Chowchilla’s prodigal son


Madera Tribune File Photo

These headlines in The Madera Tribune shocked the Valley when one of Chowchilla’s most respected citizens was arrested for a 14-year-old murder.

Somewhere on the outskirts of Chowchilla lies the body of George Collins. His remains have been there since 1924, the year he raped one of Otto Hake’s daughters and paid for it with his life.

The daughter was described as “a winsome Miss” and was just 14 when she was ravaged by Collins, who worked as a field hand on her father’s large and prosperous grain ranch.

The teenager didn’t waste any time telling someone about the attack, but it wasn’t her father. She went to another of Otto’s field hands, Fred Greene, who in turn carried the story to Carl Rasmussen, another of Hake’s employees. Together they laid plans to make Collins pay for what he had done. First, they went to Hake’s ranch house and informed him of the outrage that had been perpetrated on his daughter. When they told Otto of their intent to exact revenge, the enraged rancher decided that he wanted to watch.

The three men walked over to the bunkhouse and called for Collins. When he came to the door, he was staring down the barrel of a revolver, which Rasmussen held in his face.

We don’t know any of the details of the shooting except that Rasmussen pulled the trigger, and Collins fell dead.

With that, the Hake daughter was avenged. Hake helped Rasmussen and Greene load the body in his pickup truck and then drove to a remote part of his sizable ranch and buried Collins.

The Hake family, along with Greene and Rasmussen, put a tight lid on the killing of George Collins. As far as anyone in the community was concerned, he just up and disappeared like so many other field hands.

Collins’ shooting remained a family secret for 14 years and would probably have never come to light if Hake’s son, Rodney, had not taken it into his mind to help himself to some of his father’s grain.

Young Hake was caught stealing 97 sacks of grain that was valued at $103. Otto went to the law and filed a complaint. When Sheriff W.O. Justice came to arrest Rodney, the son determined that it was payback time. He told Justice the whole story about Collins’ demise. This, of course, put the fat into the fire.

Justice immediately went to District Attorney George W. Mordecai, Jr., and the pair decided to launch a secret investigation. They drove up to Redding and had a long talk with Greene who told them the whole story. After bringing Greene back to Madera and lodging him in the County Jail, they drove out to see Mrs. Hake and her daughter. The rape victim was now 28 years old.

Both the wife and the daughter confirmed Greene’s account of the killing of George Collins. On August 13, 1938, Justice and Mordecai stunned the community by hauling one of the Madera county’s most prominent ranchers to jail.

At first, the lawmen refused to talk to the press, but on August 18, they decided to go public with the results of their investigation, and five days later, Mordecai dropped a bombshell. He dropped all of the charges against Hake and Greene. Insisting that there was not enough evidence to convict the pair and having been unable to locate Rasmussen, the district attorney freed the prisoners. Now it was Rodney Hake’s turn.

One day after the charges against his father were dropped, the son pleaded guilty of the grain theft.

There is nothing in the record indicating that Otto Hake ever suffered any permanent hardship from the brouhaha surrounding the death of George Collins. He continued to be a prosperous rancher in the Chowchilla area until his death from a heart attack in 1954.

Rodney Hake’s story, however, is another matter. He moved to San Francisco, and in 1942 was charged with the beating death of his wife. His six-year-old daughter was a witness against him in his trial. Next time, we’ll see how Chowchilla’s prodigal son turned out.

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