Crime stories ­— Grand, grand theft and the millionaire’s murder

Time Ranger
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You can almost smell autumn in the air. It’s still warm, but there’s just that magic something, teasing us that soon, the heat will be gone. We’ve a most interesting trail ride through Santa Clarita history ahead.

There’s millionaire murders, street gang wars, a couple of train thefts and all you ever needed to know about potatoes.

C’mon. Left foot in the stirrup, swing the leg around, wiggle until you’re comfortable and what say a few thousand of us mosey into simpler times?

WAY BACK WHEN & THEN SOME

That haunting date, “9/11,” has another significance. It’s the birthday (1855) of William Mulholland, builder of the ill-fated St. Francis Dam. The giant 184-foot concrete edifice burst in 1928, killing nearly 500 people and was one of the worst man-made disasters in American history.

The third-oldest (Los Angeles and Acton/Agua Dulce being Nos. 1 & 2) school district was founded. Sulphur Springs was founded in the kitchen of Tom Mitchell’s home on Sept. 16, 1872. Tom met his future wife, Martha, on a wagon train en route to California. She was about 11 at the time and, as was a custom, Tom reportedly chatted with her father about marriage when she would become of age — at 15.

SEPT. 16, 1928

Life is filled with lows and highs. Millionaire banker C. LaHuis and his wife were murdered on the old Ridge Route. Returning from Bakersfield after completing a big oil deal, police speculate the couple was kidnapped, killed and robbed. The crooks ran their car off a 700-foot cliff to make it look like an accident. Their partially eaten remains were discovered a month later.

September was “Every Member Canvass” (yup; two S’s) month. That’s when the Presbyterians passed the hat to pay for Pastor Wolcott Evans’ yearly salary, which wasn’t much. They named a street after the good reverend. It’s in Happy Valley.

SEPT. 16, 1938

The Haddad-Butler combine was one of the largest potato growers in California. The 1938 harvest yielded 12 million pounds — which ’tweren’t much. By the way. This will be on the final for you yuppies and millennials. Potatoes come in seven grades: PeeWee; Egg; No. 2; Bakers Commercial; Bakers No. 1; Commercial; and U.S. No.1. Back in ’38, it cost a farmer about $100 an acre to raise taters.

My old compadre on many a backcountry trek, Christian Merot, called hunting: “Hiking with rifles.” George Vrabenburg had a worst-case scenario of the pastime when his gun discharged in heavy brush, hit the butt of his friend’s rifle, then ricocheted back, sending a bullet through the fleshy part of BOTH of George’s thighs. Worse? The poor guy had to hike back through unforgiving climes to the car, in the September heat — eight miles away.

SEPT. 16, 1948

Though unrequested, I’m giving him the nickname, “9 Toes Paul.” The L.A. 15-year-old hitched a ride on a freight train, fell asleep coming down the Railroad Canyon downgrade and rolled off the flatbed. Rescuers noted “…he was lucky to be in one piece.” Er — clarification. Two. A train wheel sliced his big toe clean off.

Oh dear me heavens it was hot on Sept. 12. The William S. Hart High School campus was dedicated on that date and absolutely no one wanted to be there. It was 106. In the shade. And there wasn’t any. Hart was originally a six-year institution, holding classes for grades 7-12.

Sixty years back this week in 1958, Wm. S. Hart Park was dedicated. This followed a decade-long dramatic court battle. One of the most important film icons in world history, the silent screen legend Bill Hart left all of his millions in holdings to L.A. County after his death in 1946. His son, Bill Hart Jr., sued unsuccessfully in one of the wildest, wackiest and longest proceedings in county history. Adding insult to injury, the park dedication was pert darn smack dab on Bill Jr.’s birthday of Sept. 22. Today, this is a rough estimate, but the land alone would be worth probably a half-billion. Second insult to injury? After losing a fortune in real estate alone, Hart Jr. became a local real estate appraiser and had to drive past the castle and park daily.

SEPT. 16, 1958

Speaking of heat, a decade later, we had one of the most uncomfortable and spectacular weather displays in recorded history. During a monsoon and 100-plus heat, the skies lit up with violent lightning storms. Local fire stations responded to more than 100 fires caused by lightning strikes. All the SCV’s electricity was knocked out by a direct hit to the big Edison substation. It was a Wagnerian and planet-ending storm.

Local sheriff’s deputies acted quickly to stop a potentially epic gang fight at Saxonia Park in Placerita Canyon. A party hosted by the Progressive Mexican Association was crashed by the Lobos and Mott Street gangs of San Fernando. Dozens were thrown in the pokey on the strength of one open beer can being spotted in a car.

SEPT. 16, 1968

Well here’s one way to fight crime. Hugh Dennis chased four burglars from his home then down the street on foot, throwing firewood at the crooks. If one’s trying to reconstruct the scene, one wonders. Did Hugh have a really big pile of logs he was carrying during the chase? Or did he chuck a log, run 10 yards, pick it up and throw it again. Footnote? Hugh was 15.

Hart football coach Dennis Wendt drove up to Oakland to visit one of his former players. John Granville, class of 1967, had been discharged from the Army. He had lost both legs in Vietnam.

Know who was the top real estate salesman in the SCV for most of 1968? Patrick Wayne. Son of John …

SEPT. 16, 1978

Sgt. Leroy Anderson gets this Sunday’s prized Time Ranger Comedy Award. He arrested Henry Wendell not for grand theft, but Grand, Grand Theft. Seems Henry hot-wired a Southern Pacific diesel engine at the Saugus Station and gunned it 11 miles before voluntarily stopping. Bonus? Henry had stolen ANOTHER diesel the night before in San Fernando. Sporting a completely straight face, Sgt. Anderson addressed a pool of reporters and said he had tried to question the train thief, BUT, “Wendell just seemed to have a one-track mind.”

Darn it. Wish we could stay in the less complicated climes of yesteryear, dear saddlepals. I don’t know about you, but I’d start craving processed sugar and Netflix. Looking forward to meeting all you old friends and new neighbors next week in your Sunday Signal with another exciting Time Ranger adventure. Until then, juevos rancheros y vayan con Dios, amigos!

John Boston, aka, Mr. Santa Clarita Valley, has been writing about and teaching the history of the SCV for more than 40 years. Recipient of The Will Rogers Lifetime Achievement Award and 119 major journalism honors, he is also author of the historical tome, “Images of America: The Santa Clarita Valley.” 

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