50 years ago today: The Newhall TragedyBy Ed Delmore | Apr 6, 2020
Visiting Sacred Ground
A few years ago, I traveled to the Los Angeles area to visit my buddy, Jack Schonely, and attend his retirement party from LAPD. Jack served with LA for more than 32 years with additional prior service in a small rural sheriff’s department in Pennsylvania.
Jack is a cop’s cop. During his career, he was a patrol officer in South-Central 77th, worked Hollywood Vice, was a member of the Metropolitan Division, a canine handler, a tactical flight officer, pilot, and retired as a command pilot.
He’s a gentleman.
But he’s also a badass.
Jack and I met and became friends when he taught a class in my area called, Apprehending Fleeing Suspects. He’s taught that class to street cops and aircrews all over the world. He literally wrote the book on establishing perimeters during apprehension efforts. The title of the book is the same as the class, Apprehending Fleeing Suspects. To check out both you can go to officertactics.com.
Law enforcement and military personnel from throughout the United States were at Jack’s party – a testament to how well-liked and respected he is. If you are a working copper, no matter what your assignment is, read his book. And if you ever get the chance – take his class. You’ll be better for it.
I realized after I arrived at Jack’s shindig that I was within a few miles of Newhall, California. And while I want to give Jack some well-deserved props here – my real purpose in writing this piece is about what happened on the sacred ground of Newhall.
Today, April 6, 2020, marks the 50 year anniversary of what some call the Newhall Incident, or the Newhall massacre, or the Newhall tragedy. All are accurate. It was all of those things.
On that date, four California Highway Patrolmen were murdered by two ex-cons. The officers, George Alleyn, Walter Frago, Roger Gore, and James Pence, were all under 25. The incident actually began late on April 5th when a motorist reported what in modern times would be called a “road-rage” incident where a handgun was displayed. The caller provided a vehicle description.
Frago and Gore (in a two-officer unit) spotted the vehicle and stopped it. Despite the fact that they knew a weapon had been displayed the stop was treated with an arguably significant lack of sound tactics. Rather than remaining behind cover, both officers approached the vehicle. Although one of them carried a shotgun up to the car with the butt resting on his hip, not pointing at the suspects.
Action is quicker than reaction and the suspects, Bobby Davis and Jack Twining produced handguns and began firing (and striking) the officers. Within a few moments, Alleyn and Pence arrived as the second two-officer unit. They had no idea what they were driving into and were immediately fired upon by the suspects. Although all four officers reacted gallantly during the gunfight each of them succumbed to wounds, dying at the scene.
One of the suspects died by suicide after taking a hostage and barricading himself not too far from the scene. The other was captured and also committed suicide…years later in 2009 in the penitentiary.
The myths about the incident were and continue to be abundant, including the claim that some of the officers put the empty brass from their revolvers into their pockets. That particular inaccuracy was debunked in an excellent recent book by Mike Wood titled, Newhall Shooting – A Tactical Analysis. If you haven’t read it, you should. Again, you’ll be better for it.
At the time Newhall was the largest loss of police officer lives in one incident. Many, including me, tried to learn from the lack of tactics used by the officers on that April night 50 years ago. Law enforcement academies and agencies began teaching and implementing new tactics for high-risk vehicle stops.
Sadly, some in our profession still haven’t learned from this horrific tragedy–a half-century ago –and as a result keep repeating the same or similar tactical errors. Some are dying as a result.
But in my heart, I believe the lessons learned saved many that did learn.
I think the lessons saved me on more than one occasion.
So, I went to view the memorial CHP headquarters nearby. I went to the actual scene, which is home to a popular restaurant now. I went to silently thank those who gave their lives there and reassure their souls that they didn’t die in vain in that spot fifty years ago – on that sacred ground.
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