Bloody Christmas of 1951

Bloody Christmas of 1951

I didn't come up with that sweet, catchy title. The local media did after the Latino community demanded an investigation when roughly 50 LAPD officers savagely beat seven young men on Christmas. Not a whole lot has changed in over six decades when you remember that the Orange County DA still hasn't decided on charges for Kevin Ferguson, the off duty LAPD officer placed on desk duty after attempting to drag a 13-year-old boy into his Anaheim home and firing his gun in front of dozens of vertical-video recording children. It's been eight months, guys. So, that story, plus all of the other nationally publicized police beatings and shootings that make it to the news. The Kevin Ferguson incident is just hyper-local to me and draws ire.

So, hearken back to 1951. The good ol' days of smoky corporate offices, having whisky in your desk drawer, beating your wife for burning dinner, and clutching your pearls when you see minorities. It's Christmas Eve and someone has to be on duty. Los Angeles Police Department officers Julius Trojanowski and Nelson Brownson are dispatched to the Showboat Bar on Riverside Drive to investigate a report of minors drinking. (Tangent: The Showboat Bar at 1993 Riverside Dr. no longer exists and the property has been replaced by the Guatemalan Consulate) The initial December 26th Los Angeles Times article that neglects to mention the events of the 25th, describes the Christmas Eve events as thus:

Officers Julius L. Trojanowksi and Nelson L. Brownson went to the cafe where the proprietor reported he was having difficulty getting a group of young men to leave. When the officers told the group to leave, one of them said, 'We outnumber you, so what are you going to about it?'

Then the group reportedly jumped the officers. During the melee, Trojanowski's sap was wrested from him and he was beaten severely about the face and head. Brownson had a thumb fractured. After beating the officers, the group fled in an automobile. Trojanowski noted the license number. While he and Brownson were being treated at Georgia Street Receiving Hospital, other officers went to 2850 Glen Eden St., where they arrested Leo Rodella [sic], 21.

Also quickly rounded up were Jack Wilson, 21... his brother, Billy, 22, Ray Marquez, 22,... Manuel Hernandez, 22,... and Eddie Nora, 23... All were booked at the City Jail on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon. Later, when he returned home, Rodella's [sic] brother Danny, 23, also was arrested. He was booked in the prison ward of the General Hospital.”

Please deposit your rose-tinted glasses while exiting the theater.

The LAPD desperately tried to keep this story out of the news and, of course, everyone tried to collaborate on a fairy tale of innocence. Sprinkle a little crack, so to speak. Chief William Parker did institute some reform of the department, but this is the guy who said, “I think the greatest dislocated minority in America today are the police.” The Los Angeles media changed its tune over the next few months after more people came out with allegations of police brutality, the Mexican American community demanded an investigation, and bored white suburbanites ate up the unfolding story.

The young men eventually went to trial in March 1952 for the scuffle with Trojanowski and Brownson. Some were charged and found guilty of assaulting a police officer and disturbing the peace. The presiding Judge Call colorfully said of the LAPD's side of the story, “This testimony stinks to high heaven and all of the perfume in Arabia cannot obliterate its stench.” This trial prompted a FBI investigation. Between the FBI and LAPD's own internal investigation, over 400 witnesses provided statements that lifted the veil on the real Bloody Christmas story.

The seven men said that, after proving they were old enough to drink, the officers still demanded they leave the bar. When Jack Wilson refused, Trojanowski began to beat him with a blackjack (baton, billy club, nightstick, whatever you kids call it these days). The fight continued outside and ended when a nearby resident appeared with a shotgun and told them to knock it off. The men took off and went to Daniel Rodela's home. Rodela then drove away to take time "to think."

On Christmas morning, six were brought into Central Station by three squad cars where over 100 on and off duty police officers were drinking at a holiday party. The seventh, Daniel Rodela, was taken to Elysian Park. Officers Robert Sanchez and William Bennett did not have a warrant, so Rodela, who was home with his two children and pregnant wife, refused to open the door. The officers kicked his door in. His neighbors testified that the 90-pound Rodela was dragged by his hair and beaten in the parking lot before being thrown in the squad car. At Elysian Park, he was beaten with a baton, punched, kicked and elbowed. Rodela's physician said he was near death, had temporary paralysis, permanent organ damage and required two blood transfusions. Officer Sanchez changed his story several times, claiming they never stopped at Elysian Park, and his own defense attorney admitted, “My client, Sanchez, just isn't intelligent.”

Back at the Christmas party, the chismoso rumor mill churned out a false story that Trojanowski lost an eye in the fight and his drunk coworkers wanted revenge. It's alleged that upon the six men's arrival, one policeman said, “Oh, here are the cop killers, now.” The six men were taken to separate cells in the isolation ward where about fifty police officers took turns beating them over the course of 95 minutes. The victims, who sustained serious injuries of course, were only able to positively identify seven officers as a group because they spent most of their time shielding their faces from the attack. They said only two policemen of over one-hundred present tried to save them, one of which said, “Aw, for fuck's sake boys, cut it out.” What a hero. The other officer was a friend of one man's mother-in-law. When he tried to save the man, the officer was dragged out of the cell by other officers. The victims lost so much blood that officers were slipping in it while laughing and had to summon a janitor to mop it up.

Ray Marquez testified that, “they would holler 'Merry Christmas' and then slug us... One would lift me into the air, drop me, and as I came down he'd knee me while another would punch me in the stomach.” Elias Rodela testified that, after the beatings, “the cops told us to pack up our stuff and our family and to get out of town and to get out of the country.”

On April 23, 1952, there was enough evidence to indict and arrest eight officers. The victims were all able to give matching, detailed accounts of the events, but the LAPD officers and other employees present gave vague, contradictory statements. Some claimed there was no mistreatment. Others said there was violence but were unable to identify anyone. A lot of stories changed from officers' previous recounts of the night. By the end of 1952, five officers were convicted and Chief Parker transferred 54 more while 39 were suspended without pay. Superior Judge Thomas L. Ambrose said, “I am unable to approach this case with any charity at all. These men were taken out one at a time like small animals in a trap with no possible way in which they could defend themselves...”

Officers Robert Sanchez and William Bennett, the ones who allegedly beat Daniel Rodela in Elysian Park, were acquitted. Lieutenant Harry Fremont was found innocent of the beatings but was suspended for 90 days for failing to stop them and allowing alcohol at the Christmas party. Officer Loren P. Calwell was initially sentenced to 6 months in jail for simple assault, but his sentencing was reduced to a $500 fine and three years of probation. Officer William C. McCaffrey, 24, was sentenced to two years in county jail. Officer Charles E. Minter was sentenced to three years and served two. Officer Ray A. Lantz was charged with three counts of felony assault, but I was unable to find information about his sentencing.

This story could have been written in 2017. It might get written in 2018. Let's hope for the best.

All photos in this article are sourced from the LA Times and most information was gathered from dozens of LA Times articles and some court transcripts. Below is a clip from 1997's LA Confidential with a Hollywood version of Bloody Christmas.

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