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Escaping Jail Via The Courthouse

Two recent comments, published in opposition to the planned new courthouse, suggest security measures are overrated as there’s no history of breaches or escape attempts within anyone’s memory.


I have a memory, and it stretches all the way back to 1986, when a career criminal named Robert Wayne Danielson was on trial for murdering a couple of elderly campers on the south coast.

Robert Danielson

Danielson, originally from Marin County, had recently been released from prison after serving 10 years for murder in Oregon. That case was a marijuana deal in which one guy brought pot in a box, the other brought a pistol in a pocket. Bob wound up with both the weed and the cash; the other guy wound up with two bullet holes in his chest.

Now, supposedly having paid his dues to society, Bob Danielson was once again unleashed. He persuaded a teenage girl in Springfield to accompany him on his adventures and I’ll bet she got her money’s worth. They hitchhiked to a campsite in southern Oregon and encountered an old fella with a pickup truck.

Bob shot the gentleman, seated at a picnic table, twice in the head, took the keys and drove to Mendocino County where they camped on the beach. In the morning the girl knocked on the door of a nearby RV and asked to borrow some sugar. The friendly lady said yes, then Bob muscled in. He tied his captives up then drove south on Highway One and east into the hills. 

Everyone got out. The married couple were seated on the ground and Bob, using a pillow as a silencer, shot the husband in the head. The pillow cover jammed the pistol and it must have been a hellish few minutes as he worked the slide free of the fabric. The elderly wife, having experienced from a distance of about nine inches the ice cold murder of her husband, well understood Bob’s intentions. Being Bob Danielson he calmly, and probably cheerfully, finished the job despite her shrieking and wailing.

(SPOILER ALERT: Bob dies in the end.) 

But first he and the teeny bopper drove south to Guerneville where they parted company with the dead couple’s Dachshund, then to Vegas with the dead folks’ traveler’s checks. Bob later told me he killed another guy in Nevada by injecting him with battery acid (“until his eyeballs smoked”). (“Oh bull-bleep,” a forensic doctor laughed.)

Some months later Robert Wayne Danielson was arrested, alone, at a motel in Plano, Texas, and hauled back to Mendocino County to face charges. One of his attorneys, Norm Vroman, asked me to quit my job as Editor of the Mendocino Grapevine to work as an investigator on the Danielson matter. 

Well, giddyup! said me to myself.

It went to trial on the second floor of the courthouse, the Honorable James Luther presiding; Bob being held at the jail out on Low Gap Road. One weekend about halfway through the trial Norm and I were visiting Danielson in a jail interview room. As we stood to leave Bob asked a favor.

He had a birthday card for his mom, he said, and asked if Norm would take it, stamp it and send it off. It was already late, said Bob, and the jail was always slow sending mail out. Please?

Norm took the pre-addressed envelope, stuck it in his files, mailed it and forgot about it. The envelope did indeed contain a birthday card, but it also had instructions for Bob’s mother. 

Bob Danielson was at core a cold, cunning coward of a criminal with no qualms using his mother in an escape attempt. I never read his secret birthday card message, but I do know what happened.

Every morning Bob, accompanied by two bailiffs, was brought from the jail and into the courthouse through the swinging double doors facing School Street. One of those mornings Mary Danielson was in a chair on the north side wall. Don’t forget the chrome pistol with the white grips, Bob had no doubt reminded her.

And so one fine summer day Frank and Larry, amiable and friendly bailiffs both, had taken the handcuffed Danielson by the elbows and pushed through the doors. Mary stood, pressed the pistol into Bob’s manacled hands, then hurried out to her blue Ford station wagon and drove south.

Danielson later said he just couldn’t possibly bring harm to Frank and Larry, as nice a pair of gents he could ever have wanted to meet. My guess was the gun jammed or he couldn’t twist his cuffed wrists into firing position. 

Frank and Larry subdued and disarmed him, Mother Mary was arrested passed out drunk on the front seat of her car on West Third Street in Cloverdale, the trial resumed and Robert Wayne Danielson was convicted of a pair of First Degree murders.

He went to Death Row at San Quentin, and six or eight years later tied some socks together, fastened one end around a cell bar, the other around his neck and leaned forward until he turned blue, or maybe purple, and was found some time later, alas.

It was my first case as a criminal defense investigator and I knew from the start I’d made the right choice abandoning the ailing world of journalism for a fresh and lively career as a private investigator.

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