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Sixty years later, remembering San Diego’s shoe bandit

Were they ever going to catch this guy?

Sixty years ago this month, a shoe bandit had San Diego and Coronado on edge. He accosted women as they walked home at night from the bus or the ferry, knocking them to the ground and stealing just one shoe, usually the left. He sneaked into homes and took leather pumps, stilettos, sandals — hundreds of shoes, discarding many of them later in the crawl spaces below other houses.

It was creepy. All the women were scared.

— Helen Battleson, who was a teen in Coronado at the time of the crimes

Most of the victims were not seriously injured, but several were hospitalized with fractured skulls or broken bones. One was hit with a bowling pin, another with the butt of a screwdriver.

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“It was creepy,” said Helen Battleson, who was a teen in Coronado at the time. “All the women were scared.”

The men too.

Bill Gise was a teen in Coronado when the shoe bandit came into his house about 1 a.m. His mother woke up and screamed, startling the intruder, who dropped the shoes he was holding and fled. “This was a place where there was hardly ever any crime,” Gise said. “Nobody locked their doors. That’s how he was able to get into so many places.”

Stories about him ran in the local newspapers, tucked on inside pages at first and then on the front page as the number of incidents and the community’s alarm increased. Teasers to evening TV broadcasts asked, “What makes the shoe bandit tick?”

Criticized in some quarters for their inability to catch the thief, police sent undercover officers onto buses and the Coronado ferry (the bridge was not yet built). On at least two occasions, vigilantes beat up an officer they mistook for the bandit.

The series of crimes started in September 1956 in Coronado; the thief struck in San Diego two months later. The first story in the San Diego Union to identify it as a series by a “shoe bandit,” published in February 1957, began this way:

“An eccentric young thug who attacks women to steal their shoes found a fifth victim when a 24-year-old aircraft clerk typist was slugged in Clairemont.” She was walking home after getting off the bus. A man knocked her down from behind and took one of her shoes, but not her purse.

By September 1957, more than a dozen similar incidents had been reported. Twice he attacked more than one woman on the same night. Newspaper columnists began working in items about the bandit. One, under the heading “Shoe Bandit Talk,” related the story of a man who chided his wife — maybe in jest, maybe not — for “living recklessly” by wearing a new pair of shoes after dark for their 10th wedding anniversary dinner.

Even Jack Murphy, the popular and influential sports columnist, got into the act. In a September 1957 column, he wrote, “Life is very perplexing. Gals in San Diego wonder if they should go barefooted until the shoe bandit is caught.”

On at least two occasions, police announced they had brought in for questioning someone they thought was the bandit. Both times, the men were cleared after being viewed in lineups by some of the victims.

Law enforcement also was flummoxed in its use of undercover officers. Every time police followed a woman off a bus or ferry, she made it home safely. One time, an officer had to choose between following two women getting off a bus at the same time. The one he followed arrived without incident. The other one was attacked.

On May 8, 1958, a woman in Coronado was watching TV with a boyfriend, a Navy officer, when they noticed a slightly open door open wider. They looked over the back of the couch and saw a man crawling along the floor.

The man fled and the Navy officer chased him. They got into a fight in the street. Neighbors overheard it and called police. Officers found a man hiding behind a lawn chair in a backyard and arrested him.

His name was Wayne Snow McFarland.

He was 23, a Navy pilot stationed at North Island. Police asked him if he was the shoe bandit. He said no. They got a warrant to search his Coronado apartment and found several women’s shoes in a trunk. Confronted with the shoes, McFarland confessed and led officers to several nearby caches of female footwear.

The series of crimes had lasted 20 months. McFarland admitted to 22 assaults and 15 burglaries, although police believed there probably were more victims.

“All I know is I had to get those shoes,” McFarland told one reporter.

Defense lawyer Percy Foreman, a former Texas prosecutor, said right away that the legal issue wasn’t McFarland’s guilt but his mental state. “The human mind is a wonderful mechanism,” the attorney said, “but it takes only a little thing to set it off balance.”

He had his client plead not guilty by reason of insanity.

At McFarland’s preliminary hearing, eight women identified him as the bandit. Several talked about his eyes, “staring and full of violence,” in the words of one. He was bound over for trial, then sent to Patton State Hospital near San Bernardino for a mental evaluation. A doctor there diagnosed McFarland as a sexual psychopath with a shoe fetish, possibly dating back as far as elementary school, when he stole a pair of shoes from a teacher.

The doctor said McFarland was sane during his crimes — that he knew the difference between right and wrong.

Returned to San Diego, McFarland pleaded guilty to one count of robbery and one count of burglary. Each count carried a sentence of five years to life. Instead of prison, though, he was sent to Atascadero State Hospital for treatment.

In January 1959, a plumber making repairs beneath the floor of officers’ quarters at North Island found two bags containing 133 women’s shoes. Police said McFarland had lived there. Also inside the bags were women’s undergarments, clothing and a 1955 novel called “Beyond Desire” by Pierre La Mure.

A year later, the doctors at Atascadero said they had successfully treated McFarland and he was no longer a threat to the public. Foreman asked that McFarland be put on probation so he could find a job and make restitution to his victims.

But Dist. Atty. Don Keller objected. “This man came to San Diego and gave unrestrained vent to violence and terror for which I would challenge anyone to find a parallel in San Diego or California,” he said. “The only parallel I can think of is Jack the Ripper.”

Judge Clarence Harden sided with the prosecutor. “Probation,” he said, “would be shocking to the community.” He sent McFarland to prison: 10 years to life. After his eventual release, McFarland moved back to Texas. He died in 1999.

Memories of his crimes linger. “He really did send a shock wave of fear through the community,” said Joe Ditler, a Coronado historian.

Gise still lives in the Coronado home where he was sleeping that night when his mom interrupted the shoe bandit with a scream. “I’ll tell you this,” he said. “We lock all the doors now.”

john.wilkens@sduniontribune.com

Wilkens writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

To read the article in Spanish, click here

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