Sarah Lim: 20th century Merced County treasury heists never solved

03/28/2014 4:28 PM

03/28/2014 7:51 PM

When visitors tour the treasurer’s office exhibit at the Merced County Courthouse Museum, they are often interested in the big old safe and the built-in vault with two sets of iron doors. Securing the county treasury was no small feat, as made evident by the two major thefts that occurred in the early part of the 20th century.

On Sept. 25, 1900, County Treasurer D. G. Bambauer was robbed and locked inside the vault for more than eight hours by two masked men. This incident was such a big story that it took up a good portion of the front page of The San Francisco Call two days later, complete with illustrations of the whole robbery.

The robbery took place around 9:30 p.m. On his way home after a military drill meeting, Bambauer was kidnapped by two men and taken to the courthouse. He knew this was a premeditated robbery as soon as he saw that the front door of the building was open.

When they reached the treasurer’s office, the robbers took his keys to unlock the door and asked him to open the vault. When Bambauer refused to cooperate, he was hit on the head with a hard blow.

Unwillingly, Bambauer opened the vault and the robbers took all the money from the tray; however, they were unable to reach the inner vault – which had $80,000 in gold and bank notes – because of the time lock. They left the crime scene after locking Bambauer in the airtight vault.

Bambauer pounded on the door for help, but nobody came to his rescue although there was someone in the jail down below and the jail cook was sleeping in a room above. Bambauer almost suffocated.

Luckily, he was rescued at 7 the next morning by County Auditor W.H. Cook and Dr. A.T. Hyde, who had been looking for him all night after Bambauer’s wife notified the doctor of his absence.

It was unclear who the robbers were since they were wearing masks. Because the front door to the courthouse was unlocked, it was believed to have been an inside job. As a result, the whole town, according to the Sept. 28, 1900, issue of the Merced County Sun, was speculating which county worker was responsible, from janitor R.M. Boney to Cook and District Attorney J. F. McSwain.

Then Boney created a great deal of excitement when he was caught buying a soda water from Dixon’s Drug Store with extra money that it was believed he should not have had.

Cook offered to be searched to prove his innocence. The search yielded nothing but a picture of a good-looking widow in his wallet. McSwain claimed to have an alibi, but never bothered to provide one. The suspicions remained unfounded and the case went unsolved. It was believed that the actual perpetrators had left town on a train hours after the robbery.

As is noted in various records from that time period, the county offered a reward of $500 for the arrest and conviction of the robbers, and installed a new burglar alarm system in the office and another time lock in the vault to beef up security.

In comparison to the $1,639.60 loss in the 1900 robbery, the disappearance of $10,000 in gold in 1912 was even more mysterious, as its absence went unnoticed for a long period of time. It was discovered when County Auditor L. R. Johnson, District Attorney D. A. Shaffe and Board of Supervisors Chairman T. H. Scandrett conducted the monthly count of cash in the county treasury on Sept. 4, 1912.

In the August audit, there were 19 bags of gold in the vault. Then, County Treasurer George W. Kibby removed two bags to pay for county expenses. There should have been 17 bags remaining, but only 16 bags were accounted for in the September audit.

The missing bag of gold had disappeared sometime in the previous 30 days, and nobody had any idea when and how it happened. Kibby was not a suspect, but it was believed that he might have been distracted by someone while another gained access to the vault. The case again was unsolved.

Kibby was an honorable man and took full responsibility for the missing funds. He personally paid back all $10,000 even though it created a hardship for him and his family. However, he was re-elected six more times after that and retired in 1939. The wrought-iron front over the counter in the treasurer’s office was put in after the theft.

Come visit the treasurer’s office exhibit as well as other displays at the Courthouse Museum. Our current exhibit is “A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California.”

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