LAPD honors dead officer's heroism, November 26, 1958
November 26, 2008 | 5:39 am
Police Sgt. Gene T. Nash died after a shootout with robbery suspects in
an apartment house on Budlong just south of Adams. In a televised
ceremony, Police Chief William H. Parker presented his widow, Cynthia,
with her husband's Medal of Valor.
But that's only the beginning of the story. Unfortunately, many pieces of the puzzle are missing from The Times, so the picture is incomplete. This is what we know:
Nash, 32, and Sgt. W.F. Bitterolf of the Robbery Division, accompanied by Sgts. S.O. Eastenson and C.E. Leonard, went to the apartment house at 2723 S. Budlong Ave. to investigate whether members of a crime ring were hiding there. According to The Times, a group of robbers had been holding up crap games, taking $7 to $140.
The Times says Eastenson and Leonard waited outside while Nash and Bitterolf forced their way into the apartment. They found Virgil Lee, 24; Herman Cosby, 35, Rebecca Turner Bly, 29; and Geraldine Brown, 24, who told them that the only other person in the apartment was her 6-year-old son, who was asleep in a back bedroom.
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Nash found the first bedroom locked. As he went through the bathroom into the second bedroom, he was shot three times in the chest, once in the right arm and once in the left hand. He dropped by the bed where the boy was sleeping. Despite his wounds, Nash drew his revolver and shot Bennie Will Meyes, 31, once in the leg and once in the hand that was holding the gun.
Meyes fell and then jumped out a window while Nash shot William Douglas, 29, in the back as he was hiding in a closet, leaving him in critical condition.
Bitterolf rushed into the bedroom and told Nash that an ambulance was coming. "He said 'I don't think it will do any good. I don't think I'll make it,' " Bitterolf told The Times.
Outside the apartment, Eastenson and Leonard heard the shots, saw Meyes jump out the window and caught him after chasing him for a block. And somehow, Bly's 6-year-old boy slept through the entire incident, The Times said.
All three men were evidently taken to Central Receiving Hospital and before he died, Nash identified Meyes as the gunman. Meyes denied shooting Nash while Douglas admitted owning the gun but said he had given it to Meyes.
In the ensuing investigation, police arrested another apartment resident, Walter Payne, 35, at Century and Sepulveda boulevards; Olivia Chapman, 25, identified as Meyes' girlfriend; James Williams, 23; Betty Logan, 23; and Willie M. Davis, 23, 1024 E. 75th St., just off Florence and Central.
The case was presented to the Los Angeles County Grand Jury, The Times said, and Meyes and Douglas were indicted on charges of murder.
Hundreds of officers attended Nash's funeral and he was buried at Rose Hills Memorial Park. In addition to his wife, Nash was survived by a 2-year-old daughter.
His widow was presented with his Medal of Valor. And then silence. As far as I can determine, The Times never wrote a word about the trial or sentencing.
But that's the not the end of the story.
For reasons that aren't clear, Douglas and Meyes weren't charged with murder. Instead, they were accused of robbery, assault with intent to commit murder and assault with a deadly weapon.
According to legal documents, Meyes and Douglas were given a public defender. But at the opening of the trial, the lawyer asked for a continuance, saying that he hadn't time to prepare the case. It was complicated, he had too many other cases, and Meyes and Douglas wanted separate attorneys, he said.
Meyes and Douglas fired their attorney because he was unprepared, asked for a continuance and filed a request for separate defense lawyers. These motions were denied and the men were convicted. Meyes was judged a habitual criminal and given a life sentence. Douglas was sentenced to five years to life.
They first appealed to California courts, and because they had no money, asked for a lawyer to be appointed for them. The state Court of Appeal upheld their convictions without appointing an attorney for them, saying that "no good whatever could be served by appointment of counsel." The California Supreme Court denied their petitions for a review without giving them a hearing.
In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a new hearing for the men, who were represented by Marvin M. Mitchelson, (yes he's the "palimony" lawyer) and Burton Marks. It's interesting to see two familiar names on the men's legal team: Fred Okrand and A.L. Wirin, who often worked with the ACLU, although it's not clear if this was an ACLU case.
Justice William O. Douglas wrote for the majority: "Where the merits of the one and only appeal an indigent has as of right are decided without benefit of counsel in a state criminal case, there has been a discrimination between the rich and the poor which violates the 14th Amendment."
On June 20, 1964, The Times reported that Meyes and Douglas had been granted new trials. Unfortunately, The Times apparently never followed up on whether the men were retried.
I have one hunch about why The Times largely ignored this case, but it's only a hunch. Notice that we never ran pictures of Meyes or Douglas. Notice that the robbers were preying on crap games. Notice that one individual lived near Central and Florence. If either of the suspects were African American, it might explain The Times' lack of coverage. Stay tuned and I'll see what I can find out.
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