Preciado’s escape from prison
Courtesy of the Madera County Historical Society
Tax Collector Charles Preciado is shown here (far left) in a photo with his family on the porch of their home on North B Street in 1913.
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 to be re-elected.
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 two years, Charles Preciado’s life turned into a nightmare. When his first trial ended in a not guilty verdict, another 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 a retrial. 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.
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, then 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!
In another instance, while talking to a certain friend on the street, Preciado unscrewed and removed a diamond stick pin from the man’s clothing and later wrapped it up and returned it to its owner.
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.
Then there was that time Preciado sold a lot in another part of the block in which his family residence was located and then gave the buyer a deed for a lot entirely different from that for which the purchaser had paid. 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.
It was pointed out in court that Preciado had always borne a good character and reputation for truth, honesty, and integrity in the community until he was charged with wrong doing.
So Charles Preciado never went to jail, but he never recovered from the ordeal of three trials over a two-year period. He lived the rest of his life in seclusion and to some extent in disgrace.
In view of this, one has to wonder if justice really prevailed in Preciado’s case. There certainly appears from this vantage point in history to have been a reasonable doubt.