howard street the newspapers first said she was 20, then began using her stated age of 17. It would be years later before it came out that she was really a year younger than that when she was assaulted (this is verified by census records).

The marriage was a short one. When Jessie was brought to the Sonoma County Jail in December to see if she could identify any of the three men being held for the murders, Arthur tried to see her but authorities would not let them meet, fearing it could cause trouble. The next day the Press Democrat reported,


They were separated in two months, his wife leaving him after Matthias charged her with too close intimacy with prize fighters who were training in Petaluma under the direction of Billy Murray. Matthias charges that she went to San Francisco with Kruvosky…

kruvosky(RIGHT: Edward Kruvosky)

Was that true, or was it a bitter lie told by an estranged husband? Had Jessie previously known one of her rapists (and having abandoned her marriage to be with him, no less!) it’s impossible to believe the defense attorneys would not have brought that up at the trials. They repeatedly tried to discredit her character with misogynistic attacks suggesting she was “unchaste.” She was badgered on the witness stand for using her maiden name instead of “Mrs. Arthur Matthias” as well as for having left her husband and having “boy friends” in San Francisco afterwards.7

But when Kruvosky came to trial he offered a defense completely at odds with what the other rapists made. From the Dec. 24 SF Examiner:


When Kruvosky took the stand in his own behalf yesterday morning he told a story of advances made by the Montgomery girl and of his final capitulation. He said that when he met her with Thomas Brady, James Carey and Jean Stanley at the Strollers’ Cafe shortly after midnight on Thanksgiving morning she moved over and invited him to take half of her chair, put her arms about him and told him that she liked him. He told of that same arm being about him as they drove in an automobile to the Howard street shack and of how he was followed by the girl into a small room there, where he said he submitted to her entreaties.

“She made me do it” is infamously the go-to excuse for men who abuse women in all kinds of ways, and the jury obviously didn’t believe a word of what he said. They were out only eleven minutes before declaring him guilty – just long enough to elect a jury foreman and take a single vote without discussion.

The last trial wound up in early February, 1921, about ten weeks after the crimes had been committed. But then came the bombshell: A defense attorney produced signed affidavits claiming Jessie and Jean had committed perjury.

Policewoman Kate O’Conner had acted as matron for Jean and Jessie throughout the case, and in early December they had lived at the O’Conner home with Kate, her husband, a San Francisco deputy sheriff, and their married 19 year-old daughter, Anita.

The deputy’s statement noted Jessie had never claimed one of the men was guilty of rape until she testified at his trial. He said he overheard her tell Jean that she was going to accuse him despite his innocence on that charge: “I know he didn’t do anything to me, but I hate him anyhow.” The deputy said he would testify to hearing that in court “to see justice done.”

More damning were Anita’s statements about her conversations with Jean.8 “You don’t know how I’ve shielded Jessie Montgomery’s character,” Jean supposedly told her. “I could go to the penitentiary for what I’ve told on the stand…”

The affidavit also stated Jean confirmed some of Kruvosky’s surprising defense claims: “..Jean Stanley also stated to me that said Jessie Montgomery ‘fell for Kruvosky’ in the Strollers Cafe and sat on the same chair with Kruvosky in the Strollers Cafe with their arms around each other…”

Once at Howard street, Jean told Anita she saw Jessie willingly going into the bathroom with Kruvosky. “I grabbed a hold of Jessie and asked her not to go into the bathroom with Kruvosky, because I knew that he would get the best of her. That was when I was struck for the first time by Kruvosky.”

Besides withholding evidence, they conspired to commit perjury, according to the affidavit:


Jean Stanley said to me, “I shielded Jessie Montgomery because she was a girl. Why, at the hospital, Jessie said: ‘We’ll say that they forced the drinks down my throat so that it will save my character.’ Kruvosky had been so mean to me that I thought it would be all right to say that he forced drinks down Jessie’s throat…whenever Jessie gets into trouble with men she always claims that she was either doped or that she was forced.”

These statements created an uproar statewide, pulling in the Attorney General and the Governor. Headlines suggested Jessie Montgomery was about to be arrested. The District Attorney said he would ask Jessie and Jean for their own affidavits declaring the other affidavits untrue. An Assistant D.A. resigned, saying Jean admitted having “lied and lied” in court.

A Grand Jury was empaneled and they decided – on the narrowest of grounds – “there was no perjury committed by Jean Stanley or Jessie Montgomery on any material point” that would affect the verdict of the single case then before the court. The judge who heard all of the cases said he would not issue a perjury warrant because what they supposedly said was “nothing that has not been whispered into every ear ever since Kruvosky was placed on trial.”

So the consensus was, “the women won’t be held accountable for perjury because it didn’t matter – we know these guys were guilty as hell.”

The obl. Believe-it-or-Not! epilogue to the story is that years later, Jessie wrote a letter to the District Attorney’s office in 1925 to confess that yes, she had lied. She lied about her age and that she was forced to drink liquor. More importantly, she had lied when she testified she was absolutely sure that two of the men took part in the rape.

“All the excuse I can offer for my falsehoods are that I was just a child and I was afraid of their getting free to kill me,” she wrote. (The whole letter is transcribed below.)

Her post facto confession made no difference to the District Attorney or Governor. No retrials were ordered, no prison sentences commuted and no perjury charges filed against Jessie or June, as the statute of limitations for that crime had now expired.

Jean Stanley. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library
Jean Stanley. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library

Tying up loose ends:

According to the only interview she gave, Jean Stanley was from Portland.9 But during the trials the Oregon Daily Journal ran a photo of her on the front page with the headline, “Do You Know This Girl?” adding local reporters were unable to find anyone who knew her. (A friend did turn up, and a month later the Portland paper had an item claiming Jean was to appear in a movie.)

In the interview Jean said she left home at 17 and toured around in the Pantages vaudeville circuit on the East Coast, apparently as a dancer. After that she joined the famous Barnes circus (which had a major Santa Rosa connection during the 1920s) where she learned to ride bareback. Jessie and Jean were each given $600 at the close of the trials and Jean said she would use it for tuition at a business school. It appears she did, because she can be found in the 1930 Los Angeles census as an office stenographer for a department store. She died at age 39 on Nov. 11, 1939 (place of death and burial unknown).

Pearl Hanley and Edna Fullmer were never called to testify, although they were brought to Santa Rosa along with Jessie to see if they could ID the three gangsters. Still, the District Attorney wanted them available while the trials were ongoing and under protective custody – members of Murphy’s family (and possibly others) had tried to make contact with June and Jessie. But instead of lodging them with the O’Conners or giving them hotel rooms with police guards, Pearl and Edna were locked in the women’s dormitory at the county jail. No fun that. Shortly before Christmas, Pearl’s husband, Paul H. Hanley came to San Francisco and told a judge she had deserted him along with their 20 month-old baby, but he wanted to reconcile. Moved by his plea and the holiday spirit, she was released from jail and they went home – where he was immediately arrested. Remember how a vicious Fresno gang was in all the newspapers? He was allegedly part of their burglary team, while other members were being held for the gang rape of a fifteen year old.

Another gold star citizen was Arthur Matthias, Jessie’s husband in Petaluma. In 1922 he and his brother, along with two other fine hoodlums, ran a man down with their car and then beat him with brass knuckles before robbing him. They were arrested for that assault plus beating and robbing a Press Democrat linotype operator of his watch. Arthur was released from San Quentin in 1928 and died in a reckless driving incident near Penngrove two years later.

It seems Jessie Montgomery always had trouble telling the truth, even about things that didn’t matter. In her Dec. 17 testimony (see footnote seven) she must have thought the year 1920 had 13 or 14 months in it, because that many would be needed to account for her version of her whereabouts, scooting around between Petaluma, San Francisco and Reno, where her family usually was. Yet she didn’t mention being in Eureka at all – although that’s where the census taker caught up with her and the rest of the Montgomery family – or Seattle, which was where she met Jean.

Jessie told reporters she was going to use her post-trial $600 to study music but in 1922 she married Wilfred E. Miller, a Spokane, Washington truck driver. True to form, she told a string of lies on her marriage certificate – she stated it was her first marriage, that she was 19 instead of 18, her maiden name was June Matthais (yes, that’s how she spelled it), and her father’s name was J. M. Matthais from Kentucky instead of Lee L. Montgomery of Kansas. She and Wilfred had two children; she worked in beauty shops and then always went by the name June J. Miller. Jessie died in 1985 and is buried in Orange County next to Wilfred.

 


1 Among the errors reported in the Nov. 26-27 San Francisco papers were that nine men were involved; it was implied both women were raped and the attack went on for three hours; that the liquor forced upon Jessie was probably doped; that Jean had a broken jaw and when she returned with two policemen they caught a couple of the gangsters about to assault Jessie again (Kruvosky and another of the rapists were still in the house, but non-threatening at that moment).
2 Another possible victim named in the newspapers was 17 year-old Thelma Fulton, who said she and another young woman she knew only as “Bobbie” were raped at Howard street by Murphy and other men for three hours on Hallowe’en. Her story closely tracked with Jean and Jessie’s testimony, with them being offered a ride after a dance, liquor forced upon them and Bobbie making a surprising escape. Thelma claimed she had met Murphy at the “closed” dance hall known as the Metropolitan, but the manager there said Thelma and her friend had been barred weeks earlier for disorderly conduct. It appears the police didn’t give much weight to her story; nothing more about her appeared in the papers, other than the Chronicle printing a photo of her on Dec. 12.

3 While Detectives Jackson and Dorman believed for several days it was the HQ of a major crime gang, they came to realize it was run-of-the-mill speakeasy. The owner of the building was real estate investor James O’Sullivan, who was the brother-in-law of Charles Valento, one of the gangsters lynched in Santa Rosa. The building was rented to Allen McDonald who operated the speakeasy.
4 The Vigilant Committee’s desire for for a crackdown was supported by the federal Hygiene Board, whose representative stated the city “was so vice-ridden it was an unfit place for a naval base.” San Francisco did shutter the “closed” dance halls at the end of 1920. (The Winter Garden survived, but only after much scrutiny.)
5 The men were charged on four counts: Rape of Jessie Montgomery (called “a serious statutory offense” in the Examiner’s prurient reporting), attempted rape of Jean Stanley, assault with intent to do bodily harm and abduction.

6 For more on this interesting case see “The Fall of San Francisco’s Notorious Howard Street Gang,” which has an entire chapter on it.

7 The full transcript of Jessie Montgomery’s testimony is in the Dec. 17 San Francisco Call

8 The entire Anita Larrieu affidavit can be read in the Feb. 9, 1921 SF Call.

9 “Gangster Victim Tells About Night of Horror,” Press Democrat, Dec. 9 1920. This interview with Jean Stanley probably was not written for the PD, but no other copies can be found in other online newspapers.

 

NEXT: A FORESHADOW OF TERRIBLE DAYS
 

sources
Appeal of the defendant from a judgment of conviction of the crime of rape and from the order denying motion for new trial

[..]

The facts of the case are substantially stated in the brief of the Attorney General as follows:

On Wednesday evening, November 24, 1920, Jessie Montgomery (whose marriage name is Matthias) was waiting on the corner of Sixteenth and Mission streets, San Francisco, for a car to take her to her home at 315 Fifth street. James Carey, whom she previously had met and danced with, drove by in an automobile. After recalling himself to her he invited her and her chum, Miss Jean Stanley, into his car to be taken home. They were driven to Clark’s poolroom on Mission street near Twentieth, and there were joined by Thomas Brady, a friend of Carey. The four then drove in Carey’s car to the Stroller’s Café, Ninth and Folsom, where each had one drink of wine. Other drinks were served but were consumed by the men; the girls not partake of them.

While the four were in the café, Murphy and Edward Kruvosky entered. There ensued a whispered conversation among the four men, the nature of which girls do not know. But when the girls and their escorts left the premises by one door, Murphy, Kruvosky and a third man, named Boyd, left by another door and jumped into the machine in which the four were seated. The car was driven to a shack on Howard street and Murphy, Kruvosky, and Boyd alighted and entered the house, leaving the two girls and their escorts in the car. Upon one pretense and another Brady and Carey prevailed upon the girls to enter the Howard street place; they were admitted by Allan MacDonald, who locked the door after them. Carey and the two girls entered a front room, which was furnished with a table, chairs, and a mattress rolled up. Murphy had already gone out into the kitchen. Brady also went out into another room, and returned with Allan MacDonald, who brought in a round of drinks. The Stanley girl took none of them; the Montgomery girl took one-half of her own glass.

Kruvosky in the meantime had come in from the kitchen. With Brady holding one of her hands, Kruvosky put the glass to the Montgomery girl’s lips, tilted her head back and poured the liquor down her throat. Another drink was brought in, and the performance repeated. Brady next led the Montgomery girl into the kitchen, where Murphy and Kruvosky were. Murphy demanded that she sing and, she refusing, insisted that dance for them. Upon her refusal to dance Murphy struck her on the side of the jaw and felled her. Brady went up to her as she struggled to her feet and said, “Go on; take off your clothes and dance for them,” and upon her further refusal Murphy struck her to the floor a second time. This blow was so violent that she did not know what was going on; at times she did know anything, and at other times she knew everything that was going on but could not resist because her strength had failed her. The Montgomery girl screamed when she was hit and the Stanley girl ran to her aid. Kruvosky hit the Stanley girl in the jaw, and Murphy hit her on the face, breaking her nose. Murphy then picked her up by hips, held her on the floor and “binged” her on the floor. Kruvosky then dragged the Montgomery girl, weakened as she was the two fellings, into the bathroom adjoining, where he picked her up by the shoulders, threw her to the ground, and knocked her head against a washstand, pulled her to the floor, tore her dress from off her body, rolled her around upon the floor, soiling her underclothing, and finally ravished her. Murphy repeatedly thrust his head in the bathroom during this time and cried “Hurry up, hurry up!” The girl knew nothing more until she found herself on the mattress in the front room. Here Murphy and Kruvosky pulled her clothes off her in the presence of Boyd, Carey, and Brady, and here Murphy, followed by the others in turn, violated her. These acts were done without her consent and against her will after she could not resist because her strength was gone, and she was absolutely powerless. She was never the wife of the defendant and had never been married to him.

Carey had meanwhile led the Stanley girl into an adjoining bedroom and brought her a wet rag to bathe her bruised face. He left the room and defendant entered. Defendant demanded that she submit to him. She refused and he menacingly brandished a gun in her face. She persisted in her refusal. Defendant then picked her up and threw on the couch and held her legs; MacDonald seized her hands and Boyd her head, while Kruvosky, coatless and with trousers unbuttoned, advanced to the attack. She struggled, begging them to kill her rather than to torture her like that, and finally all left the room save MacDonald. The Stanley girl then got MacDonald to leave the room. She broke the window and jumped out. About this time Carey came to the door of room where the Montgomery girl was lying on a mattress and cried, “Hurry up, your coats on; the cops are coming,” and Murphy, Kruvosky, Carey, Brady, and Boyd left. The Stanley girl returned to the place with two police officers. Her face was all swollen, her eye blackened, and there was blood all over her clothes and upon her wrists.

Entrance to the Howard street premises was effected by one of the officers through the broken rear window. He opened the door for his fellow officer and the Stanley girl. They found Jessie Montgomery lying on a mattress in the front room doubled up a jackknife, her face against the wall and her hands over her face; she was perfectly nude; she was in a very hysterical condition and moaning that she had been raped. Kruvosky, who had returned was standing behind the door and MacDonald was sitting on a chair in the room. The Stanley girl dressed Miss Montgomery; the two were taken to the Central Emergency Hospital where they were placed under the care of a physician and nurse. The doctor found the Montgomery girl’s vulva to be reddened, and somewhat inflamed. The girls were removed before noon that morning to the San Francisco Hospital, where a physician examined the Montgomery girl and found her suffering from bruises over the left eye and in the temple region, and considerable swelling over the malar bone, the bruises extending over onto the upper eyelid. There were bruises on the arms, mostly on the right elbow, a small discoloration on the left wrist, several bruises on the legs, the medial aspect of the right thigh just above the knee, and the left knee, on both lower legs, the tibial surfaces of the legs, and several scratches on the feet.

[…description of the capture of Murphy, and that he and Carey were brought to the hospital to be identified…]

En route from the hospital to the hall of justice, while defendant and Carey were in the police automobile, there ensued a conversation between Carey and the defendant wherein Carey commented on fact that Miss Stanley had noticed his diamonds, and that she did not look to be 21 years old. He further remarked, “Those blondes are my jinx. The last time I got in trouble a blonde got me into that too,” to which the defendant rejoined, “She is a fighting bitch, all right.” Later the defendant declared that the Montgomery girl came prepared for what she got and that she got it.

Pacific Reporter September 26 – November 14, 1921, pp. 485-487

 

Spokane, Wash., Oct, 17, ’25.

Dear Mr. Riley:

I suppose you think it queer that I should write you such a letter after such a long time, but it has been heavy on my mind all these years. I suppose after all we have gone through I was tempted to make things stronger than was necessary,

jessieportraitI suppose you are wondering who I am, so I will tell you before I go on with my confession. I was Jessie Montgomery. I am now Mrs. W. F. Miller.

You will remember that I told you I was 17 years of age. I was only 16 at the time. I also said I was positive that Carey and Brady were there at the time I was assaulted.

I wasn’t positive, but my instinct said they were, and at no time did I hear their car start out in front, so therefore I swore I was sure they were there.

I also swore that Jean (Stanley) and I had met Brady before, but we had not. It was the first time, and neither was the booze they gave us forced down us. All the excuse I can offer for my falsehoods are that I was just a child and I was afraid of their getting free to kill me, as they had threatened the other two girls.

So if you want to use this confession for anything you know best. I felt as if I had to tell someone who would understand.

If you can give me Jean’s present address I would greatly appreciate it.

Unless you intend to use this for the righting of a wrong will you please destroy it? Yours ever grateful. JESSIE MILLER.”

 

Montgomery Girl is Wife of Petaluman

Jessie Montgomery, one of the victims of the San Francisco Howard-street gang, and whose plight as a good girl aroused such deep sympathy, is not Miss Montgomery, but Mrs. Arthur William Matthias, wife of a Petaluma automobile man.

Matthias, 23, and the Montgomery girl, then 16, eloped from Petaluma February 3, 1920, and were married at Novato, Marin county. They were separated in two months, his wife leaving him after Matthias charged her with too close intimacy with prize fighters who were training in Petaluma under the direction of Billy Murray.

Matthias charges that she went to San Francisco with Kruvosky, one of the Howard street gang, and that she has since posed as an unmarried girl.

Two months after she left Petaluma her father, Captain L. L. Montgomery of the Salvation Army, secured a transfer to Reno.

Matthias came to the county Jail Sunday night and demanded to see his wife, but was denied admission because it was feared he would make trouble.

– Press Democrat, December 7 1920

 

Pearl Hanley, S. F. Gang Victim, Aids Husband in Jail

FRESNO, Dec. 24.—Pearl Hanley, one of the girls who disclosed the brutality of the Howard-street gangsters in San Francisco, has come to the aid of her husband, Paul H. Hanley.

He is charged with burglary and with receiving stolen goods, his case being linked with those of the thirteen alleged Fresno gangsters.

The thirteen, three of whom have been indicted for alleged attacks on girls, are held in ball aggregating $261,000.

Frank Stefanlch, complainant against them on some charges, denies having been in collusion with them in bootlegging.

– Press Democrat, December 25 1920

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