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Too Crazy To Kill
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"Machine Gun" Walker was in there -- a cold-blooded killer, as anybody who saw that movie knew for sure -- and lots of other people like him, crazy people who might do anything, at any time. But it was either take a job in the hospital or miss playing for the Talmage Sluggers, the hospital-sponsored team that was one of the best of Northern California's many semi-professional baseball clubs in that hot summer of 1951.

The hospital: The Mendocino State Hospital at Talmage, in Mendocino County about 120 miles north of San Francisco. It was closed in 1973. But for five decades before that, it was the supposedly escape-proof place where the state kept men who had been judged criminally insane.

That was the ward where I was to work as a guard -- or, according to the state's grandiloquent job description, as a "psychiatric technician." I was only 18, but as a ballplayer, the Sluggers' manager had said pointedly, I naturally was tough enough to handle the kind of people kept there. I was, wasn't I?

Erwin Walker -- few dared call him "Machine Gun" to his face -- would sit on a gray wooden bench in a far corner of the criminal ward's exercise yard, back against the cement wall of a ward building, the visor of a high-crowned denim cap shadowing his narrow, pale face. Walker was invariably alone, and invariably reading, usually a chemistry textbook. He'd look up occasionally from his book to adjust his thick horn rimmed glasses and glance contemptuously down the bench.

Some of the others in the yard paced up and down with what would have been military precision save for the odd flapping of their heavy work shoes and occasional need to hitch up their denim pants. They were denied the potential weapons of shoe laces and belts.

Others sat together on benches, some gesturing and talking loudly to each other or themselves, some turned sideways with a checkerboard between them, a few reading. Many sat alone, slumped forward and staring at the yard's black asphalt surface.

All seemed to exist -- if they existed at all -- as a shadowy blue backdrop for Erwin Walker.

He rarely spoke to anyone. "Even dying in the gas chamber," he once confided to me in a rare unguarded moment, "might have been preferable to having to be with these creatures."

Walker, certainly, was brighter than most of his yard mates, and from a social strata far above theirs. But though he said little to them, they often spoke of him.

He was the hero-villain of countless stories passed around the yard, many stemming from a popular 1948 semi-documentary feature film, "He Walked by Night," in which Walker was portrayed by rising young actor Richard Basehart, with Jack Webb in the detective role that inspired the "Dragnet" radio and television shows.

The film was highly exaggerated, but even the true, unembellished story of Walker's life might have been dreamed lip by a Hollywood scriptwriter. Walker's father was a well-known Southern California engineer, his uncle a prominent lawyer who later became a Superior Court judge, and he had been a brilliant student at the California Institute of Technology, a radio dispatcher for the police department in his native Glendale and something of a hero as a lieutenant in charge of a radar unit on Okinawa during World War II.

But Walker returned from overseas duty deeply disturbed, certain he had caused the death of his best buddy and others in his unit by not preparing adequately for a surprise attack. While still on active duty, he stole six submachine guns and a dozen pistols from an Army warehouse in Los Angeles and set out on a spree of more than a dozen holdups and burglaries -- to raise money, Walker said, for construction of a "death ray machine" that somehow would make another war impossible.

Twice Walker shot his way out of police traps, escaping through the labyrinth of storm drain pipes under Los Angeles. In one instance, he critically wounded two detectives with a blast of machine gun fire. Two months later, in June 1946, he killed State Highway Patrol Officer Loren Roosevelt by firing six .45 caliber slugs into him.

Walker boasted of his exploits to a Catholic girlfriend, and she blurted out his story to a priest during confession. The priest alerted the police who, six months after Walker gunned down Roosevelt, raided his apartment.

Walker, who had been asleep, was reaching for a machine gun on the bed beside him when three detectives burst in. They shot him twice, broke the butt of a pistol over his head, and forced a full confession from him as he lay near death.

Citing his war experiences and a history of family insanity that had confined his paternal grandfather in a state mental hospital for 32 years, Walker pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. But he was found sane and sentenced to death.

Walker was on Death Row in San Quentin just 36 hours from his scheduled execution in April 1949 when a guard found him with a manila envelope over his head, unconscious with a radio headphone cord around his neck.

Perhaps Walker was imitating his father, who had strangled himself with a length of rope six months earlier, after spending all his savings trying to keep his son from the gas chamber. In any case, a half-dozen psychiatrists were summoned.

The psychiatrists found that Walker had been driven crazy by fear of his impending death. They reported that he was "negativistic, mute, fearful and unresponsive, and possibly reacting to hallucinations. He mumbled, repeatedly crawled into corners, under blankets and under pillows." Then he lapsed into a semi-coma from which he could not be roused for several days.

Most important, the psychiatrists declared that Walker "does not know the difference between right and wrong." California was then not so inhumane as to kill anyone who could not make that important distinction.

Walker's execution was postponed indefinitely. Bound in chains, he was taken before a jury that declared him insane, and committed to the state hospital in Talmage.

For 12 years there and in other prison hospitals, he underwent treatment designed to make him fit for execution.

Walker finally was declared sane in 1959. But the governor at the time, Pat Brown, commuted his sentence to life imprisonment on grounds that Walker would revert to insanity if he faced execution again. Brown acted after a clemency hearing which, by a stroke of considerable coincidence, I covered in my post-baseball existence as a reporter for The Associated Press.

Twelve years later, Walker was granted a new trial before a judge who ruled that his confession in 1946 had been "clearly involuntary." He was released from the California Medical Facility at Vacaville, where he had studied and worked in a chemistry lab.

He changed his name, married, and took a job as a chemist somewhere in Southern California. Never again was Erwin Walker heard from publicly.

Copyright Dick Meister