by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The burgeoning advent of the automobile in the early 20th century not only allowed for greater freedom and mobility for the commuter, the family on a Sunday drive, the tourist and many others, but it also proved a boon for the criminal, who often found that the quick “getaway” via car was a marked advancement from earlier forms of escape by foot or animal-drawn conveyances.
As the auto became even more dominant in car-centric Los Angeles during the first years of the century, one of the more dramatic instances of its use for nefarious ends is represented in tonight’s highlighted object from the museum’s holdings: a photo of a poster celebrating the 28 February 1916 capture of a “High Powered Rifle Bandit Gang” in downtown Los Angeles.
The item focused on eight persons, including three women, who were seized by private detective Paul Blair, who owned his own agency, and George K. Home and Harry J. Raymond, detectives with the Los Angeles Police Department, who nabbed the most of the group outside the Mozart Apartments, located on Hill Street, south of 10th, where a parking lot is now next to the Mayan Theatre.
The collage of photos includes a shot of Blair and five of his quarry, mug shots of a half-dozen of the captives, portraits of the three women as well as Raymond, a clipping from the Los Angeles Examiner of 1 May, and text listing the guns and ammunition found in one of the apartments and describing the bandits and their activities.
The main figures were John Roderick Fleming (spelled “Flemming” on the document), the brothers Frank and W.J. Shank, Robert Burns, R.E. Renwick and Eva Douglas, while Mrs. Sidney Grant and Pearl Williams were considered “associates of the gang.” The first six all had aliases, some of which will be discussed below, and Douglas was described as “Mrs. ‘Bob’ Renwick.” The firepower included six rifles, three revolvers and 2000 rounds of ammunition.
As for the text it began with:
This gang of bandits has terrorized Los Angeles City and County for 6 weeks, holding up citizens in automobiles on the highways, grocery stores, drug stores and meat markets, using high-powered rifles. After holding up automobile parties, they would shoot holes in the tires [presumably to forestall being followed]. This gang of 5 men and one woman [Douglas] was trailed for 6 days and nights . . .
It was added that the group was picked up at the Mozart just a half-hour after the robbed the Rosenbusch meat market (Mrs. Rosenbusch was locked in the ice box by the robbers) in what was called Boyle Heights but later became part of East Los Angeles on Stephenson Avenue (now Whittier Boulevard) across from Calvary Cemetery and near today’s Interstate 710.
The account continued that after these figures were locked up in the city jail, Blair, Home and Raymond then “arrested 16 other known thieves and hold-up me who were known pals of this gang, having been made by Raymond and Blair while they were shadowing the High Powered Rifle Gang.” It was added that “all of these were convicted [previously] on other charges.
The 29 February (it was, of course, a leap year as our presidential election years are) edition of the Los Angeles Express had a lengthy feature on the gang and their purported confederates and/or “pals,” these latter including Sidney H. Grant, whose wife was identified as Jessie Moore, John Osrem, Arthur Paine and Alexander Gonzales, who were cooling their heels in the city’s lock-up, and Robert Davis and James McGrain, confined at the county’s hoosegow. Subsequently, Arthur Leaman and Elton Marr were picked up because of purported associations with some of the core gang.
The Shanks and Fleming were identified by a teenager who saw them at the meat market, but it was also alleged that they and others in the gang were the auto bandits who, on 24 January, killed “Captain” Jack Hendrickson, a private security guard at the exclusive Chester Place neighborhood near the University of Southern California, where such wealthy Angelenos as oil tycoon Edward L. Doheny lived.
As for the main group in the city jail, it was reported that all denied being involved in any criminal activity, with Paine saying he hadn’t seen any of the group for three months though later the men were reported to have clammed up and refused to talk at all. Pearl Williams, revealed to have been a Los Angeles Polytechnic High School graduate, burst into tears and told the Express that she only knew some of the persons because she lived at the Mozart, while Jessie Moore also insisted she had nothing to do with the others aside from a casual acquaintance.
Blair revealed that Fleming was “the brains of the organization,” telling the paper that he was “a criminal who formerly operated in the North and the Northwest” and the Express added that it “is said by the detective to have an unenviable reputation” but was directly quoted that “while it is true that I furnished a great deal of the information” about the suspects, “due credit must be given Police Chief [Clarence] Snively and Assistant Chief Home for the capable manner in which the arrests were made.”
After noting that watches, jewelry “and other loot” was found in the possession of the criminals, Blair continued that Fleming “like several of his associates arrested last night, is a drug fiend—what we call a ‘hop head.'” Not only this, but two of the arrested men were, the detective alleged, guilty of “white slavery” by having carried one of the women from Oregon to the Angel City. He added that he was sure Fleming issued shoot-to-kill orders in case they were confronted by law enforcement.
Blair went on to suggest that a couple of the bandits even clambered on board his vehicle ready to rob him when “they discovered their mistake . . . and fled” and there was an attempt to rob them on another occasion, while Raymond got close enough to Fleming and others to hear some of their plans. While he could not attest to the fact that someone in the gang killed Hendrickson, he was convinced some of the guns confiscated were involved in homicides and was sure “this gang has had much to do with the recent epidemic of holdups in this city.” He also averred that the group owned an auto shop so they could rebuild stolen cars and claimed to have evidence they had advance orders for vehicles to be stolen and rebuilt and had a “resort” at Cahuenga Pass as a hideout.
In the 1 March edition of the Los Angeles Times, it was reported that the mass arrests constituted “a twenty-four hour crusade against what the police call the boldest gang of bandits that ever infested the city.” This is quite a statement considering the raft of robbers, thieves and murderers who roamed the region in the mid-19th century, including the semi-legendary Joaquín Murrieta, the Red Irving gang, the Flores-Daniel gang, and others.
The paper added that there were plans to rob a pair of saloons by blowing up their safes and a general store when the gang was captured and Renwick, also known as Frank Rallston, was said to have committed the robbery of $600 from a Culver City bank some weeks prior. Two men were said to have fingered him for hold-ups, while a pair of others identified Burns and Fleming in similar incidents. Later accounts claimed to link some of the group to crimes in the Los Feliz neighborhood and along Wilshire Boulevard in the city and at San Fernando.
Of the men being held, several had prior records, including Paine, Osrem, Burns (who’d spent time at the Whittier state reform school) and W.J. Shank for minor offenses. Frank Shank was an opium smoker in San Francisco, Grant was arrested in Santa Ana two years before on a grand larceny rap after being released on parole for a similar charge in San Diego in 1912.
Rallston/Renwick was also known as Robert Stevenson when he was nabbed in 1910 in San Francisco for robbery, but it was Fleming who had the longest record. As a teen, he was sent to the George Junior Republic, a reform school recently relocated from San Fernando, its first home, to what is now Chino Hills, where it remains today, but escaped in 1909. He was also committed to the state reform school at Whittier and another at Ione in the northern part of the state. After stealing a motorcycle, he was sent to San Quentin at the start of 1914 for a five-year term, but was paroled on 28 January 1916 and immediately recommenced his criminal career.
As for the ill-gotten gains of the criminals, the paper added that there were cameras, binoculars or field glasses, and two suitcases of other items, along with clothing and toilet articles (probably mirrors, brushes and the like that came in sets), while the apartments contained whisky and cocaine (hence the “hop head” designation from Blair.) W.J. Shank collapsed while in jail and allowed that he went to the Mozart to borrow money to buy whisky and it sounds as if he was suffering from delirium tremens.
The Times’ coverage ended with the note that:
A peculiar phase of the multiplicity of arrests is the fact that none of the prisoners, not even those addicted to the use of drugs, has so far indicated a desire to confess, or has attempted to place the blame of the crimes on other members of the gang.
That day, the Express published a lengthy piece on Williams and reported that information gleaned from her (police focused on the women first, evidently believing they were more likely to squeal) led to the search of another dwelling, this one on Washington Boulevard, occupied by the mother and sisters of one of the arrested men, who was not identified.
Williams stated that she was well known at Poly High, but did not want her maiden name known, she having been briefly married before a separation, which led her to move to the Mozart, where she happened to know John Osrem (spelled as Oerum in this piece.) She claimed she knew of the police surveillance and wouldn’t have stayed there and would have told Osrem about the law enforcement presence if she was part of the gang.
Jessie Moore allowed that she was with Sydney Grant, but had a husband “whom she does not want to know of her predicament,” but added that “I am perfectly innocent of any wrong doing and that I know of nothing that will help” the police in heir investigation. In fact, officials were soon certain that Moore and Williams had no involvement in any of the crimes, but Douglas was a different story.
This was most manifest in an article on 2 March in the Express, which referred to the petite woman as the “Gang Queen” and opened with “that pretty Eva Douglas, known as Mrs. ‘Boston Bob’ Renwick, attired in boy’s clothes, was lying huddled in the bottom of the bandits’ automobile the night they are said to have held up O.L. Anderson and his wife on the Los Feliz road.” Moreover, it was reported that detectives were confident “they may be able to connect the daring little blonde woman with a number of the burglaries and highway robberies being charged against the gang.”
Moreover, the piece continued, “it was positively known, police say, that the Douglas woman, who has been called the leader and the queen of the auto bandit ring” was observed walking toward the car that went to the East Los Angeles meat market, but turned away when she realized she was being watched—this, apparently, led to her being detained. She was identified as the wife of Renwick (Rallston/Stevenson), who was acting as if he was the leader of the gang and investigators posited that she was either in love with him or with the excitement of crime.
Noting that she was the only of the three women who did not offer their stories, the Express added that “the Douglas woman has simply laughed at all questioners,” while dropping hints that she could, if she chose, explain the presence of the weapons in her room at the Mozart.” She was quoted as saying, “I will when the time comes, but that time has not arrived. Yes, I could tell a great deal.” When asked about the bandits, however, Douglas glibly answered, “What auto bandits?”
Yet, the Venice Vanguard of the 3rd reported that, while Douglas was the last of the women to be held, and that “she was supposed to be the leader of the gang, as it was in her room that much of the burglars’ loot was found,” the police now believed it was “doubtful if even a vagrancy charge can be proved against her.”
By mid-March, several of the tangential figures were tried for vagrancy, with most pleading guilty and probably getting either a few days in the city lockup or paying a nominal fine. Frank Shank (his sibling was released because of insufficient evidence), Burns, Renwick and Fleming were held to answer on felony charges related to their alleged escapades and, the latter, on whose lap Douglas sat while they were in the city jail, gallantly sought her release by claiming that she had no involvement in what was solely his responsibility.
Douglas was released, but at the end of May, she was rearrested when it was found that Fleming and the others still held pending trial had possession of daggers made from table knives from the kitchen, as well as files and revolver pieces said to have been smuggled in by women friends. When Douglas, called “Mrs. Frank Renwick,” showed up with a parcel of food, she was nabbed and it was thought that her arrival was a signal for an escape by the prisoners. She was let go and the quartet of jailbirds refused to sing when the jailer questioned them about the dirks and partial gun.
In the end, the sole charge levied against the defendants was the robbery of the Rosenbusch meat market, which yielded a haul of all of $5. Perhaps there simply was not enough evidence in all the other purported crimes and that the witness testimony and other evidence was strongest in the East Los Angeles robbery. Douglas was a faithful attendee at Fleming’s trial, the result of which was his conviction on 22 June.
When it was Renwick’s turn at the dock a couple of weeks later, Douglas tearfully testified for her “husband,” claiming that his alibi was that the pair were harmonizing together all night at their Mozart love nest. The “dramatic circumstances” of her appearance did not work, however, as Renwick was also found guilty in the meat market crime. Burns, too, was convicted in early July, while Shank was to face trial last, but there is no record of a result (he does not, however, show up in San Quentin Prison records, so it appears he my have been acquitted.) Burns and Renwick each got five years, while Fleming, perhaps because of his leadership role, was given an additional year.
Burns served three years and was released, but went on to earn another stint in prison in Oregon. Renwick, whose real name was Robert E. Stevenson, was returned to Los Angeles in February 1917 for his appeal and there was a resulting overturning of his conviction and he was freed. In fall 1921, however, under the name of Frank Allen and the nickname of “London Bob,” (recall his “Boston Bob” moniker above), although he was from Scotland, the 40-year old Renwick was convicted for the robbery of a Sacramento druggist, who shot him, but the defective gun only fired the bullet such that it lodged in his skin over his heart. The pharmacist was was killed in 1932 in a gun battle, one of several in his career, fought with a recent Folsom Prison parolee.) He was given a sentence of one year to life (not uncommon in those days) paroled in early 1927, but returned to prison eleven years later on a violation, finally earning his release in June 1942.
As for Fleming, he served a little over four years and was released in September 1920. In under a year, however, he was back at San Quentin after an attempted murder conviction in San Francisco, earning him a 1-14 year stretch. Once again, Fleming was released on parole and apparently worked as a card dealer in a ship off the coast of San Pedro and Long Beach.
In May 1932, Fleming, apparently drunk and angry that Amos “Max” Leese, a water company superintendent in the San Bernardino County mining town of Randsburg, refused to buy a drink for his dance-hall girl date, shot Leese to death. Boasting to officers that “I’m plenty tough,” that he was a “big shot” on gambling boats, and that he was “the toughest guy that ever came out of Los Angeles,” Fleming was convicted of capital murder. While he sought to have his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment, the state supreme court declined to act and the career criminal and brutal murderer was hung at Folsom in November 1933.
The story of the High Powered Rifle Bandit Gang is a notable one, but it veered, as is so often the case, into tangents not imaginable when the photo of the arrest collage was acquired several years ago. It is just another illustration of how any perceived surface value of an historic artifact can develop an entirely new currency with a little research and there will no doubt be many other such examples in future posts on this blog.