The Shame of Santa Rosa, California: Whiteness, and the Culture of Lynching

In early March, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors honored retiring Press Democrat reporter Gaye LeBaron for “chronicling the people, culture and history of Sonoma County.”

From 1959 to this year, Lebaron penned thousands of gossipy columns splashed with a bit of history, attesting to the old-fashioned goodness of local businesses, salt-of-the-earth ranchers, and police and sheriff’s deputies who can do no wrong.

A ProQuest search of LeBaron’s columns in the Press Democrat from 1994 to the present reveals hundreds of stories glorifying white men wielding badges, batons, guns, and in some instances, hanging nooses. There is not a mention of the killing of 13-year-old Andy Lopez on Oct. 22, 2013 by Deputy Sheriff Erick Gelhaus. LeBaron, 86, has also not reported on killings by Sonoma County law enforcers, a fact that she acknowledged in an interview with the Bohemian last week.

“You have to think about the times we were in. We managed to overlook so much,” LeBaron said. She agreed that the countywide rate of police killing has skyrocketed in tandem with 30 years of radical change in racial demographics, observing, “Everybody’s angry now. And I would be, too, if I were a minority.” Unfortunately, her empathy arrives a bit late.

In the 1980 census, Sonoma County registered as 96% “white” people. By 2021, the whiteness quotient plummeted to 62%, replaced mostly by the Latinx category. We note, emphatically, that “white” and “race” are sociopolitical constructs and not rooted in meaningful biological differences. In America, “whiteness” describes a social caste, not skin color.

Beginning in the 1990s, the county’s “non-white” categories rapidly increased, climbing toward a majority of the population. And not coincidentally, the rise in police killings mirrors the rise of the Latinx population, according to investigations by federal and local agencies.

In the history of Sonoma County, only one cop has been prosecuted for homicide, and he got off. In early February, a jury selected from registered voters voted to exonerate deputy sheriff Charles Blount, who, according to the coroner, bludgeoned, beat, terrified and murdered the unarmed, disoriented David Ward in 2019. In her press columns, Lebaron did not acknowledge the existence of this extra-judicial execution or police lynching of Ward. She has, however, written scores of newspaper columns and a book featuring tales about community-supported lynchings, typified as “pioneers” handing out “rough frontier justice.”

One of her most oft-repeated stories revolves around the 1920 lynching in Santa Rosa of three prisoners by a vigilante force of cops and citizens.

In the Dec. 1, 1985 Press Democrat, LeBaron regaled readers with a story about three murder suspects who were hustled out of the Santa Rosa jail around midnight and hanged in a cemetery on Dec. 10, 1920.

On that cold morning, 65 years prior, huge, bold, black Press Democrat headlines had proclaimed, STATE IS FAIRLY WILD OVER GANG LYNCHING, ACCLAIM MEMBERS OF THE MOB TO BE HEROES, TWO VICTIMS CRY FOR MERCY, BOYD UTTERS GROAN. Such was the hunger for this salacious news that the Press Democrat printed extras. Capturing eyeballs, the front page featured a photograph of the dead men hanging limply, necks horribly askew, clothed only in soiled long underwear.

In 1985, the Press Democrat republished the macabre photograph to complement LeBaron’s recounting of the deed. Within days, a remarkable confession by an octogenarian member of the lynching vigilantes led to a series of ethical missteps, during which LeBaron and her editors and publishers may have become “accomplices after the fact” to the crime of murder, according to California statutes and an attorney at a journalism ethics organization.

A hanging tale

Lebaron’s retelling of the lynching of George Boyd, Terry Fitts and “Spanish Charley” Valento was not in the least bit sympathetic toward the dead men, who appear to have been rather vicious criminals, members of the Howard Street gang in San Francisco, who reportedly raped two women the day before Thanksgiving.

Pursued by big city lawmen, the trio ended up in a house eating soup in Santa Rosa, where, on Sunday, Dec. 4, they were cornered by Sonoma County Sheriff James Petray. Petray was portrayed by LeBaron as “enormously popular among the citizens of the county” – a category which seemingly did not include Blacks, Chinese, Mexicans and Indians or lower caste whites who may have held more jaundiced views. According to LeBaron, Petray was “a role model for the young people, an honest cop and an ideal family man.” She failed to mention that Petray had himself spent three years on the lam, sought for the 1894 killing of an elderly man, whom he admitted to battering. At trial, a jury of his peers let Petray off after deliberating for three minutes, according to local historian Jeff Elliot, who dives well and deep into contemporaneous accounts of the 1920 lynching in his online narrative, There Will Be Prices Paid. 

Boyd shot Petray and two of his deputies dead on the spot. The three men rushed out the back door into the hands of armed deputies who incarcerated them in the county jail, downtown. On Friday, a troop of armed, masked men stormed the jailhouse, liberated cell keys from deputies and hogtied the three prisoners, stuffing their mouths with rags, and looping nooses over their heads. Within minutes, the hapless trio were trucked to the cemetery. The hanging ropes were hoisted over the limb of a locust tree as a caravan of car headlights illuminated the scene. The gaggle of self-appointed executioners, who, according to contemporaneous newspaper reports, included San Francisco lawmen, jerked on the ropes, jeering obscenities.

In December 1985 LeBaron wrote, “The newspaper headlines called them ‘heroes,’ and before noon on the same day, the Grand Jury returned a verdict of ‘death by persons unknown.’”

Pieces of the hanging ropes and chunks of the tree were passed down as family heirlooms.

On Dec. 8,  LeBaron followed-up with a scoop. She reported that “an anonymous member of the lynching party, who was in his early 20s when he joined the group,” had visited her office and confessed to the crime, “because his conscience told him, not that the act was wrong, but that history should be made accurate.”

Takeaways were that the militarily disciplined lynch mob was organized by a Healdsburg businessman called the “Captain,” who was later elected county coroner. (LeBaron declined to disclose his name at the time and in her interview with the Bohemian last week.) The vigilantes had enjoyed enthusiastic inside help from jailhouse deputies. LeBaron did not print the identity of the confessed killer, who, because there is no statute of limitations on murder, was liable to be arrested for the triple homicide.

The unrepentent confession unleashed a flood of correspondence from relatives of men who were known by their families to have been part of the lynching gang. The letters and reporter notes are archived at the Gaye LeBaron Collection housed at Sonoma State University. In January 1986, LeBaron published another follow up, focused on whether the hanging tree was perhaps an oak and not a locust. Lost in the newsprint was any real consideration of why it is not okay to cheer for lynchings. A San Francisco history magazine observed, “The entire episode became a curious source of civic pride.”

LeBaron says that she took notes for her original story about the anonymous vigilante without tape recording him, so as “not to spook him.” But four years later, on Aug. 29, 1989, she tape recorded a repeat interview with the now-90-year-old vigilante in Healdsburg. He reiterated what he had previously told her, adding names and details.

LeBaron promised not to reveal the vigilante’s identity until 10 years after his death, and she “locked the tape recording in the vault of the Sonoma County Library.” As it turned out, Clarence H. “Barney” Barnard lived to be 108, dying in 2008. Within days of his demise, LeBaron outed him as the lyncher in the Press Democrat – “with his daughter’s permission,” she says.

In 2008, Lebaron praised the late Barnard as “the last of a generation of north country pioneers … guardian of an 88-year-old secret involving frontier justice.” Bernard had said that the lynching was “the right thing … I just can’t believe it was wrong. … Nobody spoke against it. Ninety-five percent of the people were in favor after it happened.”

In a February 2015 column, LeBaron remarked on, “the paternalism that ruled in the 19th and 20th centuries … Obviously, the system wasn’t perfect. But it seemed to work for as long as the county and towns were run by community leaders who were, in general, well respected and well educated by the standard of the times. … The dispatch with which this landmark event [the triple lynching] was concluded may be surprising in an era when legal matters take months, even years, to resolve. It did not, of course, go away. A photo of the men hanging from the tree became an object of curiosity all over California and earned Santa Rosa a reputation as a tough frontier town.”

In fact, the obscene photograph, festooned with pieces of the nooses, was the centerpiece of a display in the Sheriff’s Office created shortly after the lynching, according to historical newspaper reports. By 1949, the ropey loops had been moved to the Freemason’s Scottish Rite Temple. Today, the nooses reside at the Museum of Sonoma County.

A photograph, festooned with pieces of the nooses, was the centerpiece of a display in the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office created shortly after the lynching, according to historical newspaper reports. Photo courtesy of Sonoma County Library.

The Bernard tape
It is worth diving into the transcript of Bernard’s tape recording, including the parts of his testimony that LeBaron did not publish in her lynching columns.

Barnard said the vigilantes drilled for three nights preparing the armed assault on the jail house. He named names. He carried a rifle. The men wore bandanas and covered license plates with mud. The jail deputies gave them the cell keys without any resistance, “They was as much in favor of it being done as we were,” he said.

Barnard bragged about terrorizing Valento, who was a dark-skinned man of Latino descent, saying, “he just reared back against the bars and on the side. His eyes big as saucers, he was just froze.”

And now in the transcript of the tape comes this curious passage: “Everything was so well organized, everything went smooth … the first group to go in got the keys from the sheriff, the acting sheriff, Erick Gelhaus.”

Erick Gelhaus is the name of the deputy who killed Andy Lopez. When I pointed this out to Lynn Prime, the curator of the LeBaron Collection at Sonoma State, she was unable to explain the coincidence. Listening to the hissy tape, the name is unclear, but it was probably “jail house.” Perhaps the transcriber had a sense of the uncanny. In any case, news reports that listed the names of the deputies on jail duty that night did not include a “Gelhaus.” The LeBaron Collection contains a letter from a woman stating that her father, Ray Lattin, was the deputy who gladly handed over the keys to the vigilantes.

Barnard eagerly helped with the hanging, “You have to drag him off the ground, see. It takes several men to drag a man up. I know. I helped pull on one of the ropes and it was quite a job to get him off the ground. And it took him quite a while to asphyxiate, by not breaking his neck,” he said.

LeBaron asked Barnard if he and the others were afraid they would be arrested. He said, no, “it worked out so nice.” Barnard explained that the vigilantes were afraid that the court trial would “be a long drawn out deal. Look how it is now. Personally, I think the whole judicial system has fell apart, you know. … My grandparents come across the plains, and that’s the way it was. We shot [unintelligible] ourselves, and we had [to kill], and that’s the way they operated in them days, and if it hadn’t have, why, you know, there would be no law at all.”

LeBaron: Did your parents know you went? That you were involved in this?

Barnard: Absolutely.

LeBaron: Were you the only one in your family?

Barnard: No.

LeBaron: There were others?

Barnard: My Dad, yeah.

LeBaron: Thank you.

[End of transcript]
Is hiding a crime a crime?

According to the California Penal Code, Section 32: “Every person who, after a felony has been committed, harbors, conceals or aids a principal in such felony, with the intent that said principal may avoid or escape from arrest, trial, conviction or punishment, having knowledge that said principal has committed such felony or has been charged with such felony or convicted thereof, is an accessory to such felony.” The charge of “accessory after the fact” is punishable by a jail sentence of up to three years and a $5,000 fine.

I asked LeBaron why she had not turned Barnard over to law enforcement. She said that a  lawyer for the New York Times, which owned the Press Democrat, told her to go ahead with the story since a 86-year-old man was not likely to be prosecuted for a 65-year-old crime of that nature. And that was before she made a tape recording of the confession.

Since 1980, the California Constitution has shielded journalists who are subpoenaed by law enforcement to turn over unpublished information. And that is generally believed to be a social good as it protects the identity of whistleblowers and confidential sources and witnesses to crimes and misbehaviors by governments and corporations.

But does the shield law allow a reporter to conceal evidential knowledge of a heinous crime such as murder? The Bohemian reached out to attorney David Snyder of the First Amendment Coalition, a public interest organization created “to protect and promote freedom of expression and the people’s right to know.”

Snyder said there is no California law exempting a reporter from the duty to report knowledge of a crime to law enforcement. He opined, however, that  the law would likely shield a reporter from producing evidence of a crime if subpoenaed by law enforcement. Snyder mused, “When a reporter stumbles across a crime, there is nothing keeping her from reporting it to law enforcement. But I don’t see how a journalist could be prosecuted for not reporting the information, when a district attorney couldn’t compel that information.

“On the other hand, there’s a journalism ethics question. Is it ethical to not report it when you have evidence of a crime? And I think the answer to that is ‘no’ in many, but not all, circumstances.”

Snyder suggested that the New York Times was not ethically compelled to volunteer Daniel Ellsberg’s name to the FBI when he gave reporters top secret files purloined from the RAND Corporation, known as the Pentagon Papers.

But LeBaron and the owners of the Press Democrat were not protecting a whistleblower producing incriminating evidence of governmental wrongdoings. Rather, they decided to hide the identity of a man who had confessed to participating in three brutal homicides. LeBaron and her editors could have told Barnard, “Stop talking! If you are confessing to a crime, we are obligated to report it.” But, they chose instead to commercialize the sensational confession, and county law enforcers did nothing in response after the story was published.

LeBaron explained, “If there was a chance the district attorney would have come after Barney, I would not have written the story.” But she still would have known about the murders. Asked what she would do now if someone came into her office and confessed to a murder, she said, “I would call the authorities.” Press Democrat editor Rick Green did not respond to a query about the paper’s policy on granting anonymity in stories about a confessed murderer.
A culture of lynching

LeBaron’s account of the 1920 lynching is featured on the History page of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s website. And much of that official “history” is sourced from LeBaron’s writings, echoing her attitude that in retrospect, a series of county lynchings were culturally understandable acts of justice.

In 1854, vigilantes led by “pioneer” James Bennet hanged a man named Ritchie for supposedly rustling mules. During the 1850s, at least one “squatter” was lynched at Bodega Ranch. In 1876, “nightriders” broke into county jail and hanged murder suspect, Charles Henley.

Of note, in 1935, deputies watched 200 vigilantes tar and feather “communist reds.” During the 1960s, having to deal militantly with labor organizers, “hippies” and antiwar demonstrators made the county “a busy place to work” for deputies.

In 1990, the sheriff created the Gang Team, which, notably, included Erick Gelhaus. The website fails to mention that Gelhaus fired eight shots into the child, Lopez, nor does it breathe a word about any of the many homicides committed by deputies empowered by the prerogatives of whiteness to terrorize and kill members of disempowered groups.

A local historian has created a spreadsheet of 115 deaths attributed to Sonoma County police forces since 1989. Of the mostly male victims, 45 were killed by police gunshot; 12 by police beatings; seven by “suicide” during law enforcement actions; six during police car chases; and 45 while in sheriff’s custody. Since 2020, the names of the dead are Ricky Estrada, Douglas Thoreson, Salvador Jimenez, Michael Webber, Sean Bell, Donald Miller, Amber Marcotte, Gabriel Wibier, Jordan Pas and Benjamin Vega.

In May 2000, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights investigated Sonoma County, reporting, “The committee is appalled at the number of deadly incidents, justified or not, that have occurred within 25 months. … law enforcement officers shot and killed eight citizens … Demographically, Sonoma County is undergoing dramatic change which affects its agrarian, small town atmosphere. In addition, minority populations have increased…. The committee found a highly polarized and charged atmosphere in respect to community-police relations.”

In 2018, the newly-formed Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach (IOLERO) reported that the Sheriff’s work force was 78 % self-described “white.” It is now about 72 % white, with a sudden influx of  Latinx employees. But all is not fraternal inside the department. IOLERO’s report for 2021 recommends that the Sheriff “should consider adopting a policy disavowing white supremacy and extremism and prohibiting employee speech and association that promotes racist or extremist ideology.”

This piece first appeared in The Bohemian.