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Categories: Yesterday's Crimes

Yesterday’s Crimes: Monkey Wrench Murder in the Mission District

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William Sanford was a 20-year-old Mission District orphan with a mass of wavy black hair piled over his long face. He was a genius to hear him tell it, but everything he’d managed to accomplish was on his rap sheet. He was busted for petty theft in 1944 and again in 1946. He drew a suspended sentence the first time and got three months for the second. His crimes were strictly smalltime, but he still made an impression on probation officers.

They urged psychiatric treatment, noting his “future conduct was unpredictable.” Their recommendations went unheeded, but Sanford did read a lot of Sigmund Freud on his own, and diagnosed himself as “a schizoid.”

Sanford was busted for armed robbery in 1947, and sentenced to a prison for “tough kids” in Lancaster, Calif. He was transferred to a California Youth Authority forestry camp in Ben Lomond near Santa Cruz. After escaping the camp on June 14, 1948, he made his way back to the Mission, and rented a room in a Capp Street flophouse.

Somewhere along the way, he became obsessed with 19-year-old Rita Gertsmann, “an attractive brown-haired girl,” a girl he’d known since childhood, who lived with her mom and stepdad on San Jose Avenue. Sanford described Rita as his longtime girlfriend. She denied that she ever went steady, and asked him to stay away. Nevertheless, her mother worried about Sanford being “too possessive,” visiting Rita when he was on the lam in late June.

After Rita firmly rebuffed Sanford’s attempts to romance her, he returned to his room on Capp Street. He brooded for a spell, before deciding he had to kill Rita, but needed to buy a gun to do it.

He went upstairs and asked to borrow a monkey wrench from his landlady, Felipa Griffith, a 55-year-old widow who had also lost her son in World War II. Griffith handed Sanford the wrench, and he beat her over the head with it.

“I hit her on the head once and she staggered and let out a feeble scream,” he recalled. She fell into a closet and made some gurgling sounds. With blood everywhere, he threw some clothes over her head and slammed the wrench into her several more times until she died.

With all the other boarders away for the day, he ransacked the flat and came up with $1.50 plus some watches and other jewelry. Sanford missed $75 that Griffith had pinned inside of her dress—more than enough to buy a pistol from a pawnshop back then. On his way out, he tore out the page with his name on it from his landlady’s receipt book and stuffed it in his pocket to cover his tracks.

Griffith’s body was found by her daughter on June 29, 1948. SF Police Inspectors Frank Ahern and Ralph McDonald noticed the missing page from the receipt book when they searched the house. After questioning the daughter and some of the tenants, they found out that Griffith spoke little English and relied on a roomer who was on vacation in Oregon to write her receipts for her. When police finally got a hold of him, he said that he had made out a receipt for a Bill Sanford.

Police linked Sanford to his escape from Ben Lomond and scoured every boarding house in Mission District looking for him. They also staked out his brother’s house on 30th Street in the Excelsior where they caught him crawling in through a back window on July 1.

Once in custody, Sanford gave lengthy interviews to the press. Carolyn Anspacher of the Chronicle described him as having “the easy calm of a host at a cocktail party,” as he justified committing a murder as brutal as it was pointless.

“This is a pretty grim world, and the old lady had less than most people to live for,” he explained. “I like to think I inflicted on her the minimum of pain, and for this reason I don’t think there was anything sadistic involved in the murder.”

“I used her as a means of getting back at society — because society had not provided me with love,” he continued, yammering on like an angry Twitter thread posted by an incel.

Of Rita, he said that what he really wanted was “a kind of human dog” that he could “cuff around and abuse” but “would remain loyal until the end.”

He then talked about his love of Shakespeare, and how he’d written three books in prison, but had only finished one. “It wasn’t very good but it kept me busy,” he said.

Sanford was sentenced to die in San Quentin’s gas chamber on Nov. 19, 1948. After the judge read the sentence, Sanford nudged his attorney and said, “Please thank the judge for carrying out my wishes.”

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Nuala Sawyer Bishari is the News Editor at SF Weekly. You can reach her at (415)-359-2644 or nsawyer@sfweekly.com. Follow her on Twitter at @TheBestNuala.

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