by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The Homestead collection includes some interesting objects relating to crime and criminal justice in greater Los Angeles through 1930 and tonight’s highlighted artifact is one of the earliest examples.
It is a letter written by Los Angeles Chief of Police John M. Glass to his counterpart in San Diego and dated 27 December 1890. The missive requests Glass’s colleague to “look out for [a] horse thief, one Tom Owens age 30 about—Light complextion—medium sandy moustache, Dressed in light plaid suit, white hat—Weight about 160.”
Owens, who turned out to be more than a decade older, stole four horses and then sold them in Los Angeles the day prior. Chief Glass closed by noting he held a warrant for Owens’ arrest for grand larceny and asked his compatriot to telegraph him at his expense if needed.
The letterhead’s vignette is a striking one, with a five-pointed star badge with Glass’s title above his name. A shield with geometric circular patterns, branches and leaves and ribbon are also part of the design. At the top right is the telephone number (simply “30,” this being about eight years after the introduction of the phone for commercial purposes in Los Angeles) and the post office box.
Owens, who’d been in greater Los Angeles since at least 1871 after migrating from Texas, committed his crimes on Christmas Day when he purloined horses in Westminster and Downey and took them to Los Angeles to sell. He succeeded in securing one sale and was in the process of a transaction when the owner of some of the animals rode in to town. Owens managed to evade notice as he left the scene and wound up at Redondo Beach, where he telegraphed the owner of the stable where he’d sold some horses and requested the money be wired via Wells Fargo.
He was there when Chief Glass sent his missive to San Diego, but it turned out that a deputy constable and a railroad police officer found Owens at Redondo, arrested him, and brought the thief into Los Angeles by train. Another pair of horses were evidently stolen by him and these added to the roster of grand larceny charges. A few days later, in early January 1891, Owens was taken to Downey to answer charges for his crime there and then returned to Los Angeles for the opening of trial there.
Owens was then taken to Santa Ana for trial for the theft committed in Westminster against the town marshal. There he was convicted for the crime and it was reported that, if the sentence against him was severe enough, other charges (presumably those in Downey and Los Angeles) were to be dropped.
When Orange County Deputy Sheriff Finley (the county seceded from Los Angeles County just a little more than a year prior in 1889) escorted Owens to a train in Los Angeles in mid-March for the long ride to San Quentin, which is where Owens was to serve a sentence of five years, it was reported by the Los Angeles Times that “when the train reached a point near Acton [close to modern Palmdale] Finley went to sleep, as the rumor goes, and the convict walked off.” This was despite the prisoner being in handcuffs.
Yet, the Los Angeles Herald had a more plausible explanation. It reported that Owens asked to have a drink of water and, after doing so without his handcuffs on, flung open a door and leapt off the moving train. The Orange County sheriff happened to be in Los Angeles, so he, his Los Angeles County counterpart and some deputies took a train north. Finley was fired from his job not long after.
The posse hired some horses and spent a night combing the area looking for their quarry and discovered Owens hired a team of horses and was headed for Los Angeles. He was only a short distance ahead of his pursuers, however, so it didn’t take long for the officers to catch up to him at the well-known Beale’s Cut at San Fernando Pass and make another arrest. Owens, who was said to be embarrassed at being captured, was brought back to Los Angeles and remanded to County Jail, where it was stated “he will probably not have another chance to escape.”
Owens wound up being sent to Folsom Prison, arriving there on 17 March 1891 instead of San Quentin and was released in October 1894 after serving about 3 1/2 years of his five-year sentence. It was reported in the Times that he was seen in Santa Ana not long after he was set free. He was back in trouble again, however, in early 1898 when the 49-year old Arkansas native, who reported himself as a farmer, was arrested on grand larceny charges, convicted in Los Angeles Superior Court, and sent to San Quentin for a two-year term. After a year-and-a-half, he was “restored” as the prison register expressed it.
In the 1900 federal census, Owens, who was married and had three daughters and a son, ages 16 to 23, was living in south Los Angeles near Exposition Park and the University of Southern California and engaged in farming. His post-prison life, however, was short as he died on 16 November 1901 from chronic gastritis.
As for Chief Glass, who’d been mayor of a town in Indiana before coming to Los Angeles during the Boom of the 1880s, he had the distinction of being the only police chief to serve more than two years to date and served for over a decade from 1889 to 1900. He was credited with many important reforms and innovations, including policing districts, the first substations, basic requirements for officers, the introduction of a patrol wagon, and hiring the first female matron. He was replaced under some political pressure, however. Glass died in 1925 at age 81 and was the longest-serving chief until William Parker in the 1950s and 1960s and is still third in longest tenure (the controversial Darryl Gates being ahead of him.)