Family held hostage
Feb. 12-March 29, 1958
They were such nice boys. Real gentlemen. Having them around the apartment was just like company, except for the guns. They said they weren't guilty of burglarizing that drugstore. They just couldn't prove it and didn't want to go to jail. Why they laughed when the news called them dangerous criminals. They said nobody understood them. Maybe they did steal a few cars and hold up a couple of businesses after they escaped from jail. And shooting that deputy four times? Well, one of their hostages did warn them that something bad might happen if they didn't give themselves up.
Bart, 22, Rhonie, 20, and Thomas, 19, got a hacksaw blade to cut their way out of the San Luis Obispo County Jail, used bedsheets to lower themselves to the ground and stole a car after finding the keys hidden on the sun visor. In Paso Robles, they broke into a sporting goods store and stole a carload of guns. They took a Lincoln convertible at gunpoint and headed for Los Angeles.
They dumped the Lincoln in Van Nuys and split up. When police found the convertible at 14527 Blythe St., it contained two shotguns, two Winchester rifles and a bucket of ammo. Thomas stole a car near the GM auto plant and headed north to surrender to police. When he ran out of gas, he flagged down another car and hitched to Santa Barbara, where he surrendered.
Bart and Rhonie stole a car from the parking lot of a Redondo Beach bowling alley. At 12:30 a.m., they found Tom Garrett, 21, sitting in a car at 102 S. Pacific Coast Highway in Hermosa Beach as he waited to pick up his brother Ray, 18, from his job at the telephone company.
The brothers took Bart and Rhonie back to the apartment at 1664 W. 205th St., Torrance, where they lived with their mother, Lola, 52, and sister Mary, 15.
For the next day, the fugitives stayed with the Garretts.
"I asked, 'What's going on here?' " Lola said.
"I'm sorry ma'am, but we're going to have to stay here until things cool off," Bart said. "We have no intention of hurting anyone, so please don't worry."
"It wasn't like you see in the movies," Lola told the Mirror. "They didn't keep their guns on us all the time. In fact, several times I could have picked up a gun that they left on a table or on the floor. But I didn't feel that they were going to hurt us, so I didn't take the chance."
Bart and Rhonie took turns sleeping while the other one watched the family. They played cards, watched TV or just talked about high school.
"I made breakfast for them," Lola said. "They didn't ask me. I just thought it was the thing to do. I don't like to be rude to my guests. They read the articles in the paper about themselves and watched news broadcasts on TV. When they were described as dangerous criminals they just laughed and said nobody understood them."
As Lola ironed clothes, Rhonie tried to explain how he ended up in jail. "He said he was not guilty, but couldn't prove it and he didn't want to go to jail."
"For supper last night I made them fried chicken. Rhonie and Mary did the dishes when we were through. About 8:30 last night they prepared to leave. They told me they had planned to stay until Saturday but changed their minds when they saw they were inconveniencing us.
"They tied us up, but they apologized. As they left, they turned and looked at me. They said goodbye. They said they were sorry. They had a gag in my mouth so I couldn't answer them. I just waved.
"I can't figure out how they got into trouble. They were real gentlemen. They were careful about their language and did no drinking," Lola said.
"But the last thing I told them was: 'I hope you boys get straightened out. I'd like to see you come out of this all right. This is no way for you to live. Somebody will get hurt sooner or later.' "
And someone did get hurt--badly.
Bart and Rhonie stole a white T-bird from a man who was visiting one of the Garretts' neighbors. They dumped that car on Commonwealth just north of the Hollywood Freeway.
They got to Oakland by bus and bounced from one rooming house to another, then hooked up with William, who bought a car for them. Finally, Bart and Rhonie split up because they couldn't agree on the "techniques of robbery."
Each of them pulled job by himself. Bart got $575 from the Central
Theater in downtown Oakland while Rhonie held up a Hayward fish market
and stole the owner's car. It was while he was fleeing from this holdup
that Rhonie shot Alameda County Sheriff's Deputy Robert Ficken/Fricken
four times. The deputy was reported to be in serious condition, but The Times never followed up on the story.
Police arrested Bart and William on Feb. 25, 1958, although the details of their capture weren't published.
A day before the FBI was to put him on its most wanted list, Rhonie was captured March 2, 1958, after robbing a pawnshop on Clark Street in Chicago.
Unfortunately, The Times never followed up on this case, so we don't know the rest of the story.
According to California death records, Bart James Blackburn died May 6, 1996, in Contra Costa County. He was 60. When he was arrested, he was carrying a will that read:
"When I am dead please notify Mrs. R.A. Blackburn of 6515 Agnes Ave., North Hollywood, and give my remains to UCLA Medical Center for their studies.
"I found that life is like the waves, forever washing itself against an indestructible Being, Death. But they also have fog on their lives and as they must recede into oblivion, so must I."
Records also show that Rhonie "Ronnie" David Rhonemus died Sept. 9, 1988, in San Francisco. According to the FBI, his motto was "Die young and make a good-looking corpse."
And what became of Thomas William Dyball, their companion in the escape? His name never again appears in The Times. He would be 69 years old.
The Times did report, however, that Tom Garrett was ineligible for
unemployment benefits that week because being held hostage made him
unavailable for work. In sympathy, Gov. Goodwin Knight paid him $40
with a personal check.
[Update: July 13, 2010: A reader e-mails that Alameda County Sheriff's Deputy Robert "Bob" Ficken" survived being shot and died a few years ago.]