, 1941. At Daniger’s in Santa Ana, the Orange County Bar Association (OCBA) meeting was called to order at 12:10 p.m. President Ray Overcracker spoke to the hushed crowd of 29 members and guests: “This is the first meeting of the Bar since our country has gone to war,” he barked. “It is absolutely necessary for the Bar to be leaders; and as its leaders, we must instill in the minds of the public a spirit of calm assurance. We must help in utmost the allaying of fears and wild hysteria.”
The December 7th attack on Pearl Harbor was not yet a week past and already the members of our Bar flew into action. The State Bar sent a letter asking for the immediate appointment of a Speakers Bureau of attorneys to give calming addresses before various service clubs, associations and schools. It was done.
Sitting in this meeting was Jack J. Rimel and his two law partners, John A. Harvey and Milburn G. Harvey. They had just mailed a letter from their office at 310 North Main Street in Santa Ana, along with a check for $9.00 to renew the firm’s bar membership, as they did each year at this time.
In February of 1942, in the back of a Swanson’s restaurant in Santa Ana, President Overcracker called the OCBA meeting to order. The first order of business, motioned by Jack J. Rimel, was to start a law clinic for the Naval personal stationed in Santa Ana. Any and all members who wanted to donate their time were to sign up with the Red Cross. This, also, was done.
And thus, the ’40s, an era about making do and doing without, was steadily on its way.
The legal issues in Orange County during the ’30s: the Great Depression; the Dust Bowl migrations; and an agricultural economic base — gave way to a different set of problems in the 1940s: urbanization; relocated citizens; and constitutional discrepancies.
Orange County had recently survived a flood, an earthquake and invasions from agricultural pests. Now, with Mother Nature’s attacks behind it, the OCBA spent its time dealing with the more synthetic forces of the war. Several military training centers opened throughout the County, the largest being the Santa Ana Army base, built to house 40,000 people. Residents of the County saw their lives change dramatically due to wartime rations and heavy shades placed over windows of buildings in case of blackouts.
Of course, by 1940 W.W.II was already a reality in Europe, and as early as August, the legal community throughout California was responding. The Adjutant General of the State of California had requested the State Bar’s help with the National Defense Program and the formation of the Selective Service Board. OCBA was requested to suggest names of attorneys to represent the government and see that the Selective Service Law and its principles would be justly and fairly administered. Once again, done.
Five Bar members were appointed by the Executive Committee to serve as Government Appeals Agents: B.Z. McKinney (who later served as the 1943 Bar president), O.A. Jacobs (who we will see later represented a defendant in “the trial of the decade”), Wm.P. Webb, Albert Launer, and Milburn Harvey (partner of Jack Rimel.)
The continuous volunteer commitment by Bar members reached into 1941, when several attorneys were appointed to serve as associate members to the draft advisory boards of Orange County. These members went on to contribute their professional services to those men who were called to military duty, and entitled to moratorium benefits of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Civil Relief Act.
A Time of Contrast
In 1942, the same year that Bing Crosby introduced the classic song, White Christmas, many of the lawyers in Orange County were either drafted into, or enlisted in, military service. Those who remained behind, were forced to deal with a host of new issues.
Among the most heartbreaking moments in American history was the mass arrest and internment of Japanese American men, women and children. Questions about property ownership arose when the County’s 1,855 Japanese residents were relocated to Arizona. These residents claimed continuing ownership of their properties at the same time that new occupants acquired and moved into the now vacant homes and businesses. This was one of the more frustrating events for many Orange County attorneys, who had serious questions about the constitutionality of the internment and relocation orders of Earl Warren, then Governor of California.
The influx of 40,000 military and civilian support personnel into Orange County, led to an explosion of legal business in civil and criminal cases. The Bar led the way to help alleviate clogged court calendars and fill the void left by lawyers gone to war.
Bar business continued, not as normal, but effectively, nevertheless. On March 5, 1943, the Bar agreed to draw up a simple set of workable court rules upon request of County Clerk B.J. Smith. Jack Rimel was appointed Chair of the Membership Committee and the Bar War Work Committee. Attorneys were donating their time at various U.S.O. quarters, by assisting enlisted men in legal matters, and our lawyers were working part-time in defense plants, airplane factories and shipyards.
Even as Frank Lloyd Wright began work on the Guggenheim Museum in New York, in 1943, the California State Bar Conference of Delegates was only considering “such resolutions which will aid in the war effort and the improvement of justice under war conditions.”
The Bar continued to assist the five Selective Service Boards in the County, giving aid and advice to each registrant who had a legal problem. The members worked diligently through the Speakers Bureau and the War Work Committees to promote bond drives. They volunteered with the County Red Cross to help the great numbers of Army, Navy and Marine service men and their families located in the many camps in Orange County.
In response to the Bar’s continual efforts, in late 1943, the Board of Supervisors finally agreed to appoint a Public Defender, at a salary of $200.00 per month, “with the appointee providing his own stenographic help and office.” The first Public Defender, Bar member N.D. Meyer, was allowed to work part-time while continuing his own private practice.
The County also created the Office of County Counsel, at about the same time — with one deputy, Joel E. Ogle, who served until 1960. The District Attorney’s office was then relieved of all civil matters and Mr. Ogle became the legal advisor to the Board of Supervisors and all County officials.
Ironically, as construction began on the first of the big-wattage hotels in Las Vegas, the shocking-pink Flamingo, the war-weary country struggled with shortages of all kinds, particularly paper. In 1944, the publishing business experimented with soft cover bindings for books.
OCBA President R.C. Mize received a letter dated October 13, 1944 from the chair of the State Lawyers’ Committee to Salvage Waste Paper, signed by San Francisco Attorney Bradford Melvin. “The War Production Board regards paper as the No.1 war material shortage. As our battle lines push closer to the heart of the enemy, and the fighting becomes more intense, our need for waste paper increases. It is used in the manufacture of paper, and containers for foods, K-rations, airplane parts, ammunition, blood and blood plasma.” In a chilling sense of urgency, Melvin requested that the Bar begin a collection of paper: old files; legal publications; and antiquated law books — no later than November 15th. “I cannot overstate the value which this contribution will have to the war effort. It is absolutely necessary for the successful prosecution of the war.”
A New Spring
World War II came to an end in 1945. Germany surrendered on May 8, “V-E Day.” Japan surrendered on August 15, “V-J Day.” Consumers rushed out to buy new 10-inch RCA TV sets, ushering in the TV age. Major League baseball returned in the Spring, with its sweet orange blossoms, to the training camp at La Palma Stadium in Anaheim.
The trains brought Connie Mack’s “A’s” and the St. Louis Browns back to camp and exhibition games with the Hollywood Stars from L.A., the Chicago Cubs, who trained over on Catalina, and the Pittsburgh Pirates (whose camp was in San Bernardino).
On April 18, 1946, OCBA held an “elegant dinner” at the Elk’s Club, Anaheim, in honor of our returned servicemen. President Fred Forgy, and 120 members and guests, welcomed 26 veterans?including Robert Banyard, Robert Gardner, Fred Johnston, and Clarence Nisson. The night was topped off with entertaining vaudeville. Our attorneys probably were festively attired in colorful fedoras, and double-breasted pinstripe suits.
Surviving the great depression and W.W.II strengthened the character of the County and its residents. The lawyers encountered new and different questions that dealt with the return to a civilian economy and a post-war boom of increased urbanization, land-use issues and the growth of industry and business. Still, as James H. Kindel, Jr., OCBA member since 1945 recalled, all the members knew each other well. Justice Robert Gardner recalls the informality of the courts when he served as judge of a police court in Newport Beach. He often had time to finish his court calendar early and grab his long wooden surfboard and head for the beach.
Thousands of military men and women who had passed through Orange County were now being lured back by the warm sunshine, wonderful orange blossoms and crisp ocean breezes. The population grew to 216,114 by 1950, and the courts were regretfully inadequate for serving the needs of the community.
Justice Gardner was appointed as a fourth Superior Court judge in 1947.
Westminster School District v. Mendez, 161 F.2d 774 (1947)
The actions of Orange County citizens inspired language of great historical significance in a 1946 United States District Court decision. The case received national attention as the first time a federal judge denounced segregation in public schools. Thurgood Marshall filed an amicus brief in the Ninth Circuit Court after the case was appealed, and the Court affirmed the decision. The Mendez case helped to forge a path that led to Brown v. Board of Education, with Marshall, of course, later acting as lead counsel in the successful Brown decision.
This case is so important and deserving of more comment, than can be accomplished in this column. Thus, in this issue of the Orange County Lawyer magazine, Chris Hilger has written an article about the history and circumstances surrounding the filing and litigation of this momentous case… and the reverberation still heard today.
The Overell-Gollum Trial
Jack Rimel became OCBA’s president in 1947, just in time for the infamous Overell trial.
On March 15, 1947, 17 year old Beulah Louise Overell and her fianc?, 21 year old George Gollum, stood on shore while the Mary E., a 47-foot yacht moored in Newport Harbor, exploded. Aboard were Beulah’s parents, wealthy financier Walter E. Overell and his wife. Named as defendants, were Beulah and George.
Beulah Louise, the heiress to her parents’ fortune and George, the “premed” student, were charged with murder and ordered to stand trial in front of Judge Kenneth Morrison. OCBA members Otto Jacobs and Z.B. West represented Overell, and S.B. Kaufman and W.B. Berne defended Gollum.
The cast of characters seems to be straight out of one of the many detective stories inspired by the sensational, 19-week murder trial (at the time, the longest criminal trial in United States’ history.) Jacobs was a veteran defense attorney, who had won 80 major criminal cases including eight murder cases. The prosecutor, Eugene Williams, was the Assistant U.S. Attorney General, who it was said held lofty political aspirations and welcomed the chance to be in the spotlight. The trial had all the elements to command the rapt attention of Orange County and the entire nation. As Williams told the jury in opening statement: “We have lust, we have greed, we have frustration. Ladies and gentlemen, these are the raw materials out of which murders are made.”
The trial resulted in the adoption of legislation regulating the sale and purchase of dynamite, and glaringly illuminated the lack of any crime laboratory by local law enforcement. (Post-trial, Orange County soon received funding for its own crime lab.)
The Orange County Courthouse had never seen such crowds of spectators, both inside the courtroom and outside on the steps. Local newspapers immediately began reporting the events of the trial. The story made headlines almost everyday in Orange County and Los Angeles. Life and Time magazines, and even New York papers, covered the story. Parts of the trial were broadcast on the radio.
It was reported that the elder Overells were bitterly opposed to the marriage of their daughter to Gollum. The Los Angeles Examiner obtained private love letters written by the two in jail, including a plan for jailbreak complete with a map. The letters were printed in the papers. The readers loved it. The prosecution also used the letters in trial, in an attempt to prove that the two defendants’ motivation for murder was the threat of disinheritance faced by Beulah, if she married Gollum.
The prosecution attempted to prove its case by introducing into evidence two heavy posts used for support on a boat, called stanchions, which, according to the prosecution, were used to beat Walter Overell before his death. Investigators had found 32 sticks of dynamite on the yacht, with a clock attached to the boat’s battery. The prosecution said it had found the place in Chatsworth where the defendants bought the dynamite the day before the alleged murder. The defense attorneys argued that Walter Overell had either accidentally set off the explosion himself, or that the yacht had blown up due to gas fumes. They tried to show that if Overell and Gollum not had been away getting hamburgers, they too would have died in the explosion.
Defense attorney Jacobs focused his attention on refuting every piece of evidence and every expert witness brought in by the prosecution. Much of the prosecutor’s case was built on forensic evidence gathered by investigators — that was sent elsewhere for analysis. Because of the distance and delay, the prosecutor’s evidence regarding the post-mortem exams of the bodies became less reliable.
One especially memorable moment stands out. An expert witness for the prosecution testified that he found a very unique, hard to find screw in Gollum’s car, that could only have come from the clock used in the explosion. Jacobs then went to a local jewelry store and bought a barrel of the “hard to find” screws. While cross-examing the expert witness, he pulled out a handful of the screws, and tossed them all over the courtroom in a theatrical move to refute the testimony.
In his closing arguments, Jacobs told the jury that the prosecution’s case was built on “possibilities, probabilities, and a lot of myths.”
The day the jury returned its verdict, the courthouse was overflowing with spectators who spilled into the hallway and down to the courthouse lawn. Overell and Gollum had become very popular with the jury and the public. Those outside listened to the decision on the radio. When the first verdict was read, people cheered and yelled — despite Judge Morrison’s efforts to keep them quiet. The verdict… “not guilty.”
The More We Change, the More We Stay the Same…
A brutal murder. A sensational trial, complete with media frenzy, packed courtrooms, public debate, splashy headlines, and endless gossip. A wealthy defendant, who could afford to hire the best defense attorneys. Theatrics on both sides, forensics and lab tests botched and expert witnesses embarrassed. A jury bombarded daily with scientific jargon and conflicting stories. Listeners spell-bound. The similarities between the Overell-Gollum trial and the recent Simpson trial are hard to miss. During its time, the Overell-Gollum “trial of the century” held the attention of the public like no other had: the daily headlines, the newspaper and magazine articles and radio programs devoted solely to legal analysis of the every move of the prosecution and the defense. So did the appeal, that extended far beyond the local citizenry, to national and international notoriety.
The Westminster case, supra, exposed and illuminated issues of civil rights that we continue to see decade after decade. War efforts to save and recycle paper and oil, and to conserve energy, seem eerily familiar now. Our members of the Bar who volunteer today, remind us of those who were so intricately involved as volunteers in the community during wartime.
Bar members did then, and continue today, to defend the judicial system and promote the legal community. Jack Rimel’s grandson, Peter Rimel, tells us that Jack continued to practice law for 60 years in Orange County, until 1994, when his failing eyesight made it too difficult. He remained an OCBA member until his death in 1999. What a tribute to his heartfelt dedication to the practice of law! Peter, his father and his aunt are all Bar members today.
Exit the ’40s, with the legal problems becoming more varied and complex, with the scourge of war and the promise of prosperity in peace, with lawyers litigating and resolving the great social issues of education and citizens rights, and with its own notorious murder trial. Orange County’s legal community truly came into its own.
Next issue, enter the decade when Orange County becomes: “The happiest place on earth…”
On the cover of this issue, Vern Hunt, the Harmon Scoville Award winner, is photographed at the Santa Ana Zoo at Prentice Park. The Santa Ana Zoo is a 20-acre, public zoological garden in the heart of Orange County, begun with Judge Joseph Edward Prentice’s donation of 16 acres of orange groves in 1949.
Prentice offered to donate the land only if the city would agree to develop it as a park for monkeys. In fact, he stipulated that the park must contain at least 50 monkeys at all times. This accounts for the zoo’s continuing emphasis on small primates.
Prentice himself had numerous pet monkeys running freely through his mansion on East First Street and had more than a little trouble retaining housekeepers.
Once the zoo’s construction began, the wiry and irascible judge would often visit the site and drive the workmen to distraction. Puffing away on his favorite pipe (which was held together with tape), he would yell, wave his arms and countermand the foreman’s orders.
When Judge Prentice passed away at the age of 81, in 1959, his zoo was already a success. Today, the Santa Ana Zoo at Prentice Park hosts more than 270,000 people each year, and is committed to providing recreation, education and the message of conservation to the citizens of Orange County.
Danni Murphy is a senior attorney with the Orange County Public Defender.