02 February 2016

Carbon Canyon Crime Capsule #5: Murder at the Keene Ranch, 1931

The last post detailed some of the history of Arthur G. Keene and his Carbon Canyon ranch, located on the Orange County portion of the canyon.  Keene had a sister, Ruby, who had been married to Texas native and blacksmith Gilbert Francis Collie, born in 1879 in San Antonio.  The couple had two sons, Herbert and Gilbert, Jr., before the relationship disintegrated, probably due to physical abuse by Collie, and the pair divorced.

Collie who drifted considerably over the years, remarried and had another son in Medford, Oregon, before his violent tendencies manifested themselves again.  Collie wandered through several areas of Oregon and California, living in Kern and Imperial counties for spells and then at Bailey Flat in Madera County in late 1930, before showing up in Carbon Canyon early in 1931.

Interestingly, in February 1931, the El Rodeo Riding Club, which is now in Carbon Canyon, but at that time was a four-year old organization out in Placentia/Brea near Valencia Avenue and Imperial Highway, held a rodeo on the Flying Cow Ranch of Ed Gaines, where the Olinda Village community is within the canyon.

A press photo of Gilbert F. Collie, who killed George Walker in Carbon Canyon early in 1931.  Click on any image to see the set in enlarged views in a separate window.
The 24 February edition of the Santa Ana Register featured an article on the festivities, which included a lunch "at a beautiful site on the hillside" and then the group "moved up to the stockade on the mesa behind the ranch house" where a goat roping contest was held.  Then, a pair of potato sack races, one for men and the other for women, followed.

The next activity on the program featured bronco riding, with that entertainment provided by "California Jimmie" Murphy and "Snake Bite" Gilbert Collie.  After that part of the day's events, there was an exhibition of "broom polo."  Participants included club president and recently retired Orange County sheriff Sam Jernigan, John Wagner of an old Placentia famiy, Mr. and Mrs. Alonso Yorba, descendants of the founding family of the northeast Orange County region, and dozens of others.

What isn't known is whether "Snake Bite" Gilbert Collie was the father or his namesake son, who was 20 at the time of the rodeo.  Young Collie did live in the area later in the 1930s, and, in fact, was arrested in August 1939 at the Tidwell Oaks tavern in Sleepy Hollow--the building still stands as an apartment in a complex at the far eastern edge of the neighborhood.  A resident of south-central Los Angeles, Gilbert, Jr. was hauled in for disturbing the peace (drunkenness) and Chino's Justice of the Peace Edwin Rhodes, later writer of a 1950s history of Chino, sentenced him to a $30 fine or 15 days in the town hoosegow.

A portrait of Gilbert Collie, probably from about the 1910s from the family tree of "cfirstoffive" on Ancestry.com.
While Arthur Keene was not listed as a guest at the Gaines affair, his ranch was just a short distance to the southeast near the La Vida Mineral Springs and his ex-brother-in-law soon found the Keene Ranch to be a particularly useful place.

As reported nationwide in the press just prior to Thanksgiving, a remote shack on the Keene Ranch was found to be fully engulfed in flames on 20 November.  Workmen, apparently from the ranch, responded and a gruesome discovery was made.

The body of 35-year old George Myron Walker, a laborer from Santa Rosa from northern California, was found inside.  Walker's skull was crushed, the little building torched, and the victim's car stolen. One account suggested Walker had been murdered several weeks before, but others indicate it happened just before the shack was set afire.  Notably, one media account stated that investigators believed that Walker's death was an accidental one involving an unexpected fire in the cabin.

From the Santa Ana Register, 4 January 1932.
Shortly afterward, however, Collie was arrested by San Bernardino County Sheriff Department deputies, because he was suspected of a similar murder involving 20-year old Dale Slater, a carpenter who had recently moved to Los Angeles from The Dalles, a town east of Portland, Oregon, where Collie had also resided not long before.  Slater's mother had received a letter from Collie claiming that Slater was in Las Vegas on a drinking binge, but his mother insisted that her son never drank.  With this information, Collie was arrested drew a crude map indicating where Slater's body could found.

Acting on this, authorities traveled to Yermo, a town out in the desert beyond Barstow and found the young Slater's body dragged from a shallow grave alongside railroad tracks, his body partially consumed by animals.  As with Walker, Slater had been killed by a blow to the head and his body burned.

Collie, known as "Gorilla Man" for his strength (obviously built up from years in the blacksmith trade) and black beard, apparently was a man prone to sudden irrational bursts of anger, as displayed by the profanity-laced tirade he unleashed when told he would not accompany investigators to Yermo to search for Slater's body.  While in jail the day after his arrest, he blurted out that he had killed 11 or 12 people and would have an unnamed person who bought Slater's car from him reveal the locations of their bodies.

From the La Grande (Oregon) Observer, 11 January 1932.
Yet, Collie's bravado soon receded and he was said to have spent restless nights in jail, crying out "I want to die!  Let them hang me now!"  On the 27th, he employed a crude suicide attempt by slashing himself with the lid of a can of chewing tobacco, cutting his wrists and throat from ear-to-ear in the early morning hours.  Scrawled in his blood on the walls of his cell was:
There will be Hell around here tomorrow, but it will be in blood.
Though he was found unconscious, Collie was revived and a preliminary hearing postponed until he was healed up.  On 2 December, he pled not guilty on a first-degree murder charge in his  hearing before San Bernardino County Superior Court judge Charles Allison.

On the 4th, the Chino Champion published an article in which Collie stated to authorities that he was a brother-in-law to Arthur Keene, but Keene answered that the marriage to his sister and ended in 1914.  While Ruby did marry again, to Gilbert Jara, that marriage also dissolved and she, notably, retook the Collie surname when she was counted in the 1940 census.

From the Bend (Oregon) Bulletin, 16 March 1932.
The rancher said that he was unaware of what had happened on his property until oil workers from the nearby Olinda oil field woke him up at his cabin, which was about a quarter-mile from the burning shack, but "obscured" from it, probably by hillsides in the narrow canyon.

It does seem strange, though, that Collie attended, nine months prior, the El Rodeo event at the Gaines ranch just a short distance away without Keene knowing that his former brother-in-law was in the area.

In any case, Collie was adjudged sane by a panel and ordered to trial on 4 January 1932.  A week later, on the 11th, he was found guilty for the Slater murder--the Orange County district attorney waited to see the outcome in this case before filing for one in the Walker slaying--and sentenced to be hung.  It was reported that the condemned man uttered "an almost inaudible expression of 'thank you'" when the judgment was rendered.

Collie's registration card at San Quentin State Prison, 12 January 1932.
Collie's court-appointed attorneys offered no defense, perhaps on his insistence, but, after the state rested, the jury took nearly 12 hours to return their verdict.  Because there was no recommendation for sentence from them, the judge was required by law to render a death sentence.

Collie was then sent up to San Quentin State Prison and it was not long before reports came out that he had gone mad over fear of his execution, which, ironically, was scheduled for April Fool's Day.  On 16 March, a jury in San Rafael near the prison found him insane, sparing him, for the time being, from the gallows.

Collie was transferred to a state mental hospital in Mendocino County and was there about a year, when the medical superintendent petitioned Governor Rolph to change Collie's sentence to life imprisonment, determining that the prisoner had "regained his sanity."

From the San Bernardino Sun, 30 July 1937.
San Bernardino County District Attorney Stanley Mussell, however, argued, based on conversations he had with Collie, that the insanity fit was an act to avoid execution and said that Collie told him as much, though also said at one point that he'd welcome a return to death row so that they could "get it over with."

Around the first of July 1933, Collie was back at San Quentin and the governor met with the chief justice of the state Supreme Court for advice on how to proceed with the matter of the death sentence.  While state law required a return to death row for men determined to have regained their sanity, the governor was careful about stating that he could not justify execution for an insane man.

Given this, it is not surprising that Rolph, on 16 January 1934, ruled that Collie would be spared the hangman's noose and had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment.   Interestingly, just the day before, on the 15th, Collie somehow got hold of a hacksaw and cut his way out of the Mendocino State Hospital, though he was quickly recaptured without incident.  An account in the Register noted the irony of the fact that Arthur Keene had only been recently adjudged insane by an Orange County Superior Court and sent to a mental hospital in Norwalk where he died three years later.

Collie's mug shot at Folsom Stte Prison, 19 August 1940.
Orange County, then, decided to try Collie for the murder of George Walker and, on 29 July 1937 he pled guilty for that crime.  Collie stated that there was a fight over spilled liquor as the men were on a drinking binge and that he grabbed a tree root to pummel Walker over the head.  He dragged the unconscious man into the abandoned shack and set it afire "and Walker burned to death," according to a San Bernardino Sun piece.  The paper also reported that "Collie smiled as he walked out of the courtroom, because he believed his plea of guilty had saved him from a sentence to be hanged."

Collie's listing in the Folsom Descriptive Register, 19 August 1940
Collie was returned to San Quentin with two life sentences to serve, though, in 1940, he was transferred to the state prison at Folsom.  He remained there quietly for sixteen years, until, suddenly, in late September 1956, he was back in the papers again.  Submitting his own handwritten writ of habeus corpus to the California Supreme Court, the 76-year old lifer wrote
I ask that the court set aside the commutation and that the death penalty be invoked to give me a more merciful and humane death by hanging, as provided by the original sentence . . . I am old, infirm, ready for death, and tired of this mockery of justice . . . I want freedom from this living death.
However, the court had previously stated that it had no authority to countermand Governor Rolph's 1934 order and, in this instance, returned Collie's writ without comment.  Three-and-a-half years later, on 31 March 1960, Collie finally died at Folsom, undoubtedly being, at 81 years of age, one of its oldest inmates.  He was interred at the Masonic Lawn Cemetery, just south of Sacramento's downtown.

From the Amarillo (Texas) Globe Times, 11 October 1956.
Canyons are often the place for all kinds of secret acts--lovers' rendezvous, testing out the limits of how fast a car can go, dumping unwanted trash and, on occasion, horrible crimes, among others.  With this latter, the Collie murder of George Walker 85 years ago stands out as one of the more unusual aspects of Carbon Canyon's fascinating history.

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