Walter Vernon Yeager: The face of a killer


Madera County Historical Society

Walter Vernon Yeager.

 

Walter Vernon Yeager was a killer. On Nov. 10, 1923, he murdered traffic cop Clarence Pickett, the first Madera lawman to give his life in the line of duty.

Yeager has been the subject of several articles in this column, but the writer has never been able to show the criminal’s face. None of the publications he has consulted has carried his picture. Last week, however, he got lucky.

This writer is working with an 8th grade class at Howard school which at present is researching the Pickett murder as part of a history project in which they are participating. The class has been devouring old newspaper articles, sheriff’s reports, and trial records, and they have struck pay dirt in the transcript of Yeager’s appeal of the death sentence he received in Madera.

In the process of rejecting Yeager’s appeal, the court laid out the case against Yeager in detail. On Saturday, Nov. 10, 1923, Yeager and a sidekick named H.B. Terry were driving in a Dodge coupe south toward Madera. When they reached Chowchilla, they picked up two hitchhikers, Louis Feldman and Sam Lambert and continued south.

As they passed by Berenda, they were pulled over by Officer Pickett on suspicion of drunk driving. While Pickett was writing out the ticket, Yeager shot him twice with a pistol, killing him instantly. Yeager and Terry hopped in the car and drove off while Feldman and Lambert hailed a car to take Pickett to Madera.

When word of the killing got out, a huge posse was formed and a ten-hour chase after the killers began. At about two o’clock in the morning, the fugitives were caught near Dixieland School.

For the next few days, Sheriff John Barnett had his hands full keeping his prisoners alive. Within hours after their capture, a lynch mob formed at the Madera jail, intent in administering vigilante justice.

Barnett thwarted the mob by putting his prisoners on the floor of an automobile and taking them to the Merced County jail. Unfortunately, the vigilantes, which had now doubled in numbers, weren’t fooled. They followed Barnett to Merced, determined to hang the killers.

At that point, Sheriff Barnett loaded his prisoners up again and headed for the Stockton jail where they were secure from the lynch mob.

The Madera mob finally dispersed, and four days later, Yeager and Terry were brought back to Madera for trial. They were both found guilty. Terry was sentenced to life and taken to Folsom Prison. Yeager, who actually pulled the trigger, was sentenced to hang and was taken to San Quentin to await execution.

Thus did the Appeal Court record provide the complete story of Clarence Pickett’s murder and the capture and trial of his killers, but the students wanted more. They wanted to know what the killer looked like.

The teenage historians had photographs of Pickett. They had pictures of Sheriff Barnett. They even had a photograph of the Dodge coupe that the criminals were driving, but they had no idea what Yeager looked like. Then they went to the records of San Quentin Prison, and what do you think they found? That’s right — they found a mug shot of Walter Vernon Yeager. They also found a cache of information on the background of the killer.

Yeager was born on March 14, 1882, in Grant County Indiana. Before he came to California, he was employed as a glass blower, quite possibly with the Owens-Illinois Glass Company, which had a plant in Grant County, Indiana.

When he arrived in San Quentin on Dec. 22, 1923, he was 5’ 10” tall and weighed 141 pounds. He had a ruddy complexion, blue eyes and brown hair.

The prison photo of Yeager reveals the face of a man who doesn’t seem to care that he is about to hang, and this certainly comports with his behavior during his trial and in prison. He sat in stone-faced silence during his prosecution and walked with complete abandon up the steps of the gallows. He cavalierly dismissed the ministrations of the clergyman and went to his death as Sheriff Barnett looked on.

Now the students have all of the information they need about Walter Yeager, but one thing was missing for this writer. He wanted to show his readers what Yeager looked like, but he didn’t have the computer savvy to copy or print the photograph. Then along came his friend Daniel Sheeter who punched some buttons on his computer, and presto, I had Yeager’s picture on my computer.

My thanks to my long time friend who proved once again that Irving Stone was right; “Everything is findable.”