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Of Lawmen and Lawbreakers

In the 1800s the Mendocino County Sheriff held a second job, that of tax collector. In the autumn of each year this duty entailed traveling throughout the county, gathering thousands of dollars at each stop along the way. For several months in 1879 a band of outlaws conspired in a plot to rob the sheriff along the coast. Their plan unraveled, two residents of Mendocino City were murdered, and the ensuing manhunt, that crossed much of northern California, made famous a deputy named Jeremiah “Doc” Standley. At the next county election Standley was elected sheriff. He served throughout the 1880s and up until the election of 1892 when James R. Johnson defeated Standley and took over the sheriff and tax collector job in January, 1893.

In December, 1894, the county treasurer's total for taxes collected differed from what the Under Sheriff (assistant tax collector) claimed. Outside auditors could not account for the discrepancy. $3,000 remained missing all the way through an ensuing court case between the county and the treasurer's office. The jury found no fault with the treasurer, the defendant in the case, and the money was assumed to have been lost only on paper.

Even in the 1890s the Sheriff and anyone deputized to collect tax money had to be bonded. Taxes were initially collected at numerous locations around the county. For instance, at the time of the aborted 1879 robbery, all coastal tax money from Kibesillah south to Cuffey's Cove was deposited first at William Kelly's store in Mendocino. The money was secured in a vault there until the sheriff or a deputy collected it in late autumn. In 1897, over twenty men were bonded as tax collectors to handle portions of the tax money before it was submitted to the county treasurer. The values that the 1897 bondsmen were allowed to handle varied from $1,000 to $10,000. Only two of the twenty-some bondsmen were insured up to $10,000. Interestingly, the Under Sheriff whose actions precipitated the 1895 monetary crisis was bonded at just $1,000.

On a Friday in December, 1897, Mendocino County Under Sheriff Philo Handy (the same Under Sheriff from the previous debacle with the treasurer) found that the cash on hand in the tax collector's office was approximately $6,000 short. Sheriff Johnson had not been seen in his office since November 23rd and no one had seen him since a report of a sighting in San Francisco on November 24th.

Under Sheriff Handy reported promptly to the county district attorney regarding the simultaneous absence of the funds and the sheriff. The DA notified the chairman of the Board of Supervisors. Testimony was taken at the supervisors meeting the following Tuesday, resulting in the Board vacating the offices of sheriff and tax collector on the grounds that James R. Johnson had ceased to be an inhabitant of Mendocino County. An application to fill the sheriff's job was submitted on behalf of J.H. “Henry” Smith. The Board of Supervisors motioned and approved that appointment, pending the bonding of Mr. Smith (more on Sheriff Smith's eight year tenure in the July 25, 2018 AVA).

The precise amount of Sheriff Johnson's embezzlement from Mendocino County proved to be $5775. However, the buck did not stop at Mendocino County's borders. About five years prior a Sonoma County widow, Harriet Wiley, died leaving no children. Her will named Sheriff Johnson as one of two executors. The other man declined the position. After a period of reluctance, James R. Johnson set about his duties. Primary among those was finding the legal heirs, whom Mrs. Wiley had simply referred to in her will as the widows and children of her late husband's brothers and sisters. Most of these folks lived on or near the east coast, so Johnson's delay in fulfilling the execution of Harriet Wiley's will for several years might have seemed understandable, except that when news of his absconding with nearly $6,000 of Mendocino County's money became public, officials began investigating the Wiley matter. They found that Johnson had sold Wiley properties to the tune of $2,500, seemingly pocketing all the proceeds for himself. Another $2,500 to $3,000 due to the Wiley relatives in the east had also disappeared with Johnson.

Early surmises as to the ex-Sheriff's whereabouts led toward the Klondike, but when local prospectors trickled back into Northern California, no one reported any Johnson sightings. Wiser money pointed southward after acquaintances told of the lawman often expressing desire to engage in the stock raising business in Mexico.

By 1900, rumors and hearsay put James R. Johnson somewhere in Central America, running a profitable saloon.

Crime doesn't usually pay at 

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