The life and death of Constable Jack Pilcher

Over his fifteen year career in law enforcement, Constable John S. (Jack) Pilcher was one of the most respected lawmen in Los Angeles County.  He began his service as a peace officer in 1910 and served the townships of Chatsworth, Calabasas and Newhall, putting his life at risk on many occasions.  The Los Angeles Times described Pilcher’s dangerous career this way.  He “engaged in numerous gun battles with rum-runners and bandits and in thrilling brushes with bad men and beat them to the trigger.”  Though there was hyperbole in this statement, there was enough truth in it to make the inglorious and tragic way which Pilcher died that much more difficult to accept. Following a burglary at the Gage Ranch in Bouquet Canyon, Constable Pilcher, and Deputy Constables John Seltzer and James Biddison spent a fruitless night staking out the property hoping that the burglars would return and complete the theft they began there the night before.  As dawn broke, the lawmen realized that the criminals had no intention of trying their luck again. Pilcher decided that it would be best to remove what valuable property remained at the ranch house since the building could not be secured. While the men were in the process of carrying furniture out to a pickup truck, a large lizard ran into the house through the open door and dashed under a bed.

Jim Biddison told the Newhall Signal newspaper what happened next. “I was standing by a window near where the boys were looking out.  I heard them talking about the lizard, and when I heard the shot, I thought they had shot the lizard. I turned around just as Jack slumped down against my legs.”

Deputy Constable Seltzer began his duties as a peace officer only three days before. The gun he carried was one that Pilcher gave him, but the holster that Pilcher issued with it was “of an old type, which in certain positions would let the weapon drop out.”  Seltzer bent forward to look under the bed to shoo out the lizard.  The revolver fell from the holster, hit the cement floor and fired.  The bullet struck Pilcher between the eyes.  The brave constable lingered an hour and a half before dying.

The day of this tragedy was less than nine months after a wild gun battle in which Pilcher and his friend Deputy Constable Ed Brown shot it out with Gus Le Brun on the Tunnel Canyon ranch of Bonita Darling.  Le Brun was spurned by Darling and his attack on Pilcher and Brown was probably a 1920s version of suicide-by-cop.  Brown was fatally wounded in the exchange and as he lay dying, Pilcher fired the fatal shot at Le Brun that ended the gunfight. As a result of Pilcher’s heroic actions in this incident, Sheriff William Traeger presented Pilcher with a special .44 caliber revolver.  He was wearing the weapon the morning that he died.  This was the kind of lawman Pilcher was, and Brown’s end, though tragic, was one that far better befitted Pilcher than the one he suffered.

Jack Pilcher came from humble roots. He was born in Port Townsend, Washington in 1880.  In 1897, he married his childhood sweetheart Emma Bader.  In 1902, Jack and Emma and their young daughter Helen moved to Kern County where Pilcher worked in the oil fields as a driller.  His son John was born in Kern County before the family moved to Chatsworth in 1906 when Pilcher acquired a ranch there.  He and his family continued to live and work on this ranch until he died. His youngest child Marvin was born in Chatsworth. In August 1910, Pilcher ran unopposed for constable of Chatsworth Township, and appeared to remain a lawman until his death.

The ever expanding city of Los Angeles almost cost Pilcher his job in law enforcement in 1919.  At the beginning of that year, the city absorbed Owensmouth Township and half of Chatsworth Park Township.  This resulted in the consolidation of the remaining unincorporated portion of Chatsworth Park with Calabasas Township. All three townships had constables and justices of the peace.  Now there was only room for one of each in the reconstituted Calabasas Township.  The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors was compelled to weigh in on this matter.  Fortunately for Pilcher, he was protected by Civil Service rules.  It appears that the supervisors reduced the salary of the former Calabasas Constable from the princely sum of $65 a month down to a nominal fee, thus compelling him to resign.  In this way it seems Pilcher was able to slip into the vacancy and become the area’s sole constable.  In April 1922, Pilcher moved to yet another township when he became the Constable in Newhall.

Constable Pilcher was a stickler for his duties and did not care who any lawbreaker was or with whom he might be associated.  This was evidenced when in August 1915 he arrested James Hill for violating a County Code for peddling fruit without a license.  The fact that Hill was also the uncle of Chatsworth Justice of the Peace Clarence Glenn made no difference to Pilcher and he brought Hill into his nephew’s court to face justice. Despite Hill’s plea for leniency, Pilcher’s evidence against him was overwhelming and Justice Glenn was compelled to levy a $30 fine against his uncle.

But Pilcher did far more in his career than apprehend code violators.  One of the most daring of his exploits occurred as 1922 drew to a close.  On Christmas, he and Ed Brown were part of a posse that arrested O.J. Carlson, the last outstanding member of the Jenks-Harris gang. This group was responsible for a number of crimes in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties including a mid-December robbery at a bank in nearby Piru.  Information on Carlson’s whereabouts was relayed to the Sheriff’s Office by a local rancher.  Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Captain Walter Hotz formed a posse of four deputy sheriffs along with Pilcher and Brown.  They trekked over five miles through the mountains and streams above Saugus.  Hotz’s order to his men was to shoot to kill if Carlson showed the least sign of resistance.  Fortunately, they found Carlson cowering under a cot inside an isolated cabin.

Pilcher was also a member of the LA Sheriff’s Dry Squad that pursued the bootleggers and other “entrepreneurs” who rose up in the wake of the passage of the Volstead Act. On one raid Pilcher participated in, 10,820 gallons of wine were discovered on a ranch west of San Fernando and then poured out onto the ground.

Many of the producers of illegal liquor passionately guarded their product. The strongest evidence supporting this is the fact that more peace officers were killed in the line of duty in the United States during the years when Prohibition was the law of the land than during any like number of years in history.

Pilcher understood the hazards that came with his membership on the Dry Squad. Like many lawmen of the period, he maintained a scrapbook of his career. One article he pasted into his collection, however, did not mention him at all. It was from a July 1923 article in the Congress newspaper relating the account of a liquor raid in the Signal Hill oil fields led by Deputy Sheriff N.H. Pritchard.  The crux of this piece was Pritchard’s retelling of this episode before the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. He made it clear to the Board how “liquor peddlers” in the oil fields frequently “threaten officers with death if they interfere.”  Pritchard went on to assure the Board that he intended to keep doing his job regardless of the bootleggers threats or what he was paid, but he felt that he was entitled to a pay raise due to the hazardous nature of his work. The Board agreed with him and increased his monthly salary from $190 to $225.  It is possible that Pilcher was an unnamed member of Pritchard’s squad in this raid, but given the distance between Signal Hill and Saugus it is just as likely that Pilcher clipped this article to note how the Board gave Pritchard a raise for doing the same kind of dangerous duty that he routinely performed in the north county and was courting a similar increase.  Whether he received a raise is unknown, but one was granted to Deputy Constable Brown around this time.

By the early 1920s, the combination of Prohibition and a growing population led to a significant rise in crime in northern Los Angeles County. This gave Pilcher and Brown more work than they could handle.  Recognizing this increased work load, the Board of Supervisors permitted Pilcher to hire another deputy constable. He selected Henry Wertz who was already serving with him at times in an unofficial capacity. Wertz was also employed by the County Forestry Department, however.  In September 1924, a Los Angeles Times article noted how Wertz was in command of a “burning crew” of Forestry Department personnel that set a firebreak to thwart the progress of a large brushfire in the San Gabriel Mountains.  It may have been Wertz’s active employment in this capacity that caused his tenure with Pilcher to come to an end in 1925.  The tragic murder of his friend Ed Brown already compelled Pilcher to hire a new deputy and Jim Biddison assumed that position the previous November.  Now with Wertz’s departure he needed to replace another experienced man.  That’s why the novice lawman Seltzer was at his side the morning of the tragedy.

Despite the few dramatic moments that highlighted Jack Pilcher’s career, most of his day to day duties were routine. He could be reached at his office between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. on one of Newhall’s few phones.  His number was 11. In some of the more mundane duties as Newhall constable, Pilcher returned runaway children seeking adventure, found lost miners and on occasion had the sad duty of locating and returning to town with their dead bodies, recovered illegal gambling machines, thwarted escapes from custody and the town’s small jail and investigated traffic collisions.  Pilcher is also credited with bringing a new Mason’s Temple to Newhall in 1922 and the building on Spruce Street appears to have also served as the constable’s office.  Pilcher was the lodge’s president when he died.

Funeral services for Pilcher were held in San Fernando. His brother Masons took charge of the funeral procession that escorted him to his final resting place at the Grandview Cemetery in Burbank.  In addition to his wife and three children, Pilcher was survived by his father and brother Ben.

Sadly, tragedy dogged the Pilcher men. In early September 1927, Jack’s son John, then only 22, died in another freak accident.  The young man was fixing a block and tackle on a flagpole outside a schoolhouse in Mentryville near Newhall.  The combination of the boy’s weight and the heavy ladder leaning against the pole caused it to break.  He fell from the ladder and was impaled on the snapped spike.  His mother, then living in North Hollywood, was devastated.  Pilcher’s brother was the next Pilcher man to die before his time when he succumbed to tuberculosis in August of 1931.

Constable Jack Pilcher is still remembered in the Santa Clarita Valley with fondness.  Like his friend and partner, Ed Brown, his death in the line of duty has at last been recognized and his name was enrolled on the monuments at peace officer memorial ceremonies in California and Washington, D.C. in May 2014.

Published with permission of Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. For more information, visit the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Museum at 11515 S. Colima Rd,. Building B, in South Whittier.



Published: June 12, 2014 - Volume 13 - Issue 09