Text and photos submitted by Terry L. Ommen
n Dec. 10, 1918, a man was shot and killed in a tragic confrontation in the town of Lemon Cove. The crime shook the sleepy little community to its core as both the victim and the shooter were well-known and respected. But not only was Lemon Cove affected, Visalia felt the impact as well. But that was not uncommon, as Visalia, the Tulare County seat, was home to the Superior Court, county jail and other county offices. When major crimes occurred in the county, spillover into Visalia was going to happen.
The deadly incident in the small town located just 17 miles east of Visalia started at about 10:30 a.m. at the Sequoia National Park Transportation Co. The auto stage business, owned by 46-year-old Thomas F. Luttrell, had the mail contract to Giant Forest in the national park, and the company also carried sightseers and freight to the Sierra vacation spot. Luttrell had owned the government stage and transportation concession into the national park for the last five years or so, taking his trucks and automobiles there daily for four months each year. Vernon French, about 20 years old, was one of his drivers, and that Tuesday morning, the two men got into a heated argument in the company yard.
The angry words between them centered on 50 cents that Luttrell had borrowed from French and had not paid back. As the anger intensified, according to French, Luttrell brandished
a 38-caliber pistol. Again, according to the unarmed French, when he turned to walk away, Luttrell shot him in the back at close range.
Dr. John C. Paine of Exeter was called and treated the mortally wounded man. He was then placed on a Visalia Electric Railroad car at about 1:30 p.m. to be taken to the hospital. He was admitted into Visalia General Hospital at 702 N. Court St., where the attending doctor gave him little chance of recovery. Quickly, Tulare County District Attorney Frank Lamberson took a statement from French, which was recorded in shorthand by Leota M. King, who worked in his office. The wounded man then went into surgery, after which the doctor gave him little chance of survival. French died at the hospital at about 2:30 the next morning.
Shortly after the shooting, Tulare County Deputy Sheriffs Robert W. Pool and Leroy McCormick went to Lemon Cove and arrested Luttrell. He surrendered his pistol, and he was taken to the Tulare County Jail.
On Dec. 11, Albert E. Brooks, Tulare County coroner, opened his mortuary to doctors T.D. Blodgett of Tulare, John C. Paine of Exeter and C.M. White of Visalia for the autopsy. A coroner’s inquest followed, with Brooks in charge. It was a public proceeding held in the Board of Supervisors Chambers in the courthouse. Witnesses gave statements while a large group of spectators looked on. On the afternoon of Dec. 17, the coroner’s jury made its predicted decision. Vernon French was shot by Tom Luttrell with the intent to commit murder. The body of the victim was sent to his family in Fullerton for interment.
On March 5, 1919, the murder trial of Thomas Luttrell began in Judge Jonas A. Allen’s courtroom, Department 2, Tulare County Superior Court. Fred C. Scott, the newly elected district attorney, and one of his deputies, Walter W. Middlecoff, represented the people with Frank Lamberson, the former district attorney, assisting. Representing the defendant were Visalia attorneys James M. Burke and Harry B. McClure. Both legal teams were made up of experienced and well-respected lawyers. During the trial, the courtroom was packed with spectators, sometimes spilling over into the hallway.
Both sides debated over which man initiated the argument, but there was no disagreement about who fired the fatal shot. Luttrell was the only man with a gun. Much of the trial focused on whether the deceased was shot in the back or the front. This was a critical point as bullets entering into the front could indicate that the victim was attacking the defendant, therefore the defense team might argue self-defense. However, bullets entering the deceased from the back could indicate a retreating man and therefore might show that the defendant was not in fear of his life.
Both sides called witnesses, made their arguments and introduced evidence and on March 12, 1919, the jury, after deliberating a little over four hours, made its decision — Luttrell was guilty of murder in the second degree. The convicted man took it hard. “A younger man might stand it, but it goes hard on an old man,” he said, “especially when there were so many lies told.”
On March 20, Sheriff Court Smith escorted the convicted man to San Quentin State Prison to begin his sentence of a minimum of 10 years. His legal team appealed his conviction to the California Supreme Court, but was unsuccessful. The convicted murderer served 12 years and in September 1931, he was released from prison to begin his next 11 years on parole.
Luttrell had sold his transportation business to Richard K. Morey and Harry R. Kamp of Visalia after his arrest in 1918, but upon his release from prison, he returned to Lemon Cove and went back into the trucking and mail delivery business.
In December 1943, the 71-year old Lemon Cove man was given a nice Christmas gift. Superior Court Judge Frank Lamberson, the former Tulare County district attorney and one of the prosecuting attorneys in his trial, granted Luttrell’s petition for a Certificate of Rehabilitation. It was referred to California Gov. Earl Warren, who gave the convicted man a full pardon under California’s Deuel Act. It was the first case under the new statute and gave Luttrell a full restoration of his privileges as a citizen. He died at his home in Lemon Cove on March 10, 1951, at the age of 77 and was interred in the Woodlake Cemetery.
It was here in Lemon Cove that the deadly shooting occurred. Man is unidentified. Circa 1920
The Luttrell trial was held at the Tulare County Courthouse at Court and Oak streets in Visalia. Circa 1920
Judge Jonas A. Allen presided over the murder trial. He is shown here in his office in about 1911, when he was Tulare County D.A. (Photo courtesy retired Tulare County Superior Court Judge David Allen)