It was November 21, late Saturday afternoon the week before Thanksgiving in 1964.
“Code 30. An officer’s been shot. Ambulance en route,” stated the dispatcher over the crackly police radio airwaves fifty years ago, reporting the unfolding drama of the biggest police shoot-out in Santa Clara history.
It was a planned grocery store robbery that misfired tragically before it even got underway. The shoot-out began in the parking lot of what was then called Food Villa Plaza at Stevens Creek Blvd. and Lawrence Station Road (now Lawrence Expressway), continued at a shopping center at Lawrence Station and Homestead Roads, and ended in a final shoot-out several blocks away at a house on Yale Lane.
At the end, Santa Clara police officers James R. McNamara and Lonnie Weger had been shot and critically wounded. Bystanders Darrell Rives and Harry Rasmussen had been shot. Rives’ car had been commandeered for a get-away car and his unlicensed sixteen-year-old son kidnapped at gun point to drive. And the teen’s kidnapper, Robert McIntosh, had been shot in the head.
All survived except McIntosh, who died in the hospital days later on Thanksgiving Eve. Officer McNamara was shot three times, including one bullet that lodged in his spinal cord, and leaving him a paraplegic. The second assailant, Carl Casperson, went to prison but was later killed in a dramatic escape attempt.
For the those caught up in the shoot-out, the event eclipsed the one year anniversary of the death of President John F. Kennedy the following day on November 22. And now, fifty years later, they recall the Food Villa shoot-out perhaps more vividly than JFK’s assassination.
About 50 family members and retired and active officers from the Santa Clara Police Department gathered November 21 to relive the day that changed lives forever. Paul McNamara, son of paralyzed officer James McNamara, who left the police department and became a watchmaker, organized the private gathering at American Legion Post 419.
“The Food Villa shoot-out continues to have an effect on people. There has been no closure. I organized this so these guys and our families can have closure. It was therapeutic,” says McNamara.
Santa Clara Police Chief Michael Sellers, with Mayor Jamie L. Matthews in attendance, presented the McNamara and Weger families with a City Proclamation of appreciation for the contributions to Santa Clara safety by their late fathers.
Former officer Jim Washburn, who was Officer McNamara’s partner, vividly recounted his struggle to take down armed assailant Carl Casperson and prevent his own gun from being fired at him.
“It’s been difficult for me. Six months after this took place, I left the department. I was a wreck. The last time Paul talked to me, I couldn’t talk about it. I remember every detail like it happened yesterday. But today, I think that monkey is off my back,” says Washburn, who went through his life and death struggle before post traumatic stress disorder was named much less treated.
“Training wasn’t what it is today,” says retired officer Rex Macer, hired the same day as McNamara. “There was no academy, no formal training. You learned on the job. You relied on your brother officers to help you out. There was no communication when you were out of the car. Whatever happened, you just handled it.”
Ron Rives shared his memories of being kidnapped to drive the getaway car.
“I remember it vividly, like yesterdayâ€”it’s not something you forget. It was a hardship,” he says. Rives’ father, unable to perform his work due to the bullet wound to his arm, lost his job.
“I learned just how unreliable eye witnesses are,” continues Rives, now, ironically, a criminal defense lawyer. “I learned from firsthand experience. I remember the gun pointed at me not the man holding it.”
“It was a major deal for that day. These things have lingering effects on victims. We need to do whatever we can to stop violence and not become callused to it,” he says.
“A lot of people after going through that may not pursue that career,” says Officer Weger’s son Rob Weger. “Dad returned as a sergeant. It was a calling for him to be a police officer. He leaves a legacyâ€”my brother Rick joined the San Jose Police Department.”
“My heroes have always been cops and always will be,” says Jim McNamara, named after his father. “Thank you very much for the work you do, the sacrifice you make, to keep us safe. My gratitude is beyond words. If my dad was here, he’d really be stoked.”
Paul McNamara (firstname.lastname@example.org) is writing a book about the Food Villa shoot-out and invites anyone with information or recollections of it to share them with him. An exhibit is now being planned for Central Park Library’s Heritage Pavilion.