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Doc Standley and the Eel River Fishermen

The career of Jeremiah (Doc) Standley, the noted Mendocino County lawman in days of yore, took many a twist and turn in the year 1892. Some of those winding paths started without Doc present and outside the boundaries of the county he served.

Over the weekend that concluded the month of January, 1892, Lonzo Inman and a fellow named Louis Petch sat at the same poker table. When the dealing was done Petch had won $140 of Inman's cash money.

On Monday, February 1st, as was the habit of many men in the vicinity, both Inman and Petch engaged in some late moonlight fishing on Eel River near Dungan's ferry. Petch still carried his winnings on him, forty dollars in one pocket and the other hundred in another.

With clouds rolling over the moon and the night so dark one boatman could not make out another a few feet apart, Inman's boat bumped against another small craft. As fate would have it, the other boat belonged to Louis Petch and the nets of the two fishermen tangled together. The boatmen hollered at each other about the tangled netting. Inman, who stood substantially larger at six feet, two inches and at least two hundred pounds, slapped a gaff against Petch's head who crumpled over an oarlock. At this point, the bigger man grabbed hold of Petch, and dragged him out of his boat and into his own.

Petch revived enough to holler. Inman jammed a hand to his throat, squelching the screams while pawing into a pocket for some of the lost poker money. Despite Petch's screams being smothered by a hand around his neck, some of the other fishermen heard the ruckus and guided their boats toward Inman's.

The assailant, slammed Petch down onto the floor of the boat then commenced rowing frantically away from the other fishermen. The pursuers continued to gain on him, so Inman flung Petch overboard.

The fishermen arrived as the flailing Petch appeared to go under. An oar was extended. He managed to grab hold and hang on while a rescuer pulled him safely onto another boat. Inman disappeared into the dark, ditched his vessel on the shore line, then bade a retreat into the night.

Petch searched his pockets, telling his rescuers that the attacker managed to liberate forty dollars, but failed to procure the remaining $100. Petch and at least one other man made straightaway for Eureka to inform the authorities.

Sheriff Brown lit out to the scene of the assault and robbery. The district attorney petitioned a judge and a warrant was soon issued for Inman's arrest. The sheriff found no trace of the fugitive. However, a deputy received a report a couple days later that Inman had made it to Hydesville. A search of that vicinity proved fruitless. Sheriff Brown then telegraphed all the sheriffs in surrounding counties to be on the lookout for Inman.

Due to law enforcement duties on the Mendocino coast, a descriptive circular on the Humboldt fugitive didn't reach Mendocino County Sheriff Doc Standley until March. Working the case on a Saturday, Standley traveled to Willits, where he found Inman working at the California Nursery Company. The tall, muscular Inman let Doc know that if he were in his home county of Humboldt, where he knew all the countryside, the lawman would not get him to the county jail because Standley would have more than his hands full looking after the horses. Inman went on to say that when he made his break any shot fired would be rushed and off its mark. Apparently, Inman did not know that Doc had been raised around horses and livestock of all sorts. Standley informed Inman that the horses would be no problem if a prisoner made a run for it. His own horse might run, but would return to him eventually. Thus, any shot the sheriff might be required to take at a fleeing prisoner would be as accurate as possible.

Standley successfully escorted Inman to the county jail in Ukiah. A telegram to Sheriff Brown in Humboldt County alerted him to the capture. He responded with a telegraphed warrant. The Humboldt authorities also sent a deputy by ship to San Francisco to take possession of the prisoner.

Sheriff Standley had to get Inman to the scheduled shipping point in the City by the following Wednesday. Whatever warnings Standley may have used must have convinced Inman. On the trip to San Francisco the prisoner offered no escape attempts.

If Inman wasn't aware of his victim's nationality before, he certainly learned it when he arrived, via the steamer Pomona, at Humboldt's county seat. After all the other passengers disembarked, the strapping, six ft., two in., Inman stepped onto the gang plank in handcuffs. Behind him stood a deputy sheriff. The Ferndale Enterprise described the scene. “Lon Inman was tendered a cordial reception by the Italians upon his arrival at Eureka. He was met at the wharf by a hundred or more of them and escorted to the Court House.”

The Humboldt Times added further detail. “From the way the crowd surged after them a person would have supposed a man was never before hand-cuffed. He was taken to the County Jail afoot, followed by a large portion of the crowd. As a byplay on the wharf just after the prisoner landed, his sister was seen in earnest conversation with the prosecuting witness, and it is not improbable that the matter will be squared. Inman was taken to Table Bluff in the afternoon for a hearing before the Justice of the Peace of that township, who fixed his bail at $1,000. The examination has been set for next Tuesday afternoon at 2 o'clock in the same court.”

Before the court hearing, murmurs of lynching slipped from the tongues of friends and acquaintances of Louis Petch. On the last day of March, 1892, Justice of the Peace W.H. Perrott heard the case in a relatively quiet and sedate courtroom setting. In testimony, the Italian, Petch, related the story closely in line with the tale presented above: assault, robbery, and a near drowning. Inman admitted to hard feelings between the two. He acknowledged striking Petch with the gaff, fearing the blow might prove fatal, but completely denied any robbery. He proclaimed the whole affair nothing more than a quarrel.

Other witnesses could only attest to hearing a cry, the sound of a whack, and that darkness enveloped the entire scene. Justice Perrott acquitted Inman and discharged him from custody.

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