1909 dynamiting of Roseville post office was a CSI breakthrough

Looking back at landmark fingerprinting for city officers
By: J'amie Rubio for the Press Tribune
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On Feb. 25, 1909, Roseville Post Master H.C. Tripett came to work to discover the postal safe had not only been robbed, but destroyed. “Safe Crackers,” as they were then called, used dynamite to steal its contents and damaged the inside of the building in the process.

The suspects, Thomas Monroe, Patrick Joyce and “Slim” Hayes, escaped arrest by stealing a wagon and a team of horses from W.T. Butler’s butcher shop. The bandits made their getaway into the shrubbery along the American River after ditching the team and wagon near Finnish Hall in Rocklin. 

Sheriff McAuley and Roseville detectives had an idea of who they suspected but lacked the evidence to tie them to the crime. There had been a long list of recent robberies in Northern California with details that matched the modus operandi of the Roseville bank breakers.

For the criminals, it seemed that they evaded the authorities scot-free.

By March 3, 1909, two of the suspects were apprehended after a robbery in Oakley. Searching them, law enforcement found jewelry from a Delta-area business called Silver & O’Meara’s.  This tied them directly to a fresh crime. More importantly, Roseville detectives were ecstatic to use the latest forensic science — fingerprinting — to look for a break in their Post Office investigation.

According to the San Francisco Call, after comparing the thumbprints of suspect Thomas Monroe, which had been found on a candle box left inside the Roseville Post Office, detectives saw an identical match. The sample also matched a bloody thumbprint found on a broken post office window in the town of Niles shortly after it was robbed. This breakthrough in the latest forensics helped solve one part of the case — but there was still one suspect at large.

After Monroe and Joyce were in jail and interrogated, they confessed that they had been accomplices forming part of a large scale theft ring.  After tailing a third suspect, “Slim” Hayes — a.k.a. Martin Callahan — all the way down to San Francisco, Sheriff McAuley, Post Office Inspector Mederos and a host of Roseville detectives raided a San Francisco saloon on 6th Street. They arrested eight more suspects. Reporting from the San Francisco Call indicated that the saloon had been a meeting spot for the robbers, where a fence would then pay them for the stolen property and take it elsewhere.

Besides the post office at Roseville, the “Safe Crackers” had left a trail of robberies from the Bay Area all the way to the Central Valley, taking many thousands of dollars in property with them. Although a portion of the loot was recovered, authorities believed some of it was still hidden between Antioch and Black Diamond. Law enforcement conducted a search of the area, though surviving journalism makes it unclear if the money was ever found.

In the end, the scope of the investigation made it into publications as far away as the Los Angles Herald newspaper. The five of the men arrested — including Monroe, Joyce and Hayes — were found guilty for robbery and sent to prison.  With the turn of the century, forensic science was making giant leaps and bounds, which significantly changed how investigations were done. In this case, the criminals learned that even the slightest smudge they left could connect them to the crime scenes they created. The dynamiting of the Roseville Post Office happened less than a decade from the inception of the very first systematic use of fingerprint identification in the United States.