‘I Wish I Never Got Off That Bus’ : Crime: Robert Page Anderson, whose case eventually overturned the California death penalty, held off San Diego police in a 1965 gun battle that came to be known as the biggest shoot-out of its time.
Robert Page Anderson rode the bus downtown, planning to trade a diamond ring at the Hub Jewelry & Loan Co., a pawnshop at the corner of 5th Avenue and F Street in the Gaslamp Quarter.
It was 25 years ago this month. April 8, 1965.
Light rain fell outside as Anderson, a puny, self-described “22-year-old man going on 15" walked through the door. What happened inside, and the four hours of fierce gun battle that ensued, went down as the most dramatic police operation in San Diego history at that time.
One man was killed, two others wounded. More than 1,000 rounds of ammunition were fired. A newspaperman at the scene suffered a heart attack and died. A man trapped in the two-story structure eventually lost his eyesight from the tear gas tossed by police through the bullet-shattered windows.
In the years ahead, Anderson would be sentenced to death, then win a celebrated reprieve when the state Supreme Court used his case to overturn the death penalty for every prisoner on Death Row in 1972. For San Diego police, the lessons learned that rainy day in April would translate into the creation of the first fully equipped SWAT unit, trained by then-Sgt. Allen D. Brown, the hero of the day who
crept into the building and shot Anderson.
Anderson had planned to hock the diamond ring, but didn’t like the way credit manager Louis Richards, 61, a white man, was acting toward him, a black man. Anderson had lived his life in the San Diego black community. He did not understand white people, he said in an interview last week with The Times, nor did he trust or like them.
Anderson, 53, sat for a seven-hour interview in his tiny apartment in a poor neighborhood in Seattle. At times, he paced about the room, reliving the murder, his eyes widening as he waved a steel curtain rod through the air, pretending it was the rifle he used to kill the pawnshop manager and shoot at police.
When Anderson didn’t like the way he was being treated by Richards, he asked to see a .30-06 rifle. He asked for ammunition. He started to load as Richards bolted for the door. He swung to his left and fired; Richards fell dead on the floor with a hole in the back.
Anderson knelt over the dead man’s body, his mind racing. “I didn’t see any movement,” he said. “I thought, ‘God, this guy’s dead.’ And I got scared. I told myself I had to do something to protect myself. And there was no way I was going to walk out there and give myself up.”
He smashed open the gun cases, snatching up bullets as police sirens grew louder outside. “I started loading all those suckers up,” he said. Another clerk, 63-year-old Theodore Swienty, hid upstairs, sliding underneath a bed and praying that his feet weren’t showing. Anderson never found him, but Swienty later suffered permanent eye injuries from the tear gas.
More than 60 officers surrounded the building. Nicknamed “Rabbit,” Anderson sprinted up and down the stairs, firing about 80 rounds out the windows to keep police at bay. The police responded with about 800 shots of their own. A Navy gunner’s mate tossed concussion grenades at the building. At one point, the police even threw soda bottles to break open the pawnshop windows, many of them still painted black from the old bomb-scare days during World War II.
“When the Coke bottles missed, the crowd actually booed,” recalled Armond Viora, a key shop operator across the street who joined hundreds of other bystanders.
Police Sgt. Samuel R. Chasteen was injured in the forehead, either from an Anderson bullet or flying debris. Robert A. Crandall, a newspaper editor working for the San Diego Independent, was overcome at the scene when he suffered a heart attack and died.
The light rain kept falling. “I wanted to get away,” Anderson said. “Don’t you dig? I wasn’t going to put nothing down or give anything up until I got away.”
Four hours into the standoff, Sgt. Brown went inside. He found Anderson on the darkened mezzanine, a pistol in each hand.
Brown fired first, hitting Anderson at close range with buckshot from the .12-gauge pump-action shotgun, leaving a half-dollar-size hole in the wall embedded with Anderson’s blood. The police sergeant fired a total of three times, blasting Anderson in both arms and the lower left side. Anderson spun and crumpled to the floor.
“I thought I had cut him in half,” said Brown, now retired. “But when the light reflected on him, I was amazed that he was still breathing. He lay there on the floor and swore like you wouldn’t believe. I thought, ‘Here’s a real animal, his stomach pumping blood out and swearing at us officers.’ ”
Anderson remembers it somewhat differently. He insists he would have dropped the pistols if only Brown had ordered him to. “I didn’t want to kill him,” he said of Brown. “I gave him his life.”
Brown scoffs at the statement, saying that Anderson’s guns clicked twice, and would have gone off had he not stuffed the chambers with mixed ammunition. “Why didn’t he just throw his hands up?” Brown asked.
In court proceedings, Anderson first claimed a “masked man” came into the pawnshop and shot the manager and that he--Anderson--hid in the building, only to be mistaken by Brown as the assailant. Later, he pleaded temporary insanity.
The jury would have none of it. Anderson, sitting through the weeklong trial with his arms wrapped in heavy bandages and still oozing from the shotgun blasts, stood long enough to hear the jury return a verdict of guilty.
On the day of Anderson’s sentencing, a probation officer told the court that the defendant was upset with the verdict because he believed he actually refrained from killing more people that day. “He then expressed the wish that he had killed some other people, as long as the verdict turned out as it did,” the officer stated.
Dr. Stanley E. Willis, a University of San Diego psychiatrist, said, “Anderson would actually prefer to be considered a tough killer than to be seen as an emotionally disturbed and inadequate individual who killed impulsively.”
The psychiatrist added: “He is obsessively preoccupied with thoughts about dying with dignity.”
Anderson seemed to have been granted that wish when Superior Court Judge Verne O. Warner looked down from the bench at the little figure before him in the blood-stained bandages and ordered him to die in the California gas chamber.
But his sentence was later commuted, and, in 1976, Anderson was paroled and moved to Seattle. Today he says he regrets the store manager’s death but realizes “there is nothing I can do to bring Mr. Richards back.”
In fact, if he had one last thought, he said, it would be this: “I wish I never got off that bus.”