Cold Case: The Death of Officer William Lacey

William LaceyThirteen years ago, when I was going through the application process to become a San Antonio police officer, I had to make frequent trips to police headquarters. I remember waiting in the lobby with nothing else to do but read the wall-sized memorial to all the San Antonio police officers killed in the line of duty. Sometimes I had to wait an hour or more, and that gave me a lot of time to study the faces in the black and white photos and marvel at their old fashioned badges and read the brief descriptions of how they died.

The plaques go back to 1857. For the first two officers, there are no pictures, no badges. The incidents their plaques describe actually predate the city charter that established the San Antonio Police Department. (The SAPD didn’t take its current political shape until the 1870s.) But as you go forward through the display, the badge styles start to take their present shape and the hairstyles and the clothes start to look more modern. You get a sense of history developing right in front of your eyes.

It was that sense of history staring me in the face that hooked me. There were stories on that wall just begging to be told. Sam Street, for example, was shot while investigating a routine suspicious person call. Tragic, though not uncommon in police work. But he held the rank of Chief of Detectives at the time, making him the highest ranking member of the Department to die in the line of duty. Officer Peter Scrivano’s badge is bent under at the bottom left corner. Later, I discovered it was damaged in the shootout that took his life. Detective Henry Perrow was shot and killed in a dead end alley by a member of John Dillinger’s Gang. Officer Patricia Calderon, the only female officer ever killed in the line of duty, drowned while chasing a suspect through a flooded creek. A law enhancing the penalties for running from the police now bears her name. There were so many stories there, and so much tragedy.

But with all that rich material to fascinate me I kept coming back to the very first plaque with an officer’s picture attached. It belonged to Patrolman William Madison Lacey, aged 38. According to the plaque, William Lacey entered service on November 28, 1900. He was killed the very next day in a labor dispute by the man he was assigned to protect. He was survived by a pregnant wife and four children.

That’s all. There’s nothing more written there.

But I was floored.

One day on the job!

Can you imagine?

It seemed so wildly improbable. So unfair. But most of all, to a young man who joined the police department primarily as a way to fuel his reckless addiction to adrenaline, it was a sobering reality check.

Still, I went on with the application process. I got in, figuring that I would ask around and find out exactly what happened to William M. Lacey on that fateful Thanksgiving Day nearly a hundred years earlier.

How hard could it be, right?

Of course, life got in the way. I was working West Patrol “B” Shift, 2 to 10:30 pm, with Tuesdays and Wednesdays off. I was on a steep learning curve, seeing something new every night; and before long, the names of men I knew personally started showing up on that wall down at police headquarters. I forgot all about William Madison Lacey.

And then, in 2006, I was promoted to the rank of Detective-Investigator. I was assigned to the Homicide Division. I was in police headquarters every day now, and once again William M. Lacey entered my world. Only this time I had access to everything ever written by the San Antonio Police Department. I figured it would be a simple matter of going to the archives and reading the file.

Cold case solved, right?

Not so fast. As it turns out, the archives only go back as far as the mid 1970s. Before that, there’s nothing but a few scattered personnel records maintained by Internal Affairs and Accounting.

Want something before 1922?

Well, in that case, you’re completely out of luck. The City of San Antonio was wiped out in a flood on September 10, 1921. At 1:30 am that Saturday morning a 12 foot wave swept through downtown and obliterated all City records. Nothing but memory remained.

And by the summer of 2006, when I started asking questions in earnest, all memory of that fateful Thanksgiving morning back in November of 1900 was gone.

Or at least, so I thought.

Snapshot: San Antonio, Circa 1900

In the final year of the 19th Century, San Antonio was a city in transition. With more than 53,000 citizens, it was the largest city in Texas. Though the city was nowhere near its current size, it was growing fast. New roads were being built. New subdivisions required the city to annex land as far out as the present day Loop 410, the highway that services San Antonio’s airport and the meat of its business district. The wild frontier days of lawlessness were on the way out, replaced by barbed wire and the railroads and even health code regulations restricting the sale of chili to specially designated plazas during evening hours. The automobile had been in town for less than two years, and already there was a “traffic problem” forcing city officials to declare a speed limit of 6 miles per hour through downtown.

And the police department was changing, too. Starting in 1873, City Marshal John Dobbin began modernizing the gang of cowboys previously responsible for maintaining law and order in San Antonio. They got uniforms. They were required to wear coats and badges and to keep their service revolvers hidden from plain sight. San Antonio got its first female officer, Elizabeth Dunn. We also got our first black police officer and the first “pill box” substations. Mounted patrols were slowly being replaced by motorcycles and automobiles. And the entire department, which numbered fewer than fifty officers and still couldn’t make up its mind whether to call itself the City Marshal’s Office or the San Antonio Police Department, could assemble on the steps of the brand new City Hall building for a group photo.

This was the world I had to enter if I ever hoped to find out what really happened to Patrolman William M. Lacey. It was a journey that would take me through the archives of three public libraries in two counties; deep into the photo holdings of the Institute of Texan Cultures; into the moldy banker’s boxes housing court records in the Bexar County Archives; into private homes to read diaries and look at photos; and finally, into an abandoned, rain-swept corner of the San Antonio Municipal Cemetery where the trail seems to have taken a perplexing turn.SAPD Circa 1901

But the key to it all was a labor dispute.

The Telephone Strike

Dr. Donald Everett, one of my favorite history professors while I was an undergraduate student at Trinity University, once told me that nothing in history takes place in a vacuum. We look back across the centuries and hear that Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, or that William visited England in 1066, or that the Visigoths had themselves a little Roman holiday in 410 A.D. But the important fact to remember is that those events didn’t just happen out of the blue. They were part of a pattern of events, a confluence of political and sociological and personal relationships, all blending together to become a significant date on a test we had to take once.

So I looked for the larger context in William Lacey’s story, and what I found was a telephone company strike. Problems between the Electrical Union and the Southwest Telegraph and Telephone Company had been brewing throughout the summer of 1900, and those problems reached a head in October, when the telephone company’s lineman insisted on a pay increase to $3 a day and 8 hour shifts. At the same time, the operators, who were all female, were asking for a wage increase of $5 per week. These rates, according to a statement made by the Electrical Union’s president, Martin Wright, were in keeping with the state standard set by the Electrical Worker’s Union. The phone company balked. The Union president threatened a strike. Negotiations failed, and on November 3, 1900, the Union employees carried through on their threats and walked off the job.

Almost immediately the phone company brought in scabs, non-union workers willing to work while the union folks were protesting in the street outside. One of these scabs was a lightly built, hot-tempered young electrician named Charles R. Smith, who less than a month later would shoot William Lacey at point blank range.

Smith seems to have rubbed just about everybody the wrong way, relishing his position as scab and rarely missing an opportunity to start a yelling match with union employees congregating on Travis St in front of the phone company. But by the end of November, the fighting seems to have become more of a private feud between Smith and O.D. Blanton, a union lineman, and C.K. Phillips, a union electrician. Arguments between the men were a daily occurrence, and on several occasions seem to have ended with rocks and tools thrown across Travis St. Smith, who lacked the physical size to stand toe to toe with either Blanton or Phillips, took to carrying a pistol.

Indeed, things got so bad that the telephone company manager, F.B. Clyde, had to petition City Marshal Druse for protection.

And this is where William Lacey enters the picture.

A Policeman’s Story

William M. Lacey had four children and a pregnant wife at home. They’d been married for just seven years. He was a good looking man with wavy brown hair, a high, intelligent forehead, and a strong solid jaw. In the last picture he ever posed for, his brow hoods a pair of sleepy, confident eyes. This was a man who knew what he was about, and in November, 1900, that meant supplementing his carpenter’s profession with a side job as a police officer. Lacey’s application to join the department was approved unanimously by city council, and on Thanksgiving Day, November 29, 1900, William M. Lacey reported for his first day on the job as a San Antonio police officer.

City Marshal Druse assigned Lacey to a detail that included two other officers, L.C. Espinoza and Mike Molyneau. Their job was to take charge of the strike situation. They walked the four blocks from City Hall to the telephone company’s offices at the corner of Travis and St. Mary’s St, and they had been watching an irritable crowd of union strikers for about twenty-five minutes when Charles Smith stepped out of the telephone office. Phillips, Blanton, and Martin Wright were in the crowd and recognized Smith right away. Insults were yelled back and forth. Smith, who seems to have never heard that discretion is the better part of valor, poured salt in the wound by asking the strikers how they enjoyed being out of a job.

In a deposition he gave before Judge Joe Umscheid, Officer Espinoza recalled watching the scene with a growing sense of unease. From his post he could see the faces of the union leaders turning red with anger. He could see Smith smiling back at them, smug as could be, taunting them. Then Espinoza’s gaze shifted to the brand new officer, William Lacey. Lacey’s face was taut with suppressed tension, his eyes darting nervously across the angry crowd. The muscles in his cheek twitched each time a nasty comment was yelled above the general din. His arms were crossed over his chest, his brand new uniform coat stiff with laundry starch.

Espinoza had been in the thick of the action during the City Hall protests two years before, when Mayor “King Bryan” Callaghan Jr., who for many years ran San Antonio like his own private fiefdom, tried to fire the entire police department, and he knew what was going through the new officer’s mind. He knew the thick blue uniform coat was basting the new officer in a layer of heat and sweat. He knew how isolated Lacey was feeling, like a lion tamer when the animals decide they no longer have any interest in taking instruction. Lacey was swallowing constantly, his Adam’s apple working up and down like a piston, and hardly ever blinking. He was getting his first taste of a rough situation, but for all his obvious nervousness, was doing surprisingly well. Lacey was scared, but sticking to his post. He wasn’t moving over to stand next to the other two officers on his post, like a meeker man might, and in Espinoza’s assessment, that was the sign of a good cop. If things got really bad, he thought he’d probably be able to count on William Lacey to watch his back.

And the way things were going, it looked like that was about to happen.

Somebody in the crowd threw a rock, narrowly missing Smith. The smirk slipped off his face as Smith realized the situation was getting out of hand. His voice took on a whining, frightened note.

Phillips, a thick-armed electrician whose huge build allowed him to push his way to the front of the crowd, stuck a threatening finger in Smith’s face. “You are nothing but a big baby,” Phillips said, “and you ought to be at home with your mother.”

Granted it was a weak insult by today’s standards, but evidently it had the desired affect on the crowd. With the strike entering its forth week, nearly everyone was stewing for a fight, and as the union workers advanced on Smith, the scab promptly sprinted for a nearby telephone pole and scrambled up it.

The crowd had Smith on the run. Soon there was a whole chorus of jeers driving Smith upward, and the more he panted and whined the louder and more ominous the taunts became.

Smith, meanwhile, his hands covered in sweat, clung to the pole, the veins in his neck standing out like cords beneath his skin as he kicked at the hands clutching for his boots.

Officers Lacey and Espinoza moved in to restore order, but were unable to push their way through the crowd before Phillips managed to get a hold on Smith’s pant legs and pulled him down into the frenzied crowd. Phillips had a wrench with him, and when Smith tried to fight back, Phillips swung the wrench, opening a deep cut across the top of Smith’s scalp.

Smith’s hair and face were wet with blood and he was barely conscious. He staggered through the crowd and into Robinson’s Livery Stable. With Phillips, Blanton, and Martin Wright in the lead the crowd pursued. They punched and kicked Smith, driving him deeper into Robinson’s Livery.

William Lacey never stopped fighting his way through the crowd, and he reached the front of the fray just as Smith was knocked to his knees by a hard punch to the face. Lacey reached down to pull Smith to his feet, but Smith had already produced a .38 caliber Smith & Wesson revolver from inside his shirt.

Smith claimed he didn’t know it was Officer William Lacey pulling him to his feet. He believed Phillips, Blanton and Wright were closing in for the kill. When Smith opened fire, William Lacey was standing less than an arm’s length from him. Lacey took the shot on his left side, the bullet lodging next to his heart. Smith then fired two more shots. He hit Blanton in the back, next to his spine, and nicked Wright in the arm.

A panic went through the crowd and people ran for the exits.

Blanton landed in a heap in a corner of the livery.

But Lacey kept his feet. He staggered back from Smith, his hands hanging limply at his side. His face had an elastic, slack-jawed expression as he stared about the room. He never cried out. He saw a chair up against a wall and managed to drop down into it.

Meanwhile, Officer Espinoza was still trying to fight his way inside Robinson’s Livery when he heard three shots fired in rapid succession. The crowd was pouring out all around him, but Espinoza elbowed his way into the inner chamber. He saw a man on either side of Blanton, carrying the mortally wounded man out of the scene. Along the far wall, he saw Smith, the gun still in his hand; but despite the blood in his hair and on his face, he seemed cool and calm.

Then Espinoza saw William Lacey, seated against another wall, blood seeping through his thick gray field coat. Espinoza told Smith he was under arrest and Smith nodded. He handed Espinoza the pistol and surrendered without resistance.

And as a hush fell over the few remaining people inside the livery, William Lacey sat dying. A few onlookers came to his side and tried speaking to him, but Lacey could make no reply. He died fifteen minutes later, just as a doctor was entering the building.

On the way to the jail, Officer Espinoza asked Charles Smith what had happened. Smith told him he had no idea he had just killed a policeman. He swore that Lacey was never his intended target. But when Espinoza asked Smith who his intended target was, the man fell silent. He would make no further comment.

And so Espinoza took Charles Smith and C.K. Phillips before Justice Joe Umscheid and gave an affidavit accusing Smith of murder and Phillips of felony assault.

The Funeral
Officer Lacey’s body was placed in a casket at a nearby funeral home and then taken to his Kentucky Ave home on San Antonio’s west side. The body was brought into the parlor and immediately surrounded by his wife and four children. Throughout the rest of the day several hundred people came by to pay their respects.

Lacey was buried in Cemetery #4 at San Antonio’s Municipal Cemetery. Among his pall bearers were Charles Van Riper, who went to become chief of the San Antonio Police Department, and San Antonio Mayor Marshall Hicks.

The service was a huge affair attended by several hundred people, and many of San Antonio’s most prominent politicians and clergy were among the guests.

The Southwest Telephone and Telegraph Company gave Lacey’s widow a check for $1000 and a public apology for the actions of its employees, and the matter slipped into obscurity for the next 87 years.

William M. Lacey: An Afterward

As I was researching William Lacey’s story, one of the little footnotes that bothered me was the location of Lacey’s burial plot. Back in 1900, the San Antonio Municipal Cemetery was a well-maintained graveyard, an honored place to put the dead to rest. The surrounding neighborhoods were dotted with huge three story Queen Anne-style mansions and wide open horse pastures. It would have been a lovely, serene location–at least back then.

But these days, the Municipal Cemetery is surrounded by some of San Antonio’s roughest streets. From the corner of the facility known as Cemetery #4, where the newspapers said Lacey was laid to rest, you can watch drug dealers and prostitutes walking the streets. You can see the homeless sleeping on bus benches. You can hear TVs blaring from clapboard houses hovering on the verge of collapse. Police cars sprint up and down the streets all day long, their lights and sirens lit up like pinball machines going full tilt. At night, the area echoes with gun fire. To me, it seemed a curious place for a policeman’s grave, and I was struck by a desire to go see him.

Cemetery #4 is one of the oldest parts of the graveyard and there hasn’t been much activity there for four or five decades. I showed up at the cemetery a few weeks ago, the morning after an all-night rainstorm. It was a humid, overcast morning, and the ground was spongy from the rains. I had no idea where William Lacey’s tombstone was located, but that corner of the cemetery wasn’t very big, and so I started wandering, going up and down the rows while trying to read the nearly obliterated engravings on the tombstones. I spent most of the morning looking, but couldn’t find the grave site.

As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one having trouble. Twenty years before I began my search, a recently retired tobacco company manager named William Botto was searching his family tree. He found many of the same documents I found during my search, and started asking questions. He went to the cemetery, and couldn’t find his grandfather’s grave among the crumbling markers. He went to the cemetery management. They had no record of burials before the 1920s. He went to the City. He went to the County. Finally, he went to the San Antonio Police Department and said, “Where’s William Lacey’s grave?”

The Department said, “Who’s William Lacey?”

And that was how the Department got reacquainted with one of its own. William Botto shared what he knew about his grandfather, and 87 years after his death, Patrolman William Madison Lacey was finally added to the San Antonio Police Officer’s Memorial Wall in police headquarters.

But the exact location of Lacey’s grave is still unknown. Botto never found it. The police officers who worked to get Botto’s grandfather up on the wall have since died or are otherwise unavailable. And Botto himself is also unavailable–which means the case has gone cold again.

At least for now.

For me, the truth about what really happened to William Madison Lacey won’t be known until I can find his grave. Until then, I won’t be able to say I’ve satisfied my curiosity. And until then, I’ll go on looking.

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