On Sunday morning, April 14, 1957, the Progressive Flight Club, a group of civilian aviators located in Hawthorne, California, took off on a “breakfast flight” up the coast to Santa Ynez in Santa Barbara County. The weather that morning should have caused doubt in the minds of flyers dependent on visual flight rules, but they persevered against the elements. On the return flight, however, the club paid for its hubris. Two of its 19 planes went down. Witnesses saw the first plane crash into the ocean off of Oxnard. The crash killed four. But the crash site of the second plane, somewhere in the Malibu area, remained undiscovered into the next day.
An aerial search commenced in improving weather on Monday, and one of the planes participating in this effort came from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Aero Bureau. Sergeant Vernon Corbeil drew the assignment in his Fairchild XNQ-1, a plane whose design necessitated that an observer sit in the seat behind the pilot’s to maximize the efficacy of search operations. However, since Corbeil worked out of downtown Los Angeles on special assignment with detective units, he had difficulty finding anyone to act as his observer. Finally, he persuaded Sergeant Raymond Willis — a former LAPD officer who had joined the LASD in 1955 to start the department’s polygraph unit — to act as his observer with the agreement that Corbeil would drop Willis off on Catalina Island after the search concluded. But that never happened. The Fairchild experienced engine trouble while flying over Malibu. Corbeil attempted an emergency landing on a local airstrip, but the plane crashed and burst into flames 500 yards short of the runway. Both Corbeil and Willis were killed.
In May 1970, the Los Angeles County Peace Officers’ Memorial was dedicated in East Los Angeles. Corbeil’s name went on the wall, but Willis’s did not. This error would not be corrected until 2014, when Willis’s name was added to the Los Angeles County, state and national peace officer memorials.
If a peace officer could die in a plane crash behind one of his partners and not be recognized as dying in the line of duty, can you imagine how many other officers may have been overlooked over the years? Every year, the names of numerous fallen peace officers from the past are added to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C. But despite this effort to memorialize all our fallen officers, Chris Cosgriff, executive director for the Officer Down Memorial Page, recently told me that he believes the number of officers from the past who are yet to be recognized could be in the thousands. So how do we find them and get them recognized?
Over the past 22 years, I have been involved with California state peace officers’ memorials. For the better part of the past dozen years, that involvement has expanded to include searching for our forgotten fallen. During that time, my partners and I at the Los Angeles Sheriffs’ Museum have found over 20 overlooked Los Angeles County peace officers, both male and female, and seen them added to one or all three memorials honoring our fallen heroes — the Los Angeles County memorial, the state memorial in Sacramento or the national memorial in Washington, D.C. As we enter memorial month, it is my hope this article will help you locate your forgotten fallen with the intention of seeing them honored. Sadly, you will also see that finding a fallen hero, even one who without a doubt qualifies, does not guarantee that he or she will be added to a memorial.
If you come from a small enough department with fallen officers, then you no doubt know a lot about them. Or perhaps you don’t. We realized we did not know as much about our forgotten fallen as we thought in Los Angeles County, so we undertook a review of every honored death. What we discovered stunned us. Not only had we honored people who were undeserving of recognition, but we had also overlooked others. That was how Willis’s name was omitted. By 1970, the polygraph unit he started was staffed entirely by civilians, and his tenure on the LASD was so brief that no one remembered him. Tragic.
But beyond your own review of the fallen, there are two principle historical sources to scrutinize: primary and secondary. A primary source is a firsthand account or factual record. These include letters, diaries, police reports, death certificates, personnel files, coroner’s ledgers, city directories, medical records, military records, etc. While possession of these are often essential to adding a fallen officer to a memorial, they are rarely the place where you will first find your fallen. Typically, a fallen officer is first located in an interpretive or secondary source, such as a newspaper, history text or biography. Using a standard internet search is not a practical way to investigate. Without a specific name, typing in a phrase like “police officer killed” in a common search engine will yield countless results of fallen officers, virtually all of whom are already recognized. To narrow your search, you need to narrow your sources.
In decades past, searching old newspapers proved daunting, but in recent years, more and more of them have been digitized, and keyword searching is readily available. But where to find them? In many places, an individual university or library may end up with a paper. For example, in my county, the University of Southern California holds a collection of the Los Angeles Star, one of the county’s oldest papers, and old issues can be accessed and keyword searched on the USC library website. Also in my county, the Los Angeles Public Library holds digital versions of The Los Angeles Times dating back to its inception in 1881, and library cardholders can access the collection remotely. But broader online newspaper collections can be found elsewhere. In California, the California Digital Newspaper Collection is available through UC Riverside’s Center for Bibliographical Studies and Research (cdnc.ucr.edu/cgi-bin/cdnc). In Oregon, the Historic Oregon Newspaper Collection is available at the University of Oregon (oregonnews.uoregon.edu). In the state of Washington, the Washington Digital Newspapers database is available through the Washington State Library (washingtondigitalnewspapers.org). You see where this is going. Your Google search should start with the name of your state, followed by the words “digital newspapers.” This will take you to the state university or government agency holding these papers. Once there, you can begin your keyword search. You can also try the Library of Congress’ digital newspaper site (chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/newspapers), which features several newspapers from most states. Due to the vagaries of keyword searching and data entry, some sites are more user-friendly than others. Be careful to narrow your scope. Use every law enforcement title you can think of, such as marshal, deputy marshal, constable, deputy constable, sheriff, deputy sheriff, etc. Keyword searching any database is only as good as the data you have and the way it is entered into the search engine.
Once you find an officer’s death, check to see if they have already been recognized. Use the official websites for local, state and the national memorials for this. You might begin with the Officer Down Memorial Page, which, despite being an unofficial page, does an outstanding of job tracking the fallen. You may find officers here who are unrecognized, but typically, there is an extenuating circumstance for an unrecognized officer on ODMP. Usually, the manner of their death is outside normal memorial criteria. It is ODMP’s call who they put on their page.
Remember: Newspapers are secondary sources, not primary ones! Sometimes they get it wrong. Never hang your hat on one source. I remember one newspaper reported a deputy died in a shootout, while another said he survived and it was the suspect who died. Even when you do have a couple of newspaper accounts, this is still not enough. Each memorial (local, state and national) has different criteria for adding a fallen officer, and those criteria have gotten stricter over time. So once you have identified an unrecognized officer, this is when your search of primary sources begins.
If you have an account with Ancestry.com, use it. They have access to vital statistical information, such as census and some birth and death records. Some older death certificates may also be available online, but these will likely need to be requested formally. Coroner’s offices also keep records. For example, the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office has death registers going back to 1891. The Sheriffs’ Museum recently struck a deal with the coroner’s office to house these volumes, which makes research for us much easier.
Accessing personnel records and reports is also helpful, but some agencies/municipalities are better than others at retaining documents. By far the best and most outstanding, in my opinion, is the New York City Municipal Archives. They possess original records in Dutch, going back to the 1660s. Their law enforcement records are equally impressive. Decades ago, a deal was struck between the Municipal Archives and the NYPD to preserve police records. Among the archives’ holdings is a hard copy of NYPD’s first numbered police report from 1845; it was a domestic violence incident. Not much changes.
Certain deaths are easier than others to merit recognition on a memorial. The closer the officer’s death is to the date of the incident that caused it, the better. Lingering deaths, on the other hand, are problematic, especially the farther back in time you go. Those who make the decisions to accept or reject people on memorial walls are rarely medically trained and often lack a deep appreciation of history. Sometimes, the line-of-duty death of an officer can be inferred, though it occurs years after the incident causing it. We have multiple examples of lingering deaths in Los Angeles County. But when we also have secondary sources that harken back to the original incident when the officer sustained his or her injury, our task is simpler. However, what if, when the officer dies, there is no mention of the first incident? Here is where medical histories, death certificates and autopsy reports are vital. Without these reports, linking an officer’s premature death to an on-duty incident years before and getting a state or the national memorial to recognize him or her is unlikely.
Education may also be part of what is needed to add a fallen officer from the past to a memorial wall. In Los Angeles, we recently submitted the name of Deputy Constable George Curtis, EOW February 1, 1916, to the California Peace Officers’ Memorial Foundation (CPOMF) for consideration to be added to the state memorial. On that date in 1916, rancher Henry Kent, of Elizabeth Lake, an area in the Antelope Valley that’s still relatively isolated even today, was shot by renter George M. Mason after he refused to pay his board. Kent staggered a half mile to town and told Justice of the Peace Grattan Bennett of the crime. With no law enforcement officers in the remote area, Bennett deputized George Curtis and George Baker as deputy constables to arrest Mason. Bennett accompanied the men to Kent’s property to confront Mason. Before the three men could even reach the front door of Kent’s house, Mason opened it and fired at them. Shotgun pellets struck Bennett in the right eye, staggering him. Mason then turned the shotgun on Curtis and fired the shell from the weapon’s other barrel at him. Pellets struck Curtis in the throat and he fell to the ground and bled to death from wounds to his left jugular vein. Hours before the incident, Curtis, 33, was a simple ranch hand. Bennett deputized him as a deputy constable to assist with a lawful arrest and he died a line-of-duty death as a peace officer. But that is not how they saw it in Sacramento. Rather than viewing Curtis’ on-duty death in the context of the times, CPOMF viewed it through modern eyes and rejected his application. This sad rejection based on a failure to understand the historical context of an officer’s death is tragic, but not unique. All you can do is your best to provide all the documentation possible and educate people when you can.
Find your fallen first with secondary sources. Use Ancestry.com, department records, local records, death records, as well as any other primary source you can locate to support your claim. Then write a summary of your findings, along with a brief description of the sequence of events, and move to your department executives. All memorials require a formal request for inclusion to come from the head of the agency who suffered the loss. There is no such thing as too much research.
Finding the family of the forgotten fallen is also important. Ancestry.com may be your best bet here, but this is a vital piece of your research. It is not just the men and women who gave their lives who deserve to be remembered and recognized. The ones they left behind deserve recognition, too. With more of you on the case, I’m sure we will do a better job ensuring the memory of our forgotten fallen heroes becomes more than just a memory.
As seen in the May 2019 issue of American Police Beat magazine.
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