Chapter Six of my manuscript titled “Jailbreak” tells the story of the deadly attack on young jailer, John St. John, by a savage prisoner that almost cost the future detective his life.
February 27, 1947. John St. John was twenty-seven, single, living with his parents in Southwest LA, had seven years on the force and had just been transferred from the city jail to juvenile jail. He’d just reported to duty (with a slight hangover) to a cell where prisoners convicted of crimes ranging from burglary to armed robbery were engaged in a lively bullshitting session. Suddenly, St. John noticed the prisoner who’d taken a shower headed toward the office where the jailer stored his .38 in a locker. Worried the prisoner would get to the gun before he did, St. John went after him, returned him to the cell, and counted the remaining prisoners. But he miscounted by one, thinking the prisoner he saw lounging in the corner was still there. He wasn’t.
St. John just made the biggest mistake of his long and illustrious career. He forgot to lock the cell door.
With the door unlocked, the inmate took a steel pipe he’d worked loose from his bunk, told the other inmates he’d kill anyone who’d snitch on him, and snuck into a nearby plumbing closet. St. John returned the showered kid to his cell and focused on a group of waiting prisoners. With his attention diverted, the inmate raised the pipe over St. John’s head and brought it crashing down. The jailer fell to the ground, semi-conscious with blood pouring from his skull.
The inmate screamed, “You son-of-a-bitch, Motherfucker! Die!”
St. John and the inmate were locked in a life-or-death battle. The inmate swung the pipe back and forth over St. John’s head like a baseball batter swings a bat. St. John held his hands over his face with blood onto the floor. Finally, one of the prisoners shouted, “Enough!” With his concentration broken, the inmate headed toward the nearby gun locker. St. John crawled to his desk and pressed the alarm bell. When he looked up, there was the prisoner, over him holding the bar. The two men fought, St. John was wild, crazy, throwing punches knowing he either had to fight or die.
Suddenly, St. John’s assistant, who’d heard the alarm appeared. He couldn’t get in because St. John had the only set of keys. The inmate waved the bar high over St. John’s head, prepared to deliver the final death blow, when the assistant leveled his gun through the bars and screamed, “Stop! Now! You’re dead meat!” It was over.
St. John’s injuries: loss of the sight of his right eye. Broken teeth. Several vertebrae broken. Loss of sensation on the right side of his face. What he did gain was a special feeling for victims.
He told Howatt, “When I see a dead body on the floor, blood running like a river, his face smashed to pieces, teeth knocked out, eyes with that death stare, I know I am the only one who can stand in his shoes because I’ve almost been that person. I will fight for him like no one else can.”