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Looking Back to 1931: Eyewitnesses describe gang battle, hijacking 

Looking Back Paso Robles

This look back at Paso Robles history comes from local newspapers in the Paso Robles Area Historical Society collection. News for this column is selected with the assistance of the society’s Research Director Jan Cannon. Photography by Gigi Greene.

Excerpt from the Thursday, January 1, 1931 issue:

Blazing Guns at San Miguel Peril Citizens

Two Men Wounded in Suspected Hijacking Try

– Gangland guns flashed red in the center of San Miguel early last Wednesday, and when the shots had died away two men were wounded and the little town had been aroused to its greatest mystery in years.

Authorities expressed belief that an attempted hijacking of a truckload of liquor led to the battle, but no rum was found later when the truck was discovered near Lockwood. In the meantime a shot-riddled Cadillac had appeared in Paso Robles and a man who has the name of “Blake” was treated by Dr. G.L. Sobey.

The automobile was still in the Pioneer Garage today—unclaimed. And the whereabouts of its occupants of the morning of the gun battle were still unknown.

Click here to read the full front page.

Bystanders Periled

At least two innocent bystanders were imperiled when the guns of the embattled men began to roar in San Miguel, it was revealed yesterday. They were Miss Charlotte Diener of 1131 Page Street, Berkeley, and a sailor of the United States Navy who presumably had been hitchhiking and was given a ride either on the truck on in the other car.

Miss Diener, who had been cooking for the Hotel Bressler, was leaving for the north on Train 69. Fred Braffet, substituting for Bill Williams as night patrolman, had gone to the San Miguel station to flag the train for her.

Carrying her suitcase, Miss Diener stepped into the street. It was 4:40 a.m., and the business section of San Miguel was dark. She started across to the depot.

Guns Start Roaring

A truck suddenly swung down the highway and careened to a stop near the old red railroad car which Wm. McNaul placed facing the road a year or so ago. Before Miss Diener had time to reach the other side of the pavement, the Cadillac had circled across the railroad track near the cattle corral and turned near the truck.

Shots rang out. Glass shattered on the Cadillac’s windshield. A man staggered out into the headlights’ glare with one hand over his face. Blood trickled through his fingers.

He took refuge behind the railroad car and leaned against a telephone pole. Out in the street guns were still blazing. Two pistol shots pierced the back of the seat.

There must have been at least one other man on the truck. Now he leaped to the road, a gun in his own hand. More shots at close range. Miss Diener, nearly paralyzed with fright, stood in the middle of the highway and saw the desperate duel.

15 Shots Fired

Over across the railroad tracks, cut off from the highway by a string of cars, Fred Braffet was hurrying to the scene. Some of the pistol bullets whistled above him. By the time he traversed the short distance between the pump house and the depot, everything was over. The truck driver and his companion were back at the wheel and speeding away while their opponents looked to the wounded man.

“There were 12 or 15 shots fired,” Braffet said. “The whole thing happened within a minute or so, and by the time I could get over the freight cars and to the scene, the gangsters had gone. Miss Diener was still standing in the street. I hurried her to the train. She will probably never forget her departure from San Miguel.”

A man ran past the side of Hotel Bressler and shouted: “Did you get ‘em bill?” according to Mr. Bressler. Another fled north on the highway, and when Mrs. Bressler looked out to see what all the noise was about, she saw that this man wore a bluejacket’s uniform.

Shotgun found

“He was probably hitch hiking, and when the fight began, he figured it was not his war!” Bressler said.

Tom Biscaro of El Nacimiento ranch found a sawed-off shotgun, a 16 gauge, lying the road west of San Miguel. Tom Firanzi, proprietor of the billiard parlor at San Miguel, picked up a .380 caliber automatic pistol shell at the scene of the battle. Anybody struck in body by a bullet of this size would certainly be stopped. Clark Smith, firearms dealer, said.

The truck was found abandoned near Lockwood, where a stage driver on the Bradley-Bryson line discovered it behind a barn. There were two bullet holes in the windshield facing the driver’s seat, and blood on the cushion, it was reported. A third bullet had penetrated the gasoline tank and there were a couple of gallons of gasoline spilled in the ditch at San Miguel, but the hole was not low enough to cause all the fuel to be lost.

Cargo vanishes

There was no liquor in the specially constructed and padlocked steel body of the abandoned truck, officers reported, but they found evidence that the load had been removed.

In the meantime, three men appeared at M.S. Allen’s Cottages on Spring Street, Paso Robles, and aroused him and Mrs. Allen. It was shortly after five o’clock.

“We’ve had an accident—will you call a doctor?” they asked.

Allen telephoned Dr. G.L. Sobey, who responded. He picked fragments of windshield glass and shot from the face of a man who said his name was “Blake.” The other two men took the Cadillac to the Pioneer garage, where it was left for repair. The name given LaVerne Payne corresponded with motor vehicle registration records in Sacramento as to ownership of the car. It was “Leo J. Lipsie, 440 Geary Street, San Francisco.”

Car pierced

The car, bearing 1930 license 5-J-10-13, a 1929 model Cadillac Victoria, bore the marks of conflict. Two bullet holes had pierced the shutters in front. One dented the vacuum tank, the other struck the steel plates underneath the footboards. The right side of the windshield was shattered, a portion of the sun visor had been shot away. A dozen shot had skimmed the top of the car as though they were fired from the seat of the truck or some other high vantage point. One shot pierced the glass in the rear.

The trio remained at Mr. Allen’s cottages for several hours, during which time Dr. Sobey returned and treated his patient again. They placed some telephone calls. Finally a car came with two men and took them away.

(Click here to read the story on Page 5)

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Thank you to sponsors of Looking Back

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About the author: News Staff

The news staff of the Paso Robles Daily News wrote or edited this story from local contributors and press releases. The news staff can be reached at