By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Since the first inmates boarded the state prison ship Waban in 1851, crime victims and their families have tried to be heard. It took more than 130 years before victims found their voices. In 1982, voters passed Proposition 8, officially recognizing victims’ rights. Six years later, the state corrections department established a special victims office, today known as the Office of Victims and Survivor Rights and Services. Read the story on the evolution of the office here.
After more than a century of silence, Inside CDCR delves into some of the stories of those victims and their families, finally giving them a voice.
Family shattered by murder
In the early days of the state prison system, victim resources were virtually nonexistent. Officially recognizing victims took more than a century, but many fought to tell their stories long before they had a platform.
Such was the case with a grieving father who begged for help.
“Dramatically pleading with the jury that justice be done, W.C. Dillingham, father of Stella Luitweiler, who was murdered by her husband, George C. Luitweiler, last Sunday, took the witness stand at the inquest held over her body in Bresee Brothers’ morgue yesterday afternoon and graphically told of the strife and difference between the young married couple,” reported the Los Angeles Herald, July 20, 1910. “He told how the husband had abused her innumerable times and how the murdered wife had always stood ready to do anything for him.”
According to reports at the time, the husband approached his wife and her sister while they ate breakfast, drew a pistol and fired three shots. One felled the young bride while two others struck her sister.
“May Agnes Dillingham, sister of the dead woman and the only witness to the tragedy, who was shot twice by the infuriated husband in an attempt to kill her, is still in the California hospital as the result of her injuries,” the paper reported.
After he shot the two women, the husband went upstairs and took cyanide but authorities found him in time to save his life.
“Dr. George W. Campbell, autopsy surgeon … produced a bullet of the same caliber as those found in Luitweiler’s possession, which he had extracted from the victim’s brain.”
The husband was charged with murder but was declared insane and sent to the Patton asylum.
He escaped in May 1912. His body was found in the desert nearly two months later.
The case deeply affected the relatives of the murderer.
“Brooding over the troubles of his brother, Jesse Luitweiler, 35, a machinist, was taken to the receiving hospital yesterday,” reported the Los Angeles Herald, Dec. 12, 1910. According to the newspaper, the stress and strain of his brother’s crimes and trial weighed heavily on him, eventually causing him to believe he was hearing voices.
“Worn out with the strain of seeing her son tried for … murder, Mrs. Sophia Luitweiler, mother of (the accused murderer), yesterday collapsed in Judge Willis’ department of the superior court,” reported the Herald, April 5, 1911.
Meanwhile, the murder victim’s family was left in tatters.
“The shadow of the Luitweiler murder will stretch its black fingers over … the superior court Feb. 14 when William C. Dillingham will present evidence on a cross complaint to the action for divorce brought by his wife, Margaret. Dillingham was the father of (Stella) Luitweiler, who was shot and killed by her husband at the breakfast table (a few years ago),” reported the Los Angeles Herald, Feb. 3, 1913. “Another daughter, May, was also wounded by Luitweiler. Dillingham alleges that at that time when he most needed comfort … his wife would have nothing to do with him.”
The divorce was granted to Margaret Dillingham in 1916. William Dillingham died Aug. 10, 1919.
Family of belfry murder victims cope with loss
In 1895, the murders of two young women set San Francisco on edge. Their bodies were found in a church and the finger of blame was pointed at a medical student who also served as an educator at the church, Theodore Durrant.
Murder victim Blanche Lamont’s 16-year-old sister, Maud, spoke about the pending murder trial. Blanche had gone missing for 10 days when her body, as well as that of another woman, Minnie Williams, were discovered at the church. Blanche’s nude body was found in the belfry of the church while Williams’ body was found mangled and shoved in a small room. The press dubbed it the “belfry murders.”
“Her young face was shadowed by a seriousness beyond her years while she talked of the crime,” reported the San Francisco Call, July 18, 1895. “She returned on Tuesday from Dillon, Mont., where she spent her vacation with her mother and older sister. ‘Mamma is bearing her trial well,’ she said, ‘although she was completely crushed at first.'”
The paper said the young lady would continue living with her aunt, Mrs. Charles Noble, and attend school in the city.
“Mrs. Noble cannot yet talk of the tragedy without emotion. ‘Oh, we know, that is we feel certain, Theodore Durrant is guilty,’ Noble said, ‘and to think that I urged her to accept his attentions. … How we suffered in the 10 days when we did not know where she was, and afterward.’ Her eyes overflowed at the thought,” the paper reported.
When Maud Lamont was called to testify at trial, it caused a stir. A newspaper reporter vividly described the scene.
“When District Attorney Barnes (called) Maud Lamont, every head in the courtroom was turned to the door. Presently there entered a a slight, girlish figure, dressed all in black, with a wealth of auburn hair that hung in a braid nearly to her waist,” reported the San Francisco Call, Sept. 12, 1895. “Every eye watched her progress through the crowded courtroom to the witness stand, and every ear listened intently to catch the first sound of her voice in response to Mr. Barnes’ first question.”
Barnes wheeled out a figure wearing the dress found in the church belfry, identified as the murder victim’s clothing.
When Durrant was convicted of murder, Blanche’s sister and aunt were in the courtroom.
“When the verdict was announced, Maud Lamont sprang from her seat, clapped her hands and then cried,” reported the Los Angeles Herald, Nov. 2, 1895. “Mrs. Noble mixed smiles with tears.”
Durrant was executed in 1898.
Meanwhile, Williams’ murder didn’t receive the same level of attention since Durrant was never tried for her death. The Williams family, though, suffered the same loss.
“Possibly the last scene in the drama which (Durrant) was the villain was enacted yesterday when A.E. Williams, the father of Minnie Williams, one of the girls murdered by Durrant, applied to Captain Seymour for the articles that belonged to her and which were taken from the house in Alameda where she was employed,” reported the San Francisco Call, May 17, 1900. “Williams said he was going to Cape Nome and as the girl’s mother in Toronto, Canada, asked for her effects he wanted to send them to her before he left the city. An order was obtained from Judge Cabaniss on the property clerk for the effects, which consisted of a trunk containing clothing, souvenirs, a Bible, trimmings, glove box, trinkets and personal effects. The father took the trunk away with him.”
Read our previous story on the Durrant trial.
Gas pipe thugs leave path of devastation
Today, the families of crime victims can be reimbursed for some expenses through restitution paid by the inmate. This wasn’t the case a century ago.
In 1906, two men wielding gas pipes terrorized San Francisco in the wake of the great earthquake. In a series of escalating robberies, they admitted to killing several men but were only tried for the murder of the manager of the Kimmon Ginko bank, M. Murakata. They also beat bank clerk A. Sasaki, nearly killing him.
Due to his injuries, Sasaki could not recall the events on the day of the assault. Luckily for prosecutors, he did remember the men coming into the bank the day prior. According to authorities, the men were casing the bank.
“John Siemsen, murderer, had a rare chance to show the bravado in which he delights … when he was confronted by J.H. Dockweiler, the engineer who was held up by (Siemsen) and (Dabner) … and Sasaki, cashier of the Japanese Bank, who was all but murdered by the gas pipe thugs. The meetings between the murderer and those who he had slugged where technically ‘identifications,’ but the criminal … was as willing to identify the men he had robbed as they were to attest to his guilt,” reported the San Francisco Call, Nov. 9, 1906. Sasaki, recovering in a hospital bed, identified Siemsen. Dockweiler also positively identified Siemsen.
“Judge Coffey yesterday allowed the claims against the estate of M. Murakata, the Japanese banker who was killed by Siemsen and Dabner, for $220 actual burial expenses and $360 additional (for cultural customs),” reported the San Francisco Call, April 10, 1907. “It appeared that of the bank’s $25,000 capital, Murakata owned only $1,500, so there was little left for the widow.”
Siemsen and Dabner were executed by hanging on the same gallows, at the same time, at San Quentin. One of those witnessing the execution was Henry Behrend, a jeweler who was robbed and beaten by the convicted criminals. He was their final victim, fighting the pair during their attack, resulting in their capture. He suffered severe injuries from the beating.
“I’m glad they’re there (on the gallows). It’s better their lives than mine, and God knows I fought with them once to see which it should be,” he told the San Francisco Call, Aug. 1, 1908.”Yes, I’m satisfied now. I wanted to see them hanged. I’m deaf. That’s what Dabner did to me. He beat me over the head with an iron bar until I lost my hearing forever and nearly lost my life.”
The victim’s doctor was nearby just in case. Since the attack, Behrand’s health began to fail but he insisted on seeing the two pay for their crimes.
“Dabner and Siemsen were guilty of and confessed to three murders. They first killed Johannes Pfitzner, a shoe dealer, on Aug. 19, 1906, by beating him to death with a gas pipe. Sept. 14 of the same year they assassinated William Friede, a clothing merchant, in a similar manner, and on Oct. 3, they murdered M. Murakata, president of the Kimmon Ginko Japanese bank and nearly killed his cashier, A. Sasaki. All the murders were committed in the daytime and were as bold as they were horrible in their details,” the newspaper reported. “It was while attempting to rob the jewelry store of Henry Behrend on Nov. 3, 1906, that the plucky jeweler made a fight which led to their capture.”
Sasaki, too feeble to witness the hanging, sent his brother in his place.
Read the story on Siemsen and Dabner.
Widow fights killer’s release
In 1903, Patrick Herron was smitten by a young woman, Katie Williamson. His affection seemed to turn to obsession.
When the Williamson family braved the Sierra Nevada mountains to make their way to Reno, he discreetly followed. While camped outside Reno, Herron approached the family and “demanded they allow their daughter to marry him,” reported the San Francisco Call, July 9, 1905.
Her father, William Williamson, refused and the incensed Herron drew “a gun and shot the aged father in the back,” the paper reported.
Two years later, Herron was serving a 20-year sentence in the Nevada penitentiary when he applied for a pardon. Hearing of this, the Williamson widow made the trek to Reno “from California to protest against granting his request,” the 1905 paper reported. “She has employed counsel and will make a great effort to make the murderer serve the full penalty of his brutal crime.”
The paper did not publish the widow’s first name.