Sonoma County’s Police Blotter Through the Ages
We can never celebrate crime, nor should we create celebrities of those who perpetrate it. But some crimes are so unusual, so callous, so confounding or so horrible that they become notorious. As do the people who commit them.
Here are some of Sonoma County’s most notorious criminals.
The stagecoach robber and occasional poet Black Bart, was born Charles Boles. He served in the Union Army during the Civil War, and lived on a Missouri farm with his wife and children before abandoning the family to move West. In San Francisco, he became Charles Bowles, a member of high society who reputedly owned a gold mine in the Sierra Nevada. Even so, he apparently needed extra income, because his hobby seemed to be knocking off Wells Fargo stagecoaches, including a few in Northern Sonoma County. His good manners showed through the flour sacks he wore over his face, and he became known as “The Gentleman Bandit.” He made friends by leaving behind the cash and jewelry of passengers, only taking the contents of strong boxes belonging to Wells Fargo. In 1877, after a heist near Duncans Mills on the Russian River, he left behind a poem:
I've labored long and hard for bread/ For honor and for riches/ And on my corns too long you've tred/ You fine-haired sons of bitches.
It was signed, “Black Bart.”
His good manners did him in. A handkerchief dropped during one robbery was traced back to his laundry on Post Street in San Francisco, where detectives arrested him. After confessing to his crimes, Bart served four years. Upon his release at age 55, he told reporters, "My Black Bart days are over.”
You could make a movie about him, but nobody would believe it. His nickname was “The Animal.” As a tough guy in the Boston mob, he played parts in the downfall of two of the biggest crime bosses in the Northeast, Raymond Patriarca and James “Whitey” Bulger. He helped the FBI send four men to prison for a 1965 murder. Three decades later, when his false testimony was disclosed, all were acquitted. But two had already died behind bars. He was the first person to be given a new identity in the FBI’s Witness Protection Program. In 1969, “Joseph Bentley” was given a new life in Santa Rosa, where he soon killed a man over a stock rip-off scheme. During his sensational trial in Sonoma County court, agents from the Justice Department testified to his good character. He plead guilty to a lesser charge, served a quick four years, and then was shot dead on a San Francisco street in 1975.
The man who dubbed himself “The Zodiac” was connected conclusively to “only” five killings in Napa, Solano and San Francisco counties in 1968 and 1969. But with a flair for publicity and the hype of the Bay Area media, he haunted the imaginations of millions for decades. And, it turns out, he may have lived in Santa Rosa. At least that was the argument of the 2007 film “Zodiac,” starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey, Jr. (The film piled up circumstantial evidence, but physical evidence did not implicate the Santa Rosa man.) Meanwhile, dozens of other unsolved Northern California murders, including a string of killings of teenage girls in Sonoma County in the 1970s, have prompted speculation that they may be the Zodiac’s work. But no suspect has ever been prosecuted.
Their names aren’t famous, but their demise certainly is.
In 1920, Sonoma County Sheriff Jim Petray and two San Francisco police detectives arrived at a little house on Seventh Street in what is now known as Santa Rosa’s West End neighborhood. They were looking for three members of San Francisco’s notorious Howard Street gang, who were wanted for kidnapping and rape. By the time the shooting stopped, the three gang members also were wanted for killing Petray and the other two lawmen. Arrested a few days later, the three gang members were in the downtown jail when a crowd of men showed up and dragged them out of their cells, hauled them up to the Rural Cemetery on Franklin Street and hanged them from a locust tree. The next day, a coroner's jury, a hastily assembled panel of community leaders, with little or no deliberation, found that the lynching had been perpetrated by "persons unknown.” No one was ever charged with their deaths.