Someone recently said, “Hey, wouldn’t it be fun if you would write a column telling about some of your exciting newspaper experiences?” And I said, “Gee, what a great idea!” You well know that conversation never took place but you also know what’s coming.
Actually, the column idea springs from a recent story in the Las Cruces Sun-News telling about how squadrons of cops surrounded the home of suspected kidnappers and bull horned it for six hours, warning the occupants to give themselves up before it was too late. Turned out no one was home.
The bad guys were eventually caught and I would like to point out here the Las Cruces police did a fine job — just in case they see me driving through town in my black Cadillac SUV, license ECC490.
(Snitch Alert! He drives a yellow Ford Fiesta and is lying about the plate number!)
The story took me back 45 years to Fontana where I landed my first reporting job in that southern California town. The San Bernardino County sheriff at the time was a real publicity hound who every so often would stage a midnight drug raid. His gimmick was to invite eager reporters to the squad room, give his “be safe out there” pep talk to the deputies, and send us on our way.
It was high adventure for a young kid learning the news business. The particular incident chiseled in memory had to do with arriving at a modest home about one in the morning. I can’t remember the address, but say it was 414 Maple St. Cops surrounded the place, one repeatedly banging on the door. No response.
Then the bull horning commenced. Stuff like “We know you are in there!” “Come out now and no one will get hurt!” Finally, the door slowly opened and a timid and horribly frightened elderly couple edged onto the front porch.
It did not take the sheriff deputies long to realize grandma and grandpa’s only brush with the law involved double parking outside the Baptist church. Wrong address. We were supposed to be at 414 Oak St., a block away.
Fontana was the birthplace of the Hells Angels, which gives you a little insight into the town’s character. It was where we came to know Roger Lee Williams, a local guy who was head of security procedures for a chain of California banks, the Fontana branch located just across the parking lot from The Herald-News.
Roger was peeved with his wife so one day he disappeared with more than $500,000 of bank money, fleeing town not only with the cash but his daughters, ages 4 and 5. The police blotter I reviewed the next morning said “FBI at Security Bank – REQUEST NO PUBLICITY!” That’s roughly akin to putting meat in front of a ravenous dog.
After his eventual capture nine months later, I came to know Roger as a soft-spoken, modest fellow. But he led the FBI on a merry chase, taking his daughters on an extended vacation through Canada and along the eastern seaboard.
Our managing editor, a gruff old Hearst reporter, spent entire days on the phone trying to track down Roger. It was instructive watching him work. And so nice of him to assign me the school board and city council while he had all the fun.
Roger achieved legendary status when he decided to return the girls to mom. Having been on the lam four months, he snuck back into town on Halloween eve, rented a motel room, called a babysitting service, turned the kids over to the babysitter and gave her specific instructions to trick or treat his home at a precise time. Can you imagine her reaction when the little girls flipped up their masks and said, “Hi Mommy!”?
Our modern day Willie Sutton was finally nabbed playing blackjack in Reno the following March when a vacationing Fontana Denny’s waitress ratted him out for the $5,000 reward.
My reward? Newspapering. It’s been fun. Still is.