RIP: Earl B. Whitmore, former San Mateo County Sheriff

In the 1950s, during a daredevil operation to rescue stranded hikers, Sheriff Earl B. Whitmore lowered himself, using a cable, at Devil’s Slide. Whitmore was San Mateo County Sheriff from 1950-73. He passed away at age 90 in San Rosa in late May 2008.

A Tale of Two Sheriffs

By June Morrall

(I wrote this in 1999)

The polls indicated “Big Jim” McGrath, the 58-year-old six-term county sheriff, faced almost certain defeat in the 1950 election.

San Mateo County’s landscape had changed dramatically since McGrath took office in the late 1920s. He had inherited a community where a powerful gambling network permeated every shadowy political corner.

An equally potent, more positive influence during McGrath’s tenure was the dramatic growth of the county. Industry moved in, home building was on the rise, and the population soared to 250,000.

The sheriff attempted to accommodate all factions, but political debts, as usual, had priority.

Sheriff McGrath’s career was dogged by years of grand jury investigations and his reputation sullied by an inappropriate relationship with gambling czar Emilio Georgetti. When the heat was on after each grand juries’ finding, the county’s gambling houses would shut down–only to quietly reopen when the pressure subsided.

Perhaps foolish pride led to “Big Jim” McGrath’s decision to seek one last re-election for the coveted county sheriff’s badge. After all, the easily identifiable 300-pound sheriff hadn’t lost his presence and charisma, but the 1950 election was not a personality contest. This time voters demanded reform in the sheriff’s office.

McGrath’s formidable opponent was Earl B. Whitmore, a handsome 32-year-old Redwood City police sergeant and graduate of Sequoia High School who studied law at the University of San Francisco.

Sheriff McGrath’s campaign focused on his valuable experience as head of the county civilian defense committee. In that critical role he was in charge of preparing Peninsula communities for an atom bomb attack by the Soviet Union, a widespread fear at the time.

But the political skills honed by McGrath were attuned to days gone by. In contrast, Whitmore, with an impeccable ear for good public relations, represented the model of modern law enforcement. As the reform candidate, Whitmore promised voters a shake-up of the sheriff’s department staff, a business-like administration and a merit system to replace the old one based on seniority.

It was no surprise that Whitmore swept the veteran sheriff out of office by a vote of better than three-to-one. The final result was Whitmore, 64,095; McGrath, 21,236.

After receiving the election results, the defeated McGrath announced that he had no future plans, and the lifelong bachelor retired to the Redwood City home he shared with his elderly father.

Out of public view, McGrath’s past association with people like Georgetti continued to haunt him. In 1952, representatives of the State Crime Commission visited McGrath’s home. The investigators sought leads in the unsolved dynamite death of San Mateo sportsman, Tom Keen. A close friend of McGrath, Keen, inventor of the “totalizer,” a betting machine, had suspected links to underworld figures.

The strain and pressure of non-stop interrogations may have taken its toll on the former sheriff. McGrath’s health began to fail, and 60-year-old “Big Jim” suffered a fatal heart attack a few months later.

Political life was intoxicating for the new county sheriff. Whitmore had thoroughly enjoyed campaigning and was bitten by the political bug. After only two years as sheriff, he considered a possible run for Congress, or a seat on the state Board of Equalization. He reconsidered and successfully won re-election as county sheriff.

Whitmore was serious about the quality of his department and received special training at the FBI school. During the 1958 election he assured voters of “the same kind of honest, impartial law enforcement I’ve tried to give the county during the past eight years.”

Whitmore had been elected as a reform candidate but he, too, would face corruption allegations in the early 1960s. The background of his problems read like a script written for a B-grade Hollywood movie.

The California State Attorney General’s office had been secretly investigating gambling in San Mateo County. They even went so far as to recruit a Burlingame pharmacist to act as their undercover agent.

The information they gathered was turned over to San Mateo County, and a grand jury pursued a “bookie probe.” The grand jury heard testimony from Brisbane Police Chief Calvin Smith, who alleged he had been offered a $300 per month bribe by one of Whitmore’s officers to allow bookmaker telephones in his jurisdiction.

Simultaneously, the grand jury heard the state’s undercover agent/pharmacist recount a conversation between a Millbrae bookie offering a bribe to a member of the San Mateo County district attorney’s office.

Rumors flew and Whitmore requested a hearing before the grand jury to clear his name. Although the grand jury testimony was sealed, we do know that a serious fissure existed between Sheriff Whitmore and District Attorney Keith Sorenson.

As a result of the grand jury findings, one of Whitmore’s men was fired, and later indicted, but Whitmore and the district attorney’s office were exonerated.

Whitmore remained a highly regarded public figure during his tenure in office, but the bookie scandal tarnished his image.

Soon Sheriff Whitmore ws ready to enter the political arena again. He announced he would seek Congressman J. Arthur Younger’s seat. Younger died in office and a special election was called.

The field of Republican contenders was large, but the contest boiled down to two candidates and national attention focussed on maverick Palo Alto attorney Paul N. “Pete” McCloskey and Shirley Temple Black, the former famous child movie star.

Whitmore, who had solid backing in the North County, and among the blue collar vote, could not break into the two-candidate contest.

Whitmore’s supporters pointed to his outstanding record of protecting San Mateo County from graft, corruption and crime. But the Vietnam War emerged as a central theme during the election. Whitmore’s hawkish position was out of step with The County and much of the nation.

As the pundits predicted, McCloskey won with 57,489 votes. Mrs. Black came in second and Whitmore was fourth with 12,456 votes.

Five years later, Whitmore made the headlines again. Nine men had escaped from county jail in Redwood City and Whitmore called a press conference to announce he was not going to get a haircut until all of the escapees had been apprehended.

Whitmore’s levity had a purpose. His stunt was a way to “let all the guys in the department know, we’re going to capture these escapees. It’s a constant reminder to everyone.”

“I’m not kidding,” the 55-year-old sheriff added. He looked “modish, wearing a sports jacket and blue bell bottoms, his white mane in need of a trim. “I don’t care if my hair grows down to my waist. I won’t get a haircut until the men are back.”

Turning serious, he said the jail would be more secure when a closed-circuit television system was installed along with new locks, more shakedown inspections and tighter discipline.

A few months later, with most of the fugitives back behind bars, Whitmore attended a Hillsborough barbecue sponsored by the Footprinters Association.

Recalling Whitmore’s earlier press conference pledge, his deputies grabbed and handcuffed the sheriff and accused him of stealing spoons from the county jail (which had been planted in his pockets). The kangaroo court found Whitmore guilty and sentenced him to a haircut, to the delight of all present.

Strands of Whitmore’s hair were auctioned off to the 150 partygoers, bringing in $178 used for the Footprinter’s scholarship fund for the College of San Mateo law enforcement students.

In 1972, Whitmore announced he did not intend to seek re-election when his term expired two years later. He expressed interest in working with private industry as a security specialist. He did not seek re-election as promised, but actually retired in 1973, a year early.

During his almost quarter-century as sheriff, Whitmore sought to make law enforcement keep pace with the needs and demands of the community. In the early 1970s, eager to employ all available technology, he established the use of helicopters for surveillance, as well as for search and rescue missions in the rugged mountain and coastal regions of the county.

In a wide-ranging interview at the time, Earl Whitmore called for the entire criminal justice system to be overhauled to meet current social standards and conditions. Taking a remarkable position for a law enforcement professional, Whitmore advocated legalization of victim-less crimes like gambling and prostitution, but he remained hard on drugs. He did not think drug laws were strong enough.

After Whitmore’s retirement, he moved to Calistoga.

Much had changed during Earl B. Whitmore’s term as sheriff; San Mateo County’s population doubled to 565,000 and all recognized that he had done much to make the Peninsula a safer place to live.

….more coming….