Times Past

'Butter day' bank heist ends in Cayucos shootout

Special to The TribuneJune 28, 2014 

“Butter Day” in Cayucos, c. 1892. The receipts for the butter from local farmers poured into the Cayucos branch bank.

COURTESY OF DAN KRIEGER

Charlie Dunn fully lived up to the aphorism of a “low down horse thief.”

He’d been arrested for absconding with one of the Steele brothers’ horses in Edna. San Luis Obispo Constable Peter Banks caught him trying to sell the horse in Paso Robles.

As he brought the prisoner back to San Luis Obispo, Dunn, already “three sheets to the wind” with drink, became agitated. Banks decided to make him “sweetly reasonable” with some additional liquor in Santa Margarita.

The elixir did its work.

As the pair ascended the Cuesta, Dunn muttered, “Banks, I’m in a hell of a fix, ain’t I?” Banks agreed. Dunn thought to himself for a few hundred yards and then said: “If I put you wise to something bigger than stealing a horse, will you help me out of this?”

Banks said that if what Dunn said proved correct, things would go a lot easier. Dunn then told how he along with John Isom, Bill Brown, Ed Goss and another unnamed man had planned to rob the banks in Cayucos, Santa Margarita and Port Harford.

Banks took Dunn to Sheriff Edwin F. O'Neal at the county jail. O'Neal then released the prisoner with strict orders to “keep mum.” A tail was placed on Dunn and his gang right up to the time they entered the Cayucos bank.

Aug. 30 was “Butter Day” when the dozens of dairy farmers came to ship their butter to San Francisco. They deposited their receipts in the Cayucos branch bank, which had nearly $4,000 in its vault.

About 6 p.m., Sheriff O’Neal, Deputy Sheriff A. C. McLeod, Constable Banks and his deputy, Charlie Kues, left San Luis Obispo for Cayucos. The robbers planned to go to the home of J. J. Simmler, the bank’s cashier, forcing him to open the bank’s vault. Simmler agreed to go along with Sheriff O’Neal’s setup. At the last moment, he lost his nerve.

Banks persuaded Will Waterman to pose as Simmler. Sheriff O’Neal told Cayucos residents to “lay low as there was apt to be shooting!” About 12 a.m., Brown, Goss, Isom and an unidentified man put gunny sacks over their heads with holes cut out for their eyes and arms. They went to Simmler’s home to abduct him.

Waterman refused to play his assigned role as Simmler. He just told the gang that Simmler was out of town. They asked “Are you in charge of the bank?” When Waterman said yes, the bandits forced him to open the bank.

Waterman then followed the plan of fumbling with the combination of the already unlocked safe and ducked for safety behind its steel door. Banks and McLeod stormed in shouting “Hands up!”

Bill Brown drew a pistol and fired, striking Deputy McLeod, who fell into Banks, moaning “I’m shot!”

The one-armed Banks then shot Brown, who dropped the floor. Brown, badly wounded, fired again, hitting McLeod a second time.

At that moment, the single candle lighting the bank went out. In the darkness, Goss and Isom ran out, jumping on two horses.

Hearing the gunfire inside the bank, Sheriff O’Neal and Deputy Constable Kues “lost their nerve and ran.” O’Neal was replaced by S. D. Ballow the next year.

The lookout robber fled. As he ran off, James Cass fired at him but only hit a telegraph pole. The lookout was later arrested in San Luis, turned states’ evidence and was released.

Brown died the following day from his wound. Isom and Goss were caught several years later in San Diego by Sheriff Ballow. They each received a 10-year sentence. Goss died in prison.

The horse thief and would-be robber, Dunn, was in all probability the “lookout.” He was not charged because of his “cooperation.” He married and had several children.

Dan Krieger's column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association

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