By Mark Gutglueck
Fate and now history have inextricably linked Virgil “Sonny” Scott and Frank Pribble. Both were born in the 1930s, Scott in 1934 and Pribble in 1936. Each was associated with major San Bernardino County institutions, Scott with both Kaiser Steel and San Bernardino Valley College and Pribble with the San Bernadino County Sheriff’s Department. Despite their close physical proximity to one another and their shared stomping grounds, it is not clear whether Scott and Pribble were acquainted with one another. What is indisputable is their paths did cross only an hour or so before their deaths.
In death, one would be lionized, inflated to heroic proportions, and the other demonized, reduced to an object of ignominy. The collision between their two worlds has been written into San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department history as an epic and watershed event. But as so much that is taken as history, there is more than a single and simple narrative that captures actuality in the stories of Virgil Scott and Frank Pribble.
Virgil Scott was about five years old when his parents moved to Fontana from Oklahoma. In 1949, when he was 15, he joined the National Guard. Eight months later, when it was realized he was only 16, he was given an honorable discharge. In 1952, at the age of 18, he went to work for Kaiser Steel, eventually settling into a job as a machinist. He proved to be a particularly accomplished and competent machinist and he would remain at Kaiser for the rest of his life.
In 1954, he married Diane Strand, whom he had met after she came to Southern California from Minnesota. The couple settled into a home on Redwood Avenue in the unincorporated county area west of Fontana. The zoning on the property allowed for agricultural uses, and the Scotts kept farm animals – horses, cattle, pigs, and chickens, as they raised their two children, Steven and Sharon. Virgil Scott made an uncommon effort to ensure that his children and their friends had the advantages of the trappings of childhood. When his children were toddlers he built a large sandbox behind his house. In the yard of his home he paved a patch of ground onto which he painted a hopscotch. He put up a post to which he connected a tetherball. He made a tree swing using a large tire. He paid children in the neighborhood to assist him in making further improvements to the yard, including an elaborate treehouse.
Virgil took the Christmas season seriously. He sprayed a pine tree in the yard white and drilled holes in one of its low-hanging branches into which lollipops were placed as a treat for children. One year, he went all out with the Christmas decorations in the yard and the city of Fontana awarded the Scott family with its annual Christmas decoration prize, even though technically, the home was beyond the city limits.
In the 1960s, Virgil Scott broadened the horizons for both himself and his family. In addition to his day job, he set up a weekend business in the San Bernardino Mountains community of Crestline which rented Honda 55 dirt bikes by the hour to tourists there during those months of the year when the ground was no longer covered with snow, usually from April until November. He would often bring his family with him. He had a boat the family could take out onto Lake Arrowhead and they would spend Friday and Saturday nights in a rustic cabin in Crestline before returning to Fontana on Sunday night.
It was in the 1960s as well that Virgil obtained a position as an instructor at San Bernardino Valley College in its industrial arts division, teaching machine shop during night school courses offered by the college. He and Diane also began to acquire property in the area around their home, over time picking up 13 rental units located on Cottonwood, Redwood and Randall avenues. On a typical day, he would work the day shift at Kaiser, come home, tend to the animals or mow the grass at his house or one of the other properties or otherwise do maintenance work on the rental units, eat dinner, take quick a bath and then head over to San Bernardino Valley College to teach class.
Virgil Scott put his machining skill to work, acquiring a used U-Haul truck, a 1965 Ford one-and-a-half ton flat bed, which he converted into a camper. This allowed the Scott Family to take extended road trips. Virgil and Diane Scott, with the assistance of their children, would collect bags of clothes from around the neighborhood and then drive down to Tijuana and distribute the clothes to the impoverished people living in cardboard boxes on the side of the hill there.
Virgil took advantage of the agricultural zoning on his property and, growing interested in the possibilities of raising thoroughbreds, took up what proved to be an expensive, albeit fun but ultimately fruitless hobby. He pinned his hopes on a horse he dubbed Steeltown Host, which he believed showed promise. In 1973, Steeltown Host was entered into several races at the Hollywood Park and Santa Anita racetracks but, alas, never won a single race.
If ever there was an individual born to be a San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputy, that man was Frank Pribble. San Bernardino County is an oversized county at 20,105 square miles, the largest county in the lower 48 states, larger than Rhode Island, Connecticut, Delaware and New Jersey, combined. Frank was as oversized as San Bernardino County, at 6 foot 6 inches tall and 310 pounds. He had tours of duty at various spots around the far-flung territory, but was eventually assigned to the spot that suited him and the department he worked for best, the Fontana Sheriff’s Substation.
When Fontana had incorporated as a city in 1952, nearly half of the expanse of ground traditionally considered as the community of Fontana was left as unincorporated county land. Fontana was a hard city. It was a haven for the mob even before it was incorporated as a city and vestiges of gangsterism remained a part of Fontana life into the early 1990s. In the 1930s, the bootlegging mobster Al Capone established his West Coast hideaway at 8775 Tamarind Avenue in Fontana, where a portrait of his mother still hangs on the wall of the landing above the staircase on the second floor. Fontana’s unincorporated expanse was host to the Kaiser Steel Mill, which employed hardworking, grisly men, many of whom were family men, like Virgil Scott, but others of whom were hard charging, hard living and hard drinking. Fontana bears the distinction of being the place where not one but two outlaw motorcycle gangs – the Hells Angels and the Devils Diciples – were founded. The American Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan, led by George Pepper, had active local chapters in Fontana throughout the 1960s and 1970s and into the 1980s. Into this melange, Frank Pribble was inserted by the sheriff’s department. His size alone gave him the command presence ideal in an officer of the law and which was doubly desirable in a place like Fontana. Frank thought nothing of going into Fontana’s taverns, bars and drinking establishments to quell fights that had broken out. It was said that the denizens of those bars often sensed his arrival without looking up because his height and girth cast a huge shadow.
It is well established that Frank Pribble had interacted more than once with one of the Scott brothers – Don Scott, Virgil Scott’s sibling. Don Scott frequented some of the drinking establishments where Frank was sometimes summoned to dampen a disturbance. Whether or not, through Don or in some other way deputy Frank had contact with Virgil before that fateful night in 1975 remains a mystery.
Frank Pribble bestrode Fontana as something of a colossus. And his size was accompanied by sheer strength, which was a proven necessity when, as would be inevitable in as rough of a place as Fontana, his command presence was challenged. Frank Pribble had become something of a legend among his colleagues in the department because he was not reluctant to use what was in those days referred to as “necessary” and by today’s standards referred to as “excessive” force to keep the situations he was dealing with from getting out of hand. One such situation involved a good-spirited but violence-prone biker “Blind Bob,” who had an encounter with deputy Pribble at Ringo’s Bar at Valley Boulevard and Cedar Avenue. Out of intrepid daring, bravado or perhaps stupidity, Blind Bob, whose poor eyesight was legendary, felt himself compelled to test the officer’s authority, resolve, reputation, strength and reflexes. He unloaded a roundhouse punch aimed at Frank Pribble’s jaw. Before it landed, however, the towering deputy clasped his own humungous hand over Blind Bob’s forearm, squeezing it with such power that Blind Bob’s arm was broken.
Frank Pribble had what was considered to be superhuman strength. He disliked anyone using his patrol unit, which had the seat adjusted to accommodate his enormous frame. At the end of his shift he would bend his steering wheel into a U, essentially rendering the car undrivable. Two deputies working in unison could not straighten the wheel. At the beginning of his shift he would straighten the wheel to be able to drive the vehicle.
He was looked up to throughout the department as an icon and many credited him as the inspiration for the unofficial motto, “One riot, one deputy.”
July 7, 1975 was a Sunday. Virgil Scott had spent the previous couple of days at the Colorado River, where he had gone in what was an ultimately futile attempt to find solace over his domestic situation. He had recently separated from Diane, and his inability to effect a reconciliation with the mother of his children had left him morose and disconsolate. He had driven back to Fontana that afternoon, intending to speak with his wife. When he arrived in Fontana, however, she was gone. At the Scott home, however, was his mother-in-law, Lila Strand. The exchange between the two did not go well. Lila was unable to offer Virgil any hope or even glimmer of a prospect that her daughter would end their separation.
Virgil Scott had never before been a drinking man. While other members of his family sometimes, or even often, bent at the elbow, Virgil Scott did not, and he had a reputation as a teetotaler. But after his separation, he occasionally turned to the bottle. And there is some indication that his physician may have prescribed for him medication to reduce his anxiety and mental discomfort.
That discomfort had increased, in fact, after Diane Strand contacted an attorney, Lawrence H. Freeman, who was preparing divorce papers for her. Virgil and Diane’s daughter, Sharon, said, “I never saw my father being violent toward my mother, ever.” Nevertheless, Sharon said, it is clear that on the night of July 6, 1975, “My father went off his rocker. He broke the picture tube out of the family television set. He smashed all the light bulbs in the home, using his bare hands, cutting one of them in the process. He broke every one of the house’s windows.”
Still fuming, Virgil then went into a closet and retrieved several guns, a .300-caliber Savage rifle among them. As he was doing this, he told Lila that if anyone tried to stop him, he would kill him. Lila left, walking to a neighbor’s home, from which she called the sheriff’s department. Virgil headed off, but before departing the neighborhood, drove to one of the rental units on Randall Avenue he owned with his wife, the tenant in which had purportedly recently failed to make a $50 rental payment to Diane. He fired several rounds into the house, though no one was injured as a result.
Two deputies were scheduled to work the Sunday evening shift in the west Fontana patrol area out of the Fontana substation on July 6, 1975: Frank Pribble and Bill Brown. They would have normally been driving alone in their own separate units, but the brakes on deputy Brown’s patrol car were faulty and Frank Pribble was summoned to return to the substation to retrieve Brown and they subsequently “doubled up” in Frank’s car.
A call came in reporting the mayhem that had occurred at the Scott home and the firing of shots into the nearby residence on Randall Avenue. Based upon Lila Strand’s call, Virgil Scott was described as the suspect and that he was driving a yellow 1965 Ford 1½ ton flat bed truck with a chassis-mounted camper. The substation’s watch commander, John Futscher, considering that Scott was in a camper, suggested that Pribble and Brown check the rest area on I-10 between Citrus and Cherry avenues to see if Scott might be there.
Upon arriving at the rest area, the deputies drove through the section reserved for trucks and spotted the suspect vehicle parked near several motor homes. Bill Brown notified dispatch and requested backup and the assistance of the department’s helicopter. Frank Pribble parked at an angle behind the truck on the right side and both officers began walking to the truck. According to the official sheriff’s department report, Bill Brown went to the rear of the camper and attempted to look inside while Frank Pribble walked toward the door of the camper. From his position as he looked to the side of the truck, Brown later stated he saw the barrel of a rifle come out the camper’s window a few feet behind deputy Pribble. Frank Pribble was positioned with his back turned to the gun, according to Bill Brown, who said he shouted a warning to his fellow deputy. As Frank turned his head toward Bill, according to the report, the rifle discharged and Frank fell onto the hood of the truck. He then slipped to the ground, falling to his knees. Brown responded by firing a single shot into the converted camper at the spot he calculated was where the occupant wielding the rifle stood. He then hastened to the patrol car and radioed the dispatch center.
Brown’s call broadcasting “999: officer down” came in at 8:21 p.m.
Edith Cain was inside her motor home when she heard the shots. When she stepped outside and saw Frank Pribble lying on the asphalt parking lot, she said he looked up at her and told her “Get out of the way. I don’t want you people to get hurt.” His side arm was still in his holster.
Within minutes, sheriff’s deputies, California Highway Patrol officers and regional agencies converged on the scene. With the assistance of a CHP officer, Bill Brown forced entry into the camper and found Virgil Scott lying in a bunk. His single shot had struck Virgil Scott on the left side of his body, penetrating his liver, aorta and left kidney. The sheriff’s helicopter, known by its department nomenclature as 40 King, landed at the rest area with pilot Don Belter at the controls and observer Jim Benson. Recognizing at once the gravity of Frank Pribble’s condition, they decided to transport him to the nearest hospital without waiting for an ambulance. A number of officers quickly carried Frank to the waiting helicopter and laid him across the rear floorboard. Frank Pribble’s height, however, would not allow the helicopter door to close. With Frank Pribble’s legs dangling outside the cockpit, Belter put the helicopter into full throttle and lifted off from the rest area with Benson standing outside the airship on the skids. As they flew to Kaiser Hospital in Fontana, Benson, yet poised outside the cockpit, held the door open and, buffeted by the wind blasts, cradled Frank Pribble’s legs between his.
There was no helipad at Kaiser Hospital in 1975. Don Belter radioed ahead, informing hospital personnel he would be landing near the ambulance entrance and they would need to clear the area. Within a few minutes, Belter adroitly landed the helicopter between the trees and within a few feet of the emergency room. Doctors and nurses were waiting and rushed Frank into surgery. Deputy Sheriff Frank Pribble died in surgery at 9:09 p.m. He was 37 years old. Virgil Scott was eventually transported to the county hospital in San Bernardino, where he too expired on that 6th day of July, 1975.
Within hours, Frank Pribble’s death was widely known throughout the county. His passing was mourned by those who knew him directly and even by those who knew him only by reputation. At his funeral there were significant numbers of bikers from the Fontana area, the same element he had kept in line and sometimes clashed with during his tours of duty out of the Fontana substation. So commanding was his presence, so much larger than life, that in death even those who did not particularly like him felt it fitting to give him one last token of respect. In 2001 he was honored again when his name was enshrined on the “Officer Down” memorial statues, commemorating the San Bernardino County law enforcement officers who had died in the line of duty, one of which was placed at the county administrative building and a duplicate in the West Valley Courthouse in Rancho Cucamonga. Then in 2009, the stretch of the I-10 near the rest stop that was the scene of the deadly confrontation between him and Virgil Scott was renamed the Frank Pribble Memorial Freeway.
Virgil Scott’s memory has not been honored. He is remembered, widely, as the man who shot and killed Frank Pribble. The last hours and minutes of his life, a very short duration during which the emotional devastation of the loss of his wife and family overcame him and he acted violently and foolishly, has become his legacy. Members of his family, including his brother, children, nephews, and grandchildren and grandnephews, have been subjected to abusive treatment by local law enforcement officers because of what he did, despite the consideration that one of those relations, his nephew Sam Scott, later served as Fontana’s police chief.
Irregularities pertaining to his death have gone unremarked and uninvestigated. For example, there is evidence that prior to his death there had been communication between Diane Scott and Sheriff Frank Bland – Frank Pribble’s boss – through Diane Scott’s attorney, Lawrence Freeman, asking for the department to take possession of the firearms Virgil Scott had at his disposal because of his fragile psychological condition resulting from his pending divorce. Bland failed to act. There is an alternative version of events to the one given by the sheriff’s department about exactly what happened on the night of July 6, 1975. This one holds that Virgil and Frank knew each other and that when deputy Pribble arrived at the converted camper at the rest stop, he had a verbal exchange with Virgil Scott, something to the effect that he had come to take him in. Virgil Scott is said to have said that he would kill anyone who tried to do so and made good on that threat moments later when Frank Pribble sought to force the situation.
Virgil Scott’s transportation to the hospital and the provision of medical care was delayed by more than an hour. One recurrent report is that, as a Kaiser employee and because of the close proximity of Kaiser Hospital, he was taken there first. But a doctor there insisted that his handcuffs be removed before medical assistance was rendered. The deputies who had Virgil in custody refused to do that, and at the doctor’s insistence he was then transported to the more distant county hospital in San Bernardino.
And there are further questions to this day about the accuracy of the sheriff’s department report of the shooting. There was virtually no blood inside the converted camper in which Virgil Scott was said to have ambushed Frank Pribble, despite the medical examiner’s finding that he had been shot through the aorta, liver and one of his kidneys.
There were significant similarities between Virgil Scott and Frank Pribble. Both were skilled and good at what they did professionally, valued by their employers and living life intensely. Each was tough and unyielding, determined perhaps to a fault and, as are all men, mortal and vulnerable to forces beyond their own reckoning. Perhaps if they had really gotten to know one another, they could have been friends. Instead, fate intervened and both were cut down prematurely.
By Mark Gutglueck