Ambush on Mangrove
Tenacious researcher’s dig into Depression-era killings uncovers an unsung local hero
Minutes after midnight on Oct. 6, 1934, garage mechanic Kenneth Ray Davis pulled to the side of Mangrove Avenue and positioned his tow truck to haul away a vehicle that had crashed into a fence surrounding an almond orchard across the road from the Chico Cemetery. He’d been summoned by California Highway Patrolman William R. McDaniel to clear the wreck left by Nick Turchinetz—a local jeweler and ex-convict known to authorities for his predilection for hard drink and penchant for violence.
As Davis set about hooking the vehicle to his truck, his work illuminated by a hand-held flashlight and the emergency beacon mounted on Officer McDaniel’s patrol motorcycle, the sound of gunfire erupted from within the dark orchard. The first bullet—fired by Turchinetz, who’d left the accident scene to fetch a rifle from his nearby home and returned to ambush the pair—struck Davis, with a subsequent shot hitting McDaniel.
The officer returned fire with his service revolver, but within seconds both he and the mechanic lay dead on the side of the road. Turchinetz, also wounded in the exchange, would be dead shortly after sunrise, gunned down by a sheriff’s posse.
Memorials to McDaniel are scattered across the internet on websites dedicated to law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty, but other details of the tragedy seem to have been largely forgotten. They likely would have remained so if not for the diligent research of former police officer and towing industry veteran Randall Resch, who stumbled upon the story back in March and, troubled by the lack of recognition for Davis, set out to make sure the man’s sacrifice is remembered.
Along the way, he discovered Davis is in fact the first-recorded tow truck driver killed in the line of duty. He also found the mechanic’s granddaughter, a Chico State professor who described the lasting effects of a long-forgotten tragedy. Both she and Resch will be present at the International Towing & Recovery Hall of Fame & Museum in Chattanooga, Tenn., on Sept. 15, when Davis’ name will be added to a memorial honoring lost tow operators called the Wall of the Fallen.
Resch’s quest to ensure Davis is honored for his service—84 years after the mechanic’s death—represents the crux of the white-haired and magnificently mustachioed man’s unique passion. A one-time police officer with more than 50 years of experience in the towing industry, Resch is intimately aware of the dangers towing professionals face on the highways. He said he’s been affected personally, having lost friends to towing-related accidents, including Fred Griffith, who was killed by a drunken driver last year in San Diego.
“It’s a big deal to me [when tow truck drivers are killed],” Resch said via phone from his home outside of San Diego. “As a former police officer, I appreciate the boys in blue and what they do out there, but these tow truck drivers that go out in all hours of the night, in all weather conditions, and risk their lives to help complete strangers or law enforcement … they deserve to be recognized, too.”
Resch has put considerable work into finding tow truck drivers who were killed on the job, and said he’s compiled a list of nearly 900 names he’s working through to get proper documentation to have them placed on the towing museum’s Wall of the Fallen. The wall currently has more than 400 names, several of which were added due to Resch’s research. Before finding Davis, he’d found the previous earliest honoree, Aubrey Bryan Collier, who died in Nashville in 1946.
His fascination with the industry began early. When Resch was a child, his father started a tow company, capitalizing on a knowledge of rigging, chains and pulley systems gained during his tenure in the Navy, where he specialized in rescuing and recovering submarines. Resch started working in the family garage as a youngster, and began driving a tow truck when he got his driver’s license at age 16. He then joined the San Diego Police Department at age 21, and was a policeman for 12 years before an on-duty motorcycle accident ended his law enforcement career.
“People tell you, ‘Go where you know.’ I know towing, so I went back to the towing industry,” Resch said.
He owned and operated a tow company in Auburn for several years, went on to manage several large San Diego-based towing businesses, and still teaches towing safety classes for the CHP.
In addition, he’s developed a voice as a writer, editor and researcher. His first such gig was as editor of Police Magazine for three years, beginning shortly after he left the police department, during which time he also oversaw publication of three volumes of a book series called Death Row. Over the past 22 years, he’s contributed more than 550 articles to American Towman magazine.
“I’m always doing research looking for new topic ideas everywhere and anywhere,” he said. “And you know how the internet goes; you go in one side and it takes you somewhere else entirely.”
In the case of this story, Resch saw an online tribute to McDaniel, the CHP officer, and an accompanying historical article that referred to Davis as a “garage mechanic.” Most folks wouldn’t think twice about that description, but Resch remembered from his childhood that the term was used synonymously with “tow truck driver” in the industry’s early days. He noted such utility vehicles were invented in 1916 in Chattanooga, and remained relatively rare until the middle of the last century: “They were mostly owned by gas stations or body shops, and tow truck work came secondary,” he said.
To have Davis added to the wall, Resch dug deep to discover details of the tragedy and wrote to the CHP state headquarters in Sacramento for official verification. He received a letter back from Scott Silsbee—the agency’s deputy commissioner—that confirmed the incident and expressed regret and appreciation for Davis’ sacrifice.
In his research, Resch found dozens of newspaper articles about the 1934 incident. It was covered extensively by the Chico Record and even became national news, with accounts appearing in dozens of other papers including The New York Times. The collected narrative found in those reports reads something like a hard-boiled, true-to-life pulp novel.
The gunman, Turchinetz, is sometimes referred to as “Big Nick.” The accounts paint a portrait of a desperate man in his early- to mid-40s who’d had two drunken-driving run-ins with local law enforcement earlier that year. One of those encounters had turned violent, and the Austrian-born jeweler and watchmaker had served time in federal prison for forgery in the 1920s.
The downtown Chico jewelry shop where he’d worked for several years had gone bankrupt weeks before the fateful incident, and Turchinetz had just returned to Chico from taking part-time work in Eureka. He was married (the Chico Record refers to his 28-year-old wife, Jane, as “a small dark-haired woman with pleasant features”) and the couple had a young daughter, Olga.
After the wreck, which happened a few hours before the shooting, Turchinetz—bleeding from his head and body—walked to his home at the corner of Palm and Seventh avenues and told his wife to go to the crash site and tell the authorities she was responsible for the accident. She did as he asked, but after police on the scene realized she didn’t have a driver’s license, she confessed that her husband had been driving. He was gone when she returned home.
Turchinetz allegedly had a beef with several local police officers, and when McDaniel was dispatched to the crash scene, he was reportedly warned to not try to take the man into custody single-handedly. McDaniel, a 36-year-old World War I veteran and rookie patrolman of six months, confidently responded, “I’ll get him.”
McDaniel contacted the 29-year-old Davis at his place of work, the Oaks Garage, a shop then located on Second Street, and agreed to meet the tow truck driver at the scene of the accident.
Spurred by gunshots coming from the crash scene, Turchinetz’s wife started hurrying back toward the site, and was reportedly shot at six times by her husband as she approached Mangrove from First Avenue; he allegedly thought she was another policeman coming for him, and lamented after firing at her, “My God, Jane, did I get you, too?”
Luckily unscathed, she helped her fugitive husband back to their home, where she bandaged some of his wounds as he attempted to dig McDaniel’s slug out of his hip with a pocketknife. He scribbled out a makeshift will leaving his life insurance policy and belongings to Jane and Olga, kissed them goodbye and grabbed his Remington .30-30 rifle. Jane later told investigators she knew she’d never see him again as she watched him disappear into an orchard.
Later that morning, residents of Chico’s Pleasant Valley neighborhood (the area around modern-day Pleasant Valley High School) reported seeing an apparently drunken, bloodied man carrying a rifle and stumbling toward the foothills. The posse, armed with tear gas bombs and guns, cornered Turchinetz on a ranch about 3 miles east of the accident scene. A gunfight ensued, with the jeweler reportedly discharging his last round just before being taken down by a bullet fired by a Gridley police officer named A.D. Miner.
As Resch uncovered this historical saga, he also enlisted the help of his sister-in-law, a genealogy buff who used online resources like Ancestry.com and Findagrave.com to help identify several of Davis’ potential descendants, to whom he sent letters in hopes of making contact. He eagerly awaited a response for several months, and had all but given up when he received a call from Cindy Wolff, a Chico State professor and executive director of the school’s Center for Healthy Communities. Davis was her maternal grandfather.
Wolff said she was shocked upon receiving Resch’s message, and that she and her relatives were “dumbfounded” by the information he provided about their long-forgotten family history. She also was able to shed light on the lasting ripples of the tragic incident, which she said affected her family for decades afterward.
“It was really weird,” Wolff said of receiving Resch’s snail-mail letter. “First off, it was a hand-addressed envelope, which isn’t all that common anymore, and it starts out by introducing Randy and his role with the towing association, and that he’d been working to track down a relative of Kenneth Ray Davis. I looked at that and said, ‘That’s my grandfather, I know that name.’ The letter said he was not a stalker and gave a URL to an article he’d written [about Davis] in American Towman magazine.
“I was very skeptical,” Wolff said with a laugh, noting she’d never heard of the Wall of the Fallen or dreamed that a tow truck museum even existed. “I thought it was wise of Randy to put in the letter that he’s not a stalker, because I was going, ‘You have to be kidding, this does not sound believable.”
She confirmed Resch was the real deal before calling him, and the two became “fast phone friends.” The researcher, thrilled at the opportunity to meet one of Davis’ descendants, arranged to visit Chico to meet Wolff and other relatives in June.
Wolff said the information Resch shared was especially revealing because the historic episode was rarely—and wrongly—spoken of among her family: “The family story was a little different from the one that the newspapers and other sources would support,” she said, noting she’d heard her grandfather’s name mentioned only a handful of times. “I was told as a kid that he was killed by the man who robbed the Bank of America, and that he had gone to retrieve the car that was used for the getaway with a deputy sheriff, and that he was shot and killed.
“My grandmother, Eula, refused to talk about this man,” Wolff said, noting her own mother, Marlene, was just 2 years old at the time of the tragedy. “It just wasn’t a topic of discussion, and I got the impression the Davises were a quiet family, maybe because they were from the South and didn’t have much money. [Eula] came across the country from the Dust Bowl, from Tennessee to Oklahoma to Chico, and then her husband died tragically. I think there was a lot of stigma associated with that. I don’t think being a widow during the Depression was a pleasant experience, and I think she considered that the dark years and did not talk about them.
“They became instantly poor [after Davis was killed], and my mother lived a very impoverished life,” she continued. “So this had a tremendous impact on the family for generations. My mother died 30 years ago, at a young age, and that’s part of the impact … she lived a fairly tragic life.
“Both my grandmother and mother carried this mantle of sadness with them.”
Wolff expressed similar sympathy for all three widows, including Turchinetz’s wife, Jane, whom news reports say left Chico for her native Canada after her husband was killed. One of the articles in the Chico Record from October 1934 describes a tender moment between McDaniel’s wife (who had three sons) and his murderer’s spouse, in which the two bereaved women embraced and wept.
Tragedy aside, Wolff said she’s learned lots of details about her family from Resch’s work, including some neat tidbits, such as the fact that the home Davis grew up in and was living in when he died is the building that currently houses Blackbird, a café and bookstore on Park Avenue. That’s also where she and Resch met up before visiting the Chico Cemetery to find the graves of Davis, McDaniel and Turchinetz.
All three are buried there, within hundreds of feet of the site of the shooting. McDaniel’s burial marker—the proverbial hero’s grave—is the largest of the three. It still attracts regular visitors according to Clark Masters, a cemetery employee who conducts historical tours of the graveyard. Davis lies beneath a relatively humble stone in the family plot, and Turchinetz’s resting place is unmarked.
Resch and Wolff, along with their respective spouses, will reunite in Tennessee for Davis’ induction to the Wall of the Fallen on Sept. 15. The ceremony is part of four days of events the towing museum in Chattanooga hosts annually, including adding members to a Hall of Fame honoring exceptional work done in the towing industry. Resch was bestowed that honor in 2014.
Jeffrey Godwin, first vice president of the museum and co-chair of the Wall of the Fallen and its accompanying Survivor Fund—which helps families of tow truck operators killed in the line of duty financially—explained Chattanooga is a fitting home for the museum, as the city is the birthplace of the tow truck.
The museum features exhibits ranging from vintage tow trucks to something called the “Tater Tot”—a golf cart converted into a miniature rotator wrecker (a type of heavy-duty, semi-truck-size tow truck outfitted with a large crane-like boom) with external controls that allow children to operate it. Godwin said that, in addition to “preserving and protecting towing history,” one of the facility’s main functions is to educate the public about the risks tow truck drivers face daily in the service of others. He praised Resch’s recent project and past efforts for “adding to the conversation and creating more awareness” about that issue.
“It’s a very dangerous line of work,” Godwin said. “Men and women of our industry who serve the motoring public are out there taking chances on the side of the road all the time, but it’s something that has to be done. Unfortunately, we lose an operator about every six days on average, about 60 a year. The risks involved are very similar to those faced by other first responders.”
As for Resch, he said he was determined to see this research project through, and that he’s happy Davis will finally receive some long-overdue recognition.
“Once I get on something,” Resch said, “I don’t let go.”