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Pete Pistoresi saw the killers

Madera County Historical Society “Chevrolet Pete” Pistoresi took time from selling cars in 1935 to coach this championship womens’ softball team.


Pete Pistoresi had more get-up-and-go than any two people had a right to expect. He was the founder of Pistoresi Chevrolet and Olds in Chowchilla, and before that he worked for Conrad Shebelut in Madera. Back in those days they called him “Chevrolet Pete,” because he once set a record for selling cars.

Long before he got into the automobile business, however, Pete worked for his father, Adolph, and his brother-in-law, Rasmo Mariscotti in their grocery store in Berenda. That’s where he was on November 10, 1923, when he heard the shots that killed Clarence Pickett, Madera’s second police officer to die in the line of duty.

Pete was standing out in front of the store when he saw a Dodge coupe with four men in it being pulled over by Officer Pickett. The lawman got off his motorcycle and walked up to the car. Pistoresi thought to himself, “Well, they’re going to get pinched.”

With that he went back inside, never dreaming that he had just witnessed Act One of a brutal murder drama.

Pete had only been back inside the store for a few minutes when he heard the firing of a pistol several times. He ran back out in front of the store and looked down the highway. He saw a man with a leather jacket lying on the ground. It was Officer Clarence M. Pickett.

Pete ran to his car, and as he did so, he saw two men walk from the Dodge coupe to where Pickett had fallen. Hurriedly the grocer tried to start his own car, but it wouldn’t kick over. He then jumped out and ran down the highway to the scene of the crime. Just as he reached Pickett’s body, the Dodge sped away leaving the two young men, Sam Lambert, and Louis Feldman, behind. The three of them checked for some sign of life in Pickett; there was none.

Within minutes the two strangers flagged down a passing car, and with Pete’s assistance, they loaded Picket inside and headed for Madera. Pete stayed behind to look around.

He went over to the fallen officer’s Henderson motorcycle, picked it up and leaned it against a tree. Then he went back over to where the body had been. There, just a few feet away he found a 45-caliber shell casing. Pete picked it up and took out a knife. He made a mark on the shell and slipped it in his pocket, knowing that the Sheriff would want to see it.

They brought Pickett’s body back into town where Dr. Dow Ransom examined it. Then they informed the officer’s bride (they had been married just two months) that she was a widow. As for Pete Pistoresi, he went back inside the store, shaken at the closeness of death.

Within a few hours, the killers were caught, and then Pete was able to put the story together. Walter Yeager and H. B. Terry had stolen the Dodge Coupe and then picked up two hitchhikers on the road from Madera to Chowchilla. Both the driver and his comrade were drunk. When Officer Pickett pulled them over, Yeager shot him several times, killing him instantly. Then he and Terry got into the Dodge and sped away, leaving Lambert and Feldman standing at the scene and Pete Pistoresi running toward them.

Yeager and Terry were caught in the Dixieland area and taken to jail. When Pete got the news, he drove to Madera and there he found an ugly mob assembling at the Courthouse Park. Talk of a lynching soon developed and became so serious that Sheriff John Barnett took Yeager and Terry to the Merced County jail. When the mob followed, they whisked the pair away again — this time to Stockton. There they remained until it was safe to once again return to Madera.

Yeager and Terry were tried in the old Madera County Courthouse and found guilty. Pete Pistoresi testified against them and the shell that he found was admitted as evidence. Yeager was executed for the crime at San Quentin; Terry was given a life sentence, and Pete Pistoresi went back to work. It had been a terrible ordeal, but he couldn’t dwell on it. He had to move on.

Years later — many years later — I had occasion to work for Pete Pistoresi selling Chevrolet automobiles. Occasionally he would take me out and show me how to “prospect” for customers. He told me a lot of stories of early Madera County, but he never once mentioned the central part that he played in the trial of Yeager and Terry. Imagine my surprise when a perusal of the trial transcript revealed Pete’s role. Some things, I guess, are just not meant to be shared, besides that, we had cars to sell; they didn’t call him “Chevrolet Pete” for nothing.

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