In April 1925, Joe Tanko and his cohort Floyd Hall escaped San Quentin. Not an easy task. These fugitives, both convicted murderers, made their way to Sacramento where they commandeered a car from a man named F. R. Harlow who unfortunately had his baby girl with him. Hall sat in the front with the baby in his lap and Tanko sat in the back pointing his rifle at Harlow. This is where I become connected to the story, however remotely.
My Grandfather, Clyde Nunn, was a police officer in Sacramento. Grandpa Clyde and his partner A.J. Taylor were off duty and had stopped to pick up a lawnmower that had been repaired when some neighborhood kids ran up to tell them that they had witnessed the carjacking. They did not call it a “carjacking.”
Somewhere in the Oak Park neighborhood the car started to run out of gas and my granddad pulled up to the vehicle. He said, “Now hold on a minute.” Tanko did not hesitate. He shot my grandfather and threatened to kill the driver if he did not keep driving. Not nice. My granddad stayed behind the wheel of the patrol car and returned fire until he realized he was losing consciousness. He woke several hours later in Sutter Memorial hospital.
On December 26, 2013, I headed out for day three of my attempt at completing the Festive 500. As is my usual MO, to use a cop term in keeping with the theme, I did not know where I was going at first. I soon found myself heading north on Placer Hills road. It occurred to me that this was the same route that the search party (posse) had taken while hunting for Tanko and Hall while my grandfather convalesced from his gunshot. That was when my ride had a goal other than the pure joy of riding a bike and of course the accumulation of kilometers for the prize of a patch from the fine people at Rapha. I was going to find and kill Tanko! No I wasn’t. My next stop would be Colfax: see the fourth photo below. On my way to Colfax, I saw some ducks and geese, a rooster the size of a turkey and a couple walking their mules up the road. Those were the most exciting things I witnessed and so I return to the story of Tanko and Hall.
The car was able to drive a couple more blocks before it was completely out of gas. Tanko and Hall calmly walked away after the driver convinced them that he was truly out of gas. There were roadblocks in Sacramento but the fugitives managed to escape to Placer and Nevada counties. In Auburn, my hometown, Tanko and Hall held an elderly couple hostage at their farm, tying them to their four-poster bed. When the woman complained that the ropes were too tight Tanko said, “That’s better than a rope around your neck which is what I am going to get.” The two scoundrels then sat for “three quarters of an hour” and ate a leisurely breakfast at the couple’s house. They left with the farmer’s car: license plate number 632 238.
My ride took me over beautiful rolling hills, each hill ranging at least 15 degrees in temperature from top to bottom; warm on top and frigid at the bottom. I rode passed Iowa Hill Road, the road that leads to the tiny hamlet of, yes, Iowa Hill. That road is famous to local cyclists. Sections of this climb average 15%.
In the spring of 1925 the caretaker at the Big Dipper Mine in Iowa Hill noticed an open door at a cabin near the mine. His thoughts immediately went to the two criminals thought to be at large in the area. He went to the mine owner’s home nearby and noticed heat escaping the chimney. The Rose family, for Rose was the owner’s name, was on a trip to San Diego for the past month or more. The caretaker contacted the sheriff in Colfax and ten minutes after receiving the message the Sheriff, his deputy and a posse of ten men arrived “in three machines.” A posse of Iowa Hill men was already there. They joined forces and searched all the buildings and surroundings before concentrating their efforts on the Rose home.
I continued on to Colfax. The downtown looks not so very different than it did in the 1920’s. There are some notable differences however, like more of the roads are paved and there is a Starbucks but many of the original buildings are still standing. As with most charming old western towns, the buildings original purposes have changed. Where once hardware stores and hotels resided, there are now antique shops and gift shops. I rode to Starbucks where I had coffee and pumpkin bread. If there is a better, local coffee shop in Colfax I would be happy to hear about it.
The Rose home’s doors were all locked. There was no sign of breaking and entering. It was a false alarm.
I knew that the hunt for Tanko and associate went through Cape Horn, Chicago Park and onward to Grass Valley, so that was what I must do. Highway 174 has little in the way of a shoulder but other than that it is a lovely road for a bike ride. It winds through forests and farms and crosses roads with such quaint names as “You Bet,” “Rattlesnake,” and “Green Horn.”
Reports that Tanko and Hall were trapped in the “wilds” of Nevada County streamed in. A posse from Auburn was reassembled with the addition of hundreds of citizens joining in the hunt.
I rolled into Grass Valley a little after 2:00 pm and headed straight to Marshall’s Pasties. Pasties are meat and or vegetable pies made to be portable; something you might take on a hike or to work; to work in the mines for example, and eaten out of your hand. They are not to be confused with something a professional dancer might wear. Marshall’s has been in business since I was a young boy visiting my grandparents in Nevada City. It is next to the Del Oro theater so if you find yourself hungry after a movie, walk on over. Cash only.
The killers where not found in Nevada County. Hall was found in Sacramento hiding under a bed. “Well, I guess it’s all up. It’s the noose for me,” Hall exclaimed as he crawled out from under the bed. He admitted to robbing cabins and stealing mail. The bandits had abandoned a stolen car in Cape Horn, a place so small it is no longer a town, on the outskirts of Colfax. Hall spoke of wild escapades through Nevada City and Grass Valley. Through all the questioning he would not implicate the still at large Joe Tanko.
From Grass Valley, with a veggie pastie happily ensconced in my gut, I headed to Old Auburn Road. It is the only route I know of that avoids the first few miles of busy highway 49. It’s a scenic road with rolling hills (like everywhere in Nevada County) and green pastures even in the winter. Eventually the road dumped me unceremoniously out onto highway 49. I rode all the way back to Auburn on the highway, dodging broken glass and other litter most of the way.
Joe Tanko was not captured until November 13. Well, he was never actually captured. He was hiding out in the apartment of a known criminal in San Francisco. When Detective Earl Roony knocked Tanko said, “Come in,” and shot him as he entered the room. Here is an account from the San francisco Examiner:
“As anticipated, Tanko, a youth with a murderous heart, fought for his life to the last and refused to yield an inch until his last breath had ebbed out on the floor of an apartment on McAllister Street, where beside him lay moaning Detectives Earl Roony and Vernon Van Matre, slayers of the killer. It was a gun battle at close range and the deadly aim of Tanko was matched by Roony and Van Matre as the three sank to the floor from bullet wounds almost instantaneously.” Powder burns on Tanko’s shirt led to speculation that he had shot himself in the heart.
The detectives had entered the apartment in search of other “desperados” who had beaten up a couple in Golden Gate Park the day before. When two policemen who were waiting outside heard the gunshots they entered the apartment to see the three lying in pools of blood. The cops recognized Tanko right away. The two detectives who were shot by Tanko were rushed to the hospital and survived.
When I pulled up to HQ (mom’s house) I had frozen toes and a big appetite. That pastie had moved on so to speak. I ate a light snack of apple pie, pumpkin pie and bread pudding, all left over from the festivities of the day before.
My grandfather headed to San Francisco to get a look at the man, the 24-year-old man, who had shot him. He said, “He doesn’t look near as ugly today.…I am amazed to see how small Tanko’s stature is. He appeared a much larger man that night.”
Epilogue: My use of the words, “Desperado,” “Scoundrels,” and “Killers,” was taken straight out of the reports from the time. I finished the Festive 500 with two kilometers to spare on December 30th.