Crime, Scandal & Innocence Lost in the Napa Valley

From the first criminal case heard by the California Supreme Court to the state’s last public execution, Todd Shulman’s new book brings to light the significant moments in Napa Valley crime history. In this interview with History Press West, Shulman delves into true crime and previews Murder & Mayhem in the Napa Valley. As John Boessenecker writes in his foreword “Those who live in or visit the Napa Valley might never look at it in the same way again.” 

AK: How did you get your start in police work?

TS: I’ve wanted to be in police work since I was a little kid, watching shows like Adam 12 and CHiPs. I was in a police explorer/cadet program during high school that solidified my desire. After graduating from high school, I enlisted in the U.S. Army as a military police person. I started my civilian police career after attending college.

AK: What do you think draws readers to true crime and crime fiction? What crime books have you enjoyed reading recently?

TS: I think it’s the salacious details found in many of the crimes. People I’ve talked to also enjoy hearing how the detectives examined the clues and how the investigative process works. I read No Stone Unturned by Steve Jackson while doing research for my book; it details the work of forensic anthropologists.

 

AK: It’s intriguing to consider how our ideas of justice have changed or stayed fast over time. As a police detective, how do you feel about the jury process and the final decision in the Eadweard Muybridge trial? Was the jury’s decision supported by popular opinion of the time?

TS: A cornerstone of our judicial process is the right to be tried by a jury of your peers. The law as written seems black and white, but from my experience and as this case points out, in reality there are many factors that determine the outcome of a trial: things such as the abilities of the lawyers involved, the credibility of the witnesses, and in the end the feelings and mores in the juror’s minds. From what I could gather reading the newspaper accounts of the Muybridge trial, although the verdict was a surprise to many, it was widely hailed as just, and as a warning to potential adulterers.

“Good evening major. My name is Muybridge. Here is the answer to the message you sent my wife!” A single gunshot rang out, striking Larkyns in the chest, killing him instantly. –Murder & Mayhem in the Napa Valley

AK: Can you describe what it’s like to work on a cold case and the ways it’s similar to or different from popular media portrayals?

TS: Well, first of all, we don’t solve cases in an hour. There is a good reason these cases are “cold”; it’s because they are challenging, many times “who dun its”. Working on these cases is very different from working on recent homicides. Those involved are sometimes hard to locate, or even dead. Once located, their memories of long-past events are at times clouded or gone. We also have to deal with the challenge of finding the evidence, long buried in storage. Even applying modern methods of forensics, such as DNA, can be challenging due to the fragility or degradation of the evidence.

AK: If a reader wanted to take a crime tour of the Napa Valley, what landmarks, monuments, or artifacts would you suggest for their tour map?

TS: Probably the most visible landmark is Napa’s historic courthouse. Built in 1879, it was the site of many of the trials featured in the book. It was just outside the courthouse that the last public execution in California occurred, in 1897. Another stop would be the Greenwood mansion, located at the intersection of Airport & Devlin Roads, the site of the killing that led to the 1897 execution. Just one block from the Greenwood mansion is the Napa County Sheriff’s Department, which as a small museum on its lower level. The museum displays the gallows used in the 1897 execution, as well as artifacts from the chase and capture of stage-coach robber Buck English.

…the gallows were erected within feet of the jailhouse. As the builders repeatedly tested the trap door using sandbags, Roe commented, “If they don’t stop working that thing they’ll have it all worn out before I get there.” –Murder & Mayhem in the Napa Valley

 AK: How does this book fit with or build on your previous book?

TS: In my previous book, Napa County Police, I told the history of the agencies themselves as they grew with the Napa Valley during the last 160+ years. I included a few of the stories in this book; however, the book was photograph-based, so I was limited in how much detail I could put in print. This book allowed me to delve into crimes that shook and shaped the Napa Valley.

 

AK: What prompted you to found the Napa Police Historical Society and what role does the organization play in the community?

TS: I’ve always been interested in history. After being at the Napa Police Department for a few years I started asking questions about the department’s history and found that no one had been keeping track of it. I embarked on collecting photographs from retirees, and they started giving me objects such as batons and badges. I decided that forming a nonprofit historical society would ensure these items would be kept safe for perpetuity. Today the Society has over 60 members. The mission of the Society is three-fold: to preserve the history of the NPD, to educate the public about the rich history of the NPD, and to honor former and current NPD employees who have sacrificed much to ensure the safety of the citizens of Napa. The Society has put on presentations at local service organizations, has displays of artifacts at the NPD and Napa Firefighter’s Museum, and recently restored a 1957 Ford police car that is used in parades and displayed at regional car shows.

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Todd Shulman has worked in law enforcement his entire adult life; he began as a military police person in the US Army, serving during the First Gulf War. Later Shulman became a police officer in California; he currently works at the Napa Police Department. He has held positions within the police department as a detective, training officer, crime scene specialist, corporal, and cold case investigator. Shulman formed the non-profit Napa Police Historical Society in 2006, and continues today as its President. Shulman is a member of the Napa County Historical Society as well. Shulman is married, with two teenage sons. He enjoys attending his kid’s sporting events, is an avid postcard collector, and scale model collector and builder.

Murder & Mayhem in the Napa Valley by Todd L. Shulman is available from the History Press and Napa Valley bookshops.

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