Robbery suspect kills LAPD officer, 1958
Photograph by Larry Harnisch / Los Angeles Times
The grave of Sgt. Gene T. Nash, Rose Hills Memorial Park.
|Note: This updates a post from November.
But that’s only the beginning of a complex story that was mostly ignored by the newspapers — even though it went to the U.S. Supreme Court — and exists in conflicting accounts on dim microfilm in the basement of the Hall of Records and in material at the California State Archives.
The officers had a warrant for suspected robber Bennie Will Meyes, 33, a parole violator and longtime criminal with an eighth-grade education who had a job cleaning out garbage trucks, and they were looking for William Douglas, Meyes’ alleged partner in about 60 holdups. Meyes and Douglas had “a penchant for striking at card and dice games, but they do not ignore business establishments, markets, theaters and even street jobs,” according to a probation report. Several victims had been shot or pistol-whipped, according to prison records.
Eastenson and Leonard waited outside in case the men tried to escape while Nash and Bitterolf went in with their guns drawn. Bitterolf knocked at Apartment No. 2 and a man named Virgil Lee, 24, answered the door. Both investigators showed their badges. Bitterolf said they were police officers and asked for “Bill.”
Lee said there was no one there named “Bill,” so Bitterolf pushed his way into the apartment, explaining that they wanted to look around.
The officers found another man and two women watching TV in the living room. One woman said: “There is absolutely no one in this apartment except my baby, lying on Pappy’s bed there in the front bedroom.”
Bitterolf turned off the TV to question the four people and after about five minutes, Nash left to explore the rest of the apartment. There was a hallway with doors that led to the back bedroom used by Douglas, the front bedroom where the young boy was sleeping, and the central bathroom that connected both bedrooms.
According to Meyes’ account, when the police arrived, he and Douglas had been talking in the bathroom. Meyes had violated his parole by leaving Indio, Calif., without permission and Douglas gave him a gun to pawn so he could afford a lawyer to straighten things out. Meyes had taken the loaded .38 revolver from under Douglas’ mattress and stuck it in his waistband beneath his shirt.
“While we were talking, the apartment suddenly went quiet,” Meyes said in court documents. “There was no sound coming from the living room or the television set. Then in that areaway of the hall we could not see, footsteps, along with this strange silence, started back where we were.... Douglas and I bolted through a darkened bedroom. Douglas got on the floor on his stomach alongside the bed with his head facing the window and I stood alongside a chest near the door.”
Nash, his gun drawn, tried the door to the front bedroom, but it was locked. He went through the bathroom and into the front bedroom.
Bitterolf heard eight to 10 shots and ran down the hallway. He found his partner lying on the bedroom floor, still holding his gun. Nash had taken several bullets in the abdomen, including one that went through his spleen and virtually cut one of his kidneys in two.
“How is it, Gene?” Bitterolf asked.
“Real bad,” Nash answered. “There were two of them. The one that shot me went out the window, the other one is in the closet.”
Having heard the gunshots as he waited outside, Eastenson ran into the apartment and kicked down the bedroom door. Bitterolf told him to go back outside and radio for an ambulance.
Bitterolf found Douglas in the closet, so badly wounded that Bitterolf thought he was dead. According to court documents, the sleeping boy wasn’t injured, although Bitterolf thought he had been killed because of the blood on the bed.
Bitterolf went back to the living room, searched the men for weapons and made them sit on the floor, then returned to encourage Nash.
“Take it easy, the ambulance is on the way, you will be all right,” Bitterolf said.
“Don’t kid me,” Nash replied. “I know I am done for. I know I am going to die.”
As a Herald-Express photographer took pictures, doctors at Central Receiving Hospital worked to save Nash. His wife, Cynthia, rushed to the hospital, but arrived minutes after he died, The Times said.
Back on Budlong, Eastenson saw the blood that Meyes left when he jumped out the window. The officer followed the trail over a fence and across adjoining property, finally finding Meyes on the floor of a car, shot in the thigh and right hand.
On the ambulance ride to the hospital, Meyes was questioned by Sgt. Leonard Rafferty.
And at this crucial point of the story, it becomes impossible to reconcile the conflicting court documents.
In one version, Meyes implicated Douglas, apparently assuming that Nash had killed him. In another account, Meyes said he didn’t know Nash was a police officer and that Nash fired first.
One account says Douglas was badly wounded and lost a large amount of blood. He was purportedly given powerful painkillers and Rafferty allegedly kept tapping him on the forehead so he wouldn’t fall asleep as he gave his statement to a police stenographer.
Another account implies Douglas was fully conscious and says he and Meyes, both in wheelchairs, were brought together and that Douglas implicated Meyes.
“You are going to fry, Bennie,” Douglas supposedly said, “and you are not going to take me with you. Tell them the truth; tell them you pulled the trigger.”
The case was presented to the Los Angeles County Grand Jury 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. On Nov. 27, 1958, his widow was presented with his Medal of Valor.
Then the news reports stopped. The Times never wrote a word about any of the trials in the killing.
And now the story becomes even more complex. According to court documents, the first prosecution of Meyes and Douglas ended in a mistrial in March 1959.
On June 23, 1959, Meyes was convicted of second-degree murder and found to be a habitual criminal, receiving a life sentence. (In one of the typical conflicting accounts in the case, the Superior Court file says Douglas was found not guilty and the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1963 ruling says he was convicted and sentenced to five years to life).
According to the federal high court’s ruling, Meyes and Douglas were given a public defender. But at the opening of the Superior Court 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.
Those motions were denied and the men were convicted.
They first appealed to the California courts, and because they had no money, asked for a court-appointed lawyer. 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.
On March 18, 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a state appellate court hearing for the men, who were represented by future “palimony” lawyer Marvin M. Mitchelson and Burton Marks. Two other lawyers on the men’s legal team, Fred Okrand and A.L. Wirin, 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.
The Times never followed up on whether the men were retried, although prison records show that Douglas and Meyes were discharged in August 1964.
For reasons that are unclear, Meyes returned to prison in 1965 and in 1967 was trying to get his conviction overturned by charging that he and Douglas were given “truth serum” before making their statements to police.
Meyes was permanently discharged on July 1, 1978, by the California Department of Corrections, which has no further record of him. If he is alive today he would be 83.
One of the lingering mysteries of the case is why none of the major Los Angeles papers covered the trials. The shooting and Medal of Valor ceremony were widely reported and The Times and other papers published photos of Nash, but curiously, none of them used pictures of Meyes or Douglas.
In fact, only the California Eagle, a weekly serving the African American community, published Meyes’ photo, showing that he was black (as was Douglas, according to prison records). And in the days of segregated news, the major Los Angeles papers simply didn’t cover such stories — even if they involved the death of a police officer.
Postscript: Eastenson died in 1994, Bitterolf in 2001 and Leonard in 2005.
Pete Noyes writes:
You are so right about the segregated news coverage.
In 1956 when I went to work for CNS on the police beat I learned immediately that the "syndicate" did no stories about black crime or black victims. Every other day I heard "pass it, it's black."
One day the press office alerted us to a story about a cop who choked a black druggie to death because he swallowed the evidence. No one picked up the story except City News which had several "Negro" papers as clients.
Believe the first black story to appear in the metro press in that era was about a father of eight who was killed by a man "who heard voices." It was written by Paul Coates of the Mirror.
Enjoy reading your copy.