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Wife lied; killer went free

Madera County Historical Society

Sampson W. Westfall was both Madera County’s second and fifth sheriff. He served his first term from 1895 to 1899 and his second term from 1911 to 1915. It was in his second term that he was faced with solving the murder of John Silveria.


On January 1, 1911, Madera County installed its new sheriff, S.W. Westfall, who had defeated incumbent John Jones in the previous November election. Since he had been Madera County’s top lawman once before, from 1895 to 1899, Sheriff Westfall thought he would have a honeymoon at first — everything seemed to be pretty peaceful, but it took just a week for reality to set in for the lawman. He had only been in office seven days when a woman came running into his office sobbing hysterically that her husband had been murdered!

Sheriff Westfall sat the woman down and slowly pieced the story together out of her ramblings. According to a very distraught Mrs. John Silveria, at 4:30 that very morning, their neighbor, Angelo Lombardi, came to their front door and shot her husband dead, right before her eyes.

The Silverias had been renting the Lubrecht place a mile or two south of town, and Mrs. Silveria told the Sheriff that Lombardi had been harassing her husband in an attempt to get him to move so that he, Lombardi, could rent the Lubrecht place himself. Silveria resisted Lombardi’s attempts at intimidation, which moved the latter to take drastic action.

According to Mrs. Silveria, the morning started off as usual. She and her husband got up at 4 o’clock and she lit the fire and started to warm some wine for John before he went out to feed the horses. As she was cooking breakfast, someone came to the front door and knocked while at the same time calling, “John, Portuguese John.” The Silverias recognized the voice as that of Lombardi.

Mrs. Silveria said that her husband went to the door and opened it. When he did, she saw Lombardi raise his revolver and shoot her husband without saying a word. She said she then ran to the back porch to call Joe Santos, their hired hand, who was sleeping in the tank house. Joe came running to the scene of the killing in his underclothes. Lombardi, in the meantime, beat a hasty retreat.

It was clear to the new sheriff that he had his work cut out for him. Little did he know that this case would take over 6 months to resolve and that in the end it would take such a surprising turn.

Sheriff Westfall’s first action was to go find Angelo Lombardi. Two days later the fugitive came to Madera to face the music. Westfall arrested Lombardi after which he was arraigned before Judge Montague that same day and informed of his rights. He was represented by attorney W.D. Crichton.

The next day a coroner’s jury of nine men brought in a verdict that the deceased, John Andred Silveria, a native of St. George, Portugal, aged 37 years, came to his death through a gun shot wound inflicted at the hands of one Alonzo Lombardi.

On January 19, 1911, the court held a preliminary examination of Lombardi on a charge of murder, and on January 28, the judge made his decision. Lombardi was bound over to the Superior Court for trial on a charge of murder. It looked like an open and shut case.

The case of the people vs. Alonzo Lombardi for the murder of John Silveria began in Judge Conley’s courtroom on March 20, 1911, and two days later Lombardi’s lawyers tipped their hand as to how they were going to play their cards. They were going to defend their client by attacking his attacker. They were going after Mrs. Silveria.

At first Lombardi’s attorneys hit at Mrs. Silveria’s sanity, citing her extreme melancholy as an example of her unstable state of mind (Mrs. Silveria fainted several times throughout the ordeal of examination and trial). This came as something of a surprise to the prosecution, who had expected that the defense might claim that Lombardi was insane — but not Mrs. Silveria.

That first stab at discrediting Mrs. Silveria didn’t work; she was judged sane by an expert from the Stockton Insane Asylum. This, however, didn’t get her off of the point of the spear. If she wasn’t sane, she was at least immoral, and in 1911, that was very relevant information.

Mrs. Silveria had testified that the hired man, Joe Santos, had been living in the tank house. Subsequent testimony by Santos himself revealed that he had a room in the Silveria house proper. Then R.L. Hargrove dropped a bombshell he had been preparing for some time.

Thus far, the prosecution’s case rested solely on the testimony of Mrs. Silveria, and she had testified that she and John Silveria had married in the Azores and that she had accompanied him to Madera. Through what the newspapers called a “Sherlock Holmes” method of gathering evidence, Hargrove supplied evidence that “Mrs. Silveria” was not Mrs. Silveria at all. She had met John Silveria in Laton while she was living with a man by the name of Silva. Hargrove introduced evidence that “Mrs. Silveria” had been wooed away from Silva by John Silveria and that is how she wound up in Madera. Judge Conley sat stunned. The prosecution’s main witness had committed perjury.

On June 3, 1911, Angelo Lombardi became a free man. Upon hearing the evidence that Hargrove had dug up, District Attorney Larew moved that all charges against Lombardi be dropped, and Judge Conley concurred. The jurist concluded that no jury could ever convict Lombardi on testimony from a wife who would not tell the truth.

We don’t know what ever happened to “Mrs. Silveria” or for that matter to Angelo Lombardi. What we do know is that Sheriff S.W. Westfall passed this test as a lawman. Once the crime had been committed and he found his man, his job was done. Whatever courtroom shenanigans wound up freeing what very well could have been a cold-blooded killer, they were beyond his bailiwick. He had done the job the people had elected him to do. He had tried to provide liberty and justice for all.

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