top of page

The Sheriff just could not win

Madera County Historical Society

Fred Barnett is shown here third from the left. Standing next to him, second from the left, is his brother, John. Eight years after this photo was taken, John was sheriff and Fred was in trouble with the law.


John Barnett was made to be a lawman. He father was Undersheriff of Mariposa County when he was born. After the family moved to Madera, he landed the job of town Marshal, then in 1918, he was elected Sheriff.

Barnett served Madera County for eight years in that capacity. They were some of the stormiest years in local history. Illegal booze, prostitution, gambling, drugs, Barnett faced them all with complete abandon — except for that one time when his brother got hauled into court on a battery charge. He tried to let someone else handle that one, but he got pulled into it in the end just the same.

The problem began on September 15, 1920, when Fred Barnett, John’s younger brother, paid a visit to a Mr. Bonelli who had leased some acreage from him — acreage with some valuable vines.

Barnett wanted to give the place an inspection, and as he walked through the vines, he wasn’t pleased at all with their condition. When he remonstrated with Bonelli, the excitable Italian took umbrage, and squared off, but Barnett beat him to the punch and landed a haymaker on his jaw. Bonelli went to the ground pulling Barnett on top of him.

Later, Bonelli went to the constable and filed a charge of battery. One week later they were in Justice R.L. Bennett’s court where Barnett stood trial for battery. Sheriff John H. Barnett was on the front row, simply as an observer. Former Superior Court Judge William Conley and his son, Philip, represented Barnett, while Mason Bailey, deputy district attorney, represented the people.

Bonelli took the witness stand first, and the story he told made Fred shake his head. In broken English and excitable tones, the plaintiff told of the argument in which he and Barnett had engaged after the latter’s inspection of the vines. Bonelli said Barnett landed a blow on his jaw and then came after him. Bonelli testified that he went to the ground with Barnett on top of him. He said he managed to roll over and get on top of Barnett. At that point, Barnett pulled out a knife, so Bonelli says he began to choke his opponent to make him let go of the weapon.

The Italian said he then called for his wife to help relieve Barnett of his knife. Mrs. Bonelli, who was described as being almost as big as both of the men, took the knife away from Barnett. Bonelli said that ended the fracas, and he went to swear out a complaint against Barnett.

Mrs. Bonelli took the witness stand next and bore out her husband’s story. Then it was the defendant’s turn, and as expected, he told an entirely different tale from the one told by his tenant. He testified that when Bonelli squared off to hit him, he punched him first on the jaw.

He said Bonelli then grappled with him and the two went to the ground. At that point, Bonelli grabbed him by the throat and began choking him. Barnett said he was afraid that Bonelli would kill him. With his tongue hanging out and barely able to see, Barnett said he reached for his knife and got It out of his pocket, but was unable to open it. He said Mrs. Bonelli wrenched it out of his hand, “twisting his head” as she did so. Barnett said Bonelli did not let go of his throat until he broke loose. Barnett said Bonelli looked for all the world like a mad dog.

Two character witnesses, including W. M. Hughes, were called, and both testified that Barnett was always a quiet and peaceable citizen and was not at all quarrelsome.

The jury was given the case and rendered a not guilty verdict in just a few minutes. Before everybody went home, however, Bonelli went to his landlord’s brother, Sheriff John Barnett, for his revenge. He informed the Sheriff that since he held a lease on Barnett’s land, he would no longer allow him to set foot on his own property, and he expected the Sheriff to enforce the order. Thus, before he left the court that day, Sheriff Barnett was pulled into his brother’s battery case after all.

For six more years, John H. Barnett served as Madera County Sheriff, and he had his share of bizarre episodes in the performance of his duty, but none were as uncanny as that time when he had to enforce an order to keep his own brother off of his own property.


bottom of page