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Former sheriff Bates turns 95-years-old

Madera County Historical Society

Ed Bates.


Madera County’s unorthodox, ‘Wild-West’ sheriff celebrated his birthday on election day

A dozen pay phones lined the combination firehouse/police station in Chowchilla on that July afternoon in 1976. Twenty-six school children and their bus driver had been kidnapped, and newspaper reporters fought for space at the makeshift phone bank.

Suddenly a man with a lean, hard torso and a jutting jaw came through the door and strode across the room. With a .45 pistol on his side and wearing a western hat and boots, he walked with purpose.

Everybody knew this man was important — even those who had never seen him before. There was no doubt that Sheriff Ed Bates was on the scene, and he was there to take charge and get those kids back home.

No one wanted to get in Sheriff Bates’ way, not when he was focused on solving such a crime and putting these criminals behind bars. On the day they brought the three kidnappers to Chowchilla for arraignment, Bates was approached by a couple of area farmers who asked, “Ed, what would you do if we took these guys away from you and hanged them?”

“I’d kill you,” the sheriff replied.

“You mean you would actually shoot us?” asked the local man.

“That’s exactly what I would do,” said Bates.

That was almost 44 years ago, and Bates was then 51-years-old. On election day, Nov. 3, 2020, Madera County’s “Wild-West” Sheriff will celebrate his 95th birthday. Over those nine and a half decades, fate has put Bates in the center of so many real-life crises, that he could easily be made the subject of a movie.

It was the Chowchilla kidnapping that put his picture on the front pages of newspapers all over the world and made his name a household word in California. In Madera County, however, the kidnapping case was just the tip of the iceberg. By the time Bates came to Madera, he had been involved in a murder at sea, a witness at a gas chamber execution in San Quentin, the sleuth who caught a nervous cop trying to hide his shooting crime, and a dozen other episodes that gave Bates his reputation of being the most unorthodox lawmen of his time — and maybe of all time. Edward Bryant Bates was born on Nov. 3, 1925, in Modesto, CA. where he spent his early school years. In Sept. 1937, at the age of 12, he was sent to live with relatives in Hawaii. He returned to Modesto in 1940 and finished school. Then came Pearl Harbor, and Ed Bates prepared to go to war.

At the age of 16, he went to San Francisco to join the Marines. He took a Bible along with him and filled out the family data section, giving himself a birthdate that showed him to be 18-years-old. At the Marine recruiter’s station, the Sgt. detected his ruse, so Bates proceeded to go down the street to the offices of the Merchant Marines. In a short time, he was at sea.

In 1943, Bates’ merchant ship docked at Tampa, Florida, and while there, he turned 17. At that point, he jumped ship and joined the U.S. Navy where he was assigned to Naval Intelligence. Towards the end of his hitch, Bates met someone who would be his companion forever, Freda June Ball.

Freda was a Corporal in the U.S. Marines, working in Washington D.C. while Bates was in the Far East performing intelligence duty. After the defeat of Japan, he returned to Washington and Freda, and they decided to get married. On March 9, 1946, the recently discharged Marine and Sailor became husband and wife in a ceremony in Modesto.

Freda became Bates’ lifetime companion in every sense of the word. Not only were they married, she was his professional partner. When Ed became sheriff, he made Freda his personal assistant at no cost to the county. Freda worked side by side with her husband throughout his two terms as Madera County Sheriff. She rode with him on patrol; she went with him on investigations; she tended to important paperwork duties, and she never received a penny for her years of service.

With the Cold War looming on the horizon, Bates was called back into Naval Intelligence and remained on active duty until 1950. In 1952 he was hired by the Sheriff of Stanislaus County as a deputy and soon worked his way to the rank of sergeant where he became the department’s expert polygraph operator. By 1960, such was his reputation as an investigator that the National Board of Fire Underwriters hired him to investigate cases of arson, primarily in the San Joaquin Valley. It was while employed by the Underwriters Board that he was assigned to investigate the Harlow Fire in the foothills of Madera County and obtained a confession from the youth who set the blaze.

For ten years, Bates performed arson investigations and never gave any thought of leaving that profession until the Madera County sheriff’s office opened up in 1970. Sheriff Marlin Young had resigned and was temporarily replaced by Acting Sheriff James Haney, who decided not to make a run of his own. Three Maderans announced their intentions to replace Young; Bates made it four. Running against E.H. (Bud) Daulton, J. Woody Hefner, and William (Bill) Welton, Bates offered his experience as a deputy sheriff, special investigator, polygraph operator, and police science instructor for the people to consider.

On November 3, the people spoke. Bates celebrated his 45th birthday by being elected sheriff! He defeated Daulton, his runoff opponent 7,059 to 4,652. Bates was the majority choice in 80 of the county’s 86 voting precincts.

On his first day in office, after being sworn in by the County Clerk, the new Sheriff and Freda stopped in for lunch at the Madera Drug Store. The waitress invited the couple over to meet the Chairman of the Board of Supervisors. Bates stuck out his hand in friendly greeting and held it there while the supervisor responded by saying, “I didn’t like the other sheriff, and I don’t like you.” Bates stood there with his hand extended while the politician walked away.

This first meeting with a member of the Madera County Board of Supervisors set much of the tone for Bates’ dialogue with the Board, which erupted into considerable disharmony between the county’s top cop and the politicians who held the public’s purse strings.

Part Two of this “Happy Birthday” series will take a closer look at Sheriff Ed Bates and some of the battles he fought with rogues and rascals in the Valley and beyond.

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