He said, She said

A tale of cattle rustling and murder seems out of place in the outskirts of 1930s San Francisco, but as usual where crime is concerned, the truth is stranger than fiction.
 
For several months prior to the disappearance of rancher Frank Roderick, Sheriff James J. McGrath was investigating with little success reports of cattle being rustled from several ranches in San Mateo County. Complaints had come in from the Gallagher & Zink ranch, and the Lillicote spread that cows and steers were disappearing. Over the course of the investigation, the sheriff learned that at least a dozen head of cattle had vanished from those two ranches.
 
The only ranch in the area that was not reporting any losses was the Roderick ranch, leading Sheriff McGrath to conclude that Frank, 40, and his right-hand man, William Woodring, 44, were somehow tied up in the thefts. McGrath, however, couldn’t prove anything and there was no hard evidence to back up his theory.
 
The cattle rustling investigation went nowhere until May 20, 1930, when Frank’s 33-year-old wife, Minnie, visited county prosecutor Franklin Swart in Redwood City where she wanted to report that her husband had beat her, taken their life savings of $2,800, put on his “store clothes,” and left the ranch in the company of a mysterious “red-headed gal.”
 
“I only saw her a few times,” she told authorities. “When I asked my husband about her, he said ‘that’s for me to know and for you to find out.’”
 
Minnie, who had spent her entire life as a “woman of the earth” (one newspaper man’s description), swore out a complaint and Sheriff McGrath was given the responsibility of serving the warrant.
 
The complaint, originally meant to provide an explanation for Frank’s absence, turned out to be the impetus for an investigation that would not only break open the rustling, but that would reveal a murder conspiracy and send two people to prison for life (which, considering what used to happen to cattle thieves, might have been a lucky break).
 
When he went to the Roderick place, Frank was nowhere to be found, but his young son was sitting on the front porch.
 
McGrath figured this was a good opportunity to gather a little evidence about the cattle rustling and engaged the boy in some innocent conversation.
 
The boy eventually told McGrath that he had accompanied his father and another man to the Gallagher & Zink ranch in the middle of a moonless night where they made off with a large roan steer. The men took the steer to a nearby abandoned farm where Frank shot it in the head and butchered it. The boy told McGrath that they sold the beef the next day.
 
Based on his conversation with the boy — the elder of Roderick’s two sons — McGrath began talking with a ranch hand from a nearby place, Ernest Hildebrandt, who was implicated with Frank and Will Woodring in the rustling scheme.
 
Hildebrandt might have been a participant in the cattle theft, but his conversation with McGrath revealed much more than just a little rustling going on.
 
“I often heard Mrs. Roderick threaten her husband,” Hildebrant told McGrath. “A week before he disappeared, I heard her tell him to ‘get out of here or I’ll shoot your head off.’”
 
According to Hildebrant, Minnie was quite capable of carrying out her threat for she was a crack rifle shot. On another occasion Hildebrant said he saw Minnie attack her husband with a knife.
 
Their 15-year marriage was unhappy, the “slight and work-worn” woman admitted to authorities.
 
“My husband gave me this dress (a cheap brown velvet shift),” she told police. “It’s the only thing he ever did for me. The neighbors gave me my old coat and hat.”
 
When Frank didn’t like the food she prepared he boxed her ears, she said.
 
Based on the young Roderick’s information, McGrath visited a nearby building and found several cattle skins whose brands had been excised. The sheriff placed Woodring and Hildebrant under arrest and took Minnie back to town as a material witness.
 
McGrath suspected that Frank was dead and that he was buried somewhere on the ranch. A foot-by-foot search, however, failed to reveal anything resembling a grave.
 
Aside from Minnie’s threats against her husband, McGrath had no firm motive for Frank’s murder. He guessed that Frank had been killed because of a falling out among the rustlers or because there was a romance between Woodring and Minnie. The suspects denied anything untoward.
 
“I kissed her many times it is true,” Woodring told authorities. “But we were never intimate and Roderick was often present when we embraced. Kissing was the order of things around the ranch when we came in or went out.”
 
Minnie also demurred any relationship.
 
“I didn’t love anyone else and I want to go back to the farm,” she told McGrath after a third-degree session (by the way, the term for an intense and now-illegal interrogation probably comes from the testing a Master Mason undergoes in a Freemason rite).
 
“She lived the only life she knew, rearing her young sons, working indoors and out, milking cows, even working with a fork in the hay fields next to the men,” Minnie’s attorney told the press. “Why should she suddenly turn agains it all, when she had been happy all these years with her husband?”
 
Her lawyer, J.J. Bullock, added that Minnie had the “mentality of a child.”
 
The search continued for a month without success until in early June 1930 McGrath received a tip telling him to “look for the well. You’ll find the body there.”
 
McGrath never told who gave him the tip, but it probably came from either Hildebrandt, who was anxious to strike a deal for the rustling charge, or James McCraney, a 50-year-old hand on the Roderick ranch. McCraney had only been on the ranch for a week before Frank disappeared. He was never considered a suspect.
 
McGrath went back to the farm in search of a well, but just like his earlier search for a grave, the sheriff was unsuccessful.
 
There was, however, a newly graded road and cobblestone path. Neighbors reported that Woodring was fixated on grading the road to the exclusion of anything else. The farmers in the area told McGrath that the crops in the field were neglected.
 
McGrath turned to the county recorder for assistance. The recorder pulled the deed, which revealed that the Rodericks had purchased the spread just a few years prior from George Steinberg, the San Mateo county road commissioner. McGrath and Steinberg paid a visit to the Roderick ranch.
 
Steinberg stood at a corner of the house, looked in the direction of a large oak tree and began walking toward it. Going about 100 yards, he stopped and turned to McGrath.
 
“The well should be about here,” he said, pointing to a spot in the middle of the new road.
 
Summoning inmates from the jail, McGrath ordered the area excavated. They began digging with little success. The hole had been filled with farm debris, dirt and manure.
 
The diggers went down about 20 feet and were about to give up when one of the convicts unearthed a newspaper. It was dated May 22, 1930 — indicating the fill was recent. Energized, they continued to dig another six feet before uncovering a man’s hand.
 
Eventually they exhumed Frank’s body. He had been shot in the head with a .30-30 rifle.
 
“The position of the bullet wound indicates that the killer might have waited until Roderick had passed a certain place and then stepped out of his hiding place and fired,” McGrath told newspapermen. “Roderick must have been thrown into the well almost immediately after he was shot because the body is in a good state of decomposition.”
 
Woodring and Minnie were interrogated and each blamed the other for killing Frank. Her story was that Woodring and Frank had a falling out over the rustling and that Woodring fired the shot that killed her husband. Woodring then forced her to help dispose of the corpse and ordered her to file the battery charge with the claim that Frank had left her.
 
“She lies,” was how Woodring answered the allegations. “When she told me (she shot Frank) that was the first time I knew Frank was dead.” Woodring said he did help dispose of the body.
 
Both Woodring and Minnie did admit that they went out to lunch and then shopping after the shooting.
 
In Autumn 1930 the pair went to trial, each blaming the other for the killing and acknowledging only serving as accessory after the fact. The jury convicted them both of murder and the judge ordered them to prison for life.
 
Even after the sentencing, Woodring and Minnie each claimed they were innocent. Minnie collapsed in hysterics while Woodring was stoic.
 
“I can’t understand the jury’s verdict,” he told a deputy. “I am innocent and I hope Minnie will come clean some day and clear me.”
 
Woodring’s wish never came true, but reportedly Minnie was released from prison and lived to the ripe old age of 95.