Payback for the rancher’s son


For The Madera Tribune

Six-year-old Janice Hake is seen here telling San Francisco court officials how her father murdered her mother in 1942.

It was the ultimate payback when the doors of San Quentin Prison slammed shut on Nov. 6, 1942. On that day, Fate played its trump card against Rodney Hake, the double dealing son of one of Chowchilla’s most prosperous farmers.

Four years earlier, Rodney had stolen almost 100 sacks of grain from his well-to-do father, Otto Hake, so the elder Hake brought charges against his son. In retaliation, Rodney revealed what had been a closely guarded family secret. In 1924, Otto had been involved in the murder of George Collins, one of his farmhands, so Rodney thought it was payback time and told Sheriff W.O. Justice all he knew about Collins’ demise. As a result, his father was charged with murder.

In the end, it was a futile attempt to get back at Otto. The district attorney dropped the charges for lack of evidence, and the next day Rodney got a little jail time for the grain theft. Later, he moved to San Francisco with his wife, Gertrude, and little daughter, Janice. He got a job driving a bulldozer on Treasure Island for $115 per week. He rented an apartment and soon learned what it was like to suffer betrayal at the hands of one’s child.

In August 1942, Rodney beat his wife to death in a fit of rage in their San Francisco apartment. He and his wife had been out partying at a Market Street bar with her brother-in-law, Warren Ritchie. When Rodney decided to go home, Gertrude remained with Warren for a few more drinks. This enflamed Rodney’s jealous passions.

Gertrude and Warren finally came stumbling in about 3 a.m. and Rodney, wide awake, heard them whispering and laughing. When he got up and went to the living room, Warren ran down the stairs, and out of the building. In the midst of all of the commotion, little, Janice, woke up and crept to the door. She was horrified at what she saw. Her daddy was beating her mommy with his fists again and again. When she ran out to stop him, Rodney slapped her across the face, cutting her lip. The landlady heard all of the commotion and called the police. When they arrived, Gertrude was unconscious. They rushed her to the hospital, but it was too late. She was dead on arrival.

In their investigation, police noticed the cut on Janice’s lip, Rodney said she must have somehow cut herself in the struggle to save her mother.

Rodney went on to cook up a story about Gertrude’s death.

He told police that she, in a state of inebriation, had tumbled down the stairs of their apartment. In the end, the law didn’t buy his story. Rodney was charged with murder.

His story might have worked in front of a jury; it was a long flight of stairs, and Gertrude had been drinking. Rodney, however, didn’t count on his own daughter turning against him. When she was put on the witness stand, Janice told everything she knew. Just as Rodney had told everything he knew about the murder on the Chowchilla ranch.

In the October trial, Janice told the court that her daddy was “hurting mommy with his fists.” The child told how she ran to hide the kitchen knives because her father had said, “I’m going to get a knife and cut her open.”

The next day, Rodney made a plea deal. He plead guilty to 2nd degree murder and was given a five years to life sentence in San Quentin. He entered prison on November 6, 1942 and remained there until his parole on April 6, 1949.

For the next five years, Rodney moved from job to job, and then he got the news that his father, Otto, had died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1954. Rodney’s two sisters, Arlene and Virginia went to court for their share of Otto’s estate. Rodney joined them in the suit. After all, he couldn’t be denied his part just because he had once tried to get his father put in prison for murder, or, for that matter, because he was a murderer himself. In 1957, the court gave Otto’s three children by his first wife $94,861.

The record is not clear on what happened to Rodney after that. He died at the age of 47, and his obituary was published on July 23, 1963. He was survived by his daughter Janice, a granddaughter, and his sister Arlene. Graveside services were conducted at the Plainsburg cemetery in Merced County.

One has to wonder if Janice was there.

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