Defending the Public Defender
The most famous murder in Ingleside history
In 1913, to attract buyers to the new Ingleside Terrace development, the “world’s largest sundial” was built near the middle of the old Ingleside racetrack. The site of the racetrack is now Urbano Drive.
It was not the ideal location for a device that depends on sunshine to be built in one of the foggiest parts of San Francisco. It does have one unusual feature. From the top of this sundial you can see the houses of the victim and perpetrator of the most famous murder in Ingleside history.
As Warren and Verna Louw walked home from the El Rey Theater on Ocean Avenue at 9:45 p.m. toward their Kenwood Avenue home, they noticed a suspicious looking automobile circling the area.
Thinking the occupants might be robbers, the Louws stepped into a recessed doorway and watched as the auto appeared and reappeared several times before racing off with its lights out. The couple continued up Kenwood, where they came upon the crumpled body of a woman lying on the pavement near the curb in front of 150 Kenwood
At first, it was thought that the victim had been struck by a hit and run driver, but responding detectives noticed that the woman had no purse, coat or hat on, though the night was chilly. She was soon identified by a neighbor as Jessie Scott Hughes, a 59-year-old widow who lived alone at 41 Lakewood Street. Public Defender Frank Egan could tell them more, the man said, for he was a close friend of Mrs. Hughes and managed her financial affairs.
as the grand jury was about to take up the matter, the case broke wide-open. Verne Doran, Egan’s chauffeur, who faced fifteen years on his parole violation, and still more time if convicted of a recent garage hold-up for which he was charged, decided to make a clean breast of it. Doran laid out the whole case for the authorities in gruesome detail.”
The Public Defender
The 50-year-old Egan was a well-respected figure in San Francisc’s political and criminal justice circles. A former city police officer who had passed the bar and established a private law practice in 1914, he had been appointed the city’s first Public Defender in 1918 and had been reelected continuously thereafter. Later that Saturday morning, Egan himself showed up at the Coroner’s office. In answer to routine questioning he said that he was indeed in charge of Mrs. Hughes’ affairs, and mentioned that she had an insurance policy listing him as the beneficiary.
Egan said that his client had been in the habit of going on night hikes without a hat or coat, a practice he had warned her about repeatedly. Egan volunteered that he had attended the fights that night at Dreamland Auditorium at the time of Mrs. Hughes’ death, in company with Dr. Nathan Houseman, his physician and friend.
The car cited by the witnesses as suspicious, a blue 1925 Lincoln Phaeton, was located. It had been borrowed by Verne Doran, 23, a convicted burglar. Doran worked as a chauffeur for Public Defender Frank Egan, who had obtained his release on parole. Detectives learned that Doran was often in the company of Albert Tinnin, another ex-con who had been paroled through the intercession of the kindly public defender, Frank Egan. But neither Doran nor Tinnin could be located.
On Monday night, the case took a stranger turn. At 9 pm Captain Dullea received a telephone call from Egan, who said that he had been kidnapped. Yet an hour later he was seen at Powell and Geary streets by a hotel clerk and a police officer behaving in an unkidnapped manner. Egan then dropped from sight as well.
From the start, the case commanded front-page attention as enterprising reporters dug into every aspect of Egan’s past and police scurried around the state in response to reports of sightings of the fugitives. As in other celebrated cases, once the story broke, witnesses to unusual behavior came forward. For one thing, it soon became evident that despite outward trappings of affluence, Egan’s finances were in a sorry state. A bank had started foreclosure proceedings on the Egan home at 225 Urbano Drive to recover a $9000 mortgage that had gone unpaid.
Dr. Alexander Keenan, who had treated Mrs. Hughes several months earlier, said that when he had presented her bill to Egan for payment as the patient suggested, the Public Defender told him that her funds had been exhausted. According to Dr. Keenan, Mrs. Hughes seemed surprised when that comment was relayed to her. Mrs. Hughes was not the only older woman of means connected to Egan. At least three other women had their estates dwindle dramatically under Egan’s care.
On the Thursday following his disappearance in the Hughes case, Egan turned up in a private sanatorium on Steiner Street where, according to his spokesman and attorney, the legendary Vincent Hallinan, he was recovering from a nervous breakdown. Egan, Hallinan said, couldn't remember anything that had occurred since the preceding Saturday. The following Monday, it was revealed that Tinnin had been in police custody since Wednesday, May 4, held incommunicado at the Whitcomb Hotel, where he was questioned by police. Soon afterwards, as the authorities were closing in on him, Doran turned himself in to the police. Both ex-cons were held on parole violations; Doran was sent to San Quentin and Tinnin was lodged at the County jail.
As the web of circumstantial evidence drew around Egan and his two suspected accomplices, Egan's defenders rallied to his cause. It was all a frame-up, Attorney Hallinan and others charged, engineered to abolish the office of Public Defender. The 1916 murder frame-up of Tom Mooney a radical labor activist, by the utility companies and the District Attorney was still fresh in the public mind.
The Case Breaks Wide-open
On June 4, as the grand jury was about to take up the matter, the case broke wide-open. Verne Doran, Egan’s chauffeur, who faced fifteen years on his parole violation, and still more time if convicted of a recent garage hold-up for which he was charged, decided to make a clean breast of it. Doran laid out the whole case for the authorities in gruesome detail. He and Tinnin had done the killing, he admitted, at the urging of Frank Egan. Egan had told him, Doran said, that Mrs. Hughes had been pressing him for money and threatening to take him before the Bar Association. Doran went along with the plan, he said, because he was afraid that Egan would send him back to San Quentin on some technical violation.
Assistent District Attorney Isadore Golden opened the prosecution by eliciting testimony from several witnesses describing how Egan had cozened Mrs. Hughes out of a house on Moultrie Street and used another woman to set up a dummy bank account through which he laundered Mrs. Weber’s money. Other witnesses established the fact that Mrs. Hughes had almost $15,000 in life insurance with Egan as the beneficiary. Doran was the star witness for the prosecution, repeating in detail the story of how he and Tinnin had killed Mrs. Hughes at Egan’s request. There followed a string of corroborative witnesses.
Police criminologist Frank Latulippe tied the physical evidence together, and Warren Louw described what he had seen on the night of the murder. The final and somewhat reluctant witness was Egan’s stenographer, Marion Lambert, who testified that Mrs. Hughes had frequently called Egan at his office and that two days before her death she had come in and made a pest of herself.
The defense presented a cohesive case that rebutted the prosecution’s case — if one chose to believe their witnesses. To counter the charge that Egan had milked Mrs. Hughes’ accounts, the defense brought out that, on many occasions, Egan had made payments for her expenses.
After rebuttal witnesses refuted Mrs. Egan’s testimony and that of Doran’s cellmate, the testimony came to an end. Attorney Hallinan had mounted his customary spirited defense throughout, and finished off by going to jail, not for the last time, on a charge of contempt, for interrupting Prosecutor Golden during his closing arguments.
On September 3,1932 the case went to the jury and three days later they returned a verdict of guilty of first degree murder against both Egan and Tinnin. Their sentence was to be life in prison.
Doran went to prison on a manslaughter conviction and was paroled two years later. Tinnin and Egan were to wait more than twenty-five years for their release. In 1957, Tinnin finally broke down and admitted that he had in fact committed the murder with Doran at Egan’s bidding. It was Doran who knocked out Mrs. Hughes, he said. Otherwise his crime companion’s story was correct. Shortly afterward, Tinnin was granted parole.
Egan never did admit to the crime and claimed that Tinnin had confessed only to expedite his own release. Over the years, Egan made several futile attempts to seek an executive pardon and was finally paroled in October 1957. His object, he said in a post-release interview, was to clear his name. He died four years later still protesting his innocence.
Former SFPD Deputy Police Chief Kevin Mullen interviewed Vincent Hallinan in the early 1990s, more than half a century after the most famous San Francisco murder of the early 1930’s. When Chief Kevin asked about Egan’s claim of innocence, which some still claimed to support, Hallinan just smiled and rolled his eyes.
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.