Signal 100 | The killing of Ed Brown


Part 7 of 52

In the 19th century, Santa Clarita was a Wild West valley, as dangerous a place to live as any. We had one of America’s biggest range wars here that lasted 40 years and took the lives of an estimated 27. Acton’s two leading citizens shot it out on the main street and the mayor was killed when four bullets entered his heart. We were rich in saloons and ruffians.

But the 20th century brought more gentle times. Murders were rare. But lost in the dusty pages of time, one stood out: the killing of Constable Ed Brown. The strange thing? Brown was the second of three SCV lawmen, in a blink of an eye, who lost their lives to gunfire. Two of them were ambushed. The last died in one of the most bizarre accidents in local history. The Ed Brown story was perhaps the most exciting piece of journalism this paper produced from its founding in 1919 to the 1970s and the horrific Grigsby murders in Valencia in 1973, a span of more than half a century.

I do know that on May 2, 1884, young McCoy Pyle and his brother Everette found one of the richest Amerindian treasure troves in history. The cave, currently on Chiquita Canyon Landfill property, housed all manner of Tataviam items perfectly preserved. They are still in boxes in the Peabody Museum at Harvard. About 20 years later, McCoy was the local constable. After breaking up a fight in a Newhall saloon, one of the brawlers snuck up behind him as he was walking through the swinging doors, put a pistol to his head and shot him dead. Around 1922, according to Signal reports, another local lawman was shot dead in a saloon.

Then, on Sept. 14, 1924, Ed Brown was ambushed, shot in the gut by Gus LeBrun, a man described by The Los Angeles Times as a “French, Spanish and Indian bad man of the Newhall Mountains.”

Oddly enough, there were three Ed Browns in the SCV in the early 1920s when just 500 souls lived here. One was The Signal’s editor (who died in 1920). Another was a local handyman and the third was the constable, the title of the lawmen who handled law and order here.

It all started over a woman.

Nellie Bayless, 29, already had a name fit for stage and silent screen. The bit player’s nom de plume was Bonita Darling and had a reputation as the town floozie. She had one film credit, a bit part in the 1915 silent movie, “The Yankee Girl.” Ms. B/D had a small ranch near town in Railroad Canyon, behind the William S. Hart Ranch. According to locals, the beautiful actress (and pigeon farmer) toyed with the affections of the older LeBrun, who was somewhere between 36 to 40 when he met his Maker.

The most amazing murder story The Signal covered for decades happened in 1924. It involved a one-movie-wonder, actress Nellie Bayless, aka, Bonita Darling, Gus LeBrun, “…the Wild Man of the Newhall Mountains,” and two legendary local lawmen, Ed Brown and Jack Pilcher. That’s Ed Brown (left). That’s Pilcher (right). Tragedy of Shakespearean proportions followed three of the four.

In LeBrun’s final letter (see photo, “BAD MAN” AND OFFICER SLAIN) he noted the two were intimate, “kissed” and were engaged to be wed. Locals confirmed that LeBrun worked as more than a handyman, making improvements on the ranch and  paying for everything from makeup to pigeon food for his beloved. LeBrun even loaned her $200 on the promise of marriage. When he again asked for her hand, Bayless/Darling reportedly laughed at this most dangerous man. LeBrun had been a Newhall constable himself and earned a reputation as “quick on the draw.” He shot and wounded a man in a barroom brawl. LeBrun himself was shot in another incident and these weren’t in the line of duty.

The last letter of jilted lover, former lawman and murderer, Gus LeBrun, in which he details his plans for suicide-by-cops. It appeared in the Sept. 15, 1924, edition of The Los Angeles Times the day after the murder.

Spurned, LeBrun went to local Judge Port C. Miller for restitution of his $200, along with another $600 in services and materials for her domicile. The woman already had a reputation around town as a tart. She had taken her previous boyfriend for several hundred dollars before dumping him. Miller ordered the actress to pay $150. She never did.

In LeBrun’s final correspondence, in pencil, with the headline “My Reason For Committing This Crime” (see clipping), he promised: “I will now end my middle-aged life and all on account of Bonita Darling, but she will not stay on earth to give me the horse-laugh again.”

Good newspaper stuff.

And, actually, Gus, she would.

Drunk, LeBrun showed up at the pigeon ranch armed to the teeth and announced he was going to kill the love of his life. Darling, an actress, later told The Signal she fainted. When she woke, LeBrun was hovering over her with a rifle. Using her feminine wiles, the thespian comforted her former imaginary fiancé and apologized for her flight of fancy. She asked they make up and could she fix the guy some dinner? Fiddling with pots and pans, exasperated, she told LeBrun there simply wasn’t an ounce of food in the house. Would Gus mind if she ran quick as a bunny to the store to fetch back essentials?

Nellie Bayless aka Bonita Darling never made it to the grocery store. She sped to the judge’s home and tattled on her former lover. Judge Miller called Newhall’s head lawman here, Jack Pilcher. Pilcher then picked up Saugus’ head officer, Ed Brown.

Knowing what a dangerous and evil-tempered hombre Gus LeBrun could be, Brown and Pilcher were armed to the teeth. As they bounced down a dark Railroad Canyon in their Model T, they turned into the ranch. Behind a large round boulder waited Gus LeBrun. According to Signal accounts, Gus opened fire, riddling the Ford with bullets. Brown was wounded. Both lawmen literally did shoulder rolls to get out of the moving car and returned fire, hitting LeBrun several times.

Face down on the ground, according to The Signal, LeBrun yelled: “You got me boys. Don’t shoot!”

Brown approached, bent over and started to roll LeBrun over to tend to his wounds. LeBrun was holding a pistol. He fired and hit Brown at point blank range in the gut. Pilcher sprinted over, firing. He emptied his revolver into LeBrun, took Brown’s gun and emptied that into the handyman. Pilcher then marched over to their car, got more bullets, reloaded and emptied another round into the dead man, shooting him nine times according to Los Angeles papers, 18 times according to The Mighty Signal.

Funny how we don’t know what’s around the corner. This picture of Ed Brown was taken in April of 1924   — five months before his violent death in September at the hands of a love-crazed local tough.

That’s us. Your local newspaper. Half the price. Twice the ammo.

There are two stories about the final moments of Ed Brown, 95 years ago. A Los Angeles Times report noted that Brown died that Sunday night at the Newhall Hospital on 6th Street. The Signal version was that Brown died in his partner’s arms. His last words were: “Tell my wife I won’t be coming home for dinner.” Yet another version, this from Lt. John Stanley, L.A. Sheriff’s Department in 2013, noted that though sustaining a stomach wound, Brown was able to walk back to the car and deposit LeBrun’s rifle, then said to Pilcher: “Jack, he has got me. You had better take me to the doctor first.” Stanley’s account has Brown dying not in Newhall, but at Metropolitan Hospital that night in Los Angeles.

Brown is buried in Grand View Memorial Park in Glendale. In May 2012, Brown’s name was placed on the county’s Memorial Wall in Whittier, in memory of his ultimate sacrifice nearly 60 years earlier.

Funny happenstance and a what-if.

It was Pilcher who drove to Saugus to pick up Ed Brown for help. Sometimes, Pilcher would often enlist the aid of his friend, local forest ranger and Signal Editor Thornton Doelle to assist with bad hombres and dangerous situations. But it wasn’t the Signal editor who got the Call of the Fates. It was Ed Brown.

It almost couldn’t get any stranger for the lawmen of the Little Santa Clara River Valley as we were called back then.

A year later, June 24, 1925, Constable Jack Pilcher was killed in a freak accident.

He and his new partner, rookie John Seltzer, were answering a routine call of a possible break-in way up Bouquet Canyon in a small cabin on the Gage Ranch.

When they arrived, the little house was deserted, but the front door was wide open. As the two lawmen gingerly climbed the porch, they saw a large lizard scamper through the front door. They followed. The house was empty. The lizard had scampered from the living room into the bedroom and under the bed. Not wanting to close the door and leave a big lizard to die in the house, the pair went to opposite sides of the bed to shoo out the wily reptile into the vast Bouquet expanses.

They both bent over to look under the bed — at the same time. The rookie Seltzer didn’t have his own weapon and was carrying a small-caliber revolver loaned to him by Pilcher. Seltzer was carrying the loaded firearm in his shirt breast pocket. As he bent over, the gun fell from Seltzer’s pocket, hit the floor, discharged and a bullet flew with the accuracy of vengeful gods right between Jack Pilcher’s eyes, killing him dead.

Signal Editor Thornton Doelle wrote a moving tribute to the fallen lawman on the front page of this paper: “Jack Pilcher was one of the most wholehearted and interesting personalities I have ever met — fair and square in every way, and as loyal a friend as any man ever had.” Doelle even penned a front-page above-the-fold poem in honor of the Newhall constable.

Pilcher was a nationally renowned lawman, making headlines in Chicago, New York and all across America with his exploits and shootouts with moonshiners and gangsters. He captured the “Tender Hearted Bandits” after they robbed the Piru bank in 1922, kidnapping the bank president and his 4-year-old daughter. The press dubbed the outlaws with the nickname for putting away their guns because it was scaring the little girl. On the other side, the Jenks gang, named after their leader, cowboy-movie star Jenks Harris, was involved in drugs, moonshine, robbery and human trafficking (JUST like the former non-award-winning Signal columnist in the early 1990s, Dwight Jurgens!).

Pilcher’s funeral was paid for by the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan, his coffin accompanied by a full-procession march by hooded Klansmen through downtown Newhall and all the way out to Glendale where Pilcher is buried today.

Tragedy epic and unmeasurable followed Pilcher to his grave and lived on with his widow.

A year later, his son was leaning a heavy ladder against the old ranch wooden flagpole out Pico Canyon way. The flag had gotten stuck in full mast and Jack Jr. climbed way up to untangle it. The pole couldn’t hold the weight and snapped six feet from the ground, leaving a jagged spear exposed. Jack Jr. fell and was fatally impaled. His mother ran out to witness her son painfully dying.

Nellie Bayless, aka, Bonita Darling? One-movie wonder?

Less than a year after the killing of Ed Brown, New Year’s 1925, Nellie married a local man, Walter Beulke. Walt must have had a calming influence on her. They were married for 48 years. She died at 77 in 1973 in Bonner County, Idaho.

Natural causes, I’m assuming.

Walt lasted to 90.

John Boston earned the Will Rogers Lifetime Achievement Award to go along with 118 other major journalism honors. He’s penned tens of thousands of stories, columns, reviews, editorials and features. He is a historian, novelist, best-selling author, humorist and, with a career nearing 40 years, the longest-serving and most prolific journalist in The Mighty Signal’s century and the most prolific satirist in world history.

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