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Officer Joseph James Romero Jr.
(June 11, 1886 - Sept. 23, 1919)

Many of the Los Angeles Police Department officers in the early decades of the 20th century, including many of those who were killed in the line of duty, were natives of other states who relocated to Southern California.

Officer Joseph James Romero Jr. was the 20th LAPD officer to be killed in the line of duty, but only the second native Californian (after Officer James A. Ellsworth, who died in 1917), and the department’s first Latino officer to be killed in the line of duty.

Romero’s family roots in Southern California were deep, colorful and historic. His father, Jose Angel “Joe” Romero Sr., was born in San Diego in 1852, and moved to Los Angeles with his family when he was about 10 years old. By the mid-1870s, Jose Romero was working as a farm laborer and a ranch hand, breaking and training horses on a ranch near the current location of downtown Los Angeles.

On May 3, 1876, Romero, 24, married Modesta Carrasco, 15, in Los Angeles. Modesta gave birth to 14 children, but only five survived beyond childhood -- Modesta "Maude," born in 1884; Jose "Joe" Jr., born in 1886; Francisco "Frank," born in 1892; Eduardo "Edward," born in 1894; and Rafael "Ralph," born in 1899.

Beginning in about 1890, in addition to his work training horses, Jose Romero became well known for preparing barbecue and serving meals for social gatherings, including neighborhood parties, political assemblies, conventions and subdivision openings. In 1911, he provided food for a celebration of the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which brought much-needed water to Los Angeles from the Owens Valley.

As Joe Romero, he became known as the “Barbecue King of Southern California,” serving barbecued beef, chili and beans to more than 75,000 people each year, for nearly 40 years. In the 1920 census, he was listed, not as a horse trainer or farm laborer, as he had been previously, but as a chef. In Romero Sr.'s obituary, the Los Angeles Times noted, “A picnic was not a picnic in the pueblo days of Los Angeles without Joe’s master hand guiding the barbecue pit and the chili pot.”

On Dec. 28, 1910, while Joe Romero was becoming a legendary barbecue master, his middle child and namesake, 25-year-old Jose “Joe” Romero Jr., joined the Los Angeles Police Department. With the LAPD, Romero worked first as a jailer, then as a member of the quick-response “Flying Squad” unit.

On Sept. 22, 1919, Officer Romero, 34; LAPD Inspector Hubert Milton Kittle, Sr., 26; and George Herbert Woods, 43, the owner of a dry goods business, were driving to the Chinatown police substation to file a report following an investigation of a burglary at Woods’ business on Lamar Street. Kittle was behind the wheel of the 1915 Ford, Romero was in the front passenger seat, and Woods was in the rear seat. The police vehicle was traveling south on North Main Street and turned left onto Marchessault Street, near the current location of the plaza of El Pueblo de Los Angeles. Immediately after making the turn, the Ford was hit by a northbound Pacific Electric streetcar, which crushed the entire passenger side of the vehicle.

Marchessault Street, which no longer exists, crossed the southern end of Olvera Street, just north of the current location of the plaza of El Pueblo de Los Angeles. The area where the street was located is now a pedestrian walkway. The street was named after Damien Marchessault, a native of Quebec, Canada, who served as the seventh mayor of Los Angeles.

Woods died at the scene of a fractured skull and internal injuries. Romero was thrown from the front passenger seat to the rear seat, landing on top of Woods, and also suffered a fractured skull, as well as fractures of both arms and a compound fracture of his left leg. Kittle was pinned under the steering wheel and suffered cuts to his head and face, a concussion, and a dislocated right hip. Romero and Kittle were taken to the Central Receiving Hospital on First Street, where Romero died the next day. (The date on his memorial sign is incorrect.) Kittle recovered from his injuries. No one on the streetcar was injured.

A few weeks after the accident, while Kittle was recovering at home, a group of his fellow officers presented him with a gold LAPD badge, with two diamonds set beneath the city seal.

Officer Romero was buried at Calvary Cemetery in East Los Angeles. His father died in 1932, and his mother in 1936, and they are also buried at Calvary, a section away from their son.

Romero's younger brother, Edward, followed him into service with the LAPD, joining the department on July 1, 1916. Serving for 25 years before his retirement in 1941, Edward finished his career as a lieutenant in the homicide division. Edward Romero died in 1959 at age 64 and is also buried at Calvary Cemetery.

Brother Frank Romero, who inherited his father's crown as "Barbecue King of Southern California," died four months after Edward in 1959, at the age of 67. He's also at Calvary, but his grave is unmarked. The oldest of the Romero siblings, Maude, died in Los Angeles in 1942, at the age of 57. The youngest, Ralph, died in Fontana, Calif., in 1990, at the age of 90. Ralph Romero was a furniture and auto upholsterer, and also worked at Douglas Aircraft Co. during World War II.

And what happened to LAPD Inspector Hubert Kittle, Sr., who was driving the police vehice at the time of the fatal crash?

This is where the story really gets bizarre.

During the initial investigation of the crash, the streetcar motorman, James E. Spencer, told investigators that he did not see the police vehicle until it was too late to avoid the collision. Despite that, Spencer was arrested, jailed, and charged with suspicion of manslaughter. The next day, however, the District Attorney’s office decided that no charges would be filed against Spencer, and he was released.

The jury at the coroner’s inquest reached an unusual verdict, “in which the motorman was in no wise to blame, and in which the driver of a Ford car appeared to be probably the cause, but was not to blame, and in which the police machine appeared to be out of control.” Witnesses said the Ford was traveling at about 15 m.p.h. at the time of the collision.

How could the coroner’s jury conclude that Kittle was “probably the cause, but was not to blame”? Kittle was driving south on Main and the streetcar was directly in front of him, heading north toward him, when he turned in front of it. Perhaps the jury didn’t want to blame a high-ranking police inspector who was working directly for LAPD Chief George Home for a collision that killed a fellow officer and a civilian.

In addition to his police career, Kittle was also an aviator, often flying and doing stunts at air shows throughout Southern California, and escaped serious injuries in several plane crashes. According to the L.A. Times, Kittle, who was born in McKinney, Texas, in 1890, ran away from home at the age of 14 and joined a crew of railroad bandits. He was also a deep-sea diver, motorcycle racer, railroad fireman, toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show as the champion junior rifle shot of the world, and he reportedly jumped from a hot-air balloon nearly two miles over Fresno, handcuffed and shackled, and holding onto his parachute with his teeth.

Nearly every time Kittle’s name was mentioned in the newspapers, the adjective used to describe him was “daredevil,” far more often than police officer or aviator. And Kittle's name was mentioned in the newpapers quite often.

As a police officer, Kittle was shot four times and stabbed three times in separate incidents, according to the Times. After one of his plane crashes, the L.A. Times reported that he was taken to the hospital, “where for the past few years he has been taken on a stretcher more times than can be enumerated.” Kittle was also involved in several lawsuits charging him with false arrest and, on at least one occasion, he beat up and arrested one of his fellow LAPD officers.

There’s no question that Kittle was a daredevil who regularly risked his life on aerial stunts. But was he enough of a daredevil to think he could beat an oncoming streetcar at a crossing, while driving a Ford police car at 15 m.p.h.?

On Jan. 31, 1920, four months after the fatal collision, Kittle submitted his resignation to Chief Home. In his resignation letter, Kittle said, “I desire to return to the Southern Pacific Company in the capacity of locomotive fireman.” Kittle described being a police officer as a "thankless job," and one which kept him away from his responsibilities as a husband and a father.

Kittle also cited the low number of police officers. "To properly police Los Angeles as it is today," he said, "the department should be doubled and better equipment furnished. ... I tendered my resignation because I do not wish to stand in a position where I am subject to further publicity and criticism and not through any fear of exposure," he said. While acknowledging his nickname of "Brute Kittle," he said, "My activity as a police officer is an open book and I am ready for any kind of an investigation of my work."

Almost immediately after leaving the LAPD, Kittle repeatedly found himself on the other side of the law. In April 1920, he was arrested along with 27 other members of the Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen for conducting an illegal strike. Later than a month later and a few months after the beginning of Prohibition in the United States, Kittle was arrested again and charged with stealing $2,000 worth of whiskey – nearly 400 half-pints and a dozen quart bottles – from a saloon in Vernon. At trial, Kittle was found not guilty because the man he allegedly stole the whiskey from was his business partner, and so he was legally entitled to take it.

In January 1921, Kittle was arrested and charged with flying too low over the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena on New Year's Day. He was found not guilty at trial after questioning how the arresting police officers determined whether he was flying below the 1,000-foot limit.

Throughout his legal troubles, Kittle continued to make personal appearances at local events as the "Daredevil of the Skies." He also occassionally crashed, including once when putting on a private air show over his own home to entertain his wife, two young children, and their neighbors.

In March 1924, Kittle was arrested on charges that he was involved in a robbery at the First National Bank of Arcadia two years earlier, for which three innocent men were convicted and were serving life sentences at San Quentin State Prison. An estimated $4,000 in cash and $6,000 in negotiable bonds and money orders were stolen in the robbery. (Four men were arrested and charged with the bank robbery, but one of them died before the trial.) After the bank robbery, Kittle reportedly cashed more than $1,000 in travelers’ checks and money orders stolen from the Arcadia bank, in Los Angeles and San Diego, Calif., and Tijuana, Mexico.

According to newspaper reports, the Arcadia bank robbery was planned by a large criminal operation, “directed by present and former police officers, deputy sheriffs and underworld characters … operating in Los Angeles.”

Following a grand jury investigation, Kittle was arrested on March 6, 1924, on charges of receiving stolen property, but was released after posting $7,500 bond. He was re-arrested on March 26, 1924, on the same charges, and bail was set at $25,000.

“If they let me out of jail on a more reasonable bond,” Kittle said, “I can help Sheriff (William) Traeger materially in solving this case more so than I can from behind these bars.” Kittle’s bail was eventually reduced to $7,500, and he was released again.

By mid-April 1924, Kittle expected to be arrested again. This time, he planned to fight back, and he wanted to take as many of Sheriff Traeger’s deputies with him as he could. Despite his lengthy flirtations with death, on land and in the air, the "Daredevil of the Skies" who had so often cheated death had one overpowering fear – jail.

“All night long, he lay on the floor of the den,” Kittle’s wife, Minnie Dorothy “Dot” Kittle, a former vaudeville singer, told the L.A. Times. “He was sore at the deputy sheriffs. And he planned to kill those who should plan to come and arrest him. He had bought 300 rounds of rifle ammunition yesterday. And he lay on the floor – on a blanket, for he told me that he didn’t wish to have the blood flow on the floor – he was surrounded by guns, three rifles and four pistols.”

But deputies didn’t come to arrest Kittle again. “I watched him as he lay there,” said his widow. “Frequently he would raise a pistol to his head, and I would close my eyes – too frightened to scream and too frightened to call for help – but he wouldn’t do it.”

If the shoot-out with the deputy sheriffs didn’t happen, Kittle had two back-up plans, Dot Kittle said. He would invite the deputies into his home, and offer them whiskey laced with cyanide. His other option involved nitroglycerine. Kittle had collected enough of it to destroy a city block. “Hubert told me he was going to blow his enemies to atoms with it,” his wife said.

If Kittle was intent on dying, his wife begged him not to harm anyone else. Eventually, he listened to her pleas. On April 18, 1924, wearing his pajamas and bathrobe, Kittle went into the bathroom of his home at 618 South Milton Place. Through the partially opened door, the family maid saw him raise something to his lips and swallow it. As Kittle staggered out of the bathroom, his wife asked, “Did you do it?” Kittle nodded, returned to the bathroom, and fell to the floor. He was taken to the Central Receiving Hospital, the same hospital where he was taken after the fatal crash in 1919, where he died about an hour later. Kittle was 34, and was buried in an unmarked grave at Inglewood Park Cemetery.

It was later revealed that, beginning with the start of his legal troubles, Kittle had been planning suicide, and carried a cyanide capsule with him, hidden in his black bow tie, which he wore during his arrests, his questioning by police, and his court arraignments and hearings. “It had to happen,” his widow said. “I have known and expected it so long that it was no tremendous shock to me when he killed himself. I thank God that he went alone.”

The three men who were convicted of the Arcadia bank robbery and were serving life sentences at San Quentin State Prison were pardoned by California Gov. Friend Richardson.

“He was a man with nine lives, according to his friends,” the L.A. Times reported after Kittle’s death. “Eight were lost in his various accidents caused by his reckless escapades. The ninth – he took himself.”

The families of LAPD Officer Joe Romero Jr. and George H. Woods might question the number of victims of Kittle’s “reckless escapades.”

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