Let’s Talk Clovis: The Feb. 5, 1924 First State Bank Robbery

Deputy O.J. King, 1924 First State Bank Robbery. CONTRIBUTED BY CLOVIS MUSEUM

The First State Bank of Clovis was established by Richard Norris. Norris (1844-1939) was born in England and immigrated to the United States in 1860. He became a successful banker and arrived in Clovis in 1903. He established the first bank in Clovis in a small frame building on the south side of Fourth Street — east of the alley between Pollasky and Front /Clovis Ave.

In 1912, he constructed a stately brick-stucco building on the southeast corner of Fourth and Pollasky.  Its unique black granite columns were purchased from the Clovis Granite Company. The interior carved, ornate fixtures were originally in the First National Bank of Fresno. The Clovis Museum occupies that historic building on 401 Pollasky Avenue.

Brothers of the pioneer Reyburn family purchased controlling interest of the bank in 1915. Emory Reyburn became the Vice President and Charles Reyburn, the cashier. Norris remained President until the bank was closed in 1925.

Norris was also a prominent rancher and remained in Clovis until his death in 1939. He built a stately two-story house on Pollasky (on the west side, near the corner of Sierra and Pollasky) for $25,000. It remains a home.

On Feb. 5, 1924, the following men robbed the bank.  Thomas Griffin (1883-1926) was known as “The Owl.” He was active in the San Francisco underworld. He had previously served two state prison terms.

Catherine Ryan (1899-death unknown) was the girlfriend of “The Owl.” She would leave laundry and cloth napkins at their rented Fresno home that would eventually lead to the trio’s arrest. They rented a home on Roosevelt Ave in Fresno on Jan. 29, 1924.

Felix Sloper, “The Lone Wolf,” had served a term in San Quentin. During the robbery he would force Cashier Tom Howison into the bank vault and tied him up. Howison’s family arrived in Clovis in 1903. He graduated from Clovis High School in 1910.

We are sharing headlines from the Fresno Republican newspaper that were published during the capture and sentencing of “The Owl” and “The Lone Wolf.” The Fresno Republican charged five cents for their 24-page newspaper.

Feb. 6, 1924: “TWO UNMASKED BANDITS FLEE WITH $25,000.” Lock Cashier In Vault of Clovis Bank As the Loot Is Taken. Officers Seek Trail Of Buick Car In Which Robbers Escape.” The amount stolen was $31,800 and a Chandler Six (F.o.b. Cleveland, $1,295) was the escape car.

Sheriff W.F. Jones contacted cities from San Francisco to Los Angeles to assist in the search. He described the criminals: “One was short and light, the other tall and heavy of swarthy complexion, between 25 and 35 years. They carried a black bag 20 inches long and 10 inches high holding the $25,000 loot. ROPE MAY BE CLUE.”

The news article detailed the rope: “One yard of three sixteenths inch cotton rope, brand new and apparently purchased for the robbery.” Sheriff Jones asked any merchant that had sold the rope to contact him immediately.

Aug. 13, 1924: “MAN, WOMAN HELD AS SUSPECTS IN BANK ROBBERY IN CLOVIS. Taken At Oakland Where Deputy Sheriff Of Fresno County Waited 74 Days In Banks.” Deputy Sheriff O.J. King was credited with arresting “The Owl” and Catherine Ryan. King remained an active officer until his death in 1950.

Aug. 16, 2914: “CLOVIS PEOPLE DECLARE ‘OWL’ BANK ROBBER. Griffin Nervous As Theft Witnesses Study Him. Alleged Woman In Case Placed In Jail.” Charges against Catherine Ryan were dismissed at the preliminary hearing for lack of enough evidence.

Aug. 19, 1924: “Finger Prints Photos Taken of Accused In Bank Robbery May Further Two In Looting Of Clovis Institution.” We quote a portion of the lengthy article: “Griffin says his age is 35 and his occupation as that of a laborer. His left arm bears a tattoo mark ‘F.G. 1883’ that officers believe was the date of his birth. He was first admitted to the San Quentin penitentiary in 1911, where he was sentenced to serve five years from Stockton as a pickpocket.”

Aug. 26, 1924: “‘THE OWL’, ALLEGED ACCESSORY HELD IN BAIL OF $100,000. Griffin Identified By Bank Official As Bandit Who Covered Him With Gun In Clovis Robbery; Mrs. Ryan Also Recognized.”

On Feb. 28, 1925, Griffin was sentenced to Folsom Prison for five years to life.

On Apr. 9, 1926, Felix Sloper (“The Lone Wolf”) killed a police officer while robbing a bank in San Francisco. During his interrogation he admitted he was involved in the 1924 First State Bank robbery. He stated he received $10,000 for his participation in the robbery and that he gave $5,000 to his girlfriend to buy a house in Los Angeles.

Sloper was found guilty of bank robbery and first-degree murder. He received the death penalty and was hung at Folsom prison on June 25, 1926.

Nov. 25, 1926: Griffin (“The Lone Wolf”) and his two friends escaped from Folsom prison. They swam across the American River. Griffin had injured his ankle and his friends abandoned him. He died on Nov. 29, of pneumonia. His body was found near the city of Antelope that is ten miles from Folsom State Prison.

That historic 1924 robbery verified that crime did not play in Clovis. That reputation continues today.

Peg Bos is the president of the Clovis Museum on 4th and Pollasky avenues in Old Town Clovis. She not only manages the museum but she also writes her Let's Talk Clovis column in our publication which features and highlight the amazing history of our city and culture. One fun fact about Peg Bos, she was the first female mayor of Clovis from 1984-86.