The Call Box: Justice Delayed

By Ed Meckle, Retired LAPD

When someone mentions the 1950’s we tend to think of a more innocent time, a peaceful and happier period.

Take 1957 for example: Ike was president, The Bridge on the River Kwai won the Academy Awards best picture, the Milwaukee Braves won their first ever World Series, beating the N.Y. Yankees 4 games to 3. The Super Bowl was ten years in the future, the Russians gave us Sputnik, the National Guard enforced school integration in Little Rock, Gunsmoke was number one on TV with Danny Thomas second. Five of the top ten were westerns. Nobody had ever heard of Viet Nam.

And 128 law enforcement officers died in the line of duty. 13or 10% were in California.

This the story of two of them.

The city of El Segundo is south and west of LA. A beach community approximately 5.46 square miles, today about 17,000 residents. The name Segundo is Spanish for second as the city is home to the second Standard Oil Refinery Tank farm.

On a hot summer night, Monday July 22 at 1:30 A.M., El Segundo Patrol Officers Richard Phillips, 28, with 2 years’ service and Milton Curtis, 25, 2 months out of the academy stopped a 1949 Ford for running a red light at Sepulveda and Rosecrans. 

Phillips exited the police vehicle while Curtis remained seated. At that time a second patrol unit, Officers Charles Porter and James Gilbert slowed to observe. Phillips gave the “ok” signal and they moved on.

A few moments later the motorist produced a 9 shot Harrington and Richardson .22 revolver and shot each officer three times.

Harrington & Richardson

Curtis died instantly. Phillips, considered the best shot on the department, though mortally wounded, emptied his 6-shot revolver at the fleeing vehicle. He put out a help call bringing Porter and Gilbert first to the scene.

Phillips was transported to a local hospital where he succumbed to his wounds as police units from surrounding communities responded and hundreds of officers took up the search.

The unoccupied car was found four blocks away. One item of note was that three of Phillips’ rounds struck the vehicle but only two were found, leading detectives to believe the missing round struck the suspect.

El Segundo PD Officer Richard Phillips 
EOW July 22, 1957

Off-duty sheriff’s deputies from Firestone Station arrived and set up a perimeter. The search continued throughout the night and the day intothe next night. He was gone. 

El Segundo PD Officer Milton Curtis
EOW July 22, 1957

What Phillips and Curtis had no way of knowing was that an hour or so prior to the stop the shooter had approached two teen aged couples in the “Lovers Lane” area in the small neighboring community of Hawthorne. Brandishing a revolver, he robbed the group, forced them to strip, bound them with adhesive tape and raped one of the girls, before stealing their ‘49Ford. 

What Phillips and Curtis had no way of knowing was that an hour or so prior to the stop the shooter had approached two teen aged couples in the “Lovers Lane” area in the small neighboring community of Hawthorne. Brandishing a revolver, he robbed the group, forced them to strip, bound them with adhesive tape and raped one of the girls, before stealing their ‘49Ford. 

They later provided descriptions to profile the shooter indicating he had spent a lot of time with them, was very polite and had a southern accent. 

The El Segundo traffic stop was only a short time after the robbery/rape and the victims had not yet freed themselves. The traffic stop turned out to be anything but routine.

Two partial prints (both left thumb) were obtained from the Ford, however this was 1957 and unless they had something to compare them to, they had nothing. L.A. Sheriff’s Homicide took over and the agency with an excellent reputation for closing cases began what was to become a decades long search.

THE HUNT

Many, many interviews, suspects printed, interrogated and released. They chased tips, leads and hunches, all to no avail. Finally, it went “cold” but they did not quit. You do not walk away from this.

In those days’ DNA stood for “does not apply.” Fingerprint searches were done by hand; there were no computers. And still they carried on.

FBI fingerprint analysis
 

THE FIRST BREAK

In September 1960, just a little over three years after the murders, a resident of 33rd Street in neighboring Manhattan Beach found a rusted .22 revolver in his backyard along with a woman’s watch. In poor condition when tested for ballistics, the gun could only be listed as consistent with the murder weapon. The find was about one mile from where the Ford was located. It was assumed the suspect threw them as he ran. The watches (a search turned up number two) were identified as belonging to the robbery victims.

Now, finally, the detectives had a physical piece of evidence. Something tangible, something to look at, something to hold and better yet something with a serial number.

The Harrington & Richardson model gun had been purchased at a Sears store in Shreveport, Louisiana in June, one month beforethe shooting. The clerk Billy Gene Clark, who was 18 at the time of the sale, was found and interviewed. He remembered the transaction and stated the buyer wanted the cheapest model available $29.95 for “protection.” He liked the composite drawing (from the robbery victims) and provided the paperwork wherein the buyer had signed as G.D. WILSON. Checking other business in the area they found a GEORGE D. WILSON had spent the night at the YMCA. The handwriting looked similar to the Sears receipt. 

Over the next few years detectives found and cleared every George D. Wilson in the United States.

What looked like a closer was now just another tempting clue gone cold.

Throughout the 1960’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s a succession of detectives plodded on, following leads, tips and just plain hunches. Nothing. During this period over 1000 people were fingerprinted and eliminated and in excess of 2100 “looked at” and cleared.

In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks the FBI revised their fingerprint data base to include thousands of prints from various departments of unsolved crimes, however the base went only to 1980. Not 1957.

THE END GAME

In September 2002 (45 years after the shooting), LASO Homicide Detectives Kevin Lowe and Dan Macelderry who were then responsible for the file took a call from a woman who had overheard a man bragging he was the shooter. His prints were obtained, and he was eliminated. As they were reviewing the file they decided to have the partial prints digitally enhanced using technology not previously available. The prints were then entered into the FBI data base and within minutes—they had a hit!

I can only imagine what those detectives felt at that moment.

In 1956, Gerald Mason age 22, had been arrested and printed for burglary charges in Columbia, South Carolina. Released in 1957, he hitchhiked to California. The gun purchase in Louisiana and the southern accent described by the robbery/rape victims now made sense.

The prints were a gift from heaven, but the detectives knew the D.A.would want more. Over the next four months samples of his handwriting were obtained and proved a match. His 1956 mug shot was ID by the victims, the second radio car (Porter and Gilbert) who drove by just before the shooting and the clerk at Sears.

They built their case slowly and meticulously and in late January 2003, Mason was placed under surveillance for a full week. On January 30, 2003, a phalanx of officers descended on Mr. Mason and his worst nightmare became reality.

When he fled the scene of the shooting, he made his way home to South Carolina where he lived a quiet life never coming to the attention of the authorities. Not so much as a parking ticket. He became a successful businessman owning a string of gas stations before his retirement. He was living the good life, husband, father, grandfather, respected member of the community. Now his home was filled with police officers and when El Segundo was mentioned, he stated, “You are here for that?”

His back still bore the scar of Phillips bullet which had marked him for ID so many years ago.

When confronted about the rape/robbery he stated he was drunk and did not want to remember it. He admitted the shooting, “I had to get thembefore they got me.”

Mason’s friends and relatives were convinced the police had the wrong man. Don’t we always?

He pleaded guilty to two counts of murder on March 24, less than two months after his arrest. He was sentenced to two consecutive life terms, to be served in a South Carolina Prison as part of the plea deal.

He died on January 22, 2017, 4 days before his 83rd birthday.

In 1957 I was a brand-new officer working a radio car and learning how to be a policeman. I carried the wanted notice for the killer until it fell apart.

Over the years I sometimes wondered when and how it would besolved. A fluke and some luck, no doubt. How about both? A five and dime burglary puts his prints on file. A loud mouth in California boasts of being the shooter which brings out the file which updates the prints which gets the hit. Life can be capricious as we know.

This column/blog is written for several different reasons. For those of you too young to remember this, those who knew some but not all and to make sure we don’t forget.

When someone mentions the 1950's we tend to think of a more innocent time, a peaceful and happier period.

This is also dedicated to those brave men and women who wear or have worn the badge while doing a thankless task for a sometimes unknowing and uncaring public.

Those who have never, helped, or bled or cried for a stranger do not have the faintest clue what it is like to be a police officer.

GOD BLESS AMERICA and Semper Fi  

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4 thoughts on “The Call Box: Justice Delayed

  1. Ed, what a great report and follow up. Few of us would have remembered. I was a student at Lynwood High School nearby when this occurred. It was on my mind, and that of my classmates, and I remember my parents frustration thinking this villain got away with this horrid murder of two fine officers.
    My training Officers at University in 1963 talked about this shooting in great detail, hoping we would locate this murderer.
    Stan Nelson “11331

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, what a great tribute to the dedication of those investigators. I’m really glad that this one had a happy ending. So many don’t.Solving a cold case is always problematic, but with the advancements in technology I’m hopeful that more of these crimes will be cleared. You should write a book about this one.

    Liked by 1 person

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