Crime does not pay in Clovis—not now in 2016 and not back in 1924 when the First State Bank of Clovis was robbed.
On Saturday, Feb. 27, local historians at the Clovis Museum reminded the community of that fact in a melodramatic reenactment of that historic bank robbery, which took place on Feb. 5, 1924.
On that day, cashier Tom Howison was going about his day per usual when Tomas Griffin, a criminal dubbed “The Owl” strolled into the little Clovis bank on the corner of Fourth Street and Pollasky (now the site of the museum) and asked for some change—change for $20 was the exact language uttered by “The Owl” actor Frank Davis in the short production, but historically no one knows exactly what words he uttered to Howison.
Once Howison was sufficiently distracted and had the cash register open, in burst a second criminal, Felix Sloper, who was referred to as “The Lone Wolf” because he often worked alone with this robbery being an exception. The Lone Wolf held Howison at gunpoint, forcing him into the bank’s vault—a vault that is still in the museum today, containing books rather than money.
Then, as the story goes, The Owl and The Lone Wolf headed out, but not before the Vice President of the bank, Emory Reyburn, strolled in after lunch. Reyburn has held against the wall at gunpoint as he yelled for help. The two criminals then quickly made their getaway, joining The Owl’s girlfriend, Catherine Ryan, aka “The Moll,” who was waiting outside in the getaway car—a 1924 blue chandler GTA the trio had painted black after stealing it somewhere in Fresno, where they had been staying since Jan. 29, 1924 and mapping out the grand criminal scheme. Not only did they come prepared with a getaway car, they also brought roofing nails, which they dumped along Clovis Avenue as they headed south during their escape. The nails were meant to derail any who followed and they worked, successfully stopping all who tried to pursue them by piercing their car tires. The nails were soon picked up by a crew of local Boy Scout troops, including Nick Ubick, from Clovis Elementary School—the heroes of the day.
Though the trio escaped that day, absconding with nearly $32,000, they didn’t stay hidden for long.
As narrator Magic Bob Locklin described at the reenactment: “The Moll had left evidence at their home in Fresno and Sheriff O.J. King trailed her to an apartment in Oakland. He also discovered she would leave notes for The Owl in a wastebasket at the Oakland Bank of Italy. After 74 days of surveillance, The Owl entered the bank, started to resist arrest but surrendered. They were returned to Clovis and evidence against The Moll was found insufficient and she was released. Ninety-one years ago, on Feb. 26, 1925, The Owl was sentenced to Folsom prison. While at Folsom, he worked in a query mining rocks, which were placed on flat rail cars. He and two friends built a concealed platform beneath the bed of the car and managed to escape on a bitter cold day, Nov. 15, 1926. The prisoners swam the ice-cold American River and headed toward Sacramento. The Owl had sprained his ankle during the escape and his buddies left him behind. He became ill and was found dead along the railroad tracks on Nov. 19, 1926. He had died of pneumonia.
“On April 25, 1925, the Lone Wolf was arrested for the murder of a brave police officer during the solo robbery of a bank in San Francisco. He admitted he had participated in the Clovis bank robbery and stated his spilt was $10,000. He was found guilty of first-degree murder and bank robbery and was hung at Folsom prison on June 25, 1926, before his former buddy The Owl had died.”
Clearly greed and crime did not pay for The Owl or The Lone Wolf. While both were caught, none of the money was ever recovered. Some suspect The Moll may have kept it, but it is unknown.
The infamous Clovis robbery is an exciting part of the city’s history and those involved in the melodrama said they were glad to participate in commemorating that history.
Scott Fox, who portrayed The Lone Wolf, has been a part of the production for nine years.
“This is something I enjoy,” Fox said. “I like to reenact history and this is a part of old town Clovis.”
Lou Catallo, who portrayed Emory Reyburn, also said he enjoys taking part in the melodrama.
“I have done it for five years now,” Catallo said. “It gets me out of my comfort zone because I’ve never acted before. These are great people to work with.”