Drop it or Die!
Updated: Jan 19
A few months ago as I was returning from El Sauzal, a community just north of Ensenada in Baja, Mexico, I pulled up to one of our border inspection booths at Tecate, California and handed the Officer my passport card. Customs and Border Protection Officer Corbitt processed my passport information and looked at the license plate attached to the rear of my motorcycle. Below the plate is a small metal plaque which depicts the 3 inch, 5 shot .44 Magnum group that Jeff Cooper called an unofficial world record. I fired the group at the first .44 Magnum shoot held on September 16, 1961 at 8000 foot Onyx Summit south of Big Bear City, California. When he saw the group, Officer Corbitt asked me if I was Elden Carl, to which I replied in the affirmative. Before passing me through the port of entry, he told me that he had a copy of “Blue Steel and Gun Leather” written by famous holster maker John Bianchi. I was flattered by his request to have me autograph Chapter 11 in his copy of the book. He was referring to an account of an armed confrontation that I had with a knife wielding fellow in the Blue Jay Lodge on Mount Laguna in San Diego County in the 1970's.
We agreed to get together so that I could autograph his book, so I took his phone number and then unfortunately misplaced it before I could get back to him. Several months passed before I encountered him again at the border after a visit to Tecate for an appointment with my Mexican dentist, Dr. Gabriel Adame. This time we agreed to meet for breakfast the following week, but as it turned out, I had to cancel our meeting, after encountering some loose material left on a sharp mountain curve by a road construction crew. The resultant 102 foot slide in the ditch next to the road with my motorcycle on top of me required several weeks of healing time.
Because of my conversation with Officer Corbitt that day at the border, I decided to pull my copy of “Blue Steel and Gun Leather” from the shelf. As I dusted it off, I realized it had been several decades since I'd read the account in Chapter 11 of my armed confrontation in the Blue Jay Lodge. I decided to take a ride up to the lodge on Mount Laguna and go inside for the first time since that incident.
I have passed the Blue Jay Lodge many times while on motorcycle rides during the past 40 or so years, but finally parking my bike on their front lot and walking inside again seemed somehow surreal. The dumpy pool players' bar had been transformed into a classy, rustically furnished weekend breakfast place! I stood there trying to recreate the incident that happened all those many years ago in a dark and dingy bar. Here is the account of the incident as recorded by James D. Mason in Chapter 11, page 166 of John Bianchi's book “Blue Steel and Gun Leather.”
“One night he (Elden Carl) was called to a barroom fight where the adversaries were using pool cues as weapons. On entering the nightspot, Carl's partner observed three people bleeding, and two were holding pool cues. One rioter had a large, heavily bleeding cut on the forehead. Someone yelled, “He's got a knife.” Carl stepped to the left of the crowd at the door, stiff armed one rioter to clear the field and drew his Model 19. When the group saw this fast-draw action, all motion ceased immediately. Pool cues hit the floor, the folding knife went back into its pouch, and silence prevailed. Any hesitation on the part of law enforcement in this situation at such close quarters would probably have produced an escalation of the melee with possible injury to the officers, and the need for the application of deadly force. The speed and confidence of Carl's draw physically expressed his intention; the cost of continuous riotous action was too great and discouraged the assailants. His skill at that moment prevented more serious consequences.”
Despite the potential for great bodily injury presented by several pool cues and one knife, no one went to jail that night. Except for a lot of yelling and threats from a bunch of half drunk pool players, no one wanted to sign a complaint. The guy who was most unhappy was the city dude who owned the knife. The reason for his discontent was that I had confiscated his knife and he could only retrieve it by driving all the way back up to the Pine Valley Station after 8 am the following day.
On two other occasions when I was an El Cajon Police Officer I used an additional technique to control the movement and behavior of a suspect: a strong loud verbal command. The incidents occurred, as I remember, in between late 1961 and early 1962. In the first case I was riding shotgun with my training officer Jim Fields when we received an all units call of an armed robbery at the Magnolia Liquor Store located at what was then the corner of Magnolia Avenue and Fletcher Parkway. Since we were already headed north on Johnson Avenue, which intersects Fletcher Parkway, we advised radio that we would cover the call. Officer Fields accelerated and as we reached the Johnson and Fletcher Parkway intersection, he said, “There they are, east bound right in front of us!” With red lights and siren on we turned right onto Fletcher Parkway. It must have shocked the suspects because they pulled over almost immediately.
Officer Fields ordered the driver to operate the outside door handle with his left hand and exit the car with his back to us and his hands over his head. Once the driver was secured I followed a similar procedure for the guy in the front passenger seat except this time the suspect reached back into the car and came out with a paper bag held in his left hand and his right hand in the bag. With partial cover behind the right passenger door and my Model 19 S&W in my right hand pointed at the suspect, I shouted in a loud voice, “Drop it or die!!” The paper bag containing a pistol and the money instantly dropped to the pavement with an audible “clunk.” Since it was obvious what the suspect was up to, if he had done anything except drop the bag, he would not have survived. Good decision on his part!
The second time I needed to use the forceful “Drop it or die” command involved a guy standing next to his pickup truck in a dark alley at around 4:00 in the morning. As I turned eastbound into the north ally of the 100 block of east Main Street with my patrol car's lights off, I could see by faint light that someone was standing next to an unlit pickup truck's open passenger door. I immediately switched on my headlights and told the gentleman on my loudspeaker to face forward, grab the top of his open passenger door, and “Freeze! Don't move!”
With my flashlight in my left hand and holster unsnapped I moved around the back and to the right side of my patrol car. No sooner had I arrived at the middle of my car, approximately 18 feet from the man, when he let go of his passenger door, turned to the left and reached for something on the car seat. As his arms and hands came out of the car I could see he was holding something in his right hand. Knowing he had to turn left toward me to become dangerous, I shouted, “Drop it or die!!” My Model 19 came out of the holster with the first word, followed by a “clunk” after the fourth word as whatever he was holding hit the blacktop. I immediately directed him to face right, move forward and again grab the top of his open right hand door. At this point the man, who was garbed in hunting gear begged me not to shoot. I responded, “Don't let go of the door with either hand and you are in no danger!”
With my Model 19 still in my master hand, I moved forward to retrieve what turned out to be a loaded (previously pristine) 5” or 6” barreled chrome plated S&W .44 Special revolver, which was now scratched due to its fall to the blacktop. As I was patting the guy down, I asked him why he had a loaded pistol on his passenger seat and a 12 gauge shotgun in the rack above the seat back behind him. “Well, you see, Officer, I was on my way to go dove hunting out in the Imperial Valley when I had to pee. Since there were no open restrooms around, I pulled in to the nearest alley and was ready to relieve myself when you came up behind me. As your lights came on I realized you were a cop, and I got scared about my guns! I was afraid you might arrest me if you saw the pistol on my seat so I decided to pick it up and hand it to you.” I replied, “Thank God you didn't even begin to turn toward me while holding the pistol or we would not be having this conversation.”
I ran a check on the dove hunter and since he came back clean, I released him after giving him some advice: “In the future if you get stopped by a cop do exactly what he tells you, and don't improvise. It's bad enough that you now have scratches on your beautiful chrome plated 44 revolver, but one wrong move or hesitation on your part would have ended your life. Now please get back in your truck and head east on Main Street. Oh, and good hunting.”
And so ended the second of my two armed confrontations, one involving two felons, and the other an innocent dove hunter in which the properly timed command “Drop it or die!” worked like a charm. Of the more than half dozen armed confrontations I had during my police career only one upset me more than almost having to shoot what turned out to be an innocent sportsman. That situation involved two nasty, lying, drunks and a homeowner in his sixties who made a bad decision. He came close to being shot in the chest with a round from my Model 29 .44 Magnum. There will be more about that incident when I tell the story of my experiences with the .44 Mag which all began 10 years before “Dirty Harry” appeared on film.
I would like to mention that many old retired cops like myself, Sgt. Joe Wisdom of Phoenix P.D., and Lt. George Cretton of El Cajon P.D. are proud that we were able to avoid killing suspects in the line of duty, even without the benefit of bulletproof protective gear early in our careers.