“I live on a ranch with my husband and my two kids but I feel that life is passing me by. Recently I met a wonderful guy, Mel, but my husband doesn’t understand. He even tried to shoot us last week. I know Mel isn’t perfect. He’s a thief, he’s a bootlegger and he’s turning states evidence to testify against my husband. But I’m stuck on Mel. What should I do?”
If there was a Dear Abby in 1929 she might have received this letter from Grace Berri, the wife of a well-known rancher in Marin County. Grace and husband Arnold were in the middle of a bitter divorce at the time. The case got even stranger when Mel Sturtevant and Grace Berri were arrested in Santa Rosa. According to an article in the March 28, 1930 edition of the Sausalito News, the couple was arrested on a morals offense.
“But that’s only one of the charges,” Sheriff E. Douglas Bills told Sturtevant. “We found $5000 worth of liquor stored in this house and we also found the dressed carcass of a deer, shot out of season. And you’re also charged with transportation of liquor and with possessing a revolver without a permit.” Sturtevant was already under two federal indictments and awaiting a second trial for scuttling a boat and making off with 2,000 pounds of salmon. In addition, Sturtevant was accused of stealing “not only Arnold Berri’s wife, but also his horse.”
In early May, the bootlegging trial against Arnold Berri, Mel Sturtevant, businessman Clinton Mason and six others began in federal court. Prosecutors claimed that the men were making bootleg liquor in a distillery on Berri’s land. Sturtevant pleaded guilty and testified for the government. Berri and Mason claimed that the real owners of the still were prominent businessmen whom the government was protecting.
The case went to the jury. While the jury was unsuccessfully deliberating to reach a verdict, Sturtevant and Grace Berri picked up Vincent “Pegleg” Lucich, a well-known rumrunner and gunman. Lucich received his nickname because of his wooden leg, a souvenir of an attempted assassination. Lucich suggested they take a cool drive to Tomales Bay, a popular drop-off point for smuggled liquor. They went for a walk and, on returning to the car, Lucich shot Sturtevant twice in the back, killing him. He shot Grace in the chest but she managed to run from the scene and Lucich’s wooden leg prevented him from pursuing her. Grace ran until she found a farmhouse and was taken to the hospital in serious condition. Police assumed that Lucich had been hired to prevent Sturtevant from testifying again.
Grace, who was now the chief witness in both the bootlegging retrial and Lucich’s murder trial, was put under a 24-hour guard. Charges in the bootlegging trial were dropped against Arnold Berri because Grace could not testify against her husband.
Any hope that Grace’s attempted murder might bring reconciliation with her estranged husband Arnold was dashed when Arnold announced that he would testify on Lucich’s behalf.
Lucich’s defense was that he was the intended victim. He said Sturtevant pulled a gun on him first and that he returned the fire in self-defense. While this was going on, Lucich claimed Grace tried to kill him. “She came from back of the car, about ten feet from me and let drive with five or six shots. I don’t know how she missed me. Then I threw a slug at her and she ran. I didn’t know I hit her until I saw the paper,” he said.
On June 16, with a headline reading “LUCICH LOVE FEUD BARED,” the San Francisco Chronicle presented a new theory on the case. The murder was the result of a drunken fight between Lucich and Sturtevant over the affections of Grace Berri, once known as the “prettiest girl in Petaluma.” This theory quickly faded and was not mentioned during the trial.
On June 25, 1930, Lucich’s murder trial began before a packed courtroom. Grace Berri testified that Lucich bragged about his prowess as a killer, talked about working as a gunman for a San Francisco politician, and she described the murder of Sturtevant in detail.
Lucich presented his version of the events with great emotion, bringing many in the courtroom to tears, but it took the jury only one hour to convict him. He was sentenced to life at San Quentin and paroled in 1947.
The bootlegging trial again ended in a hung jury and all charges were dropped.
Grace didn’t have to look far for a new man. She married her police bodyguard, U.S. Marshall G.T. Powers. She died at the age of 82 in 1980.
Arnold Berri’s legal problems caused him to hand over control of the ranch to his brother Lindo. He divorced Grace, got custody of their children and moved to Petaluma, where he became a rifle shooting champion and president of the Sonoma Rod and Gun Club.
Berri died in 1965.
Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco. For more information, visit www.crookstour.com.