Yesterday’s Crimes: The Hero Eyewitnesses Behind Some of California’s Most Notorious Cases

Badass regular people dealing with unfathomable true-life horror, ranked (in no particular order).

The internet loves ranking things, and in that regard, serial killers are no different from fast food chains or Star Wars characters. I know because I run across these rundowns of mass murderers from time-to-time while researching Yesterday’s Crimes. There’s even a Wikipedia list of serial killers by body count that’s probably helped end (or fuel) many drunken arguments where people debate Dahmer vs. Bundy like they’re Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds.

Inspired and revolted by such twisted listicles, I decided it was time to list the people who have inspired me the most while writing Yesterday’s Crimes. None of the people here are cops or DNA experts, so don’t expect to find your favorite talking head from the Investigation Discovery Channel. This list is for the everyday people who were just living their lives or doing their jobs when confronted by some combination of bad craziness and unspeakable evil. I do realize that this is a pretty L.A. heavy list for SF Weekly, so don’t @ me.

Goro Kagehiro, farmer: When Kagehiro found a freshly dug hole wide and long enough for a grave on his Yuba City farm on May 19, 1971, he figured that government workers must have been taking soil samples. After finding it filled in later that day, he called the sheriff and the massive killing spree of serial killer Juan Corona was discovered. Good eye, Goro!

Camille O’Grady, artist: This artist, poet, activist and psychic has toured with Lou Reed and was once hailed as the Leather Queen of Folsom. But even with such staggering achievements, her artistry likely had its greatest impact when it brought a murderer to justice. She was at Oscars-streaker Robert Opel’s Howard Street art studio on July 8, 1979 when he was killed during a holdup. Her sketches of the killer and his accomplice led to their arrest at SFO right before they could flee to Miami. 

Tony Shepard, employee of the month: When Bill Harris of the Symbionese Liberation Army tried to steal a bandolier from Mel’s Sporting Goods on Crenshaw in Los Angeles in May 1974, clerk Tony Shepard showed initiative and tackled him to the ground in front of the store. Examiner heiress turned SLA-convert, Patty Hearst, opened fire with a submachine gun on Shepard and his coworkers to free Harris, shattering the storefront window. Harris, his wife Emily, and Hearst got away in the SLA’s VW van, but Shepard got in his car and chased them across half of Los Angeles. Shepard finally caught up to the terrorist fugitives, but he had to break off the chase when he realized their van was filled with guns and ammo. A for effort!

Josefa Segovia, feminist martyr: She’s the only person on this list who has actually killed someone, but the guy was trying to rape her. On July 4, 1851, Joe Cannon, “a Scotchman of magnificent physical strength and herculean proportions,” busted into Segovia’s house in the mining town of Downieville. She plunged a Bowie knife into his sternum, killing him instantly. For this, the proto-MAGA townspeople hung her from a bridge. Before she swung, she threw her Panama hat to a large miner called Oregon, placed the rope around her own neck, and said, “Adiós Señores!” It’s said her ghost still haunts Downieville to this day. Rest in power Josefa.

Mary Carr, concerned grandmother: On May 17, 1974, Donald DeFreeze (AKA Cinque) and several other members of the SLA paid Minnie Lewis $100 to hide out in her home on East 54th Street in South Central Los Angeles. As the heavily-armed SLA prepared for an apocalyptic confrontation with the LAPD, Lewis’ mom, Mary Carr, walked right into the house to get her grandchildren out of there before all hell broke loose. According to Jeffrey Toobin in his 2016 book American Heiress, “Carr confronted DeFreeze about the dangers his people were creating. The field marshal tried to mollify the furious grandmother, telling her that black people needed to stick together. But Carr had no interest in DeFreeze’s brand of revolution, and she grabbed her two grandchildren and stormed off.” You go grandma!

The People of East Hubbard Street in East Los Angeles: When Richard Ramirez, the serial killer known as the Night Stalker, tried to steal a couple of cars in East LA on Aug. 25, 1985, the people of East Hubbard Street rose up against him. Faistino Pinon fought off Ramirez’s first carjacking attempt, and Manuel De La Torre had the good sense to hit the killer with an iron rod. De La Torre’s neighbors — Jose Burgoin and his sons Jaime and Julio — joined in the chase. They overpowered Ramirez and forced him to sit on the curb. When the murderer of at least 14 people tried to stand, De La Torre raised the iron rod over his head, daring him to move. When police finally arrived, Ramirez threw himself at their mercy. “Thank God you came,” he groveled. 

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