Robber got the drop on Madera police
Courtesy of the Madera County Historical Society
Walter Thomas, shown here second from left in the 1930s. At the time he was one-fifth of the Madera police force. He would later become head of the department. In 1952, Chief Thomas helped capture a gunman who had disarmed four of his officers.
Madera’s police force has always been of the highest caliber, so this story is not meant to suggest anything to the contrary. However, even the most vigilant lawman can get caught with his pants down (euphemistically speaking) every once in a while. This is what happened in the early morning hours of November 28, 1952.
It all started when one Richard Crowley, a 27 year-old ex-convict and two companions, Richard Albritton and Bert Brouhard, walked into Pete’s Italian Bar and Cafe in Chowchilla shortly after Midnight. The trio was in a stolen car and up to no good. Crowley, the obvious ringleader and the only one who was armed, pulled a gun and relieved the saloonkeeper, Bill Matsel, of $60 and a fifth of whiskey. Then they headed for Madera.
The victim immediately reported the holdup to the local police chief, J.F. Rhine, who alerted both the Madera and Merced authorities.
When word of the robbery reached Madera, its police force went immediately on the alert. If the robbers came their way, the local lawmen would be ready, and they would have been if only it hadn’t been for all of that fog.
Madera officers Richard Thomas and Denny Shannon were the first to run into the fugitives. Although the dense fog was making their job more difficult, they were keeping a close watch on the highway, which at the time was F Street (present day Gateway Drive).
As the officers passed the service station on the southeast corner of Highway 99 and Yosemite Avenue (Where the Chevron station now stands) they noticed a car parked there. The dense fog forced them to get out of their car to investigate.
As the two officers approached the auto, Crowley, the driver, stuck a revolver in their faces and took their guns. He then inexplicably told them to take a hike, so up Yosemite the pair of lawmen went—minus a patrol car and their service revolvers.
After a very short stroll up the boulevard, Officer Thomas spotted Police Chief Walter Thomas (no relation) in his car coming west on Yosemite Avenue. The officer hailed the Chief and explained what had happened. In the meantime there was more action back at the station.
Officers Thomas and Shannon had no more been disarmed and sent on their way than two more Madera policemen happened on the scene. Ernest Fernandez and Virgil Van Curen spotted the cars at the service station and, like Thomas and Shannon before them, decided to investigate the situation themselves. Much to their dismay, Crowley was ready for them too.
As Fernandez and Van Curen approached the suspects’ car, Crowley got the drop on them as well. Now the criminal had four police pistols and his own weapon. He also held two police hostages at gunpoint, just in case Madera had any more nosey cops running around in the wee hours of the morning. Well, as a matter of fact it did.
While Crowley stood outside the car holding Fernandez and Van Curen at gunpoint, Chief Thomas, having been warned by Officers Thomas and Shannon, made his way to the station on foot, armed with a sawed-off shotgun and accompanied by his two disarmed officers. Together they crept up behind the station and managed to assess the situation. There was Crowley pointing a pistol at the other disarmed officers, Fernandez and Van Curen, while the other two fugitives remained in the car. Chief Thomas would have to be careful, or he would put Fernandez and Van Curen at risk. From a dark spot beside the station, the Chief awaited the right moment, and when he saw it, he took it.
Jumping out of the darkness, Chief Thomas shouted “Drop that gun or I’ll blow you to pieces.” Startled, Crowley turned to face the Chief, and that was all the time that Officer Fernandez needed. He grabbed Crowley and began to scuffle. In the process, two shots were fired. One of them hit the ground and one hit Crowley in the abdomen. The bandit fell to the ground.
As the Chief and Fernandez turned their attention to Crowley’s accomplices, the wounded robber struggled to his feet, but was quickly overpowered. Within moments, the three criminals were in cuffs and the four officers had their guns back.
By daylight the robbers were in jail awaiting their day in court. In the meantime, things got back to normal on the police force. Everybody was rearmed and ready for action.
As for the fact that four Madera policemen had their guns taken away from them by a robber, Chief Thomas issued a public statement that pretty much summed up the sentiment of the community.
“I believe our officers are to be commended for their conduct in this affair,” stated the Chief. “”Under the circumstances they did the best they could in a difficult situation, and I have nothing but praise for their conduct.”
Chief Walter Thomas was precisely correct in his praise of the four officers who were involved in the capture of Richard Crowley. Any one of them could have been called upon that night to make the supreme sacrifice, and in less than a year one of them did.
In September of 1953, Officers Fernandez, Shannon, and Van Curen were pallbearers for Officer Richard Thomas, who had fallen in the line of duty. The four policemen had survived the night of Nov. 28, 1952. On Sept. 24, 1953, however, the grim reality of what it meant to be a peace officer hit home with force. The weight of a badge is no light matter.