Centennial Series: Long Beach & The Law
In honor of the Long Beach Bar Association’s Centennial, this is a series of historical notes on cases and courts in Long Beach through the decades.
May-The Boom of the Fifties
With the end of World War II a new dynamic changed the Southland and Long Beach. Thousands of returning servicemen decided this would be a great place to live, work, and raise a family. The population burgeoned.
In 1949 Cal State Long Beach was founded. The Veteran’s Bill had generous educational benefits and many veterans studied for their future careers here.
Lakewood was developed as a planned community with mass produced housing. Construction of the original development began in 1949 and was completed in 1953. 17,500 homes were built within three years. Veterans could buy a home in Lakewood with no down payment and a 30 year 4% mortgage. When the first models were shown in March, 1950, 30,000 people showed up to see the seven different plans. By the end of April over 1000 sales were complete. But what really placed
Lakewood in the history books was the novel
way municipal services were provided. “The
Lakewood Plan” as it was known gained notice
across the country. The Plan was that
Lakewood would contract with the County
its police, sewer, street and other expensive
services (Long Beach Unified School District
provided schools). Lakewood began calling
itself “The City Without a Payroll.” A lesser
known landmark – Lakewood had the first
Denny’s restaurant in 1959.
Long Beach’s war industries continued to grow in peace time. Douglas returned to making civilian craft, and employees filled those Lakewood homes. The Navy shipyard remained, but
the harbors geared up for expanded trade within the Pacific Rim.
The development of f
reeways and auto culture kept t
he oil industry booming. And t
herein lies the rub. In the late 40s
the California Supreme Court
rendered a decision affirming
limitations on City’s use of
tideland oil revenues.
Long Beach held coastal tidelands in a trust via a grant by the State. Long Beach could extract oil and gas, but the proceeds could not be used for general municipal purposes. The conveyance by the State specified “That none of said lands shall be used or devoted to any purposes other than public park, parkway, highway, playground, the establishment, improvement and conduct of a harbor and the construction, maintenance and operation thereon of wharves, docks, piers, slips, quays and other utilities, structures and appliances necessary or convenient for the promotion and accommodation of commerce and navigation . . . .” This didn’t stop City officials from attempting to use those tempting trust funds for other purposes. City officials ordered City Treasurer H.C. Morse to transfer revenue from oil leases to the general fund. He refused to do so, and the City sought a writ of mandate compelling him to do so. The City relied on another portion of the conveyance: “provided, that said city . . . may grant franchises thereon, for limited periods, for wharves and other public uses and purposes, and may lease said lands, or any part thereof, for limited periods, for purposes consistent with the trusts upon which said lands are held by the State of California and with the requirements of commerce or navigation at said harbor. . . ." The Long Beach City Attorney argued a fairly strained interpretation that if the City was authorized to enter into oil leases, revenues from those leases did not have to be used for trust purposes. The Supreme Court disagreed holding “since the ‘right, title and interest’ of the State of California in the lands involved in the present case was granted to the city of Long Beach ‘in trust for the uses and purposes’ set forth in the grants, it necessarily follows that the proceeds from the oil drilled from these lands can be used only in furtherance of the trust purpose. The city cites no authority contrary to this principle.” (Long Beach v. Morse (1947) 31 Cal.2d 254, 256
This did not end the City’s efforts to use the tideland funds outside the purposes identified in the conveyance. In 1951 Long Beach Citizen E.B. Trickey sought a writ of mandate alleging “The petition alleges that after the rendition of the Morse decision the defendants "conspired to divert and appropriate funds, the proceeds of said so-called tideland oil wells, of the City of Long Beach, in disregard of the rule announced in said decision, and ever since said time have continued and have pursued a policy of causing said public funds of the City of Long Beach to be diverted and appropriated in contravention of the law established by said decision. The petition alleged the following diversions: “January 31, 1948, the sum of $ 55,000; Junes 30, 1948, the sum of $ 23,500; Junes 30, 1948, the sum of $ 26,250.05; June 30, 1948, the sum of $ 2,850,000; June 30, 1949, the sum of $ 4,600,000 . . . .” (Adjusted to present day value, more than $77,000,000)
The City challenged Mr. Trickey’s standing. In a victory for taxpayers, Plaintiff’s standing was confirmed. “The fact that the funds unlawfully withdrawn from the public treasury were not raised by direct taxation, but represented receipts from a public utility operated by the city, would not change this result. . . . Must a taxpayer, when he sees the money of the city being unlawfully applied and paid out for unlawful purposes, sit idly by, and is he without right either to stay the illegal expenditures or recover the same on behalf of the city after they are made, simply because he cannot show that he thereby sustained some special damage? This court has repeatedly held that he is not so helpless . . . .” Trickey v. Long Beach (1951) 101 Cal.App.2d 871.
But the story still doesn’t end there. After the Trickey decision, Long Beach was still using tidelands funds to construct storm drains, an incinerator, a fire alarm system and other improvements. The legislature passed an act which purported to release funds from an 18 acre parcel, no longer needed for purposes of navigation etc. to the City both future funds and those previously collected). Another taxpayer suit foundered at trial court when the City’s demurrer was sustained without leave to amend, and the decision was affirmed at the appellate level. Long Beach struck out for the third time at the California Supreme Court. “We conclude, therefore, that in view of the intendments in favor of the constitutionality of a statute, we must adopt the construction of the 1951 statute indicated by City of Monterey v. Jacks, supra, 139 Cal. 542, 555-556, and we hold that the partial revocation of the trust effected by that statute necessarily results in a reversion to the state of the monies thus released from the trust, and the city holds those funds upon a resulting trust for the state. It is, therefore, unnecessary to consider plaintiffs' other constitutional objections to the construction of the statute urged by defendants.” (Mallon v. Long Beach (1955) 44 Cal.2d 199, 212-213 [282 P.2d 481].)
Long Beach remained a venue for sensational criminal trials. One which captured national attention was the prosecution of Violet Berling, the murderous accordion teacher. The case was bizarre, not least because of a female defendant and a child victim. “The appellant was charged with the murder of Kay Frances Erickson, a 10-year-old girl, who died at Long Beach on October 12, 1950. Appellant was an accordion teacher; the deceased child was studying under appellant's tutelage, and at the time in question was staying at appellant's studio. The trial commenced January 3, 1951, and ended on April 20, 1951. After eight days' deliberation a jury returned a verdict of murder in the first degree with recommendation of life imprisonment.”
Victim Kay Frances Erickson was a particularly vulnerable child. “In May, 1950, Mrs. Erickson took Kay Frances out of school because of a nervous stomach condition and because the teacher had advised that the girl was not going to pass. School teachers testified that Kay Frances was apparently a normal child in school, but somewhat immature, and had an I.Q. of 88 which was somewhat below normal. The school record noted that the child was ‘Artistic in singing and dancing.’” Accordion lessons were a popular fad in the 1950s. “At first Mrs. Erickson accompanied Kay Frances to appellant's studio and waited until the accordion lesson was completed; later the daughter was left there, sometimes all day until as late as 10:30 p. m. Much of the time Mr. Erickson was unemployed and Mrs. Erickson worked to support the family. After March, 1949, the girl continued the accordion lessons without payment because of the parents' inability to pay.” Frere lessons were extended to other students. “A children's accordion quartet was formed, consisting of Kay Frances, and three other children, nine, eight and six years old, respectively. This quartette came to the studio to practice several times a week after school hours and spent the balance of the day and evening there. Sometimes one or more of the children stayed all night with appellant at the studio, all sleeping on the studio couch.” Kay Frances was essentially abandoned by her family. “On July 17, 1950 . . . the girl had been left at the studio where Verdugo was teaching on that day. Thereafter Kay Frances lived with appellant at the studio until death occurred on October 12, 1950. The appellant had an apartment at 32 Orange Street in Long Beach, but preferred living at the studio because of the inconvenience of transportation and the existence of a telephone at the studio. Appellant stated that the mother only visited the daughter once and that there was no indication of affection between the two.” (The writer once lived at that apartment at 32 Orange in the 1980s, although I was unaware of its history at the time.) On October 12, 1950, emergency responders found Mary Frances dead at the studio. “The cause of death was given as ‘aspiration of food’” but she was also covered with wounds. “In the opinion of the examiner, none of the wounds were self-inflicted; some were so located as to make self-infliction unlikely. Some of the wounds were apparently of recent origin; others were superimposed upon older wounds. There were numerous slicing wounds from some sharp instrument such as a razor blade, some apparently inflicted only a short time prior to the girl's death. Certain burning wounds had been produced only a few minutes or a few hours before death.” The press had a field day. The trial was filled with lurid details, including testimony by other students that Kay Frances had been sexually abused in their presence. As is common in such cases, the children were told “something dreadful” would befall them if they told their parents. The defense was, in part, that the wounds were self-inflicted.
Violet was convicted, and her motion for a new trial was denied. The appeal presented a novel issue. During trial Violet Berling often appeared to be in a semi-conscious state. “Miss Berling ‘recalled wire-playing apparatus set up on or about March 8, 1951; that thereafter she became unconscious and recalls only occasional happenings in the court room . . . until April 28, 1951, when she heard a woman scream, and thereafter heard the judge read something to the effect that the defendant was guilty of murder in the first degree, and heard him ask the jury if that was their verdict, at which time she again lapsed into unconsciousness . . . that she has no recollection of conferences with her attorney between March 8 and April 13; that she had desired to have Miguel Verdugo called as a witness on her behalf and was not aware of the fact that he had not been called; that she was unaware of the fact that she had fainted 11 times in the court room, twice on the witness stand . . . .’”
Denial of the new trial motion was reversed. The Court held “the conviction cannot be approved because of the violation of defendant's fundamental right to be physically and mentally present and fully conscious during all stages of the trial.”
(People v. Berling (1953) 115 Cal.App.2d 255, 272 [251 P.2d 1017].) A pyrrhic victory – she was convicted on re-trial. But she was paroled after about 15 years and retired to an anonymous life in the Midwest.
One major event in the 1950s history of law in Long Beach was the commencement of construction of the first dedicated County Courthouse at 415 W. Ocean Blvd. A topic we’ll take up next month when we look at the 60s.
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The LBBA would like to extend a special thank you to Ken Freedman for his work in preparing this series.