Stealing a page in local historical records are the infamous Napa County bandits, robbers and desperadoes. The most noted are the cunning thieves such as Buck English. However, even the bumbling bandits have bungled their way into Napa County history books. Johnny Wooden was one of those ill-fated outlaws.
Wooden’s entrance into those records began in 1895, in St. Helena. Wooden should have known his planned heist of the Carver National Bank was ill-fated when his alleged partner, G.H. Hurd, backed out. Yet Wooden chose to go ahead with his plan.
Wooden wanted to survey the bank before any of its staff reported for work. At 7:30 a.m., he entered the bank while his longtime acquaintance Henry Jenkins was sweeping the floor. Wooden then asked Jenkins if he would like to make some easy money. Jenkins’ quick answer of ‘yes’ was followed by the question of how. Wooden nonchalantly replied, “Why rob this thing!,” reported the Napa Register. Jenkins told Wooden he wanted to think about it. After “casing” the bank, Wooden informed Jenkins it would be an easy job. Before leaving, Wooden told Jenkins he would be back before 3 p.m. for Jenkins’ decision.
After Wooden left, Jenkins went to the bank manager, Mr. Spurr, to inform him of the situation. Jenkins also told Spurr “to watch Wooden as he was a desperate man,” said the Register. After his conversation with Spurr, Jenkins sent word to Wooden of his decision not to join the heist.
Still needing a partner-in-crime, without a thought, Wooden approached Lloyd Parks, the Windsor Hotel porter. Once again, Wooden asked the question regarding making easy money. After Parks answered yes, Wooden outlined the bank robbery plan for Parks. He feigned eagerness and interest to keep Wooden from suspecting his law-abiding intent.
Following the fooled bandit’s departure, Parks went to his employer, Mr. Kenyon, with the news.
The Register continued, “Kenyon then notified Deputy Sheriff Rednall who telephoned for Undersheriff Brownlee. That officer and Secord drove up from Napa and secreted themselves to await developments.”
Brownlee and the newly deputized A.B. Swartout hid in the St. Helena bank. Secord kept the bank under surveillance from Mr. Reynold’s shop across the street.
Completely ignorant of what had transpired, Wooden continued with his plan. Around 2:30 p.m., he hired a horse and saddle from the Mason and Sink’s Livery. Wooden rode the horse to the back of the bank. After securing the reins to a hitching post, Wooden casually walked back to the Windsor Hotel to speak with Parks.
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Wooden then instructed the porter to buy a piece of rope at Steves Hardware. He also gave Parks a silk muffler. At that point, Wooden divulged the entire plan to Parks.
After Wooden gave the signal, he would “go to the bank and cover cashier Kroeber and assistant E. H. Baldwin with his gun,” wrote the Register. With the rope, Parks was then supposed to tie up the two employees and gag them with the muffler. Next, Parks was instructed to “enter the vault, get the money, run out the back door, mount the horse and ride away to be joined later by Wooden,” it said.
Once again, Wooden left blissfully ignorant. To continue the ruse, Parks pretended to carry out the plan by purchasing the rope. From the hardware store, Parks went to the authorities to update them. At the same time, Wooden went to the bank for change and to survey the place. Only cashier Kroeber was there, or so he thought.
Wooden quickly returned to the hotel and told Parks, “Now is the time. There is only one of them there,” said the newspaper. But Brownlee and Rednall were waiting for Wooden as he exited the hotel and nabbed him.
The officers led Wooden upstairs to the parlor to confiscate his gun. Wooden claimed his weapon was in the hotel office. Brownlee informed the would-be robber he would be searched anyway. The Register continued, “And as Brownlee unbuttoned the lower button of Wooden’s vest, the fellow attempted to pull a revolver from his belt.” Rednall grabbed Wooden and Brownlee snatched the gun before the prisoner could fire the weapon.
The three men sustained only a few scratches during the brief struggle. By 3:16 p.m., all three were aboard a Napa-bound train.
The Register described Wooden as “well-known in Napa County. He has lived in Wooden Valley, Napa, and for several days has been around St. Helena.”
While in jail, Wooden made the following statement to the Register. “It was all a mistake; that his proposition to Jenkins was only a joke and was what any man might say in a jocular way.”