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Fred Howser, Fiery, Controversial Ex-Prosecutor, Dies

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Times Staff Writer

Fred N. Howser, whose years as district attorney of Los Angeles and attorney general of California were among the most fiery in the county’s and state’s political history, has died.

The former Long Beach Republican assemblyman, who quarreled in and out of court with such disparate figures as former Gov. Earl Warren and syndicated newspaper columnist Drew Pearson, was 82 when he died Sunday in Laguna Hills.

He was defeated for reelection as attorney general in 1950, claiming that “underworld money” had been used against him. For the last 37 years he had been in private law practice, retiring just last Jan. 1 to Laguna Hills.

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At its peak, Howser’s media dossier was a mounting display of hundreds of column inches. From the time he was named Los Angeles County district attorney on Feb. 1, 1943, until his last hurrah as a candidate for reelection in 1950, he was never without words--or enemies.

As district attorney he sparred with then-Mayor Fletcher Bowron over what he said was widespread gambling and vice in Los Angeles. But the mayor’s wrath wasn’t sufficient to prevent Howser’s 1944 election to the office to which he had been appointed on the death of John F. Dockweiler.

Howser had taken issue with the crap games then flourishing at the old Long Beach Pike. Four years later--two years after he had defeated then-San Francisco Dist. Atty. and future Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown in a spirited campaign for the attorney generalship--Howser found himself on the other side of the gambling issue. Gov. Warren charged that Howser had refused to investigate what Warren said was a takeover by the old Al Capone gang of bookmaking and racketeering in the state.

And then there was the Hollywood hyperbole.

As district attorney he prosecuted bandleader Tommy Dorsey for knifing and beating actor Jon Hall and ordered an investigation of the Beverly Hills Police Department for supposed harassment of actress Joan Berry, the 23-year-old would-be star who had brought a paternity suit against Charlie Chaplin.

He also was prosecutor in the controversial “Sleepy Lagoon” murder case in which 12 youths were charged with the 1942 killing of Jose Diaz during a fight at an outing in the Montebello area. Their convictions were overturned by an appellate court and the racially fired episode was made years later into the successful play “Zoot Suit.”

In 1946 he was one of the first to organize a campaign of legal maneuvering that led to the demise of Tony Cornero’s $1-million gambling ship, Lux, then operating off Long Beach.

Howser’s single four-year term as attorney general proved no less interesting.

After defeating Brown by nearly 200,000 votes, he found himself on the witness stand at the infamous 1947 Beulah Louise Overell and George (Bud) Gollum murder trial. He was accused of being behind the secret release and eventual publication of the jailhouse correspondence of the two lovers who were accused of murdering her wealthy parents. Howser, whose office had taken prosecution of the case from the Orange County district attorney, denied leaking the condemning letters to the press.

And in September, 1947, he claimed to have linked the unsolved machine-gun slaying of mobster Bugsie Siegel to an undisclosed bookmaking war.

In more tranquil matters, Howser was at the forefront of a campaign to return California’s control of its oil tidelands to the state after the U.S. Supreme Court had awarded them to the federal government and was vocally seeking a compromise on Colorado River water rights between California and Arizona years before that accord was reached.

That proposal prompted the then pro-water and growth-conscious Los Angeles Times to editorialize that his “inept remarks” were jeopardizing California’s “most precious asset.”

In June, 1950, he lost the Republican primary to Edward Shattuck and seven months later also lost one of his last public ordeals, a protracted battle with columnist Pearson, who had charged that Howser had accepted a $1,200 bribe from a bookmaker. A tearful appeal by Howser failed to sway a jury, which found that Pearson’s charges had not damaged him and were made “without actual malice.”

He is survived by a son and three grandchildren.

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