The Fall of Frank Egan

Frank Egan had come a long way from his humble beginnings as a truck driver. He became a San Francisco police officer, studied law at night, and eventually became San Francisco’s first chief public defender. He was appointed public defender in 1922 and held that office for a decade until the façade he had so carefully erected crumbled around him.
As a prominent attorney, Egan not only defended indigent criminal defendants, he managed to build up a lucrative law practice on the side that essentially consisted of fleecing elderly women of their life savings.
One of his easiest marks was also one of his earliest. Margaret Busch was a “half-demented, hunchback” heiress who was a strong believer in spiritualism. Thanks to the intervention of Egan, his wife’s aunt, a reputed medium named Maud Wilson, managed to exert near-total control over Busch’s considerable finances. Wilson also installed her niece, Lorraine Kip Egan, who was at the time secretly married to Egan, as Busch’s private nurse.
Busch had already deeded property worth $30,000 to Wilson, when Egan drew up paperwork that gifted the rest of her $125,000 fortune to Lorraine Egan (Those dollar figures translate to $450,000 and $1.8 million in 2012).
Just 48 hours after Egan filed those deeds of gift, Busch suffered a fatal fall down the stairs of her mansion. Her death was ruled accidental. Maud Wilson died suddenly shortly after Busch, leaving the $30,000 she received from Busch to her niece.
Busch’s relatives fought the deeds, but Egan managed to diffuse their resolve by stringing out the legal proceedings. Eventually the Egans settled out of court for $35,000.
Meanwhile, one of Egan’s other clients died allegedly of acute alcoholism. As her estate was settled, it was revealed that she had been signing over her $600 monthly alimony checks to Egan. No trace of that money was found.
There were other clients who suffered a similar fate, but the one who eventually brought down Egan at the cost of her own life was Jessie Scott Hughes.
Jessie was a long-time friend of Egan’s family who was pleased to be able to use the services of such a well-known attorney like Frank Egan. She trusted him implicitly until it was too late. When she threatened to go to the Bar Association with her concerns, Egan decided she had become a liability.
By that time Egan was well aware of liabilities. By April 1932, despite siphoning off tens of thousands of dollars from his gullible clients, Egan was in debt to the tune of $18,000 ($267,000 in 2006). In a scheme that would make Enron accountants proud, Egan was transferring money from one account to another in an attempt to forestall the inevitable collapse.
Jessie HughesOddly enough, police had an inkling that Jessie’s life was in danger. Nine months before Jessie was murdered, the San Francisco police department had placed a wire recorder in the office of Dr. N.S. Houseman, who was suspected of providing off-the-record medical attention to the city’s underworld characters. Houseman happened to be a friend of Egan’s. After learning that Houseman had tried to save the life of a wounded racketeer, police placed their listening device in his office in hopes of building a case against Houseman. What they heard was completely unexpected.
They didn’t learn much about San Francisco’s racket activities, but they did hear several men talking about killing Jessie Hughes. One of the voices on the wire was positively identified as Frank Egan’s. He told Houseman that he was planning to carry out his crime in October 1931.
Authorities rushed to Jessie’s home in time to see Egan leaving. They found Jessie alive and well. In a subsequent conversation Egan told Houseman that he decided against the plan because it was “too risky.”
Police, however, believed that Egan would try something else, and warned Jessie about the danger she was in. She dismissed their warning out of hand.
“Why, dear Frankie would never do anything to harm me,” she told detectives.
Still convinced of Jessie’s imminent harm, the chief of detectives began writing anonymous letters to her, warning her of Egan’s plans and urging her to terminate their relationship, but to no avail.
Meanwhile, Egan was making other plans for Jessie’s demise. He turned to a pair of ex-cons whom he had previously defended or lobbied for parole.
Albert TinnenBack in 1916, Egan successfully defended Albert Tinnin on a robbery charge. The two men forged a strong link during the trial, and in 1920, when Tinnin was charged with murder stemming from a robbery-gone-bad, Egan served as a defense witness. He attempted to provide Tinnin with an alibi for the night of the killing, but three other witnesses placed him at the scene and Tinnin was convicted of manslaughter.
Egan subsequently lobbied heavily for Tinnin’s parole.
“Egan exerted every influence to secure his release on parole,” said Assistant District Attorney Isadore Golden. “He importuned and solicited the parole board on Tinnin’s behalf at a time he was a public official of San Francisco.”
A month before Jessie Hughes was murdered, Egan was successful in gaining parole for his friend. Tinnin was subsequently hired as a process server for the Public Defender’s office.
The other participant in the plot was Verne Doran, whose career of petty offenses brought him into almost annual contact with Egan’s office between 1928 and 1932. Occasionally Egan was successful, sometimes less so, but Doran never spent any significant time behind bars until the Hughes murder plot unraveled.
“From 1930 until the present, the association of Egan and Doran was very close,” Golden said. “So close, that Doran served as Egan’s bodyguard and chauffeur.”
Doran’s mother lambasted Egan’s influence on her son.
“Frank Egan had a very bad influence on my son,” said Opa Carpenter. “I was at first proud that he should be associated with a public figure of the standing or Mr. Egan. I did not support, of course, that he would do anything that would lead to this.”
“This” was the premeditated murder of Jessie Hughes, which occurred on March 29, 1932.
Several weeks before the killing, Egan introduced Tinnin to Doran and the three men began spending a great deal of time in each others’ company. Egan also introduced the men to Jessie as messengers for him, so that she would not be surprised when one or both showed up at her home. Egan had Tinnin drop off small sums of money to Jessie, who was actively and publicly pressuring Egan to return some of her money under his control.
Verne DornanEgan had managed to wrest control of Jessie’s bankroll and had her deed her home over to him. He then allowed a friend to take out a mortgage on the home — a mortgage the man never planned to repay. It was when Jessie found out about this that she threatened punitive action against Egan and forced him to act.
On March 29 Egan phoned Jessie and said he would be coming over with a large check for her. Instead, he went to the Dreamland Auditorium with Dr. Houseman to watch the Friday night fights.
Tinnin and Doran showed up at Jessie’s home near San Francisco State University. She inquired where Egan was and they told her that he had seen his young son at a movie theater and stopped to speak to him. They urged her to put on her hat and coat and accompany them to meet him at Egan’s office. She declined. At some point around 7 p.m., the frustrated men knocked her out and dragged her unconscious body to her garage.
There Doran drove back and forth over her body in an effort to simulate damage from a hit-and-run accident.
Leaving the body in the garage, the men waited until dark (there was a fairly bright moon that night). Then they dressed her in a sweater and took her body to a nearby street, dropping the corpse at the side of the road.
The killers had already made several mistakes that would come back to haunt them.
They borrowed the car and told the car’s owner that Egan wanted to use it. The car left identifiable tracks in Jessie’s garage. The men placed her clean sweater on top of her soiled and damaged clothing, and did not know neighbors would tell police that Jessie never left her home without her hat.
Crucially, they did not count on being observed by an amateur detective who was also an auto mechanic.
Around 10 p.m. on the night of the murder, Warren Louw and his wife were returning from a night at the movies. They saw a large car “behaving most peculiarly.” It cruised toward them with its lights off, turned around and went back, and then turned around a second time, roaring past the Louws at speeds approaching 80 mph.
Louw not only managed to get a complete description of the car, he saw a partial plate.
When police were called to the scene, they immediately realized that Jessie’s death was not an accident. Not only was her body too cold to have been recently killed by hit-and-run driver, she was wearing a sweater that was undamaged. Her dress beneath the sweater was torn and stained.
In addition, neighbors told investigators that Jessie never left her home without her hat and coat (in April, the average temperature in San Francisco rarely tops 60 degrees). No coat or hat was found anywhere near her body. Jessie’s purse and keys were found inside her locked home, and it would have been impossible for her to get back into her house.
Egan appeared at the morgue after he learned of Jessie’s death and informed officials there that not only was he the administrator of her estate, he was the chief beneficiary of her will and had insured her for $10,000 with a double-indemnity clause for accidental death.
Egan didn’t know it, but police were already watching him after a wiretap accidentally uncovered an earlier plot to kill Jessie. That, combined with his windfall from her death, made him their prime suspect. However, Egan had a rock-solid alibi. He had been seen by dozens of people at Dreamland Auditorium, watching the Friday Night Fights at the time Jessie was killed.
Armed with the description of the car and the partial plate, police quickly traced the vehicle to a friend of Egan’s who told them that Doran had borrowed the car and told the owner that Egan needed it. They began looking for Doran and Tinnin.
When he saw that the plot was collapsing, Egan disappeared.
On May 2, the chief of the SFPD detective bureau was schmoozing with police reporters when he received an urgent telephone call from Egan.
“Two men have me and I’m innocent,” Egan shouted into the phone. “You know I had nothing to do with the death of Mrs. Hughes. You know I was at the fights.”
The connection was broken, but not until after Egan told his old detective friend that he was down by the bay ferry building. Despite the fact that officers from the police station across the street from the ferry terminal were over there within minutes, there was no sign of Egan. No one had seen him there, and no one noticed anyone making a telephone call from the pay phones there.
Police, meanwhile, were also searching for Doran and Tinnin, and missed arresting Doran that same night by a scant 15 minutes. Doran, it seemed, received a telephone call from someone — later determined to be Egan — shortly before the police raid and he headed toward Tinnin’s hideout.
Four days later, Egan surfaced — sort of — in the Park West Sanitarium, where he had been admitted by his attorney, Vincent Hallinan, a rough-and-tumble attorney known locally as the “Fighting Irishman.” Egan had been hospitalized there for nervous exhaustion. After Hallinan revealed Egan’s whereabouts, he was moved to a local hospital and then to his home, where police used his kidnapping report as an excuse to keep him under 24-hour watch.
Egan took full advantage of his right to keep his mouth shut and tell the police to take a hike.
“We do not propose to allow Egan to be questioned or interviewed,” Hallinan said. “He is not under any obligation to discuss his affairs with the police or anyone else.”
The same day Egan reappeared, Tinnin was taken into custody. An experienced con, he declined to speak with police.
Doran managed to elude police for a little longer, but he also was eventually caught.
Under the relentless squeezing by the press, Hallinan announced that Egan would meet with reporters to explain just what was going on. The press conference was scheduled for 3 p.m. on May 9, 1932, but it never occurred because unlike Tinnin and Egan, Doran opted to cooperate with investigators and spilled the whole sordid plot.
Assistant District Attorney Isadore Golden quickly convened a grand jury, which summoned all of the parties with an interest at stake. One of the first witnesses was Egan’s alibi witness, Dr. Nathan Houseman, physician to the underworld, in whose office police had recorded Egan’s early plot to kill Jessie.
Houseman assumed he was brought in to get his alibi testimony on the record, but little did he know that his office had been bugged. He was distraught when he left the grand jury room because prosecutor Golden confronted him with a recording of Houseman urging Egan to burn the car used in the crime.
Of course, Verne Doran was the most important witness.
“Albert Tinnin and I killed Mrs. Hughes,” he told the grand jury. “Frank Egan told us to do it.”
Doran described how he and Tinnin beat Jessie into unconsciousness, ran over her body with the car, and dumped it on Kenwood Way.
“Egan called me the next morning, told me things were getting hot, and that we had better get away,” Doran said.
In the county jail, Tinnin flatly denied Doran’s claim.
“Poor Doran. He’s lying,” Tinnin told reporters. “I don’t know that I blame him. He’s only trying to save himself.”
Doran turned state’s evidence after his mother, Opa Carpenter, told him to “do the right thing.” She blamed Egan for having a bad effect on her son. Doran saw how Egan was beginning to hang him out to dry, and jumped at the chance to save himself.
“I thought I owed Frank Egan a lot,” he said. “Even when he forced me into murder I tried to protect him. Then he ran out on me. I am sorry for Mrs. Hughes, but I am more sorry for my mother.”
Uncorroborated testimony isn’t enough to convict an accomplice, but it was sufficient to get indictments on Tinnin and Egan.
Before the indictment was announced, however, Egan disappeared a second time. Technically, because the indictment had not been filed with the court (it was handed up on a Saturday), Egan was not a fugitive. He stayed out of sight until very early the next Monday when in the company of Hallinan, Egan booked himself into the county jail.
The trial of Egan and Tinnin began on a hot day in August 1932 before a standing-room only crowd. Doran’s charges would be addressed separately after he cooperated with authorities in his co-conspirators’ trials.
In addition to Doran’s confession, Golden presented a strong circumstantial case against Egan. He managed to get Egan’s sordid history with his other clients introduced to show a pattern of behavior, and had forensic evidence, in the form of hair found in the death car that matched Jessie’s. In addition, Golden produced other convicts who claimed Egan had approached them about killing her.
The case also included testimony from the insurance agent who sold Egan the double-indemnity policy on Jessie.
Hallinan and Golden sparred repeatedly during the four-week trial, with neither man giving any quarter. At one point Hallinan personally attacked Golden during the lengthy testimony about Egan’s finances. He blurted out that of course Golden, who was Jewish, would be obsessed with money and finances and have a personal vendetta for Egan, a Catholic.
Golden stood up and quietly responded that he was not ashamed to be Jewish, and that he counted many leading Catholics as friends.
Court observers wondered whether Hallinan had simply lost his cool in the heat of the courtroom drama, or if his tirade was meant “to throw sand in the eyes of the jury.” Interestingly, Hallinan was not admonished by the court for his comments.
Hallinan debated whether or not to put Egan on the stand. Of course, a jury is not supposed to consider a defendant’s decision not to testify, but in reality this decision occasionally impacts jurors.
Golden did not expect Egan to testify.
“To put Egan on the stand would be equivalent to putting him on the scaffold,” Golden told reporters. “There are too many things to be explained away.”
Eventually, however, Hallinan did call Egan, who spent less than 15 minutes on the stand for direct and cross-examination. Hallinan wisely limited his questioning of his client, which prohibited Golden from bringing up other issues.
There was one more fireworks exhibit before the end of the trial during Golden’s summation. Hallinan repeatedly objected, interrupting the prosecutor at least a dozen times. Finally, the judge had had enough.
“You have been noisy, offensive, obstreperous, and contemptuous of this court,” said Judge Frank H. Dunne, ordering a pair of deputies to tak Hallinan into custody for contempt of court. Hallinan, living up to his nickname of the Fighting Irishman gave a good struggle and was dragged from the courtroom.
Again observers wondered if this was a trial tactic: Egan was denied his chief counsel during a critical phase of the trial, which could help in an appeal.
The jury deliberated for four days before finding both Tinnin and Egan guilty of murder. They declined to recommend the death penalty, so both men were sentenced to life in prison.
Shortly after they were sentenced, Doran received a two-year sentence for manslaughter.
Tinnin was sent to Folsom and Egan to San Quentin, where he was instrumental in teaching Caryl Chessman, the Red Light Rapist, about the law. Chessman used Egan’s advice to avoid numerous execution dates, setting precedent for today’s decades-long appellate review process for death penalty cases.
In 1957, Egan, now 75 years old, was paroled along with Tinnin. Egan’s wife had died in 1945 and at his parole hearing Egan said he was planning to live in Southern California with one of his sons, a plumber.