The Law in Fillmore
The “law” in Ventura County began in 1872 when Governor Newton Booth signed assembly bill Number 218 separating Ventura County from Santa Barbara County. At the time it is estimated that there were about 5000 people living in the new county. Within 60 days elections were held for county officers with Frank Peterson being elected sheriff. He had a variety of responsibilities which included protecting the citizenry, resolving disputes, catching criminals, collecting taxes and serving subpoenas over approximately 1,800 square miles. He was assisted by two deputies. The sheriff’s office was supported by fees paid when he performed one of his required jobs. He was paid only for his services, he received no salary.
When T. Wallace More of Rancho Sespe was murdered in March, 1877, the Ventura County Sheriff refused to travel to Rancho Sespe to investigate. It wasn’t lack of jurisdiction but lack of money. He said that his budget did not have funds for investigations and besides if the public asked him to investigate he would never get anything else done. The surviving More brothers had to hire their own investigators to find out who had done the dastardly deed.
Fillmore did not exist until the arrival of the railroad in 1887. The population was scattered across the valley on small farms. But with the railroad’s arrival, the population began to grow.
Central Hotel owned by Owen Miller
For the next dozen years, the county sheriff was still the law in Fillmore. But as population and crime increased, it became apparent that a local lawman was needed. By 1897, Owen Miller had been hired as Fillmore’s first Constable. One of his earliest investigations had to do with the murder of fellow officer, Deputy Constable McCoy Pyle, in April 1897. The perpetrator turned out to be a fellow lawman and Pyle’s supposed best friend, Deputy Constable Edward McCamish, over a property theft. Miller also owned a hotel and was reputedly one of several local bootleggers. It was reported that he arrested two of his competitors, sent them to jail in Ventura and thus had several weeks without competition.
One of the longest serving Fillmore Constables was John, “Jack”, Casner, who served 31 years. Jack came to Fillmore in 1904 buying a stable on Main St. In 1910 he became Deputy Constable under then Constable Jack Trotter. In 1914 he was elected Constable and served in the position for the next 31 years. He told Charles Jarrett that the only time he faced personal danger was transporting a murderer from Sespe Hot Springs to Ventura. He could see the man weighing the possibility of escape, so nearing Tar Creek he told his deputy to “keep a sharp lookout for some men who were planning on coming out to meet the party so that they could lynch him.” From then on the murderer was very eager to remain under the protection of his guards.
It was almost 4 decades after the More murder that the next major crime happened. In 1915, Mason Bradfield shot George Henley of Sespe Brownstone fame in broad daylight in front of the Orange Leaf Café on Central Ave. Like many crimes it was a dispute over property rights that triggered the shooting. Bradfield was so angry that he followed a bleeding Henley down the street, shooting as he went. Constable Owen Miller finally stepped in to stop the action after Bradfield ran out of bullets. According to Edith Jarrett’s book “Old Timers’ Tales of Fillmore,” Bradfield went to jail and upon release ran in to Owen Miller who gave him back his gun and said, “Next time, do a better job.”
Probably the most memorable lawman was Earl Hume. He came to Fillmore in 1922 as a traffic officer and in 1925 was made Chief. He served until June 1967, (a one-man force) the longest term of any in history. When dealing with youthful offenders he often made the sentence fit the crime. One group of boys having stolen the school superintendent’s hubcaps were sentenced to 6 months washing the police cars.