By Cory Peterman
The Mountain Murder Mob
The subject of this week’s article was suggested to me several months ago by Clint and Donna Hayes, who wanted to know if the notorious Santo-Perkins Gang of the 1950s (infamously known as the Mountain Murder Mob) had any connections to Sierra County. To provide some background on the Mountain Murder Mob: various people were connected to the gang over time, but the most infamous members were Jack Santo, Emmett Perkins, and Barbara Graham. All three were executed on June 3, 1955 after being convicted for the murder of elderly widow Mabel Monohan that took place during a robbery on March 9, 1953 in Burbank. Barbara Graham’s life of crime was the focus of the 1958 film I Want to Live!, which landed actress Susan Hayward the Academy Award for Best Actress (a remake of the film was made for television in 1983, starring Lindsay Wagner).
However, the only members of the executed trio that were involved with crimes in Northern California were Santo and Perkins – who were also found guilty of the murder of Nevada City gold miner Edmund G. Hansen in 1951. Santo and Perkins, along with Harriet Henson, were also determined to be the killers of Chester grocery store owner Guard Young, his two daughters Jean and Judy, and a neighboring boy, Michael Saile. The four were bludgeoned to death during a robbery on October 10, 1952 (another daughter, Sondra, survived the attack). Henson was given a life sentence, but was paroled after serving only seven years.
Though none of the Mountain Murder Mob’s crimes took place in Sierra County (though it is likely the gang often passed through the area), it was a Sierra County resident that helped link the killing of Guard Young and the three children to Jack Santo. The Sacramento Bee of September 26, 1953 reported Plumas County sheriff Melvin H. Schooler “nominated Mrs. Fern Watters of Loyalton, the wife of a Sierra County deputy sheriff, for the $6,325 Guard Young reward. He explained Mrs. Watters suggested gang leader Jack santo might be the killer on October 27th, just 17 days after Young, a Chester, Plumas County, grocer, and three children were killed.
He said she became suspicious of Santo when Bernadine Pearney, a known associate of Santo’s, told her Santo had bought Miss Pearney about $600 or $700 worth of new clothes in Reno the day after the killings.” The same paper’s issue of May 7, 1954 reported “Speculation was rife today on the payment of the $5,000 reward money offered for the information leading to the arrest and conviction of the slayers of Chester grocer Guard Young and three children. Last September Sheriff Melvin H. Schooler stated publicly the ‘logical one to get the money’ is Mrs. Fern Watters, wife of Deputy Sheriff Percy Watters. Mrs. Watters is the one who informed Sheriff Dewey Johnson of Sierra County of a conversation with Mrs. Bernadine Pearney, one of Jack Santo’s girl friends, which connected Santo with the slaying.”
The Sierra Booster of May 14, 1954 reported “Fern Watters, a Loyalton girl, may receive up to $7200 in reward money for furnishing information that led to the arrest and conviction of the Jack Santo gang for the multiple Chester murders October 10, 1952. A few days after the murders Fern reported to Sierra County Sheriff Dewey Johnson in Downieville that Bernadine Pearney of Grass Valley had told her she had gone to Reno the night of the murders to meet Santo and that the gang leader had sponsored a big party which cost him a lot of money. Miss Pearney also displayed new clothes she said Santo bought her and told of others she had brought home…”
The article continues: “It is possible Fern Watters may receive $3000 from United Grocers, $2000 in the Plumas County Treasurer’s Office deposited from various sources, $1000 from the State of California and about $1200 in miscellaneous reward money. Fern is married to Deputy Sheriff Percy Watters and is employed in a Loyalton store. She and Percy have lived in Loyalton nearly three years and own their own home here.
At the time Fern gave her tip, there was no known reward offered. Friends feel she is to be commended for her alert work and brave decision to tell what she knew. They feel she is fully entitled to what reward there may be.”
However, Fern Watters wasn’t the only person to receive reward money, which seemed to have taken several years to sort out. The Oakland Tribune of April 11, 1960 stated “Five Claimants Seek $1,000 Offered in Guard Young Slaying – The claimants are an L. Restof, of Corte Madera; Howard Staats and W. J. Jensen, of Auburn; Fern Watters of Loyalton (Sierra County), and George Locatell, of Chester (Plumas County).”
Fern Watters later moved to Grass Valley. In 1961, it was reported “The last of $7,000 in reward money has been awarded to three persons whose information helped solve a murder committed nine years ago. A county superior court orders payment of $300 each to Howard Staats of Auburn, Placer County, and W. J. Jensen of Colfax, Placer County, and $372 to Fern Watters of Grass Valley, Nevada County.” Fern Watters passed away in 1985 at the age of 74.
Much has been written about the Mountain Murder Mob – I recommend reading about the gang online!