Cop killer barely escaped vigilante justice in Madera
Courtesy of the Madera County Historical Society
Walter Yeager, shown here, was hanged in San Quentin for the murder of Madera traffic cop, Clarence Pickett.
The tragic assassinations of police officers cause every community in America to take stock, and Madera is no exception. On the streets, in the coffee shops, and in the churches, Maderans share their shock and sorrow at these unspeakably horrific crimes.
In the midst of the empathy that local folks have for the grieving families of the victims, a wave of anger has emerged. Abundant expressions of outrage can be seen on social media outlets, and their passion has turned this writer to thoughts of another killing of a police officer — this time in Madera, 100 years ago.
Although the circumstances between the modern atrocities and that killing almost a century ago differ a bit, the result was the same. A policeman was shot dead by a couple of drifters, and the public outcry was so great that after their capture, the murderers narrowly missed being taken out of jail twice by a lynch mob.
The ordeal began on November 10, 1923, when Madera motorcycle cop Clarence Pickett kissed his bride goodbye for the last time, got onto his motorcycle and headed out toward Berenda to patrol the highway.
About 4 p.m. on that Sunday afternoon, Pickett stopped Walter Yeager and W.B. Terry on suspicion of drunk driving. While the officer was writing the citation, a drunken Yeager shot him twice in the chest with a .45 caliber pistol; Pickett died almost instantly.
Everybody in the county seat was shocked. Within an hour more than 200 men gathered at the jail with guns, rifles, pistols, and clubs demanding to be deputized. Sheriff John Barnett divided them up into several posse groups and sent them out in all directions. Then, because he wanted to join the hunt himself, Barnett asked his old friend Joseph Barcroft to mind the jail in his absence. Barcroft took the opportunity to notify all of the surrounding jurisdictions by phone of the tragedy.
In the meantime, Mariposa Sheriff Al Turner and two deputies from Merced County were burning up the road to reach Madera. Suddenly they came up on the killers who had returned to the scene of the slaying. Pulling up beside the Dodge coupe, Turner yelled at Yeager and Terry to “Pull over.” When the pair failed to do so, Turner opened fire with a sawed-off shotgun of his own.
The fugitives pulled ahead of the lawmen and managed to elude their pursuers by turning west on Dixieland Road. Turner went all the way to Madera before he discovered that he had been given the slip. Backtracking to Dixieland Road, Turner found tracks, which indicated the direction the murderers had taken. Tuner and the reinforcements who followed came upon the killers in front of Dixieland School. There a chase, unrivaled by modern television drama, ensued. With the police in hot pursuit, Yeager and Terry attempted several evasive actions but were finally convinced by the fusillade from the shotguns of the police to pull over. With hands in the air and blood streaming from pellet wounds in the head and body, the fugitives surrendered. They were taken to the Madera County Jail, treated by Dr. Dearborn, and then the plot thickened.
Within an hour of their capture, a crowd of 100 men besieged the jail, intent on dispensing justice themselves, and there is little doubt that they would have been successful. The only thing that saved Terry and Yeager from a hanging in Madera was the quick thinking of Sheriff Barnett.
He and his deputies put the culprits on the floor of a police car and drove them to the Merced County Jail. When the mob in Madera learned that the cop killers had been taken to Merced, they headed north to complete what they had set out to do. Barnett, however, stayed one step ahead of the vigilantes. He loaded his prisoners up again and took them to Stockton where they were put in the San Joaquin County Jail.
Within a month Terry and Yeager were back in Madera to stand trial, and by this time emotions had subsided. After deliberating for 27 hours, the jury brought back a guilty verdict for both men. It was recommended that Terry, whom they determined did not fire the fatal shots at Pickett, receive life imprisonment. As for Yeager, the recommendation was that he be executed.
On Dec. 18, 1923, in a packed courtroom, Madera County Superior Court Judge Stanley Murray, addressing Yeager, decreed, “It is ordered that you be delivered to the warden at San Quentin Prison within 10 days and that you suffer the penalty of death, and may God have mercy on your soul.
Thus it was that a lynch mob in Madera was thwarted in its attempt to exact justice, but that didn’t save Terry from prison, nor did it keep Yeager from the hangman’s noose. Within a year he paid for his crime on the gallows of San Quentin, proving that anyone taking a police officer’s life in Madera would definitely have a day of reckoning.