“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.”
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.
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.
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
Paul Drexler is a crime historian, his book, San Francisco Notorious: True tales of Crime, Passion, and Murder was published by R.J. Parker Publications in June 2019. He founded Crooks Tours of San Francisco.