The Coastal Post - February, 1996

A Touch Of History On Marin County Sheriffs


There has been a sheriff in Marin County since 1850. The first one was called S.S. Bacchtel, but no one now knows what the S.S. stands for.

It was reported by Charles Lauff that Bacchtel's first job was to arrest John Pinston, "a colored man," for a minor offense. The jury ordered Bacchtel to give him 50 lashes. At the time of the interview in the Independent Journal in 1961, Lauff was 95, so we'd hope his memory played tricks on him. Fifty lashes for committing a "minor offense" seems a lot of punishment, but maybe in the early days of Marin laws were more forceful.

There is a slight discrepancy between the lists of sheriffs that were given to us by the California History Room in the County Library and the list of early sheriffs in Monro-Frazer's History of Marin, printed in 1880, but there can be no doubt S.S. Bacchtel was the first, because he is so listed in both sources as well as Charles Lauff's interview.

At first the sheriff's job was combined with the job as tax collector. Valentine D. Doub, himself a former sheriff from 1857 to 1863, took over as County Clerk, Recorder and Auditor when James Tunstead assumed the job of sheriff and tax collector. As far as we could determine, the job was still combined when George Mason was sheriff in 1879-1880.

There is an interesting story about Sheriff Valentine Daub: On July 22, 1862, when about 400 prisoners got away from San Quentin prison (founded in 1854), they "meandered up Corte Madera Creek and at the house of a Mr. Brevier, took his best suit, 12 dollars and a merschaum pipe." (The Making of Marin, Jack Mason, 1975)

Sheriff Daub quickly assumed command and led a posse that headed off the convicts at Ross Embarcadero. Seven of the convicts were killed, and about 30 were wounded. Mason wrote: "Many of the prisoners received commuted sentences for helping recapture their comrades." At this time, the sheriffs were mounted on horseback and had to be good riders.

The second time there was a San Quentin break was much later, in 1935, and only four prisoners instead of 400 were involved. But whenever there was an element of danger, the sheriff, this time Walter Sellmar, was involved. The warden of San Quentin, James Hobhan, was hosting the prison board (of all things) at lunch. The prisoners, led by Rudolph Straight, entered the lunchroom with guns, the warden immediately lunged for the phone, but he was badly injured by Straight, who pistol-whipped him. Holohan never recovered from his injuries. Then the prison board secretary, Mark Noon, finding a gun at his back, phoned the gate and called for the warden's car, so the four prisoners with their captives were allowed to escape.

They headed towards Black Point, but Sheriff Sellmar had enough presence of mind to raise the drawbridge (old-timers will remember when there was a drawbridge across the Sonoma River), so they were thwarted in their attempt to reach Sonoma. Instead, they headed for Tomales. At Valley Ford they were stopped by a roadblock. Straight was killed, the three other prisoners were captured, but the president of the prison board and a director were slightly wounded in the fray.

Louis P. Monanos was sheriff on August 7, 1970 when a young black man, Jonathan Jackson, walked into Judge Harold J. Hale's courtroom. On trial that day was James McClain, accused of knifing a prison guard. Jackson waited until the trial was in progress before pointing a gun at the bailiff and throwing a gun to James McClain, and from then on McClain took charge. The judge was pushed into an elevator along with three women jurors, the assistant district attorney, Gary Thomas, and the other two blacks who were on trial with McClain. All were forced into a van outside the courthouse.

Sheriff Montanos was called and ran down from his office, drew his gun, but he couldn't do anything because the judge had a shotgun taped to his neck which could go off at any moment.

The first shot came from inside the van, and was probably the one which killed the judge. A San Quentin guard, then fatally shot McClain, who was driving the van. The assistant D.A. seized a gun and shot the remaining two prisoners, but he himself was wounded in the spine. Officers opened the van doors and removed the living, which included the three women jurors. Thomas spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair. He eventually became a judge himself and took pride in dedicating a stone memorial to Judge Haley. Thomas said, "Judge Haley embodied the ideals of the Knights of the Round Table: 'Live pure, speak true, love Christ the King'."

The black activist, Angela Davis, was arrested after the serial numbers on the guns were traced to her. After spending 322 days in the Marin jail, she was tried and acquitted in San Jose.

The sheriffs' office has recently come under notice again when retiring Sheriff Charles Prandi notified the Supervisors that he thought Robert Dole should succeed him. The Supervisors complied with Prandi's request. Dole will be up for election in two years.