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Sheriff Reno Bartolomie, In His Own Words

 (Reno Bartolomie was Mendocino County Sheriff from 1955 to 1975. He died in 1990.)

I was born in Fort Bragg on April 17, 1916 in Redwood Coast Hospital. Dr. Campbell delivered me. My folks lived on South Whipple Street, in the Italian part of town. They called it Dago Town or Wop Town.

My dad arrived in Fort Bragg in 1905. He was here during the quake. Then his first wife got very, very ill and she died when he took her back to Italy.

My mother was raised by my father's family. She was French. Her maiden name was Martini. He married her and brought her over here, my mother, his second wife. My mother died from the flu epidemic in 1918. I was two years old. I remember the undertaker coming in, taking my mother away. He had this big old dirty, black top hat, with tails. It was terrible. It made such an impression on my mind that I could never really shake it. Like you remember your army serial number. I remember it to this day.

They called him Bettino, which means undertaker. Because Italian women were talking about him all the time. Black horses, black top hat, black long coat. They said, “He come and take the dead people away.” Those things are all set in my mind. I was both the Sheriff and Coroner, and to this day I can't go to funerals. I handled so many dead bodies.

I can't remember the memory of my mother alive, but I remember the memory of losing her. It was a lot for a little kid to deal with but those days no one helped you with anything. My dad certainly couldn't, because he was crying all the time and, of course, we didn't know what he was crying about, other than our mother was dead, that’s all. Nobody was able to talk to me about it. The families we stayed with never would bring that death up, either. Never!

I can remember as a kid, when it rained awful hard, these Italian women would be running back and forth across the street, telling one another that the world was coming to an end, because of so much rain. Superstition, them days. Cherries and milk were poison; don't eat them together; that was another superstition.

My earliest memory of Fort Bragg? Oh, God I can remember it forever. Unpaved streets and the horses. I had my own horse. It was given to me. My dad built a little shed behind the house.

My dad didn't have very good luck and he never married again. He paid Italian families to keep us during the day and he kept us at night. There were three of us, my brother who's older than I, my sister, who's younger than I am. Dad worked in the mill, off the trimmer.

I started school at City Grammar. I didn't speak any English. Which was okay, until the other Italian kids taught me some four letter words. Mrs. Gerard made me eat a bar of soap. Before I didn't know what I was saying, you know, but I knew then. Oh, yeah. I didn't swallow it. Them days the soap was real bad. I only got one bite out of it and that was enough.

I rather enjoyed not speaking English, to tell you the truth, because I was getting out of a lot of stuff. Then, before that school year was out, I was speaking English, because I had to speak it outside, too. Playing, I had to speak English.

And if we didn't want my dad to know what we were doing, we spoke English. Eventually he learned some English, of course. He could never read or write, but on money, on change, you could never fool him. No way! He got that one figured out.

I was a regular hellion. I just did everything. I didn't do any stealing or anything. But a lot of fights. A lot of wrestling. Just a rugged old boy. I was just stronger than they were.

I think I started boxing about ten or eleven. That's about it. I didn't like football. I didn't like baseball. I couldn't hit that damn ball anyway.

The Community Club was open. That's where Fort Bragg City Hall is now. That was a big, fine place to congregate, play billiards or pool or go swimming, basketball. We could just drop in. We played baseball down at that field. We'd go in there any day. If it was locked we'd crawl over the fence.

I went to school in Fort Bragg until the Depression, then I left school to help my dad save our home. I went to work logging in the woods for Union Lumber Company at 21¢ an hour. I was 15, I guess. As long as they wanted you to work, you worked. I was a big boy. There were other boys out there, men and kids both. I rather liked working in the woods.

During the Depression, if it hadn't been for the Union Lumber Company, Fort Bragg wouldn't have fared well at all. The Union Lumber Company gave us this credit, so much a day, and in that way we were able to make it. But if it hadn't been for that credit, I don't know. See, my dad was buying this house and lot. He bought the lot from the Union Lumber Company. So we were very much afraid of losing our home on that one, the big problem. $900 for the house and $60 for the lot was the cost.

When I was 19 I left the woods and went to work for the Fort Bragg Police Department. No one ever asked me my age. Let me tell you something—if you couldn't whip them, you didn't take them to jail. Nobody just voluntarily went along. They were mostly drunks. Go in by twos? No way! You were alone! Period! Oh, we had a few murders. But mostly, though, just drunks raising hell and tearing up bars and that kind of stuff.

Dick Warden was managing the Community Club. Where the swimming pool was, he built a deal inside that could house some spectators to watch the swimming, and they fired him over it because he didn't have permission. So, the city of Fort Bragg hired him to be the chief of police. When he hired me he had a thick Penal Code that was several years old. He said, “Take it home, study it.” That was the training.

I was never one to frighten very easy. I could really handle myself. I belonged to the John Barney Club, and I taught boxing, so I wasn't easily intimidated. John Barney was the West Coast Lightweight Boxing Champion and was the City Marshal in Fort Bragg, before they had a Chief of Police. He had a boxing club in Fort Bragg. That was good for us ruffians. That's where I learned to box.

Basically I just handled drunk and disorderly behavior. You took them before the judge, them days. Nowadays you can keep them four hours or days and turn them out, but them days, you couldn't. You had to take them before the judge. As a rule he just scolded them and let them go. Or if they had $5 on them, he’d charge them $5. Whenever somebody's drunk and raising hell, it's always a problem. That could have been in any of the bars that used to be here. There were 29 bars in Fort Bragg while I was in Fort Bragg law enforcement, if my memory is right.

One night, I put five people in there. Not all of the bars would call you. You see, them days there used to be a Bay State Restaurant and they handled the call light. They had a red light on each intersection in town, and if they wanted the police, they'd throw that switch and a red light would come on. Eventually you'd see it. Then either you'd call in or you'd go to the Bay State and they'd tell you where to go. By that time it could be over. They started doing that way early. It was there when I went to work. They stopped doing it when the radio cars came in. There were just lights hanging from a lightpole or right in the center of the intersection and you would just see that red light on and you would just check in. It worked pretty good.

I went to work for Dick Williams, the sheriff of Mendocino County, in 1938. Do you know, my district for policing was the whole Coast, plus Covelo, Leggett Valley and parts of Ukiah. They were all old people over here, so they'd call me for these special jobs.

We had all kinds of different murders, stabbings, shootings, suicides. But mostly just brawls and domestic disputes. No mafia or anything like that. Most of those got cleared up and taken care of. Heat of anger sometimes makes things difficult. Jim Bush was the District Attorney. He and I handled eleven murder cases and got convictions on every one of them. The murderer would have to get his own attorney them days, or the court would appoint him one. Very unlikely the court would appoint. Them days, it was the best they had.

Now, if he doesn't have the money for an attorney, you have to appoint him one. Them days, you didn't. Now you have to advise him of his rights. Really, I don't believe in this. I'm still a redneck. But it's the law, so we have to do it. It was really our own fault that those laws were enacted. We would not let them see an attorney. We didn't have to, them days. Also, you kept him in jail for several days without taking him to court. It wasn't right.

So then the attorneys got together and had these laws passed; that took the balance of justice completely off side. We were doing it because we didn't know the difference. I really don't like the thing that everybody should have the protection of the law. If an attorney tells them not to talk to you, he don't. Then, if you didn't get it by advising him of his rights, and letting him talk to an attorney, they won't listen to it—they throw it out of court. And I don't think that a mistake that I make should excuse his crime. An attorney telling him not to talk interferes with being able to find out what happened.

I think the County was fair in the 30s and 40s. Them days, people lived on honor. But, them days, poor people never did get a fair shake. Colored people didn't have much chance. Joe Perry lived in Fort Bragg, and he had to leave. They accused him of burning something down. So he moved over to Ukiah. When I was a deputy sheriff in Ukiah, he was still working at the Palace Hotel. He was quite old. He must have left Fort Bragg in the 20s. He made a living being a boot black. Everybody, them days, used to have their shoes shined, even the women. He was the only bootblack in town. He had a girlfriend in Richmond. He went down and visited her. He would give her all this money that he made. Then her boyfriend came home and he killed Joe.

I went into the service in 1942. I was sergeant of police in the ski troops, 10th Mountain Division, Army. At the end of the war I went to the College of Florence, Italy, and got my college diploma there. I was 26.

Then I came home and went to work for Sheriff Bev Broadus. Williams had gone out. Sheriff Broadus sent me to U.C. Berkeley to the first police school they had down there. I was there for three months. It was pretty intense. Also, I had gone to the FBI academy in Virginia during my war years. So all my adult life I've been in law enforcement.

Sheriff Reno Bartolomie

I worked in the Sheriff’s Department the whole time until I ran for Sheriff. People were trying to get me to run all the time. I became a candidate in 1952 and went into the first term on January 3, I955. I was Sheriff for 20 years until 1975. My election committee was from all over the County. Carroll Ornbaum was the chairman of the campaign committee that would give you advice on what to do. Louis Cavallini from Fort Bragg was on the committee. David Giusti was my Coast representative. Not Ernesta, that’s a different Giusti. These people raised money for me, you bet! I would never let them take over a certain amount. We had these big dinners that we made quite a bit of dough off of.

Prior to announcing for Sheriff I quit working for the Sheriff and sold cars. I made quite a bit of dough. I just worked for Cadillac and Ford.

I had a county-wide coalition of different people. The first time I ran for office, it cost me $9,000. Most of it I had saved up and then contributions came in, even 50 cents. A lot of these people would sent it over. That's how we paid for it. I lived in Ukiah after moving there in 1945.

I started out as a candidate in 1952 and I walked this county for almost three years. I was the first politician ever to campaign house to house in Ukiah and it took me two years. I door-to-doored it around the entire County! They fed me meals, they did everything!

There were something like 14,500 registered voters and I talked to every one of them! I missed some and they would send me cards, showing me how to get to their house, because I said I would come around. One couple in Ukiah bought me a pair of shoes. I wore out a pair of shoes! Imagine that!

There were five of us in that race. It was really a nasty, dirty campaign too, because some of those people would say that if I was elected the Pope would be running the County. Used to be, the Maple Cafe where the Palace Dress Shop is now, was a real popular place. It was absolutely crowded this one day with John Rawls’ campaign committee. He had been inspector of the Highway Patrol and was also running for Sheriff. They were all seated at this big long counter. I walked in and one of the guys that really wanted to see John Rawls win turned around and spoke to me. “Here comes Bartolomie. Hey. Bartolomie, I hear if you're elected you'll open up the whorehouses.” I said. “Yeah, and I was thinking about hiring your wife to run them.”

You coulda heard a pin drop all over that damned place!

There weren't many Italians in Ukiah but you can imagine every Italian in the County would vote for me. There was quite a few of them in Fort Bragg. There were a thousand Bartolomies out here and every time I saw one, it was, “Hey, Pisano!”

There was a runoff between myself and Bev Broadus, the sheriff. It was a pretty lively campaign, very mean, very bad. But I won.

My vision at that time was to clean up this county and I did. There was open prostitution both inland and on the Coast. It wasn't organized. The gambling was a racket and everybody lost money. The games were crooked most of the time. So I notified the Chief of Police in Fort Bragg that if they allowed this to continue, I would arrest them, throw them in jail. It all ran through the saloons.

The prostitution came separately, in rented rooms. Do you know where the Club Fort Bragg was? Upstairs there, then several places down the alley had them. I went over and arrested nine prostitutes one day and hauled them all to Ukiah.

See, I knew everybody in Fort Bragg at that time. So I went over there and I went in and told each of the bartenders, and the owners, “There'll be no more gambling. That's it.” If there was any more I was going to lock up the place and take their license off the wall, which I couldn't have done, but it worked. That was in 1956, approximately. There were people that would be employed by the bar owners to hold these games, for a split.

I got asked a lot, oh sure, to open up prostitution again. And gambling. Gambling is a lot of money and it don't cost much to get into it either. Like I told them, if you want to legalize it, do it, but as long as it’s on the books, I'm going to enforce it.

Them days. whoever was on the City Council over there ran the show. The Council hired the Chief of Police and the council was elected. The mayor usually was a powerful man. Whoever seen him first, got what they wanted. I never did dwell too much on that. But when they told you not to do something, they didn't want it done.

They used the police department to back something up. But the thing is, the police were told not to do it, too. If you valued your job, you didn’t do it. They could only control just what was in the city limits.

My dealings with them is, I did it on my own, because the Sheriff is the chief law enforcement officer of the County. There was a little conflict but I didn’t pay any attention to it. 

Years ago I raided a whorehouse in Willits. And before we could even get the women out of there the mayor of the city was there and he says, “What are you doing here?” I said. “If you don't get out I’m going to throw your ass in jail!” He did. He took off. I was no sissy, by any means.

And listen, dear one. I never turned my head for nobody! No way! I put my own father in jail for being drunk once. The judge fined him $15. He was 55 or so.

The strike? Sure was a dirty thing. It was terrible. Beat hell out of the workers and that kind off stuff. The Fort Bragg City got a hold of Sheriff Broaddus. So he sent me over. We used to have special deputies. Bill White, who was really the chief criminal deputy, he deputized in them days. He deputized some of the special deputies to go over there. We'd stay there for a week, then things would kind of quiet down, so we'd go back to Ukiah and then things would start up again and we’d go on over.

We helped the Fort Bragg police and kind of quelled it a little bit, but then a striker threw a rock through a lumber truck windshield and hit the truck driver in the face. I made an arrest up at Rockport. The truck driver pulled a gun, shot it a couple of times, didn't hit anyone. I got there about that time, arrested the guy that threw the rock and took the gun away from the driver.

Then the strikers would get on the railroad tracks. See, that's a felony, to get on the railroad track to stop a train. So, there were a lot of arrests made there and I made most of them myself. Right there at the Union Lumber Company yard. At that time it was all open. They tried to stop the lumber trains. Women would get on there with their little kids. What a terrible thing. They’d grab a hold of that train engine. Terrible! I got them off the track. What else? Pretty easy to get them off, once you arrest two, three of them. They all knew what I meant when I told them something.

I really put the strike completely out of my mind, to tell you the truth, other than them guys causing trouble. I think it was wages that they wanted, and they demanded to see the Company books and that kind of stuff. No one is gonna give you their books, no one, I don't care. The Company didn't determine any of my activities, at no time. And you know, when I became a candidate all those strikers supported me and voted for me and gave me money. They knew I was a fair guy.

I had to use a gun a couple or three times in my career. Them days, we had the State Hospital out here at Talmage and they had Ward 14, which was the criminally insane. They'd break out every once in awhile and they'd find a weapon that they'd hidden. So I had to shoot one of them once. But I just shot him in the leg. He dropped the gun.

Oh, I got shot in the head too. Over in Anderson Valley. Put a niche in my head. I was still living in Fort Bragg, as a deputy sheriff, and, of course, I was the youngest man, so they sent me over there. I got the guy, handcuffed him, and this kid come out and shot me in the head. I had a fellow with me who was not a deputy. He run up and yanked a .22 out of the other guy's hand and they took off and we hauled him back over to Ukiah and I had a headache for three months. The doctor looked at my head and said, “Reno, you forgot to duck on this one.” It just put a little furrow in my skull.

Now really, I’m happy to see that people can make a living, no matter what. We have a very good school system, with good education. Prisoners are being treated humanely now and that's something I always did. My wife and I used to fly into New York or Los Angeles. I'm not kidding, ask my wife. Some guy would holler from the other end of the airport, “Hey, Reno,” he says, “How's the best jail in the United States? That was yours, Reno.” You could eat off that floor in there. I kept it clean, checked it every single day and fed good meals, two and a half meals a day.

In Fort Bragg they weren't able to house people. It was an old dirty jail, stunk to beat hell. Then they had cells in there without any toilets or any running water, Them days, they managed, they had to.

The only thing I would have done different in life was not to get beat in that last election. I had just built that big facility out there, with government money, plus I was the first elected County wide officer from Fort Bragg. There had been no other. It's awful hard to say why I lost. I think, really, what happened is that a great many people would come up to me and think, “You don't need my vote; I’m not even going to vote. Complacency had set in, And after I lost, then they would call me — right to this day, they’d tell me, “If we'd known that, we would have sure voted!” I think that was it.

Well, I don't like living in the past. I wouldn't want too much of it to come back. But what I would like to see is where a man's handshake is his word. Do you know what I mean? We lost it, for one thing, there's too much money for the individual out there. People got bought off.

My life was always excitable. To pinpoint one thing is real difficult. I had a rich life. I had a good life. I loved it. I’m so damned busy doing nothing I never get a day off.

(Reno Bartolomie died in 1990. Courtesy, ‘Fort Bragg Remembered,” by Bruce Levene and Sally Miklose, 1989)


  1. Duncan Jamed September 3, 2023

    From a person who worked with him during the last seven he served as Sheriff I can say without a doubt he was a great person and Sheriff. Through the arrests of Charles Manson in Leggett on July14, 1967 and many members of the Manson family in late 1968 in Philo, including Susan Adkins; the hells angels; Jim Jones, and many others, his main concern is protecting the people in this county. To me he was a very special who taught me many things during a portion of the time I served as District Attorney. He is always in my mind and heart. DUNCAN JAMES, Mendocino County District Attorney, 1969 through 1979

  2. Matt Kendall September 4, 2023

    I remember Sheriff Bartolomie. I was just a little guy when he would stop by my fathers fire station for coffee when he was in the Covelo area.
    Dad always said he was a good man and a good sheriff.
    As my father’s issues with Alzheimer’s became worse he and I were having a conversation and he asked me what I did for a living. I explained I was the county sheriff. Dad’s reply was “BS! Reno is the sheriff!”
    He then cautioned me about wild tales as they could make their way back to Reno. I couldn’t resist calling Katrina and letting her know, according to Burl Kendall, Reno would always be the Sheriff of Mendocino County.
    He definitely had a long lasting impact on our county.

  3. Ronald Parker September 4, 2023

    Reno was my first sheriff in 1967. He was a great boss. He knew everyone and was very well respected. He was willing to change with the times and was never a micro manager. If you had an assignment he expected it to be done well. He appointed great undersheriffs like Bobbie Richardson and Tim Shea. He argued with the Board of Supervisors on behalf of us deputies. It got to the point he had to threaten to withhold services to their districts to get what was needed. Sometimes it worked sometimes it didn’t. He worked very well with the District Attorney, DOJ, other local law enforcement, and the FBI. I was very sad when he was not re-elected in 74. But I think it was part the revolt against Nixon that carried over to lots of local elections.

  4. Ronald Parker September 5, 2023

    I have to add another note. As I remember Reno Bartolomie he did not speak in the manner recorded in the bio. He was very articulate. I can’t imagine him speaking like this. Where did this story originate?

    • Mark Scaramella September 5, 2023

      “Fort Bragg Remembered: A Centennial Oral History,” by Bruce Levene and Sally Miklose, 1989. Published by the City of Fort Bragg. According to the intro the Q&A interviews were “edited into first-person narratives.”

  5. Katrina Bartolomie September 5, 2023

    It’s so nice to read this – thank you for sharing! My Dad had lots and lots of amazing stories! We had great times riding our horses, hunting (one of his favorite spots was Greenfield Ranch when Annie Greenfield owned it and the Folsom Ranch when Mary Dale Folsom and Tico were alive) cutting firewood and fishing in just about every river we could find – my Dad LOVED the outdoors; he had an amazing garden that fed us all summer long and into the winter with my Mom’s canning. He was a gourmet Italian cook, of course he never had a recipe! He loved our County, we were all safe and grew up staying outside playing until dark, walking to and from school and riding our bikes everywhere. My dad started the Mendocino County 4-Wheel Patrol, Mounted Posse and Air Squadron – we would all camp for a weekend in Eden Valley during their training sessions each year. He loved an adventure – we went to see Evil Knievel attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon outside of Twin Falls, Idaho! My family had a great life lead by an amazing man! We miss him everyday! Thanks again!

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