Select a language:

Challenges of Progress

In 1898 Theo Lacy, who was the second sheriff, was elected as the fourth sheriff of Orange County. As the 1800s were drawing to a close the Orange County Sheriff's Department stood ready to take a giant leap forward into the twentieth century. On September 5, 1899, the voters of Orange County overwhelmingly approved a bond issue to finance the construction of the new courthouse. The new building would include a private room for the sheriff, offices for most of the other county officials, a courtroom, witness room, jury room, judges' chambers and a library.

To make this dream a reality, an architectural competition was held which Charles L. Strange of Los Angeles won. His design was described as Richardsonian Romanesque, yet the drawings were not a true form of this style. Some, who would have preferred a more “modern” style, called the design “Gothic.” Despite the controversy, ground was broken on April 24, 1900, and local contractors Chris McNeill and J. Willis Blee, who had submitted the low bid of $91,896, began work.

Eighteen months after the groundbreaking, the building was declared complete and all county offices commenced their move. In his spacious new quarters, Sheriff Lacy had room to get his records in order, to modernize his equipment and even enlarge his staff. But most important of all, his proximity to other officers of the county made him more a part of the hardworking staff running Orange County in the fall of 1901. Lacy, his chief deputy and Undersheriff Robert Squires did most of the work in the office. He also had another deputy and staff for the jail.

The sheriff's office continued to cooperate with other law enforcement agencies. Wanted posters, reduced and reprinted, were sent through the mail as postcards and arrived almost daily. During Lacy's term these cards were placed in a book for easy reference.

A rural crime that Lacy and his men were able to solve right after taking office was cattle rustling. The sheriff had received word about a group of cattle thieves who were operating in the Bolsa area. He dispatched a deputy, who worked in cooperation with local citizens. The men were able to track down and bring to trial three cattle thieves who had been suspected of committing crimes in Los Angeles and Orange counties for several years. The stock was finally located after a search of nearly ten days and the community had high praise for their law enforcement officials. Unfortunately, the jury trying the case was not as impressed. After hearing testimony they acquitted one individual and could not reach agreement on another. The third rustler, who pleaded guilty, was sentenced to five years in Folsom.

Soon after Sheriff Lacy took office, a crime was committed that resulted in frustration-the murder of James M. Gregg on June 10, 1899. Witnesses stated that Gregg had been involved in a heated dispute with Henry and Thomas Hungerford over how much was owed to the Hungerfords for pasturing Gregg's stock. The Hungerfords went into their house, allegedly returned with guns, and killed Gregg.

Gregg had been a popular person and the trial of the Hungerfords required a large courtroom. They jury found them guilty, but the defense made a motion for a new trial on the basis of insufficient evidence. There was, it seems, a conflict about who had fired the first shot, since all parties had guns drawn and the only person to testify that it had been the Hungerfords was a fourteen-year-old boy. After Judge J.W. Ballard granted the motion, the sheriff, the jury and the prosecuting attorneys walked away in frustration. Having no new evidence to present, the case was dismissed.

Another sensational murder involved a woman. Katie Cook, in a rage of jealousy, had shot her husband, Tom, whom she suspected of having an affair with their young maid in their own home. Tom Cook was well known as the local hothead. He had been acquitted in 1896 for killing a man in a gunfight and public sentiment at the time had berated the jury for letting him go. Katie was found not guilty on December 23, 1899.

A popular sheriff, Lacy was elected to two more four-year terms, once in 1902 and again in 1906. But in the election of 1910 he had difficultly. Charles Ruddock, who had waged a strong campaign against Howard A. Wassum for the Republican nomination, was able to beat Lacy in a close race.

Ruddock was a quiet man, he was known for his integrity and for his ability as a conciliator. Yet his term as sheriff was far from peaceful. It began with one of the most sensational manhunts in Orange County history-one that would end with two dead.

On the evening of December 16, 1912, Sheriff Ruddock received a telephone call from the Irvine station, telling him that a drifter who had fled into the hills had attacked a young Irvine girl. Sheriff Ruddock immediately rounded up assistance and took off after the assailant.

A tall, slim young man about twenty-seven years old had stopped at the ranch of Bill Cook asking for work. None being available, he was sent away, but not before he saw Cook's sixteen-year-old niece, Myrtle. Later that night he returned to the ranch. The dog was barking so Cook sent Myrtle and her younger sister out to tie up the dog.

While outside, a man with a gun jumped out at them and tied up the younger girl, after firing once into the ground, taking Myrtle behind the barn. The younger girl untied herself and ran screaming into the house. Her uncle, who had no weapons, immediately went for help as two more shots were fired from behind the barn.

Gathering men from nearby farms, Cook returned only to find the assailant gone. The sheriff, Undersheriff Robert Squires, Deputy Tex Stacey, Constable Calvin E. Jackson, and Marshal Sam Jernigan along with a score of local farmers, searched all night with lanterns. Word was received by early morning that the suspect was seen heading for an area called Tomato Springs.

When the posse caught up with him, the fugitive taunted the men to get him and ran off into the foothills. When Squires caught up, both fired at close range. Squires was killed. Tex Stacey caught up with the man next, noticing he was wounded. Soon Stacey was wounded himself, and although he shifted his gun to his other hand the gun was shot away, and both hands were useless.

Meanwhile, others circled the assailant's position. By mid-morning there were more than 200 people involved in the shootout, including Company L of the National Guard. Several guardsmen were selected to charge the gunman, including Captain Nate Ulm, a former deputy sheriff. They slowly got into position, and then attacked. Shots were fired and the gunman was dead, a hole through his temple. The “Tomato Springs Bandit,” as he was later called, was taken to Santa Ana.

The identity of the criminal was not known for several years. He was thought to be Ira Jones of Oregon and it is this name that appeared on the tombstone. But later records showed that his father, a former mayor of Eugene, Oregon, who did not want to acknowledge the relationship, positively identified the body as Joe Matlock. Two other facts also emerged: the Irvine girl had been unhurt; and Joe Matlock the “Tomato Springs Bandit,” was slowly dying of tuberculosis when he incited the manhunt.

The incident became known as the bloodiest battle in Orange County history, leaving Squires and Matlock dead and three other wounded. Squires became the first Orange County peace officer to be killed in the line of duty. After the notoriety of this famous shootout, things quieted down for Sheriff Ruddock.

In August 1912 Orange County prohibitionists were strong and communities were “dry.” Although national Prohibition would come later, laws were very stringent, but abuse was widespread. Part-time help was hired to help in the unincorporated areas where a number of “blind pigs” were operating.

“Blind Pig” was the name given to a place that appeared to be another business, but was actually selling liquor without a license. In order to catch the violators a deputy was sent undercover, usually posing as a customer. After determining the place was actually selling liquor disguised as something else, either the criminals would be arrested on the spot or the sheriff would be told so a “raid” could be arranged.

Merle Ramsey and his father were hired for some of these jobs. On one occasion there was suspected blind pigger by the name of Gimpy Williams who lived near El Toro. Ramsey and his father traveled to El Toro to check things out. They stopped at Williams with the story they were out rabbit hunting and wanted some beer to take with them. He led them to an old woodshed, lifted up a trap door in the floor and disclosed a cache of beer in bottles, tiered like a cord of wood. It made a good hiding place and kept the beer cool. They bought a logical amount and traveled on toward El Toro.

They then went to the District Attorney's office and sealed and signed the evidence, which was locked in the office safe. Later they returned with a member of the District Attorney's office. They told Williams that he, too, wanted some beer and Williams sold the beer to them. Williams was promptly arrested and taken to jail.

On another occasion Ramsey and his father were sent to investigate a local café in Brea where the sale of liquor was suspected. They noticed that some customers received their coffee and refills directly from the kitchen, instead of the pot in plain view. After frequenting the place, the Ramseys asked for some of the “good coffee” and received it. It turned out to be wine. Once the waiter had returned to the kitchen, they poured it into a special bottle and took it in as evidence. The sheriff later raided the café.

In addition to “blind pig” raids, sheriff's officers were frequently called in to catch walnut thieves, orange thieves and the ever-present vagrants. Occasionally a call came in for the sheriff to investigate smugglers. In this period smuggling was not liquor, but Chinese.

Chinese exclusion law had been adopted as early as 1882, although permanent exclusion came in 1902. Because they were a source of cheap labor and in great demand, smuggling of Chinese became a lucrative trade for those who engaged in it. The price for delivering a Chinese worker was reportedly $500 a head.

A most successful smuggler was a man named Ansel Edward O'Banion who arranged for Chinese to be loaded onto boats off the coast of Mexico and then put ashore in various places, including Orange County. Favorite smuggling spots were the mouths of Aliso and San Mateo creeks, Arch Beach and the Bolsa Chica area.

The Chinese who were successfully landed were tied together and would walk, sometime for days, through remote canyons to appointed pick-up sites. There they would be loaded into wagons and hidden beneath sacks or other cargo and usually taken to Chinatown in Los Angeles. If a boat was caught before the landing was made, it was not unknown for the unscrupulous smugglers to tie a weight to their Chinese cargo and throw them overboard so there would be no “evidence.”

O'Banion was finally caught and his smuggling ring broken. He stood trial in Los Angeles in 1914 and was convicted of smuggling eighteen Chinese at Bolsa Chica in 1911 and 100 more at various other times at a profit of $50,000. In truth he had smuggled many more, but for these he was sentenced to eighteen months of hard labor.

On January 1, 1915, Calvin E. Jackson became the sixth Sheriff of Orange County. Jackson assumed office at the age of forty-six and became one of the most popular California sheriffs. People said he was a man who held the respect of all who knew him, even the criminals whom he caused to be arrested, for they knew that in his hands they would be dealt with in justice.

Jackson personally trained his staff, which by 1915 numbered eight men and two women, and often took the lead in apprehension of suspects, using procedures he had developed. His account book was impeccable, noting the number of arrests, warrants served, sheriff's sales held and other duties for which the sheriff was paid separately in addition to his $3,500 a year salary. He kept a current mug book of prisoners held at Folsom, which described each in detail down to tattoos and pursued criminals with a vengeance.

Jackson's efficiency and attention to detail was well known. Nowhere was it better demonstrated than in his handling of the Mose Gibson case.

Mose Gibson had murdered a prominent rancher in the Fullerton-Placentia area with a pickaxe. He then fled to Arizona where he was apprehended and the sheriff was notified. Sheriff Jackson immediately made arrangement for someone to go to Arizona to get the prisoner. To make sure there was no escape he sent Theo Lacy, Jr., son of former sheriff, Undersheriff E.E. French, officer Frank Stewart, Santa Ana Constable Jesse L. Elliott and John W. Tubbs, who served as driver.

When the group returned with the prisoner, so much talk of lynching was heard that they took him straight to the Los Angeles county jail. A squad was dispatched at night to bring the suspect to the Orange County Courthouse for his preliminary hearing before Judge John B. Cox at 5 a.m. The trial was held in Judge R.Y. Williams' courtroom at 8 a.m. the same morning, while armed deputies stood guard outside the courtroom door. The defendant had pleaded guilty to the grisly murder, so a death sentence was ordered. Mose Gibson was then put into a car and driven to San Quentin, where he was hanged “on the appointed day.”

On January 10, 1921, Bebe Daniels, famous film vamp, was arrested for going fifty-six miles per hour on a highway south of Santa Ana. Wagers were set on whether or not Judge Cox would sentence her to jail as he would anyone else who exceeded fifty miles per hour. Daniels pleaded guilty and was sentenced to jail. The resulting publicity not only enhanced her career, but also made Judge Cox a celebrity.

Her stay was like no other. Flowers arrived daily, a band from Seal Beach serenaded beneath her cell window, special furniture was provided, special food was sent in and numerous photos were taken of the film star peeking out between the bars of her cell. When she left, the fun ended and the jail once again stood ready for business.

In 1913, because the caseload had grown tremendously, the Board of Supervisors had authorized the remodeling of the Orange County Courthouse. The sheriff's office was remodeled for a second courtroom. The sheriff was moved to quarters in the basement until 1920, when his office moved to rented facilities across the street from the courthouse.

In the early 1920s a contract was awarded to build a new jail and office for the sheriff. The new three-and-a-half story jail, opposite the courthouse on Sycamore, opened in 1924. It had accommodations for 260 prisoners and provided both office space and living quarters for the sheriff.

In 1917 the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was introduced, forbidding the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors,” and by January 1920 it was the law of the land. The Volstead Act of 1919 defined intoxicating liquor as any beverage with one half of one percent alcohol.

Prohibition would pose new problems for the sheriff of Orange County and everyone else in law enforcement for the next decade, and its legacy would linger for many years to come. But as all other challenges, the Orange County Sheriff's Department would face what came with assurance.