(Illustration by Emma DiMaggio)

Illustration by Emma DiMaggio

Column | The “Boss” of Signal Hill – Part 2

August 13, 2020

The following is a continuation of Part 1 of The “Boss” of Signal Hill.

EDS NOTE: The following piece contains language that some might find offensive which has been censored as [expletive]. The quotes in this piece do not reflect the views of the Signal Tribune Newspaper and are based off historical context.

Most of those arrested and brutalized by police were transients, some black, some white. In 1981, Los Angeles Times reporters Mike Goodman and Richard E. Meyer wrote that in August 1976, local resident Clifford Holzhauer got into an argument with his wife Susan and asked her to leave the house. She had – and Holzhauer took their 7-month old baby to family members in Sacramento. Susan wanted to see the baby, but Clifford would not tell her where the youngster was. Susan called police and they arrived along with Susan. Signal Hill officers, with their guns drawn, told Holzhauer to produce the baby. He told them the baby was OK but was not in the house. Police then pushed Susan out the front door, stepped in, and began beating Holzhauer 30 to 50 times. He pleaded with his wife, locked out of the house, to help him because they were “killing me.” She couldn’t do a thing. He lost consciousness and was taken to USC Medical Center where he had neck and groin injuries, three broken ribs and a punctured lung. Police charged Holzhauer with battery. A jury acquitted him. He sued Signal Hill and agreed to an $8,500 ($39,000 today) settlement.

When Holzhauer complained to his neighbor Nick Mekis who was on the city council he was told not to get involved and to let the insurance company take care of matters. What did attract the attention of others on the council was absenteeism.

The Denham brothers were mixing work on family enterprises with police work, and police work was getting short ended. Several on the council staged a small revolt, denying Richard Denham a raise. The Denham’s fought back, also targeting city manager John Jameson who had supported the council’s action. But Jameson was in trouble for another reason – he was interested in putting Black people on the police force. But Richard Denham told him “no.” Something Denham denied.

Jameson said the city’s attitude toward Black people was best demonstrated by an industrial buffer zone it created between its residential area and the city limits, which touched the Long Beach ghetto. Others said Signal Hill racism was typified by its American Legion post, also known as the Legion’s Signal Hill Post No. 490 which had its charter revoked in 1964 for engaging in anti-Semitic and anti-Black activities. This included calling Jews “a mongrel race” and preaching “[expletive] don’t want integration and the Jews are pushing integration.”

Those that had opposed the Denham’s were voted off the council and Jameson fired.

On March 22, 1979, Thomas W. Denham, Sr. died leaving an estate worth approximately $1 million ($3.5 million today) and a smoothly running political machine.

Before the year was out Police Chief Richard Denham decided to quit. There was a hitch. He was only 47 – three years away from early retirement. He threatened the city with a very substantial stress related disability claim that he would drop in return for a three-year leave of absence, which would keep his city insurance in force. He agreed to pick up the premiums during the leave. Denham claimed the stress was caused by the loss of his raise and criticism of absenteeism. His doctor confirmed the stress and Denham was granted a deferred retirement.

The Council needed to find a successor. Ten years before, Denham had granted Gaylord (Red) Wert, a police dispatcher, an unusually dramatic promotion. Wert had no other police experience and Denham made him the department’s only lieutenant – his second in command.

Now the City Council, without seeking any other candidate, appointed Wert chief of police. He had never been a patrol officer and had never taken a chief’s exam.

In 1981, Signal Hill gained national notoriety because of the jailhouse death of African American football player Ron Settles. As mentioned in my earlier article on Settles’s death, Settles was stopped for speeding on June 2, 1981, taken to jail and repeatedly struck with fists and billy clubs. The police said he resisted arrest.

Protestors gather in front of Signal Hill Police Department in a rally held for Ron Settles. Settles’ father, Donell (not visible) spoke to a crowd of approximately 1,500-2,000 demonstrators, some of which can be seen here. Photograph dated December 6, 1981. (James Ruebsamen | Herald Examiner)

Two hours after his arrest, he was found hanged from his cell bars. A coroner’s jury said the death was a homicide. Police and a grand jury said he committed suicide. Following Settles death, Douglas Miller, who lived at the bottom of Signal Hill said he stayed out of the town and so did his neighbors. “Things always were rough up there. But now it’s worse. They’ve got killers up there.”

In May 1982, Signal Hill Police Chief, Gaylord (Red) Wert was fired after a new city council took over the governing of the city. A new city was born. Some believe it was Settles’ death and the attendant publicity and looking into past history that changed the city so radically.

In 1997, a city that once closed its eyes to racial injustice and allowed certain officials to display their disdain for people of African descent elected one of these persons to head their government – Edward H. J. Wilson. A native of Ventura, California, Wilson was reared across the United States and Europe. His father was a career military man. Wilson graduated from high school in Holland and came back to the US to attend college. He served five terms as Mayor and in 2013 ran unsuccessfully for the 70th State Assembly seat. He currently serves on the Signal Hill City Council as the only Black councilmember.

Councilmember Edward Wilson

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Claudine Burnett has written 10 books about Southern California history. For more about her, and to access her blogs, visit her website, claudineburnettbooks.com. Also, visit her Facebook page.

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