The Sleepy Lagoon murder case

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What began as a neighborhood party during the summer of 1942 led to the largest mass murder trial in California’s history. After young Jose Diaz was found murdered near Los Angeles’ Sleepy Lagoon reservoir, 600 Mexican Americans were rounded up by the police, 24 were indicted, and 17 were convicted. But thanks to the efforts of crusading lawyers, Hollywood celebrities, and Mexican Americans throughout the nation, all 17 convictions were thrown out in an appellate decision that cited lack of evidence, coerced testimony, deprivation of the right to counsel, and judicial misconduct.

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Late at night on August 1, 1942, eight to ten uninvited young men were ordered to leave a birthday party at the east Los Angeles ranch home of the Delgadillo family. The party crashers ended up half a mile away on a “lover’s lane,” where they assaulted several young people parked by a reservoir nicknamed “Sleepy Lagoon.” The victims of the beating returned to their own neighborhood, collected a large group of friends, and returned to confront their attackers. Finding no one there, they followed the sound of music to the nearby Delgadillo party. What happened when they arrived would never be clear, but a brawl erupted inside and around the Delgadillo house.

Police arrived to find two stabbing victims. They also discovered 22-year-old Jose Diaz dying nearby on the roadside. Authorities blamed Diaz’s death and the fight at the Delgadillo house on a perceived “Mexican youth gang” problem in Los Angeles. Intending to extinguish gang-related crime, police used Diaz’s death as a pretext to arrest hundreds of young Mexicans and Mexican-Americans for offenses ranging from weapons possession to minor charges like vagrancy, curfew violation, “unlawful assemblage,” or possessing a draft card with an incorrect address.

By the end of the week, between 300 and 600 people had been detained in nightly police sweeps. Police singled out young “zoot suiters,” who wore extravagant wide trousers, drape jackets, and flamboyant hats.

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Twenty-two of the detainees were charged with murder and assault, while two others were indicted as juvenile offenders. They became known as the “Sleepy Lagoon defendants.” Prosecutors accused them of being members of a teenaged “gang,” which had conspired to crash the Delgadillo party in search of the group that had attacked them earlier. Since Jose Diaz was allegedly killed during a fight resulting from this conspiracy, the Sleepy Lagoon defendants were held collectively responsible for Diaz’s murder.

American participation in World War II played a major role in how the case was viewed. Conservative dailies like the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Examiner railed against “zoot suit hoodlums,” but skeptics derided the trial. The California Eagle, Los Angeles’ African-American weekly, accused the conservative press of manufacturing fake “crime waves” perpetrated by minority young people in order to perpetuate segregation. Each side accused the other of aiding Nazi attempts to sow discord in the United States during wartime. Worried over reports that the Axis powers were using the trial to encourage a fascist “fifth column” in his country, Mexico’s consul accused the prosecution and the conservative Los Angeles press of being motivated by racism.

 

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The Zoot suits riots-June 1943

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The zoot Suit Riots, a series of conflicts that occurred in June 1943 in Los Angeles between U.S. servicemen and Mexican American youths, the latter of whom wore outfits called zoot suits. The zoot suit consisted of a broad-shouldered drape jacket, balloon-leg trousers, and, sometimes, a flamboyant hat. Mexican and Mexican American youths who wore these outfits were called zoot-suiters. These individuals referred to themselves as pachucos, a name linked to the Mexican American generation’s rebellion against both the Mexican and American cultures.

 

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White servicemen and civilians attacked and stripped youths who wore zoot suits ostensibly because they considered the outfits to be unpatriotic during wartime, as they had a lot of fabric. Rationing of fabric was required for the World War II war effort. While most of the violence was directed toward Mexican American youth, young African American and Filipino Americans who were wearing zoot suits were also attacked

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The Zoot Suit Riots were related to fears and hostilities aroused by the coverage of the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial, following the killing of a young Latino man in a barrio near Los Angeles.

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The riots began on June 3, 1943, after a group of sailors stated that they had been attacked by a group of Mexican American zoot-suiters. As a result, on June 4 a number of uniformed sailors chartered cabs and proceeded to the Mexican American community, seeking out the zoot-suiters. What occurred that evening and in the following days was a series of conflicts primarily between servicemen and zoot-suiters. Many zoot-suiters were beaten by servicemen and stripped of their zoot suits on the spot. The servicemen sometimes urinated on the zoot suits or burned them in the streets. One local paper printed an article describing how to “de-zoot” a zoot-suiter, including directions that the zoot suits should be burned. The servicemen were also portrayed in local news publications as heroes fighting against what was referred to as a Mexican crime wave. The worst of the rioting occurred on the night of June 7, when thousands of servicemen and citizens prowled the streets of downtown Los Angeles, attacking zoot-suiters as well as members of minority groups who were not wearing zoot suits.

In response to these confrontations, police arrested hundreds of Mexican American youths, many of whom had already been attacked by servicemen. There were also reports of Mexican American youths requesting to be arrested and locked up in order to protect themselves from the servicemen in the streets. In contrast, very few sailors and soldiers were arrested during the riots.

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Shortly after midnight on June 8, military officials declared Los Angeles off-limits to all military personnel. Deciding that the local police were completely unable or unwilling to handle the situation, officials ordered military police to patrol parts of the city and arrest disorderly military personnel; this, coupled with the ban, served to greatly deter the servicemen’s riotous actions. The next day the Los Angeles City Council passed a resolution that banned the wearing of zoot suits on Los Angeles streets. The number of attacks dwindled, and the rioting had largely ended by June 10. In the following weeks, however, similar disturbances occurred in other states.

 

Remarkably, no one was killed during the riots, although many people were injured. The fact that considerably more Mexican Americans than servicemen were arrested—upward of 600 of the former, according to some estimates—fueled criticism of the Los Angeles Police Department’s response to the riots from some quarters.

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As the riots died down, California Gov. Earl Warren ordered the creation of a citizens’ committee to investigate and determine the cause of the Zoot Suit Riots. The committee’s report indicated that there were several factors involved but that racism was the central cause of the riots and that it was exacerbated by the response of the Los Angeles Police Department as well as by biased and inflammatory media coverage. Los Angeles Mayor Fletcher Bowron ,concerned about the riots’ negative impact on the city’s image, issued his own conclusion, stating that racial prejudice was not a factor and that the riots were caused by juvenile delinquents.

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A week later, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt commented on the riots in her newspaper column. “The question goes deeper than just suits. It is a racial protest. I have been worried for a long time about the Mexican racial situation. It is a problem with roots going a long way back, and we do not always face these problems as we should.” – June 16, 1943.

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The Los Angeles Times published an editorial the next day expressing outrage: it accused Mrs. Roosevelt of having communist leanings and stirring “race discord”.

On June 21, 1943, the State Un-American Activities Committee, under state senator Jack Tenney, arrived in Los Angeles with orders to “determine whether the present Zoot Suit Riots were sponsored by Nazi agencies attempting to spread disunity between the United States and Latin-American countries.” Although Tenney claimed he had evidence the riots were “Axis-sponsored”, no evidence was ever presented to support this claim. Japanese propaganda broadcasts accused the United States’ government of ignoring the brutality of U.S. Marines toward Mexicans.

The Battle of Los Angeles

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The Battle of Los Angeles, also known as The Great Los Angeles Air Raid, is the name given by contemporary sources to the rumored enemy attack and subsequent anti-aircraft artillery barrage which took place from late 24 February to early 25 February 1942 over Los Angeles, CaliforniaThe incident occurred less than three months after the United States entered World War II as a result of the Japanese Imperial Navy’s attack on Pearl Harbor, and one day after the bombardment of Ellwood on 23 February. Initially, the target of the aerial barrage was thought to be an attacking force from Japan, but speaking at a press conference shortly afterward, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox called the incident a “false alarm.” Newspapers of the time published a number of reports and speculations of a cover-up.

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Thousands of volunteer air-raid wardens tumbled from their beds and grabbed their boots and helmets–those who had helmets — and rushed into the night. Tens of thousands of citizens, awakened by the screech of sirens and the popping of shells, jumped out of bed and, heedless of blackout regulations, began snapping on lights. It was pandemonium.

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Although no bombs were dropped, the city did not escape its baptism of fire without casualties, including five fatalities. Three residents were killed in automobile accidents as cars dashed wildly about in the blackout. Two others died of heart attacks.

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Several persons were injured hurrying to their various posts. A radio announcer ran into an awning and suffered a gash over one eye. A police officer kicked in the window of a lighted Hollywood store and cut his right leg.

The toll among air-raid wardens was especially high. (They were said to have acted with valor throughout.) One fell from a wall while looking into a lighted apartment and broke a leg. Another jumped a 3-foot fence to reach a lighted house and sprained an ankle. Another fell down his own front stairs and broke an arm.

There was scattered structural damage caused by antiaircraft shells that failed to explode in air but did so when they struck the ground, demolishing a garage here, a patio there, and blowing out a tire on a parked automobile.

Exultation was in the air. The city had met its first taste of war with valor. It was exhilarating. But exultation turned to embarrassment the next day when the Secretary of the Navy said there had been no air raid. No enemy planes. It was just a case of jitters.

Embarrassment turned to outrage. The army was accused of shooting up an empty sky. The sheriff was particularly embarrassed. He had valiantly helped the FBI round up several Japanese nurserymen and gardeners who were supposedly caught in the act of signaling the enemy aviators.

Within hours of the end of the air raid, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox held a press conference, saying the entire incident was a false alarm due to anxiety and “war nerves.”

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Knox’s comments were followed by statements from the Army the next day that reflected General George C. Marshall’s belief that the incident might have been caused by commercial airplanes used as a psychological warfare campaign to generate panic.

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At war’s end, an Army document explained what had happened: (1) numerous weather balloons had been released over the area that night. They carried lights for tracking purposes, and these “lighted balloons” were mistaken for enemy aircraft; (2) shell bursts illuminated by searchlights were mistaken by ground crews for enemy aircraft.

The Japanese, after the war, declared that they had flown no airplanes over Los Angeles on that date. All the same, it was a glorious night.

A photo published in the Los Angeles Times on February 26, 1942, has been cited by some ufologists and conspiracy theorists as evidence of an extraterrestrial visitation. They assert that the photo clearly shows searchlights focused on an alien spaceship; however, the photo was heavily modified by photo retouching prior to publication, a routine practice in graphic arts of the time intended to improve contrast in black and white photos.

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While it’s likely that the Battle of Los Angeles was only a mirage, it was still a chilling reminder of the vulnerability that many Americans felt at the beginning of World War II. The Japanese would later hatch several schemes to attack the American mainland—including launching over 9,000 explosives-laden “fire balloons”—yet none of them ever produced the level of mass hysteria that accompanied the phantom shootout over Los Angeles. Even at the time, many journalists noted that it was fitting that the incident had taken place in the home of the film industry. In an article from March 1942, the New York Times wrote that as the “world’s preeminent fabricator of make-believe,” Hollywood appeared to have played host to a battle that was “just another illusion”

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