By Fred Swegles
“Wrong Place, Wrong Time,”the headline proclaimed.
SAN CLEMENTE—A large crowd was gathered around a pickup truck, police were told, and there appeared to be a fight.
A police officer was dispatched quickly to the scene, just outside the Halfway House at about 9 p.m. Saturday.
A fight in progress? Quite the contrary, police reported.
“A subject and his spouse,” the officer said, “were doing what a husband and wife are supposed to be doing in a bedroom.”
Only they were in the front seat of a pickup truck in a parking lot.
Police arrested the man on a drunk charge and dispersed the crowd.
As many of you readers will remember, the “police blotter” was, until recently, arguably the most popular section of this newspaper, and of my former newspaper, the Sun Post News.
The Sheriff’s Department no longer releases brief descriptions of police calls that newspapers could publish as a listing.
Readers devoured it, were sorry to see it go.
The above news brief, which I believe I wrote 40 or more years ago, is an example of San Clemente’s old-school “police blotter.”
We didn’t publish any listing of police calls back then. Instead, we’d cherry-pick incidents to publish with a short narrative.
NO WEB ACCESS
There was no police website. No Internet. Reporters did it the old-fashioned way: sit at the police desk and flip manually through incident sheets—every police call for the previous 24 hours—on Rolodex sheets listing the time, place, who handled the call and a description.
For serious crimes or arrests, traffic deaths, injury collisions or other newsworthy incidents, we’d speak with the sergeant or an investigator—whoever could tell us more to craft a story.
If there was a fire, we would walk next door to speak with firefighters.
If we found something inconsequential but interesting, the basic narrative on the Rolodex often was sufficient.
There was plenty of serious news that we covered. My old clipping files include lots of crime stories, some quite dramatic, even stunning. But the vast majority of calls police receive, as you know from reading “police blotter” listings in recent years, don’t turn out to be hardcore. Some can be amusing. No wonder “police blotter” lists became so popular in newspapers.
Back in the day, we just handled them differently.
TRY TO PICTURE THIS
A routine marijuana arrest wasn’t worth a news story. But one narrative on the Rolodex was so out of the ordinary, I wrote it up.
Two undercover officers (who could pass for long-haired hippies) had been driving north on El Camino Real, downtown, in their ratty old undercover car. At a red light, they noticed two occupants of a car to their left, passing a joint.
The officers glanced over. The smokers noticed, held up the joint and smiled. The undercover officers smiled back.
At the next stoplight, the two smokers held the joint as if to say, “You want some?”
The officers grinned back, gesturing toward the parking lot of what is now Rite-Aid.
There was an exchange of some pot. The undercover officer, reaching for his wallet, instead pulled out his badge.
No one at the old Daily Sun-Post ever thought of compiling a list of police-blotter items.
Since we published Monday through Friday, we could mine the police blotter daily for any quirky items to appear as news briefs, mixed in with our newsier public safety stories, human interest stories, city council coverage, business pieces, sports, surf and more.
On rare occasions, a funny headline was worth concocting.
I once wrote two short sentences about a bungled attempt to steal a car battery. Headline: “Thief commits assault on battery.”
Another time, flowers were reported stolen from a front yard. Headline: “Begonias begone.”
AND, MEANWHILE . . .
Headline: “Punishment Fits the Crime.”
When two shoplifters were allegedly caught Wednesday afternoon at the Victoria Market, 201 Avenida Victoria, Officer Craig Kelsey and the store’s proprietor reached prompt agreement on how to handle the matter. The two suspects—ages 7 and 8—were taken to their parents to have the sentence pronounced.
“They will return to the store for the next two days to clean the parking lot,” police decreed.
WE ALL SCREAM FOR . . .
One news brief, an 11 p.m. call to police reporting someone screaming as if in pain, brought officers rushing to the scene.
“This was children playing with ice cubes, putting them down each other’s clothing,” the story said.
Another story was titled “Bottle Was the Culprit.”
The suspect in a rock-throwing incident Saturday proved to be a very uncanny fellow. “The suspect,” police said, “proved to be a half-empty bottle of apple juice that had fermented. It had exploded, causing a window to break.”
An apartment dweller had summoned police, “very upset,” to report someone had thrown a rock through her window. “It turned out the woman wasn’t nearly as broken up about the incident as the suspect,” the story stated.
SUSPECTS’ UNLIKELY DISGUISE?
Three auto theft suspects came well-dressed Thursday night, when they checked into the San Clemente Jail. They wore peek-a-boo blouses, slacks, makeup, false eyelashes, flashy hairdos, jewelry and perfume. Officers identified them as female impersonators. Police quoted the three San Diego men as saying they were “entertainers” when they were booked on charges of grand theft in connection with a trio of auto thefts here Thursday night.
The story said the suspects had driven two new 1978 automobiles and a used car off the lot at Hal Greene Chevrolet on El Camino Real, right over the curb. Police managed to recover two of the cars and make arrests in San Clemente; the third by another agency in San Diego County. “Police praised an employee at Mr. Pete’s Restaurant and a Marine passerby for quick reporting of the crime, which led to the arrests,” the story said.
This is a sampling of short articles some four decades ago that more recently might’ve been a one-liner in the police blotter.
My final decade or so covering news in San Clemente, I was assigned to work cop shifts at Orange County Register 13 weekends a year, spending my shift making calls to the Sheriff’s Department and every police department around the county, plus other agencies.
It took me little time to realize San Clemente was a relatively peaceful place to live.
Fred Swegles is a longtime San Clemente resident with five decades of reporting experience in the city. Fred can be reached at email@example.com.