Walter A. Shay, Multifaceted Lawman

By Mark Gutglueck
Walter A. Shay, Jr. was one of San Bernardino County’s most celebrated lawmen. Though he began his law enforcement career at the relatively advanced age of 33, he went on to wear or carry numerous badges, including deputy sheriff, city marshal, police chief, special agent for the Pacific Electric and Santa Fe Railroads, special district attorney’s investigator and San Bernardino County sheriff. After he donned a police uniform, he figuratively never took it off, becoming the first and only San Bernardino County sheriff to die in office.
He was the youngest son of Walter Alexander Shay, who was born in Nova Scotia in 1812 and Elizabeth Goshen, born in North Carolina in 1829. Walter Alexander Shay, Jr. was born in San Bernardino on June 29, 1866, when his father was 54. The older Shay was a robust farmer, operating a 190-acre farm located along Baseline Road in what is now East Highlands Ranch. Walter Junior had four siblings, John Joseph Shay (1854 – 1931), James Thomas Shay (1857 – 1932), William Henry Shay (1860 – 1942), and Mary Ann Shay Hutchings (1863 – 1950). His mother died in 1869.
As a young man, Water Shay, Jr. ran a freighting business catering to the desert communities. Subsequently, he took on the responsibility of assisting his father in farming the 190-acre spread.
In 1892 he married Virginia Matilda McCoy, known as Tillie. They initially lived at 495 N. “C” Street. They had four children: Weston Walter Shay (1894-1982); Emmet Livingston Shay (1898 to 1978), who was himself a lawman and sheriff of San Bernardino County; George W Shay (1903 – 1905) and Nell Shay Patton (1910 – 1997).
In 1898 Walter Shay, Jr. took a job as a sheriff’s deputy under Sheriff Charles Rouse. The following year, his father was killed in a horse riding mishap on December 2, 1899.
After four years as a sheriff’s deputy, he ran for San Bernardino city marshal and was elected. The position of San Bernardino marshal had been created in 1853 by Brigham Young when San Bernardino was yet a Mormon settlement. For the first fifteen years, the marshal’s post in San Bernardino had been an appointed one. In 1868 it was converted to an elected one. From 1853 until 1906 15 men served as the town marshal of San Bernardino: Bud Rollins, Stewart Wall, George Mattheson, Frank Kerfoot, Charles Landers, Mark Thomas, John C. Ralphs, L. Van Dorin, Joseph Bright, Hughes Thomas, David Wixom, William Reeves, John Henderson, Ben Souther, and Walter A. Shay.
In 1905 the city of San Bernardino instituted new rules of incorporation. A mayor and what was referred to as a “common council” was formed and members elected to office, including Hiram M. Barton, who was elected mayor. The new council was sworn in on May 8, 1905. Two years remained on Walter Shay’s term as marshal. The newly constituted city government structure no longer featured the position of marshal. One of the first orders of business for the new mayor and council was to appoint a new police force to take office at 12 noon on May 15, 1905. Mayor Barton read a proclamation naming the eight officers to the newly formed police department – John Bell Ketring, Robert O’Rourke, John A. Henderson, William H. Hurley, Edward Poppett, Benjamin Emerson, Richard Curtis, Robert Nish. Walter A. Shay Jr. was proclaimed the chief of police. He was thus the last marshal of San Bernardino and the city’s first police chief.
He remained as police chief for two years but left that office to take a position as a special agent for the Pacific Electric railway. Two years later, San Bernardino Mayor S.W. McNabb persuaded Shay to return to the position of San Bernardino police chief. Two years later, Shay resigned as police chief to go to work as a special agent for the Arizona and coast line division of the Santa Fe Railroad. He remained in this position for four years. At that point San Bernardino Mayor George H. Wixom, to whose daughter Violet Shay’s son Emmet would be married in 1920, convinced him to head the police department for a third time.
In 1916 Shay again departed as San Bernardino police chief to go to work for the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s office as a special investigator. He remained in this role for a year-and-a-half. In 1918 he ran, successfully for county sheriff, succeeding J.L. McMinn. He was reelected three times, in 1922, 1926, and 1930.
In 1921, he instituted the modernization of the department by introducing the use of police technology, in particular the identification bureau, the first specialized division organized within the sheriff’s department.
In 1922, he would be at the forefront of converting law enforcement agencies into paramilitary organizations. In 1921, his deputies had a particularly rough time in apprehending highwayman Juan Barron. In response, in early 1922, Shay requisitioned from the U.S. Army surplus grenades left over from World War I, which were provided to his deputies to assist them, according to the San Bernardino Sun “to dislodge highwaymen in dugouts.”
In 1924, he devoted considerable department resources in tracking down bootleggers. In one month alone, July of that year, 33 were arrested for trafficking in moonshine or other intoxicating beverages.
Prior to his 1926 reelection, the San Bernardino Sun credited him with solving all eleven murders that had occurred in the county over the previous several years.
As sheriff, Shay created a “dry squad,” which was assigned to ferret out illicit bootlegging operations and drinking establishments and shut them down. He appointed deputies J.A. Larson and later Ira B. Castor to head this team.
In the spring of 1931, while he was yet in office as sheriff, he began to experience discomfort in his abdomen. In June of 1931, he was diagnosed as having carcinoma of the stomach. On July 12, 1931, he had an operation performed by Dr. Emmett L. Tisinger at his office at 575 Fifth Street in San Bernardino. Tisinger’s tissue examination revealed that the lawman’s illness was terminal.
Shay asked to be returned to the Shay family residence at 495 Arrowhead Avenue in San Bernardino. For the next three weeks, with his mind alert and completely conscious, he spoke lucidly with those who had come to see him. On August 2, 1931, at the age of 65 years one month and three days, he was still communicating with family members who had gathered around him that afternoon. At 6 p.m., with the sun not yet set, he dozed and then passed into eternity.
In its August 4, 1931 edition, the San Bernardino Sun said of him, “This county has lost an able, a conscientious and an honest official and thousands of people have lost a real friend. To have served more than three terms as sheriff and before that three terms as chief of police is an accomplishment that only can come through earnest service to the public. Sheriff Shay gave that kind of service. He never faltered in his duty. He never gave up the hunt for a criminal. Walter Shay never lost touch with the masses of the people. That San Bernardino County is a better place in which to live because of Sheriff Shay, there are many to attest. There was no compromise with the enemy of society in Sheriff Shay’s makeup. He both commanded and demanded respect for the law.”

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