Killers in the California Legislature

Did you know that several accused (and sometimes convicted) murderers have served in the California Legislature? It’s true. In December, we shared the stories of ten murdered legislators. Today we have nine members who had blood on their hands.

Charles F. Kenneally – Assemblyman (Republican)
Following a fight between Assemblyman-elect Kenneally and a retired showmaker named William Quane over $8 that Kenneally felt was owed to him, Quane was knocked to the ground and died of a skull fracture as a result. Kenneally was charged with manslaughter the same day. The case was dismissed in March 1899 because a judge found that although Kenneally had pushed Quane, there was “a lack of intent” to kill Quane.

William H. Stone – Assemblyman (Democrat)
“During an argument just outside the Assembly session in the California State Capitol, Assemblyman John C. Bell was shot at (the bullets missed) and stabbed by Stone on April 11th, and died four days later, in Sacramento.” The argument began when Bell told Stone that “Doctor, I am going to defeat your measure,” referring to a bill that proposed to change the boundary between El Dorado and Sacramento Counties.

Harvey Lee – Assemblyman (Union)
On March 25, 1859, Lee stabbed former Speaker Charles S. Fairfax, a wound that would eventually kill him. The fight ended when Lee pulled a sword from his cane and stabbed Fairfax in the chest. Fairfax drew a pistol and was ready to kill Lee when he cried “Don’t kill me; I am unarmed!” to which Fairfax replied “You miserable coward; you have murdered me-you have assassinated me-and I have your worthless life in my hands; but for the sake of your wife and children I shall spare you.”

Daniel Showalter – Assemblyman (Breckinridge Democratic)
Showalter killed former Assemblyman Charles W. Piercy in 1861 (with whom he had served in the 1861 Legislature) in a duel hosted by Charles S. Fairfax. The topic that sparked the duel was the U.S. Senate election. The weapon of choice was rifles.

James R. Vineyard – Assemblyman (Democrat)
“As a member of the territorial legislature in 1842, Vineyard shot and killed a fellow legislator on the floor of the Wisconsin Council (now the State Senate) shortly after adjournment on February 11th. According to the website of the Wisconsin Historical Society; “Following a debate on the floor of the Council of the Legislative Assembly, Charles C.P. Arndt implied that fellow Council member James R. Vineyard, a personal friend of Baker, had made misstatements on Baker’s behalf. After an uproar during which Vineyard denied Arndt’s accusations, adjournment was declared… In the moments following adjournment, Arndt approached Vineyard’s desk on the floor of the assembly and the two continued their disagreement. As Arndt came closer to Vineyard he raised his hand and struck Vineyard in the head. Before any other legislator could intervene to separate the two men, Vineyard drew a pistol and shot Arndt in the chest. Arndt reeled backward and fell to the floor, dying where he had fallen about five minutes later.” [a photo of the vest and detailed description]

Jesse S. Pitzer – Assemblyman (Democrat)
In 1872, “H. A. Wickware was accidentally shot in an affray between Jesse S. Pitzer and Al Jenson [in Nevada]. His leg was amputated, but he subsequently died from the effects of the wound.” (Source: RootsWeb)

James W. Denver – State Senator (Democrat)
In 1852, Edward Gilbert challenged Denver to duel after Denver criticized an article that Gilbert had written in the Alta California calling the gift of financial assistance to members of the Donner Party a ruse to raise the political popularity of Governor John Bigler. The terms of the duel called for rifles at short range. In the first round, Denver fired into the air, while Gilbert aimed and him and missed. Denver attempted to call off a second round of the duel, but Gilbert refused and Denver shot and killed him.

David F. Douglass – State Senator (Whig)
In 1839, Douglass killed a man named Dr. William Howell and served 14 months in prison.

Charles Robinson – Assemblyman (Whig)
Robinson was a leader of the 1850 Squatters Riot in Sacramento that killed eight (including Sacramento Mayor Hardin Bigelow) and wounded six. Robinson was in a Sacramento prison on these murder charges (the case was never brought to trial) when he was elected to the Assembly.

How Service in the California Legislature Ends

The most common way that a term in the Legislature ends is that that the term ends and the officeholder leaves office. But there are a handful of other options:

There have been about 255 resignations since 1849, most recently in January 2015.

83 California Legislators have died in office, most recently in 2010.

Contested Seat
A seat is “contested” when one candidate is sworn into office and another candidate makes a claim that they were the actual winner. This happened most frequently when it took a while to get to Sacramento and candidates had to leave before the final vote tally arrived. When the second candidate won in the final count, they would present the evidence of their victory to that house of the legislature and a committee would determine who had actually won. Seven legislators lost their seats by having their elections contested; the most recent was in 1981.

Seat Declared Vacant
For many years, California law said that officerholders were required to remain within their jurisdiction during their term of service. Leaving the state during the term of your office (which current legislators now do regularly) meant surrendering your right to hold that office. Although it happened several times in statewide offices, this only happened once in the Legislature. In 1853, Assemblyman Horace W. Carpentier left the state and his seat was declared vacant. Don’t worry, it wasn’t too big a political setback; he soon became Oakland’s first mayor.

The Recall
The recall was introduced in California in 1911, since then four legislators have lost their seats in recall elections. Two immediately after the introduction of the recall (1913 and 1914) and twice in 1995.

Removal from Office
Removal from office has only happened once, in 1995, when Dick Mountjoy was reelected to the Assembly at the same time he was elected to the State Senate in a special election. A majority of the membership in the Assembly determined that the Senate election took precedence, and Mountjoy was removed from office as an Assemblyman. (Added 3/30: After reviewing official sources, it looks like Mountjoy was not removed from office, but was instead “disqualified” from assuming office in the 1995-96 Session). Always important to remember that unlike the State Senate, the Assembly does have a period every two years when there are zero members in office.

Expulsion occurs when a house of the Legislature determines that a member has so significantly violated the public trust that they are unfit to remain in office. There have only been five expulsions in state history, most recently in 1905 when four State Senators were found guilty of having accepted bribes. In 2014, Senators Knight, Anderson, and Vidak introduced SR 29, to expel Rod Wright from the State Senate. Coincidentally, if SR 29 had passed, Wright would have been the second Senator Wright to be expelled from the Senate (Eli Wright was one of the four expelled in 1905).

Politics Can Be Brutal: The Painful Life of Buron Fitts

Buron Fitts served 696 days as Lieutenant Governor, for which he is scarcely remembered. After his resignation in 1928, Governor C. C. Young appointed an equally anonymous H. L. Carnahan to fill the vacancy.

What Fitts is remembered for, when he is remembered, is for the scandals from his time as Los Angeles County District Attorney. Fitts was accused of covering up murders for movie studio owners (see “How to Get Away With a Hollywood Murder“) and even his official biography on the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s website includes a paragraph repeating an accusation against him that was eventually dropped;

The grand jury responded with and indictment of Fitts — and his sister, who worked as his secretary — for bribery and perjury. The grand jury charged that Fitts and his sister had sold Mills a useless orange grove that the family had owned, receiving much more than it was worth in the trade — essentially a bribe to Fitts to drop the rape charge. Two years later, Fitts was acquitted.

Most modern accounts describe him as “thin-skinned,” but it really is amazing how much Fitts was able to accomplish during a career marked by repeated serious injuries and 

His first major injury happened during the first time was a serious injury to his right knee caused by shrapnel from a 7.7 cm high explosive artillery round (during the Battle of Argonne on the night of September 30, 1918), resulting in a wound that eventually led to the amputation of his right leg in 1928. “the mutilated form in the shell hole”

“He was beginning to think that there were no German shells made with his number on them, as the doughboys say, when a high explosive struck his right knee. He pitched forward onto his face. He attempted to move and found that he could not. An effort was made to stop the flow of blood by first aid, but this was impossible. A heavy rain was falling and he lay in it for several hours before stretcher-bearers reached him.”
“A Conquest of Obstacles: The Story of Lieutenant-Governor Fitts” by W. Leon Roper, Los Angeles Times (3/25/1928)

Another news report gave some clue as to the severity of his injuries.

While leading a platoon in the Battle of the Argonne, he was struck by a high explosive shell which completely shattered his right knee… Fourteen months in a hospital passed by before he was able to walk.
FITTS HURT IN CRASH: Airplane Falls at Carpinteria; Los Angeles Times, Oct 27, 1922

After having surgery on his leg and a cast placed on his leg to immobilize it, his leg was broken in a train wreck on November 3, 1918.

“…the jinx that pursued Fitts in those days was not satisfied. At Nevers the train ran into an open switch, resulting in a serious wreck. Fitts’s leg and cast were broken.”
“A Conquest of Obstacles: The Story of Lieutenant-Governor Fitts” by W. Leon Roper, Los Angeles Times (3/25/1928)

Four years later, Fitts was seriously injured in an airplane crash in Carpinteria on October 26, 1922 (7:30 pm)

FITTS HURT IN CRASH; Airplane Falls at Carpinteria
The plane struck the ocean a dozen feet from shore, caromed onto the beach and turned over. The pilot was thrown free, but Mr. Fitts was pinned under the debris of the plane. Lieut. Patrick summoned help to lift the machine. Mr. Fitts was unconscious when taken from the wreckage…
Los Angeles Times, Oct 27, 1922

Fitts was involved in another airplane crash at Dunsmuir (June 6, 1927) and another crash (in later 1927).

On May 11, 1928, Fitts finally had his injured leg amputated.

“Lieut.-Gov. Fitts, after having undergone seventeen operations in the past ten years in a futile struggle to save his right leg, which was shattered by shrapnel during the World War, will have the leg amputated Friday morning at the government hospital at Sawtelle… “My decision to permit the amputation was the hardest I ever had to make,” said Lieut.-Gov. Fitts yesterday. “It has been a long struggle which has ended in failure.”
Los Angeles Times (May 10, 1928)

After being elected Los Angeles County District Attorney, Fitts resigned as Lieutenant Governor on November 30, 1928.

Five months later, Fitts was involved in yet another airplane crash, this time in Galt. He was uninjured. (April 8, 1929)

The Galt high school and junior college airport beacon and flood lights paid for themselves on Thursday evening when Buron E. Fitts, former lieutenant governor, and Lt. Carroll were forced down on the field by lack of gas at 7:45 p.m…
Knowing they had only a few minutes supply of fuel left they were prepared to use the parachutes when they reached Galt and circled the town…
The plane landed and in doing so hit a fence doing some damage to the wins.
Lodi Sentinel (April 6, 1929)

Fitts then had almost eight years without a major injury before he was shot during an assassination attempt near his home. On the night of March 7, 1937, a car pulled along his and fired several shots at his vehicle. Fitts raised his hands to protect himself and one bullet hit him in the left elbow.

Buron Fitts, caustic Los Angeles district attorney, escaped with his life Sunday night when an assassin’s bullet pierced his upraised arm and was deflected from his chest. The bullet was fired from a car containing three or more men. It crashed through the windshield of the prosecutor’s car and tore a channel half the length of his forearm. Several nerves were severed and surgeons feared his arm might be paralyzed.
Milwaukee Journal (March 8, 1937)

Fitts later provided a description of the shooting to reporters.

Reward for Fitts Assassins Planned Today in Hunt for Gang
“My home at 1443 Royal Oaks avenue is a few hundred yards north of Duarte Road, and in reaching the home of my father at 1434 Foothill Boulevard, it is necessary for me to turn right for a few hundred feet off Royal Oaks on Duarte and then cross the railway tracks to reach Foothill Boulevard.
“As I crossed the tracks and turned on Foothill toward my father’s place, I saw a large sedan parked in the shadows, which pulled alongside of me as I passed.
“I sensed that something was going to happen, and slammed on my brakes. At the same time a shot came from the other machine and struck me in the left arm. A second bullet crashed through the windshield.”
Los Angeles Times, Mar 9, 1937

Los Angeles voters were apparently not impressed and Fitts lost his next election.

The lesson is this; politics is freaking brutal.

Oh, and then they’ll call you thin-skinned.