The killing in Joe’s Tamale Parlor
Remembering the only Chico police officer to give his life in the line of duty
If you walk into the Chico Police Department’s office on Humboldt Road, you might notice a boulder outside the main entrance adorned with a large plaque. There’s a picture of officer Carleton J. Bruce etched into the metal, along with the words, “whose life was sacrificed in the performance of his duty.” The date on the plaque reads Feb. 22, 1938.
There are people around town—mostly history buffs and police officers—who know Bruce’s story, and visitors sometimes ask at the police station about the man on the plaque. But there are precious few who remember that strange February evening 73 years ago this week, when Elmer Schutrum walked into Joe’s Tamale Parlor prepared to take down “the big man” and shot Carleton Bruce instead.
So, this story will be told through several lenses—through the newspaper articles that appeared at the time, through testimony given at a coroner’s inquest immediately following, through a distant relative who lives in the “Bruce Post House,” and through a man who does remember because he was 20 years old in 1938. The story, while not terribly important in the great scheme of Chico history, offers a glimpse into the town’s past that is easily forgotten.
After receiving a request to hunt down any documents or photographs that might still exist relating to Bruce, Sgt. Rob Merrifield of the Chico Police Department said he and Chief Mike Maloney had decided to hold a memorial to the only officer who has died in the line of duty. Just talking about Bruce had ignited a desire to retell history, to hold onto tradition, and honor those who have gone before.
That is what this story aims to do, as well.
Chico in 1938 was a much smaller community than it is today, with a population of just more than 13,000 and the nickname “Commercial Center of the Golden Empire.” Not everything has changed, however. The Esplanade had been formed, and many of the streets and avenues we’re now familiar with were in use. Even some well-known businesses had set up shop. Collier Hardware—then Collier-Clark Hardware—was already anchored at First and Broadway; Northern Star Mills had its mill at 16th and Chestnut streets; and that year, Leonard C. Shubert opened an ice cream shop on Seventh Street to the delight of generations to come.
Main Street looked much the same as it does today, although the businesses that occupied the storefronts have changed through the years and train tracks ran down the middle of the street. Where The Bookstore is there were then two businesses, Joe’s Tamale Parlor to the north and a saloon of some sort next to it. Going south, into what is now the Upper Crust Bakery & Eatery, there was Mac’s Liquor and a billiard hall. Where Cyclesport now peddles bicycles was a women’s clothing store. Across Main Street was Chico Granite & Marble, where 7-Eleven now sits, and JC Penney—a dollar sign inlaid in marble on the sidewalk in front of Peet’s Coffee is said to have originated at that time.
Enloe Hospital, then run by Dr. N. T. Enloe, had been a fixture on Flume Street for more than two decades. In 1937, Enloe opened its existing location at Fifth Avenue and The Esplanade, though the Flume Street location was still in use. The Chico Police Department had its home at what is now the Chico Municipal Building across the street from the City Plaza (after its renovation in 2009, Chico PD came full circle, opening a substation there).
The recently renamed Chico State College was constantly changing, and the previous year it added night classes. The Chico Record offices were next door to Collier on Broadway—decades later, the Record would merge with the Enterprise into the daily newspaper we know today.
In this environment, a young man named Carleton Jesse Bruce, who went by the nickname Dick, served as a police officer, and a good one, according to his fellow men in blue. He’d previously worked as a merchant patrolman and in the Fish and Game Commission.
Bruce was born in Modoc County, but his family had deep roots in the Chico community—in fact, Bruce Road was named for them, as it marked the eastern border of their ranch. He lived with his wife, Jessica, and their two children, Carleton Jr. and Robert, at 1462 Arcadian Ave., which is now the Grateful Bed. A call to the popular bed and breakfast, built in 1905, revealed no knowledge of who lived in the house at that time, but the owners are reasonably sure the address has not changed over the years.
Bruce went on duty Feb. 22 just like any other day. He worked the night shift, 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., for the Chico Police Department, a post he’d held for several years.
Around 7:15 p.m., a call came into police dispatch from a woman requesting help at Joe’s Tamale Parlor, an eatery perhaps ahead of its time in terms of Chico’s tastes. She did not leave her name or describe the situation. The small establishment was nearly empty on this Tuesday evening. Joe Silva, the Joe in Joe’s Tamale Parlor, was seated at one of the tables, as was Mark Williams, a bartender at a liquor store/pub a few doors down. Manuel Marshall, a local carpenter, was with them.
Joe’s Tamale Parlor was adjoined by a bar, owned by Tony Ponciano, a Portuguese fellow with a son who shared his name. The elder Ponciano was above his bar that evening, either taking a nap or relaxing on the balcony, when a man they all knew, Elmer Schutrum, walked in with a sweater peculiarly hanging over one arm. Schutrum, a German man in his 50s, had been acting strangely of late. The day before, he’d come into Mac’s Liquor, where Williams worked, clearly flustered after an altercation next door, at either Silva’s or Ponciano’s establishment.
“He said a man had it in for him and he was too big to fight so he was going to go get his rifle,” Police Chief C. E. Tovee would later relate to a courtroom full of people during a coroner’s inquest into Bruce’s death. He’d spoken with Howard McQuone, the proprietor of Mac’s, who’d said he thought he’d talked Schutrum out of what he’d been planning.
When Schutrum returned to town the next day, he once again walked into Mac’s. Williams, the bartender, noticed that the man he knew by the nickname “Big Ed” had been adding whiskey to his beer, a practice he was not in the habit of doing. The next anyone saw of him was that evening, walking into Joe’s Tamale Parlor with a sweater over his arm.
About this time, a woman—perhaps Silva’s wife—called the police to request an officer at the restaurant.
It’s unclear exactly what happened between 7:15 and 7:20 p.m., about the amount of time it would have taken for Bruce and his partner, Tom Jones, to get into their patrol car and drive the five blocks from the police station to Joe’s Tamale Parlor. Inside, Williams described the strange scene thusly: When Schutrum walked into the tamale parlor that night, he breezed past Joe Silva and Manuel Marshall, toward the kitchen. Williams tried to see what the old guy was up to behind the counter, but instead of following Schutrum, he walked through the bar and sort of sneaked up on the man from the side, asking, “Ed, what in the devil is wrong with you?” Schutrum pointed a rifle, which he’d been hiding under that sweater, at Williams and replied, “That’s close enough.”
Williams continued to talk with Schutrum, a man he considered a friend, but the only information he gleaned was that he was looking for “the big man, the big Portuguese.”
Outside, a crowd had gathered. Mendel Tochterman, who is now 93 but was 20 at the time, remembers driving through downtown with his parents, on their way to see a movie at the Senator Theatre. They noticed a commotion outside the tamale restaurant and stopped. Tochterman’s father owned the building, and he wanted to see what was going on.
“He went in, and the little tamale man had noticed a man had come into his shop with an overcoat over his arm. Sticking out from the overcoat was the muzzle of a rifle,” Tochterman recalled. “He’d made some remark to the tamale proprietor, ‘I’m not gonna bother you,” so he sat down at a booth.”
Another man—it turned out to be Ponciano—ran out the back of the store and into the Record office. At this point, Tochterman remembers his father got back into the car and they went to the movie as planned.
When Bruce and Jones arrived at the scene, they, too, noticed a commotion on the street outside Joe’s Tamale Parlor. Someone in the crowd mentioned the man with the gun, but seeing nothing but calm inside, the officers opened the door and walked right in.
Bruce didn’t get much more than four steps inside the door before Schutrum, who had been talking with Williams behind the counter, whirled around, aimed his gun at Bruce’s midsection, and pulled the trigger.
“He didn’t even need to cock his rifle—it was already cocked,” Williams recalled in court.
Two more bullets were fired before Williams, the closest to Schutrum, was able to tackle the man to the floor. Those two bullets flew past Bruce and Jones, out the window, and hit a young dentist who was getting into his car outside JC Penney.
The dentist, Charles Seydel, had just joined his father’s practice, as Tochterman recalled, and many in the community wondered if he’d ever be able to work as a dentist again, as one of the bullets hit him square in the elbow. He proved them wrong, though—he practiced well into the latter part of the 20th century. He died three years ago at the age of 94.
The sound of shots being fired signaled reporters at the Record to call the police once more. At the same time, officer Jones let off three shots in the direction of Schutrum, but, not wanting to injure Williams, he missed. He was able to get the handcuffs on Schutrum, but en route to the patrol car, Schutrum grabbed Jones’ gun. Jones grabbed it back, and hit Schutrum over the head with it, drawing blood. He got Schutrum into the car, brought him to the station and booked him.
Back at the tamale parlor, an ambulance had been called and arrived to pick up Bruce within minutes and deliver him to Enloe Hospital. Dr. Henry Mello, the resident physician, was in the emergency room at the time.
“Officer Bruce was pale and unconscious. He had a feeble pulse,” Mello told the courtroom days later. Dr. N.T. Enloe joined him in tending to Bruce, but “He died at 7:35. The bullet went into his stomach, hit the spinal cord and pierced the abdominal aorta. The man died of strangulation internally.” Bruce was 36 years old.
When word of the shooting got out, residents were furious, and an angry mob formed outside the police station. Police Chief Tovee had left the station for the hospital and, upon the officer’s death, he said, “We then came to the city hall and I suggested we go and talk to the prisoner immediately, and we found him hanging dead.”
Schutrum had evidently hanged himself from a bunk in his cell, using his belt and suspenders. He must not have been dead more than 10 minutes before he was found, officers told the Record newpaper.
Police never had a chance to question Schutrum about whom he’d been seeking that evening with his rifle, a .30-.30 with the stock removed. Investigators, upon searching the German man’s cabin on Pine Street, surmised that he’d tried to hide the gun with a sleeve ripped from a coat, but that it had been too short so he’d grabbed a sweater. They found an empty box of ammunition, on which had been scribbled the words, “Notice, dead men don’t talk.” They also found the deed to the man’s property in Willows along with other personal effects locked in two small tins.
“Schutrum never intended to return, as is shown by this note. He planned to get his man and then shoot the first man who tried to halt his getaway. When he was captured his only other means of escape was suicide,” Tovee told the Record.
Interestingly, the investigators also found a small container with a strange green substance in it. They had that substance tested and it turned out to be cannabis. Tovee added this to evidence that Schutrum was under the influence of a powerful narcotic at the time of the shooting.
Tovee suspected Schutrum had lent a large sum of money to one or more people, and perhaps he had gone in search of it. “Four years ago, Schutrum had $10,000. He was cheated on a real estate deal in Willows, and his bank account has been slipping ever since,” he told the Record.
Ponciano seemed the most likely candidate to be “the big man” Schutrum spoke of. His actions that evening were also peculiar. Upon Schutrum’s entering the establishment, Ponciano, who had been on the second floor, ran down the stairs, out the back, through the Record office and out onto Broadway. Some reporters followed him, but quickly gave up when the man entered Children’s Playground.
It’s unclear, then, what happened to Ponciano after this altercation. Neither he nor his son is listed in Chico phone directories in 1937-38 or in 1939-40—a quest to locate the name of Ponciano’s bar, then, was unfruitful. Certainly if he had been questioned, that information never made it into any newspaper article, and the police files from the case no longer exist.
Bill Shelton, a local historian of sorts and an antiques dealer, currently resides in the Bruce Post Home on East 16th Street, where Carleton’s aunt and uncle lived. A distant relative of the Bruce family, Shelton remembers hearing of the aftermath of Carleton’s death.
“The family felt it was a setup,” Shelton said.
Curiously, the testimony from the coroner’s inquest included several interjections from a man in the audience named Charles Bruce—most likely his brother. He asked questions of several witnesses, most to the tune of “Are you sure you did everything you could to avoid this shooting?” He seemed particularly unnerved by the anonymous call to the police station that sent Carleton and Tom Jones to the tamale parlor that night.
“The back of the tamale parlor was a hub of corruption in Chico,” Shelton added. Nothing in the newspaper articles or other sources could substantiate this claim, though certainly it could have been true, and certainly people were talking about such a thing at the time. A newspaper article well after the shooting had Tovee snuffing out rumors that marijuana trafficking had polluted Chico with an undercover sting that revealed no such problem.
In the nearly three quarters of a century since the shooting death of Carleton Bruce, the city of Chico has not forgotten him. The businesses along Main Street that made headlines because of the incident have all gone. And so have most of the men. Whatever happened with Tony Ponciano or Joe Silva or any of the others whose lives were touched by this deadly shooting, we may never know. But there are yet reminders of those times in Enloe, the revived police station with a small jail cell in the Municipal Building, the Grateful Bed.
Although Carleton Bruce was born in Modoc County, he lived most of his 36 years right here in Chico. On Tuesday, the 73rd anniversary of his death, the Chico Police Department held a ceremony at his grave site in Chico Cemetery to keep his story alive.
In remembering the sacrifices made by men and women before us, we can hope to keep perspective on our lives today.