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Looking back

Roseville's most notorious crimes

City and county law enforcement kept busy during a century of crimes
By: Scott Thomas Anderson, Editor
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Galleria Fire puts Roseville in national spotlight

On Oct. 21, 2010, all eyes across California were on the City of Roseville. That day, 24-year-old Alexander Piggee had walked into the GameStop in the Westfield Galleria, started a fire and then barricaded himself inside the smoking retailer. Roseville police officers had to deal with the possibility that Piggee was armed and carrying a bomb. Meanwhile, the flames continued to spread. The mall was evacuated as columns of smoke plumed above Roseville. The magnitude of the blaze reportedly cost $50 million in damages and caused stores in the popular mall Mecca to be closed for a long period of time. The Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, or ATF, worked with Roseville investigators, eventually leading Piggee to be charged with arson in federal court. In March of 2011, Piggee pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison. 

Gun smoke, crime tape, jail doors and police badges — such icons have been with Roseville since the first days iron locomotives steamed down its rail lines. As law enforcement races into a tech-savvy era of crime detection, the Press Tribune is searching its archives to look back on Roseville’s most notorious transgressions of the past.   

The Atlantic Street shoot-Out

It was an hour before midnight on June 30, 1925. R. Lera and his brother, Andrew, were getting ready to turn the closed sign on the Old Depot Station, an Atlantic Street bar later known as Gordy’s Club. As the Lera brothers prepared to count out the register, three young strangers sauntered into the empty saloon. Andrew noticed them calmly spread to different strategic positions. Before either of the Lera brothers could quite comprehend the gravity of the moment, the strangers were pointing revolvers in their faces.

One of the robbers was a drifter known as G. Duarti. Close by his side was his partner, Jesus Berrones. The other assailant was never identified, and he would eventually come to been known simply as “the third bandit.” The Lera brothers were tied up in a corner, watching as their pockets were emptied and then their register was looted for $1,000.

Outside, Roseville’s nighttime police constable, Fred Farhham, was taking a stroll under the evening clouds. Farnham was moving into view of the Old Depot Station when a shadow shifting through one of its windows gave him an uneasy feeling. At first the officer wondered if federal prohibition agents were conducting a raid on the establishment; but, looking closer at the position of the saloon door, he began to think something else was afoot. Guided by his instincts, Farnham crept up to one of the bar’s windows to peer in. He realized the Lera brothers were tied up. He saw that all three of their assailants were armed with revolvers and heading for the door. Alone, Farnham had only seconds to back away and draw his 38.-caliber pistol. He made a decision to stand his ground. 

The robbers came out of the saloon with guns drawn, their fields of vision honing in directly on Farnham. It remains unclear exactly what words were spoken in the chaotic millisecond of eye contact that followed — but what is known from the Roseville Press Register is that more than 20 shots were exchanged between the men. During the confusion, the Lera brothers freed themselves, grabbed their own firearms and joined the gun fight from the door of the bar. The Roseville Press Register noted in the aftermath that the Lera brothers’ shots were coming from a rear position, thus flying mostly in the direction of the police officer who had come to their rescue. An unimpressed reporter dryly note that, thanks to the Lera brothers, Farnham was dodging bullets from five guns instead of three.

The next morning, Placer County Sheriff Elmer Gum reconstructed the shoot-out as follows: When the irons started blazing, Farnham managed to send a bullet through Duarti’s head, killing him instantly. Farnham next drilled three rounds into Berrones, who fell, clinging to life. The officer was now out of ammunition and in the thunder of shooting from the Lera brothers, “the third bandit” escaped into the night.

“Mr. Farnham emptied his revolver and had no re-supply,” the Roseville Press Register wrote with an unabashedly proud tone, “or he would have undoubtedly been able to make a clean sweep of the trio.”

That summer, Farnham was honored by Roseville leaders for bravery. Today, the Roseville Police Department knows the Atlantic Street gunfight as its first documented case of an officer-involved shooting.    

The ‘Jungle Killer’ comes to Roseville

 The search for the first train-hopping serial killer to make Roseville one of his stalking grounds began in the summer of 1951 — a grisly precursor to another manhunt that would take place in the same city five decades later.

From the dawn of the rails to the present day, wandering, anonymous strangers have hitched their destinies to the cold, steel lines. It was the bloody remains of just such a transient that Placer County Sheriff Bill Elam was staring at on the morning of July 15, 1951. The victim’s head had been caved in with a 26-pound rock. The red-stained instrument was still laying on the ground nearby. Elam had no suspects, no witnesses and no way to identity his homeless victim. The Roseville Press Tribune dubbed the unknown slayer “the Jungle Killer” because the crime was committed out in the dim, densely wooded forest just north of the city limits.

 Within a week, Elam had learned that his murder case matched three equally brutal incidents of train-riding transients being slain in Stockton, Oakland and Sutter County.

Elam told the Press Tribune he was working hard to identify his Roseville victim, going as far as to have the dead man’s fingerprints airlifted to Washington, D.C., in hopes the Federal Veterans Administration could identify him through possible service in World War II.

 Elam’s investigation was tragically cut short in October of 1951 when his car veered off a 60-foot embankment on Dollar Hill outside of Tahoe City. The sheriff was thrown 30 feet through windshield onto the rocks and later found dead. The Jungle Killer investigation was taken over by Placer’s new sheriff, Charles Ward. 

 On Dec. 5, 1951, the skeletal remains of another of the Jungle Killer’s victims was discovered in the woods outside Newcastle. The man had been slaughtered not far from a Sierra Pacific railroad line. Law enforcement across Northern California ramped up efforts to find the murderer. Near the start of 1952, a transient farm laborer named Lloyd Gomez saved them further trouble by turning himself in and confessing to nine different “hobo” homicides. The Roseville Press Tribune referred to him as “emotionless Lloyd” for the lifelessness he displayed in court hearings. Gomez eventually admitted to killing his Roseville victim in order to rob him of $1. He also recalled shooting one victim for two cans of beer and netting as little as a nickel off another victim he’d killed in a robbery.

The minister of many faces

 Roseville residents barely had time to digest the ending of the Jungle Killer case when the news headlines were replaced by one of the most mind-twisting incidents in the city’s history.

On Sept. 16, 1952, it was announced that Rev. William McCalmont, the minister of Roseville’s First Presbyterian Church, had been arrested on a host of charges. The Roseville Press Tribune braced readers for what was unfolding with the following paragraph:

“Like page after page of wildest fiction, the fantastic story of Rev. William McCalmont continued to unfold yesterday into a Jekyll and Hyde tale that rocked this unbelieving community to its very roots.”

Was the newspaper exaggerating about the short, gentle-mannered minister with spectacles and neatly combed receding hairline? A meek, married man with two children? According to Placer County’s then-district attorney, Al Broyer, the reporter’s description was no tall tale. The array of crimes Broyer was charging one of Roseville’s most respected clergymen with was stunning. Two years before, most of Placer County had come together to help Imogen Wihsche, a little girl from Roseville whose legs had been cut off while swimming in Lake Tahoe by a drunk, reckless speed boat driver. Concerned residents started a special fund to help the child with her medical expenses and care needs. Now, Broyer was saying that McCalmont had used his pastorship to steal $500 dollars from the Imogen Wihsche Fund. 

If that were the only charge, Roseville might have collectively recovered from its shock. But Broyer warned the embezzlement was just the tip of the iceberg: McCalmont had also secretly dressed up like a woman and gone to introduce himself to an elderly couple in Loomis, perpetrating a cunning rouse that “swindled” $23,000 from the isolated seniors. Years later, McCalmont also allegedly confessed in a book that, during this time, he also disguised himself as an African American man while meeting with Roseville residents in attempts to execute various schemes. Sheriff Ward eventually cracked the Loomis swindle when McCalmont attempted to deposit some of the elderly couple’s money in a Roseville bank. When the sheriff’s office served a warrant on the minister’s house, the case took an even more startling turn.

Broyers told reporters that McCalmont had “drafted a bizarre plan” to kidnap children from Roseville’s most prominent and well-to-do families. The minister evidently made it clear in his notes he planned to extort money from the parents by threatening physical and sexual violence against the children.

Even before McCalmont’s preliminary hearing, the scandalous story of a cross-dressing minister who planned kidnapping excursions landed Ward an appearance on the nationwide radio program “Official Detective.”

On Feb. 25, 1953, McCalmont pleaded guilty but not guilty by reason of insanity. During his trial, two court-appointed psychiatrists testified they believed McCalmont knew what he was doing when he committed the crimes, even though he “often heard voices.” The doctors testified that, despite his fractured psyche, he still understood the differences between right and wrong. Placer County Judge Lowell L. Sparks may not have agreed. Lowell sentenced McCalmont to one year in county jail, 10 years of probation and strongly urged the disgraced minister to get mental health treatment.

“It’s the belief of the court,” Lowell said during sentencing, “that (McCalmont) could be rehabilitated and restored to his rightful place in society.”

The Press Tribune ran an editorial that seemed to sympathize with the judge’s view:

“And there are going to be many who are still unbelieving,” the editor wrote of the case. “Bill’s efforts for good were so great, and his ministry inspired so many, that it is difficult if not impossible to conceive of another part of his life.”

According to documents given to the city’s historical society by Roseville’s First Presbyterian Church, McCalmont received extensive mental health care, recovered and was eventually allowed to work as a minister again in a different congregation.         

Train-gang killer caught by DNA investigation           

In January of 2000, Roseville police detectives were called to a murder scene on a sandy path of gravel near PFE Road: There lay the body of a 46-year-old train-hopper named John Owens — killed by blunt force trauma to the skull. He was positioned not far from the tracks of a Union Pacific Railroad line.

Detectives processed the area and began searching for leads.

As the years went on, the department was forced to move the brutal slaying to an official “cold case” status. Then, in 2011, a team of investigators from the Roseville Police Department, the Placer County Sheriff’s Office and the Placer County District Attorney’s Office managed to use DNA evidence left at the Owens murder scene to identify his killer as fellow rail-rider Michael Elijah Adams. DNA had been obtained from Adams after he was arrested for a robbery in San Bernardino County.

Nicknamed “Crazy Mike,” Adams reportedly told Washington police he was “an enforcer” with the train-hopping gang known as Freight Train Riders of America. Adams is also suspected of beating a homeless woman to death in El Paso, Texas, in 2010 and leaving her body in a vacant lot. In a strange moment of bragging, Adams allegedly told a Washington deputy sheriff he’d been a suspect in two other homeless murders and was a proud prodigy of the infamous train-hopping serial killer “Dog Man Tony.”

In May of 2011, Adams pleaded guilty to murdering Owens in Roseville. 

Scott Thomas Anderson can be reached at scotta@goldcountrymedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at ScottA_RsvPT