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ROBERT PRICE: Eighty years later, we've identified Matt Warren's killer (we think)

The killer approached from the backyard.

He picked up an old pipe from the yard and quietly opened the back door — unlocked, as he knew it would be. There, in the kitchen, sat his victim, facing away, counting his money and checking tenant receipts. Mathias "Matt" Warren had been out collecting rent payments that morning.

The killer struck with a single, savage blow. He scooped up the cash and the paperwork, walked out of the house and tossed aside the murder weapon. A literal paper trail led toward Baker Street; the killer separated the money from the accounting papers as he walked, letting the documents and receipts — and one $5 bill — fall to the asphalt.

An employee of Warren's, William Reed, found the victim the next morning in his bed. Had Warren managed to stand up and stagger to the spot where he was discovered, his skull crushed? Or did someone lift him there and half-drape a blanket over his body? Almost immediately, even before he spoke to the police, Reed dashed off a telegram to Warren's son, who lived 270 miles north: "Come at once. Your father needs you."

And Earl Warren, who in five years would be governor of California, flew home to Bakersfield to join the investigation into what remains the city's most infamous unsolved murder: the May 1938 homicide of Matt Warren, father of this country's most influential Supreme Court Chief Justice.

In dusty old folders, clues to a ghastly murder

Four, even five decades later, many in Bakersfield still knew the basic details of the crime, but it eventually faded from the city's collective memory.

But Chris Livingston remembered it well enough to realize what he had, in all its vivid, macabre glory, when he spilled a dozen black-and-white photos from a folder onto the floor. They were crime scene photos, and a few were grisly.

Livingston is the director of the Walter Stiern Library Historical Research Center at Cal State Bakersfield, an archive that houses several historical caches, including academic projects, old clippings from The Californian and government documents. The center received one of its most intriguing (and vast) collections last June when the Kern County Superior Court handed over volumes and volumes of documents, from microfilm to dusty old folders. But the documents became jumbled in the two-day move, requiring Livingston and his associates to begin the painstaking task of sorting them. He was in the middle of that undertaking when the Warren photos spilled out.

The photos were labeled "Mat (sic) Warren Murder Pictures," but the title didn't immediately click. Livingston didn't know what he was looking at until he found the typed transcript of Reed's statement, given at Bakersfield Police Department headquarters to J.H. Dupes of the District Attorney's office. Livingston's antennae went up when he read Reed's mention of having sent a wire to "Earl, his boy." A subsequent reference confirmed this was Earl Warren, Kern County Union High School graduate, district attorney of Alameda County and Republican candidate for state attorney general. And eventual Supreme Court Justice.

Warren, as Bakersfield Police Chief Robert Powers would later say, "wept unabashedly" as investigators briefed him on the murder of his father. Then his men fanned out in search of the killer.

Massive investigation into an otherwise obscure life yields little 

Matt Warren, by all accounts a modest-living man made wealthy from shrewd real estate ventures, had been alone in his house at 707 Niles St. that evening, his wife having moved to Oakland to be near their daughter.

Matt Warren had lived a relatively obscure life. A native of Norway, he moved his family to Los Angeles and then Bakersfield, where he worked as a car inspector for the Southern Pacific Railroad. He had invested his savings in real estate, some of it in rental properties, and achieved as much success as one could probably hope to achieve in the difficult latter days of the Great Depression. But the notoriety of his son, later to become the only California politician to win three consecutive terms as governor, was the only reason anyone attached any meaningful importance to his demise.

After graduating from KCUHS (now Bakersfield High School), Earl Warren had moved on to the University of California, in Berkeley, and then seven miles down the road to Oakland and the Alameda County DA's office, where he had achieved unusual success as a prosecuting attorney. He had also entered national politics as a member of the Republican National Committee.

His growing fame, along with the circumstances of the crime, quickly brought law enforcement officers and investigators from the Bay Area and Southern California to Bakersfield, along with an inevitable escort of newsmen. Reporter Ralph Kreiser, who with colleague Jim Day published stories in The Californian almost daily for months about the murder, wrote that at one time 22 investigators were engaged on the case. He didn't include the five stenographers or the parade of a dozen or more visiting criminologists. At least seven different law enforcement or investigatory agencies are mentioned in the Superior Court archives on the Warren case: the Bakersfield Police Department, Kern County Sheriff's Department, Kern County DA's office, Alameda County Sheriff's Department, California Department of Justice's Bureau of Identification, Alameda County medical examiner's office and Alameda County DA's office, led by Warren's own chief investigator, Oscar Jahnsen.

Powers tried not to let it show, but the abundance of outside agencies and experts irritated the Bakersfield chief, who was theoretically in charge of the investigation. Practically speaking, though, the man running the show was Jahnsen. (Powers must have impressed Warren, however, because some years later, as governor, he appointed Powers to head a state agency.)

Even the discovery of the wreckage of TWA DC-2 — a commercial airliner missing for three months — smashed into the side of a Yosemite mountain, could not dislodge the murder case from its domination of front page headlines.

"The pressure for (us to solve) the killing was terrific," Powers told The Californian's Bill Bloecher in 1968. "It must be understood that Warren at that time had already gained considerable popularity among organized peace officers in the state and they were quick to rally and volunteer assistance."

More than a dozen men were jailed for interrogation, as was common practice then, during the course of the investigation. Coverage included sensational headlines like "Mystery Killer Hunted in Warren Pipe Murder"; at one point The Californian published a photo of the "death chair," with a drawing of the probable position of the victim when he was attacked. Several days in, Kreiser reported in The Californian that investigators had learned of a violent argument late on the night of the murder.

But investigators couldn't come up with identifiable fingerprints on the murder weapon or anywhere in the house. The first murder conviction based on DNA evidence wouldn't happen for another 49 years.

Powers told The Californian he was convinced the guilty man never was in custody or known; the murder could have been committed by one of Warren's tenants, he said. Those tenants were aware that Warren probably had cash on hand, so robbery might easily have been the motive. "A man intent on killing would have gone there prepared," Powers told The Californian in 1968. "I think it is reasonable that the killer went to the Warren premises, peered through the window, saw him going over accounts, handling money, and decided to rob him."

Rumor of a deathbed confession 

Livingston, the CSUB archivist, came upon two reports in the Warren case file, both dated July 1944, that led him to another conclusion. District Attorney Tom Scott had told Dupes, his chief investigator, of a rumor he'd picked up at a barber shop: A real estate man named O.C. Watson had told Scott of his understanding that "Ed Regan made a confession prior to his death to the killing of Matt Warren," Dupes wrote in his report.

Ed Regan had been Matt Warren's primary rental-property handyman and to some extent a business partner. He may also have owed Warren money from a personal loan, although supporting paperwork was never discovered — an unusual oversight for Warren, considering his meticulous nature, had such a loan been made.

O.C. Watson told District Attorney Scott he'd heard this stunning nugget of information from the Rev. Phillip Dennis, a former minister. Dupes then called on Rev. Dennis, who denied having ever talked to Watson about the Warren case — but as Dupes was leaving, Dennis followed him out to the street and said, yes, perhaps he had had such a conversation. But if anyone had actually heard Regan's confession, he said, it would have been the Rev. Barrett, pastor of the First Baptist Church.

When the Rev. Barrett returned from a vacation a few days later, Dupes visited him and asked about the alleged confession. Barrett said he had visited Regan four or five times a week during the last two months of Regan's life and they had talked about many things — mostly Regan's desire to get right with God, join the church and receive baptism — but the Warren case was not one of them. In his report, Dupes had noted that the entire Regan family, except for the patriarch, dying of throat cancer, were members of the Rev. Barrett's church.

Might Barrett, we might speculate now, have simply wanted to spare the Regan family the humiliation of associated guilt? Dupes did not say if he had considered the possibility.

However, Jahnsen, Earl Warren's chief investigator, was convinced Regan had been the killer. Regan had put on a display of bad theater at Warren's funeral, bawling melodramatically, Jahnsen told a University of California researcher in a 1971 interview. He'd turned white as a sheet when Jahnsen had asked him to submit to fingerprinting and had quickly excused himself to wash his hands. Evidence at the scene and along that path of discarded paperwork had given Jahnsen the distinct impression that robbery hadn't been the motive at all: The killer had left behind jewelry, a jarful of money and Warren's pocketwatch, which was found on the bed next to Warren's body as if someone had carefully arranged it there. Perhaps it was the paperwork — deeds, receipts and other financial documents that wouldn't have been of much interest to a homicidal burglar — that motivated the killer. "Every paper (the killer took) was opened up ... and examined," Jahnsen said. "A fire had been started" and papers burned in a nearby yard.

Those indications pointed to Regan, Jahnsen said.

"You've persuaded me," university researcher Alice King told Jahnsen at that point in the interview.

'We almost had him'  

But homicide investigators from Los Angeles, who had independently reached the same conclusion, ruined the opportunity to nab the suspect, Jahnsen said. In an interrogation of Regan in a room at the El Tejon Hotel, they were overly aggressive: They "third-degreed" him, Jahnsen said, and Regan reacted by simply shutting down. In any case, Jahnsen said, Earl Warren didn't believe in the value of "third-degree" admissions, questioning the truthfulness of coerced confessions. Ironically, this display of respect which Warren would demonstrate for a suspect's rights two decades later as Supreme Court Chief Justice — vilifying him in the eyes of many conservatives — might have cost him the opportunity to apprehend his own father's killer.

"We almost had him," Jahnsen said. "... At one point he was almost to the point of telling."

Alice King isn't the only university researcher to have agreed with Jahnsen's conclusions.

"I think he is the guy," Livingston said of Regan. "To me, this kind of puts it to rest."

Contact The Californian's Robert Price at 661-395-7399, or on Twitter: @stubblebuzz. The views expressed here are his own.

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