Madera County Historical Society
Madera’s police force in 1947. Ernie Fernandez is on the far right.
In 1947, Madera was a peaceful, little town of just over 9,000 people. Most everything seemed to be running smoothly; the town had been fairly calm, and the news was routine.
There was, however, one fly in the buttermilk. A rash of nighttime burglaries had Madera police stumped. Stakeouts, increased patrols, citizen awareness programs — all were equally ineffective. No corrective measure seemed to work.
Police Chief Walter E. Thomas demanded diligence among the members of his department. These break-ins had to be stopped; the public and its property had to be protected. With this admonishment ringing in their ears, officers John Voith and Ernie Fernandez began their nightly patrol on March 6, 1947.
The two men, although comparatively new to the department, were not lacking in grit. They scoured the business district that night in an attempt to insure that the thieves did not strike while they were on duty. When, by 4 in the morning, all points on their patrol appeared to be secure, the two officers relaxed a bit. Madera seemed safe, at least for the time being.
Then about 4:15 a.m. Voith and Fernandez drove past the Valley Market at 1301 West Yosemite Avenue. They could hardly believe their eyes. Two men were busy at the door of the establishment, attempting to break and enter. Could this be it? Perhaps this pair was responsible for the crime spree that Madera was enduring.
When the would-be burglars spotted the patrol car, they dropped their tools and ran for their own vehicle. With tires screeching, they roared down Yosemite with Fernandez and Voith in hot pursuit. They had no intention of stopping for the two lawmen, and the police were just as determined that the suspects would not escape.
The chase led all over town. They careened around corners, sped up alleys, and finally wound up in the southeast part of the city. When the fugitives turned onto Clinton, Fernandez drew his service revolver. He fired several times at the fleeing suspects but to no avail. The pair of would-be burglars continued their flight. Finally, Fernandez got serious and drew down on the rear window of the fugitive vehicle. This thing had to stop.
Fernandez fired one shot directly at the car, the bullet passing through the rear window. Immediately the vehicle swerved south onto Elm, a dead end street, and crashed into a dry canal at the end of the road. Had the bullet found its mark; had one of the men been hit?
Before Fernandez and Voith could exit their patrol car, they had their answer. The doors of the suspects’ car burst open, and its occupants fled across the canal bed into the dark. They had escaped the long arm of the law, but not for long.
The two officers quickly searched the car, gathering all that would be needed for a vehicle registration search. Then they awoke their sergeant, Donald Harrington, who quickly joined the patrolmen.
A check of the vehicle registration led them to the home of one of the suspects, who at first admitted to being the driver but refused to name his partner in crime. The investigation, which had begun at five in the morning, was still going on when Chief Thomas arrived at eight. The senior lawman must have been very persuasive, for within an hour he had not only the name of the other suspect but had him behind bars as well.
With both men locked up, the full story of the dangers Fernandez and Voith had faced became clear. The suspects now readily admitted that they had indeed been involved in an attempt to break and enter the Valley Market with the intention of burglarizing it. However, they steadfastly denied any connection with the rash of other break-ins that had been plaguing Madera merchants.
Then the officers learned something that they should have suspected all along. One of the men had been armed; the passenger of the fleeing vehicle had been carrying a loaded .32 caliber pistol! When Fernandez had begun to shoot at the fleeing suspects, they could have returned the fire. Thankfully, for some reason that didn’t happen.
The heroism of Fernandez and Voith, notwithstanding, an immediate cessation of the burglaries in Madera did not occur. Merchants and homeowners alike continued to be victimized on occasion, but it wasn’t the fault of Ernie Fernandez and John Voith. They did their part and were back out on the streets the next night ready to do their duty right along with the rest of Madera’s police officers — regardless of the danger of crashing or perhaps being shot.
Some things, it seems, just never change.