Strange Fruta

The Inevitable Death of Francisco Torres

Even when the reporting wasn't simply melodramatic fantasy, it was usually surprisingly incompetent. To cite one telling example, on Aug. 11, the Santa Ana Weekly Bladelamented that the search for the missing Torres was going badly because "Torres was never observed close enough by white persons to obtain a very minute description from that quarter." Perhaps few white persons had noticed Torres, but others had, and a very minute description could be had by anyone willing to make the effort. Ten days before the Blade's complaint, Orange County Sheriff Theo Lacy had sent post cards to all the law-enforcement agencies in Southern California alerting them to be on the lookout for the fugitive and providing them with a complete description of Torres, from his complexion ("dark olive") to his shoe size ("about a No. 5"). Reading press accounts leaves one with the distinct impression that none of the reporters for the county's newspapers could speak Spanish.

The Orange County Board of Supervisors offered a $200 reward for the capture of Torres, and the prospect of big money drew more people into the search, most notably Keno Wilson, a detective from Los Angeles with a reputation for brutal efficiency. Wilson was known for getting his man—dead or alive if white, just dead if Latino. But while Wilson provided much colorful copy for the newspapers, he proved useless as a detective.

Days dragged by with no sign of Torres. The newspapers began to speculate that the county's Latinos were sheltering him. References to the unreliability and dishonesty of Mexicans became common. The tension between OC's Anglo and Latino communities grew.

In a move reminiscent of the way Southern newspapers ginned up popular hatred of a fugitive prior to a lynching, the Times ascribed new crimes to Torres. On Aug. 3, the paper reported that Torres could not possibly have fled south, since according to an "old Mexican," Torres had once killed a soldier in Mexico. This charge disappeared as suddenly as it appeared. The next day, the Timesreported that Torres could not possibly have fled north because he had killed a ranch foreman near Mono Lake in June. How Torres managed to make the 750-mile roundtrip necessary to commit this crime while working six days a week at the Modjeska ranch was unexplained.

The Timeshad ruled out north and south, the Pacific ruled out Torres heading west, so only one direction remained. And sure enough, on Wednesday, Aug. 10, word reached Santa Ana that Torres had been sighted in the mountains of eastern Orange County, attempting to kill a young white boy. Actually, it turned out that the boy had panicked when he heard shots fired by a farmer hunting rabbits. With a head full of stories about the murderous "greaser" still at large, the boy had assumed the gunfire meant he was about to become Torres' next victim.

But Torres wasn't in eastern Orange County, as Sheriff Lacy learned from a telegram waiting for him when he got back from investigating this false alarm. Francisco Torres was in the San Diego County jail.

Constable S.A.L. Woods had spotted Torres, whose description he knew from Lacy's post card, sitting alone in the general store in Mesa Grande, 40 miles east of Escondido, and arrested him. Torres offered no resistance.

The same could not be said, however, of the San Diego sheriff's office. When Lacy arrived on Thursday to collect his prisoner, San Diego officials refused to release Torres until they received the reward money, or at least a $100 deposit. After some negotiation, Lacy was able to persuade them to accept his word of honor that the reward would be paid. In return, Lacy received Torres and some advice—knowing that feelings were running high in OC, it was suggested that Lacy bypass Santa Ana and instead take his prisoner to Los Angeles for safekeeping. No one in San Diego was concerned about Torres' well-being or his right to a fair trial; they were worried that if he were lynched, the reward money wouldn't be forthcoming.

Lacy and Torres returned to Santa Ana by train. At the station, a crowd of several hundred was waiting to get a look at Torres, whom the Blade described as a "short, villainous-looking Mexican" with "an apish grin." Lacy's deputies hurried Torres into a waiting carriage and headed for the jail. All along the half-mile route from the train station to the jail, the street was lined with curious onlookers hoping to catch a glimpse of the prisoner.

The Orange County jail was a small, brick building with a redwood door. Usually it was left unguarded at night—in fact, the doors of the jail's three cells were usually kept unlocked, and Lacy and his two deputies allowed the prisoners to wander about inside the small building. But given the extreme tension surrounding Torres' case, Lacy decided to tighten security. He ordered the cell doors locked and persuaded the Board of Supervisors to hire a night guard for the jail.

At first, the mood of white Orange County seemed to reflect the editorial line taken by the newspaper—Torres deserved to be lynched, but it would be better to the let the law take its course and have the state's hangman kill him after he was convicted and sentenced to death, an outcome all the papers took for granted. The public's anger was now mixed with curiosity, and a steady stream of visitors to the jail gawked at Torres in his cell, as if he were some exotic specimen on display at a zoo.

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