“Tanko Invades City, Spreading Terror!"

Joe Tanko, murderer and terrorist, who, eluding hundreds of Sacramento man hunters last night, continued his spectacular holdups of Motorists in a desperate bid for freedom.Tanko and Hall mugshots

There is nothing more exciting than a good manhunt! A notorious criminal is on the run! His picture stares out from the front page of the newspapers with a large reward attached. A frisson of excitement runs through the city. At any moment this desperado could appear, die in a shoot out with police or escape again into the shadows. When it came to being hunted, there was no man better than Joe Tanko.

It all began in September 1923 when 24-year-old Tanko and his 21-year-old crime partner, Floyd Hall, fatally shot San Bruno Police Chief Arthur G. Meehan. They were caught a few weeks later when a letter from Tanko to his brother, in which he admitted to 40 robberies and to killing Meehan, was given to police. Because of their youth and their guilty plea Tanko and Hall were spared the death penalty and received a life sentence instead.

It seems that Hall, who was paroled in the late 1960s, received a full pardon in 1972 with the help of a lobbyist who fell under his charm. “They took him to the Brass Rail, a lobbyist and legislative hangout, and Hall got acquainted with everyone within an hour. He was very personable.””

While being transported to San Quentin the crime partners made their first escape attempt but they were foiled by an alert sheriff. A year later, on April 7, 1925, Tanko and Hall broke out of San Quentin by picking a lock and sliding down a jute rope. While police and armed posses searched for them, Tanko and Hall provisioned themselves with food, supplies, and firearms from store burglaries in Petaluma and Healdsburg. The pair then embarked on a spectacular crime spree.

On April 12th they carjacked a Santa Rosa rancher, on April 14th they held up a Sacramento cab driver and escaped after a shoot out with Sacramento Police. Tanko Robbery

A few days later, while police staked out the highways around Sacramento, Tanko and Hall robbed Harry Litzberg’s Sacramento store, killing him in the process.

Police from neighboring communities flooded into the capital city to aid the search, to no avail. On April 21st Tanko and Hall continued their depredations by robbing two cab drivers and taking their cars. Two days later, at 17th and Q Street, they entered the car where Frank Harlow and his four year old daughter were sitting and forced Harlow to drive them out of town. As police chased them, Tanko fired into the pursuing car, severely wounding police officer Clyde Nunn. The fugitives drove on until the car ran out of gas, and then they fled on foot. They were reported to be in Auburn, then in Grass Valley. A massive manhunt pursued them; posses searched the surrounding swamps, and riverbanks without success.

On May 5th the pair commandeered a U.S. Mail truck in the town of Gold Run and made a wild drive down the mountain towards Sacramento. A flat tire caused them to abandon the truck and they disappeared into the mountain area. Over 200 deputies surrounded the area but Tanko and Hall slipped through the dragnet, stole a car and re-entered Sacramento on May 14th. A reward of $1000 was placed on their heads.

At this point Hall and Tanko decided that their chances were better if they separated. Hall was arrested the next day when an ex-con in whose room he was hiding turned him in to police for the reward money. Tanko disappeared.

By this time both men had achieved near mythic status. Hall was treated like a celebrity by a fawning press, “Captured desperado sobs at mention of his family,” was the subhead of the SF Examiner article.

While hundreds of armed men searched every rooming house in Sacramento, Tanko was reported heading for the Bay Area. On May 19th as accountant C.O. Buntly drove slowly through Golden Gate Park, a man entered his car and stuck a gun into his side. It was Joe Tanko. “Drive like hell! I don’t care where to,” he commanded. Buntly drove to North Beach and when the car became stuck in traffic on Kearny Street Tanko jumped out and escaped.

While Tanko was still at large, Hall was indicted for the murder of Litzberg and the shooting of Officer Nunn. He was convicted and sentenced to death, but the case was reversed on appeal and a second trial was scheduled. Hall was the ultimate “bad boy”- fearless, charming, and photogenic. In 1926, despite eyewitness testimony, Hall was acquitted of the shooting of Nunn. His courtroom groupies cheered mightily. After a second trial on the Litzberg murder proved inconclusive, authorities decided not to retry him, since he was already serving a life sentence for the murder of Police Chief Mehan.

Where was Tanko? For most of the next 18 months Tanko lived in Denver, supporting himself through robberies and other criminal activities. He kept his identity a secret and told his girlfriend he was a San Francisco businessman. He returned to San Francisco in October 1926 to see his other girlfriend, who knew his real identity.

On November 13th SFPD Sergeant Vernon Van Matre stood outside a basement apartment at 1373 McAllister Street preparing to arrest Willie De Bardalaben and his gang for an assault on a man and his wife. Van Matre did not expect trouble but he brought along three other policemen to block the other exits in case Willie decided to make a run for it. Sergeant Van Matre raised an outside window and saw De Bardelaben stretched out on a bed. He called out to Willie telling him that the building was surrounded and that he should come out with his hands up.

1373 McAllister -then




















1373 McAllister now
1373 Mcallister Now


The suspect rose with his hands up and backed away from the officer saying, “I can’t. He’s got me covered.” As Van Matre shoved aside the screen to enter the room he was shot in the groin by Joe Tanko, who had been hiding out in the apartment. Tanko took the stairway leading to rooms above.

As he ascended the stairs, Tanko came face to face with Detective Sergeant Roney, who asked him to surrender. Tanko fired first, hitting Roney in the stomach. Though wounded seriously, Roney fired back five times, killing Tanko instantly.

When news of the shooting got out, crowds filled McAllister Street reveling vicariously in the recent drama. Almost 20,000 people visited the Coroner’s office over the few days to view the corpse of the man who had terrified Northern California. “He’s smaller than I thought he’d be” was the most popular observation.

Tanko was buried in Potter’s field in San Mateo.

So, with Tanko dead and Hall in prison for life it looked like the story was over. But that wasn’t the case.

While going through the late Kevin Mullen’s files (Kevin was a SFPD Deputy Police Chief and noted crime historian) I found a letter from a retired Sacramento attorney with an interesting story about Floyd Hall, Tanko’s partner. It seems that Hall, who was paroled in the late 1960s, received a full pardon in 1972 with the help of a lobbyist who fell under his charm. “They took him to the Brass Rail, a lobbyist and legislative hangout, and Hall got acquainted with everyone within an hour. He was very personable.”

“I am bewitched with the rogue’s company. If the rascal has not given me medicines to make me love him, I’ll be hanged.” William Shakespeare

April 2015

Bloody MondayThree Murders Headline

There must have been something in the air on Bloody Monday, October 1st 1951

Two of the murders occurred in the Richmond District. They both involved a marital dispute, another man, and a touch of the macabre.

Murder on the 19th HoleDolls in boxes

The circumstances of this case can be best understood by liberally quoting from the October 2, 1951 article in the San Francisco Chronicle:

“When police called at a stately old home, at 335 Thirty First Avenue yesterday they found that Alex Craig, 54, had ended a round of golf by killing his wife. He had feared for weeks that his wife of thirty-one years was planning to leave him.

On the eighteenth hole he reached a fateful decision. Then he and his wife went home...After exchanging heated words in the kitchen Craig snatched an ivory handled steak knife and plunged it into Mrs. Craig’s back...

He propped his wife’s body against the wall in a sitting position. He stepped outside and plucked a pink geranium and placed it at the throat of her housecoat. Then he located a snapshot of himself and his wife in happier days, soon after their marriage. He placed this picture in Mrs. Craig’s lap.He decided to commit suicide by drowning himself in the bathtub and filled the bathtub with water.

He did not want to be interrupted while he was drowning so he nailed the front and rear doors shut.But before he did this he decided to leave some mementos to his grandchildren.
He carefully unpacked the three dolls that his wife had bought them for Christmas and arranged them on a bed upstairs, leaving individual notesthat said “We both loved you.”

Then he arranged all the financial papers in a neat pile on the kitchen table. His bankbook showed a balance of exactly $1. Next he began to write notes to family members. While he was writing he began to drink from a bottle of whiskey.
Somehow all of Sunday night passed without Craig climbing into the bathtub of water. Yesterday morning Craig’s son William became alarmed and called at the home. When he found the front door nailed shut he pounded on the garage door. His father let him in. Homicide officers called to the house said the elder Craig was too drunk to tell a coherent story.

The son said Craig had been jealous and brooding in recent weeks believing that his wife was going to leave him for another man- a fellow employee at the department store. Police booked Craig on suspicion of murder.”

The Peephole Murder Case

The Peephole murder began with a mystery. Albert Friedman, President of Atlas Paper Company, was found alone, lying in his hallway at 1597 17th Avenue. There was no obvious sign of foul play. The autopsy, however, revealed that he had been shot through the eyeball with a .22 caliber bullet as he looked through the front door peephole.

Friedman had been living in fear since his wife had left and filed for divorce in June. Police found a note in Friedman’s handwriting that said, ”Belote called 9:52 Saturday Night.” Friedman also kept a diary in which he described in detail a relationship between Ray Belote and Friedman’s estranged wife, Blanche.

Police located Blanche at the family’s cabin in Guerneville. It was clear there was no love lost between husband and wife. Blanche, who had been drinking heavily, said she didn’t know anyone who might have killed Friedman, but added that everyone she knew would have enjoyed ending his life.

Police found Ray Belote hiding under her bed. Blanche claimed that she and Belote were just companions. “We just have a lot in common,” she said.

Belote admitted borrowing a 22 rifle but he said that he had been hunting at Skunk Hollow in the Russian River and had not been in San Francisco when the murder occurred. He claimed that the rifle had been stolen from his car.

Although police were suspicious they had no solid evidence. Inspector (and future Police Chief) Al Nelder was about to release Belote when new witnesses stepped forward and turned the case around.

The owners of the Willow Brook Inn, located on route 101 near Petaluma, identified Belote as the man who stopped in for drinks on the night of the murder and told them he was driving back from San Francisco.

Confronted with this evidence, Belote confessed. “I killed him because I loved his wife,” said Belote, and he denied that Blanche was involved. The coroner’s jury was suspicious but there was not enough evidence to indict Mrs. Friedman. Blanche received $75,000 from Friedman’s estate, $8,000 of which went to pay for Ray Belote’s defense.

During the trial Belote testified that Albert Friedman had no objection to his affair with Friedman’s wife. Ray also claimed that he shot through the keyhole to “scare” Friedman. The jury disagreed. Belote was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Paul Drexler, Director, Crooks Tour of San Francisco, 415-713-3077

March 2015

Barbosa mugshotJoe Barbosa, “the Animal” Shot Dead at 25th & Moraga

On February 11, 1976, when Joe Barboza was shot to death on Moraga and 25th Ave., there was little speculation about who did it or why. It was more “why did it take so long?”

He became the first participant in the Federal Witness Protection Program and there was nothing a grateful FBI would not do for Joe. Although Joe admitted killing 26 people, he was given a sentence of one year, including time served.

Joe BarbosaNicknamed “The Animal,” Barboza was described by the FBI as “The most vicious criminal in New England.” His own lawyer, F. Lee Bailey, described him as “one of the worst men on the face of the earth.” Joe had been a top enforcer for the New England Mafia, but lost favor and was abandoned by the mob when he was arrested on a weapons charge in 1966.

He became the first participant in the Federal Witness Protection Program and there was nothing a grateful FBI would not do for Joe. Although Joe admitted killing 26 people, he was given a sentence of one year, including time served. The FBI agents he worked with also overlooked another of Joe’s foibles – five of the six people his testimony convicted in the Deagon case were actually innocent. Joe admitted later that “the Mafia screwed me and I’m going to screw as many of them as possible.”

Twenty five years later the true facts came out and led to the disgrace and conviction of FBI agents Paul Rico and Dennis Conden.

Barbosa at trial

Would you buy a used verdict from this man?

Meanwhile, Joe was paroled in March 1969 and told to leave Massachusetts forever.

He was resettled in Santa Rosa by the Witness Protection program under the name of Joe Bentley and enrolled in a cooking school. He gave up cooking and went back to his favorite occupation, homicide, killing a local criminal named Clay Wilson.Barbosa and lawyer

Although the FBI did everything they could to get Barboza off, he was convicted of 2nd degree murder and served 5 years in a California prison. He was released with a new name, Joe Donati, and lived with a girlfriend at an apartment at 1250 La Playa Street.

Two months later Barboza was murdered outside the apartment of Ted Sharliss, a fellow ex-con, who later pleaded guilty to helping to set up the murder. In 1992 Joe Russo, a notorious hit man from Boston, plead guilty to the murder. By the time of his death Barboza’s stature in the world had gotten somewhat classier. His nickname had changed from “The Animal” to “The Baron.”

Paul Drexler, Director, Crooks Tour of San Francisco, 415-713-3077

February 2015

The Moskowitz KidnappingBus shelter

This non-descript bus stop, located next to wealthy St Francis Woods, provided the climax to one of the most spectacular crimes of the 1950s. On the morning of January 16, 1954, realtor Leonard Moskovitz went to meet with a prospective buyer and then disappeared. By late afternoon his worried family contacted the police. Then Leonard’s father Maurice Moskovitz, the wealthy founder of the clothing store Rochester Big & Tall, received a ransom note from the kidnappers.

“Dear Dad,” Leonard wrote, “I am being held prisoner by some men. They want $500,000 ... get it for them right away or you won’t see me again. Do not let police or authorities know or they’ll kill me now if it comes out in the newspapers.”

“I am being held prisoner by some men. They want $500,000 ... get it for them right away or you won’t see me again. Do not let police or authorities know ...”

The newspapers soon knew the story but at the request of the police, they kept silent. “Not a line was printed, not a word spoken about the city’s most sensational crime in many years,” The Chronicle wrote later. This press secrecy was a once in a lifetime event and would be impossible in today’s news world.News account

The family negotiated with the kidnappers in the personal ads in the paper. After three nail- biting days, replete with false tips and dead ends, the case suddenly broke open.

On Tuesday at 2:45 AM one of the kidnappers called Alfred Moskovitz, Leonard’s twin brother. Alfred managed to keep the kidnapper on the phone long enough for police to track the call to a phone booth in the St Francis Circle bus stop.

Police Inspector Al Nelder was in the area when he saw movement in the phone booth. He jumped out of his car and caught Joseph Lear, one of the kidnappers. Lear led them to a house at 167 Arbor Street in Glen Park where they rescued Moskowitz and arrested Harold Jackson, the ringleader of the kidnap plot.

Jackson had an unlikely background for a kidnapper. He had once owned a private detective agency and had often worked with the police. But after two failed businesses he was desperate for money. He decided to abduct Moskowitz after reading about Leonard’s real estate company and his family’s wealth.

The story of the Moskowitz kidnapping and rescue dominated all the San Francisco papers for weeks. The Moskowitz family and the police gratefully made themselves available to the press. Leonard even wrote a first person account of his kidnapping for the newspapers.Moskewitz Ransom Note

Jackson and Lear were tried in May, only four months after the crime. Both got the death penalty, but the sentences were changed to life in prison. Both men died in San Quentin. The case sky rocketed Al Nelder ‘s career and he became San Francisco ‘s Police Chief in 1970. Leonard Moskowitz returned to a successful business career and died in 2008 at the age of 90.

The link below is to a 1950s newsreel report on this case, narrated by the inimitable Ed Herlihy:

Paul Drexler, Director, Crooks Tour of San Francisco, 415-713-3077

December 2014

Notorious Crooks of San Francisco

The Death of Cornelius Stagg Cornelius Stagg

Up until the early 1900s there was no good reason to be in the Ingleside or Sunset Districts. There were plenty of bad reasons, though. Its remote location and distance from legal oversight made it a popular place for gambling, drinking and carousing.

The most popular activity was horse racing, the sport of kings. And the titan of the turf was Cornelius Stagg, who opened the Ocean Course race Track in 1865 and ran the Ocean House. For decades, his hotel became a favored destination for prominent celebrities, politicians, and even kings.

His murder thirty years later shocked and saddened San Francisco. It was as if an old, charming but slightly disreputable uncle had died. He may not have represented the best of old San Francisco, but he certainly exemplified the most interesting.

Cornelius Stagg was born in 1829 to one of the oldest families in New York and grew up with a taste for of adventure that could not be satisfied in his home state.

Over 20,000 people flocked to the Ocean Race Track to see California’s Thad Stevens defeat Kentucky’s True Blue, proving that California thoroughbreds were as good as Eastern horses. Famous guests such as President Ulysses Grant, Buffalo Bill, and Emperor Don Pedro of Brazil visited, and the Ocean House rivaled the Cliff House for attracting wealthy sporting men.”

Stagg came to San Francisco in 1851 and quickly made an impression on the city’s movers and shakers. His friends included theatrical producers, politicians and gamblers. Through his friendship with Senator David Broderick, Cornelius became a skilled political operative and was given the lucrative position of Inspector of Weights and Measures by the state legislature.

But there was another side to Stagg. In the 1850s Cornelius worked as an undercover detective for Mayor Garrison and reported to Detective Captain Isaiah Lees. He also served as a confidential agent for the legendary Mexican President Benito Juarez. In the 1860s, Stagg was a special federal agent in New York and went undercover to arrest illegal whiskey distillers (government taxes on alcohol were one of the main sources of federal revenue at that time). His activities made him a wealthy man, and to celebrate, he bought a pair of thoroughbred horses for $10,000 and had them shipped to San Francisco. Stagg returned to San Francisco in 1872 with a beautiful wife and a sizable bankroll.Ingleside Race Track

In 1872, Cornelius bought the Ocean House resort, located near Eucalyptus Drive and 25th Avenue and started the Ocean Race Track. This track quickly became Ocean Beach’s top attraction and was the scene of California’s most famous race. Over 20,000 people flocked to the Ocean Race Track to see California’s Thad Stevens defeat Kentucky’s True Blue, proving that California thoroughbreds were as good as Eastern horses. Famous guests such as President Ulysses Grant, Buffalo Bill, and Emperor Don Pedro of Brazil visited, and the Ocean House rivaled the Cliff House for attracting wealthy sporting men.

But Stagg’s gambling acumen was overshadowed by his matrimonial woes. His wife was unhappy at the Ocean House. She spent Stagg’s money lavishly and eventually ran off to Philadelphia with one of Stagg’s guests, a wealthy Englishman.

It was a blow from which Cornelius never recovered. He closed Ocean Race Track, which had become unprofitable. The Ocean House mysteriously burned down on Christmas Eve 1888. He then took over the Ingleside House, located at what is now Ocean Avenue and Junipero Serra. By 1895, few visitors came to the Ingleside House and Stagg was almost bankrupt.The last plea of Cornelius Stagg

At 10:00 Saturday night, March 16, 1895, just a handful of regulars were sitting around the bar playing liars dice at the Ingleside House when three masked men entered, all wearing long linen coats. The lead bandit entered the room and stood behind Cornelius, who was talking with an old friend. When the man demanded money, Stagg thought it was a joke and laughed. Though Stagg had lost his money he had retained his nerve. He had single-handedly fought off many previous robbery attempts on his bar. Enraged, the bandit smashed his pistol down on Stagg’s head. A few seconds later, two bullets followed and Stagg lay dead on the floor. The robbers escaped with a total of four dollars. The next day scores of San Francisco’s founders were among the hundreds of people who came to the Ingleside House to mourn his death, to celebrate his life, and to remember their youth.

Stagg’s old boss, Captain of Detectives Isaiah Lees, put every man available on the case. In the two weeks following the crime three different gangs were arrested, accused of the murder, and then later released. In the end, the leads petered out and the case remained unsolved.

Had Cornelius lived just a few months more, his fortunes would have been restored. For on November 28, 1895, The Ingleside Racetrack opened, just a few blocks from the Ingleside House. The racetrack, occupying today’s Ingleside Terraces development, brought thousands of people to the area and would have made the Ingleside House a profitable and valuable property.

Paul Drexler, Director, Crooks Tour of San Francisco, 415-713-3077

November 2014