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Death in El Segundo

July 22, 2007 |  5:33 am

 

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1957_0722_phillips_curtis July 22, 1957
Los Angeles

We're heading west on Rosecrans Avenue. It's early Monday morning, a few moments after 1:30 a.m., and the streets are dark. There's nobody out but a few drunks and some people heading home from the swing shift. It's all quiet.

Maybe that's what these two men on the graveyard shift thought.

Let's pull over here, at Palm Avenue. North of us is the tank farm for the Standard Oil refinery and south of us are new homes. Up ahead is a police car, all lit up. I make it out to be 1957 Ford 300, four-door black and white. The only sound is the police radio. You can see the front passenger door is open. It says: "El Segundo Police."

Before we get out, I need to say something: We're going to find two dead--or dying--police officers up there. At home, there's two widows who kissed their husbands goodbye and hoped they would see them in the morning. There are five kids who are going to grow up without their fathers. It's a terrible tragedy and I don't want to minimize that. But it would be another tragedy if one more police officer died because we didn't learn a lesson from what happened here. These men can't tell us, so we'll never know exactly what went on. But let's see what we can figure out about the shooting by picking it apart.

The officer in the driver's seat is Milton Gus Curtis, 27. He's fresh out of the academy in Riverside and has been on the El Segundo department for two months. Curtis has been shot in the upper right chest, right side and right forearm (or right wrist) with three .22-caliber short rounds.

His partner is Richard Allen Phillips, 28. He served in the Air Force during the Korean War and has been on the Police Department about three years. He's been shot three times in the back, also with .22-caliber short rounds. His service revolver is next to him, all six shots fired. He's supposed to be quite a marksman.

(Important discrepancy note: The Mirror says that according to officers who responded to the scene, Phillips' body was in the police car. The Times says Phillips was on the ground next to his service revolver).

Notice that even though it's dark, the killer hit his target six times. That seems like fairly accurate shooting.

Phillips' citation book is lying open on the right fender. (Note: The newspapers said it was on the roof). He started to write a ticket, but he had only filled out the date.

OK, here's a map.

 

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Crime scene photos courtesy of the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.
Notice Phillips' citation book on the hood and the police siren on the right fender.

Here's what happened:

1957_0722_segundo_citation Curtis and Phillips were parked on the north side of Rosecrans at Sepulveda about four car lengths east of the intersection. Margaret Osburn, who was heading home from work on westbound Rosecrans Avenue, said she stopped at the signal, in the right lane. A car later identified as a 1949 Ford pulled up to her left, then jumped the red light and roared through the intersection. "I said to myself what a stupid thing to do with the police car in plain sight," Osburn said.

Curtis and Phillips began their pursuit.

Alan King, 19, was heading west on Rosecrans, on his way home from a job at a service station when Curtis and Phillips came up behind him. King thought they were pulling him over, so he stopped, but they kept going. He went to his home around the corner from here on Poinsettia and watched the driver, Curtis and Phillips at Rosecrans and Palm.

Osburn passed by here and saw the two officers and the driver standing outside his car. One of the officers was shining a flashlight in the driver's face, Osburn said.

According to Osburn, the driver was taller than either officer, with husky shoulders. He was about 25 years old with curly blond or light brown hair and was wearing a red plaid shirt with the tail pulled out instead of tucked into his pants.

King, who was watching from the back porch of his home on Poinsettia, said he saw Curtis and Phillips remove the driver from the car. There appeared to be a struggle, King said. "When the man quieted down, one of the officers [presumably Curtis] went back to the prowl car and talked into the radio mike." Then King stepped out of view.

Another team of El Segundo police officers, C.D. Porter and James T. "Ted" Gilbert cruised past.

1957_0722_segundo_badges "It looked like Curtis and Phillips were writing a routine traffic citation," said Gilbert, who had been Curtis' partner until two weeks earlier. "We drove past slowly and continued west on Rosecrans. When we went past, Phillips was outside the car with his citation book starting to write a citation. Curtis was behind the wheel phoning."

El Segundo police dispatcher B.F. Bangasser said that at 1:29 a.m. (this time is reported elsewhere as 1:20 a.m.), one of the officers radioed to have him run the plates on the 1949 Ford. As he was checking, another police car came on the air. Then a voice cut in: "Ambulance." (Or "Send...ambulance.") "It was Phillips," Bangasser said.

King heard shots and ran back to the porch in time to see the driver get into the 1949 Ford and "speed down Rosecrans."

Police are going to find the killer's car about four blocks west of here with three shots through the back window and one through the trunk. Phillips was supposed to be quite a marksman and he hit the killer in the back, but maybe the killer wasn't injured too badly since the bullet went through part of the car first and lost momentum.

Two years after the killing, a homeowner digging up weeds at 555 33rd St. is going to find the murder weapon, a nine-shot Harrington and Richardson revolver, .22-caliber short. That's a small cartridge. A year later, he'll find the cylinder and some other items.

OK, let's go over what happened again and see if anything is missing.

Don't jump and look at the stories about how the case was solved in 2003 and what else the driver had done that night. For now, let's concentrate on what we have in the original news reports.

First of all: The driver ran a red light with a police car in clear view. That should be a tipoff that something is wrong with the guy.

Second: King says they got the driver out of the car. He said it looked as though they struggled with driver, but King was half a block away, so I wonder how much he could have seen. If what King saw was accurate--that they struggled with him and them calmed him down--I wonder why they didn't detain him right then. Police officers in the 1950s weren't shy about administering a little "street justice" to people who gave them a hard time. Or maybe that's how they "calmed him down."

Gail_russell_1957_0705a Third: Osburn drives by and sees both officers standing next to the killer outside his car with one of them shining a flashlight in his face. My guess--and it's only a guess--is that they performed a field sobriety test. It's done like this: Hold your arm out straight and touch the tip of your nose with your index finger. Like this one with Gail Russell.

Fourth: He shoots them. Which one first? Did the killer shoot Phillips in the back outside the police car and then shoot Curtis in the right side as he was behind the wheel? How did that work?

Maybe it will help if I act out the role of of Officer Curtis: I see the driver run the red light, I activate the lights and pull up behind him at Rosecrans and Palm. I get out of the car with my partner. We talk to the driver. I go back to the police car, get in the driver's side and radio the dispatcher with the license plate number. Unless I've written it down, that means I can see the license plate from where I'm sitting and read it to the dispatcher. The killer shoots my partner in the back. While I am sitting in the driver's seat, the killer shoots me in the right chest, right side and right wrist/forearm. The shots would have to come from the passenger side of the car.

Now I'll be Officer Phillips: I see the driver run the red light. We pull up behind him at Rosecrans and Palm. I get out of the car with my partner. We talk to the driver. My partner goes back to the car while I start writing up a citation. I put the citation book on the hood of the police car. I'm shot three times in the back. The killer shoots my partner three times. I turn around and fire six shots at the killer's car, hitting it three times in the back window and once in the trunk. I get into the police car, pick up the radio mike and say: "Ambulance."

1957_0722_ford_windowThe problem is that I can't get this scenario to work if I assume that the police car pulled up directly behind the killer's car. For that to work, the killer has to do some weird doubling back to shoot Phillips and then shoot Curtis from the passenger side of the police car.

The only way I can get it to work is if the police car is to the left of the killer's car, either side by side or off to the left rear of the 1949 Ford. If I'm right, I wonder why they parked there instead of behind him.

A couple other things bother me besides that scenario:

The first is the killer's driver's license--where is it? We know the police didn't find it at the crime scene and it's hard to imagine that Curtis and Phillips didn't ask for it. If the driver said he didn't have one, that should have raised their suspicions even further after he jumped the light--especially if he struggled with them.

For that matter, where's the registration on the car? I assume they asked for that too. If they got his driver's license and the registration, they would have noticed the car belonged to someone else and that should have made them even more suspicious.

My guess--and it is a guess--is that the killer shot the two officers and retrieved his driver's license from Phillips, who was writing the citation.

And that's the other thing that bothers me, maybe the most: Gilbert's comment about "writing a routine traffic citation." Obviously, it wasn't routine. If these two men were complacent, they certainly paid a terrible, tragic price.

Because what Curtis and Phillips didn't know is that the killer had just stolen the car after holding two teenage couples at gunpoint and raping one of the girls.

The investigation and solution of the case, which was turned over to the Sheriff's Department, is another fascinating story.

1957_0722_car_wheel In 1960, the man who found the murder weapon while digging weeds in his yard at 555 33rd St. turned the gun over to police, who learned that it had been purchased June 18, 1957, at a chain store (eventually identified as Sears) in Shreveport, La., by a man using the false name of George D. Wilson. A search of records at the nearby YMCA showed that a George D. Wilson registered there June 16, 1957. The handwriting sample will come in handy many years later.

Another equally important clue was the fingerprints found on the steering post of the stolen Ford (note the "necker's knob or "brodie knob" on the steering wheel--lrh). As we all know, two partial prints were assembled to make a complete print that was run through a computer database and revealed a suspect. In fact, he turned out to be the killer. 

And here's some dazzling insight from Sheriff's Detective Sgt. Howard Hopkinson, from 1960:

"The killer was soft-spoken and gentlemanly with the kids. He had an accent but we have been unable to put it down as to whether it was Southern. We think that it was. He was apologetic to the kids and he never used profanity before them."

Sheriff's Detective Lt. Al Etzel added: We have a strong suspicion that this guy is a reputable person. He may have a good job, a family he thinks a lot of and he figures that when he got caught on the traffic citation, he would be made on robbery and criminal attack. He panicked.

"Here is a man who goes out with a gun, a small flashlight and a roll of adhesive tape to commit robbery and criminal attack and he ends up killing two policemen. He is somebody the people least suspect, not a murdering 'cop hater.' He had something he didn't want to lose."

They were right. In 2003, Gerald F. Mason, a retired gas station owner with one prior arrest many years before, was convicted of the killings. He will be eligible for parole in 2010, according to the State newspaper published in Columbia, S.C.

Here come Porter and Gilbert. We better get going.

 

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Curtis and Phillips were buried side by side at Inglewood Park Cemetery. Let's stop by and see them on the way back.

 

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Update: Several people have asked why there is no mention of Officer Curtis' survivors. I don't wish to minimize the loss felt by his friends and family--in fact I try to put a face on the devastation that people feel when an officer dies in the line of duty. Curtis was survived by his wife, Jean; son, Keith; daughter, Toni Lynn; his sister, Dimitra Taruny; brother, Blaine; mother, Jessie Looney; and father, Gus Curtis. Phillips was survived by his wife, Carole; daughters Carolyn and Patricia; son, Richard Jr.; parents, Mr. and Mrs. T.G. Phillips; brothers, Charles and Eugene; and sisters Eunice Tabagio and Marcella Tuttle, The Times said.

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