A bright future was dawning in the West as the 1880s were winding down. Rapid growth in California was spreading from Los Angeles towards the south. Something big was about to happen to the 782 square miles of flat farmland, rolling hills and brush-covered mountains that were to become Orange County.
By 1889 there were several established town, hundreds of productive farms and a growing political unrest. The seat of county government, located in downtown Los Angeles, was too far away, and to the area’s residents, unmindful of the needs of its southern populace. It was time to break away.
In a move that would spark controversy and chart the course of history, Assemblyman E. E. Edwards introduced a bill to the California legislature on January 4, 1889, calling for the division of Los Angeles County, and the creation of new county from the southern portion. The bill was approved by both houses of the legislature and signed by Governor Robert Waterman on March 11, 1889. So the 782 square miles was separated from Los Angeles County. Although oranges were not yet a major crop in the area, they promised to be, so the name of Orange was thought to be appropriate for a fledgling settlement that was promoting itself as an agricultural paradise.
The new County of Orange began operation on August 1, 1889. Among the new leaders was Richard T. Harris, a popular Westminster businessman, who at the age of thirty became Orange County’s first sheriff.
Richard T. Harris was born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1859, and moved to California with his English parents in 1860 to join the gold rush. Moving from place to place, the Harris family finally settled in Garden Grove in 1876 to farm. Richard later opened a general store in Westminster and in 1888, at the age of twenty-nine, married Maria S. Larter.
Richard Harris was known as an entrepreneur who made a success of whatever he tackled. He became an early supporter of the new county and although he had no experience in law enforcement, ran for sheriff on the Republican ticket.
Harris was provided with a staff of one, Deputy James Buckley, and a budget of $1,200 a year, which not only covered routine expenses, but also had to be stretched to buy food for occupants of the county jail. His office was tucked away in leased space at 302½ East Fourth Street in Santa Ana. He did not wear a uniform, but did carry a firearm-unfortunately; no one taught him how to use it. Soon after taking office, he dropped the pistol and accidentally shot himself in the right leg.
Harris’s county jail was rented space in the basement of Joseph Hilt-Brunner’s store, located on the south side of East Fourth Street, between Main and Bush Streets in Santa Ana. “Brunner’s Basement,” as it was euphemistically called, housed some interesting characters. The first was an alleged horse thief, who was acquitted, and the second was a women charged with attempted obstruction of a train.
Modesta Avila, who has the distinction of being the first felon convicted in the new County of Orange, was a young woman from San Juan Capistrano, described by some as a “dark eyed beauty” who was not unknown in Santa Ana. Avila was tired of fighting with the California Central Railroad for money she felt was owed for right-of-way through her mother’s land north of the Capistrano Depot, and highly irritated because the noisy train disrupted her sleep and kept her chickens from laying eggs. She soon decided to fight the railroad her own way. Stringing a barricade across the tracks, which some accounts say was her weekly wash; she attempted to halt the train. Unfortunately, Avila was caught by the railroad agent, the barricade was removed, and she was taken to Santa Ana to stand trial in Judge J.W. Towner’s courtroom.
She was put in the care of Deputy James Buckley, then serving as jailor, who had an overcrowding problem. The jail facilities were not designed to accommodate both male and female prisoners, and there were vagrants occupying the cells. On October 15, 1889, Avila’s trial began and quickly ended in a hung jury. She was retried the same month, found guilty, and sentenced to three years in San Quentin Prison.
Her conviction was appealed to the Supreme Court in February 1890 on the grounds that the county wasn’t official when the crime was committed, but the conviction was upheld. Modesta Avila died in September 1891, after serving two years of her sentence.
Avila’s short stay in Brunner’s Basement pointed out a need for a larger facility. In November 1889, just three months after the birth of the bounty, the Board of Supervisors authorized the construction of a three-cell board and brick jail on the east side of Sycamore between Second and Third Streets in Santa Ana. In February 1890 the construction contract was awarded and on May 26, 1890, the keys to the new jail were turned over to Sheriff Harris. The “little brick jail,” complete with wire grating over the windows and ventilation in the ceiling, cost $4,000.
In November 1890, Theo Lacy was elected to his first two-year term as sheriff. Lacy took office January 1, 1891, and one of his first official acts was to ask for a deputy at a cost of $50 per month. The sheriff’s own salary at that time was about $290 per month.
The sheriff was also permitted to keep, in addition to his salary, the fees for:
Serving a summons: One dollar Bonding, undertaking: Fifty cents Copies of writ: Fifteen cents Serving notice: Fifty cents Arresting: Two dollars Delivering property: $1.50 Keeper’s fees: Three dollars per day Advertising goods: One dollar Attendance at court: Three dollars Summoning jury: Three dollars Traveling: Twenty-five cents per mile Executions of judgment: Twenty dollars
In 1891 the sheriff was told to sentence vagrants to short terms because the county had the responsibility of feeding them. He was also told to assign them work and cut their rations to bread and water when they were not working. A chain gang was set up and prisoners were given daily work projects, such as digging ditches, maintaining grounds and breaking rocks.
In addition to jail duties, chasing thieves and vagrants, accompanying the insane to hospitals and investigation an occasional shooting, the sheriff’s time was spent transporting prisoners, reviewing and distributing “wanted” notices, rounding jurors, and conducting the sale of property to pay debts. While the sheriff was legally empowered to carry out sentences of death, there was no evidence that any official executions took place in Orange County. One death sentence was carried out by a mob, however, and it occurred during Lacy’s term. It was the lynching of Francisco Torres, reputed to be the last such act in California’s history.
On July 31, 1892, Francisco Torres, an employee of the Modjeska Ranch, had an argument with ranch foreman William McKelvey. McKelvey had deducted a $2.50 poll tax from Torres’ pay in accordance with a county ordinance adopted by the Board of Supervisors in January 1891 to obtain money for roads. Torres did not understand the reason for the pay shortage.
McKelvey was last seen at sunrise going toward the stable, while Torres headed for the corral with a milking pail. After finishing the milking, Torres went to a nearby sycamore grove, cut a makeshift club, and confronted McKelvey in the stable. Once inside he dropped it, exchanged it for a sturdier pick handle, and committed the murder. A woman employed at the ranch found McKelvey face down with two gashes on his head and a knife wound in the chest. McKelvey’s body was taken to Santa Ana where an inquest was held. Torres was then formally charged with the murder and a manhunt ensued.
A reward was offered, but Torres had seemingly disappeared without a trace. A week later Sheriff Lacy received a telegram from the sheriff of San Diego County informing him that Torres had been captured near Mesa Grande. Lacy went at once and took Torres in his custody. Upon his return to town, Lacy drove his team of horses slowly down Fourth Street, his prisoner in plain view, so everyone in town saw that Torres had been captured.
Torres was put in jail and extra deputies were assigned to guard him at night. McKelvey had been a popular man in Santa Ana and had many friends. Torres, who had admitted to the killing, pleaded self-defense, and said he and McKelvey had been fighting. Sensing the escalating anger of the crowd, Louis Mendelson of San Juan Capistrano, Torres’ attorney, asked for a change of venue, which was taken under advisement.
On the evening of August 20, 1892, the sheriff and his chief deputy visited the jail at about 10 o’clock. Everything was all right. At midnight the city of Santa Ana’s night watchman stopped by and noted that everything was peaceful. At 1 a.m., Robert Cogburn, the only deputy on duty, heard voices and rose from his bed. Someone asked him to open the door, but when he refused, a sledgehammer splintered the door and a mob of masked men burst through. Cogburn was ordered to hand over the cell keys, and although he heard Torres shrieking, surrendered the keys. The mob dragged Torres from his cell and carried him outside. The group of men moved toward Fourth Street and when Deputy Cogburn started to follow, he was ordered to stay in the jail. The mob took Torres to a pole at Fourth and Sycamore and hanged him.
In July 1892 thieves dug their way out of jail with a jackknife and a bucket bail, taking all the jail’s blankets with them. Sheriff Lacy and a posse pursued them and caught one in Santiago Canyon, tracing the other to Los Angeles. Despite his speedy capture of the criminals, Lacy had to endure chastisement from the press for the escape and theft.
The following year two men broke into a local blacksmith’s shop, stole tools, and used them to break into the jail to free about five vagrants. The rescuers and the vagrants were captured this time, but one escaped again. Not long after that, a group of prisoners used bars removed from a furnace, a knife and two forks to dig out of the jail. Sometimes the same prisoners escaped more than once. So many jailbreaks were occurring that the Board of Supervisors decided a new jail was a definite priority.