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Top cop had a forgiving heart

Courtesy of the Madera County Historical Society

Madera Police Chief Walter Thomas was in a playful mood in this picture. He wasn’t quite so jovial a few months later when the City demoted him to Assistant Chief.


There are times in the history of a town when some things just do not make sense. Every once in a while a city’s leaders take off in a direction that defies logic. Such was the case in 1950, when the Madera City Council wanted to shake up the police department. The councilmen shook it up all right, but in the process, they ended up on the short end of the stick.

Walter Thomas was the Chief of Police in Madera in 1950. He had been the Chief for about 20 years, and folks were proud of him. In fact, in September of 1950, he had been featured on the front page of the Madera Tribune as one of the city’s outstanding citizens. By all accounts, Thomas was secure in his position at the helm of Madera’s law enforcement.

Something, however, was cooking in the back room of City Hall. Someone was making a case for streamlining the police department. It was being argued that the department needed to be modernized, reorganized, and its officers “trained in the latest methods of (law enforcement) operation.”

Somehow the voices for change won, and it was announced that Madera was replacing Chief Walter Thomas with a “boy wonder” from Oregon who would whip the department into shape. The newcomer was Marion (Mike) Elliott.

It is not certain how the council learned of Elliott. Perhaps he sent out resumes. Maybe the members read about him earlier in the year when Life Magazine featured him as the colorful, crusading “boy sheriff” of Multnomah County, Oregon. What IS clear, however, is that on Monday night, November 6, 1950, the Madera City Council voted to relieve Chief Thomas of his position as the city’s top cop and replace him with Elliott.

The decision was unanimous among those attending the meeting. John McNally, who was by that time mayor, and councilmen Al Barsotti, Irving Schnoor, and Dr. Daggett all voted to make the change. Councilman Frank Frymire was absent.

Following a motion by Daggett, Elliott was hired as the “supreme commander” of Madera’s police department, and Thomas was given a subordinate position as Assistant Chief. Both men would receive the same salary, $350 per month.

The council explained that Elliott was coming to Madera highly recommended by the governor of Oregon and the head of the Oregon State Police. Dr. Daggett said that he understood that Elliott had been offered police chief posts in Indio, California and three Oregon towns. Indeed, it did look as if Madera had landed a superstar. Then stuff began to hit the fan.

Within hours, after hiring Elliott on Monday night, the council decided to fire him on Tuesday. Apparently the new chief had not been entirely candid in his communication with the council. He had neglected to mention that the voters of Multnomah County had recalled him after just one year in office for incompetence. Madera’s new “supreme commander” of its police department also apparently falsified his age, military service, and educational qualifications.

Therefore, 18 hours after demoting Police Chief Walter Thomas, the Madera City Council reinstated him and fired Elliott. The official statement from the Council said, “It was felt that the adverse publicity arising from the recall proceedings against him in 1949 has destroyed to a large extent his (Elliott’s) usefulness in the work for which he was employed by the Council.”

The next day, November 8, 1950, a small article on the front page of the Madera Tribune informed its readers that Elliott was looking for another job. The article stated, “Marion (Mike) Elliott, former Multnomah County, Oregon sheriff, is looking for another job after serving as Madera’s director of police for one day.”

“Elliott was fired by the City Council yesterday afternoon when it learned that he was recalled in Multnomah County — less than one year after his election — on charges of falsifying his age, military service, educational qualifications, and for incompetence in office.”

“Elliott had failed to mention the Multnomah recall in applying for the Madera job.”

So within 24 hours Walter Thomas went from being Madera’s Chief of Police to its Assistant Chief and then back to the top spot. He must have been a big man, for there is nothing in the public record to indicate that he held any grudges or that there was any animosity on his part. Walter Thomas may never have made it on the pages of Life Magazine, but he at least had Madera’s best interest at heart.


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