Crime vacations on Balboa Island

I have often accused early Balboa Island of being a stodgy place in comparison to old Balboa. Balboa had bootleggers, gamblers, rum runners and their ilk. Balboa Island had ... residents.

However, in fairness, I must point out that Balboa Island was at one time the scene of a criminal case that made national and maybe even international headlines. The case was People vs. Spreckels, and it occurred about 50 years ago in quiet, peaceful, boring Balboa Island.

I suppose that today, the name Spreckels doesn't mean too much, but in its day, the name ranked right up there in newsworthiness with Rockefeller, Ford or Carnegie. The Spreckels family was incredibly wealthy, with holdings in sugar, railroads, hotels and real estate. Everything a Spreckels did was news.

Thus, whatever Adolph Spreckels Jr., son of the head of the family, did was news. Unfortunately for the family name, Adolph Junior was something of a problem. "Little Adolph," as he was called by his family, had a mean streak that kept erupting in unpleasant but newsworthy ways.

However, everyone's good at something, and what Little Adolph was good at was getting married. Staying married -- that he wasn't so good at -- but when it came to tying the knot, he was up there with people such as Elizabeth Taylor and Aly Khan. And so it was that some 50 years ago, Adolph Spreckels Jr. arrived on Balboa Island for a summer vacation with his sixth wife, an actress of no particular note named Kay Williams.

They hadn't been in their rented house long when the police were called one night. At their arrival, the sixth Mrs. Spreckels reported that Little Adolph had beaten her. Because it was a Spreckels, it was news, and in a flash, Balboa Island was famous, the dateline "Balboa Island" appearing in the national press. Of course, when the case was actually tried, it was tried in the old red sandstone courthouse in Santa Ana, and that city became the dateline. Nevertheless, brief though it was, Balboa Island had its moment in the sun.

The case itself didn't live up to the headlines. In those days, wife beating was handled as a misdemeanor, simple assault. In this case, however, the police got a little excited over the notoriety of the assailant, and they responded by charging Little Adolph with a felony, specifically assault with a deadly weapon.

Unfortunately, the so-called deadly weapon was a soft bedroom slipper. A high point in the trial occurred when one of Mr. Spreckels' attorneys addressed the jury.

Holding up the slipper, he said, "Ladies and gentlemen, this is the alleged deadly weapon. The only way this would become deadly would be if I tried to eat it and strangled in so doing."

The jury quite properly found Mr. Spreckels guilty of simple assault, and I couldn't send him to prison, so I sent him to jail. Jim Musick, the sheriff, was at first worried about sending such a rich and famous man to jail. It wasn't that Jim had any sympathy for Little Adolph, but he worried about how the other prisoners might treat him.

Not to worry. Adolph Spreckels had found his niche in life. He took to incarceration like a Labrador retriever takes to water. He liked the prisoners, and they liked him. I think that the time he spent in the Orange County jail may have been one of the more pleasant episodes in Adolph Spreckels' life.

When he left the jail, he proudly wore a T-shirt on which was printed "Orange County Jail." He was released shortly before Christmas, but he didn't forget his ex-inmates, sending all his fellow prisoners Christmas presents.

As for Mrs. Spreckels, she divorced Little Adolph shortly after the beating and wed Clark Gable. She may not have been much of an actress, but like Little Adolph, she had a certain skill in getting married.

* ROBERT GARDNER was a Corona del Mar resident and a former judge who died earlier this year. This column originally ran in March 2003.

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