by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Today’s “On This Day” post highlights a wanted notice circular reissued by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department on 21 September 1927 seeking help from other law enforcement agencies in finding and arresting Harold J. Whitaker, wanted for felony grand larceny and an escape from the county jail.
The circular was issued twice previously on 4 March 1926, after he broke from jail, and on 11 June 1927. While, on the surface, the notice might seem generally routine, except for the matter of the busting out of the county jail, a little poking (!) around unearthed a notable and bizarre story surrounding Whitaker.
The saga began in mid-November 1925 when John R. Osborne, promoter of the Valhalla Memorial Cemetery in Burbank, arrived at the Pasadena police station and reported the theft, on the 16th, of over $100,000 in Liberty bonds (which were sold during the First World War) and $800 cash from his hotel room at the Hotel Maryland in that city. Osborne claimed that his valet, Jack Gordon, absconded with the items. It was noted that the department sought to verify Osborne’s identity, which was simple enough given that he only had one arm!
Osborne told the police that he obtained the bonds while on a trip to New York, during which visit he hired Gordon. He also stated that he returned to southern California secretly because he didn’t want his estranged wife, who’d filed for divorce, to try to claim the bonds in a settlement of assets. He also offered $5,000 as a reward for the returned bonds and money.
Why was Osborne acting this way, including registering at the Maryland under the assumed name of “John Gordon”? Simply, he was out on bail after being convicted, with his Valhalla partner, C.C. Fitzpatrick, on mail fraud charges because they sold plots in the cemetery multiple times to investors looking to “flip” their acquisitions for quick profits. Osborne and Fitzpatrick were convicted and sentenced in late August to ten years and ten days in federal prison. However, Osborne was free pending an appeal.
According to Osborne, he was bathing in his room, when Gordon vanished with the bonds and the money, but soon after he made his report, he checked out of the hotel and left no contact information behind. An employee of the Osborne-Fitzpatrick Company, which ran the cemetery, denied the man in Pasadena (despite the one arm issue) was Osborne, claiming he was in Chicago. Yet, Osborne’s defense attorney, LeCompte Davis, told the Los Angeles Times that he thought his client was in El Paso, Texas!
The following day, it was stated that Osborne’s strange behavior was an attempt to avoid being served divorce papers and writs dealing with his criminal matter. As for Gordon, Pasadena police believed he was in northern California, found that he had a criminal record in Chicago involving the violation of Prohibition (meaning manufacturing, selling, and/or distributing alcohol) and giving a description. Gordon, the department stated, was about 30 years old, with brown eyes and hair, a pug nose, and, most interestingly, had the calf on one leg some twice as large as the other due to an airplane accident.
Nothing further developed until the end of January 1926, when “Dapper Jack Gordon,” as the Times described him, was nabbed in Cleveland. The paper reported that Pinkerton, the most famous private detective agency in America, positively identified Gordon as Harold J. Whitaker, who had several other aliases and was also known as “The Duke,” presumably because of his bearing and manners. Yet, he was also described as a -“Chicago gunman, professional crook and fugitive from justice in a score of cities.” Whitaker, continued the account, “cut quite a figure in certain circles as a dapper automobile salesman.”
Pinkerton agents found some of the Liberty bonds with Whitaker and a female companion had been converting the bonds into cash at banks in New York and Chicago for Whitaker. Purchases from the illicit funds included a car and furs. Meanwhile, Pasadena police officers were sent out to Cleveland to bring Whitaker back to southern California.
He was then ensconced in the city jail on 14 February and the following day gave a statement denying not only the theft of Osborne’s bonds and cash, but that he was his valet or in any employment capacity. He claimed that the disappearance of the items and his own leaving the area was a coincidence and intimated that he would tell his story when the time was right.
But, ten days later, the Times reported of a plot by “Los Angeles gunmen and Chicago henchmen” to hold up the police station and jail and break Whitaker out. The paper stated that detectives in Chicago and Pasadena got reliable news that there was a planned jailbreak. Moreover, when a search of all the cells in the jail was commenced, it was stated that saws and other material were found hidden away.
Not only were members of the Pasadena police department summoned to put a heavily armed guard around the station and jail, but it was noted that five of them were part of a department team “which recently won the national pistol championship.
It was apparent that the Pasadena jail was not considered strong enough to hold Whitaker, so he was transferred to the newly opened Los Angeles County Jail in the Hall of Justice in downtown Los Angeles. Yet, within days, in early March, Whitaker was among four men who managed to effect their escape from the twelfth floor of what was supposed to be a virtually impregnable structure.
The quartet was mopping the floor of a corridor that had a door leading down to the Temple Street front of the structure and may have had assistance or benefited from the negligence of a jail employee. Remarkably, this brought the total to eight of escapees from the jail, which had only opened three weeks prior! An article in the Times on 3 March reprinted the booking photo found on the wanted notice.
Notably, Sheriff William Traeger told the Times that he opposed the plans approved for the jail, arguing that there were too many passages leading directly out of the building that were susceptible to having the locks picked and that elevator operators (it had to be stated, by the way, that they were black) could be easily overpowered, jailers subdued and prisoners freed by confederates. Yet, county supervisor Jack Bean disputed the sheriff’s claims, stating he had been consulted about the jail’s design and that suggestions of Traeger’s were adopted. Bean and his fellow supervisors believed mismanagement to be at the root of the escapes.
In any case, Whitaker remained free for a considerable period and was finally nabbed in New York in November 1927, two years after the commission of the crime and 18 months after his jailbreak. However, there was a new and modern twist to the tale.
As reported in the Times based on a telegram received by the Sheriff’s department from the New York Police Department, Whitaker’s fingerprints matched his booking card, “but that the facial profile and chin did not correspond.” Whitaker’s wife told officials “that her husband had a facial operation, thus changing his appearance materially.” Clearly, proceeds from his theft of Osborne’s bonds paid for the facelift.
Whitaker, who’d previously had a hooked nose and prominent jutting chin, as can be seen in the notice, had his nose straightened and his chin made to be receding. it was stated he’d been to Europe after the procedure and even returned to Pasadena during his extended disappearance. While Mrs. Whitaker talked of divorce, it was also said that a red-haired woman wearing a mask tipped off authorities to Whitaker’s location and did so because of “jealousy over a blond.” While Whitaker could disguise his appearance, he could not, evidently, alter his womanizing habit!
A late December Times piece attempted to use humor to discuss the Whitaker matter, stating that
Harold J. Whitaker, who foiled the elaborate inventions and contrivances . . . for identifying criminals, nevertheless is in custody, and in 1947 will be returned here to face charges . . . The reason for the delay is that Mr. Whitaker is unavoidably detained in Sing Sing [the prison on an island in the East River next to New York], where he will serve a twenty-year . . . sentence [for a third felony committed].
Joking about his escape from “the brand new Los Angeles county hoosegow,” the article gave more detail about the surgery, adding that, in addition to the nose and jaw work, Whitaker had his eyebrows, ears and mouth worked on. It was said his own mother would not have recognized him. But, in his efforts “to gild the lily and change sweethearts, too” the fugitive fell to the arrogance of jilting his “red-headed mama for a blonde” and was apprehended, making all the facelift work for naught.
A search of the Times and other newspapers for any news of Whitaker in the 1947 period, however, yielded no results. Perhaps he died in prison, depriving Los Angeles County officials of the opportunity to try him for the Osborne robbery and the escape from jail.
As for Osborne, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal, and, in June 1927, he was hauled off with Fitzpatrick to Leavenworth to serve his sentence. Osborne’s father continued to operate the cemetery and sought to repay investors and turn Valhalla into a legitimate business. After just three years, Osborne and Fitzpatrick were released from prison and returned to work in managing Valhalla!
There were, however, financial problems and requests by some lot holders in the cemetery for a receivership. Osborne’s father committed suicide in 1935 after being summoned to a business meeting and the cemetery was sold. The son allegedly was a bookmaker, though on his World War II registration card, he listed himself as an employee of county district attorney John Dockweiler in the same Hall of Justice where Whitaker broke from jail fifteen years before. Osborne lived a long life, dying in 1976 at age 84.
This interesting article by Hadley Meares for KCET on Valhalla tells some of the Whitaker/Osborne story.