“Live fast, die young, leave a good looking corpse.” It’s a maxim rarely quoted by high school commencement speakers, but students who attended the Preston School of Industry took the adage seriously, with fatal results.
On Nov. 23, 1936, two young bandits robbed three bars in the early morning hours. One of the robbers was stocky, the other average size. Both were about 18 years old. Two days later, armed with stolen sawed-off shotguns and led by a third man, the gang stuck up two places in North Beach.
Intrigued by their youth, the newspapers called them the “Baby Bandits.” Their actions, however, showed sophistication and planning. They would steal a car from a garage, use the car in holdups and abandon it the same night.
Because their crimes centered around North Beach, police assumed the gang was from the neighborhood. Detectives circulated photographs of local criminals, but none of the victims recognized the photos. Police Capt. Charles Dullea was still convinced there was a connection, so he called in John Dooling, a North Beach beat cop, and asked him to canvas the neighborhood.
For the next three days, nothing happened. Then, on Nov. 26, Mike’s Saloon on 14th Street was robbed. Dan O’Connell, a customer, was blasted in the stomach with a shotgun when he moved too slowly and died later that evening. The Baby Bandits had graduated to murder.
The next day, Dooling uncovered his first lead. Frank Crone, a recent graduate of the Preston School of Industry, was not working, yet he had been seen sporting a fancy new wardrobe. Preston, a legendary reform school, opened in 1894 and counted among its graduates notables such as rapist and writer Carryl Chessman, serial killer Gerald Gallegos, Beat Generation icon Neal Cassidy and musician Merle Haggard. Further digging by Dooling revealed that Crone had been hanging out with Ernest Pla and William Daly, two other recent Preston School graduates. Photographs of the three men were identified by the victims of the gang’s latest holdups.
Underworld slang refers to a sentence to a place such as San Quentin State Prison as “going to college.” Preston, by contrast, was like a delinquency high school or a rookie crime league. Just as minor league baseball players in the 1930s dreamt of being Babe Ruth, young criminals in the same era dreamt of being John Dillinger. Dillinger, a hardcore bank robber and killer, was also a folk hero to many small farmers whose homes had been seized by the banks.
Assuming the bandits had left town, police had put out an all-points bulletin for the state of California: “Use every precaution in apprehending these men. They are dangerous killers.”
The bandits split up. Pla hid with relatives in Merced. Crone and Daly kidnapped a young couple and made them drive to Sacramento, where they let the pair go. The duo drove onto Merced, apparently to hook up with Pla. Hungry after their long ride, the three stopped to eat at the Square Deal Cafe. There, they were observed by a young friend of Pla, who hurried to notify Merced Police Chief Fred Zunker.
Zunker and Officer James Turner questioned Crone, who gave them an International Seaman’s Union card. When Daly was questioned, he pulled out a gun and ran. Turner fired a warning shot and then squeezed off two shots at Daly, who was hit but kept running.
An unarmed Crone lunged at Zunker, who pulled his gun out.
“I could have killed him,” Zunker later said, “but I don’t shoot kids.” Instead, the chief clubbed Crone over the head with the barrel of his gun. Turner returned to the cafe to find Zunker in a life-and-death struggle with Crone. Turner clubbed Crone over the head with his nightstick, knocking him unconscious.
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Other police followed the trail of Daly’s blood for four blocks until they reached the First Baptist Church. Then, they heard a shot. Crawling under the church, they found Daly dead of a self-inflicted bullet wound.
At about the same time, Pla, convinced by his mother, surrendered peacefully to police. Pla and Crone were reunited in the Merced jail and shared the same cell. Crone awoke in jail on his birthday.
“I’m 21,” he said. “I suppose I’ll get the rope before I’m 22.” Crone described Daly as the leader of the gang and said their ambition was to be as famous as Dillinger.
Both Pla and Crone blamed Daly for the murder of O’Connell. But O’Connell’s dying statement described Crone as his killer.
Later that night, Crone made his prediction come true by hanging himself with Pla’s suspenders.
“That dirty bastard. Now he’s left me holding the bag alone,” Pla complained bitterly, “and I’ve got no suspenders to wear to court.”
Ernest Pla pleaded guilty to murder in 1937 and was sentenced to life in prison. He was paroled in 1949 and died in 1984.
Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco. For more information, visit www.crookstour.com.