A raid of the 2801 Broadway home in 1966 uncovered a 70-ton arsenal of weaponry. (Paul Drexler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

A raid of the 2801 Broadway home in 1966 uncovered a 70-ton arsenal of weaponry. (Paul Drexler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

The house on Billionaires’ Row

The 2800 block of Broadway, known as Billionaires’ Row, is the most expensive block in the most expensive neighborhood in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

Some of California’s most prominent and wealthiest citizens — Peter Haas, Gordon Getty and Larry Ellison — own homes on this street. In the past few years, properties at 2840
and 2845 each sold for more than $32 million. In many ways, 2801 Broadway, a 7,000-square-foot mansion designed by noted architect Albert Fair, fits right in.

But 2801 Broadway has a darker side. Between 1965 and 1970, this house was a massive arsenal containing tons of machine guns and other munitions. It was the home of William Thoreson III, a man with the face of a movie star and the mind of a serial killer. William’s father was William Thoreson Jr., the multimillionaire owner of Great Western Steel. William and his younger brother, Richard, grew up as “poor little rich boys” in Kenilworth, an exclusive Chicago suburb Forbes Magazine called “the second most affluent neighborhood in the United States.”

William felt neglected by his workaholic father and socialite mother and spent his teenage years breaking and entering local homes, shoplifting, fighting, driving recklessly and warring with his parents. When he was 17, his parents had him committed to a series of mental institutions.

At 20, William met Louise, a teacher and speech therapist. Some thought she would be a good influence on him. The reverse was true. He dazzled her with psychopathic charm, married her and introduced her to a life of crime. On their first trip together, she became his accomplice as he stole camping equipment and a hunting rifle.

At age 21, when William didn’t receive his expected inheritance, he broke into a basement vault and took $650,000 of securities that his parents had kept from him. William and Louise moved to Tucson, Ariz. and had a son, named Michael. In Arizona, William collected a retinue of followers, including drug dealers Stoney Richardson and Cal Burlow. Marriage and fatherhood never impinged on Bill’s playboy lifestyle. He was charming, drove a Ferrari and dated stewardesses and models. But his dark side kept emerging and he was arrested for assault and on explosives charges.

He enlisted his brother Richard to join him in a campaign of intimidation in order to secure their legacies. They broke into their parents’ home, stole financial papers and embarrassed their parents with a series of wild stunts. In response, their father swore out a warrant for their arrest. Richard was arrested and quickly bailed out of jail. William avoided arrest by going to Hawaii. Two days before his day in court, Richard was found dead in his car with a bullet hole behind his right ear. Authorities were uncertain about the cause of death.

With the money he inherited from his brother, William moved to San Francisco, bought the mansion at 2801 Broadway and discovered the pleasures of Haight-Ashbury. He hosted LSD parties at his Pacific Heights home for his Arizona friends and others.

With his customary impulsiveness, William decided to expand his gun collection. He and Louise traveled around the country making huge purchases of both legal and contraband arms. Mysterious crates began arriving at 2801 Broadway.

On Dec. 20, 1966, Louise Thoreson was arrested at Kennedy Airport in New York on charges of interstate shipment of explosives and illegal firearms. Authorities then raided the house at 2801 Broadway and found the largest private arsenal in U.S. history. The weapons inside the crates included 37-millimeter cannons, anti-aircraft guns, machine guns, submachine guns, mortars, anti-tank rifles, grenade launchers and 668,000 rounds of ammunition. The FBI estimated that the house contained 70 tons of armaments.

His defense attorney, the legendary Jake Ehrlich, characterized his client as “kind of a screwball. He just likes to collect old weapons.” William justified his collection by saying, “I collect rocks, I collect stamps, I collect guns.” He referred to the cannon as a “lawn ornament,” adding, “Every lawn should have one.”

Thoreson was furious over the police raid, blamed his wife and began beating her regularly. The family moved to a house in Fresno as they fought the weapons charges in court. Over the next three years, William became severely depressed and his behavior became even more erratic.

Louise tried to get him to seek psychiatric care but he resisted. On the evening of June 9, 1970, William explained why: “If they use any of those truth drugs on me they will never let me out.”

He then told the real story of his brother’s death. “It was Stoney Richardson who killed Richard,” he said. “I paid him to do it.”

William later killed Richardson in the house at 2801 Broadway. Thoreson also revealed that he had tried to murder his parents and had planned to kill Louise. The next morning he told Louise that she knew too much to live. As he got out of bed she grabbed a gun and shot him five times, killing him instantly.

At the trial, one of William’s friends testified that William wanted to die but didn’t want to commit suicide. He planned to manipulate his wife to do it. “If I push her far enough, she’ll do it for me.”

The jury acquitted Louise on the grounds of self-defense.

But even in death William’s notoriety continued. In 2014, 44 years after his death, William Thoreson III emerged as the chief suspect in the 1966 unsolved murder of Valerie Percy, the daughter of Sen. Charles Percy. The murder occurred less than a mile from Thoreson’s home in Kenilworth.

Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco, www.crookstour.com.Billionaires RowSan FranciscoWilliam Thoreson III

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