Next Monday night will mark the 45th anniversary of Virgil “Sonny” Scott’s shooting of San Bernardino County Deputy Sheriff Frank Pribble.
The shooting took place at the now defunct rest stop off the westbound I-10 Freeway between Citrus and Cherry avenues in Fontana.
Fate, including the dissolution of Scott’s one-time idyllic-seeming marriage and the sheriff’s department’s utilization of the 6-foot-7-inch Pribble as a peacekeeper in the often highly volatile environment of Fontana, resulted that evening within one hour of each other the deaths of the 41-year-old Scott and the 39-year-old Pribble.
Virgil Scott was five years old when he moved with his parents from Oklahoma to Fontana in 1939. Ten years later, at the age of 15, he joined the National Guard. After eight months, 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. He was promoted early on to a supervisory role and he remained 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, agriculturally zoned county area west of Fontana, where they raised their two children, Steven and Sharon.
Virgil and Diane purchased property in the area around their home, over time amassing 13 rental units located on Cottonwood, Redwood and Randall avenues.
In the 1960s, the ambitious Virgil set up a weekend business in the community of Crestline, located in the San Bernardino Mountains, which rented Honda 55 dirt bikes by the hour to tourists during those months of the year when the ground was no longer covered with snow, usually from April until November. While he ran the rental business, Diane and the children would take the family boat out onto Lake Arrowhead. The family would spend Friday and Saturday nights in a rustic cabin in Crestline before returning to Fontana on Sunday night.
In the same timeframe, Virgil obtained a position as an instructor at San Bernardino Valley College in its industrial arts division, teaching machine shop courses at night.
Frank Pribble came to bestride Fontana as something of a colossus after he arrived there in the late 1960s, just as he had virtually everywhere else that he had been. The epitome of a San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputy, Frank Pribble, at 6-foot-7-inches tall and 310 pounds, was as oversized of a man as San Bernardino County, at 20,105 square miles, is an oversized jurisdiction, the largest county in the lower 48 states. The department assigned him to various spots around the far-flung territory, but eventually determined that he was best employed at 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. In the 1920s and 1930s it was a haven for the Mafia, where the bootlegging mobster Al Capone had established his West Coast hideaway at 8775 Tamarind Avenue. Well into the 1980s, vestiges of gangsterism remained a part of Fontana life. 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, while others 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 mélange strode Frank Pribble, inserted there 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, drinking establishments and brothels to quell fights that had broken out. It was said that the denizens of the bars often sensed his arrival without looking up because his height and girth cast a huge shadow.
Consistent with this size, Pribble was known to possess sheer strength, indeed what came across as superhuman strength, which he was not reluctant to use if he were challenged, as inevitably he was in a place like Fontana, applying what was in those days referred to as “necessary” and by today’s standards what is referred to as “excessive” force to keep such situations from getting out of hand. He was looked up to throughout the department as an icon, and many credited him as the inspiration for the department’s unofficial motto, “One riot, one deputy.”
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 to Tijuana and distribute the clothes to the impoverished people living in cardboard boxes on the side of the hill there.
In early 1975, after 25 years of marriage, the relationship between Virgil and Diane soured. Things deteriorated, and by late spring, Diane insisted on a separation.
The change in his life was hard on Virgil. He was reduced to living in one of his sparsely furnished rental units or in his converted camper. Though he was not physically distant, he was cut off from his family. Things grew worse still after Diane, using her maiden name Strand, contacted an attorney, Lawrence H. Freeman, to have him prepare divorce papers for her.
There is some indication that the family physician, to whom Virgil at one point turned, may have prescribed for him medication to reduce his anxiety and mental discomfort. Virgil Scott had never before been a drinking man. Indeed, he had a reputation as a teetotaler. After his separation, however, he began to seek solace in the bottle, at least sporadically.
July 6, 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 consolation over his domestic situation. His inability to effect a reconciliation with the mother of his children had left him morose and in despair. He drove 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 her separation from him.
According to Virgil’s and Diane’s daughter, Sharon, “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 of which had purportedly recently failed to make a $50 rental payment to Diane. He fired several rounds into the house. Fortunately, no one was injured.
The two deputies scheduled to work the Sunday evening shift in the west Fontana patrol area out of the Fontana substation on July 6, 1975 were 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 one-and-a-half-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 there, 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 of the incident, Bill Brown went to the rear of the camper and attempted to look inside while Frank Pribble walked toward the right-side door of the camper. Brown later stated that from his position as he looked to the side of the truck, he saw the barrel of a rifle come out of the camper’s window a few feet behind Deputy Pribble. Frank Pribble was positioned with his back 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. 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 sidearm 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. Brown’s 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 next to him. Recognizing at once the gravity of Frank Pribble’s condition, they decided to transport him to the nearest hospital without waiting for an ambulance. 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, 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 Pribble 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 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 Freeway 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, in contrast, 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, became 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.
Next Monday night will mark the 45th anniversary of Virgil “Sonny” Scott’s shooting of San Bernardino County Deputy Sheriff Frank Pribble.