Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Murder At The Defender Mine

Willard "Red" Shannon (Inmate 14663)
When you think of criminals on the run during the 1920’s and 1930’s, you may think of some of the fugitives of the past such as John Dillinger, “Baby Face” Nelson and maybe even the infamous pair of Bonnie and Clyde.  Sometimes, we as people romanticize the whole idea of being “on the run,” evading police at every turn.  The entertainment world has succeeded in callousing our minds into thinking that was an exciting era, full of danger, suspense at every corner and the ideology of “ride or die” thinking. Sadly, we do not remind ourselves of the victims of these "criminals" often enough. Most go on leaving a trail of blood and death and so many ignore that part, only choosing to remember the exciting parts.

When you think of California history during such an era, one would assume that we would not have too many stories in comparison to the Dillinger’s and the Bonnie and Clyde’s of that time period, or do we? 

Well, I have a story for you….one of deception and murder. This is a true story, one that would go on to make nationwide headlines and one that would seal the fate of one, Willard Shannon. A story, that after reading you won't soon forget.

The Man

Willard Shannon- (aliases: Willard Mead, Willard Webster, Walter Riley)
Given up at birth and placed in a foster home at the age of four months old, Willard Shannon had a rough start from the very beginning.  As a young man he served time in Eastern State Penitentiary and eventually was moved to Folsom Prison, where he was released in 1926. He knew only how to make a living the wrong way and became institutionalized in the worst way.

The Plan

Fixated on a scheme that would bring him great fortune, Shannon decided to set his sights on robbing several California mining men in Amador County. It took several weeks to plan but Shannon eventually convinced a automobile salesman by the name of Harold Lage to travel with him up to Amador County to purchase a vehicle. Perhaps, under the rouse of showing him his “mine” that he allegedly owned, Shannon lured Lage up to the area known as Defender.  It was obvious that Shannon was a liar. He went about telling people that he was in fact a wealthy miner who had plenty of money to go around.

There were two different stories printed in the paper in regards to where Lage was killed. One story  says that Shannon stated he and two other friends (unidentified) planned to rob Lage’s home in Stockton . They shot Lage in Lage’s own garage and then drove up to the mountains of Amador County to dispose of his body.  This is interesting because eye witness accounts stated that Lage was seen arriving to Jackson in his car and then leaving with Shannon up into the mountains. 

According to records, Shannon paid Lage for the vehicle with two counterfeit checks and it wasn’t until Shannon disposed of the body that he started claiming that he was in fact Harold Lage. Had he killed Lage prior, why would he identify himself as Shannon on his way up the mountain, stopping in Jackson?

It seems that either Lage caught him in a lie once they were up there or perhaps Shannon just felt it was better to dispose of Lage all together once he had him in a desolate area and once he had Lage's car.  Nevertheless, Shannon shot Lage and disposed of his body under the cover of thick brush and deep wilderness in the vicinity of Pioneer, California.  At that point in time, the area was known as Defender (previously Contreras) and it was close to the Defender Mine.  In fact, Lage’s shoes and socks were found near one of the abandoned mines in the area.  It took dozens of men searching the area before some local boys discovered Lage’s body, and the cause of death was then determined.

On December 31, 1926, Willard Shannon killed and disposed of Harold Lage's body.  Shannon then decided to take on the “persona” of Harold Lage himself. Once he was departing the area alone, he then told a resident of Jackson that his name was now Harold Lage.  It was only after giving the description of the man the witness saw, that authorities determined it was Willard “Red” Shannon, not Lage that the witness had spoken to.

At one point the Lincoln that Shannon had stolen from Lage was mired in the mud at Jackson Point. A young teamster was called to aid in the removal of the vehicle from the mud. The witness claimed that Shannon was alone. Once the vehicle was released from the muddy dirt, Shannon traveled down Highway 49 headed for Sonora.  He stopped to purchase some merchandise, using Harold Lage’s checkbook. When he learned that the roads past Sonora were blocked due to weather conditions and mud, he returned to Sonora and booked a room at the Hotel Victoria (later renamed The Sonora Inn).  In order to pay for his room Shannon signed over to the Hotel, Harold Lage’s Christmas Bonus check that was within his wallet. 

On The Run

Shannon travelled through Yosemite and down into Southern California evading police the entire time. During the manhunt for Shannon, the newspapers mention that the main highways were being canvassed by deputies  armed with machine guns, ordered from Sheriff Lucot and other law enforcement throughout the state.  Can you imagine?

According to newspaper archives, Shannon made it to his aunt’s home in Santa Maria and also to visit a sister in Lompoc. He even gave his aunt a ride home where he slept over for the night, before leaving again the next day. He told her he was going to Oakland, but that was not the case.  He then went to the salesroom of another automobile dealership. He had planned to ditch Lage’s car and get himself another one.

According the man who may have been Shannon’s next victim, John Ross (an auto salesman in Bakersfield), Shannon tried to convince him that he was a wealthy miner with plenty of money. He also admitted that he was coming into more fortune in the coming weeks and that his money was in the form of gold, so that he just wanted to take a “test drive” on a new Chrysler. He explained that he had no intention of purchasing a vehicle that day, and that he would have to return to get it, but was adamant that he wanted to take it for a spin.  The salesman had suspicions about Shannon, and it was obvious that Shannon caught on to it.  Finally, Shannon retreated in a hurry.

Throughout his various travels Shannon would leave telegrams in Harold Lage’s name, even going so far as to send telegrams to Lage's wife hoping to avoid the authorities suspicion of whether or not Harold Lage was in fact missing or worse, dead. He couldn't do that for long though, since eventually Lage's body was found.

In a last ditch effort to rid his ties to Lage, Shannon sent a telegram at the Western Union, stopped to ask two Boy Scouts for directions to Los Angeles (as he was in a hurry) and ditched Lage’s car in Paso Robles, California. Boarding a train to Chicago, Shannon escaped out of California without one hitch and laid in hiding for several days. He then travelled to Butte, Montana and then onto Salt Lake City, Utah around January 29th, 1927.

It was in Salt Lake City that he met an architect by the name of Walter R.Ware. Shannon was now completely penniless, so he begged Ware for a job at his company.  While he was there, Shannon stole checks from Ware’s office and attempted to purchase a ticket to Los Angeles. The ticket agent grew suspicious when Shannon asked if he could write him a check. The police where then called and Shannon was arrested upon boarding the train.

Once Sheriff Lucot of Amador County learned that Shannon was being held in Salt Lake City, on charges of forgery under the alias Walter Riley, he traveled to Salt Lake City to make sure this was the right man that he was hunting for.  As soon as he got there, it was confirmed,  Walter Riley was in fact the murderer Willard Shannon, and Sheriff Lucot was determined to bring him back to Amador County to face the consequences for the crime Shannon had committed. Once in Utah, the Sheriff had Shannon extradited over to California where the trial for the murder of Harold Lage began.

The Trial

Shannon had admitted to authorities in Utah, that he was involved in the death of Lage. He also claimed that two other accomplices were the real murderers and that he was just another witness. He refused to reveal the names of these two "accomplices" he claimed were involved. Of course, no one bought his story and the trial started quickly. According to the papers, the trial was one of the quickest of record at that time in the state of California. The trial started on a Monday and ended three days later. The jury was out for a whole thirty minutes before returning with a unanimous verdict.

On March 23, 1927 at approximately 5:15 pm, Shannon was found guilty of murder in the 1st degree and Judge Vicini ordered that he be hung until dead.  The night before his execution, Shannon requested  that his last meal be toast, strawberries and chocolate. He also requested a phonograph to play the Shannon Quartet's song, “The Sidewalks of New York” over and over, while he sat impatiently smoking cigarettes awaiting his doom.  After three failed attempts of appealing the verdict, inmate # 14663, was hung on May 5, 1928 at 10:02 am at Folsom Prison.  It took Shannon 10 minutes to die and he was pronounced dead at exactly 10:12 am.

The Aftermath

The victim, Harold W. Lage who suffered a terrible death at the hands of Willard "Red" Shannon (nicknamed for his auburn hair), was laid to rest at the Woodbridge Cemetery in Woodbridge, California.
( Address:  19071 Lower Sacramento Road, Woodbridge CA 95258). The internment for Harold W. Lage was on January 10, 1927. Services prior to that were held in Stockton with Leroy Johnson, a chaplain for Karl Ross Post of the American Legion performing the service. Also, a Practioner of Christian Science was there by the name of William Yarnold who spoke as well.  Pall bearers were fellow members of the American Legion.  He was laid to rest on Plot 3.4.

Harold was a native of Iowa. He served during World War I, having enlisted with the 23rd Engineers in 1917. He later settled in Stockton as an automobile salesman.  Harold was only 29 years of age at the time of his death. His wife, Avis Lage, was forced to raise two children on her own. His son, Harold W. Lage Jr and daughter Lois moved to Woodbridge in 1928.  Upon my investigating I learned that his son Harold Jr, went on to lead a productive and interesting life.

Avis, remarried a man by the name of Fred Burgstahler of Lodi.  Harold W. Lage, Jr. attended high school and graduated from Lodi High in 1943. He then served in the Army Air Corps during World War II, returning to Stockton after the war. Later, he moved out to Minnesota and onto Texas where he worked as a service representative for White Equipment Company in the late 1950's. He enjoyed hunting and fishing according to his obituary. Sadly, at just the age of 63, after an unexpected illness Harold W. Lage, Jr. passed away on January 30,1988.  He was buried next to his father Harold W. Lage, Sr. on Plot # 3.4 at Woodbridge Cemetery as well.

Although I am sure that Harold Lage’s family was never the same after his death, I would hope that his wife found some sense of closure after Shannon’s execution. The newspaper’s claimed that once Shannon had been apprehended in Salt Lake City that Lage's wife was ecstatic, claiming it had been so difficult for her knowing that he had gotten away with murder and continued to evade the police for so long. I hope that wherever Harold Lage’s family is today, that they were able to keep his memory alive and hold it dear to their hearts, not allowing Shannon to rob them of that, too.

Harold W. Lage's grave
To read an in depth account of Willard Shannon's time in Folsom, as well as his execution please check out the book "Folsom's 93" by April Moore. 

Copyright  5/23/2012- Republished 3/28/2018  -- J’aime Rubio, 

Thank you April Moore for the photo of Willard Shannon and the interesting info about Shannon's last meal in Folsom! Also a big thank you about the info about Shannon sending telegrams to Lage's wife during his time on the lam.(

Photo of Harold Lage's grave c/o
Amador County History (archived books)
Modesto-The News (1/7/1927)
Bakersfield Californian (1/3/1927, 3/28/1927)
Bakersfield Morning Echo (11/27/1927)
Lodi Sentinel (1/11/1927, 2/8/1927, 3/24/1927)
San Mateo Times (2/10/1927)

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Forgotten Town Of Contreras- Amador County History

woodcut originally published circa 1860

Long ago, back in the days of the "Gold Rush," there was a small town founded and inhabited by a Mexican family in Amador County.  The name of the town was Contreras. Not many books mention it, as it has been long forgotten and left in the archives for many years. Most people don’t even know where the real Contreras once stood, but I believe I have figured out this mystery.

It is funny how this whole story began, as I stumbled upon this mystery at the Amador County Library months ago. I had come to the Library to view microfilmed newspaper archives but someone was already using the machine. I decided that I would kill some time by reading some of the old archived books.  I came across an old book, tattered and worn down that said “Amador County History.”

I skimmed through the pages and came across the name “Contreras.”  I was surprised at first, as it mentioned that it was once a town in Amador County. I lived up there for a few years growing up, I spent some of my summers there as a teenager and had never heard anything about that town in its history before, so I became very intrigued.  

As I read it spoke about a man named Pablo Contreras who came to Amador County in the 1850’s to mine for gold. He was a well educated and  prominent man who purchased a large claim and mined successfully, adding to his already established fortune. He brought along with him, his family which included some very beautiful daughters.  So beautiful in fact, it mentioned that miners from all around the county would gather to Contreras on Saturday nights to attend a weekly dance at the town's Dance Hall, with the hopes of dancing with one of  Señor Contreras’ lovely daughters.

Contreras  had everything a western town during the “Gold Rush” might be assumed to have,  2 Saloons, a Dance Hall, Mercantile Store, Blacksmith Shop and Butcher Shop. It was said to have served up to 1,500 people at that time. Many times after a night of dancing on Saturdays, the crowd of drunken men became rowdy and fights ensued on the street.  There were rumors of shootouts just as you would see in any good western film. Most always the blame for their own vigilante justice was due to cattle rustling.  One night, during one of those many shootouts, a young boy from Sutter Creek disappeared and was said to have never been heard from again. I tried to look into archives to verify whether or not the boy had ever been found, but without knowing the exact date and his name, I was left at a dead end.


Well my friends, that would be the mystery now wouldn’t  it? According to old archived books and stories it was between the Pioneer School House and the Mokelumne River at West Point. I also found an old mining ledger that stated it was 5 miles northeast of Pine Grove.  I also noticed that the old settlement known as DEFENDER was located in the very same general area, 5 miles northeast of Pine Grove and 5 miles east of Volcano. After going over maps and intricately researching the information I had found, I was dumbfounded when I realized that the general area in which both Defender and Contreras would have been located ,was none other than present day Pioneer, California. According to a recent contact I made with Bobby Keeling @ , he states that the remains of the town of Contreras was recently located after going through old census maps. They discovered the site closer to the North Fork of the Mokelumne River, which is near Pioneer just off Defender Grade Road going towards West Point.  It amazes me to this day when I think about the fact that there once stood two very different towns right there in Pioneer, California and most people wouldn’t even know it.


Later on after the mines ran dry, Pablo Contreras and his family- including his beautiful daughters, moved back south towards Mexico. It was recorded that a few “enamored” American miners followed Contreras’ daughters when they left Amador County. Whether or not Señor Contreras eventually made it to Mexico is unknown, however I found some interesting information in regards to this history.

According to the 1852 Census it states only three Pablo Contreras’ for the entire state.  One lived in Mariposa, one in Tuolumne and the other in Calaveras County. Now remember, Amador County was not really formed until 1854, thus the same Pablo Contreras from the 1852 Census in Calaveras County could be the same Pablo Contreras from Amador County. Or could it? After looking over the records I see that Pablo, had he been the correct one, was only recorded to be 24 years of age in 1852.  Perhaps he was the son of the elder Pablo Contreras in Tuolumne?   That Pablo Contreras was 40 years old at the time of the census and could very well have been the father of the Pablo who was 24 years, given the time frame and age difference. Remember, Señor Contreras probably had many workers, including family running the mines for him, thus he could have lived in Tuolumne while owning the mine in Amador County.

By the time the 1860 Census came around there was no trace of any of the Pablo Contreras’, which would make one think they traveled out of state or back to Mexico.  I found a very interesting article about families from Sonora, Mexico who came to Amador County to mine for gold. What struck me was the name of one of the men, Antonio Contreras.  The article went on to say that he was from Magdalena, Sonora (Mx.) and that he came with his family to Amador County to mine for gold. It goes on to state that he may have taken a decent amount of fortune from the mine, enough to claim on the 1870 Census in Arizona that he had property valued at $5,500.00.  At that time in history, only five other residents in that area owned that much property.

Perhaps Antonio was related to Pablo in one way or another. Perhaps when the family parted their ways back to Mexico, Antonio decided to follow his own path to Arizona. Of course this last part of my story is speculation, although I am still trying to put the pieces together. I am sure we will never know the exact history of this exciting and mysterious story of a forgotten town from the “gold rush” days. However,  it is history seekers like you, the reader and myself who continue to dig up stories such as these and make them available to other people that keeps history alive, and that is truly a treasure worth searching for.

J’aime Rubio (Copyright 5/11/2012) Republished 3/28/2018 

Amador County Library Archives
Thank you Bobby Keeling @ for the additional info.
History of Amador County, California – J.D. Mason (1881)
Amador County History (Archived Books)
which sampled work by Margaret Joyce- (Amador County Library)

2/2/03-Frank Love (Yuma Sun Newspaper)