By Mark Gutglueck
Eugene Mueller was San Bernardino County’s first and arguably only reformist sheriff.
He was born in Chicago on December 12, 1904 to Alfred Mueller, a veteran of the Spanish-American War, and his wife, Clara.
Alfred was wounded in the leg while in battle in the Philippines, which left him disabled for the remainder of his life. To support his parents, who moved to California in 1919, Eugene Mueller went to work at an early age and therefore never received an academic education beyond high school.
He began working as a policeman with the Pasadena Police Department in 1927, walking a beat in his first assignment. In 1932 he was lent to the Southgate police department, where he reorganized operations and served as police chief for three years. He returned to the Pasadena Police Department in 1935.
While with the Pasadena department, he was given the assignment of escorting the Stanford football team around town during one of its appearances at the Rose Bowl. This led to Mueller’s lifelong association with Stanford as both an athletic scout and a booster.
In 1941, Mueller left Pasadena for Upland, where he had been ofered the assignment of police chief. When he arrived in Upland, he found accommodations for his family, which included his wife Norma, his daughter Marilyn and two sons, Don and Ken, at a citrus grove estate on what is now 20th Street. Concerned about maintaining stability for his children in their educational setting, he committed to remaining in Upland.
While overseeing the Upland force, he made the noteworthy stride of hiring the department’s first minority members, including Felix Quesada. As chief, Mueller involved himself in the rudimentary elements of police work, walking a beat, patrolling and personally investigating crime within his department’s jurisdiction. He was close to his officers and played second base on the department baseball team, and was averred to be a good hitter.
During the late stage of World War II, Mueller traveled to Washington, D.C., where he attended the National Police Academy, bringing back concepts on how to modernize and improve the department.
While in Upland, his children attended Chaffey High School. He created a quarterback’s social club, which entailed Monday morning breakfast meetings of participants. He promoted youth sports programs such as Golden Gloves. As a scout for Stanford, he recruited three Chaffey High gridiron standouts for the Stanford football team: Jim Vick, Jim Hayes and Don Lucas.
In 1950, Mueller ran for San Bernardino county sheriff against incumbent Jim Stocker and another challenger, former sheriff Emmet Shay in the June primary. After qualifying for a run off against Stocker, Mueller prevailed by 992 votes in what was the closest election for county sheriff in San Bernardino County history. Out of 85,362 votes cast with all but three of the county’s precincts accounted for, 43,177 votes went to Mueller and 42,185 votes were captured by Stocker.
The impetus for Mueller’s candidacy had been his backers’ call for him to make inroads with regards to what the Los Angeles Daily News had exposed as a $3 million vice ring operating in San Bernardino County in which none of the major principals had been indicted and of which only a single pimp had been arrested.
As the newly elected sheriff, Mueller inherited an organization with a checkered past, conflicting loyalties, and questionable alliances, political, legal and moral. For generations those in power and those with money had been able to utilize the sheriff’s department much like a private security force to protect their interests first and those of the public second. Protection rackets were an inherent part of the system. Houses of ill repute flourished throughout the county unmolested, as did gambling enterprises. Law enforcement officers were paid to look the other way, if they were not invited to outright participate in illicit enterprises directly or indirectly.
Gambling houses and bookmaking operations operated with seeming impunity in San Bernardino County throughout the 1940s and into the first year of the 1950s. Occasional raids on such enterprises were staged by Stocker and his men, but reports on the activity were not consistently provided to the district attorney’s office and the gaming operations carried on.
Mueller set his sights first on these elements of the county’s vice activity, seeking to spur his department into action.
Upon coming into office in 1951, Mueller undertook what would be described in the press as “a sweeping shake-up of his office.” Mueller said the changes were being made “to bring about closer supervision, thereby ensuring greater efficiency, and to broaden deputies with a wider orientation of duties in various areas.”
He had some success in changing the complexion and tenor of his department’s operations, but felt his deputies were not moving with the alacrity he envisioned was necessary to achieve the goals he had set out for the department. In response, he moved to reorganize the department’s command structure, demoting five people holding administrative echelon positions, including 69-year-old undersheriff Harry R. Heap, whom Mueller perceived as being too lackluster in his performance. Heap was reduced in rank to chief investigator.
Mueller settled upon the one senior administrator under Stocker in whom he saw the most promise, Ray Deakins, as his best bet for serving him in the role of second-in-command. Thus, Deakins became undersheriff. Mueller further used his authority and autonomy as sheriff to promote those men in the department he felt made the best fit with his goals and management style.
He created the office of acting chief of detectives in the bureau of investigations and installed deputy L.L. “Zeke” Eblen in that post. He named lieutenant James M. Holloway chief of the administrative intelligence squad, to be assisted by detective lieutenants Robert Graefe and James Willis. He put inspector H.C. English in charge of all uniformed patrol deputies and their activities, jail operations, the department’s substations and its rescue operations. He further created the office of chief of plans and training, assigning captain Lester Liess to oversee it.
But the series of changes Mueller instituted touched the lives of roughly two of every five of his deputies and his approach triggered protests and grumbling. And his challenge to Heap’s turf as well as to two of the other five members of the department he demoted resulted in official appeal filings with the San Bernardino County Civil Service Commission.
Relatively early on, the new sheriff would get a glimpse of what he was up against. Ten months into Mueller’s tenure as sheriff, in November 1951, George C. Fitzwatter, who was then 66 years old, was arrested and charged with collecting money under false pretenses. Fitzwater had been the local coordinator for a pension collective. He was accused of bilking Lawrence Harpham, the proprietor of an establishment near Colton and just north of the Riverside County line, of $350. Fitzwater was arrested after Mueller’s deputies raided Harpham’s gaming house on November 10, 1951 and an outraged Harpham told them they were making a mistake. He then explained that he had paid “fix” money to Fitzwater with the understanding that $150 of the money would be kept by Fitzwater and the other $200 would be paid to Deakins, the acting undersheriff. The purpose of his payment, Harpham thought, was to keep his gambling operation from being raided.
The event was a learning experience for all involved. Hapham and other gambling house operators learned that Mueller and Deakins’ enforcement of the law was not subject to monetary influence as had apparently been the case during the Stocker administration when Heap was undersheriff. And Mueller and Deakins learned something about why their vice suppression operations were less effective than they intended.
Meanwhile, Mueller’s reassignment of deputies to different duty stations, ones that were in some cases a hundred miles or more away from their previous assignments, rankled some of his men. Mueller was dealing with the reality of the sheer size of the county, from its northeast corner where the Inyo County line meets the Nevada border to Carbon Canyon near Chino Hills in the southwest and from Trona at the county’s northwest corner nestled against Inyo and Kern counties at the gateway into Death Valley down to San Timoteo Canyon along the frontier with Riverside County and everything in between. At, 20,014 square miles, San Bernardino County is a land mass larger than New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island combined. Mueller wanted his men to familiarize themselves with all aspects of the county, from its desolate and seemingly boundless expanse of desert to its snow capped peaks in the San Bernardino and Angeles Mountains as well as its agricultural zones, its railroad towns such as Needles, Barstow and Colton, its stretches of lonesome highway and its urban centers such as San Bernardino, Ontario and Redlands. Working counter to Mueller was not simply the inbred corruption he detested, but the very geography of the county itself.
The challenges to Mueller’s department reorganization were eventually heard by the civil service commission.
Heap, the dean of the department as he approached his 70th year, was reinstated as undersheriff, though only temporarily. In reinstating Heap, the commission took into consideration that he was scheduled to retire within two months, while recognizing that Mueller was looking for more dynamic leadership for his department. “The big issue seemed to be that Heap had outlived his usefulness and lacked in initiative and administrative ability,” the civil service commission’s finding stated. “This may be true but little or no evidence was submitted to substantiate the sheriff’s position.”
The other two department members who had contested Mueller’s action were Roy Cornelison, the former Fontana substation captain who had been replaced in that assignment by sergeant J. M. Staudemmayer and transferred to the central division in San Bernardino as a patrol deputy, and P. T. Coleman, who had been relieved of his post as resident deputy in Trona and was likewise sent back to San Bernardino to do patrol work.
The commission approved the one-grade demotion of Roy Cornelison, whom the commission characterized as using “poor judgment” at times. The commission further found that occasionally Connelison’s “conduct, manners and language were unbecoming a substation captain.”
The commission approved the demotion of Coleman from resident to patrol deputy, finding there was evidence “of conduct unbecoming an officer, poor judgment while on duty and poor public relations over a long period of time which did not enhance the prestige of the sheriff’s office in the minds of a substantial number of citizens in the Trona-Argus desert area.”
A citizens’ group formed to fight the changes and, utilizing representatives from a number of the communities around the county, lodged assertions with the commission that civil service regulations were not being followed by the new sheriff. Mueller was able to allay those concerns with the commission and most of the public.
Emblematic of how the new ethos Mueller advocated did not sit well with at least some of his men was the dissolution of the sheriff’s posse. Mueller rode horses, but was not a devout equestrian. On the other hand, his predecessor, Stocker, had the reputation and mindset of a cowboy. Stocker had founded in 1947 the sheriff’s mounted posse, a throwback to the days of old. The posse consisted of horsemen sworn in by Stocker, who were in a perpetual stand-by status, ready to be called out to search the county’s considerable expanses for fleeing criminals, jail or prison escapees, lost hikers or hunters or fishermen or for any rescue operation where they might be useful.
Mueller, though appreciative of the posse in concept, had not put as high of a priority on its contributions as Stocker and, busy with other matters, did not get around to swearing the posse in until four months after he took office. The posse members, who yet counted Stocker among them, took this as a slight. Claiming that politics was not involved, the horsemen disbanded the posse, saying Mueller had allowed it to “drift.” In its place, they immediately formed a new riding club – the San Bernardino County Rangers.
Mueller then did some maneuvering of his own, creating the sheriff’s reserve mounted posse and forming the sheriff’s reserve motorcycle posse, with 30 members chartered to assist with traffic emergencies, search and rescue and forest fire response.
Following Heap’s retirement, Mueller was able to assert authority over the department he headed.
Mueller assigned a deputy to do occasional patrol of Lake Arrowhead to discourage reckless speeding by boaters there.
One facet of Mueller’s direction of the department that distinguishes him from both his predecessors and his successors is the sartorial standard he set for the department. He insisted that his men adopt uniforms that were reminiscent of the dress regalia of the Marine Corps, complemented by World War II National Park ranger hats, which he believed conveyed an image befitting the esteem he believed the public should have for officers of the law.
Mueller was also the first San Bernardino County sheriff to add women to the ranks of the department and it was under him that the department’s ladies auxiliary was organized.
He participated in and often led department raids, signaling commencement of the enforcement team’s charge with the call “Geronimo.”
Mueller had an effective way of commanding the attention of his men or others in a crowd who had slipped off into a myriad of separate private conversations when it was time for him to convey something of importance. He kept a blank bullet in his gun and he would take aim at the ceiling and shoot. The loud report would bring the focus back to him.
On June 29, 1953, the sheriff’s department’s aeronautical unit was formed with the acquisition of the department’s first aircraft. Also in 1953, the sheriff’s reserve emergency unit was organized.
By his fourth year in office, the department had made significant strides in eroding the gambling component of the region’s vice activity.
Nevertheless, Mueller never fully recovered politically from the dissension that was sowed in the ranks over his effort to change the culture of the force under his command. In 1954, Frank Bland, exploiting some of the deputies’ expressions of discontent over their transfers and the newfangled way of running the department Mueller represented, challenged him in the sheriff’s race. Bland, a railroad policeman and detective from Needles who had joined the Needles Police Department and had risen through the ranks to become police chief there, was like Mueller, a graduate of the National Police Academy. Bland campaigned on three issues: He charged Mueller with being a city slicker from Upland who had neglected the more remote and rustic areas of the county. Bland vowed to close down all of the pinball parlors around the county where youngsters were squandering too much of their time, he claimed, instead of staying home and doing their chores and homework. And he vowed to close down the houses of ill-repute which proliferated at various spots of the far flung county along its myriad of highways and outback reaches.
Mueller was one of the first San Bernardino politicians to be buried under the avalanche of a negative campaign. In addition to being attacked for slighting the county’s backwaters, he was attacked for dressing his deputies in fancy and overly flamboyant uniforms.
Ultimately, too much reform too soon undid Mueller politically in San Bernardino County. Elected at the halfway mark of the Twentieth Century, Mueller gamely attempted to modernize and professionalize a department that yet had one foot firmly planted in what was at least the mystique if not the reality of the ”Old West.” Moreover, the wide open lawlessness of the unbridled frontier that was much of San Bernardino County resisted the regulation and order he was seeking to impose. He lost convincingly to Bland 20,926 to 16,591 in a head-to-head, two-man race held in June 1954, during that year’s California primary election.
Bland’s victory that year was the first of seven successive electoral victories he racked up, allowing him to serve a record 28 years as sheriff in San Bernardino County. A horseman, Bland was able to pool the support of Stocker and utilize the discontent over Mueller’s reforms to canter to victory, posing as a reformer of sorts and creating in the process a political machine that has outlived him and survives to this day. Each sheriff that has succeeded him – Floyd Tidwell, Dick Williams, Gary Penrod, Rod Hoops and the current incumbent John McMahon – did so with the assistance of the political machine Bland created. Each of those sheriffs came into office with the political endorsement of his predecessor. And though Bland initially made good on his commitment to take a stand against vice and in particular close down some of the houses of prostitution in the county, in time that effort lapsed. In 1966, information surfaced that Bland himself had pilfered thousands of dollars from a fund that had been set up to provide his deputies working the vice/narcotics detail with money for drug buys, place bets with bookies or make the monetary exchanges needed to arrest pimps and prostitutes. Despite the revelation, Bland remained in office and was never molested by the district attorney as he was often returned to office without electoral challenge or was able to bury the negative publicity under an avalanche of positive sounding mailers and handbills and gain re-election when he was opposed.
In 1978, Bland again dodged a mortal bullet when a scandal enveloped his campaign that showed 24 years after his maiden campaign for sheriff based upon eradicating the county of the scourge of prostitution Bland’s department had become mired in questionable ties with ladies of the evening. At a Bland campaign fundraiser in April of that year at Sweeten Hall in Rancho Cucamonga, donors and others in attendance with Bland were offered the services of prostitutes inside a trailer within the hall’s parking lot. A bust of the proceedings corralled a couple of the girls, a member of the sheriff’s department and one of Bland’s supporters. The ensuing case was prosecuted by deputy district attorney Bill Parker, leading to revelations about the matter that came too late to prevent Bland from being elected to serve a seventh term.
In 1982, Bland, then 69, chose not to seek reelection to an eighth term as he was mired in controversy relating to sheriff’s officers helping themselves to stolen property that had been recovered by his department. Instead, he handed off the reins to his second-in-command, undersheriff Floyd Tidwell.
To this day, Mueller has a legitimate claim to having been the leading reformist sheriff in San Bernardino County history.
Mueller’s work as a lawman did not end with his defeat in the 1954 election. In 1955, California Governor Goodwin Knight appointed Mueller to work with attorney Jim Cox on rooting out racketeering in boxing.
Meanwhile, in Culver City in Los Angeles County, a laissez-faire atmosphere with regard to vice had persisted for some time. Gambling in particular was a wide-open phenomenon there, and the atmosphere of tolerance was at one with the political leadership of the time. But in 1956, Culver City Mayor Harold Shields, who had reformist leanings, was able, with three other successful reformist council candidates, to get control of the city’s reins of power. Together, they eased police chief W. N. Hildebrand, who had a modus vivendi with the gaming interests in town, toward the door. Hildebrand would become eligible for a disability retirement on June 11, 1956 and that was the date set for his retirement.
Shields conferred with then-Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker, asking for his recommendation as to a replacement for Hildebrand, in particular someone who would aggressively step up enforcement against gaming and bookmaking operations. Parker suggested Mueller. Shields then prevailed upon Mueller to leave his Sacramento assignment and become police chief in Culver City.
Mueller lit into the city’s illicit gaming establishment.
“Some of it moved out when the mobsters heard I was coming and we took care of the rest,” Mueller later said.
Mueller remained as Culver City police chief for thirteen-and-one-half years, retiring on January 1, 1970.
One noteworthy change Mueller made toward the end of his career was that he lightened up on his requirement that the officers under his command wear officious looking uniforms. By 1969, Mueller had changed the dress code for Culver City police officers to allow them to wear typical street clothes with the sole requirement that they wear only one common item of apparel – a gold blazer with a pocket insignia identifying the wearer as a policeman.
Sometime prior to his retirement, Mueller sat down for an interview with the Los Angeles Times, at which he sized up the challenges facing society, vis a vis cops vs. crooks.
“There is far too much sympathy for the criminal and not enough for the victim,” he said. “The bleeding hearts talk of the ‘poor fellow’ -and they’re not referring to the victim, but the criminal All judges need to get a little tougher. There must be a day of atonement for the commission of a crime. The individual must be held responsible for his actions. Otherwise there is chaos.”
The mission of a police department administrator should be, he said, “toward increasing the professionalism of policemen, through selection, training and improved human relations.”
Mueller died in 1977.
By Mark Gutglueck