By Reason of Insanity

“WAS HE INSANE, IS HE INSANE NOW?”  That was the actual headline of a print ad for Curran Real Estate in the 1920s. This unconventional advertisement was written by William Edward Curran, who went on to say: “I was called insane by some of the Oceanside mossbanks when I started to improve the James property. Take a look at it now. A few more green spots like this will make our city. Come one and all, it’s great to be crazy”. 

Years later his attorney would argue in court that Curran was indeed insane.

Curran’s advertisement as it appeared in the Oceanside Blade

William Edward Curran came to Oceanside from Ohio in 1919. A married man and father of two sons, he had a junk business. Soon afterwards he ventured into real estate, which by all appearances was a successful enterprise.

Born May 26, 1886, in Pocahontas, Virginia, Curran’s parents moved to Cleveland, Ohio by 1900. William E. Curran’s earliest occupation was that of a decorator or wall paper hanger. William Edward married Anna Hayer in Cleveland in 1911 and their sons Richard and Frank were both born in Ohio.

Shortly after the Curran family settled in Oceanside, William purchased three lots near the corner of Third and Myers Streets (Third is now Pier View Way). He later acquired a business located at the corner of Third and Pacific Street called the “Fox Den” which was a lucrative beach concession during the summer months because of its proximity to the Oceanside Pier.

Curran joined the local Chamber of Commerce but soon found himself at odds with one of the directors. In June of 1922 he wrote an editorial calling out Secretary Thomas Bakewell, saying “I think you are a joke” because Bakewell did not endorse Curran’s idea of promoting Oceanside as an area rich with oil deposits. He was later involved in a lawsuit regarding such claims.

Curran’s unorthodox ideas and self-promotion might have been successful in getting a dig in at his critics’ expense, it was apparent that his arrogance did not win him friends or supporters. In July of 1922 Curran unsuccessfully ran for city constable.

However eccentric Curran appeared to be, he soon proved to be volatile as well. In 1923 he was arrested and placed in jail after being charged with battery against Vere Scheunemann, a 16-year-old local boy. Curran was 37 years old at the time of the assault. He was a large man standing 6 feet tall and weighing 200 pounds, and at one time was amateur boxer by the name of Red Kenney. Curran hired an attorney and was able to get out of jail on bail. His attorney petitioned the court to have the trial moved because Curran said that he couldn’t get a fair trial in Oceanside “owing to a prejudice in the community against him.” One month later Curran was arrested again for disturbing the peace. He again asked for a change of venue because of “prejudice against him.”

Another ad published by Curran in the Oceanside Blade

Despite his erratic and violent behavior, Curran ran for city council in 1924. Not surprisingly, he lost the election. He was a regular attendee at council meetings, at which he voiced his concerns over competition from other beach concessionaires. He was also a proponent of building a new pier made entirely of concrete. The city council balked at the suggestion because of the “prohibitive cost.”  The newspaper reported that W. E. Curran was undaunted and “advocated this type of construction regardless of the cost and addressed the board to that effect, but his suggestion met with no favor.”

Curran’s unstable behavior continued when in 1925 Curran found himself again in court as a defendant after he assaulted Frank Graff, in a dispute over a fish business near the pier.

Even though his reputation appeared to be ruined, Curran unapologetically ran again for city council in 1930 stating: “My platform is reduction of taxes and to halt further improvements for the present. I also am strongly in favor of home labor. Being a large property owner in Oceanside, and always a staunch booster for the welfare of the City, my interests are yours.”  He was not elected.

Nothing is known of the outcomes of Curran’s previous run-ins with the law or any particular consequence he faced except for being ostracized. However, one encounter with Curran years later would have a deadly outcome.

One summer evening in 1944, two Marines stationed at Camp Pendleton stopped or walked through Curran’s property at 107 Third Street (Pier View Way) where Curran was living in a two-story building, which served both as a storefront as well as his home.

The two men were on the way to view a side-show of sorts, where a two-headed cow was on display inside a tent, just east of Curran’s home and vacant lot. Curran spotted the Marines and believed that they were going to siphon his gasoline. Fuel was a hot commodity because gasoline and other items were rationed and in short supply during World War II.

Third Street at the corner of Myers. Note the tent which featured the two-headed cow the Marines were on their way to see. To the right, is an empty lot, and then Curran’s home and office.

According to Curran’s account, he ordered the men off of his property and they became combative. Curran then went inside his home to retrieve an unloaded gun and confronted the Marines again. Despite being armed with a gun, the Marines became more aggressive and came after him, according to Curran. He then ran back into the home, threw down the gun and grabbed “some object”.  That object was a “commando style” knife, with a brass knuckle handle which Curran took with him to challenge the men. He ran back to the Marines, “a scuffle ensued” and Corporal Erwin E. Koch was stabbed three times, including a fatal blow straight to the heart. Koch fell to the ground, bleeding profusely while his fellow Marine, Corporal August N. Heveker, tried to render aid.

Before police arrived, Curran hid the weapon in a pile of boxes and empty bottles behind his home. He later produced a small knife to the police but it was apparent that the deadly wound had been made by a much larger knife. The police on the scene included Police Chief William L. Coyle and Captain Harold B. Davis, who found the bloodied murder weapon after a 30 minute search, where Curran had stashed it.

Police Captain Harold B. Davis searched through this pile of junk and bottles to find the murder weapon

Koch died of his wounds and was taken to the Oceanside Mortuary at 602 South Hill Street (now Coast Highway). There the police discovered a letter Koch had written to his wife in Nebraska soaked in blood. Koch was just 29 years old, and in addition to his grieving wife, left behind two small children. Family back in his home town of Eustis, Nebraska were stunned and left to wonder of the circumstances that took the life of their beloved son, husband and brother. Erwin’s widow, Otalee Elizabeth, would later remarry.

William Curran was arrested by local police and questioned, when he then claimed that the Marines had followed him into his home, pushed him down and struck him in the head. He was taken down to San Diego for an inquest just days later at which Corporal August Heveker testified to the details leading up to the murder.

“We had been out on the Oceanside pier and had come up Third Street preparatory to entering a side show to see a two-headed cow. Wishing to urinate before entering the show, we went back along a building about 20 feet. As we did so, a man yelled to us from the rear doorway, ordering us off. We left the place where we were standing and went to the sidewalk toward the tent, going back again on the vacant lot just west of the tent, believing we were off this man’s property. The man came out again, this time with a gun in his hands. We started off again, and as we neared the sidewalk, I happened to look back and saw this man coming toward us with a shining instrument in his hand. I called for Koch to duck, and I ran forward to the walk. Koch was between the man and me, and did not have time to even turn around. As he fell, he yelled he had been stabbed.”

Heveker went on to testify that the two had never followed after Curran, entered his home or struck him. Police testified at the inquest saying that Curran had no marks or cuts on him, although he did hold his head as though he were injured. There was no evidence of a scuffle, as Curran had claimed, only a pool of blood on the vacant lot where Koch was attacked.

This crime scene photo indicates the location of the stabbing.

The jury at the inquest found Curran responsible for the death of Koch. The murder trial was held the following month in July and Curran testified in his own defense. Inexplicably, Curran left the stand, walked up to August Heveker and shouted: “That man lied about me. Anyone could look at his face and tell that he was lying. He pushed Koch towards me and incited him to attack me. He is responsible for Koch being stabbed. After I struck Koch, he took two steps away from me and sagged to his knees. After he fell, this man Heveker tried to drag his body off my property.”

Curran was found guilty of second-degree murder. Defense witnesses included Curran’s brothers Frank and Clarence, his wife Annie and his sister Mary. Oceanside’s Mayor Ted Holden, Curran’s attorney James B. Abbey, along with the County Psychiatrist, also testified that Curran was insane. The witnesses provided a number of incidents to prove up their allegations that the Curran was “mentally unbalanced.” The very next day the same jury that found him guilty of murder, determined that Curran was insane. The newspaper reported that Curran would be sent to a “state asylum for the criminally insane.”

Erwin Eugene Koch was laid to rest in the Eustis East Cemetery, in Eustis, Nebraska, a small town of 600, settled by German immigrants. A military headstone marks his grave. When Koch went in the Marine Corps during wartime, his family might have worried about the dangers that might befall him. He wasn’t killed in war by a foreign enemy, but by a fellow countryman.

It is unknown how long William Curran was actually confined and when or if he was deemed “sane”. But by the late 1950s, he was living quietly in a home on East Street in Oceanside with Anna, and he still owned the property where the murder occurred.  Curran’s son, Frank Earl Curran, was elected as Mayor of San Diego, serving from 1963 and 1971. William Edward Curran died on July 19, 1963. He was interred at Eternal Hills Memorial Park, in Oceanside, along with his wife who later died in 1989.

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