by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In the 1920s, San Gabriel was a largely quiet, though growing, city, widely known for its “Queen of the Missions” and the “Mission Play, while also a place where Walter P. Temple invested heavily early in the decade in building three commercial structures and donating the site for the city hall across from the mission. On the evening of 7 February 1926, the general peacefulness was shattered when police officers Robert D. Bence and Elmer H. Griffin, while trying to arrest a quartet of suspected whisky bootleggers (this was the middle of Prohibition), were shot with the former wounded and the latter killed.
Griffin was just 22 years old and only very recently joined the force after working as a printer in Pasadena where he’d moved as a youngster with his father William G. Griffin and mother Nannie Hearn, though he was living with his aunt Olivia Hearn at the time of his murder. Initial news reports indicated that the officers were pulling up to the vehicle, which was speeding and was said to contain three Latinos and an Anglo along with a large quantity of hooch packed under the rear seat, when they were shot. Griffin was taken to Alhambra Hospital where he died about 20 minuts after arrival.
When the coroner’s inquest was held at the C.F. Lamb undertaking parlor, the testimony of Bence, who was interviewed at El Monte Hospital where he was treated for a trio of gunshot wounds, indicated that the motorcycle officers pulled the car over near the intersection of North Mission Drive and West Las Tunas Drive northwest of the Mission, climbed on the running board and ordered the driver to head towards the city jail. The unidentified Anglo, said to be leader of the gang running booze from Los Angeles, was in the back seat when he fired on Griffin, who cried out, “My God, they’ve got me.”
On the 10th, the Los Angeles Times reported that, as local police officers and county sheriff’s deputies were on a manhunt for the quartet,
there was a movement on foot [afoot] today on the part of influential citizens to form a vigilance committee to help the police in ridding the community of booze runners and other lawless elements. Feeling was running high as the brutal killing of Griffin and the wounding of Officer Robert D. Bence were discussed on the streets.
Seventy years earlier, during the very violent 1850s, San Gabriel was the scene of several dramatic incidents, including the 1852 murder of Joshua Bean, owner of a saloon in the mission town and brother of the later infamous Judge Roy Bean of Texas lore who lived and worked with his brother at the time, as well as the manhunt in 1857 for the killers of Los Angeles County Sheriff (and former son-in-law of Rancho La Puente co-owner John Rowland) James R. Barton.
In both of these incidents, vigilance committees rounded up Latino suspects and, in the Bean case, held a “popular tribunal” mimicking a trial and executed the alleged killers, including cobber Cipriano Sandoval, who was said by District Court Judge Benjamin Hayes to be completely innocent of any involvement. In fact, it was widely rumored that the shadowy and legendary bandido Joaquín Murrieta murdered Bean before getting away, though Murrieta was purportedly killed by a posse in the following year.
In the frenzied manhunt after Sheriff Barton and members of his small posse were killed in what is now Irvine by the Flores-Daniel gang, several people were sought at San Gabriel, including Miguel Soto who was chased into a swamp, burned out of the mire, killed and decapitated. Three other Latinos—Juan Valenzuela, Pedro López and Diego Navarro—were to be hung, but, when the rope broke, the trio were shot instead. There was no proof whatever that these four were at all involved in the killing of the sheriff and his posse, though there were claims that all were criminals.
This unsavory and grisly precedent may not have had anything to do with the talk of a vigilance committee following Griffin’s death, but the fact that there were Latinos purportedly involved and emotions running very high at a time when racism was still very much rampant in many areas of society (the Ku Klux Klan, for example, was revived in a major way, including in parts of greater Los Angeles) in 1926 is notable.
Fortunately, it does not appear that the vigilance committee idea got anywhere beyond the talking stage, but the Times reported that the San Gabriel Police Chief Arthur E. Manzer received a call on 11 February warning him, “we’ll get you if your officers don’t lay off the booze runners.” The call could not be traced, but Manzer told the paper that he was getting other calls “from citizens offering to do whatever they can to assist in the search.”
When it came to the Anglo who was said to have murdered Griffin, the prevailing theory early in the investigation was that “he preferred to shoot his way to liberty after the arrest, not because he feared conviction on the booze charge, but because he was wanted elsewhere for some more serious offense.” As it turned out, this supposition was not that far removed from the truth, as later events revealed.
Meanwhile, on the 10th, the Times noted that
As an expression of the determined spirit of local citizens to aid in the apprehension of the gang of rum runners who shot and killed Motorcycle Officer Elmer H. Griffin Sunday night, the City Trustees have passed a resolution offering a reward of $500 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the slayers. The Trustees also voted to buy additional guns for the use of City Marshal Manzer and his men and voted to increase the salaries of all members of the local force.
Resolutions were passed by the board commending Griffin for his bravery and the city clerk was ordered to send a letter to that effect to the murdered officer’s family. The featured artifact from the museum’s collection is a reward poster printed following the board’s vote and it is rather remarkable that it survived nearly ninety years when it was acquired back in 2014.
Despite the reward, there was trouble in tracking down the killers as the Pasadena Post reported that “like chalk marks on a slate disappearing before the sweep of a wet sponge, the trail of the four men responsible” for the heinous crime “has vanished leaving behind but a single clue,” though the paper did not elaborate on what that was. It was stated as well that Sheriff William I. Traeger told pursuing officers that, if the wanted men were found, “if they make the slightest move for a gun, shoot to kill.”
At the end of February, Charles Fitzgerald, the alleged ringleader of the quartet, was captured and was said by the Los Angeles Record to be “defiant and refuses to discuss the murder.” The paper added that he served 14 years for murder in Montana (it was a sheriff’s deputy and he was sentenced to 100 years), but was paroled two years prior. It was also said that Fitzgerald, who served three years from 1908-1911 at San Quentin for burglary, was arrested recently on a robbery charge, but escaped by leaping out a second-story window of the central Los Angeles police station.
A couple of days after Fitzgerald was nabbed, Louis Delorme, age 17, and 24-year old Antonio Rojo (the fourth man apparently made a clean getaway) were picked up at Pico and Stanford streets in what is now the Fashion District of downtown Los Angeles. Rojo furnished a written confession explaining that “Officers Griffin and Bence jumped on the running board of their cover and discovered it contained liquor. Fitzgerald began shooting. The officers shot back, wounding Rojo in the left shoulder and Fitzgerald in the groin.” Elsewhere it was stated that, while Griffin was paralyzed by a bullet that went through his stomach and hit his spine, he somehow managed to fire three shots, including the one that wounded his killer.
On 13 March, Chief Manzer presented and Sheriff Traeger pinned gold badges ordered by the San Gabriel trustees to deputy sheriffs Edward T. Hackett and Abel P. Mendoza “for effecting the capture of the three alleged murderers” of Griffin. Fitzgerald, Rojo (who’d served hard time in Washington state for grand larceny for which he was paroled in 1919, and in Montana for robbery for which he was paroled when Fitzgerald was in 1924, and Delorme, who was sent to juvenile court, pled guilty to their roles.
Fitzgerald finally decided to talk and sent a letter to Los Angeles Police Department Captain William Bright, saying,
To say the least, you claim to be a square shooter. They have me shot down for an interview today. We shall try to open up your eyes between the character and loytalty of a real pal and a craven skunk.
When Bright arrived at the jail, Fitzgerald asked that Delorme and Rojo be brought in, but when the teen was asked to tell what he knew, he shunned Fitzgerald and clammed up, leading the older man to ask “Didn’t I feed you and get money for you?.” Answering in the affirmative, but unwilling to say anything further, Delorme was sent back to his cell.
Rojo, however, told Fitzgerald, “you shot Police Officer Griffin and I shot Bence. We both had guns. You were sitting on the left side of the car and after you fired the shot you fell out of the machine.” This led Griffin’s killer to respond, “”That’s correct—that’s the way it happened. I killed Griffin. I was wanted for robbery and escape and I didn’t want to be arrested. We both had 38 calibre guns. I had the gun that I took away from a policeman in Huntington Park.”
Fitzgerald went on that he wanted to go straight and would have if he hadn’t met Delorme and Rojo, though he also said, “I did time with Rojo in the Montana penitentiary.” When he was finished, he and Rojo were said to have been relieved at confessing and satisfied that their pleas were accepted and life sentences handed down, rather than receiving the death penalty, which they surely would have gotten if their cases had gone to trial.
While the whereabouts of Delorme and Rojo were not traced beyond the latter’s admission to Folsom State Prison. Fitzgerald, who arrived with Rojo at that facility, wound up making the papers 45 years later when, being the oldest convict in the state prison system, the 85-year old, known as “Old Fitz,” was, after being routinely denied parole since 1933, freed.
It was a cold, rainy day, when the old man stepped out of the prison gates ad remarked, “Well, it’s a nice, pleasant day. I feel good, couldn’t feel better . . . I just want to get the hell away from here.” With a paper sack containing all his worldly goods and a small Social Security check and senior welfare assistance coming to him monthly for his years working as a prison barber, Fitzgerald, who was to live with a foster family in Sacramento, said he was looking forward to a steak and maybe going to a zoo, but added,
I’m supposed to have killed that cop, but they didn’t know if I killed him or not. I had to cop out and plead guilty. the Los Angeles district attorney said I wouldn’t spend more than 10 years in prison. I should have been out of here thirty years ago.
Clearly, this was revisionist history given what was reported in 1926 and no one seems to have looked back at the Times’ back files to see what was stated way back when.
In any case, Fitzgerald lived nearly another five years and died in Sacramento in October 1976 at the ripe old age of 90. His Find-a-Grave listing had no information about him, but earlier this evening a request was sent to update the listing and point out that Fitzgerald was the murderer of a police officer, one who died heroically in the line of duty.