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March 24, 2010 > History: Alvarado Bank Robberies

History: Alvarado Bank Robberies

From 1902 until the 1960's, Alvarado has had a bank near the corner of Smith Street and Union City Blvd. The Bank of Alvarado was founded in 1903 in a small building just north of the Alvarado Hotel. In 1925, the bank put up a new granite building about a block away from the old bank. In 1926, the Bank of Alvarado became the Bank of Alameda County and in 1938, the bank was bought by Central Bank. Central Bank was bought by First Western Bank in 1954.

A bank is always a target for robbery and the Alvarado Bank was no exception. Newspapers reported these tales of bank robbery...

Bank of Alvarado

Early on the morning of Saturday, April 5, 1913, a group of five men made an attempt at robbing the bank by blowing up the bank vault. Before the robbery, the men cut the phone lines in and out of town, cut the telegraph lines at the Southern Pacific train depot, and dismantled the town's fire alarm.

The robbers set off a number of charges of nitroglycerin on the bank vault. The last charge jammed the vault door, keeping $27,000 in gold secure in the vault. The men were only able to get $19. During one explosion, a piece of the steel door shot out a window, cut off a couple of branches from a tree, and dropped through the roof of an adjacent building. The explosions were strong enough to knock down pictures in nearby buildings.

The next day, the car used by the robbers was found in San Jose. On, June 5, of that same year, an arrest was made of Frank Smith, who was accused of blowing a safe in a store in San Francisco. He was believed to have been involved in the robbery in Alvarado. In 1915, Frank Smith was gunned down in San Francisco by a former "associate."

Bank of Alameda County

On October 13, 1920, three armed, masked men entered the Bank of Alameda County around noon. Armed with shotguns and revolvers, they escaped with $50,000 and shot, wounding seriously, August May, the Bank President.

When the men entered the bank, August May sprang at one man armed with a revolver, knocking him down. The robber was able to recover his gun and shot August May twice, once in the throat and once in the shoulder. They then dragged August May into the vault, locking him in, with Mrs. Anderson and Ted Lydecker.

The robbers quickly gathered the money and were able to flee in just a few minutes. Passerbies were able to hear the commotion and come to the aid of those locked in the vault. Instructions were shouted through the vault door and it was opened. August May was taken by car to a hospital in Hayward. District Attorney Ezra Decoto, May's brother-in-law, then took him to Merritt Hospital in Oakland. The robbers ditched their car not far from Alvarado, stole a green car, and abandoned it in San Lorenzo.

Through clues left in the get-away car, detectives were able to track down and arrest James Carey and W. Curley in San Francisco. Later James Anselm and Larry Fitzgerald were arrested and identified as the other two robbers. All four men were released due to lack of evidence.

On January 1921, Jack Beebe, Clarence Dye and Arthur Floyd were arrested in Marysville and brought back to Alvarado. Jack Beebe and Clarence Dye were identified as being involved in the robbery. Larry Fitzgerald was re-arrested in San Diego and also brought back to Alvarado. The group was part of a gang that went by the nickname "Thirty Strong." Prescott N. Rea, a member of the gang, but only charged with accepting stolen property, turned state's evidence and named all those involved in the robbery.

Jack Beebe was found guilty on March 16, 1921, and sentenced to life imprisonment. John Sullivan, who owned the "stolen" green car, and mastermind of the gang, was arrested, convicted of planning the robbery, and sentenced to one to fifty years. Three others involved, including Larry Fitzgerald, pleaded guilty. Larry Fitzgerald received a life sentence.

In April, 1921, William Albertson and Thomas Foley were arrested and identified as being the men who fought with and shot August May during the robbery. Foley would later receive a life sentence for the robbery.

In May, 1921 August May was much better, but was still partially paralyzed in his right arm and on his right side.

First Western Bank

In August, 1957, in a scene similar to 1920, two armed robbers entered the bank, and locked up the bank manager, Walter Oakley II and four others, into the bank vault. Before locking everyone into the vault, the robbers make Mr. Oakley empty $6,000 from the tellers' windows. They removed another $30,000 from the vault then slammed the door shut on the three bank employees and two customers. Mr. Oakley was able to slyly trip two alarm switches before being locked up.

The vault only had 10 hours of air inside it, and since this was the Friday before the Labor Day weekend, those inside were in a dire situation. Luckily, the tripped alarms worked, and Donald Mayers, Manager of the Niles branch arrived within half an hour. He was able to open the vault by getting the combination from Mr. Oakley, shouted through the door.

After the robbery, federal and local agents searched for the robbers, including a door-to-door search of the area around the bank, but nothing was found. A year later the robbery was still unsolved.

Timothy Swenson is the President of the Museum of Local History and has been writing on Union City history for 10 years.

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