Image: (Watercolor by Coastside artist Galen Wolf or one of his students, probably one of his students.)
By June Morrall (I wrote this in 1998)
It’s hard to imagine that Pacifica, a Coastside community of neat neighborhoods, was once a dumping ground for victims of the criminal underworld.
The organized underworld of 1920s Prohibition-era San Francisco consisted of criminals who specialized in bootlegging, gambling, the “white slave trade,” and all the other vices that spilled onto next door neighbor Pacifica.
Isolated and often hidden under a net of fog, the two-story “Old Adobe,” originally the site of a mission outpost in present-day Pacifica, was better known to law enforcement officials as the sleazy “Crime Shack.”
The house was built with sun-dried bricks by Francisco Sanchez, the grantee to the Rancho San Pedro. Sanchez resided in the fine adobe between 1846 and 1862, but 50 years later, surly armed guards were posted around the dilapidated structure, the favorite rendezvous for criminals gathering in Pacifica’s remote Pedro Valley.
Rumor had that the toughest lawbreakers felt safe hiding in the “Crime Shack.” Today, the beautifully restored Sanchez Adobe on Linda Mar Blvd remains an authentic reminder, perhaps the only reminder, of Spanish-American days on the Coastside.
No one knew more about criminal activity at the Crime Shack than Colma Constable S.A. Landini. At the adobe in 1920, Landini led police officers in a shootout with a band of liquor smugglers. On another occasion, the constable arrested members of the Baciagalipi gang for robbing and murdering an elderly man. Landini also broke up a “white slave” vice ring, rescuing four young women from the sinister network.
One woman, a regular at the Crime Shack, told Constable Landini that she could identify San Francisco mob leader Charles Valento as the murderer of her husband. Valento also had been identified as the killer of legendary San Francisco Police Detective Miles Jackson.
A few months earlier, Detective Jackson had been the lead investigator of Dr. Galen Hickok’s “abortion mill,” housed in the famous “castle of mystery” high above Pacifica’s Salada Beach surf. The “castle,” originally built for Ocean Shore Railroad attorney Henry H. McCloskey, grandfather of former Congressman “Pete” McCloskey, still stands overlooking Pacifica’s busy Municipal Fishing Pier.
Three days after testifying for prosecutors in the Hickok trial, held under the dome of the Redwood City Courthouse, Detective Jackson was gunned down by gangster Charles Valento in a brutal shootout in Santa Rosa. Unable to elude the authorities, Valento was captured and jailed.
Revenge for Detective Jackson’s death came swiftly. In Wild West vigilante style, a party of 100 masked men in 15 automobiles burst into the Santa Rosa jail, seized Valento and two other gang members, hanging all three on a tree overlooking the Odd Fellows cemetery.
Constable Landini, who had assisted Jackson with the Hickok case, was deeply familiar with Pacifica’s terrain. He knew every hidden valley and cow path; he knew every bend and turn of twisty Pedro Mountain Road. These skills proved invaluable later when the constable led a manhunt in Pacifica for Colma priest, the Reverend Patrick E. Heslin, abducted from his parish house in the summer of 1921.
On food and horseback, Landini and his men fanned out from Colma, heading south toward Pedro Mountain Road. The manhunt was meticulous. After threading through the mass of scrub and thick underbrush high on the side of the mountain, the posse approached a “squalid shack” at the end of a narrow foot trail. Near the shack stood two horses, saddled, with a rifle holster hanging from each saddle. A search of the shack came up empty; the riders of the horses were nowhere to be found, nor was there a trace of Father Heslin.
Constable Landini picked up the scent of Father Heslin’s abductor while interviewing a Salada Beach restaurant owner. Landini had a description of the kidnapper, and the restaurateur confirmed seeing the man, his clothes, gritty with sand.
The clue led Landini to Father Heslin’s shallow grave located beneath a Salada Beach billboard advertising a pancake mix.
Charged with murder in the first degree was William A. Hightower, a cook and former manual laborer for the Ocean Shore Railroad. In a sensational trial held at the Redwood City courthouse, Hightower was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. At the time of Hightower’s trial, there were unconfirmed reports that he had ties to the underworld of Sacramento.
Five years later, when the body of a young woman, wrapped in a sheet, was found in “O’Malley’s Gulch” near Salada Beach, police confirmed that the victim was the “Moth Girl,” part of San Francisco’s underworld. A police search of the “Moth Girl’s” apartment–where the last recording she played on her portable Victrola was the jazz favorite, “Charleston”–led investigators to believe she led a double life: one as a conscientious piano student, the other as a player in the city’s dangerous night life.
A year after the “Moth Girl’s” body was discovered, federal prohibition agents, struck a blow at a Coastside vice ring, closing in on three Rockaway Beach roadhouses.
In the midst of a thick fog, a squad of 12 federal agents swooped down on the “resorts” where the agents encountered stiff resistance.
With the sound of a “hilarious drinking party” in an adjoining room, one roadhouse owner calmly submitted to the police, sitting in a chair while agents combed the premises.
“In a moment, though,” he jumped up, grabbed a meat cleaver and launched an attack on the officers,” according to news reports. “He threw the cleaver into a group of them. It narrowly missed one of hte agents and embedded itself in the wall.”
The man then drew a gun, but one of the officers knocked it from his hand with a beer bottle before he could fire it.
Eighteen cases of imported whiskey as well as cases of wine were confiscated. Citizens were shocked to learn that illegal alcohol was part of the problem. Young women, often college students, were attracted to these roadhouses, plied with booze and taken advantage of. Under arrest, all three owners, whose resorts were closed down, refused to talk.
“This thing is going on in a number of roadhouses along the Coastside,” said Prohibition Administrator Bohner. “It must be wiped out and we intend to do it.”
Isolated, yet close to San Francisco, Pacifica remained a dumping ground for victims of San Francisco’s underworld.
In 1929, the body of an unidentified well-dressed 30-year-old man, clutching a fountain pen in his hand, was found in a canyon near Rockaway Beach. The victim’s throat had been slit and four bullets fired into his chest.
One thing was certain: The brutal nature of the murder appalled both the San Francisco and San Mateo County police who feared that “Chicago gangster methods” were being practiced in and near San Francisco.
“We will not have any Chicago gangster methods taking root here,” said San Francisco Police Chief William J. Quinn. “Murder does not stop at a county line, and if this crime was planned here and executed in San Mateo County, it is our duty to follow it through.”
Near the body lay a pocketknife and nail file; also picked up by the police was a key ring. The body was transported to Laswell’s Funeral Parlor in Daly City, and no one at first could identify the victim wearing a Stetson hat, a diamond ring on the little finger of his left hand, and a gold necktie clasp with the initials “R.F.”
The police could only speculate at the reason for the 1929: The crime might have been linked to bootlegging, a hijacking reprisal or a personal feud.
“It is evident,” said Chief Quinn, “the man did not have the fountain pen out to protect himself from guns. The motive may lay back of some document he had been forced to sign.”
In an effort to put a name on the face of the man at Laswell’s Funeral Parlor, fingerprints were taken, but police records failed to match up. Laundry marks on his underwear became the center of attention, as a square printed in ink with the number “283” was traced. The Stetson hat, purchased at a Bertillon store, of which there was one in San Francisco, and one in Oakland, also showed markings, but still no identification could be made.
One theory was that the man was an occasional visitor to San Francisco from Chicago, perhaps friendly with a recently slain North Beach “liquor lord.” (Who the so-called liquor lord was, we were not told.)
Finally, San Francisco Police Detective James H. Coleman, who knew all the underworld characters, was called upon. Viewing the body, Coleman immediately recognized the man as Rene Fabbri, known as the “dandy of the underworld,” a gambler and suspected “white slaver.”
Simultaneously, police working on the laundry marks also announced a breakthrough leading to Fabbri’s identity.
With the victim’s name finally known, police grilled members of the underworld, theorizing Fabbri had either been double-crossed by his own people or had been “taken for a ride” by his enemies. Revenge was considered the probable motive, prompted by Fabbri’s activities among “women of the night.”
The story faded from the newspapers, leaving many questions unanswered.
As with other California communities, the end of Prohibition in 1933 checked the existence of underworld activity in Pacifica.
Historic sites such as the Sanchez Adobe and the Salada Beach “castle” still stand as reminders of Pacifica’s past as the underworld’s playground and graveyard in the 1920s.
Note: I have a Half Moon Bay Review article, without date, probably 1950s or 1960s. This is also, regrettably, an incomplete copy of the article.
“Priest Killer is Set Free
“William A. Hightower, the convicted killer of a Catholic priest, was set free this week by the California Adult Adult Authority.
“In 1921 , Hightower was convicted on the murder of Rev. Father Patrick E. Heslin, a kindly Colma parish priest.
“The priest was lured to the murderer’s place at night on the pretext that a man wanted the last sacrament. He was then kidnapped and taken to lonely Salada Beach (now Pacifica) and brutally murdered, according to the court records….”