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It Happened In 1929

Once upon a time in Mendocino, a hundred years and more ago, children walked miles through downpours along Little Lake Road before splashing their way on up the rise to school. By 1912, the parents who resided out Little Lake Road tired of six and seven-year-olds, covered in dust or mud, returning after dusk from their trek home from town. A new East Mendocino schoolhouse was built on land donated by Augie Heeser, editor and publisher of Mendocino's newspaper. Frank Bean, owner of a vast apple orchard in the area, cut an 86 foot long tree to be turned into a pole that would hold a 10x20 American flag. The day of the flag raising a team of horses pulled the impressive pole to the new schoolhouse. A crowd of onlookers helped hold guy lines in place until one slipped loose. The mighty pole spun around wildly, striking a man in the head, killing him more or less instantly.

It was a bad omen for the one room, little red schoolhouse and a neighborhood that sometimes struggled to provide enough students (five) to keep the institution operational. Long before there was kindergarten in Mendocino coastal schools, boys and girls barely five were recruited to the East Mendocino “campus” to keep the doors open and a teacher employed.

By the spring of 1929 the East Mendocino School boasted seven students: Harry Foster, a few months shy of fourteen was preparing to graduate the eighth grade. His twin siblings, Rose and Rex, were almost eleven and finishing the fifth grade. Francis Walbridge was in the fourth grade as was Marie Fox. Marie's sister Miriam was a second grader. The school's youngest pupil, Theresa Johnson, was nearing a successful conclusion to her first year in school.

Theresa often walked part of the way home with one or the other of the Fox girls. The 21st of May, 1929 proved no exception. Marie Fox and Theresa Johnson strolled about three-quarters of a mile together before their courses parted. Around 3 p.m. Theresa turned onto a branch road and waved goodbye to her companion. The dirt path wended northwesterly away from Little Lake Road.

At four o'clock Theresa's father, Stuart Johnson, noticed the time. He had been in town earlier, seeing Dr. Preston for maladies that had plagued him off and on since he'd been shellshocked in the trenches of France during the Great War. It hadn't been all bad, for while recuperating he'd met a wonderful mademoiselle, Marie Ledoux, who later agreed to marry and accompany him back to the States. They'd been settled on their East Mendocino farm for the better part of a year. Theresa liked her school and his wife had recently bore a second daughter.

Mr. Johnson did not worry when the clock struck four. Theresa liked to dawdle on her way home, gathering wildflowers or playing make believe by herself. By four-thirty, concern crept into his mind. Though most bears and mountain lions had been hunted out, there were still occasional reports of the big cats prowling in the brush and woods.

Mr. Johnson started down the path to look for Theresa, backtracking all the way to the school. There was no sign of her there, so he walked up and down Little Lake Road, first asking neighbors if they'd seen his daughter, then requesting help in an all-out search for her. The closest neighbor Mr. Callahan volunteered as did the Foxes. Phones rang up and down the road and on into town. Clarence Nicks, principal of Mendocino's grammar school and the local Boy Scout leader, gathered up a car load of Scouts from town and prairie. Mr. Callahan brought along his thirty-two year old stepson, Tom Lehew, who'd been out chopping wood and clearing brush. The search party found traces of Theresa's footprints traveling down the dirt trail after it split from Little Lake Road, but no concrete sign of the little girl appeared until about eight in the evening when her lunch bucket was discovered; her coat neatly folded and tucked tight under the bucket's handle.

The searchers redoubled their efforts and within 15 minutes Mr. Nicks stepped through a patch of huckleberry, nearly stumbling over a downed, rotting pine. Nicks and James Cleary spotted her there, lying face down over the log. They rushed to her, hoping for faint breaths in the gloaming, but her limbs were already rigid.

The body bore no visible bruising except for slight abrasions about her face and marks on her neck. The first report that reached town and the newspaper indicated that she'd been caught around the throat by a wild animal. However, by the time Dr. Preston arrived and later Sheriff Byrnes motored all the way from Ukiah in the dark, these officials were certain that Theresa's death was not the work of a panther or any creature wilder than a man.

Under the moon, by lantern light, as May 21st turned into another day, Sheriff Ralph Ranley Byrnes studied the marks on the little girl's throat, where fingers had closed on one side and a strong thumb had pressed deep on the other. Strangulation, the autopsy that followed concurred, strangulation by a left-handed man. The autopsy showed something else, the six year, eleven month old had been "attacked." No one said violated much less raped, but the doctor, the sheriff, the coroner, all knew what "attacked" meant. But they refused to use rougher words in public and they refused to tell the mother, who had fainted several times while the girl remained missing. Neither the officials or Mr. Johnson told the mother the next day while she wept, so frantic with grief neighborhood friends stayed by her side noon and night.

In the days that followed Sheriff Byrnes made his rounds, inquiries up and down Little Lake Road, garments sent to Berkeley for examination by E.O. Heinrich, the leading expert on the application of the scientific laboratory to the detection of crime. The evidence that mounted came as no surprise to the Sheriff, but it surely would to the denizens of East Mendocino, for the primary suspect was one of their own. He'd taken part in the search.

The following Tuesday afternoon, services for Theresa Johnson were held at Mendocino's Catholic Church. Reverend Finbar O'Callaghan played the organ and Rev. Father Anthony Holmes officiated the funeral mass. A children's choir sang while four of Theresa's classmates led the cortege into the Catholic cemetery, holding a panel decorated by carnations and forget-me-nots that spelled out "Theresa." Four Boy Scouts carried the coffin to the grave.

As the story goes, while the service concluded, while the parents lingered with sympathizers and others began to disperse, Sheriff Byrnes strode quietly up to his suspect, at the edge of the throng, secured the man in handcuffs and led left-handed Tom Lehew to a Sheriff's Department motor car without anyone else the wiser.

Thomas Lehew was largely an unknown figure in East Mendocino, let alone the town itself. He had taken up residence with his mother and stepfather (Mr. and Mrs. Callahan) only a year or so prior and had not traveled far from home. The Callahan property adjoined that of the Johnson family. Lehew was largely occupied with cutting wood in the Callahan timberlands and clearing brush from the vicinity of their considerable orchard property. Some neighbors claimed to have seen Lehew giving candy to Theresa Johnson on more than one occasion.

In Ukiah, at the County Superior Court, Lehew entered pleas of "Not guilty" and "Not guilty by reason of insanity." This pleading offered up the distinct possibility of a bifurcated trial, meaning an initial court case to decide Lehew's guilt or innocence in the matter charged. If guilty, a second trial would be held to establish whether or not the defendant was sane or not at the time of the crime. In 1925 the State of California had established a Commission for the Reform of Criminal Procedure (possibly due to a relatively drastic rise in crime throughout the early years of the decade). This prosecution-heavy commission came up with the bifurcated trial system for an insanity plea which led to 1927 statewide legislation adopting the Commission's methodology. In essence, a truly insane person might have to prove their case twice under this system.

However, by the time that Lehew was appointed a full time counsel, James A. Myers of the Bay Area firm Hildebrand, Myers and Granville T. Burke, the plea of not guilty by reason of insanity was withdrawn. Between the time of his arrest and commencement of trial (less than two weeks) Lehew purportedly confessed twice — to Sheriff Byrnes and later to County District Attorney Lilburn Gibson. Myers succeeded in having the first confession thrown out. Lehew accused Sheriff Byrnes of "doping" his coffee and interrupted the long time lawman's testimony on the stand, shouting, "All you wanted to do was to make me plead guilty to something I never done. I have been kept in there until I was half bughouse by being doped and everything." In his confession to DA Gibson, however, Lehew acknowledged continuing to drink the Sheriff's coffee after he suspected it of being doped.

Judge Hugh Preston ordered Lehew to the State Hospital at Talmage for observation. When the trial resumed more than eighty prospective jurors were excused before a panel of twelve and one alternate were seated. Then DA Gibson opened the prosecution. Lilburn Gibson had been born in Ukiah some thirty-seven years before. He'd been raised on his parents' ranch in Eden Valley. After graduating high school he continued cowboying at the family homestead and practiced his natural gift of gab by giving long-winded oratories to his horse and the wide open spaces while he went about his daily chores. Lilburn might have remained a cowboy or rancher if it werent for a chance encounter with Robert Duncan (Mendocino County DA during the 1910s). Perhaps Duncan heard young Gibson pontificating to the four winds or an ornery bronc. Whatever the impetus, Duncan offered Lilburn Gibson the opportunity to study law in Duncan's office. Gibson jumped at the chance and within the year had passed the difficult California bar exam. He set up a legal practice of his own in Ukiah, married his sweetheart Velma Ball, and before he turned thirty received a short term appointment as Mendocino County's District Attorney. In 1926, at age thirty-four, Gibson won a full term to the same office at the ballot box (Ralph Byrnes had been elected County Sheriff at the age of twenty-seven in 1910).

Gibson's opening remarks in the Lehew trial concluded with a plea for the death penalty. Before a packed courtroom, Gibson brought the famed criminologist Heinrich to the stand to state that the small amount of blood found on Theresa Johnson's clothes had gotten there at the same time as blood on the garments Lehew wore on the afternoon of the murder (and obtained shortly thereafter by Sheriff Byrnes). The confession Lehew offered up to the sheriff had been tossed by Judge Preston, but Gibson was able to introduce the confession Lehew had given to the DA himself in the presence of a deputy and court reporter Bert Thornton. Thorton's transcription was read into the record. In it Lilburn Gibson gently, but directly guided Lehew to the events of the three o'clock hour of May 21st, 1929 beside the dirt track that led from Little Lake Road to the Johnson farm. Lehew stated his mother and father had gotten into a spat over a dog that day and he was worked up over the matter, heading out into the woods and brush bordering the Johnson property. He claimed Theresa came up from behind, hollering at him. At this point Lehew claimed he went into a hazy-dazed state. However, as Gibson coaxed (or coached) him along, Lehew recounted most of the details of his encounter with Theresa Johnson. He remembered her walking toward him "and I kinder went to pieces. A darned queer feeling came over me all at once."

Despite repeated references to hazy thinking Lehew admitted lifting the girl off the ground then taking hold of her throat, holding "her a little while and something told me to let her go."

Gibson got Lehew to recall joining the search party, then standing back watching while schoolmaster Nicks knelt by the log with Theresa Johnson's body draped over it. At this point Gibson asked Lehew, "When they found the body you knew she was dead and that you had done it."

"Yes," Lehew replied.

One of the final remarks Reporter Thornton made was this: "Toward the close of his confession Tom Lehew intimated he wanted to be sent to an asylum to be cured of the spells he claimed at times overtook him and he acknowledged he had handled the child in an unprintable manner, causing her to cry out in pain and that he then choked her and left her."

The defense offered the testimony of Dr. Sidney K. Smith, a specialist in "nervous and mental diseases." Dr. Smith stated that while Lehew did not display a state of hysteria in his (Dr. Smith's) presence, Lehew's "low-grade mentality," under emotional stress and strain might reach a state of hysteria at which point he might not know what he was doing. Dr. Smith further held that Lehew was not aware of his own confession. The doctor based this conclusion on Lehew's "child-like" recitation of the events.

The prosecution brought to the stand the superintendent and assistant superintendent of the state hospital at Talmage, both of whom had observed and evaluated Lehew. The superintendent, Dr. Donald Smith, stated that in most cases it was possible to detect symptoms of hysteria in an hysterical individual, and that he found no such case with Lehew. The assistant superintendent, Dr. Charles Sisson, testified that Lehew made contradictory statements about supposedly remembering everything during the days of his confessions to Sheriff Byrnes and DA Gibson, but that he did not remember the actual confessions. According to Dr. Sisson, Lehew's concluding remark in the evaluation period was, "Well, I guess I have talked too much already."

The jury of seven men and five women took less than twenty minutes to reach a verdict: Guilty of murder in the first degree. The panel made no recommendation for clemency and Judge Preston ordered Thomas Lehew to be taken to San Quentin to be hanged by the neck until dead on Friday the 13th of September, 1929.

Myers appealed to the Supreme Court of California on the basis that Judge Preston erred in allowing Lehew's confession into evidence. At trial Myers had objected to the reporter reading the alleged confession on the grounds that Lehew's admission had been obtained under threats and duress, and at a time when the defendant did not know or understand what he was doing. The Supreme Court in its April, 1930 ruling, rejected these claims, recounting the contradictory statements made by Lehew not only to the district attorney, but, also, to all the doctors who examined him. The Supreme Court unanimously dismissed the appeal.

During the evening of July 31, 1930, guards at San Quentin served Thomas Lehew a chicken dinner. He was handed a last piece of correspondence, a letter from his mother. He spent a fitful night tossing about on his bunk and in the morning declined a visit from a clergyman. At 10:02 a.m. on August 1, 1930, Thomas Lehew climbed the gallows steps at San Quentin in the presence of thirty-eight witnesses. His body dropped through the trap door "without untoward features." He was pronounced dead at 10:15.

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