"Bad Boys, Dead Boys"

It was Thursday, April 26th 1934 and it was just another routine day of patrol for the San Rafael Police Department.  But by the time this day ended, it turned out to be anything but routine. SRPD officers Phil Le Cornec and A. W. Dewey doubled upin a patrol car with Dewey driving and they started their patrol of the city on day shift.  While slowly patrolling by the railroad yards (south of Second Street at the bottom of Lincoln Avenue) at about 2:30 PM in the afternoon, two men suddenly jumped out from behind some bushes and they ran up to the police car.  Both men had guns and they pointed their weapons at the officers.  Le Cornec reached for his rifle that he carried on the front floorboard and Dewey went for his shoulder holster to get his revolver, but alas, it was too late as the two men disarmed the officers. 

 

Le Cornec and Dewey must have wondered who these men were as they had received no information about any dangerous men in town.  As it turned out the two were Wanda Stewart and Walter Wyeth, both males who were serving time in San Quentin State Prison.  Earlier in the day they had been on a work detail outside the prison walls when they overpowered their guard and took off.  They were also able to obtain two handguns that someone had hidden for them.  Their plan was to take over the next car that drove by the railroad yard and as luck would have it, it was a San Rafael Police Car.  They ordered Dewey to drive to Lake Tahoe but as they neared their destination they changed course and drove south through the Mojave Desert to San Bernardino.  Meanwhile word of the escape finally got out at about the same time that it was discovered that the officers were missing.  Was there link between the two?  A massive search was conducted for the officers, but they had disappeared into thin air.

 

Finally, after arriving on the outskirts of San Bernardino, Stewart and Wyeth released the officers and proceeded to rob a nearby pharmacy.  Their take was $35 in cash, some soap and a razor.  As they drove off, a Victorville Deputy Sheriff spotted the car as the officers had now been missing for 30 hours and word had been put out all over the state. The Deputy went after them, but Stewart and Wyeth had no intention of giving up.  A major gun battle ensued which resulted in the Deputy shooting and killing both of the desperados. In addition, the San Rafael Police car was all shot up.  After repairing the car, (which included cleaning the inside) Le Cornec and Dewey returned to San Rafael on the following Monday, safe and sound. SRPD Chief Sabin Kane interviewed both officers and after he completed his investigation, he promptly fired both of them for failing to overpower the suspects and to allow themselves to be kidnapped in the first place.  This created an uproar in the city and it was discussed at several City Council meetings.  After all, both officers were safe and both convicts were dead.  Finally after many weeks both officers were reinstated and put back on the force.  Dewey worked into the mid 1940's and left the department.  Phil Le Cornec stayed with the department but suffered an unexpected heart attack on April 20, 1953 and died while still employed by the department.

 

Attached are two photos.  One is of SRPD Chief Sabin Cain interviewing Officer A. W. Dewey about his kidnap ordeal and the other is a mugshot of convicts Wanda Stewart (convicted of robbery) and Walter Wyeth (convicted of forgery) which were taken when they first entered San Quentin Prison.

Posted on January 7, 2015 .

"Crash"

What is the worst traffic accident that has happened in Marin County in terms of fatalities?  In order to find that answer we need to go back to a Saturday evening on October 3rd, 1964 where six people died in a fiery crash on Highway 101 on the San Rafael Viaduct.  On that evening a male driving solo in a sports car was traveling northbound on Highway 101 at a very high rate of speed.  After passing the San Rafael flats, he entered the San Rafael Viaduct with witnesses reporting that he was traveling at 90 to 100 miles per hour. As the Viaduct curved to the right, the driver lost control of his car and he crossed the center divider, which was over Third Street, and he struck a vehicle head on traveling in the southbound lane that contained a family of five.  The Viaduct, which was built in 1941 (prior to that Lincoln Avenue was Highway 101) had two lanes going in each direction with a concrete center divider.  However the divider was only about 4 inches tall and about 18 inches wide. Nothing else separated the northbound and southbound lanes of traffic at that time.  

 

When the cars hit, they both exploded into flames. SRPD Officer Carl Selby was one of the first officers to arrive at the scene and a short time later he reported over his radio that there were six fatalities.  The Viaduct was shut down for several hours and traffic was diverted to the city streets, which caused gridlock.  It was also decided that the bodies could not be removed from the cars at the scene because of the fire and the severe vehicle damage.  Both cars were towed, with the victims inside, to Duffy Brothers Garage located at Third and C Street.  The victims were then removed from the wreckage inthe tow yard, which was witnessed by a crowd of several hundred people who had heard about the crash and had gathered to watch what was going on.  No other vehicle accident in Marin County history has exceeded the number of lives that were taken in this accident. Years later a better center divider was installed to prevent head on accidents.  A new southbound Viaduct was built much later which is now next to the original Viaduct that still handles northbound traffic.  The next time you drive northbound up the Viaduct and start your sweeping turn to the right take a moment to think about the five innocent lives that were lost that October night because of the actions of one reckless driver.

 

Attached is a photo taken the next day of the vehicle that contained the five victims as it sat at the storage lot at Duffy Brothers Garage.  A second photo is attached which is a day photo of a similar head on collision that happened on October 8, 1964, just five days after the fatal crash.  In this photo you can see the almost non-existent center divider with a CHP motorcycle parked on top of it.

Posted on January 7, 2015 .

"Show Me The Way To Go Home"

San Rafael has had a small private airport for many years located in the Terra Linda area by the Contempo Marin Mobile Home Park.  But in the early days there was a second airport located in the Canal area of San Rafael that was there from about the 1930's to the early 1960's.  The San Rafael Airport was home to several planes and there were a few hangars on the site as well. The runway ran east and west and was located on what is now Larkspur Street.  From time to time pilots would arrive back home during the hours of darkness, which created a problem as there were no runway lights, but there was a plan for such instances.  When a pilot arrived at night, he would fly at a very low altitude over downtown San Rafael and buzz City Hall which was then located at Fifth and A Street.  Once the pilot succeeded in getting the attention of a Police Officer (the police department was located in the basement) the Officer would immediately jump into his patrol car and drive to the airport and use his car headlights to light up the threshold of the runway.  With a lighted runway, the pilot was able to make a safe landing.  Over the years, the San Rafael Police Department was most likely responsible for the safe landing of many aircraft at this airport.  The San Rafael Airport was closed in the early 1960's when the Canal area started to be developed.

Attached are two photos.  One is a 1957 aerial photo of the San Rafael Airport.  Located in the lower right corner of the photo is the Marin Motor Movies, which stood on the site now known as the Marin Square Shopping Center.  Below the Motor Movies is Highway 580 as it crosses over Highway 101, which is still there today and in the lower left corner is the San Rafael Airport showing the runway running along what is now Larkspur Street.  The second photo is of a fire that took place at the airport on July 8, 1957 that burned eight airplanes, causing $150,000 in damage. San Rafael Hill can be seen at the far right side of the photo.

 

Posted on January 7, 2015 .

"Shooting for Dollars"

Charles J. Chiesa served as San Rafael's Police Chief from 1959 to 1969.  His main legacy is that he was the last elected San Rafael Police Chief.  But there was one other thing that stood out during Chiesa's tenure and that was Pay Day Meetings.  Chief Chiesa felt that it was important to get the entire Department together once a month so everyone could hear first hand what was new in the Department.  Chiesa chose the first payday of the month to have these meetings and they were held in the Department briefing room, which is still used for that purpose today.  The meeting was mandatory and it didn't matter when you worked last or what excuses you had, you just needed to show up.  You might be thinking that this was very expensive to do considering all the overtime that would have to be paid to get everyone to these meetings, but think again.  In those days you were ordered to show up and you didn't get paid.

 

These meetings were run by Chiesa's second in command, Capt. Joseph J. Brusatori.  Capt. Brusatori addressed the employees, going over the current business of the day and also reading the, "Good Boy" letters, which came in from citizens.  After each one one was read, there would sometimes be groans from the group with comments like, "Stop getting your mother to write all those letters."  Chief Chiesa would then address the group with anything important he had and being an elected Police Chief, you can bet he had a lot of important things to say.  Chief Chiesa was also insistent that all of his officers be well trained in the use of firearms and officers had to qualify at the pistol range once a month.  The range was open Monday through Friday for half a day with a range master present.  The last order of business at these meetings was the reading of the, "List of Shame."  These were officers who for whatever reason, never made it to the range to qualify for the month.  Chief Chiesa's policy regarding this matter was simple, "No shoot, No pay." So at the end of the meeting, delinquent officers rushed to the range to qualify and then rushed back to the police department to pick up their paychecks.  Needless to say, the first payday of the month turned out to be a very busy day at the pistol range.  Pay Day meetings ended with the retirement of Chief Chiesa.

 

Attached are two photographs.  The first photo is of Chief Chiesa and Capt. Brusatori.  The photo was taken in May of 1962 at the annual Traffic Boy's Picnic at Albert Park.  The second photo is of a San Rafael Police Officer qualifying at the old San Rafael Pistol Range which was located in the area of Windward Way and Kerner Blvd.  The photo was taken in February of 1966.  

Posted on July 14, 2014 .