As the spring of 1921 waned, the population of Los Angeles continued to grow rapidly having surpassed the 750 thousand mark. The Los Angeles Police Department was comprised of 705 employees, including Chief Lyle Pendegast, who served as chief from 1920 through 1921. Central Station, the department’s headquarters was located at 318-328 West 1st Street. In addition, there were seven separate substations, including University Division, which was situated at 825 West Jefferson Boulevard. It was here that Detective John J. Fitzgerald was assigned to work burglary rings and pickpocket details.
John J. Fitzgerald was born inTralee Kerry County, Ireland on June 16, 1880. He immigrated to the United States in 1903 and made his way to Los Angeles with his wife Margaret. On April 6, 1907, Fitzgerald joined the Los Angeles Police Department. At nearly six feet tall and weighing 235 pounds, Fitzgerald was powerfully built and well suited for a career in law enforcement. Fitzgerald and his wife Margaret would have two children, Patricia, born around 1913 and a son, John, born in 1915. The family lived at 1131 East 57th Street, in today’s Newton Division.
John excelled in law enforcement and quickly made detective sergeant in 1909, where he began investigating pick pockets in the downtown area. In 1912, he overpowered a would be bomber who entered Central Station intent on blowing up the building. Fitzgerald and two other detectives beat the suspect unconscious in an effort to prevent him from detonating the bomb. By 1920, the 39 year old detective was a seasoned investigator with several successful arrests to his record, including scores of burglars who preyed on the many warehouses along the Los Angeles River. Prohibition was in its nascent stage, having been enacted with the 18th Amendment’s passing on January 16, 1919. Prohibition would remain in place for a dozen more years before being repealed in 1933. With the onset of Prohibition, organized crime burgeoned to deal with the lucrative business of bootlegging.
On June 18, 1921, Los Angeles detectives were involved in a raid at 2392 West 13th Street, following up on a lead involving a burglary at the Hawley Drug Company located at 2753 West Pico Boulevard. Some fifteen grams of morphine along with seventeen gallons of alcohol were stolen. Several detectives including Detective Sergeant Fitzgerald and inspectors from the State Pharmacology Board, responded to the residence on 13th Street. Drugs, alcohol and firearms were recovered from the home, which belonged to a man named T. J. Farley. Police also had seven suspects in custody believed to be involved in a burglary ring, which was suspected in burglaries at the residences of two Hollywood movie stars.
Officers left the home and transported the seven suspects to Central Station for questioning. Following the detectives’ departure from the home, a young career criminal arrived at the home. Alert neighbors observed him and notified police officials that an additional suspect was at the residence on 13th Street. Detectives returned within an hour of departing but found the suspect, Philip “Little Phil” Alguin gone. Detectives detained an additional burglary suspect named Lazaro Medrano.
As Detective Fitzgerald grilled Medrano, he heard the creaking of footsteps on the porch, followed by a light knock. Philip Alguin had apparently returned perhaps unwittingly into the arms of awaiting law enforcement officers. As Fitzgerald opened the front door and looked out into the darkness, Medrano shouted a warning, “Philly, Philly!” The quiet evening was suddenly shattered by the blasts of several gunshots that lit up the porch. Fitzgerald ran out the front door to chase his assailant while returning fire from his own gun. Tragically, one round from Alguin’s revolver struck Fitzgerald on his 3rd vest button, just above the abdomen. Fitzgerald pursued Alguin for several dozen feet before collapsing.
Detective Fitzgerald was carried back to the residence on 13th Street where an ambulance was summoned. He was transported to Central Receiving Hospital directly across the street from Central Station. His wife Margaret was summoned from her home and she arrived at the hospital during the late hours of June 18, 1921. Upon arrival, she walked into a waiting room filled with several despondent officers. As Margaret clutched her two children Patricia and John, she learned that her husband and father to the couple’s two kids was already dead. Overwhelmed with grief, Margaret collapsed into the arms of several police officers.
A long and desperate manhunt began for Alguin, a three time convicted felon who had served time at San Quentin and Folsom for robbery and burglary. Alguin had just paroled on May 3, 1921. Fitzgerald himself had arrested Alguin several years before in 1913. Several hundred officers scoured Los Angeles and Orange Counties for the fugitive. The manhunt continued far and wide across California as reports came in about Alguin’s whereabouts, all to no avail.
The Fitzgerald’s front yard on east 57th Street was completely covered by the dozens of floral arrangements sent to the family. Services were held on Wednesday, June 22, 1921, at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church which today is located across the street from Newton Police Station. The church was filled as a thousand more mourners spilled onto east 32nd Street, just west of Central Avenue. Among the pall bearers were officers Frank Beaumont, Frank Roberts and Thomas Beigler. Two thousand automobiles comprised the funeral procession. Detective Sergeant John J. Fitzgerald was buried at Calvary Cemetery located at 4201 Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles.
A continuing two year search would unfold as LAPD relentlessly pursued Alguin. Chief of Police Lyle Pendegast ordered all available officers summoned from their homes to hunt for the suspect. Soon after the murder of Fitzgerald, Alguin hopped aboard a train bound for El Paso, Texas, hiding between the cars before crossing into Juarez, Mexico around June 21, 1921. He stayed there briefly before crossing back into the United States and moving constantly across the Midwest United States with a traveling circus, where he worked as a clown. He eventually returned to Juarez in September 1921, when word of his possible whereabouts reached law enforcement officials in Los Angeles in September 1922.
By then, the reward for Alguin’s arrest had ballooned to $6000, a hefty sum in 1922. LAPD Chief Louis Oaks travelled to El Paso, along with World War I hero Sam Dreben and a police captain from the El Paso Police Department. Driven by a chauffeur, the group traveled into Mexico upon learning of Alguin’s incarceration in the Juarez jail. Upon Alguin’s release, the group led by Oaks, attempted to kidnap Alguin and take him back into the United States. A wild struggle unfolded during which they got Alguin into a vehicle only to be turned back by a mob that rescued Alguin from Oaks’ clutches. Dreben shot Alguin in the process, grazing him on the head.
Chief Oaks and his companions were held briefly in Juarez before being released. As for Alguin, he was eventually detained and held in a Chihuahua state prison until Mexican officials decided what to do with the fugitive. Political intrigue would follow as efforts were made to extradite Alguin to Los Angeles. Future Mexican President Plutarco Calles sought to extradite a political enemy from the United States in exchange for Alguin. Eventually, the Mexican government established that Alguin was born in Arizona, thus making him a United States citizen. On February 6, 1923, Alguin was placed aboard a freighter called the Freeport Sulpher No. 6, bound for Galveston, Texas.
Chief Louis Oaks accompanied by various Texas law enforcement officials, road a ferry and met the freighter at sea. Alguin was delivered to Oaks and on February 9, 1923, Oaks and a second LAPD officer left for Los Angeles with Alguin in their custody via the Sunset Limited Train. During the trip, Alguin was fed well and opened up to Oaks, recounting the shooting and his flight from justice. Oaks would state that Alguin was well behaved explaining, “I never had a better prisoner in my life.”
The 28-year-old Alguin would eventually be found guilty of Detective Sergeant Fitzgerald’s murder and was sentenced to life in prison in October 1923. He was foiled in an escape attempt from Folsom prison on October 29, 1923. In 1936, he was tried and convicted for a second murder he committed while fleeing from the shooting of Detective Sergeant Fitzgerald and was given a second life term. Alguin purportedly killed his second victim to take the man’s hat for use as a disguise. Alguin sought parole during the 1940’s but was turned down every time. In 1953, Alguin was offered parole on the condition he allow for his deportation to Mexico, which he readily accepted.
On September 15, 2011, while at a ceremony at LAPD headquarters, John J. Fitzgerald’s grandson, accepted the first issued Los Angeles Police Department Purple Heart on behalf of his grandfather, who was killed in the line of duty 90 years before to the year. Lieutenant J. A. Macias, #27710