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Sunday, September 03, 2000

Rum-runners get caught in the delta

Jerry Bowen

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Prohibition brought crime to the area

For decades, various temperance societies throughout the United States worked to educate the public about the “evils of drink,” with various degrees of success.

Vacaville declared itself a “dry town” in 1909, although it soon became obvious that it was in name only.

The great experiment to impose moral standards by law resulted in the ratification of the Prohibition Amendment on Jan. 29, 1919. Criminals loved it and soon violence and crime became commonplace in many of America’s big cities.

In early 1923, newly elected Solano County District Attorney, Brantley W. Dobbins, gathered the county’s law enforcement officers together and asked that stringent measures be taken to enforce the Wright Act. Special stress was laid on the enforcement and elimination of constant violations which he declared flourished in the county.

Stringent measures to stamp out the evil were discussed and no mercy was to be shown to those apprehended for such violations.

While the big cities may have been the focus of many crimes generated by Prohibition, small communities found they were not immune. And so it was on Feb. 16, 1928, when Deputy Sheriff Milton Talbert found himself in the middle of a not-unexpected situation.

The early morning air held a welcome crispness for Milton as he made his rounds on the secluded north levee of Montezuma Slough near Birds Landing. The last wisps of fog were burning off as he spotted the Hawk, a boat unknown to him, in the distance. He became suspicious as one of the three crewman carelessly removed a cartridge belt and holster, tossing them down the ship’s companionway. Acting on his instincts, he retraced his steps to Birds Landing, quickly swore in Emery Olsen as a deputy, and returned to the scene.

As they watched, a smaller boat, the Elma, pulled alongside the Hawk and crewmen began transferring bulky sacks of cargo. The sound of bottles clinking together pierced the still air.

Talbert’s thoughts probably drifted back to all the trouble since the start of Prohibition back in 1920.

“Hmmm,” he may have thought, “I’ll just bet that’s a rum-runner!”

Talbert stationed Deputy Olsen in a windmill to keep watch and, moving as fast as his bulky frame would allow, he quickly returned to Birds Landing. Grabbing the telephone, he notified Sheriff Jack Thornton what he had observed. Thornton, in turn, phoned William Paget of the Customs House in San Francisco.

Talbert knew he’d need more help because it would take the better part of the day for the customs agents to arrive from San Francisco. Returning to town, he quickly formed a posse of Birds Landing residents, Verne Hansen, Oscar and Sidney Olsen and Romeo Yolo, and then headed back to pick up Emery Olsen. They arrived just as the Elma pulled away and headed across the bay toward Pittsburg.

When confronted by the posse at about 3 p.m., the rum-runners tried to bribe Talbert. Failing that, the crew of the Hawk knew they couldn’t escape, so they set fire to the boat in an attempt to destroy the evidence. Acting quickly, the posse shot the bow full of holes and used an ax to chop a hole in the stern, By 4 p.m., the Hawk had slowly settled to the bottom in shallow water, extinguishing the fire.

Finally, Deputy Sheriffs Fritz Emigh and Lou Kerner arrived from Rio Vista and took the crew, George Hart, J. Kirby Castle and J. R. Yglesias, to the Fairfield jail for booking.

The lawmen then began to dive in the shallow water to bring up evidence. They gathered 113 sacks of scotch, 16 sacks of gin and 17 sacks of champagne, which were loaded on a federal truck the next morning.

The Elma was later captured at Pittsburg.

On Sept. 17, 1928, a jury trial of the crew was conducted in Sacramento. Hart, Castle and Yglesias were found guilty, fined $1,000 each and given six months in the county jail at Fairfield.

A tug from Rio Vista raised the Hawk. It was patched up and towed to San Francisco where it was sold at auction by federal authorities. About 10 months later it was again captured running liquor off the coast of Santa Barbara. Her name had been changed to Black Gold.

On March 1, 1928, the Solano Republican carried an item that disclosed the owners of the Hawk as Frank Bettoni and Paul Rubio Pane. Frank Bettoni’s bullet-ridden body was found a week later in San Mateo County.

Investigators faced a curtain of silence about Frank Bettoni’s murder and then heard rumblings of an ugly rumor. Dissension among the owners of the rum boats Hawk and Elma and threats of further murders were reported along the liquor channels of the underworld, according to San Francisco officers.

Bettoni had a $920 interest in the Elma, which had been operating in conjunction with the Hawk, owned by Paul Rubio Pane. He was supposed to have assisted Pane in several ventures.

For some years there had been quarreling in the gang over the repudiation of certain debts and other money matters. Misfortune increased the tension and when the Elma was seized by federal officials, threats crystallized into violence.

Prohibition officers admitted they had heard talk of reprisals for the death of Bettoni and that the discovery of his body could lead to other gang shootings.

Police detectives seeking to trace Bettoni’s movements just prior to his death had only slight success.

San Mateo county authorities found equal difficulty in unearthing clues to the murder. Numerous men known to have been associates of Bettoni were interviewed, but threw no light on the mystery.

An inquest was held and a verdict of “murder by assailants unknown” was returned by the jury.

A study in 1930 by the Wickersham Commission showed that Prohibition did little to impose moral standards by law and more to increase crime. It was repealed in 1933.