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County finally gave up vendetta

Madera County Historical Society

The Preciado family on the porch of their home on North B Street, circa 1910. Charles Preciado is standing at the far left.


On April 12, 1918, Madera County finally gave up on its attempt to put its former tax collector in jail. Charles Preciado had stood trial three times for embezzlement but had always managed to stay out of prison. Now, as he faced his 4th trial, the Judge, the District Attorney, and the defense attorney all agreed to call a halt to the four-year vendetta.

When Madera County voters chose Charles Preciado as their tax collector in 1910, he became California’s youngest elected public official. For almost four years he served in that capacity, and then in 1914, he geared up for a reelection campaign.

Although Horace Macon, a popular, formidable opponent, had announced that he was out for Preciado’s job, Charles was confident of his own chances. His support extended beyond Madera into all of the mountain communities, and he had no enemies of whom he was aware. Then came that charge of embezzlement.

On the eve of the election, Preciado was accused of helping himself to the contents of the public coffers. When the Board of Supervisors secured his resignation after his arraignment, they appointed his opponent, Horace Macon, to fill out the few days of his unexpired term.

Over the next three years, Charles Preciado’s life turned into a nightmare.

When his first trial ended in a not-guilty verdict, a different charge of embezzlement was brought against him. The issue of double jeopardy was avoided by the fact that this new allegation had to do with an alleged second act of dipping into the till by Preciado.

When Preciado’s second ordeal in the Madera County courthouse ended in a hung jury, the district attorney quickly laid the groundwork for another trial.

The third time was a charm; the county finally got its way. Charles Preciado was found guilty. The District Court of Appeals, however, reversed the verdict, and in 1918, he was facing his fourth trial.

Preciado’s defense throughout all three of his trials was “forgetfulness.” He didn’t remember taking the money for which he had given a tax receipt. This alibi fell on deaf ears as far as public opinion was concerned. Once he was accused, very few people really bought his story, but then 80 years later, District Attorney, Ernie LiCalsi, discovered the transcripts of the Preciado trials and placed them in the hands of this writer.

A perusal of these documents reveals a very different Charles Preciado from the one presented in the media of his day. In particular, the contention by Preciado’s family that he was ill takes on new meaning, especially when one considers the testimony of Dr. E. Lee Burch, a Madera physician.

Attorney Joseph Barcroft’s examination of Burch revealed that Charles Preciado had suffered “for about seven and a half years with attacks of epilepsy, diagnosed as the grand mal type of said disease by Dr. Dearborn.”

As Barcroft continued his examination, Preciado’s contention that he “didn’t remember” began to sound more plausible. The tax collector had been a sick man for some time.

On three or four occasions, Preciado was noticed to have forgotten the names of old acquaintances. Several times he even forgot his own two-digit telephone number!

On more than one occasion, he forgot to lock up the vault in the Tax Collector’s office, and he often left money lying exposed on the desk at his Yosemite Avenue stationery store. Several times he forgot to lock the door. The accused frequently drew checks upon banks where he had no funds on deposit and was known to have carried money orders in his pockets only to forget about them.

As his fourth trial was being prepared, District Attorney Stanley Murray acknowledged that the County had spent over $30,000 in conducting Preciado’s first three trials.

On the third day of the 1918 proceedings, things came to a screeching halt. The 10 jurymen took their places in the box and the roll was called. Both sides stated that “they were ready,” and the District Attorney then arose. There was a breathless silence throughout the courtroom.

Murray was cool and collected and said that he had never until this time been fully convinced that the mind of the defendant was deteriorating. Two physicians, experts on cases of epilepsy from the state hospital in Stockton, examined Preciado and reported that he was suffering from epilepsy and that his “mind is being affected.”

Under the circumstances, Murray concluded that it would be inhumane to proceed with this prosecution and asked the court to dismiss these charges. The Court agreed and then adjourned.

Preciado’s family and friends circled around him and offered congratulations. The attorneys for the defendant and the district attorney shook hands with Preciado, and a “feeling of utmost harmony and friendliness prevailed.” Preciado walked out of the courtroom that day a free man, and for the first time in four years free of the threat of prison.

And for the first time in four years, the people could rest. Justice in Madera County had finally prevailed.

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