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Sheriff Breen a heroic local figure

By Adam Madison

Triplicate staff writer

John R. Breen, known as "Jack," by his friends and acquaintances, had a colorful career as a local law enforcement official.

Breen was also one of the first local figures to show support for Del Norte youth by starting the first Boy Scout Troop in the county.

Breen and Judge Tryon started Boy Scouts of America Troop 10 in 1922 with a few other community figures. Troop 10 was sponsored by the local Kiwanis club.

Breen was elected Del Norte County sheriff in 1919 and held the position for 16 years.

As a sheriff during Prohibition, he had a fair share of adventures involving boot-leggers. Most Del Norte residents disagreed with the law, so the law-enforcement relied mostly on tips.

One of Breen's Prohibition-era arrests involved finding a hidden still inside of a hollowed out 40-foot tall redwood tree.

The operation was difficult to locate, because the fumes from the malt and the smoke from the fire underneath the still were carried up the tree. The still was also 10 miles out of town.

The 8x8-foot room could only be reached by crawling into it.

Breen booked a man named Tracy for boot-legging, confiscated the still and brought back a 10-gallon jug of moonshine after the arrest.

Breen collared another boot-legger named David Peake, who served moonshine out of an innertube.

Peake was the proprieter of the Valley Restaurant in Smith River, where he dispensed his illegal product.

Breen went into the busy bar, asked Peake to hurry up, but when Peake was about to dispense the fire-water, Breen took him into jail.

Breen's most talked about adventure was his involvement in tracking down three bank robbers.

On October 24, 1924 two men robbed the Del Norte branch of Liberty Bank and took off with $11,000 in cash. The bandits tried to push the get-away car off the ledge of The Bluff Highway, so the law would lose their trail.

The car was stopped on a stump, 6 feet from the road, so authorities found it soon after the chase.

Once again, an "anonymous tip," provide the information to where the bank-robbers were hiding.

The tip led Sheriff Breen and his men to Moseley Ranch at Fort Dick. The robbers and the driver were in a room underneath the barn, reachable only through a trap door. William Bott, Bill Ryan and Fred Coleman had the means to stay hidden—the room had electric lights, running water and a gas stove.

The robbery happened on a Friday, but by Wednesday of the following week all the robbers were caught.

After the case was solved, Breen was called a hero for cracking it.

As a stage driver for the livery stable he ran with his brothers Joseph and William, he drove the mail delivery stage.

The trip from Crescent City to Grants Pass, Ore., took the mail stage-coach three days to complete. Some of the first roads they used were Native American trails, making some sections dangerously narrow.

Reach Adam Madison at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

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