Today marks the 101th anniversary of the biggest crime in Keyes history – a bank robbery in which a bank manager was slain and a trial riddled with sketchy evidence.
Nobody alive today remembers how 28-year-old branch manager Earl J. Polley was brutally shot to death during the robbery. But the crime – in which the deadly bank robber made off with $800 in gold coins as he fled the Keyes branch of the Commercial Bank of Turlock – and the subsequent trial end convicted suspect escaping jail, stole headlines for months.
Polley was alone inside the Keyes bank at the noon hour on Wednesday, June 20, 1917 when the robber – probably masked – entered through the back door. Witnesses said that just before noon they saw the back door of the bank open, probably by Polley so he could enjoy a breeze. At approximately 12:15 p.m. the robber slipped through the back door to rob the bank. The prevailing theory is that Polley heard a sound behind him and turned to look – possibly while rising to his feet – when a deadly single shot hit him. The .38-caliber bullet entered between Polley’s lip and nose and drove upward into his brain where it was lodge. The injury was not immediately fatal. Polley was transported to the Cottage hospital in Turlock where he died two hours later, leaving a grieving widow.
Polley had been employed with the bank for five years and was well-known in Turlock as a church worker. The news of the tragic killing reached Polley’s wife of two years, Pearl, who had just left to go to Porterville. Mourning with her was his parents, his brother, J.H. Polley of Medford, Ore., and his sister, Mrs. J.J. Doland of Weed. His siblings attended their brother’s funeral and burial at the Turlock Memorial Park.
Sheriff George T. Davis had a huge case to crack and rolled to the scene immediately after the phone rang in Modesto.
Investigators first believed that the shot was fired through a hole cut in the back door. Authorities believe the hole was carved in the door by a knife, likely during the prior evening, and covered by a flap of material.
The single gunshot was heard by itinerant worker Philip Sylvern who called out to Keyes Creamery employee Eugene McGeleget. Braver together, they entered the bank in time to see the robber fleeing out the back and Polley lying mortally wounded. The Modesto Herald stated that the men believed Polley cried out, “Please come and help me.” They turned their attention to the dying man rather than the fleeing robber but said the suspect made his way to a warehouse to hide.
Sylvern summoned a car coming up the highway from the south and Turlock driver D.M. Arakelian stopped. The three men loaded up the dying Polley and Arakelian drove him to Turlock.
Before he was stopped, Arkelian said he remembered seeing a suspicious car parked by the side of the highway around some tall weeds and sunflowers. On the way to the hospital, Arakelian noticed that the car was now gone.
The same car, a Chevy, was spotted at 6:45 a.m. by auto stage driver Henry Horn who also remembered seeing the initials MG on the door. W.D. Kerr, a Keyes rancher who was cutting alfalfa nearby, said he saw the car at 5 a.m. and that it was gone about 12:20 p.m.
Doing business at the La Grange company scales in Keyes, County Sealer Clarence Tucker saw the car parked on what was known as the “S curve” on the highway north of Keyes at about 7:15 a.m. It was still there when he came along at 12:06 p.m. and became suspicious of the car as well. Parked several hundred yards from the bank, Tucker wrote down its license plate number – 64068 – and reported it to law enforcement.
The license traced back to Maurice Goff, a Turlock resident and butcher employed at Kincaid’s Meat Market in Ripon. Goff had been a butcher in Oroville before moving to Stanislaus County in 1914. According to the 1915 Polk-Husted Directory of businesses, Goff was a partner with R.A. Bell in the Goff & Bell butcher shop located at 219 W. Main Street in Turlock. Goff’s home, according to the directory, was at 1000 West Main in Turlock. Goff routinely spent the night at a rented hotel room in Ripon rather than make the daily trip.
Authorities found Goff in Ripon at 6:30 p.m. and brought him in for questioning by Sheriff George T. Davis. For days Goff was interrogated by Sheriff Davis, District Attorney J.M. Cross and Detective Harry Lubbock of the Burns Agency, representing the State Bankers’ Association.
The Modesto newspaper reported that Goff asked if the fellow who was shot died when being booked. When told he was dead, Goff cried, “Oh my God!” and according to the paper “showed signs of deep emotion. After being locked in his cell he dropped to his knees in hysterical prayer.”
Goff had a cover story. He explained that he didn’t arrive at the Ripon butcher shop that Wednesday morning because his car had been stolen the previous night while he was out drinking at downtown Modesto saloons and attending a Modesto theater. He didn’t report his car being stolen, he said, and assumed that he could find it on its own, theorizing that joyriders would abandon it somewhere along the way. The car could be anywhere, but Goff claims he started walking south and made it to the area of the Ceres Cemetery by nightfall. He said he slept alongside the cemetery by the 99 highway. At dawn Goff said he woke and continued his walk south to Keyes.
Originally Goff claimed that he walked straight to Keyes looking for his car until prosecutors wondered why it took him from sunrise to 11 a.m. to walk only three miles. That’s when he added that he explored byways and layed down to nap to regain his strength. After the hot sun woke him up, Goff said he moved on and just happened to find his car “in the weeds” north of Keyes not far from the bank in a time he estimated to be 11 a.m. to 11:10 a.m.
The hood of the car was up, Goff claimed. Witnesses who saw the car that morning assert that the hood was down. It was just part of the conflicts of the alibi.
Goff said after minutes of tinkering with the car to get it started. He added details like how he had to dip into a roadside slough to add water to the radiator by hand. Then, he said he was off to Ripon at about 11:30 a.m. after stopping for a lemon soda at a refreshment stand operated by A.T. Liston at Seventh and I streets in Modesto.
Authorities rejected his claims to say Goff had indeed robbed the bank.
The trip should have taken Goff 40 minutes, not an hour and 45 minutes. Besides, Arkelian said he saw the Chevy near the bank at around 12:15 p.m., long after Goff said he left.
Horn, the cab driver, reported seeing Goff’s car headed toward Modesto three miles north of Keyes at 12:35 p.m. He could only make out that the driver had gray hair.
H.A. de Wolf, Goff’s employer in Ripon had asked Goff to open the store Wednesday morning. When de Wolf arrived at 10 a.m. the store was closed and Goff was nowhere to be found. That afternoon Goff walked in the door with a flushed face and remarked, “I had a hell of a time last night.” He said his car had caused him a lot of trouble and “ought to have been in the junk pile long ago.”
While at the butcher shop, Goff tossed a hat he had been wearing into the stove. Investigators were curious about that. He said he destroyed it because his wife told him he “should be ashamed of it.” Goff said he bought a replacement in Ripon. The sheriff’s theory about the hat was that Goff wore it during the robbery, that it fell into a pool of Polley’s blood, and therefore he had to burn the evidence.
Authorities thought it odd that Goff didn’t report his car stolen if it really had been. He gave two reasons: That he didn’t want the theft appearing in print for fear that his wife would learn that he was in Modesto on Tuesday evening; and out of fear that police would charge him money for finding the car.
Casts were made of the footprints at the roadside spot where the car had been parked and they matched the shoes Goff was wearing at the time of his arrest. That alone didn’t disprove Goff’s claim about finding his “stolen” car there. But investigators claimed the tracks of the car showed it heading off to east of the freeway. They theorized that Goff went to hide the stolen money somewhere.
A blue bandana – with eye holes cut out to be used as a mask– was apparently dropped by the robber on the floor of the bank. It was sewn with white cords, similar to twine used in the Ripon butcher shop.
Twenty-six strands of hair found in it were also clues. The Modesto paper reported that: “Science has reached a point in analyzing the hair and comparing its cellular construction that accurately identifies the head from which it sprung.” The hairs did not match Goff, it later was determined by San Francisco investigator Theodore Kytka. He believed the mystery hairs were from a man “suffering some skin disease while Goff had a healthy scalp.” Later the “expert” changed his tune, saying the hairs came from his Goff’s chest.
A second similar blue bandana was found along the railroad. Investigators took the items to stores in Ceres, Salida, Keyes and Ripon before finding that Ben’s on H Street in Modesto (between Ninth and Tenth streets) sold the items and a clerk remembered Goff buying them.
Early in the investigation, when evidence was sketchy and contradictory, Sheriff Davis was sure Goff was their man. There were plenty of inconsistencies.
The robber ran off in a brown jacket, witnesses said. Goff was arrested wearing a blue serge coat which had a tear on the sleeve. Sheriff Davis said Goff tore it while crawling under a barbed wire fence to access his car. Goff’s daughter claims she was with him when the sleeve was torn at a picnic.
The sheriff was suspicious about Goff saying he was called by the Sheriff’s patrolman Jackson who asked him if his car had been stolen and where he found it. Goff claims Jackson told him: “Don’t you know the bank was robbed and a man killed there?” Jackson said he never mentioned the killing. Goff then suggested that he likely mixed up conversations he had with Jackson and that it was his wife told him about the shooting.
Goff claimed that he was not in Turlock on the day of the robbery. That was disputed by James Radford, an attendant at a service station north of Turlock, who recalled seeing Goff’s car moving past him after 9 a.m.
The day after the robbery, a .38-caliber gun and four loose bullets were found in a cluster of sunflowers near the spot where the mysterious car was parked. The gun contained one spent cartridge and four non-fired rounds in chambers. The bullets were the same type as the one that killed Polley. The gun appeared to be the one stolen from Nourse Hardware Company in Ripon. In court, testimony was given that the serial number of the suspected murder weapon matched a gun box that bore the same number, #80353, and that the gun had been on display at the store. Clerk Casey Thompson testified that Goff had been in his store three times prior to the Keyes robbery, each time coming in close proximity to the gun on display. The gun was discovered missing on June 29.
Prosecutors theorized the robber cut the hole in the back door to enter at night but likely could not access the money. Since the key to the restroom in the rear of the bank was missing, the theory is that the robber hid himself in the toilet that morning.
At his October 1917 trial, the Modesto Herald noted Goff denied stealing the gun and murdering Polley, saying he knew Polley and thought too much of him. The Modesto Morning Herald wrote that while on the stand, “Goff had an explanation for everything. Some were reasonable, some absurd, but he told them all with equally smooth plausibility.”
The Modesto paper suggested that if Goff was innocent “then he is the victim of as damning a chain of circumstantial evidence as ever found a man to the gallows.”
The sheriff found in Goff’s Ripon room “lurid” fiction that depicted “criminals in action.”
Stanislaus County sheriff’s officials released Goff on June 26 for a lack of evidence. However, Goff was picked up two days later at his Turlock home by Deputies Orschler and McAllister and booked into the San Joaquin County Jail in Stockton on charges of burglarizing the McKee & Reynolds mercantile store in Ripon. The Sacramento Union reported that the Goff household in Turlock was “thrown into a great commotion” when he was arrested. The accused man’s wife and teenage daughter “burst into tears.” The detectives searched of Goff’s room looking for clues linking him to the Keyes crime when they located some of the money taken from the Ripon store.
Additional evidence surfaced to connect Goff to the Keyes robbery and on July 12 Stanislaus County Sheriff George T. Davis went to Stockton to take Goff back to Modesto to stand trial.
Goff was eventually convicted of first-degree murder in the Superior courtroom of Judge L.W. Fulkerth on Oct. 24, 1917. The convicted murderer was to be sentenced to a life term on Nov. 1, 1917 but on Halloween day, Goff and cellmate John Henion, 20 – held for motorcycle theft – escaped from the downtown Modesto jail. The two had sawed two bars of their cell and lowered themselves to the ground by a makeshift rope made of blankets. A trail showed the escapees made it to 11th Street by passing through a fence at the rear of the Prentiss Hotel at H and 11th streets. The disappearance was an embarrassment to the Stanislaus County Sheriff Grat M. Hogin who periodically issued wanted posters.
The saw used to cut the bars may have been passed by Mrs. Goff, who had visited him. She was interviewed by Deputy J.T. Townson and told him she hoped he would be caught and punished and declared she was “through with him.” The statement seems to be at odds with her sobs at his declaration of guilt in court.
Goff remained on the loose until March 1928. Going by the alias of Charles Laton, Goff committed a bank robbery in Ione, Washington, a small city in the northeast corner of the state, on Dec. 24, 1927. After being positively identified by bank employees, Goff was convicted and sentenced to serve five to 10 years in the Washington State Prison in Walla Walla. He never admitted being Goff, but fingerprints don’t lie and it was agreed that when his Washington sentence was up, he would return to Stanislaus County. He died in prison on May 20, 1930.
The heart-broken widow of Pearl Polley – who was dressed in black during the trial – spent the remainder of her working life as a bank teller in Turlock. When she died on July 6, 1984 at the age of 93, her body was buried next to where her dead husband had been laid 67 years earlier. Their side-by-side graves bear testimony to true love and devotion.