Monday, April 5, 2010

Four and a Half Minutes

Sometimes the most shocking of events occur in a short period of time. An event lasting a mere four and a half minutes can rewrite textbooks on established police procedure and change the rules of the game in law enforcement.

It was a Sunday night, April 5, 1970. At 11:20, Jack Tidwell – a serviceman stationed at the Navy base at Port Hueneme -- and his wife Pamela were driving south on Highway 99. A red 1964 Pontiac made a U-turn from the northbound lanes, through the median, and into the southbound lanes, almost hitting the Tidwell’s car. Both cars slowed down. Pam Tidwell rolled down her window, and Jack yelled at the driver of the Pontiac – who was alone in the car at that point. Tidwell said that he did not like the other man’s driving, and that he (Tidwell) would like to “kick his ass.”

Both cars came to a stop, and the driver of the Pontiac, Bobby Davis, aged 27, threatened the Tidwells with a revolver. Looking in his rearview mirror, Tidwell saw a vehicle coming up from behind. Tidwell told Davis that a Highway Patrol car was coming. Davis drove off.

The Tidwells found a phone booth at Violin Canyon Road, and called the Newhall office of the California Highway Patrol at 11:36. They gave dispatcher, Jo Ann Tidey, the license and a description of the car, and a description of the driver.

Newhall dispatch radioed unit 78-8 at 11:37. 78-8 was a two-man car – according to CHP policy on the graveyard shift after the murder of Officer Richard Duvall ten years earlier. Roger Gore was the driver of 78-8, and the passenger was Walt Frago.

Officers Frago and Gore had been alerted by radio of a vehicle carrying someone who had brandished a weapon. They spotted the car, fell in behind, called for backup, and began the stop procedure. The subjects' vehicle came to a halt in the parking lot of J’s Coffee Shop. By now, Davis was not alone in the car. He had picked up Jack Twining, age 35. Both men appeared to cooperate with the CHP officers who instructed Davis to get out of the Pontiac and place his hands on the hood. Gore approached Davis and Frago moved to the passenger side with his shotgun in the Port Arms position – the stock resting on his hip and the barrel pointing in the air. Suddenly, Twining swung open the passenger door and sprung out. He fired at Frago, who fell with two shots in his chest. Twining then turned and fired once at Gore, who returned fire. Davis then turned and shot Gore twice at close range. Both officers died instantly.

Shortly after that Officers Pence and Alleyn drove into the parking lot. They saw neither the suspects nor the fallen officers. Davis and Twining opened fire on these officers, emptying their revolvers. The suspects then went back into the Pontiac for new weapons. Twining now had a 45 caliber semiautomatic, Davis had a sawed-off shotgun.

Pence got on the radio to issue an 11-99 call – officers need help. Pence took cover behind his passenger door while Alleyn grabbed the shotgun and took cover behind the driver’s door.

Twining fired one shot from the 45 before it jammed. He jumped into the Pontiac to get another weapon. Alleyn quickly fired his shotgun at the Pontiac, so quickly that he accidentally ejected a live round from the weapon. One pellet from the shotgun hit Twining in the head, but the wound was not fatal – nor did it slow him down.

With his shotgun empty, Alleyn opened fire with his revolver. All of his shots missed, but Davis fired his sawed-off shotgun at Alleyn, killing him.

Gary Kness, a 31 year old former marine, was on his way to work. He saw what was going on but at first thought it was a movie being filmed. He quickly realized that what he saw was a real gun battle. He got out of his car, ran over to the second CHP unit and tried to pull Alleyn to safety -- but was unable to do so. Kness saw Davis drop his shotgun, which was now empty, and pick up the shotgun Officer Frago had dropped. Not realizing that Frago had not fired the weapon, Davis tried to cycle the weapon and accidentally fired it into the air. He dropped the shotgun and took Frago’s revolver out of its holster.

Meanwhile on the other side of the cruiser, Pence fired all six rounds from his .357 Magnum revolver at Twining and missed. Twining returned fire with his .45, striking Pence in the chest and in both legs. Pence fell to the ground, trying to reload. At the time, the CHP did not issue their officers speed loaders, forcing Pence to reload one round at a time.

Back on the other side of the cruiser, Kness picked up Alleyn's discarded shotgun and tried to shoot at Davis, but the gun was empty. As Davis opened fire on him with Frago's revolver, Kness dropped the shotgun, picked up Alleyn's service revolver and fired one shot before that weapon, too, was empty. A fragment from that bullet lodged in Davis' chest. However, the shot did not incapacitate Davis.

While this was going on, the wounded Pence was still attempting to reload his revolver. As he did so, he failed to notice Twining sneak up to the cruiser and around the left side. As he inserted the sixth cartridge and started to close the cylinder of his weapon, Twining pointed his pistol at him, said “I got you now, you dumb son of a bitch,” and killed Pence with a shot to the head at point blank range.

As other units arrived, Davis and Twining fired shots at the arriving officers before escaping into the night and splitting up. Kness also got out of the way at this time. Twining later took hostages in a home before committing suicide. Davis was captured, tried, and sentenced to death – but the sentences was later commuted to life imprisonment. He was found dead in his cell at Kern Valley State Prison on August 16, 2009, of an apparent suicide.

In the aftermath of the Newhall Incident was much finger pointing. The California Highway Patrol was received great criticism for its procedures.

1. One item, a sore point for officers in the field, was that the CHP put seals on shotguns. If a round was racked into the chamber, the seal would be broken and a flood of reports would be required. While some superior officers felt that an officer should do what was needed for his safety, others would make life miserable for an officer who broke a seal. The CHP prepared a training presentation about the incident that goes to great lengths to say that the reason Twining accidentally fired a shot from Frago’s shotgun was because Frago had racked a round into the chamber. Officers felt this was management’s way of covering themselves for having a dangerous policy. The CHP later dropped the shotgun seals.
2. The California Highway Patrol Academy is a beautiful place, and they want to keep it that way. Therefore while on the shooting range during training, offices were trained to empty used shell from their weapons into their hands and put those shells into their pockets, rather than dropping the shells on the ground. At least one of the officers at Newhall had empty shells in his pocket. It may keep the grounds pretty, but not a high priority to someone fighting for his life. The CHP later trained its officers to just drop the shells on the ground.
3. 357 Magnum rounds cost much more than .38 rounds. The officers trained at the academy using .38 rounds, but had 357 Magnum rounds in the field. A .357 round has much more of a kick than a .38. Being in a gun battle is stressful enough – using ammunition with a much stronger recoil than you have ever fired before is a disaster. The CHP later standardized on .38 ammunition in the field as well as on the range, so an officer was familiar with what he had.
4. The CHP did not use speed loaders at the time. This meant that when reloading, each bullet had to be individually loaded into the cylinder. A dangerous waste of time.

Of all of the officers at Newhall, none had more than two years experience. In the Newhall area, brandishing calls are not uncommon --- this, perhaps, led to a feeling of complacency. This incident brought the concept of the modern felony car stop.

It has been forty years since Newhall. From the time the Pontiac was stopped until the last officer was killed, a mere four and a half minutes had elapsed. Hopefully the deaths of Frago, Gore, Pence, and Alleyn have saved many lives since then.


  1. A truly gut wrenching story Matt, I remember seeing a tv movie/show about this. Hard to believe that today is the 40th anniversary.

    They did not die in vain.

  2. What a horrible event, I hadn't heard about this before, Matt!

    I have great respect (and gratitude) for our men in blue. I honestly don't understand how they can face the danger (and disrespect) day in and day out.

    At least this tragedy brought about new procedures to protect officers (and others) in its wake.

  3. Thanks for this post, Matt.

    Even with all the updated procedures and expanded technology, our men and women in blue are still being gunned down at an alarming rate. It's a thankless job, often the officers are underpaid, and it's unbelievable how much abuse they take.

    I'm sure glad that there are upstanding folks who will put their lives on the line to protect us. We owe them our thanks and our respect.