Mysterious murder of Naranjo


Madera County Historical Society

Dr. Dow Ransom was called to treat Jesus Naranjo after he was shot in a boarding house altercation in 1917. Two months later he was a witness in the murder trial of the man who shot him.

When Letitia Coppellotti moved to Madera in 1915 from Merced, she had hopes the beatings would stop. Unfortunately, they didn’t. Her husband, Geovanni, continued to drink and abuse her in the boarding house they ran at 700 Vineyard Avenue.

By March 1916, the situation had become absolutely intolerable. Geovanni purchased a pistol and warned his wife that he was going to use it on her. One night, she woke up and found him standing over her with a razor. When he continued to beat her and even struck their little girl, Letitia finally called it quits. She filed for divorce, and in June the decree was granted. She got the boarding house and custody of their child. If, however, she thought she had seen the end of violence, she was mistaken. Before another year passed, she would witness a murder right there at her kitchen table.

The Coppellotti boarding house had always been a success, given its proximity to the Madera Sugar Pine Lumber Company mill. She always kept her place spotless and her evening table overflowing with flavorsome fare, while her guests engaged each other in animated conversation. On the night of September 9, 1917, however, something went terribly wrong.

Three men were eating at Coppellotti’s that night: Gambio Sorio, Jose Verducco, and Jesus Naranjo. A fourth man, Hilarion Flores dropped by at approximately 7:00 p.m. and sat down to have some Italian wine.

Flores was something of a dandy around Madera, about 35 years of age and “a good looker and a good dresser.” He owned a tailor’s shop on D Street and lived with his wife and 4 children at 106 North G Street. He often visited Coppellotti’s to collect money owed him for work he had done for the guests who lived there. On that Sunday night, however, he wasn’t there to collect bills.

While Sorio and Verducco ate, Naranjo and Flores seemed to be enjoying the wine and some pleasant conversation. While they were talking, Flores apparently dropped a $5 gold piece. Suddenly, he jumped up accusing Naranjo of grabbing his money. He ran out of the house, leaving everyone but Naranjo a bit surprised. Jesus knew what was up. That’s why he went to his room to get his gun.

In a moment, he was back at the table for another glass of wine, when Flores burst through the kitchen door. Naranjo tried to get up when he saw Flores pull his pistol, but he wasn’t quite fast enough. Flores put a .38 caliber bullet in him that took him to the floor. With Jesus lying unconscious in a pool of blood, Flores ran out of the house.

They called Dr. Dow Ransom who arrived at the scene at about the same time as Marshal John Barnett and Sheriff Lewis. While Ransom prepared to transport Naranjo to the county hospital, Lewis questioned Sorio and Verducco. Strangely, no gold coin was found on the floor and Mrs. Coppellotti claimed she didn’t see anything. It wasn’t long before word got around town that a woman was at the center of the trouble between Flores and Naranjo. The latter died at 11, Sunday night.

Flores made it to Fresno where he caught the train in an attempt to reach Mexico. With an all-points bulletin out, he didn’t stand a chance. He was arrested in Bakersfield, and Sheriff Lewis brought him back to Madera and locked him up.

Flores was arraigned and a trial was set for October 26, but there was a problem. Mrs. Coppellotti disappeared! She had been uncooperative throughout the investigation of the shooting. She would not discuss the case with anybody, insisting she knew nothing about it. Lewis was inclined from the start to believe that there was a lot more to the story than two men quarreling over a $5 gold piece. He and Barnett both thought that a woman was involved in the case somehow. When Letitia could not be found, and the trial was postponed until November, Lewis went to work searching for the owner of the boarding house.

Actually, it was Marshal Barnett who found Mrs. Coppellotti. She was hiding in a friend’s house in Fresno. When she refused to answer, the Fresno police who accompanied Barnett threatened to knock the door down. That got her attention. They brought her back to Madera, and she appeared in Judge Conley’s court by virtue of a subpoena.

Apparently the fact that Naranjo was in the act of producing a weapon when Flores shot him convinced the jury to render an acquittal, and Flores went back to his family a free man on Nov. 2.

For her part, Letitia returned to her boarding house and her little daughter — for a while. The record shows that on February 19, 1921, Little Louise Coppellotti was adopted by Lena and Guido Lippi. We can’t find an obituary for Mrs. Coppellotti, so we can’t be for sure whether she died or just gave her daughter up for adoption.

By the same token, we are not prepared to say for certain whether or not Jesus Naranjo died because he was involved with Letitia. One thing, however, is pretty clear. He wasn’t shot over a $5 gold piece.

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