I’m not sure what I like better about my little history quests: finding answers or the quests themselves.
Given that I’ve been pecking away on my search for information about William “Bud” Washington Wiles — and a confirmed photo — for the better part of three years, you’d be safe to assume it’s all about the journey for me, not the destination.
But at some point you gotta cut bait, as they say.
For me and Wiles, this is that point.
Perhaps you’ve never heard of him, which is a shame, because he was Kern County’s only Prohibition officer and apparently the only employee of the District Attorney’s office ever to be killed in the line of duty.
Seems like that should merit a public nod of recognition.
Dec. 19, yesterday, was the 91st anniversary of Wiles’ shooting death at the hands of Lewis M. Lowe.
I first learned about Wiles in 2012 after I wrote about a home in the path of the Centennial Corridor freeway with a large basement that once housed the bootlegging operations of the Barsotti family.
My friend and retired District Attorney’s investigator, Howard Eddy, read the story and told me about Wiles, who he had started researching while still working in Kern.
Eddy had some of Wiles’ story, but never found a photo. He made a shadow box for the DA’s office including the bits and pieces he’d unearthed and included this request: “If you find any more solid info and I’m still alive, drop me a line.”
Who could resist?
With Eddy’s lead, a big assist from Bakersfield High School history teacher Ken Hooper’s archive class and more help from Richard Roux, author of “Bootleggers, Booze, and Busts,” about Prohibition in Bakersfield, here’s what I’ve learned about William Wiles.
Wiles was 48 when he died, certainly no rookie.
He had been the constable in Wasco for about eight years when his good friend, District Attorney Henry Schmidt, hired him as Kern’s Prohibition officer.
And he was dedicated.
In fact, he helped make 185 busts in the year before his death alone, which brought in $60,000 in fines paid to the city and county. That’s $814,000 in today’s dollars. About 25 percent of that money went back to law enforcement, and the rest was paid to the municipality’s general fund, Roux said.
Wiles even lent a hand on other busts, including a Chinese gambling hall in May 1924, according to the Bakersfield Morning Echo.
The morning of his death, officers Arthur Siebert and Fonte Webster met Wiles at his home on Eye Street, which is still there today.
Wiles’ wife, Rein Wiles, served them breakfast and the men then picked up S.P. Rees, identified in court proceedings as a private detective but who reported to Wiles.
Wiles had a tip on an illegal still near Woody, according to Webster’s testimony at Lowe’s trials.
They found the still in a small canyon on what was then known as Ball ranch. They hid their car and proceeded on foot and hid in the area, according to The Bakersfield Californian.
A car with Lowe and another man later identified as Charles Kanoth, a.k.a. Charley Brown, drove up to the still. Lowe lit the fire beneath the still and went back to the car. As he did, Wiles came out of his hiding place and walked toward Lowe.
Webster said Lowe had his right arm in the car as Wiles approached. Wiles did not have his gun drawn and, though he was wearing khaki coveralls, Webster said Wiles’ “star of authority” was pinned to the outside of his clothes and clearly visible.
Suddenly, Lowe whipped out an automatic pistol and shot at Wiles point blank.
Wiles continued forward and Lowe shot three or four more times, “emptying the automatic” directly into Wiles, according to Webster.
Wiles drew his weapon as he crumpled to the ground. The packed courtroom went deathly silent as the D.A. had Webster demonstrate exactly how Wiles fell.
Wiles rolled to his side, fired his gun once at the fleeing Lowe and died where he fell, Webster said.
The other officers quickly ran down Lowe and held onto him while Siebert went back to Bakersfield, returning with the coroner, D.A. Schmidt, the chief of police and, oddly, a reporter from the Morning Echo.
Services for Wiles were elaborate, according to news reports. He was buried in Tulare, the county where he’d been born.
He was survived by Rein, his wife, and three children, Hattie, 18, Joel, 17 and Charley, 8, according to Census documents.
Rein stayed in Bakersfield but had to leave the little house on Eye Street, now owned by St. Francis Catholic Church. She worked as a stenographer and secretary for much of her life and died in 1950.
She never remarried.
I tried to find a photo of William Wiles but never could. I did locate a great-nephew of his out of state, but he didn’t have much more information than I did, and no photo.
The Kern County Sheriff’s Office had some photos of blown-up stills from that time period. One of them might include Wiles’ but there’s no way to know for sure.
Meanwhile, I found several photos of Wiles’ killer, including his prison mug shots.
Lewis Lowe (whose first name was regularly misspelled as Louis in newspaper accounts) was from a solid local family considered pioneers of the Rosedale district.
His father, Frank Lowe, grew stone fruit, was a dairyman and noted beekeeper. His and wife Hannah’s 50th wedding anniversary was prominently noted in The Bakersfield Calfiornian’s “Women’s News” section in 1937.
Lewis Lowe did a stint in the Merchant Marines, according to Roux. But he seems to have been at loose ends when he came home.
In 1920, he did time in San Quentin prison at the age of 27 for burglary and was paroled in 1921. He was still on parole at the time of Wiles’ death.
After the shooting, Lowe was taken back to town by Bakersfield Police Chief Horace Dupes.
In the car with them was a reporter for the Morning Echo. (Why doesn’t that happen now?)
Lowe was grimy with tear-stained cheeks. He moaned that he didn’t know how this could have happened, according to the reporter.
“You know I wouldn’t kill anyone, it isn’t in me, Horace,” Lowe reportedly said to Dupes.
He would later claim he shot in self-defense.
In his first trial, Lowe gave dramatic testimony, saying Wiles had his gun out as he walked up and that Wiles was the first to fire.
He claimed Wiles came at him yelling “You dirty ----- I’ll kill you.”
That’s when Lowe said he grabbed his own gun, fired and ran, according to a Los Angeles Times report. (Yes, the Times was cherry picking stories up here even back then.)
After the other officers had Lowe handcuffed, he said, officer Rees threatened to shoot him and pistol whipped him.
At Lowe’s preliminary hearing, Rees was asked about the beating to which he answered “Yes, I hit him in the mug.”
As an aside, Rees was eventually charged with assaulting Lowe. He later took a job with the Taft Police Department, where he allegedly shot and wounded two prisoners in a jail cell in August 1925. Sheriff’s deputies had to stop a mob from lynching him for that incident.
Anyhow, there was apparently a great deal of intrigue at Lowe’s first trial, particularly when Lowe’s still partner Charles Kanoth, a.k.a. Charley Brown, testified.
Kanoth was a witness for the defense but was jailed by authorities in order to keep him in the county for the trial.
During testimony it came out that Kanoth was, apparently, Wiles’ tipster about the still.
But Kanoth also said he’d been threatened by various authorities, including D.A. Schmidt, not to tell what he’d really seen.
Kanoth snarled as he argued with Schmidt and blurted out accusations that caused uproars in the packed gallery.
The jury deadlocked after 58 hours of deliberations and couldn’t find Lowe guilt of first-degree murder. Schmidt had been seeking death.
Judge J.W. Mahon was not pleased.
“You have tried this bootlegger, and you have said by your actions here that when a man and an officer goes out and attempts to arrest a violator of the law, the criminal will have a right to shoot him down,” Mahon said in a scathing rebuke of the jurors, according to the L.A. Times. “God forbid that such a condition ever becomes the rule in our country.”
Lowe was retried on a manslaughter charge.
In December 1925, a year after Wiles’ death, he was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in Folsom Prison.
It appears likely he did the full 10 years, at least if the W.C.T.U. had any say. That’s the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which was very pro-Prohibition.
When Lowe applied for parole in 1927, the Bakersfield W.C.T.U. came out in strength against his early release with letters and a petition.
I couldn’t find release papers from Folsom, but a 1930 Census shows Lowe was in a convict labor camp in Fresno. So he didn’t get the parole he sought.
By 1940 Lowe was back in Bakersfield, per Census info.
He stayed here, working for the Southern Pacific Railroad, according to info on Ancestry.com, until his death in 1965. He’s buried in Union Cemetery.
Anyhow, I didn’t get all the information I’d hoped for on Wiles. But I didn’t want to let another year go by before I shared his story.