It was a cold and clear day in early February as the two game wardens patrolled the area near Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardino Mountains they were driving the green patrol truck with the recognizable emblem of the warden badge on both doors.
Warden Jim Halber was driving and Warden James Corwin was in the passenger seat.
As you might expect, there was still snow on the ground. Large banks of snow were piled along the roadside. Although it was cold out, as usual, the wardens had their windows open; the better to see and hear what was happening around them. Rarely did they patrol with windows closed to the environment. Wardens were of the outdoors; not to be confined and air-conditioned. The air was crisp, the smell of vanilla in the air from the bark of the Jeffrey Pine. As usual it was a beautiful day to be on patrol. Not much activity on Big Bear Lake today; all of the action was to be found elsewhere on this day. Today the wardens were patrolling the highways and back roads, but not looking for poachers. They were looking for something else.
Just a few miles away, two more wardens drove these same mountain roads, each in their own trucks, patrolling near Highway 38. It is unusual for wardens to patrol, two to a vehicle, let alone to find several other wardens patrolling close by. As law enforcement officers with authority throughout the state, game wardens were often called upon by local sheriff’s departments for assistance, especially in the mountains and deserts where the game wardens were in their element. “Mutual Aid”, they called it. Today, the wardens, along with hundreds of police officers and deputies were a part of the largest manhunt in Los Angeles County history. This was a manhunt that had spread from Los Angeles County to Riverside County to San Bernardino County.
If you remember February of 2013, you will remember the manhunt for the killer, Christopher Dorner. A rogue ex-police officer from Los Angeles who had already killed two people in Riverside County, and who was reportedly on the hunt for more. They all had a description of Dorner and his vehicle, and they were searching for him, high and low.
What the wardens and the other officers didn’t know this morning, was that Dorner was no longer driving the pick-up truck that had been described in their last briefing. He had apparently abandoned his vehicle and broken into a vacant, but lived in, townhouse, near Route 38 where he was hiding out.
When the owners of the townhouse returned home, they were taken prisoner by Dorner and were immobilized with zip ties. Based upon a call from the couple when they escaped their bindings, a man that they described as being the fugitive, Dorner, had stolen their purple Nissan, carrying along with him a rifle, a pistol, some smoke grenades, and a survival pack.
As the wardens patrolled, ever on the look out for the fugitive, Halber and Corwin were talking about their favorite storytellers. It seemed that every warden you talked with was a competent story teller and each one had a favorite author of game warden stories. Halber loved “Sabertooth” by retired Lt. Terry Hodges. And, he always looked forward to getting the next Outdoor California with a short game warden story from Hodges. Corwin, on the other hand, said that he loved Jim Wictum’s books, but was really looking forward to reading Steve Callan’s new book, “Badges, Bears and Eagles, The True Life Adventures of a California Game Warden”, which was to be released in March.
Corwin and worked with and known Steve’s father Wally Callan, who had also been a game warden. Halber also got a kick out of watching the game wardens on Wild Justice on the National Geographic Channel. Back and forth they went, talking about the pros and cons of their favorite authors. Halber asked Corwin if he had ever read the “Tales of the Fish Patrol” by Jack London. Corwin was about to answer when their discussion was interrupted by an urgent radio call, a BOLO, which stands for “Be On the Look Out for”.
It was about 1:00 in the afternoon as a new vehicle description, and the location where it had been stolen, went out via radio to all of the officers involved in the manhunt.
Now, they were looking for a purple Nissan in the area near Highway 38. Based on the BOLO, a San Bernardino deputy and a warden with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife were preparing to put down a spike strip, to stop the fugitive from escaping the area, when they spotted the purple Nissan drive by, nestled behind two school buses. The officers quickly abandoned the spike strip to pursue the fugitive, but the purple Nissan passed the school buses and disappeared around a corner, possibly turning down one of many side roads.
The net closed in on the fugitive, as wardens and deputies began to search the side roads in the area. Two wardens, in two separate vehicles, turned down Glass Road in search of the purple Nissan. Dorner had changed vehicles so often that the pursuing officers were now looking closely at every driver on the road while they also looked for the specific vehicle that he was known to be driving.
Unbeknownst to the game wardens, Dorner apparently lost control of the Nissan somewhere on Glass Road, a steep, winding paved street that drops into a canyon, and had crashed into a snow bank. Shortly thereafter, Dorner threatened a man with a gun and stole his Dodge Ram. Of course, the wardens were still looking for the purple Nissan.
At this point, Dorner had the advantage again. The officers looking for him were in marked patrol vehicles and were looking for a purple Nissan. He was now in a vehicle unknown to them. The warden in the lead truck saw a silver truck careening erratically at high speed towards them and moments before passing each other on the roadway, he recognized the driver as the fugitive, Dorner. As the fugitive drove past the warden driving the marked patrol truck, he rolled down his window, pulled out a pistol, and fired at least six shots at the lone warden.
One of the bullets narrowly missed the warden’s head by about 10 inches. The warden quickly pulled to the side of the road, jumped out of his truck and fired 20 rounds with his high-powered rifle at Dorner as he sped away.
Fortunately, the warden was not hit in the exchange of gunfire; but it was the game warden, not a deputy sheriff, who was the first officer to actually engage the fugitive in a gunfight. The warden called in the report of the contact, and deputies and wardens closed in, including wardens Halber and Corwin. As the other officers arrived to close the net, they were directed by dispatch to proceed to specific intersections to control all possible roads leaving the area where the wardens had engaged Dorner.
Again, Dorner abandoned his most recently stolen vehicle, probably knowing that every roadway would be secured by law enforcement officers, and took off on foot into the forest – with game wardens and San Bernardino deputies in hot pursuit. He barricaded himself inside a vacant cabin on Seven Oaks Road, just off Highway 38. Apparently, Dorner wasn’t ready to give up and so he started shooting at the officers who were surrounding the cabin. During the ensuing gun battle, two officers were shot that day, one killed and one wounded, both were deputies from San Bernardino County.
Just after the on-scene commander ordered the use of tear gas to drive the fugitive out of the cabin, a final, single gunshot, was heard from the cabin as it burst into flame. Found in the ashes, when it was cool enough to enter, were the remains of the fugitive.
The following day, after they were debriefed by the investigators from the sheriff’s department, wardens Halber and Corwin headed home. Once enroute, Halber told Corwin that this whole incident got him to thinking about two things. First of all, about how close our fellow wardens came to being killed or wounded that day. And, second, about the wardens that he had known who had been killed in the line of duty.
The first one to come to mind was Jean Jones who was killed back in 1979. “He was in our Captain’s squad,” said Halber. “I knew him personally”. He glanced across the cab of the truck to where Corwin sat behind the steering wheel, and thought of the other game wardens who had died in the line of duty during his years on the job. “I remember each one, but I doubt that the people of California know about the wardens who gave their lives in the performance of their duties,” he said.
Corwin pointed out that the thing that he noticed was how the newscasters on the radio seemed so surprised that game wardens were involved in the manhunt. “You could hear the surprise in the voices of the radio announcers,” Corwin said. “Not only were the announcers surprised that wardens were a part of the manhunt, but that they were the first officers to be involved in a direct exchange of gunfire with the fugitive.”
“Apparently, the newscasters didn’t know much about game wardens,” Halber said.
They didn’t know that game wardens were armed law enforcement officers, with enforcement authority throughout the state. Most people, especially those who don’t hunt or fish, only think of game wardens – if they even think of them at all – as the people who check for hunting or fishing licenses. In Southern California, they usually only see the wardens on the news when they respond to the bear in the hot tub, or the mountain lion near some school. In Northern California, the locals know that the wardens are the ones who are working hard to stop the illegal marijuana growers who were destroying habitat and killing wildlife to create and protect their illegal dope growing operations on public property.
Wardens have been front-line enforcement officers for more years than any other statewide law enforcement organization has been in existence in the history of California.
Who better to assist the police officers and sheriff’s deputies to locate a fugitive in the wild lands of the southern California Mountains? Once you leave the big city behind, you are in the game warden’s backyard. California’s game wardens patrol up to a 1000 square mile area on a regular basis. They know the backcountry and the back roads. They were at home patrolling the San Bernardino Mountains when they found the fugitive.
Although they were teamed up, two wardens per truck, to assist with this manhunt, they generally work alone, many miles from any back-up or support from other officers. Unlike most law enforcement officers, almost every person that a warden makes contact with is armed. Hunters and anglers carry guns and knives routinely.
Compound that fact with the reality that some outlaws don’t want to be brought to justice, and you have the makings for a very hazardous career. In fact, historically, game wardens, or conservation officers as they are called in some states, have one of the highest rates of assaults on officers when compared with other law enforcement officers. The outlaws know that wardens work alone, and sometimes decide that they don’t want to be arrested and brought to justice. Although game wardens are few in number, and therefore have not lost as many officers as other law enforcement organizations, we have still lost too many officers in the line of duty.
After they had been on the road for about an hour or so, Corwin asked Halber if he remembered what they were talking about before they got the BOLO. Halber said that he did. “You were asking me if I had ever read the ‘Tales of the Fish Patrol’ by Jack London.”
“Speaking of that book,” Corwin said, “did you know that it was published in 1914, the year after the bloodiest year in the history of California Game Wardens?” Corwin pointed out that two wardens were killed and three were severely wounded in 1913. “Wow, I guess that makes this the 100 year anniversary of the bloodiest year in the history of the California Game Wardens,” said Halber.
“Do you know anything about the wardens who were killed in 1913?” asked Halber.
“Before I can tell you what I know about what happened in 1913, let me give you a little background, just in case you haven’t read about it before,” Corwin said, as he began to tell Halber the story.
The year started as any other. Game wardens, called Deputy Commissioners at that time, went on patrol, but instead of just checking sport hunters and anglers, they were looking for illegal market hunters and gill-netters who were illegally taking steelhead, salmon and striped bass with gill nets. Also, you have to remember that back in 1913 wardens were even fewer and further between than they are today. In fact, there were only about 100 wardens in the state, not including the part-time county wardens. Additionally, the people were not really into fish and game conservation. They saw the game warden as the person who kept them from making a living like their fathers and grandfathers had done. In fact, most people did not like or show much respect towards game wardens at all.
Of course, the game wardens usually worked alone, just as they do today. They did not have a second warden working with them on routine patrol, unless they were on boat patrol, or when they patrolled the backcountry on horseback. That type of patrol usually involved a couple of wardens working together. Also, there were very few other law enforcement officers to call on when things got dangerous. It probably does not need to be said, but they did not have radios, cell phones, or any other high tech gear. They even supplied their own vehicles and firearms, so some were very limited in what they carried to protect themselves, or to be able to make an arrest.
“The first warden who was killed that year was Warden Bert Blanchard,” said Corwin. He was killed on February 2, 1913 in Contra Costa County.
Based upon various newspaper accounts of the event, Warden Blanchard left home on Sunday for a routine day of patrol. His body was found two days later in the Sobrante Hills two miles East of Stege. He died as a result of having been shot in the back of the head with a shotgun. He had dead robins in his pockets; it was believed he had taken someone into custody and that person or persons had managed to overpower and kill him. His revolver and badge were missing.
The investigation by the local authorities lead to the arrest of two men, Lugi Scalzo and C. Casquale, who were known to have made threats against the Warden in the past. For reasons unknown, neither man was prosecuted. There were no other arrests.
“What?” said Halber. “He was killed over a couple of robins?” “Yes, it appears that he was,” said Corwin.
Corwin continued. Just over a month later, Warden John W. Galloway was shot in the head while trying to arrest illegal gill-netters. Fortunately, he was only wounded, but could have easily been killed by the gunshot.
It was March 10, 1913 and Warden John W. Galloway (also spelled in some newspaper accounts as Gallaway) was on patrol, looking for illegal netters who were taking steelhead trout. Warden Galloway contacted and arrested Herbert LeCornec, George LeCornec, and J. W. McNamara for possession of steelhead trout taken with an illegal net. While speaking with McNamara and with his back to the LeCornec brothers, Herbert LeCornec shot Galloway through the head. Galloway drew his revolver, returned fire, shooting both of the LeCornec brothers, killing George LeCornec in the ensuing gun battle. Herbert LeCornec survived the shooting and was tried twice for the attempted murder of Warden Galloway but was not convicted in either trial. Warden Galloway survived the gunshot to the head.
“I can’t believe that he was shot in the head and survived,” said Halber. “Boy, he must have had a very hard head.”
Warden Corwin continued his story. The following month, Warden Ernest Raynaud was on boat patrol near San Quentin Point in Marin County when he was killed on April 16th.
According to published reports, Warden Raynaud was working boat patrol with Deputy Commissioner M.S. Clark that day. Warden Raynaud made contact with and arrested two brothers, Antone and Salvatore Balesteri, for taking striped bass with an illegal net. They were taken into custody and placed on the warden’s boat. A third man who was with them, Carlo Balesteri was also taken aboard the Warden’s boat to act as an interpreter.
According to a report of the incident in the Sacramento Union, five friends of the Balesteri brothers stormed aboard the Warden’s boat, attacking the wardens with clubs and oars while trying to free the two Balesteri brothers who had been taken into custody.
Deputy Clark was able to shoot and kill Salvatore Balesteri and wound his nephew, Caloggero Balestri before being struck in the head with an oar. Deputy Clark was thrown overboard where one of the remaining Balesteri’s tried to run him over with the boat. Other fishermen in the area rescued Deputy Clark, but Warden Raynaud died of his injuries.
Antone Balesteri escaped and was never apprehended. Carlo Balestari was tried and convicted of murder and sentenced to San Quentin Prison for life.
“Don’t tell me that another warden was killed or wounded in April,” said Halber.”
“Unfortunately, yes” said Corwin, “the next incident happenid on April 26th,1913.”
According to the Lassen Advocate, Warden Frank Cady & Warden Joseph Nelligan were on foot patrol near Tule Lake, now known as Moon Lake, in Lassen County. During their foot patrol, they had contacted and arrested 11 Native Americans.
Both Wardens are armed with semi-automatic pistols and Cady’s 30-30. The Native Americans had no firearms.
The wardens allowed the Native Americans to mount their horses, and with Warden Cady, on foot, in the lead and Warden Nelligan, on foot, at the rear, they departed the location of the arrest heading toward Madeline, the nearest town, about 6-8 miles distant.
One of the men, who had been arrested, came alongside Warden Cady and protested being taken to Madeline. According to the report, he jumped from his horse onto Warden Cady and seized his rifle and shot Warden Cady with it. Though wounded, Warden Cady was able to draw his pistol and return fire while crawling toward a nearby cabin. Warden Nelligan came forward and began firing at the men who had quickly taken refuge behind a pile of wood.
In the ensuing gunfight Warden Nelligan was wounded twice (shoulder and thigh). Apparently, unable to crawl to safety because of his wounds, Warden Nelligan was laying on the ground pretending to be dead. When one of the men came out from behind the woodpile, Warden Nelligan sat up and shot him in the chest as he approached. At this time, the other men were able to mount their horses, grab their wounded comrade and flee from the scene. In the process of fleeing the scene, many of them ran their horses over Warden Nelligan who was still on the ground and unable to move.
Both Wardens survived their attack. The local Sheriff re-arrested several of the men.
Warden Corwin ended the story by saying that there was no information regarding any prosecution for the attempted murder of the wardens.
The story you just read was my original draft of a story which was published as “The Bloodiest Year Year in the History of Game Wardens” in the May/June 2013 issue of Outdoor Cal. The story was too long for the magazine so the first half of the story with fictional wardens Halber & Corwin describing the events about the manhunt for Christopher Dorner was cut, leaving only the story about the bloodiest year in our history.
I am sure that leaves you wondering about the other wardens who were wounded or killed throughout the years. You can read about them on this website.
Also, after reading this story, I am sure you are asking yourself, why anyone would want to be a game warden, especially if you could be killed for doing your job. Based on my experience and the experience of my fellow game wardens, being a game warden is not a job, but a calling.
Game wardens believe that it is very important to protect our natural resources for our children and our children’s children. You can see from this story many have put their lives on the line to protect that resource. As you read the stories about the wardens, who make up the “Thin Green Line” between the outlaws and the precious natural resources of the State of California, take a moment to remember those who have been injured or wounded and those who gave their lives in the line of duty.
Want to read more about game wardens, here in California as well as across the country? You will find many great books available at your local library, or available through online booksellers, or as downloads for your Kindle or Nook. I have been fortunate enough to have worked with and known some of the best storytellers around. California Game Wardens Jim Wictum, Terry Hodges, Terry Grosz, Steve Callan, and John Nores. For more information about my favorite authors who write about the men and women who are the protectors of your precious natural resources, click here.
We are always on the lookout for historic information about our wardens, including written documents, newspaper articles and photos. We ask you, our readers, if you have any information that you may have inherited from family members who were wardens if you would share that information with us so that we can fill in the gaps in our history. Please reply below.
About the author: Jack A. Edwards retired as the Deputy Chief of Patrol from the California Department of Fish and Game in 2003. During his career with the Department, he also held the position as the Chief of the Conservation Education Office and was one of the developers of the department’s website. Retired Captain Phil Nelms provided research for this story.