The Daily Mirror

Larry Harnisch reflects on Los Angeles history

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Twice Burned

April 5, 1957
Los Angeles


By Larry Harnisch

They were a six-pack of juiceheads, daddy-o. Human-torched by lowlifes that wildfired the imagination of young, L.A. bike-roaming James Ellroy, demon dogging the pulp novel city in type-O scarlet and memory napalm.

   

Six juiceheads: That's how they're cast in our film noir tale about one of the biggest Los Angeles crimes of the 1950s. But it's not that easy. History never is.

At 20 minutes to midnight, four men who had been thrown out of the Club Mecca, 5841 S. Normandie Ave., came back with an old five-gallon paint can full of gasoline. One of them, an ex-convict, threw the gas into the bar like a cleaning lady pouring out her mop bucket; another, a delivery driver for a bindery,  lit a matchbook and tossed it onto the gas-soaked carpet. The small neighborhood bar, 25 feet square packed with 21 people, exploded in flames.

Firefighters found one victim still sitting on a bar stool, so badly burned it was days before he was positively identified. Four other men and one woman died, and the rest survived, one of them with severe burns.  At the time, police called it the biggest mass murder in Los Angeles history.


Detectives found one of the killers, Clyde Bates, 36, and his companion, Oscar Brenhaug, 44, sleeping off a drunk in a blue Plymouth sedan parked in the driveway of Bates’ home at 1623 S. Menlo Ave. Investigators eventually arrested the other two men, Manuel Joseph Hernandez, 18, and Manuel Joseph Chavez, 25.

Of course, they all had alibis. Chavez said he went home from the bar and didn't know anything about the fire until he read about it in the papers. Bates and Brenhaug said they were at another cocktail lounge until it closed at 2 a.m. Hernandez said he couldn't get served because he was underage. Otherwise, he couldn't remember what happened.

Joyce Chapdelaine, 22, a Mecca waitress, said she danced with Bates briefly while Hermina Morales, 28, danced with one of the other killers. The men became abusive and after a brawl with two bar employees and a customer, three of the suspects were thrown out. In the brand of logic known only to drunks, they returned to the bar to insist that a fourth companion also be thrown out and bartender Larry Fenton complied. 


The men went to a Union Oil station at 5720 S. Vermont Ave., filled an old, dirty bucket with gas, then returned to the club. Bates pitched $1.43 worth of high-octane revenge into the bar and Chavez lit the matchbook.

“I was sitting on the third stool near the door,” Joseph James Marriott said, “when I felt something hit my pant leg and run down into my shoes. I thought it was a friend playing a joke—squirting me with a hose.   

“My leg and shoe were saturated. I turned and saw the guy striking the match. It was a book of paper matches and he struck the match two or three times. That’s all I remember—I had troubles of my own after that.”

So who were Ellroy's juiceheads?

  •   Gilbert J. Gonzalez, 20, an apprentice cook at the Scandia restaurant in North Hollywood. "He didn't go in for heavy drinking," his sister Helen Brahim said. "He just liked to drop in and chew the fat with a few of his friends."
  • Jose Maytorena, 20, a San Pedro market checker whose burned body was found sitting on a bar stool. His father, Angel Luis Vallejo, warned the suspects at the 77th Division station: “All I can say is you guys better not get out on bail.”
  • Jacqueline Agnes MacInnes, 21, who had just arrived with Barbara Spinelli, a secretary at a nearby plating company. MacInnes had been babysitting for Morales, her roommate, who went home before the fire started. Spinelli, a divorcee with two young children, had been dating Fenton, the bartender, and was returning his car. MacInnes, who was waiting for her fiancee, Chuck Westbury,  to get off work at another bar, died en route to the hospital; Spinelli survived but was burned on her hands, face and legs.
  • Anthony M. “Tony” Smaldino, 27, an assistant pressman, Korean War veteran and former Golden Gloves contender.
  •    Phillip E. Crawshaw, 28, described by friends as "a very quiet, a very likable boy."
  • Harry Leslie Robinson, 64, who liked to putter in the yard. Robinson and his ex-wife had been divorced for many years and each lived with one of their children. One of them would spend a month with their daughter in Pico Rivera while the other stayed with their son Alfred at 3704 Hillcrest Drive. "He avoided fights," his daughter said. "He was a quiet man who liked to sit around and talk in the bar. It was nice and friendly for him."

  Crawshaw's services were held in Seattle and Robinson was buried at Inglewood Park Cemetery. Gonzalez and Maytorena received Requiem Masses at St. Vincent's Catholic Church and were to be buried next to one another at Calvary Cemetery. MacInnes' Requiem was held at Nativity Catholic Church and she was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery, The Mirror said. After rites at St. Brigid's Catholic Church, about 300 people attended Smaldino's burial at Calvary Cemetery, with several of them surging forward to restrain his mother as she threw herself on his casket.

Now for the lowlifes.

Claiming that he was too drunk to have helped plan the bombing,    Brenhaug turned state’s evidence and the case against him was dismissed for lack of evidence. Hernandez was sentenced to life in prison and vanished from the pages of The Times a few years later.

Bates and Chavez were sentenced to die in the gas chamber at San Quentin, and in 1960, they got into a Death Row brawl with Red Light Bandit Caryl Chessman and convicted killer James Merkouris over watching the Rose Bowl on TV. But in 1966, Gov. Pat Brown commuted their sentences, giving Chavez life in prison and Bates life without the possibility of parole.

In 1972, the state Supreme Court scrapped the death penalty, further reducing Bates' sentence to life in prison. A final Times story says Bates was scheduled to be paroled in March 1977. Chavez had already been freed and was working in Sacramento as a counselor for ex-offenders.

A year after the fire, Spinelli and Fenton were married. In 1959, she and the survivors of several victims won a lawsuit against Union Oil and the men who sold the gasoline to the killers, but it was overturned on appeal. Times reporter Gene Blake, writing a postscript in 1976, noted that he was unable to locate Barbara Fenton, but quoted her reaction to Brown's clemency ruling: "I really feel that they should have been given the death penalty."

Blake also noted that the Club Mecca had been torn down to make a parking lot for a liquor store--a liquor store that was a mile north of Florence and Normandie, the flashpoint of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, when most of South-Central was in flames. Today, 5841 S. Normandie Ave. is nothing but a pockmarked concrete slab surrounded by a strong metal fence. The only thing left is a sign. Most of its letters are missing, but it looks as if it once said: "Lee's Liquor. Hamburgers."

There is no happy ending in this story, no stern-voiced narrator intoning the prison terms of the guilty as there was in "Dragnet." Six people died and the killers got out of prison. Memories fade, but as Barbara Fenton said: "I still have a few scars and I'm a little self-conscious about them. The scars will remain the rest of my life."

Woof, daddy-o.
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Comments (18)

My grandfather, Harry Robinson, was one of those killed in that terrible crime. At the time, my father owned a beer bar around the corner on Slauson blvd, called the Pour House. Harry "Spy" Robinson tended bar there for my dad, Al Robinson.
Spy used to like to go to the Mecca and have a drink or two and visit with old buddies. These were both neighbor bars until that night of infamy. And to think that two of them got paroled later.

I do resent the author calling these people "juiceheads". Just ordinary citizens out for a night of fun...

--Certainly a tragedy. Thanks for taking time to write...

Larry

I am in the process of writing a book about the Club Mecca murders. If any readers of this blog know anything about the terrible events of that night, or are related to any of the people, please contact me. My email is jlovell@johnlovell.com and my telephone number is 916-261-7188. Mr. Vaughn Robinson's comments about the victims is absolutely correct, they were a collection of nice people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Gilbert Gonzalez, one of the victims, was my wife's uncle. She was only nine when all of this happened but those memories are seared in her mind.

I am Joseph Marriott's grandaughter, one who survived the fire. I'd like to point out that his name is incorrect in this article and is listed as James Marriott. I never really knew my grandfather, but seeing his very words quoted, no matter how few there may be, i feel like i've learned about him from them. Anyhow, goodday.

--Thanks for writing! I occasionally hear from relatives of the victims of this tragic blaze. Thanks for sharing.

--Larry

Great article. I had completely forgotten about this horrible incident. Only one correction - Scandia Restaurant was on the Sunset Strip.

I will like to know were PHILLIP CRAWSHAW was buried at It is in Seattle, Wa
Thank you before hand for any information you have
Mary

I googled the mecca bar in los angeles and found this web site. My Father owned the Mecca when it was burned. I have some old L.A.Times articles and Detective/Crime magazines with the story. It was front page news at that time. Pretty tame by todays standards but still tragic.

Here is the final resting place of Phil Crawshaw:

Veterans Memorial Cemetery - Anzio Section
Evergreen-Washelli Memorial Park
Seattle, King County, Washington
11111 Aurora Avenue North
Seattle, WA 98133

My research on the Club Mecca continues. I have located the last of the surviving murderers, living in Los Angeles. I've also had contact with relatives of Jackie MacInnes, Joe Maytorena, Harry Robinson and Phil Crawshaw. Still looking for relatives and/or friends of Antonio SmaldinoThe book is coming together! Anyone with any connections to the Club Mecca is encouraged to contact me either at my email at jlovell@johnlovell.com or by phone at 916-261-7188

I can't see why the LATIMES isn't running a piece on this. The obit should certainly bring on at least a Sunday article on the history of LA with this tragic story.

...around this time of year for several years running i have seen the "in memoriam" entry in the LAT obits, and wondered about this tragedy. chilling read, this.

My father Malen was a fireman working around the corner at the station at Florence and Western and first on the scene. I also knew Tony Smaldino's brother Vick.
I remember reading at the time there was a young man driving by and saw it happening. He was carrying a gun in his car and took a shot at the arsonists. The police did not charge him.

The young man was Vernon Waggy. His car had actually broken down and he was walking down Normandie with his firearm. He saw Bates and Chavez run from the Mecca and shot a couple of times to scare them. Ironically, the bullets wound up in Tony Smaldino's car. Does anyone know if Tony's brother Vick is still alive? Or was he the Smaldino brother who took his own life years after the murders?

John, Please call me back. 530-272-4599

In reference to a comment by Mark Camou regarding his dad owning the Club Mecca at that time. My father, Alfred Robinson, son of Harry Robinson was in the process of buying the Club Mecca. He owned a beer bar around the corner named the Pour House where Harry worked part time.

My dad and mom were in Las Vegas discussing the purchase of the Club Mecca the weekend of the fire.

Last week I received a telephone call from Vic Smaldino, Tony Smaldino's big brother. What a wonderful man! He told me some information about Tony that I didn't know; namely that he was a boxer of sufficient note that his picture made the cover of "Knock Out" magazine. He also told me that his little brother was a warrior for his country as well as for himself in the ring -- in the Korean War he won two Bronze Stars for heroism. That's a long way from the "collection of juiceheads" that James Ellroy brayed about. Tony was a class act and a hero.

Tony Smaldino was a friend of my dad, aunts and uncles. They all lived in the same general neighborhood back in the 1950s.

My father Oscar Camou was an owner of this bar. I have some of the newspaper articles and crime detective magazines with the story.

Mark Camou.

in regards to the posting by Vaughn Robinson in May of 2009...

I do not know much about the ownership of the Mecca. I was told by family that my Father owned the Mecca. He might have had a partner. Like I said, I don't know much. It was never talked about much in my home. I heard the story from my older siblings. There are pictures in the magazines and news paper articles with my father in them. It lists him as an owner. If your parents were in Vegas discussing the purchase of the Mecca when the fire happened, I would guess that my father may have been there too dealing with them. He loved Vegas and went there often. I did hear that he was not present when the bar burned.


Mark Camou
markcamou@yahoo.com


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