By Mark Gutglueck
Dirty politics and the use of the power of their political office by incumbent officials to sway the outcome of elections in San Bernardino County is a tradition extending back well into the 20th Century.
Some 69 years ago, the man who was then district attorney utilized the prosecutorial power he possessed for a blatantly political purpose, succeeding in getting reelected through a cynical manipulation of the process and by exploiting the respect and trust that that many in the public at large too freely accorded him because of his title and position. This inspired others who came after him to manipulate the electorate by false representations or the use of authoritarian gimmickry.
The unfortunate experience of a would-be but never-was district attorney of San Bernardino County, Wardwell Evans, and the tribulation he underwent at the hands of the then-incumbent district attorney, Jerome Kavanaugh, he had sought to unseat more than two-thirds of a century ago stands as a classic example of why San Bernardino County is held in such low regard by historians and students of politics.
Born in Chicago on June 24, 1901, Ward Evans was the son of D. Walter and Anna (McCauley) Evans, the former a native of Maine and the latter of Illinois.The Evans family moved to California when Ward was a year old. D. Walter Evans was a principal in the Lang & Evans Company and served for a time as deputy assessor of San Bernardino County. After his graduation from the San Bernardino High School, Ward attended Stanford University, which awarded him an A. B. degree in 1923. Determined to follow his older brother, Daniel W. Evans, an attorney in San Francisco, into the practice of law, he spent the year 1923-24 in study at Harvard Law School and returned to Stanford to get his Juris Doctor degree there in in 1925. He was admitted to the California bar in August 1925 and he began practice in San Bernardino in association with William Guthrie and was in the district attorney’s office for two years. He was later an assistant city attorney in San Bernardino.
In 1933, Congressman John Steven McGroarty, a Democrat, said of Evans, a Republican, that he was
“experienced and capable. He is making a creditable record as assistant city attorney and also has a remunerative clientele, maintaining an office on the fifth floor of the Andreson Building. Wardwell D. Evans has become well established in his profession, due to his analytical powers and ability to present arguments in the strongest possible light.”
In 1936, he ran unsuccessfully for the California Legislature in an effort to to represent the the 72nd Assembly District in the lower chamber of the Statehouse in Sacramento. He would subsequently vie, again unsuccessfully, for the U.S. Congress.
In 1946, Wardwell D. Evans, then 44, challenged incumbent district attorney Jerome B. Kavanaugh, in that year’s district attorney’s race.
Evans was a credible and viable challenger. At that time, he was practicing law out of an office in the desert. Previously, he had resided and practiced law in the city of San Bernardino and had worked in the 1930s and early 1940s as a deputy district attorney with the county of San Bernardino and as deputy city attorney with the city of San Bernardino. Eight years previously, in 1938, Evans had vied for district attorney against Kavanaugh. By the mid-1940s, Evans had moved to Barstow, which was then a major city in San Bernardino County. He was a leading attorney in the community there.
After filing as a candidate in the race in March 1946, Evans had undertaken a serious campaign against Kavanaugh which dwelled on the differences he said he had with the incumbent over administering the authority of the prosector’s office. He was scheduled to go head-to-head with Kavanaugh in that year’s primary, which was held June 4.
Less than a month before the election, Kavanaugh, as district attorney, called for a special session of the impaneled grand jury and presented to it evidence prosecutors employed by Kavanaugh alleged indicated Evans had engaged in grand theft.
On the third day of that special session, Monday May 13, 1946, the grand jury returned an indictment against Evans.
The indictment charged that Evans stole $2,600 from a couple, Clarence E. Day and his wife Gladys Marie Day. Kavanaugh maintained that the case had been brought to the grand jury’s attention by another couple, George and Sarah Clark, who had intended to sell the Days their property located about six miles west of Barstow.
Upon the return of the indictment, Kavanaugh publicly stated, “Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Mr. and Mrs. Day told me that they entered into an agreement regarding the sale of the Clarks’ home at Lenwood. The Clarks said they agreed to sell their house for $1,055. The four said they went to Mr. Wardwell D. Evans, Barstow attorney, and he prepared the contract of sale and promised to get a certificate of title and prepare the necessary papers. They further stated that he also agreed to act as escrow agent in the matter and, in accordance with this agreement, Mr. Day executed a check payable to Mr. Evans as escrow agent in the sum of 2,600. Mr. Day complained the check was delivered to Mr. Evans on Feb. 9, 1946, and since that day he has not delivered a trust deed, deed of conveyance or furnished certificate of title as he agreed to do, although demands were made on him. The complainants say they made repeated efforts to locate Mr. Evans but were unsuccessful.”
Kavanaugh made further statements calculated to shed further discredit on his political opponent and portray him in the worst possible light. Kavanaugh’s quotes highlighted the press coverage of the Evans’ indictment, reported in the county’s newspapers, including the San Bernardino Sun, the Ontario Daily Report, the Redlands Daily Facts, the Fontana Herald News, the Victorville Daily Press and the Barstow Dispatch.
“Edward B. Demarest, the manager of the Barstow branch of the Bank of America, reported that $2,600 was deposited to the credit of Mr. Evan’s only account at the bank on Feb. 11 1946,” Kavanaugh stated. “He produced bank records which showed me that the account had been overdrawn on several occasions since then. Mr. and Mrs. Day, who purchased the home, have apparently lost their $2,600, which they stated was their savings accumulated during three years of war, when Mr. Day was a laborer employed by the U.S. government at the Marine base near Daggett. Mr. and Mrs. Clark, on the other hand, may now undertake to repossess the house which they thought they had sold and which is now occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Day and their 12-year-old daughter.”
Evans, who had been campaigning in the desert area on the morning of May 13 when the indictment was returned, was caught flatfooted by the development, learning about it when he phoned his office shortly after noon. He immediately surrendered himself to the sheriff’s department substation in Barstow. He was held incommunicado in sheriff’s custody in the desert city while at the county seat Kavanaugh was regaling reporters with his account of Evans’ misdeeds. That evening Evans was transported to the county jail in San Bernardino by then sheriff Emmet Shay’s chief criminal deputy Perry Green.
Evans was not given an opportunity at that point to hear the specifics or the substance of the charges against him, being informed only that he stood accused of grand theft. While he was at the county jail and attempting to arrange to meet the $5,000 bond judge Martin J. Coughlin had set in order to obtain his release, Evans was contacted by a reporter for the San Bernardino Sun.
“This is the dirtiest and most vicious thing I have ever heard of,” a shaken Evans told the reporter. “The charges are the outgrowth of a dirty game of politics in the interests of the district attorney election. I can only say at this time that I am innocent of all charges and am very interested in finding out just who instigated this whole procedure. The whole thing smells of politics of the lowest form.”
While Evans attempted to retain his dignity in the face of his indictment and arrest, he had sustained a blow that doomed him politically. Word of the larcenous candidate for district attorney spread throughout the 20,105-square mile county. Though the fire in his belly had not been doused, Evans’ intensity on the campaign trail had been attenuated as he had to deal with the negative publicity, and he was overwhelmed at the show of public disapprobation and the resultant need to take psychological cover in the face of the charges, a sentiment absolutely antithetical to running a spirited and effective political campaign. On June 4, Kavanaugh defeated Evans, 20,786 votes to 17,336.
After only a minimal suspension of time, the Evans case was brought to trial. Because of what were clearly recognized as the political ramifications of the case, the matter was removed to Inyo County, in the courtroom of judge William D. Dehy, and a special state prosecutor was assigned to the case in the form of Kavanaugh’s counterpart from Riverside County, district attorney John H. Neblett.
Intimately familiar with the facts of the case and intent on vindicating himself, Evans acted as his own attorney, though in the latter stages of the trial he associated attorney Frank Bates in his defense.
The weakness of the case against him soon became apparent when Evans established that the escrow was not limited to any specific period and the Days, called as prosecution witnesses, testified Evans had returned the $2,600 upon their demand.
Upon final arguments, the case went to the jury. Deliberating less than ten minutes, jurors Imogene McMurray, Jessie M. Stock, Lew Trusler, Helen Davis, Lucille Smith, Ada S. Lamb, Irvin D. Lane, Mrs. Paul Gardner, Mary Littlchale, Annie J. Newland, Jessie M. Carr and LaVerne Frazier acquitted Evans on the first ballot.
By Mark Gutglueck