DOWNEY – The 1943 Downey High School yearbook is full of smiling faces. The girls on the newspaper staff don horn-rimmed glasses. A few of the older boys sport narrow mustaches, a la Clarke Gable.
And finally, there were straight-backed members of the Y-Clubs, which were groups of students assembled in association with the local YMCA. Their credos encouraged hard work, honesty and all the other good Christian virtues.
But some of the students likely carried a dark secret – they may have known who killed Jose Diaz.
On Aug. 1, 1942 – 70 years ago — a group of boys from Downey beat up a 19-year-old Mexican American man who was making out with his girlfriend in a parked car near a farm reservoir in what is now Commerce.
That initial confrontation, historians say, touched off a series of events that would end up driving a wedge between the police and Mexican American youth that some experts say still exists today. It led to the famous Sleepy Lagoon murder trial.
That first attack touched off a night of fighting and revenge.
By daybreak Aug. 2, 1942, a different Mexican American young man was dead from a fatal beating, and deputies and Los Angeles Police officers began rounding up about 600 Latino and black youth in an effort to crack down on gangs and solve the ‘Sleepy Lagoon’ case.
Mexican kids were tired of sitting in the back of theaters and being told they weren’t welcome in certain businesses or in certain neighborhoods. They wore their own style of clothing and listened to jazz, which was a controversial art form at the time. They flouted authority and in some cases openly told white people to stay out of their neighborhoods.
White residents were nervous about a group of youth who were forming their own culture and seemed to have little respect for the law.
Sensational articles about the Sleepy Lagoon case, including one penned by a prominent sheriff’s official, tightened the bowstring on years of tension that were finally released 10 months later during the Zoot Suit Riots of June 1943.
The young men who first attacked the couple by the Sleepy Lagoon were never identified by their names. They were known only as the “Downey boys.”
Since that fateful night, the identity of the Downey boys has mostly been a mystery, according to Eduardo Obregon Pagan, a professor of history at Arizona State University who has written a book on the Zoot Suit Riots, “Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon: Zoot Suits, Race and Riot in Wartime L.A.”
“We don’t know much about them,” he said. “We think they were a group of white youth from Downey.”
It seems Downey almost forgot them, too.
Downey’s local paper at the time, the “Live Wire,” makes only one mention of the attack in a short article that ran a few days after the brawls and killing.
“A group of Downey Mexican boys were among about 150 youth rounded up for investigation and questioning following a ‘gang’ war in Montebello Township last week,” the article read.
It says one boy jumped into the Sleepy Lagoon to escape a group of youth armed with chains.
The article finished with an editorialized flourish about the boys’ character:
“Recognized among the boys from this area who were taken into custody are several who have been perpetual loafers on the streets of Downey for many months.”
The story is not followed with any additional accounts of the investigation or subsequent trials.
Those who lived in Downey at the time had little recollection of the Sleepy Lagoon case, but they do remember one neighborhood “gang” of sorts.
“I don’t know of any group called the Downey Boys,” said Bill Hanson, who is 84 and would have been 14 at the time of the killing. “But when I hear that story, I immediately thought of the Chain Gang.”
The Chain Gang was composed primarily of boys who lived in Downey. Their fathers worked on the farms west or south of the city. They were mostly white, but a few were Mexican, too, Hanson said. They were so poor, sometimes they came to school without shoes, according to Hanson, a retired Presbyterian minister who now lives in Pasadena.
The kids in the Chain Gang bristled at the idea of joining preppy clubs, Hanson said.
“They kind of formed their own thing,” he said.
The Chain Gang liked to catch couples necking in cars, which was referred to as “parking” at the time, Hanson said.
“You absolutely did not want to get caught parking if the Chain Gang was around,” he said. “They would make you regret it.”
As far as Hanson can remember, it was common for teenagers in Downey to harass couples sitting in parked cars. Kids would pop out of the bushes carrying flashlights and try to scare young couples, Hanson said.
But he didn’t recall anyone getting hurt.
“I don’t really remember it being violent,” he said.
The night of Diaz’s murder was marked by extreme violence, according to police reports and the often argumentative and evasive testimony taken from the teenagers and young adults who testified at the Sleepy Lagoon trial.
The basic timeline goes that the carousing Downey boys on the night of Aug. 1, 1942 crashed a party at a small bunkhouse inhabited by the Delgadillo family in Williams Ranch, which is somewhere near what is now the 5500 block of East Slauson Avenue near Commerce and Bell. The hosts kicked out the rowdy Downey boys around 11 p.m., according to testimony from the subsequent murder trial.
While leaving the area, the Downey boys drove past Henry “Hank” Leyvas and a bunch of his friends.
Leyvas and the Downey boys exchanged harsh words.
The Downey boys returned about 30 minutes later and found Leyvas and his girlfriend sitting in a parked car at the Sleepy Lagoon, a farm reservoir that was also a popular swimming hole. It was named for a popular song from the time.
The teenagers from Downey severely beat Leyvas and his girlfriend. When a few of Leyvas’ friends ran to his aid, they found themselves outnumbered and were beaten, too.
Bent on revenge, Leyvas and his friends went to his old 38th Street neighborhood in South Los Angeles. They gathered a bunch of youth from the neighborhood and headed to the Delgadillo house, where they thought they might find the Downey boys.
The teenagers from Downey were not there, but Leyvas and his friends brutally attacked the men and women at the party, according to testimony from the trial.
On the way to the Delgadillo home, one of the cars in the 38th Street’s group veered off the road and got stuck in a ditch. When the girls in the car got out to help push, they said they found Diaz nearly dead on the side of the road. As one of the girls cradled Diaz, a young man from the 38th Street group told the girl to step aside, witnesses said. He beat Diaz’s barely alive body before the group drove away, according to testimony. Diaz died later at the hospital.
By the next day, police were rounding up suspects. Leyvas and most of the youth from the 38th Street neighborhood were among those arrested. Leyvas was almost certainly beaten by police until he gave some sort of confession, according to accounts from the time. Several Mexican youth from Downey were also arrested, but they were released from custody.
The county put 22 people on trial for events related to the Sleepy Lagoon killing.
Seventeen were found guilty in a contentious trial that put Mexican youth culture on center stage. Leyvas was one of three defendants convicted of first-degree murder. Nine were convicted of second-degree murder, and the rest were convicted of assault.
The trial gave the press an opportunity to highlight – often in garish, condemning terms — how Mexican youth had created their own culture and seemed to have little regard for the authorities. Those who testified during the trial, especially some of the teenage girls, were so evasive in their testimony that they began to frustrate the court and the prosecution.
The testimony was also riddled with objections from defense attorneys, who were trying to lay the legal ground that they hoped would later prove their clients never got a fair trial.
Many of the 38th Street youth were into what the press called “Zoot Suit” or “Pachuco” culture. Like most Mexican-American youth of their day, the 38th Street youth likely couldn’t afford full zoot suits, complete with jackets and hats. Most teenagers wore only the baggy pants that were pegged tightly near the ankles, according to Pagan. Leyvas and some of the other boys were known to wear the style, which was referred to as the ‘drape.’
Girls wore the outfits, too. The clothing was androgynous and distinct, and it set the Latino crowd apart from the rest of Los Angeles.
“They were trying to access American culture,” Pagan said of the Mexican-American youth of the time. “But they wanted to access it on their own terms.”
Teenagers of Mexican descent were facing extreme prejudice, especially from the government.
An official from the sheriff’s office in October 1942 put out an official report stating that Mexican youth were “Oriental” and by their very biology had no respect for human life. The study was released just 10 months after the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.
“Although a wild cat and a domestic cat are of the same family they have certain biological characteristics so different that while one may be domesticated the other would have to be caged to be kept in captivity; and there is practically as much difference between the races of man as so aptly recognized by Rudyard Kipling when he said when writing of the Oriental, “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,” which gives us an insight into the present problem because the Indian, from Alaska to Patagonia, is evidently Oriental in background—at least he shows many of the Oriental characteristics, especially so in his utter disregard for the value of life,” wrote sheriff’s Capt. Edward Duran Ayres.
White children understood chivalry and the proper behavior in a fistfight, he wrote.
“But this Mexican element considers all that to be a sign of weakness, and all he knows and feels is a desire to use a knife or some lethal weapon. In other words, his desire is to kill, or at least let blood. That is why it is difficult for the Anglo-Saxon to understand the psychology of the Indian or the Latin to understand the psychology of the Anglo-Saxon or those from Northern Europe,” Ayres wrote.
Downey at that time was a very different place than it is now, according to accounts and records from the 1940 U.S. Census. While most residents were originally from the United States, many of the township’s residents were recent immigrants from Europe or Mexico. The community also had a substantial Japanese-American population, many of whom owned vegetable farms or berry farms. Those farms were often staffed by laborers from Mexico, Italy and Russia, according to Census records. Others listed their jobs as milkers, and they likely worked on farms in the Clearwater community south of Downey, which is now mostly in Paramount. The same year as the Sleepy Lagoon case, the city’s Japanese-American residents were being sent to internment camps.
Most of the Mexican-American families lived on property that is now the Downey Regional Medical Center, which was referred to simply as “The Barrio,” according to Bob Thompson of the Downey Historical Society.
Leyvas’s family was originally from the 38th Street area of Los Angeles, but they had recently moved to farm an area in Clearwater. Leyvas was familiar with most of the boys in town. It was Leyvas who identified his attackers as youth from Downey, according to records from the ‘Sleepy Lagoon’ trial.
It’s possible Leyvas and the boys from Downey had bad blood previous to that August night, according to testimony from the time.
Almost all those who grew up in Downey interviewed for this story said they remembered a group of tough, older kids hanging around town.
“I was kind of young, so I didn’t know them,” said Larry Bledsoe, who is 81. “But I knew of them. You would see them at the restaurants or at the Coke place. Everybody knew who they were. But you never did see a gang of them, just a few at a time. They were sort of rough, or they were known as being rough. The truth is I never did personally see them being rough.”
Bledsoe’s seemingly unclear definition of a gang seems common for its time. During the Sleepy Lagoon case, prosecutors painted the defendants as members of the 38th Street gang from Los Angeles.
Pagan disputes the description, saying youth from 38th Street had no income source, no signs, no structure and generally were without traits common to street gangs. He said the group was an informal network of friends.
But others argue that the youth and young adults from 38th Street were indeed a gang with a code of silence, a geographical area and the ability to quickly marshal forces.
Author Tom Diaz argued in his book “No Boundaries: Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement” that Leyvas and his friends had characteristics that typically matured into full-fledged street gangs.
The 38th Street group looked like a duck and quacked like a duck, he said.
“The deliberate acts of the 38th Street group look and sound like the gang ‘duck,’” he wrote. “(The group took in part in) what has since become the lethal ritual of challenge, attack, counterattack, often at the expense of an innocent bystander’s life.”
A judge in 1944 tossed out the convictions of all 17 Sleepy Hollow defendants, citing a lack of a fair trial. The move to free the men was led by a coalition of communists, Latino activists and Hollywood stars.
The appeals judge pointed out several problems with the original trial.
The judge who presided over the original hearings, Charles Fricke, kept the defendants far from their attorneys, which prevented the defendants from talking to their attorneys and participating in their collective defenses. Fricke also declined to let the boys change their hair styles after prosecution attorneys argued that the boys’ very looks, the Zoot Suit or Pachuco style, was evidence that they were gang members.
The appeals court also found that there was insufficient evidence to convict the 17 defendants of Diaz’s killing.
As for the real killer of Jose Diaz, no one knows for sure who did it.
On her death bed, Lorena Encinas, who was at the party the night of the killing, told her family that her little brother Louie Encinas had waited behind after the Downey boys were kicked out of the Delgadillo party and killed Diaz. Louie Encinas, who was from Downey, killed himself during a botched bank robbery in the 1970s.
Pagan, who has studied the matter extensively, said he has his doubts about the Encinas account. Encinas was with the Downey boys who left the party around 11 p.m. Diaz didn’t leave until hours later.
Diaz left the party with two other young men, Pagan said. Diaz had just been paid, and those who examined his body found that his pockets were turned out of his pants. Evidence from the coroner’s examination also found that the blows from the 38th Street attacker were probably not what killed Diaz. Pagan believes Diaz may have been robbed and killed by his companions. As far as Pagan can tell, police never interviewed the two men who last saw Diaz alive.
“I lay out that theory in my book,” Pagan said. “But we don’t know for sure. It very well could have been one of the Downey boys.”
– A note on sourcing:
Almost all the chronology and facts for this story were taken either from Pagan’s book , the Public Broadcasting System’s “Sleepy Lagoon Murder” web page, or from the original court transcripts. Much of the information about Downey came from the Downey Historical Society.
Pagan’s book is excellent and thorough. And the PBS website has extensive material on the Sleepy Lagoon case and the Zoot Suit Riots.
If you see an error or have something to add to the story, please email me at email@example.com or call my cell phone at 562-320-1388.