A L E G E N D A R Y L A W M A N
By Duane Preimsberger
Stories about Doug Travis abound. Seemingly, everyone who worked in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department from the 1960’s until the early 1990’s can tell at least one Travis story. Most often, these tales are supposedly first hand recollections of audacious behavior, like seeing Doug wearing a red Beatle wig while in uniform and handling calls in the Firestone Station area: or punching out a Division Chief: the teller might have helped Travis put a dead, decrepit body on loan from the Coroners Office, then located in the Hall of Justice, into the locker of a disliked Jail supervisor; or they were there when Doug landed a Hughes 500 helicopter on a street in a congested urban area and assisted a Deputy Sheriff, who was losing a physical confrontation, kick the butt of a suspect and then fly away; and the list goes on…
Some of the stories are true and others are re-creations of tales passed on with a degree or two of personal augmentation and some are simply stories about a man who has become a legendary lawman in the annals of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Like so many others, I too have my share of Doug Travis stories and I’ve decided to recount some of them that might perhaps round out the true character of a guy who sometimes did things his own way.
After about a year at Firestone Station I happened to look at the schedule for the upcoming month of November to see where I’d be working and found that I was assigned to the evening watch in Car 11 with Deputy Douglas Travis. It turned to be a worthwhile assignment; of course, I’d heard some of the Travis tales and wasn’t quite certain that going full tilt at everyone we confronted was going to be to my liking. I shouldn’t have worried, at each contact, Doug started out treating everybody with respect and even kindness and if things went downhill it wasn’t of his choosing.
The only thing I didn’t like was his pipe smoking, Doug would light up a concoction that smelled like sawdust, old rubber bands and hippie incense and fill the interior of our radio car with a thick smoke that would congeal the mucus in your nose and throat and make your eyes water at the same time. Fortunately, that happened only a time or two each shift, and I learned to hang my head out the window in order to breath cleaner air.
Rainy weather, even in a busy area like Firestone Station, slows down the number of hot calls and it was during a rainy period that I first saw Doug do marriage counseling. We’d responded to a family dispute that had gotten loud to the point where the neighbors called the cops. After making sure that the two folks involved weren’t armed or violent and since it was a quiet rainy evening, Doug got the young couple seated at the kitchen table while he sat with them and lighted up his pipe. Then, for about a half-hour, while I did the log and listened for radio traffic in the front seat of our patrol car, Doug got to the bottom of their discord and that was finances. I was amazed that he took the time and effort to help them develop a budget and some spending guidelines. When he came out of the house the happy couple stood by with their arms around each other, as they smiled, thanked and waved at Doug as we drove away. I’d never seen a Deputy Sheriff do serious marriage counseling before that evening. I was equally amazed when we stopped back at that home a week later to see how things were working out and they were good.
Christmas lights were appearing on the porches and roof tops of homes in the area as folks began to decorate for the Holidays. One of the attempts to put up roof lights had us responding to a 905V, a vicious animal call, where a man had been trapped on his roof by a dog. When we arrived at the small home in Walnut Park we found a really large and scruffy Saint Bernard barking relentlessly at the foot of an extension ladder at the top of which sat a man who was the trapped victim.
Neither of us wanted to be bitten by this large canine so we made a cautious approach, speaking softly to the animal. As it sensed that we were getting closer and talking to it the dog underwent a behavioral change and instead of barking she began whining and wagging her tail. Soon, she was leaning against us and searching for hands to pet her. Since neither of us were certified dog psychologists we decided that all she had wanted to do with the man on the roof was to have him come down and play. She certainly didn’t turn out to be vicious and neither of us wanted to see her go to the pound and be put down.
Doug got that little smile on his face that meant he’d though of something unusual to do with our new four legged friend and I soon found out what that was. We loaded the dog into the passenger side of the front seat and then put my uniform cap on its head and drove through the business area letting people have a look at a new “Police Dog” while I sat in the back seat observing the incredulous glances. Later, we took the dog to the station where the trusties gave it a bath and fed it. Then, we found a good home for what turned out to be a really nice dog with one of our Sergeants who had several St. Bernard’s already.
Unfortunately, Doug’s unusual and sometimes slightly strange sense of humor got him identified as a supervision problem and he was transferred to the Hall of Justice Jail where he could contemplate the error of his ways and hopefully redeem himself. He managed to come back to Firestone Station as the leader of a squad of Hall of Justice Jail Deputies who were sent to help police the 1965 Riots that rocked the core of the community. His performance during those difficult days was noteworthy and he and his fellows got high marks for professional conduct and it was looking like he’d done enough penance. Month’s later the Department began to form a new unit, the Emergency Services Detail, to respond to mountain rescues and other incidents that could employ specially trained rescue deputies. Doug Travis became one of the plank holders within that unit.
I got my assignment a short time later and I watched an entirely different side of Doug emerge. Early in the formation of ESD we were heavily involved in training, planning and preparation and Doug Travis found a special notch. His basic engineering and trades skills as a welder, carpenter, plumber and electrician became valued assets to the unit. One of his first accomplishments was to develop a pyramidal winch extension on the front of the rescue truck that allowed the winch cable to extend out over the side of a slope and stay out of the dirt and rocks.
This improved the ability of the rescue deputies to more easily haul Stokes litters containing injured hikers and car crash victims out of canyons and up hillsides. Doug had not only conceptualized the design, he’s scrounged the necessary parts needed to accomplish the task and then, adding his personal touch, he painted it all a very bright industrial orange. It worked and worked very well.
Doug learned how to be an effective rescue man and at the same time he put his personal imprint on ESD, he built furniture out of cast offs, designed a logo for ESD that is still in use today, wired extra light and D.C. outlets to our rescue trucks and painted a whole lot of items industrial orange. He could do it all!
Doug had a brief tour at Aero Bureau when the innovative Sky Knight Helicopter Patrol program kicked off. The operation required observers to act as the linkage between the ground units and the pilot so that the aerial observation platform could be put to the best use. With his extensive patrol background and communications skills, he was destined to do a great job and that short stay as an observer developed in him the desire to learn to fly helicopters. Before long, he had a new assignment at the Aero Bureau.
He did very well, not only did LASD personnel in the field appreciate the efforts that he and his observers expended on their behalf but cops from other agencies were soon extolling the results they obtained when a red headed pilot was helping out over their cities. Doug became active in the Airborne Law Enforcement Association and was quietly working to improve the equipment and capabilities of those who flew overhead.
Our friendship continued even after our paths went in different directions and in 1977 when Judy and I were married in a small ceremony in our kitchen, Doug and his wife Miriam were there to help us celebrate.
In 1983, a year after my mom had passed away I wanted to do something in her memory and since she’d been cremated and her ashes spread at sea off of the Palos Verde Peninsula doing something nice at a gravesite was not possible. I called, now Sgt. Douglas Travis, to see if I could go on an Aero Bureau training flight off the coast of Palos Verdes and after prying the real reason out of me, he agreed to be my pilot for that event. It was a beautiful morning and once out over the ocean we hovered a few hundred feet over the sea as I propped open the helicopter door with my foot and dropped the hundreds and hundreds of rose petals I brought along. Together, we watched as they settled on the calm ocean and then we flew away.
There wasn’t any conversation between the two of us, just a silence that speaks volumes and then there was the click of a mic in my headset and I heard Doug’s voice saying softly, “your mom would have liked that.” I looked to my friend and saw tears glistening on his cheek.
When I was battling cancer at the City of Hope I’d get frequent calls of encouragement from Doug and usually the recitation of a really bad joke along with an admonition to “beat that shit!” Since I lived in the Naples area of Long Beach, not far from Aero Bureau, I was able to stop by and thank him for his words of encouragement after I was home. It was on one of those visits that as we walked back to my car from the hanger that Doug told me, “I’ve got that shit too. It’s in my hip but like you, I’m going to beat it!”
By the time of the retirement party for Doug and his wife Miriam who was retiring from the Homicide Bureau he was limping badly and as I roasted him that evening before those who had gathered to send off the two of them I could see the pain in his eyes. Unfortunately, it didn’t get any better and my calls of encouragement and equally bad jokes brought a few smiles but no relief from the burden he carried.
Miriam called to let me know the end was approaching and that Doug had been hospitalized. For awhile I stood at his bedside watching him struggle against the four point restraints, the hospital staff told me that his writhing was something called terminal agitation. His warrior body was fighting a losing struggle with death. I wished that I could carry some of that pain for my friend but I couldn’t.
His memorial service at Aero Bureau, in the big hanger, was attended by hundreds and hundreds of those whose lives had been touched by Doug. Family, friends, members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and members of law enforcement and public safety agencies from all over the state were there to pay their respects. The program was brief and several folks spoke fondly of days gone by with Doug. They mentioned his love for his family, his friends and his job. They paid tribute to his talents and many contributions to his profession
As a fitting tribute, the airspace of the Long Beach Airport was put on hold and as those in attendance gathered silently outside the hanger one could hear, off in the distance, the beat of helicopter rotor blades cutting the air. A contingent of Department aircraft led by a twin turbined Sikorsky flew toward us and then one chopper banked away leaving the missing man formation to grace the heavens in tribute to Doug Travis, a Legendary Lawman.