|Note: This updates a post from November.
Photograph by Larry Harnisch / Los Angeles Times
|On the night of Oct. 20, 1958, four police
officers went to 2723 S. Budlong Ave. in search
of suspects in a series of 60 holdups
Police Sgt. Gene T. Nash died in 1958 after a shootout with robbery
suspects at an apartment house on Budlong just south of Adams. The
killer was convicted and sentenced to prison, and in a televised
ceremony, Police Chief William H. Parker presented his widow, Cynthia,
with her husband’s Medal of Valor.
But that’s only the beginning
of a complex story that was mostly ignored by the newspapers — even
though it went to the U.S. Supreme Court — and exists in conflicting
accounts on dim microfilm in the basement of the Hall of Records and in
material at the California State Archives.
|Police Sgt. Gene T. Nash
About 8:30 p.m. on
Oct. 20, 1958, Nash, 32, and Sgt. Walter F. Bitterolf of the Robbery
Division, accompanied by Sgt. Sheril O. “Sam” Eastenson and Officer
Charles E. Leonard, went to the two-story apartment house at 2723 S.
Budlong Ave., slightly northwest of USC.
The officers had a
warrant for suspected robber Bennie Will Meyes, 33, a parole violator
and longtime criminal with an eighth-grade education who had a job
cleaning out garbage trucks, and they were looking for William Douglas,
Meyes’ alleged partner in about 60 holdups. Meyes and Douglas had “a
penchant for striking at card and dice games, but they do not ignore
business establishments, markets, theaters and even street jobs,”
according to a probation report. Several victims had been shot or
pistol-whipped, according to prison records.
Leonard waited outside in case the men tried to escape while Nash and
Bitterolf went in with their guns drawn. Bitterolf knocked at Apartment
No. 2 and a man named Virgil Lee, 24, answered the door. Both
investigators showed their badges. Bitterolf said they were police
officers and asked for “Bill.”
Lee said there was no one there
named “Bill,” so Bitterolf pushed his way into the apartment,
explaining that they wanted to look around.
The officers found
another man and two women watching TV in the living room. One woman
said: “There is absolutely no one in this apartment except my baby,
lying on Pappy’s bed there in the front bedroom.”
turned off the TV to question the four people and after about five
minutes, Nash left to explore the rest of the apartment. There was a
hallway with doors that led to the back bedroom used by Douglas, the
front bedroom where the young boy was sleeping, and the central
bathroom that connected both bedrooms.
According to Meyes’
account, when the police arrived, he and Douglas had been talking in
the bathroom. Meyes had violated his parole by leaving Indio, Calif.,
without permission and Douglas gave him a gun to pawn so he could
afford a lawyer to straighten things out. Meyes had taken the loaded
.38 revolver from under Douglas’ mattress and stuck it in his waistband
beneath his shirt.
“While we were talking, the apartment
suddenly went quiet,” Meyes said in court documents. “There was no
sound coming from the living room or the television set. Then in that
areaway of the hall we could not see, footsteps, along with this
strange silence, started back where we were…. Douglas and I bolted
through a darkened bedroom. Douglas got on the floor on his stomach
alongside the bed with his head facing the window and I stood alongside
a chest near the door.”
Nash, his gun drawn, tried the door to
the front bedroom, but it was locked. He went through the bathroom and
into the front bedroom.
Bitterolf heard eight to 10 shots and
ran down the hallway. He found his partner lying on the bedroom floor,
still holding his gun. Nash had taken several bullets in the abdomen,
including one that went through his spleen and virtually cut one of his
kidneys in two.
“How is it, Gene?” Bitterolf asked.
“Real bad,” Nash answered. “There were two of them. The one that shot me went out the window, the other one is in the closet.”
heard the gunshots as he waited outside, Eastenson ran into the
apartment and kicked down the bedroom door. Bitterolf told him to go
back outside and radio for an ambulance.
Douglas in the closet, so badly wounded that Bitterolf thought he was
dead. According to court documents, the sleeping boy wasn’t injured,
although Bitterolf thought he had been killed because of the blood on
Bitterolf went back to the living room, searched the
men for weapons and made them sit on the floor, then returned to
“Take it easy, the ambulance is on the way, you will be all right,” Bitterolf said.
“Don’t kid me,” Nash replied. “I know I am done for. I know I am going to die.”
a Herald-Express photographer took pictures, doctors at Central
Receiving Hospital worked to save Nash. His wife, Cynthia, rushed to
the hospital, but arrived minutes after he died, The Times said.
on Budlong, Eastenson saw the blood that Meyes left when he jumped out
the window. The officer followed the trail over a fence and across
adjoining property, finally finding Meyes on the floor of a car, shot
in the thigh and right hand.
On the ambulance ride to the hospital, Meyes was questioned by Sgt. Leonard Rafferty.
And at this crucial point of the story, it becomes impossible to reconcile the conflicting court documents.
one version, Meyes implicated Douglas, apparently assuming that Nash
had killed him. In another account, Meyes said he didn’t know Nash was
a police officer and that Nash fired first.
One account says
Douglas was badly wounded and lost a large amount of blood. He was
purportedly given powerful painkillers and Rafferty allegedly kept
tapping him on the forehead so he wouldn’t fall asleep as he gave his
statement to a police stenographer.
Another account implies
Douglas was fully conscious and says he and Meyes, both in wheelchairs,
were brought together and that Douglas implicated Meyes.
are going to fry, Bennie,” Douglas supposedly said, “and you are not
going to take me with you. Tell them the truth; tell them you pulled
The case was presented to the Los Angeles County Grand Jury and Meyes and Douglas were indicted on charges of murder.
of officers attended Nash’s funeral and he was buried at Rose Hills
Memorial Park. In addition to his wife, Nash was survived by a
2-year-old daughter. On Nov. 27, 1958, his widow was presented with his
Medal of Valor.
Then the news reports stopped. The Times never wrote a word about any of the trials in the killing.
now the story becomes even more complex. According to court documents,
the first prosecution of Meyes and Douglas ended in a mistrial in March
On June 23, 1959, Meyes was convicted of second-degree
murder and found to be a habitual criminal, receiving a life sentence.
(In one of the typical conflicting accounts in the case, the Superior
Court file says Douglas was found not guilty and the U.S. Supreme
Court’s 1963 ruling says he was convicted and sentenced to five years
According to the federal high court’s ruling, Meyes
and Douglas were given a public defender. But at the opening of the
Superior Court trial, the lawyer asked for a continuance, saying that
he hadn’t time to prepare the case. It was complicated, he had too many
other cases, and Meyes and Douglas wanted separate attorneys, he said.
and Douglas fired their attorney because he was unprepared, asked for a
continuance and filed a request for separate defense lawyers.
Those motions were denied and the men were convicted.
first appealed to the California courts, and because they had no money,
asked for a court-appointed lawyer. The state Court of Appeal upheld
their convictions without appointing an attorney for them, saying that
“no good whatever could be served by appointment of counsel.”
The California Supreme Court denied their petitions for a review without giving them a hearing.
March 18, 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a state appellate court
hearing for the men, who were represented by future “palimony” lawyer
Marvin M. Mitchelson and Burton Marks. Two other lawyers on the men’s
legal team, Fred Okrand and A.L. Wirin, often worked with the ACLU,
although it’s not clear if this was an ACLU case.
William O. Douglas wrote for the majority: “Where the merits of the one
and only appeal an indigent has as of right are decided without benefit
of counsel in a state criminal case, there has been a discrimination
between the rich and the poor which violates the 14th Amendment.”
On June 20, 1964, The Times reported that Meyes and Douglas had been granted new trials.
Times never followed up on whether the men were retried, although
prison records show that Douglas and Meyes were discharged in August
For reasons that are unclear, Meyes returned to prison
in 1965 and in 1967 was trying to get his conviction overturned by
charging that he and Douglas were given “truth serum” before making
their statements to police.
Meyes was permanently discharged
on July 1, 1978, by the California Department of Corrections, which has
no further record of him. If he is alive today he would be 83.
of the lingering mysteries of the case is why none of the major Los
Angeles papers covered the trials. The shooting and Medal of Valor
ceremony were widely reported and The Times and other papers published
photos of Nash, but curiously, none of them used pictures of Meyes or
In fact, only the California Eagle, a weekly serving
the African American community, published Meyes’ photo, showing that he
was black (as was Douglas, according to prison records). And in the
days of segregated news, the major Los Angeles papers simply didn’t
cover such stories — even if they involved the death of a police
Postscript: Eastenson died in 1994, Bitterolf in 2001 and Leonard in 2005.
Thank you for the follow up. Excellent post.
It would be interesting to compare the Eagle’s coverage with the Mirror’s (if possible) on some stories. It was certainly illuminating here.