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Looking Back to 1936: Gunman fires on school bus, declared insane 

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 Research Director Jan Cannon. Newspaper photography by GiGi Green.

Excerpts from the Saturday, April 11, 1936, Paso Robles Times

Merle Smith committed to Agnews

Gunman who fired on school bus Wednesday declared insane by court

Merle L. Smith, 45, who was taken into custody here Wednesday morning, after he had terrified school children en route to classes from the San Miguel and San Marcos districts by shooting at the huge school bus, was judged insane Friday and committed to Agnews State Hospital.

Superior Judge Atwell Weswick presided over the insanity hearing which began Thursday of this week. In addition to the principals in the affair, the testimony of several local witnesses was heard all of which pointed towards the mental instability of Smith.

When Smith was placed on the witness stand, he gave assertedly “queer” answers to the judge’s questions. Asked his name, Smith replied: “You know, it’s on the records.”

Upon being questioned as to whether he used narcotics or not, Smith assertedly replied: “What do you think?”

Smith, former deputy sheriff of Inyo County, invariably carried a gun on his person, having a legal permit to do so. It was reported that on at least one occasion, he had threatened the life of a Paso Robles businessman.

Paso Robles history, 1932

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It is declared that a short time ago, he entered a local garage, complained that a battery he had left to be charged, had been ruined in the process and at the point of a gun, he demanded a replacement.

At about 8:15 last Wednesday morning, Smith assertedly told his wife he was coming to Paso Robles for auto parts. He left the machine shop and service station which the pair have operated, five miles north of Paso Robles, for the past five or six years, and headed south. About three miles out of Paso Robles, children in the school bus, heard shots and it was discovered that Smith was following them in his light coupe.

Witnesses say that he was driving the car with his left hand, and firing out the right window of his coupe. Nine shots were fired, one of which hit a rear tire of the bus, in which 43 children and the driver, Price Haynes, were riding.

Smith followed the bus into the schoolyard, and while Haynes ran to the office to summon police aid, Smith was overpowered as he advanced menacingly, knife in hand, toward the rear of the bus, by school trustee Walter I. Brush, superintendent C.C. Carpenter and Ilas Dean.

The crazed man gave only one explanation for his actions: “What’s the idea of making kids go to school on Sunday?”

Hide & seek didn’t work

An observant mechanic and an efficiently organized constabulary, combined Thursday to bring a check covering payment for a fan belt and the cost of its installation, back to Paso Robles.

According to the story as told by constable Walter D. Trager, a tourist, driving a high-powered and equally high-priced automobile, drove into a local garage, and asked to have a new fan belt put on his motor. One of the employees was dispatched to a parts house for the belt, and when he returned the car owner paid him for it, but insisted that another employee of the garage perform the actual installation.

Then, in order to avoid confusion, employee No. 1, handed his $2.50 back to the customer and went about his other duties. When employee No. 2 had finished placing the fan belt in the car, he fastened the  hood, and the customer drove merrily away, without so much as a “thank you.” They watched him head eastward, then south and apparently he turned west at the next corner and back onto U.S. 101.

At any rate, a conference disclosed that he had left without paying for either the fan belt or the labor of installing it.

But one of the employees remembered the license number. A quick phone call to Constable Trager, and subsequent phone calls south, and the truant was “picked up” in Atascadero where he had stopped, and reminded of his “oversight.” He wrote a check for the full amount, which he was to have left in that town, to be taken up later by the local garage.

But he forgot a second time. More phone calls. The careless motorist was delayed once again in San Luis Obispo. He produced the check, and this time it was taken directly to the Post Office in an envelope from the sheriff’s office.

Authorities here are hoping that said check will prove to be more permanent than its author.

Read previous Looking Back articles

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About the author: Reporter Jackie Iddings

Jackie Iddings is a contributing reporter and photographer for the Paso Robles Daily News.