Lloyd Sampsell and Ethan McNabb, dubbed the “Yacht Bandits,” were the Errol Flynns of crime in the 1920s. These dashing outlaws cruised the West Coast in a luxurious schooner, robbing banks along the way. Cultured, brilliant and talented, they were two of the most distinguished men ever executed by the state of California.
Sampsell, born in Missouri in 1900, began his criminal career at an early age. At 18, he escaped from a Missouri reformatory and headed west. He learned his boating skills as a bosun for American President Lines. He hooked up with McNabb, the black sheep of a prominent New England family, and both men were convicted of bank robbery in Los Angeles in 1923.
Cheerfully unrepentant upon their release from jail, they continued their crooked ways, using their intelligence to rise to the top of the criminal fraternity. In 1928, Sampsell and McNabb led a conspiracy to smuggle guns and 1 million rounds of ammunition to rebels in Mexico.
When this scheme fell through, Sampsell and McNabb acquired a 50-foot yacht, which they named The Sovereign. Sampsell’s beautiful wife, Lita, joined them as they sailed in style from Vancouver to Los Angeles, posing as wealthy yachtsmen. Their wealth, however, was acquired by armed withdrawals from banks up and down the coast. In early June 1929, San Francisco police got a tip that the trio had shipped an expensive automobile from Seattle to an apartment in San Francisco. Police staked out the apartment and arrested the trio. In the apartment were high-powered rifles, tear gas guns, automatic weapons and $10,000 in gold stolen from a bank in Berkeley. It is estimated that the pair robbed as many as 100 banks netting well more than $200,000 (almost $3 million in today’s money).
Sampsell and McNabb were convicted and sentenced to 30 years. On June 6, 1930, Sampsell and McNabb disappeared from Folsom prison. A massive search of the prison was launched. The pair was found six days later, hiding under the prison blacksmith shed, waiting for the authorities to give up the search. By 1932, after another attempt to smuggle guns to the “Yacht Bandits” failed, authorities separated the pair, sending McNabb to San Quentin.
The resourceful robbers then took a DIY approach. If they couldn’t smuggle guns in, they would make their own.
Slowly and secretly, both men built working guns and ammunition out of spare parts in the machine shops of their prisons. At Folsom in 1933, Sampsell and another convict took five employees hostage in the administrative building. Armed guards soon surrounded them. Sampsell surrendered, but his partner killed himself with his homemade weapon.
At San Quentin in 1934, McNabb and three other prisoners used their weapons to take a guard prisoner in the electrical building. While using a ladder to go over a wall, McNabb shot at but missed a tower guard who foiled the attempt. During the escape, another convict was accidently shot to death by the convicts. McNabb and one of the other plotters were sentenced to death. As his hanging approached, McNabb pursued a literary career, writing a book entitled, “Pyloons of Sundakan.” On Sept. 6, 1935, McNabb nonchalantly approached the gallows, quoted a passage from Hillaire Belloc’s “Mercy of Allah” and was executed.
By the early 1940s, Sampsell had worked his charms on Folsom Warden Clyde Plummer, who transferred him to a harvest camp near Davis. There, using bribery and guile, Sampsell became the de facto ruler of the prison. He lived in a private bunkhouse away from the other prisoners and traveled freely on the weekends. His trips included an American Legion dance and clothes shopping trips to Davis and Sacramento. But Sampsell’s main destination was an apartment on Bush Street, where his girlfriend, Jacqueline De La Prevotiere, lived. He was arrested there in April 1943. California Gov. Earl Warren, who would later be appointed U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice, called it “the most outrageous thing I have ever heard of in prison management,” and said the prison was being run by the inmates. The camp was closed, and Warden Plummer resigned. The prison scandal was front-page news and led to major changes in the state penal administration.
After 18 years in prison, Sampsell was paroled in 1947. But reform was not in Sampsell’s DNA.
In March 1948, during a San Diego bank robbery, a customer grabbed his gun. Sampsell killed the customer and escaped. Pursued by police, Sampsell continued robbing banks until he was captured a year later. He was convicted and sentenced to death.
The night before his execution, Sampsell talked to reporters: “They say I have led a wasted life. But I have a son. … He’s married, got two kids. He’s in the service, overseas right now. So I have left something good.”
The next day, just before the gas took its effect, Lloyd Sampsell turned to the nearly 100 witnesses gathered and winked.
Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco, www.crookstour.com.