By Duane Preimsberger
One thing that has a universally negative impact on people is having their home or business burglarized. Finding that a criminal has violated your own personal space causes emotions that run the gamut from terror or anger to tears. Seeing an elderly couple trying to patch back together a photo album that’s been desecrated by a thoughtless, mean spirited, crook can be heart wrenching. Hearing the sobs from a young mother who has lost a priceless piece of antique jewelry that’s been passed on from mother to daughter through the generations is not a pleasant way to spend time. Going through a business and hearing an owner curse his luck and declare that the loss will bankrupt him is difficult and disturbing.
Catching burglars who caused these personal pains was one of the more enjoyable aspects of the patrol job at Firestone Sheriffs Station in south central Los Angeles. Amazingly there were plenty of burglars to go around and catching some was inevitability. If you go to enough burglary in progress or burglar alarm calls sooner or later you’ll confront a burglar in the act or a person whose presence is questionable and if you patrol enough streets, sooner or later you’ll run across a burglar. Most burglars are far from being rocket scientists so the average street cop has a definite advantage in the contest between the forces of darkness and the guys who patrol in black and white cars.
As I look back and remember some of the burglary call incidents I was involved in I can’t help but smile at some of the circumstances that were encountered. Take this one for example: It was about three o’clock in the morning when we responded to a burglary in progress call and we arrived silently with our lights out and the patrol radios volume turned way down. There were two early morning watch cars assigned to the call with two Deputies in each vehicle. Upon our arrival three of the Deputies took up positions around the supposedly burglarized home while I contacted the reporting party, a middle aged woman, who lived next door.
“I’d just walked in the kitchen to get a drink of water when I saw a guy standing outside my neighbors open window. I kept the lights out and kinda hid behind the curtains and watched while he climbed inside through the window. I ain’t heard no noises from in there yet and I don’t think he came out. Good Lord I hope my neighbors are OK.
I quietly walked around the house and in a whisper I told the three Deputies
what we had and asked one of them to move closer to the open window while
I went to the front door and rang the doorbell.
Seconds later a sleepy and rather grumpy male voice yelled at me from inside, “Who the hell is it and what the hell do you want at this hour?”
“Sheriffs Department, open the door, we’re investigating a possible burglary in progress at this house.”
“The door flew open and the formerly grumpy man was as meek and helpful as he could be. “Please, check whatever you need to look at. Should I get my wife and kids up?”
At the same time I heard the Deputy who had been standing by the open window yell, “Freeze, get your hands in the air.” I hurriedly made a check of the interior of the home and didn’t find any trace of a bad guy. I did find a rather embarrassed, wide-awake 18-year-old girl who was wrapped in a bed sheet, standing in the bedroom near the open window.
Outside, standing naked, with his hands in the air was her 20-year-old boyfriend who had apparently made a habit of nocturnal visits to her room to enjoy early morning romance. We found out he was really an invited guest who used a rather unusual entry and exit portal into and out of the home of his girlfriend. He was happy when his clothes, came flying out of the window and he could quickly dress and leave. The sharp-eyed neighbor was happy to learn that there really wasn’t a crime. The Deputies were happy because they didn’t have to arrest anybody or write a report. However, the eighteen-year-old girl and her parents were not real smiley about what had occurred. When we explained that we had better things to do than respond to felony romance calls, dad and mom assured us that we wouldn’t be back for that again.
In the 1960’s another call involved Harry Scrivener who was a pale, undernourished looking, 30 year-old, dark haired, weasely faced, small statured man who spent practically every evening from 6 PM until closing in the “Watering Hole.” He’d spend hours drinking cheap beer and playing pool with some of the other regulars who made the beer bar their nightly haunt. The Watering Hole was located on Normandie Avenue in the unincorporated area of east Torrance and it attracted a blue-collar clientele from the nearby machine shops, junkyards and oil refineries. Once in the place you could sit on one of the rickety wooden barstools and order beer by the glass for two bits or get a pitcher for a dollar. If you were hungry the menu included beef jerky, pepperoni sticks and greenish tinged pickled eggs and pretzels, Harry was not a big spender and could easily nurse a glass for an hour. He never ordered food and only occasionally would he feed quarters into the pool table, the jukebox or the cigarette machine.
Mike Taylor who was the owner of the Watering Hole wasn’t inclined to spend any extra money on improving the appearance of the place. The old flickering purple neon sign over the front door nicely set off the drab, peeling sickly green paint job. Inside, the back bar was decorated with all of the free advertising signs that the local beer distributor had dropped off over the decades that the place had been open. To the best of anyone’s recollection they bad never been moved or dusted since their arrival. The floor was covered with asphalt tile, worn through to the gray concrete beneath it in all the places there was foot traffic. The only windows in the place were in the restrooms with bars on the inside and heavy mesh wire on the outside. The back door to the dirt parking lot was regularly left open to allow for an air exchange on most nights when the cigarette smoke reached a level that obscured vision.
To Harry this was home, his Watering Hole, where he was entertained and where he enjoyed the company of others who shared his tastes and enjoyments. It was also the place where Harry knew he’d drink for free. Not because Mike Taylor would comp him his beers; nope, the reason was that periodically, Harry would force open the back door of the Watering Hole after closing and then use a large screw driver and a pry bar to crack open the coin receptacles on the pool table, jukebox and cigarette machine. He’d stick the coins and a couple bottles of beer, and a pocketful of pepperoni sticks into a brown paper grocery bag and sneak away. He’d often get enough change to last for months and when he’d run low he’d just come through the back door again.
Harry thought he had the routine down pat. He’d run low on quarters and then he’d burglarize the Watering Hole during the early morning hours. Mike would find the damage later in the morning, report it to his insurance company and they’d have it fixed. It was only a mild inconvenience to Mike or so thought Harry. What Harry didn’t know was that the insurance company was getting tired of the repetition of burglary there and had told Mike that if there were another reported case, they’d cancel his coverage. So Mike did what be thought was the only reasonable thing. He got his kids Boy Scout sleeping bag and borrowed his grandfathers .3040 Krag rifle, the one that had seen service with the Buffalo Soldiers and with Teddy Roosevelt at San Juan Hill. After gathering his gear he began started spending the nights camped out atop the pool table in the Watering Hole waiting for a burglar. Mike was a very patient man and he waited for six weeks before he heard the sounds of a pry bar tearing at the doorframe at the back of the bar.
He slid off of the pool table and in the dim light of a Budweiser Beer sign he chambered a round in the Krag and then knelt down and hid behind his torso behind the pool table while using it’s edge as a rifle rest.
It took only a few minutes before Harry finished his demolition work and then he shoved open the broken door. Mike, who was on the other side of the pool table, saw a dark, shadowy figure with a small crowbar in its hand standing menacingly in the doorway and then he did what he’d set out to do. He aimed the front sight of the Krag at the figure and pulled the trigger. Six inches of flame shot out of the barrel of the old rifle and Harry staggered backwards several feet and then took off running. Mike kept the gun pointed at the door as he moved toward the phone and called the Sheriffs Station. “This is Mike Taylor at the Watering Hole on Normandie, I’ve’ just shot an armed robber who was breaking into my place.”
Minute’s later Mike heard the sound of sirens and the screeching of tires as patrol cars arrived and surrounded the bar. A voice over a loudspeaker told him to come out the front door with his hands in plain view. After he’d complied with the requests of the Deputies and had answered their brief questions he watched them search the interior of the bar and then move into the darkness of the parking lot as they looked for the bad guy. They found him where he’d run out of steam and died. Harry had a small fatal wound in his chest and a large exit wound in his back and apparently he was operating on adrenaline after being shot. He ran about twenty-five feet along the east end of the building and then started up the north side when he ran out of life. He didn’t bit the ground however; he died leaning against the building and from a distance it looked like he’d squatted down to pick something up or to tie his shoes. Harry failed burglary attempt ended Mike insurance coverage threat.
Most burglars are luckier that Harry, relatively few of them ever meet somebody with a gun who shoots or kills them. Cops very rarely shoot burglars unless they feel that their lives are in jeopardy, most of the time they just hook ‘em and book ‘em.
It was a foggy, chilly, breezy, early morning when two Firestone Sheriffs Station units were dispatched to a silent burglar alarm call on Marbrissa Street south of Nadeau Ave. The Deputies in both units were fairly certain they were responding to an alarm activated by foul weather. We knew that over 90% of all silent alarms were false or accidental. As we approached the call from different directions we blacked out about a block from the location and coasted silently to positions on either side of the building. When we got out of our cars we could see that the front door was slightly ajar and that the interior of the building was dark.
We waited a moment for an early arriving worker to turn on a light and when that didn’t occur we secured the outside of the building. It was a two-story metal shop building that looked like a Quonset hut on vitamin pills. There was a small door at either end of the building and a large roll up door in the middle of the south side that was secured by a heavy chain that went around the metal work in the door and an adjoining I-beam steel girder that framed it.
Jerry Brown and Don Kennedy took positions outside of the building covering the doors at the front and rear while Doug Travis and I entered to conduct a leapfrog search. There was a small office immediately inside the front door and it was obvious that someone had been beating on the dial of a medium sized safe that was in the southeast corner of the office. On the floor lay a small sledgehammer, a small leather mechanics hand tool pouch and a still lighted rubber flashlight. The open rear door of the office led to a large workshop area with all kinds of lathes, presses and other machinery. Along one wall was a wooden stairway that led to a wide catwalk about ten or twelve feet above the floor encircling the workshop that seemed to be a storage area for miscellaneous supplies and parts.
Doug and I were certain that our burglar or burglars had fled into the workshop area when they’d become aware of our arrival and we really wanted to find him or them. We gave the place a thorough check and didn’t come up with a warm body so we decided to start over again and as we did, Brown and Kennedy joined us inside as another unit arrived to take over their exterior posts. The four of us had searched for about thirty minutes without success when Doug signaled us with his flashlight on the catwalk. We quickly and quietly joined him and were amazed as we looked at a small portion of a red plaid shirt that seemed to be protruding from a small space between one of the large I-beam girders that supported the building and its metal skin.
“Come out, come out whoever you are. This is the Sheriff speaking, we want to take you to jail!” We got no response, so we took the next step which involved getting two pieces of iron pipe and beating on the girder while we assured the person inside that unless he came out voluntarily that the same pounding would occur to his body if we had to forcefully extract him.
A few seconds elapsed before a voice said,” OK, OK you got me I’m coming out but promise you won’t hit me?”
“Scouts honor! But keep your hands where we can see them.”
Moments later our small thin burglar wriggled out of his hiding place and into our handcuffs. Doug took him down the stairs to the center of the workshop where on the floor was a large ring of steel two feet high and about eight feet in diameter. Welded across the circle was a heavy steel rod to which Travis handcuffed our suspect. Then, for the purpose of making him more visible and identifiable in case he escaped and fled be opened a paint can on one of the workbenches and painted a large industrial yellow stripe down the middle of his back from his collar and some of his hair to the bottom of the pockets on his jeans. I know these were his reasons since I was the bookman that watch and I was going to have to write the report that covered the arrest and I pointedly asked him: “Why the hell did you do that Doug?”
Rather than take him to jail with the stripe Doug and I spent another half-hour scrubbing our burglar with lacquer thinner while Kennedy and Brown looked on and laughed at us. During the ride to the station we had to keep all the windows down in the cold fog to keep from falling unconscious from the fumes.
Later, while Doug was on vacation I had to testify at the burglars preliminary hearing and the defense attorney asked me if in fact I’d painted a yellow stripe down the back of his client when he was arrested. Luckily, after I truthfully answered no, he didn’t ask any follow-up questions. Later the guy pled guilty as part of a plea bargain and went to State Prison for a couple of years so we never had to explain why or how he got painted yellow.
The morning watch seems to bring out the most burglary calls for obvious reasons and on another early morning response to a silent burglar alarm my partner, Fred Martin and I found ourselves in front of a clothing store on South Avalon Blvd. in what is now the City of Carson. We deployed our assisting Deputies around the perimeter and then the two of us began checking the exterior of the building for signs of entry, and that’s when Fred found the unlocked front door.
He and I made entry into the business and began checking for bad guys. Since it wasn’t a really large building we didn’t find any and we were finished in a matter of minutes except for checking an interior office that was locked. Fred found a small flexible piece of plastic that he slipped into the doorframe and in a matter of seconds had be slipped the lock and presto the door was open. I gave it a hard kick and as it swung into the room I followed it quickly and I was amazed and fearful when with my peripheral vision I could see a human form hurtling down toward me from atop a filing cabinet. I reacted instinctively as I fired one round from my .357 Colt Python at the figure and then watched as it hit the ground and broke.
I’d killed a ceramic mannequin that had come unbalanced from its perch atop a cabinet when I kicked the door open.
The front door had been left unlocked accidentally by a departing employee and the alarm was apparently caused when the wind rattled the unlocked door in its frame. The only difficulty we encountered was explaining to the store manager how a bullet hole got into the office ceiling and why one of their mannequins bad been terminated. It took me months to live down my reputation as a killer of statues.
Deputy Andy Anderson was a jewel among those who were assigned to Firestone Station. He had a great talent for solving police problems, a great sense of humor and he had the remarkable ability to draw cartoons of the day-to-day incidents we encountered. Backing him up on his calls could almost always end up being a special adventure and that was the case at another early morning burglary in progress call at a large commercial building. We found signs of forcible entry to a side exterior door and the place was so large it took a couple of additional units to keep the exterior secure. We knew we’d be tied up for a while during the interior search for bad guys when Andy unveiled his plan.
“If there’s somebody still in there I’m going to woof and growl them out.”
“Andy, you’re not the Big Bad Wolf and these aren’t the three Little Pigs!”
I still smile as I remember Andy standing inside the building and announcing in a very loud voice, “This is the Sheriffs Department, if you don’t come out we’re going to set our search and attack dog loose and he’ll find you and you’ll be very sorry when that happens.” Andy followed his announcement with one of the best imitations of a barking, snarling, growling attack dog that I’d ever beard. He followed it with the command, “Down Prince, down!”
A moment later we heard two voices surrendering. That saved us a lot of time and was especially satisfy and funny since the Department didn’t have patrol dogs in the early sixties.
Hardly any burglars are Cal Tech graduates so I wasn’t surprised to get dispatched to an unusual and humorous burglary report call at the beginning of the day shift one Monday morning.
I went to a steel fabricating shop near the intersection of Slauson and Compton Avenues where I learned from the owner that his business had been burglarized over the weekend. This time the crooks had left a rather large piece of evidence, a Ford half-ton pickup truck.
The business was involved in fabrication metal parts from rolls of steel that were delivered to their rear loading dock. Each of the rolls was about five feet in diameter and about two feet thick and weighed in at about 2000 pounds. Apparently, two burglars managed to pry open the loading docks overhead door. Once inside, they used pinch bars to move two of the rolls out the door and across the dock to the edge where they simultaneously pushed them over the side and into the bed of the truck that was about three feet below. The ensuing impact of four thousand pounds landing in the truck bed blew out the rear tires and caused the rear wheels to become a balance point for the truck, lifting the front wheels off the ground. Not surprisingly when I ran the license number of the truck I learned it had been reported stolen earlier that morning by an owner with several burglary convictions. He was utterly speechless when Detectives tied fingerprints on the steel rolls and the truck steering wheel to him. After his arrest he traded his accomplice’s name for a slightly reduced sentence.
And so it went day in and day out on the streets of the Firestone Station policing area, sometimes the crooks won and sometimes so did Deputy Sheriffs.