by Paul R. Spitzzeri
This afternoon’s Female Justice presentation on the September 1929 murder trial of Lois Pantages, wife of the prominent theatrical mogul Alexander Pantages (who faced his own trial for sexual assault just after his wife’s case was decided), looked at how her wealth and her ethnicity may have played a part in the proceedings.
The story began on 16 June 1929 when Mrs. Pantages, heading to her Los Feliz mansion after visiting a friend, drove her Stutz luxury car into a Ford driven by 45-year old Juro (Joe) Rokumoto, who was driving with his wife Teruko Murakami, children, a family friend, Kiko Kawaguchi, and her children. Witnesses stated that Pantages was driving erratically and smelled of whisky and had grazed another car previous to the accident and she was arrested and charged initially with driving while intoxicated.
Rokumoto who had several injuries including a fractured pelvis and a dislocated femur was operated on but died at the hospital with the coroner determining that he died of shock. This led to District Attorney Buron Fitts filing charges of second-degree murder against Pantages, whose injuries were said to be compounded by her already fragile health and a nervous breakdown, with her personal physician declaring that she suffered heart attacks in the weeks following the crash.
The trial lasted about two weeks with the prosecution stating that her alcohol-impaired reckless driving caused the major injuries that led to Rokumoto’s death from shock, while the defense, in addition to claiming that he turned into traffic in front of Mrs. Pantages, who, in turn, testified that she was forced to move into opposing lanes by another car’s horn being applied, argued that death was due to the misapplication of anesthetic, pinning blame on the supervising doctor.
Reports from the city’s newspapers were that the jury argued vehemently, with some almost coming to blows, as they tried to come up with a verdict, while the proceedings were made further circus-like by the conviction of man who tried to bribe a police detective to alter or forego testimony in the case; the investigation of two defense witnesses for perjury; and the finding of two clergymen, including the notorious Reverend Robert P. “Fighting Bob” Shuler, a radio personality of some power, in contempt of court for claiming on broadcasts that there would be a hung jury in the case.
Finally, however, the jury did agree to convict Pantages for manslaughter, though the statutory requirement that sentence, presumed to have been 1-10 years at San Quentin, be imposed within several days was bypassed because of further claims of the convict’s perilous health prompting a request for probation; delays in a probation report; and Carlos Hardy, the presiding judge, appointing a three-judge panel to determine if probation was warranted.
Nearly two months after conviction, Judge Hardy imposed a 10-year probationary period on Pantages, who, meanwhile, made a settlement on civil court claims filed by Mrs. Rokumoto and her children in the form of a $78,500 check. The jurist’s order stated that there was no evidence that she had been drinking at the time of the accident; that she had no prior criminal record and had “led a Christian life” of charitable good works; that prison time would be a death sentence given her feeble health; and that probation was reasonable while “the fact that she has wealth and position should not discriminate against her.”
While she avoided any jail time, the matter took a sudden and surprising turn just over a year later, when, just before Christmas 1930, Judge Hardy, who was leaving the bench, issued a blanket dismissal of probation and a cleansing of their court records to 150 persons including Pantages. She, however, was the only of the 144 men and five women who did not serve at least half of the ordered probationary period.
In addition, the county probation officer opposed a dozen of those on Judge Hardy’s list, including Pantages, saying he did so “solely because they had not served the full half of their probation terms.” He did add that she’d complied with all the requirements, in addition to those that said she could not drink alcohol (the period was still under national Prohibition) or drive a motor vehicle.
It should be added that, in her letter requesting revocation of probation, Pantages cited the “great mental anguish” she felt because of her husband’s legal problems, the fact that she couldn’t leave the county and “the scene of these tragic events” to recover her delicate health. Moreover, she stated that her eldest child, Rodney, was due to get married soon and she wished “as a mother, to remove the stigma of my conviction and probation so that my three children together with my future daughter-in-law may mingle in society in Los Angeles without being embarrassed by reason of my misfortune.”
Thus freed from all legal restraints, Pantages had further reason to celebrate when her husband was acquitted in 1931 on a retrial, although his theatrical empire had crumbled and he died within four years. Mrs. Pantages, who was about a dozen years younger, did not long outlive her husband and died in 1941 of a heart attack while swimming near her yacht as it was anchored off Santa Catalina Island.
Her wealth allowed Pantages to hire expensive defense attorneys including W.I. Gilbert, who represented famed evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson when she was facing charges of faking her disappearance and claiming she was kidnapped when she vanished for weeks in 1926, and New York lawyer Max Steurer, known for his successful defense of the owners of the business where the horrific 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and of Harry Daugherty, United States Attorney General under President Warren Harding and a key figure in the notorious Teapot Dome scandal that also involved acquitted Los Angeles oil magnate Edward L. Doheny. While she was convicted, their work may have led to the lesser charge being found by the jury.
There is also, however, the question of race. If Joe Rokumoto had been Joe Rowland, would that matter have been treated differently? Of course, there is no way to know, but it is certainly notable that virtually every time the deceased was mentioned in press accounts, his ethnicity was cited. If it had been Joe Rowland, none of the papers would have said that the victim was “Anglo (or white) gardener Joe Rowland.” Not only was Rokumoto referred to as Japanese, but some headlines used the term Jap, which was a common perjorative used against then.
It is also worth pointing out that the only time that his widow and children were talked about, aside from initial accounts citing their injuries in the article, when the $78,500 settlement was issued to them and the friend and her children, the headline wasn’t about them, but, rather, their attorney, William Bonelli. The Los Angeles Record of 9 November 1929 ran a feature about the settlement including a photo of Mrs. Rokumoto with the attorney and another of the two and some of the Rokumoto and Kawaguchi children.
The headline, however, stated, “Bonelli Uses Big Law Fee To Pay His Campaign Debts,” and the article was almost completely devoted to the fact that much of the $19,000 he took from the settlement was going to pay for expenses incurred when the former president of the Los Angeles City Council ran unsuccessfully for mayor earlier in the year. The only reference to the Rokumoto and Kawaguchi families was the assertion that, when the check was handed over, “joy entered the hearts of the widow, her children and companions in the fatal wreck,” though how that was known wasn’t explained. The photos certainly do not show joy on what could, rather, be considered doleful expressions on their faces.
In fact, what is painfully obvious is that almost all of the media attention was fixated on Pantages, with one Record columnist writing a feature on how, following her conviction, “the woman who once had everything that money could buy was the most unhappy woman in Los Angeles today.” Yet, where was the concern, in this context much less the near absence of discussion in the Bonelli-focused piece, for Teruko Rokomoto, the widow with children to raise without her husband?
The presentation ended with an attempt to provide at least some redress of the grievous imbalance between how Pantages and her family was covered in the media during the proceedings covering most of the last half of 1929 and how Juro Rokumoto and his family were virtually ignored, except for the references to his being a “Japanese gardener.” Unfortunately, there was not a great deal of information that could be found about the Rokumotos.
In June 1913, Juro and Teruko, both residents of Riverside, were married in San Francisco. Five years later, when Juro registered for the draft as World War I was coming to an end (this being something of an irony given that the Japanese were subject to restrictions on owning land and other legal and social recriminations), he recorded that he was from Hiroshima (one of the two cities hit with atom bombs in 1945) and was a janitor at the Tetley Hotel in Riverside.
When the 1920 census was conducted, the couple, with a son, Hisoshi (William), almost six and a daughter, Fumi (Mary) who was four, resided on Denton Street, located near Riverside City College, and he was presumably still employed at the hostelry, situated at the northeast corner of University Avenue and Lime Street, where a city fire station is now located.
A couple years later, the family was living in Los Angeles on Vermont Avenue near Pico Boulevard and, strikingly, made the news when the youngest child, Grace, who was three was injured in November 1922 while riding in the family car and, when the vehicle hit a bump, a knife she was using to pare an apple penetrated her left eye and possibly causing the loss of sight. The 1924 Los Angeles Directory recorded that Joe Rokumoto, a porter (presumably in a hotel), resided in a Victorian-era cottage on Second Street near Breed Street in Boyle Heights, an ethnically diverse area where many Japanese lived at the time.
When the tragedy occurred that took Juro’s life, the Rokumotos lived on Vermont north of Beverly Boulevard, a couple of miles from the accident scene, but, when the 1930 census was taken, Teruko, Hisoshi, Mary and Grace, were renting a house near Olympic Boulevard and Normandie Avenue. This was an area with a number of Japanese residents and is now part of the Koreatown area of Los Angeles.
A month later, the family made news for the last time (at least what was found in searching for this talk) as it was reported that the Rokumotos applied for passports so that they could visit Japan once school ended for the children and before they were to return for the fall semester. Of course, it was added that the family received $53,000 as their share of the Pantages settlement, but it is important to add that the family was going to Hiroshima to visit Juro’s mother as part of the grieving process.
In 1931, the Rokumoto children were subjects of a “Alien Land Ownership” guardianship administered by the Bank of America National Trust and Savings Asociation, which appears to have involved proceeds from the Pantages settlement used to acquire property for their benefit until they reached the age of majority at 21 years old with this condition lasting until 1941.
Then, however, came the internment of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps and one wonders what happened to the Rokumotos. Grace was the only of the children who could be traced after that date and she, leaving a widow Kaoru (Mike) Tanita and at least one son, Phillip, died at age 70 in 1990 and is buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights. Perhaps there are descendants who are out there and may see this post.
If so, we want them to know that it is understood and appreciated that Juro (Joe) Rokumoto and his family were not just marginal figures, referred to only by their ethnicity, in a rich white woman’s murder trial, but were people who endured a terrible tragedy for which no amount of money could mitigate their loss.