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.

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.