Leon Worden

A New Ending For the Great Saugus Train Robbery of '29

By Leon Worden

Saturday, Sept. 4, 2004

chool kids in Santa Clarita learn that ours is a valley of "firsts." We had the first documented discovery of gold in California (Placerita Canyon, 1842); the first productive oil well and refinery (Pico Canyon and Newhall, 1876); and some of the earliest location filming after the industry moved west from New York.
    We've also got one of the "lasts," so to speak. Locals know it as the "Great Saugus Train Robbery." It happened on Nov. 10, 1929, at the dawn of the Great Depression, making it one of the last old-time train robberies of the wild and wooly West.
    Now, 75 years later, there's new information to indicate we may need to correct the way the story ends for the train robber.
    Oh, he was captured, all right. And he served hard time. But how and where and when he died, has been called into question. I'll get there in a moment. First things first.
    The Signal provides this first-hand account of the day:
    "Train No. 59, the West Coast Limited, was derailed Sunday evening at 7:45 o'clock on the curve just back of the Baker Ranch stadium (Saugus Speedway today), the engine landing on the uphill side, turned over, and the baggage and mail cars upset, the first passenger coach being knocked off the rails and left standing diagonally across the tracks."
    Signal Publisher A.B. "Dad" Thatcher liked to pack a lot of information into the first sentence.
    "The first intimation of robbery was when a stranger, pretending to be a railroad man, told the passengers to go into the last two coaches. ... Most of them obeyed. His work was methodical. The passengers were excitedly discussing the accident, and as they were settling themselves, the robber entered. There was a quick command to 'stick 'em up and give me your money quick.' Then the bandit walked down the aisle, taking the purses as they were handed to him under the threat of a gun."
    In all, the bandit got away with no more than $400.
    It looks like he did it for love. Reports said he hitched a ride to a hospital in Los Angeles where "a woman friend had sustained a major operation. ... He evidently staged the hold-up to get money to pay the hospital bill."
    After the story broke, there was a confession. But the confessor turned out to be a "crazy man," Thatcher reported — "a recently escaped inmate of an insane asylum." Authorities put up a $10,000 reward to capture the real bandit.
    A note from the bandit to his hospitalized girlfriend put the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department on the trail to Oklahoma.
    It was there that "Buffalo" Tom Vernon, aka Tom Averill, was apprehended after pulling an almost identical train robbery of a Union Pacific train near Cheyenne, Wyo.
    Justice, not to mention extradition, was swift in the days of Bonnie and Clyde. By late December, Vernon — already on parole for stealing a cow from actor Harry Carey in Saugus — was sentenced to life in Folsom Prison.
    "He was released 35 years later — a small, nervous, aged, gray-haired man, who died shortly thereafter of a 'social disease,'" writes Jerry Reynolds, our valley's eminent historian of the 1970s-'90s.
    Thirty-five years later would have been 1964. The new information? A party in the Sacramento suburb of Citrus Heights says it ain't so.
    "I know for a fact that he was not in prison in 1957-1958 because he was living with my  family in Sacramento, Calif., in 1957 and 1958," writes Carolena Rezendes, who found Reynolds' account online at scvhistory.com.
    "As to how he died, it was TB (tuberculosis). Our family buried him."

    Leon Worden is the Signal's opinion and multimedia editor.

comments powered by Disqus