Defenseless

On a quiet morning on an isolated beach, a double homicide was committed north of Oceanside that shook all of Southern California. On September 10, 1895, the bodies of Harriet Stiles and John D. Borden were discovered by Harriet’s husband, Leroy Stiles. They had both been shot twice, and each in the face. There appeared to be no motive and the two were unarmed and defenseless. 

Leroy and Harriet Stiles had been camping on the coast near the mussel beds north of Las Flores. They were accompanied by Harriet’s 86 year-old father, John B. Borden, who came to visit his daughter from Michigan and was looking forward to “an outing on the beach.” The Stiles were residents of Fallbrook, and had visited the spot before to escape the inland heat, enjoy the cool ocean breeze and do some fishing.

The trio set up camp in a tent on the remote beach and had the area all to themselves to enjoy.  Las Flores was about two miles south of their spot; the small town of Oceanside was another 7 to 8 miles further. They likely saw no one else except an occasional train.

Map of the Las Flores area near where the Stiles beach camp was situated.

On the morning of the murders, Leroy and John walked from camp about a mile north to a spot at which to fish, while Harriet stayed behind. Leroy spotted two men in the distance walking south along the railroad track. Perhaps something about the men caused him to be uneasy. Their presence prompted Stiles to instruct his father-in-law to walk back to the tent to inform Harriet that two men may be approaching their campsite. Leroy would later tell law enforcement he simply did not want Harriet to be alarmed by the two male passersby.

John Borden walked back to the camp while Leroy proceeded to fish. Leroy likely assumed that his father-in-law, at age 86, was too tired to make the trek back and that he decided to stay with Harriet.

At about 10:30 am Leroy Stiles returned to his camp. Upon entering the tent he came upon a horrific site. His wife had been shot dead, as well as his father-in-law, the tent floor covered in blood. Stiles swung into action and immediately set for Oceanside on a horse and wagon to notify authorities. On the way south Stiles was stopped by a man he described as a “half-breed” who asked him for a ride. Stiles, who was unarmed, refused the request and afterwards said he believed the man was one of the two individuals he spotted walking towards his camp that morning and believe the man intended to kill him. He would later describe the man as a “negro of rather light complexion, good size and dressed in blue clothes or overalls.”

Stiles met a rancher on the way to Oceanside, who in turn went to reach law enforcement. Returning to camp alone, Stiles waited with the dead bodies of his family members. He later broke down in tears, overcome with emotion, when he told the first arriving lawmen that he and his wife were married forty years.

Leroy and Harriet Stiles (courtesy Nedra Fortune)

The early newspaper accounts of the murders said that Harriet had been sexually assaulted and that there were three deceased, not two. (Harriet in fact had not been raped. Her clothes were not disheveled or removed and her glasses were still on her face.) Nothing of value was missing from the camp, except a package of Durham tobacco, described by Stiles as “half full, the sack being the smallest size, just two ounces.”

One initial theory is that the two were murdered by Isidor Renterias, a known outlaw who had served jail time for horse stealing and murder.  On September 6th, just a few days before the murder of Stiles and Borden, Renterias had shot and killed Ramon Araiza in San Luis Rey. Renterias operated a restaurant near the Mission San Luis Rey, wherein he had his wife by the hair and was beating her. Ramon Araiza’s wife was the daughter of the woman being beaten and Araiza came to her defense. Renterias then focused his rage on Araiza, picked up a rifle and shot him dead.  He then fled while a posse led by Constable Ben Hubbert, who was still trying to track him down when the double murdered occurred on September 10th. (Renterias would later die in a shootout but not until he shot and killed a deputy by the name of Juan Castro.)

Deputy Sheriff Fred Jennings and a posse, traveled to the Stiles/Borden murder scene to hold an inquest. Railroad section men in the area were questioned and they informed law enforcement on the morning of the murders that two men had approached them. They shared breakfast with the strangers and talked to them at length. They provided a description of the two men, one was “a man six feet high, dark complexion, possibly “mulatto” and the other was “a smaller man, light hair and had a small hand valise.”  The witnesses also noted that the pair had separated at some point as the smaller man went in a different direction.  

Based on witness descriptions the “smaller man”, who would later be identified as Jay Allison Garges, was arrested at Fallbrook. He told deputies that he and the other suspect, Joseph J. Ebanks, were traveling together but had parted ways at the train trestle. Garges said that about two hours later he encountered Ebanks again, who had a new male traveling companion, a German immigrant.  They two talked about “meeting so unexpectedly” once more and Garges noted that Ebanks was in possession of tobacco that he had not had earlier. It was in a small, two-ounce Durham tobacco sack, which was the very thing that had been reported by Leroy Stiles as missing from the tent.  Garges noted that Ebanks no longer had a sack that he had carried with him for the length of their trip which began near El Toro.

While the unidentified German departed, Ebanks and Garges trekked south towards Oceanside, and eventually parted at the Fallbrook Junction. Garges made his way to Fallbrook where he was eventually apprehended.  He was charged with complicity in the murder, and was held at Oceanside until taken to San Diego. Garges, a traveling “watch tinker” would later be eliminated as a suspect and became a witness for the prosecution.

Joseph Ebanks was born in England in about 1865. His father was from the West Indies and his mother a white woman. Ebanks arrived in New York’s Ellis Island from Liverpool, England on May 15, 1893 traveling on the Aurania, a British ocean liner. He gave differing accounts as to his arrival in California.

Ebanks was caught on September 14th by Deputy Sheriff Ward. Ebanks had traveled to San Luis Rey, then on to Vista. The following day he continued southward and spent a night in Mission Valley before hitching a ride on a wagon leaving for Rancho Bernardo. After he arrived near Poway, he left the main road and traveled through thick brush and steep terrain in an apparent effort to elude authorities. Ward eventually tracked him to a cabin where he was arrested and taken to jail in San Diego. One of the first questions Ebanks asked was for something to eat. It was reported he was cheerful and talkative.

When questioned, much of his story corroborated that of his traveling companion; that the two parted ways at the trestle where they had stopped to get water to drink out of some barrels. Garges walked south along the railroad and Ebanks walked along a wagon road. He admitted that he was the one who had tried to flag down Leroy Stiles for a ride, but that Stiles passed him “at a rapid gait.” He continued walking and met up with the German man and the two eventually met up again with Garges.

Ebanks said he had no firearm with which to shoot anyone and declared his innocence in the matter. He said he spotted a woman near a camp who appeared to be swimming, and he want to take a swim in the ocean as well, but had determined the bluff too steep to negotiate and decided against it.

Upon his arrest, one newspaper made an overtly racially prejudiced statement:  “[Ebanks’] appearance is against him, as he is a West Indian Negro, with heavy cheekbones, thick lips, small, shrewd eye and a generally sensual face. He speaks with a queer half-French and half-Negro accent, and uses nautical terms in his speech.”

Joseph J. Ebanks (San Quentin)

The hunt began for Ebanks’ sack, in which it was believed a firearm was kept. It was eventually brought to light that Ebanks had stolen two guns in Fullerton. One was a white handled Colt 45, along with a belt loaded with ammunition. Several railroad men, including Arthur Steele, section foreman, testified they saw Ebanks carrying a sack, when they saw him and Garges the morning of the murders.

The pistol was found in a canyon near the Stiles campsite and delivered to Constable Ben Hubbert of San Luis Rey. It was wrapped in a shirt with the marking of R.F.G, who was the rightful owner of the two firearms allegedly stolen by Ebanks. Four empty shell cartridges were also found. Even more damning, when Ebanks was captured he was wearing another shirt with the same initials. One additional piece of evidence in the sack was a “ladies’ journal” which had been given to Ebanks by a woman at ranch house he had visited in Orange County.

Constable Ben Hubbert (Courtesy Oceanside Historical Society)

The murder trial began on January 4, 1896 in San Diego. Newspapers from San Diego, to San Francisco, Sacramento and Reno published daily or weekly coverage. The trial lasted more than 20 days, at a cost of $2,000, which far exceeded the cost of other similar court cases. During the trial Ebanks was described as being impassive but at times “happy and indifferent.”

There was a lot of interest in the trial and Ebanks in particular. The San Diego Bee reported: “There was a larger attendance of spectators yesterday than on any preceding day of the trial of Ebanks, the West Indian mulatto who is on trial before Judge Pierce and a jury for the murder of Mrs. Stiles and her father, John D. Borden. There has been a perceptible increase each day in the number of women in attendance on the trial, and yesterday most of the chairs inside the railing except those used by the jury and counsel, were occupied by women young and old, who evidently enjoyed the testimony.” 

R. F. Gibson of Fullerton testified that the white-handled revolver that Ebanks used in the murder was stolen from his room, along with another gun. Both were found in the sack several witnesses had described Ebanks as carrying. Gibson also testified that the shirts, one of which Ebanks was wearing at the time of his arrest, belonged to him and were marked with the letters “R F. G.” 

Simon Goldbaum of San Luis Rey testified that Ebanks came to his store on the afternoon of September 10th, the day of the murders and bought lunch. Goldbaum asked the tall stranger if he had beard of the murders at the mussel beds. According to Goldbaum, Ebanks looked down “at the mention of the crime”. Then, inexplicably “looked up and laughed, and replied that he had not heard of the murders.” 

Simon Goldbaum’s Store in San Luis Rey, where Ebanks stopped for lunch after the murders
(courtesy Oceanside Historical Society)

William McCrea, testified that he was baling hay at Vista the day of the murders, and that Ebanks came “to his camp between 11 and 12 o’clock at night and asked for work.” He stayed the night with the crew, but left in the morning “without any breakfast in the direction of Escondido.”

Garges, who had no longer been considered a suspect, was detained in San Diego as a witness until late February of 1896. During that time his satchel which contained his watch tools was also taken into evidence. (He was detained 143 days after which he filed a claim against the county for $214.50 at the rate of $1.50 a day. The county instead agreed to pay him just $114.15.)

Garges testified as they were walking south they saw two men fishing in the surf a few hundred feet from the railroad. About a mile farther down they spotted a woman near a tent on the beach. They continued walking about one-fifth of a mile, and came to a trestle where they sat down to rest. Garges said he was anxious to “hurry along”, and left Ebanks sitting on the bridge.

With Garges out of sight, Ebanks want back along the track to a bridge spanning a canyon which opened out on the beach near the tent, and made his way with some difficulty down into the canyon and to the tent. The prosecutor believed that Ebanks’ intention was to assault Harriet Stiles, but her father had returned to the camp by that time. The San Diego Bee reported: “It will never be known just what transpired, for Ebanks in his numerous confessions of the crime never told the story twice the same way. But he could have been at the tent but a moment when he shot Mr. Borden, who fell dead. Ebanks claimed that he was at first inclined to flee without [killing] Mrs. Stiles, but decided that he must take her life if he would himself escape.”

The prosecution had the last word and despite the testimony of 53 witnesses and damning evidence he instead focused the jury on Ebanks looks:

“It has been said that he could have had no motive for killing that poor woman who was alone and defenseless in the little tent—no motive for taking her life as she stood with hands upheld to her God, her last words tremulous in supplication and with a realization that a fiend incarnate stood ready and determined to send into her sick brain the leaden messengers that would sever the tie which bound her to this life. No motive for this hellish deed! Can you not read the motive on his face? Look in his treacherous eyes and on his brow, which bears the curse of his maker as plainly as it was ever born by Cain!”

After the trial concluded, and the jury began its deliberation, The San Diego Union wrote this openly racist account:  “While the jury was out deciding his fate, the happy-go-lucky mulatto, who is more animal than man, whiled away the time by playing cards with a Mexican and negro in the jail rooms. When the jury came in and Ebanks was taken before them to hear the verdict of murder in the first degree, he took his seat and twirled his thumbs while everyone in the room fixed their gaze upon him.”

The jury deliberated just three hours. Leroy Stiles, who had sat through the daily testimony, waited in the courtroom into the evening to hear the verdict. Ebanks was found guilty of murder in the first degree and sentenced to death. An immediate appeal was filed.

While awaiting appeal Ebanks actually confessed to the murder of Harriet Stiles and her father. He stated he wanted to clear his conscious and remove any doubt of his guilt. Ebanks’ confession in various versions was published in newspapers across the country from Nebraska to New Jersey.

Ebanks said while walking along the railroad track with Garges, they spotted the tent on the beach. Earlier he had found an orange, ate it and became sick. He went to the tent without Garges to see if he could “get some medicine.” He encountered Mr. Borden and his daughter Harriett and said, “I’m sick; give me something. I feel as if I was dying.”

Ebanks said Mr. Borden noticed that the muzzle of a revolver was showing out of the flour sack he was carrying. Borden walked toward the back of the cot and said he would get something “to relieve” him.

“I do not know that I said anything to the man at all, but it was only just my opinion that the man was then looking for something possibly to shoot me with. He walked away toward the cot and I did not know what he was doing behind the cot. I sat then in the chair and fired at him and I shot the old gentleman. I did not know at that time where I had hit him, but he fell. Then the old lady sung out to me, “My God, he had no gun.” I sat there and I looked at him and I looked at her and I begged her to hitch a team and go away and let me get away. I was sorry for what I had done.

“The woman said to me — I do not just remember the first words that were spoken — but anyway, I said to her, says I, ‘Now I am awful sorry for what I have done, and his own foolishness caused it’; now, says I, ‘what is I going to do about it to get rid of this? The only way out now for me’ — says I — ‘I know your life is sweet and mine is sweet and we all thinks that your life is sweeter to you than mine is to me. I suppose you think so, and says I, ‘I think about the same, I suppose, but the only way out of this for me is to kill you along with him, and for me to make my escape.’

“And I said to the woman, ‘I suppose I ain’t got much time to think this matter over. The best thing for you to do is get to praying for yourself; I may possibly have to shoot you.’

“The woman knelt down by the cot and she stayed there and I dropped tears over that woman; but I thought the only refuge for myself was to shoot that woman. After the woman raised from her knees and turned around, she looked at me and she did not say anything. I held the gun laying across my lap and I shot her; where, I do not know, up until today. She kind of fell back on the cot against something, but I saw she was just in misery. The wound did not kill her–it did not look like it to me–and I shot the woman the second time.

“With that I walked over to the cot where this man was laying to see and to be certain that there was no weapon there that he was looking for to injure me. After examining behind the cot and around the cot and seeing that there was no weapon there, before God I felt worse.

“I walked back to the door and I tried that gun three times in succession to my own breast, but she refused to go. I then turned around, and the old gentleman had some movement in some part of his body, or made me think that he suffered, and I tried it the fourth time on him and she went off, and I think that was the shot that was through his body.”

After his confession he stated his desire to see his family who were living in the West Indies. He then asked that his appeal to be withdrawn and that he was ready to “die any time.”

Notwithstanding his lengthy and detailed confession, Ebanks’ defense team filed three additional appeals, each of which was denied.

His appeals exhausted Ebanks was sentenced once again to die and to be delivered to San Quentin for hanging. Before he was transported from San Diego, it was reported that Ebanks, who had converted to Christianity while in custody, “delivered a sermon to the other prisoners confined in the county jail, and sang and prayed with them. He admonished the men to reform when they were released and lead an upright life. He later made a request for a minister in order that he might be baptized. He was taken north on the Santa Rosa last night by Deputy Sheriff F. M. Jennings and T. H. Scoby.”

Joseph Japhet Ebanks at San Quentin

On May 27, 1898 Joseph Japhet Ebanks was led from his cell to the gallows. The evening before, he had written a statement declaring his innocence, having retracted his detailed confession in which he had given Mrs. Stiles but a minute to pray for her soul. Yet he resigned himself to die “a brave man”. Ebanks was described as calm when he was readied for execution at 10:30 am. He offered no comment of any kind before he was hanged. The trap floor dropped, the force breaking his neck. Ebanks was pronounced dead 10 minutes later although the newspaper described his death as “instantaneous”. His body was buried in the prison cemetery. Ebanks was one of nine state prisoners executed in California that year.

After the murder of his wife, Leroy R. Stiles went to live with his married daughter in Long Beach. He died in 1913 at the age of 83. He was buried in the same cemetery in Fallbrook with his beloved wife Harriet and her father John. As is sadly the case today, there was more attention placed on the salacious murders than paid to the victims themselves. Little detail was provided about the lives of Harriet Stiles and John Borden but they were truly innocent victims enjoying an idyllic day on a quiet beach when their lives were abruptly and brutally taken.

Kristi S. Hawthorne, historiesandmysteries.blog “Defenseless”, 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express consent and written permission from the author and owner is strictly prohibited. Links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the author Kristi S. Hawthorne and historiesandmysteries.blog “Defenseless”, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Murder of Ray Davis

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Shades of the Zodiac?

One quiet night in Oceanside, California a senseless murder was committed with no apparent motive or suspects. Days after the murder, someone claiming to be the killer called local police with an ominous threat that resulted in armed gunmen protecting city busses for several nights in anticipation of another death. But as shocking as it was, the incident slowly faded into obscurity and the murder went unsolved. The case was in fact forgotten about altogether until in 2017 I stumbled upon a newspaper article while doing research on an unrelated subject. As I continued research on the murder I collected dozens of newspaper articles and discovered that the case had never been solved. I then contacted the Oceanside Police Department who directed me to their Cold Case Detective.

The Murder of Ray Davis

On the evening of April 9, 1962, the Oceanside Police Department received an anonymous telephone call. The unidentified caller stated cryptically: “I am going to pull something here in Oceanside and you will never be able to figure it out.” The call was likely dismissed…until two nights later on April 11th, when a body was discovered and the caller contacted the police again.

Patrolman Terry Stephens discovered the lifeless body of Ray Davis in an alley in the upscale beachside neighborhood of St. Malo at 1:45 am.  The night of the murder, Stephens had not yet turned 28 years old, but was already a seasoned police officer. Born in 1934 in Escondido Stephens was raised in Oceanside where he lived nearly all of his life. At the age of 21 he joined the Oceanside Police Department and served on the force for 31 years before he retired.

The victim, Ray Davis was just 29 years old, a native of Michigan. Ray was estranged from his wife Marion, whom he had married in 1953 in Owosso, Michigan.  At the time of Ray’s murder she was living in Pomona with two children from a previous marriage.

Ray and his brother Jack had moved to Oceanside in January of 1962. Oceanside had a population of less than 25,000. Jack got a job working at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton and Ray as a cabdriver for the Checker Cab Company. The brothers were renting a house at 525 South Tremont Street.

Ray Davis was working an evening shift, his cab parked on Mission Avenue in downtown. At 11:10 pm he reported to his dispatcher Lowell Sikes that he was driving a fare to South Oceanside. He never returned or responded to subsequent radio calls.

Ray’s body had been dumped in the alley behind 1926 South Pacific Street, the home of Oceanside’s former Mayor Joe MacDonald. Across the street was the home of Oceanside’s current Mayor Erwin Sklar. This was not a neighborhood familiar with violent crime, let alone murder. (Note: Few people realize that St. Malo does not begin behind its iconic gated archway, but also includes the 1900 block of South Pacific Street.)

Davis had been shot once in the back, through the driver’s seat, and once in the back of the head. His assailant unceremoniously pulled him out of the cab and drove away. Robbery did not appear to be a motive as Davis had a modest amount of cash in both his wallet and shirt pocket.

The bloodied cab was discovered at 6:30 am, left in the alley of the 400 block of South Pacific Street with its meter showing a $2.20 fare. On scene Detective Don Brown found a third shot had been fired through the windshield of the taxi.

On the front seat of the abandoned cab was a paperback novel, “Dance With the Dead.” Written in 1960 by Richard S. Prather, it featured a private detective who solved crimes, all the while encountering scantily clad women…very campy stuff.

Davis was taken to the Seaside Mortuary at 802 South Pacific Street where an autopsy was performed by L. H. Fairchild of the San Diego County Coroner’s Office. Two .22 caliber bullets were removed and given to Oceanside Police Detective Floyd R. Flowers.

The following day, April 12th, both the Oceanside Blade Tribune and San Diego Union Tribune newspapers reported the murder along with the fact that police had no motive or suspect. The story of Ray’s murder was also published in several Southern California newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. In Ray’s home state of Michigan, at least three newspapers reported the murder of Ray Davis. No mention was made of the mysterious phone call of April 9 as the Oceanside Police Department had not released that information.

Funeral services for Ray Davis were held at the Oceanside Church of God on April 13th. He was buried in a plot located in the “Sunset Slope” at Eternal Hills Memorial Park. Virginia Davis, his bereaved mother, flew from Michigan to Oceanside for the services.

On April 16th the Oceanside Police Department disclosed to the public that an unknown person had called them on April 9th with a veiled threat that they now linked to the murder of Ray Davis. The second phone call came with a frightening warning.

Police Chief William H. Wingard described the caller as a possible “deranged killer” and released the contents of the call:  “Do you remember me calling you last week and telling you that I was going to pull a real baffling crime? I killed the cab driver and I am going to get me a bus driver next.”

Who, but the original caller, would have known about the initial message? Who would taunt the police in such a way?

This threat was not taken lightly, considering the unknown caller seemed to have made good on his last one. Chief Wingard stated: “We have no reason to disbelieve the calls.”

In response to the threat, the Oceanside Police Department took measures to protect all city busses and armed military police were put on each bus going aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton. The newspaper reported that Frank Lilly, Oceanside’s City Manager gave Oscar Hatle, Bus Superintendent “blanket authority to take whatever steps necessary.” The unusual aspects of the murder and the unprecedented response of armed guards were big news. The story was widely distributed by the Associated Press and United Press International.

Three days passed without incident. Guards were removed from the busses, but on so-called “lonely routes” the bus company assigned two drivers. Oscar Hatle commented: “The situation still exists. We are taking no unnecessary chances.”

The police had no motive and scant evidence. They were desperate to solve the murder. Several people were questioned and released. One reported suspect was a fellow cabdriver, Charles Schofield, but the accusation had no foundation.

On May of 1962 an arrest was made of four Marines for armed robbery, but neither their prints nor ballistics matched.  Another armed robbery suspect was arrested in November but again, the fingerprints were not a match.

The murder was all but forgotten about except for the Davis family. Years passed, then decades. Ray’s brother Jack died in 1990. Ray’s mother died in 1995 and was buried at Eternal Hills Memorial Park. Ray had no biological children. After the death of his brother and mother there was no one left to remember.

It may be pure conjecture, but it is still worth noting that seven years after Ray Davis’s murder, a killer known as the Zodiac would mimic the same deadly scenario. In 1969 he shot and killed a taxi driver in San Francisco, contacted police taking credit for it and then threatened to target a bus, in this instance one full of children.

The Zodiac killed his victims in a variety of ways and weapons, including a .22 caliber gun (as in the murder of Ray Davis). It is believed that the Zodiac may have been in the military. It is now surmised that one of his first victims may have been Cheri Jo Bates, who was murdered in Riverside, California in 1966. While there are several theories surrounding Zodiac, is it too far-fetched to believe that perhaps he started his killing spree in Oceanside?

Many serial killers are known to taunt or toy with police and certainly this was the case with Ray’s murderer. Serial killers taunt because they crave the attention, they want the notoriety and many times they are convinced of their own superiority over law enforcement.

Theories and conjecture aside, to this day the murder of Ray Davis remains unsolved. It is likely the killer is dead … even if he was just 25 years of age in 1962, he would be 83 years old in 2020.  Many of the police officers and detectives who worked so diligently to try to solve the case and protect the residents of Oceanside have passed. However, Roy K. Smith, a retired police captain, remembers the case as he was working the morning watch the night of the murder.

Sylvia Guzman O’Brien, Cold Case Detective with the Oceanside Police Department has dug up and read over the case file. In December of 2019 she sent the latent fingerprint cards collected at the scene for entry into the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS). O’Brien stated that, “The crime lab will determine if the prints are of sufficient quality for entry in the database.”  In addition, the casings that were located in the cab driven by Ray Davis will be sent to the crime lab for entry in the Integrated Ballistics Identification System (IBIS). As Detective O’Brien stated, “Now it is just a waiting game.”

There is no DNA evidence. Neither AFIS or IBIS were available to law enforcement in 1962 and even when these systems were put in place years ago, this case had long been forgotten. If there’s a possibility to match the prints to a person or link the ballistics to another crime, the results of these searches may be the very last chance to solve the murder of Ray Davis.

Kristi S. Hawthorne, historiesandmysteries.blog “The Murder of Ray Davis”, 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express consent and written permission from the author and owner is strictly prohibited. Links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the author Kristi S. Hawthorne and historiesandmysteries.blog “The Murder of Ray Davis”, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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.