June 9, 1961
This week San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department marks a solemn anniversary, 48 years ago Deputy Sheriff Harvey Stahl, 40 of Paso Robles died in a struggle with a convict who had shot Creston man earlier in the day. Stahl was the second line-of-duty death since the department was created in 1850.
Quoting from the unbylined story from June 10, 1961. (I have rearranged paragraphs since the original makes several chronological skips. The early story and later story have different first names for the Creston resident.)
Deputy sheriff Harvey Stahl, 40, Paso Robles, was shot and killed on a lonely stretch of the river road near Atascadero shortly after noon yesterday as he attempted to apprehend a gunman who had shot another man earlier in the day.
Captured afoot about a half mile from the death scene was William Jefferson Ford, 34, who raised his hands in surrender when approached by gun-wielding fellow officers of the slain deputy. The arrest was made at approximately 3:15 p.m.
Stahl’s body was found near his abandoned sheriff’s car, left with motor running and red light flashing.
The day of violence started when Ford called at the home of John B. Roope in Atascadero about 10 a.m., forcing Roope to drive him to the Creston ranch where Ford’s wife had been residing with the couple’s three children.
Roope, who works at a Morro Bay theater as a projectionist related to officers the auto junket that ended in the death of Stahl began when Ford pulled a pistol on him and declared: “We’re going to Creston, I’m going to kill the —- — – —- that stole my wife and kids.
Somehow in a struggle that ensued as Ford made his wife and children get into the car driven by Roope, another resident of the ranch, William Hardy, was shot in the shoulder by Ford who used a .22 caliber pistol.
The four-hour drive ranged from Atascadero, Creston and Shell Beach. At one point Ford ordered Roope to cash a check and buy a jug of wine.
Deputy Sheriff Stahl stopped the car on North River Road to question Ford. When the Deputy asked Ford for his gun a struggle ensued. Ford shot the officer twice, first in the neck, then in the forehead. In the confusion Roope and the others escaped, driving off leaving William Ford behind. Stahl fired five shots, at Ford or the car before he died.
Ford later returned to take Stahl’s gun and was later captured with the victim’s .38 caliber handgun in his waistband.
Police responded when Stahl failed to answer his radio and captured Ford less than two hours after the crime about three fourths of a mile from the scene.
Stahl was survived by a wife, two children and his parents. His daughter Sherri was scheduled to graduate the next day from Paso Robles Union High School.
William J. Ford was sentenced to death twice. The California State Supreme Court set the first capital punishment verdict from December 1961 aside. The court ruled that improper instructions had been given to the jury.
The second trial was marked by a flurry of motions and the month long proceeding was one of the longest in county history to that point. The trial took three phases. The first resulted in the murder conviction. The second ruled Ford was sane when he shot Stahl. On the eve of the penalty (third) phase Ford fired his attorneys and failed to offer a closing argument. The jury only needed two hours and eleven minutes of deliberation to reach the verdict of death.
The verdict was reported in the January 12, 1965 edition of the then Telegram-Tribune.
Ford’s son and wife waited in the courthouse corridor for the verdict but felt little sympathy for the man on trial.
“I guess he got what he deserved.
He’s got a stone heart.”
These were the comments of Billy Ford, 14-year-old son of William J. Ford, Monday after a San Luis Obispo jury had returned a verdict which could conceivably send his father to the gas chamber.
“He was mean. He never was a father to me. He was mean to all of us kids.”
Billy was solemn.
He recalled the day of June 9, 1961 when his father came to a ranch in Creston and fired two shots at Ben Hardy, wounding the rancher in the shoulder.
After Ford fired the shots Billy—as he testified during the trial—went into Hardy’s house and returned with a .22 caliber rifle trained on his father.
“I pointed it at him because I would have killed him if he had shot at my mother,” Billy said Monday, “I wasn’t fooling.
He was always beating my mother.”
While he was a witness, Billy quoted his father as saying, “I’m going to blow the hell out of him.” He was referring to Ole Atkins who was accused by Ford of consorting with Ford’s wife.
But Ford’s wife Emma, said Monday while she waited in the courthouse corridor:
“He was worthless. I always had to support him and my family. The last six years we were together, he never contributed anything to our support. He always took my paycheck and spent it on other women. He never was sober. I’ve had more black eyes than anyone alive.
He got what was coming to him.”
Ford’s final court date in the county was scheduled for January 25, 1965 after which he would be remanded to the custody of the warden at San Quentin.
According the Rob Bryn of the Sheriff’s Department the California Supreme Court reduced the conviction to second-degree murder in 1966. Ford was paroled from prison in 1975 and discharged from parole three years later.
Walt Beesley wrote the 1965 stories. Jim Vestal took the photo of Ford glaring in handcuffs as he leaves the courtroom under the watchful eye of Deputy Sheriff Arnie Goble.
The Sheriff’s department marked the day by flying flags at half-staff and wearing black banners on their badges.