Note: This is an encore post from 2006.
Dec. 3, 1907
Officer Patrick Lyons had been on the force for four months when he was shot in the head while trying to arrest two robbers a little after 11 p.m. at Central Avenue and 14th Street.
There’s no picture of him in The Times, and news stories say nothing about his past or his family. His superiors at University Station said the 30-year-old officer, who lived at 720 E. 5th St., had previously worked as a special patrolman and was “a most promising young policeman.” We know far more about the killer, Daniel Meskil, and his companion, Rolla Robe. They had barely met before they began the holdups that would climax in Lyons’ death.
Meskil arrived from Chicago a month earlier and had just rented a room at 933 S. Broadway when he shot himself in the left hand trying to catch a heavy revolver he knocked off a table. At the Receiving Hospital, doctors amputated portions of his index finger and thumb.
Investigation showed that Meskil had been the terror of the Nebraska town where he had grown up, inflicting violence on his family. He was frequently in trouble with the law and had served time in reform school. Meskil said he once killed a man by knocking the victim down a cliff, simply because he felt like it. A few days before the slaying, Officer Roller had searched Meskil because he looked suspicious. “For that I made up my mind to kill you just as soon as I got an easy chance,” Meskil said during his trial.
Robe, a union plasterer, said he met Meskil on Nov. 30 at the Arizona poolroom on Main, which served as the union hall. Meskil asked him to have a drink “and we went out and had several drinks, eight or 10, and Meskil paid for them because I was broke,” Robe said.
“Meskil seemed to have plenty of money and said he got it by holding people up, and that the Los Angeles police were easy, and he asked me to join him in getting a place that night and said I need not be seen. I told him I was not in that business but at last I said I would join him as I was broke.”
More drinks followed, and Meskil went into Hoegee’s hardware store, where he bought an old Colt Bisley .45 with an outdated box of black powder cartridges. Then they went to hold up Gerleman’s market at 813 S. Central Ave., where Robe used to work, only to be run off when the owner’s daughter yelled “Here come two policemen!”
The men fled in the market’s horse-drawn wagon, which they crashed trying to avoid a streetcar, then went to a winery at 14th and Central. In scooping money from the cash drawer, Robe scattered dimes all over the floor and Meskil forced him to pick up the money, saying: “Damn you; if you do a job like that again I’ll kill you.”
Lyons was standing across the street and saw the men. Winery owner Arthur Grosser said he heard Lyons order: “Throw up your hands. Give me that gun or I’ll kill you.” As Lyons searched Robe, Meskil drew the Colt .45 and shot the officer. Grosser said he saw Lyons “lying on the sidewalk with a gaping wound in his forehead, one eye shot out and the blood was running in a thin stream to the gutter.” The men fled, although Robe was quickly captured.
During the autopsy, investigators recovered fragments of the bullet, which shattered when it hit Lyons’ skull. By weight, police determined that it was too heavy to have been from Robe’s .38, but had been fired from a .45. Because of the old, caked grease on the bullet fragments, investigators determined that it was an obsolete military cartridge and soon located receipts from the sale at Hoegee’s store, the only place in town where such ammunition was sold. A search was begun for a man missing a left index finger and thumb.
Walking his beat the next day, Officer Anthony Connelly noticed a suspicious stranger watching a game of checkers in a poolroom at 7th Street and Central. Making sure he had his pistol ready, Connelly asked to see the man’s left hand, which was in a pocket. “What the hell business is it of yours?” the man asked.
As soon as Connelly pulled out the man’s left hand, Miskel drew a pistol and the men fought, but Connelly was able to jam his hand against the hammer of the gun so that it wouldn’t fire. “Billiard cues were scattered about the room and everything breakable had been broken,” The Times said. Meskil’s fight for his life ended when Connelly yelled at one of the men to help and someone cracked Meskil on the head with a pool cue.
The men were convicted of Lyons’ murder. Robe was sentenced to life in prison and Meskil was sent to the gallows. It was sometimes thought that Meskil would undergo a jailhouse conversion as he was frequently visited by gospel singers and ministers. “One day a preacher asked Meskil to pray with him in the jail office,” The Times said. “They both got down on their knees and the murderer arose with tears streaming down his face.”
“I never heard about that before,” Meskil said. “And that is as near conversion as he ever got,” The Times said.
At San Quentin, Meskil became known as one of the hardest and toughest men, often attacking his cellmates. There were the usual appeals and for a time it looked like Meskil would not be executed. But then a final date was set.
Before he could be hanged, Meskil tried to commit suicide by escaping from his cell and jumping from the roof. He spent the last months of his life dying by inches in constant pain with “tuberculosis of the spine” as a result of breaking his back.
“He shrieks in agony until given opiates,” The Times says.