Lloyd Sampsell, California’s ‘Yacht Bandit.’

A free chapter from my latest book ‘Murders, Mysteries and Misdemeanors in Southern California,’ out now online and in bookstores.

“I don’t know why this should bother me, but why in the hell should people be interested in what the condemned man ate for breakfast?” – Sampsell just before his execution.

   Lloyd Sampsell was a bank robber, killer and thief like any other. Unlike most California crooks Sampsell travelled in style. Bonnie and Clyde fled from shoot-out to shoot-out crammed into a Ford V8 with the rest of the gang and their private arsenal. They hid in creek beds, washed in river water and only occasionally used motels, ‘motor courts’ as they were then called. Often dirty, unwashed, exhausted and constantly fleeing from the law they were also amateurs with little understanding of major-league armed robbery.

   Sampsell, together with long-time partner Ethan McNabb and a revolving cast of other crooks, travelled by yacht. The proceeds of several bank robberies bought him the motor yacht Sovereign. From Los Angeles to Vancouver, Sampsell and his men cruised up and down the Pacific coast, putting into harbour only when they needed fuel, supplies and money.

   It was unusual but also intelligent. Posses and search parties are usually found on land while Sampsell and his men were usually at sea. To avoid maritime pursuit Sampsell might have moved outside US territorial waters as though he were crossing a county or state line. Once outside US jurisdiction pursuers would (in theory) have to stop. Whether they actually would have is more debatable.

   Whenever the gang needed money the solution was simple; put into a harbour town and rob another bank. Essentially Sampsell and McNabb were among the last of the buccaneers, pirates who lived aboard ship but only operated on land. They seldom saw land apart from renting an exclusive apartment in Seattle, Washington. Sampsell liked his creature comforts, washing in riverbeds and sleeping in cars was not for him.

   Sampsell’s criminal pedigree was considerable. He claimed to have taken over $200,000 from over 100 robberies in a career lasting over thirty years. $200,000 may seem small for so long a criminal career, but it was interrupted by over two decades in prison. Sampson was averaging $40-50,000 per year at a time when honest workers often earned less than he stole.

   Ultimately it did him little good. Despite his haul Sampsell died broke. Running the Sovereign and the expensive Seattle apartment had been expensive before lawyer’s fees added to his outgoings. Even writing and filing his own appeals from Condemned Row ate into his remaining funds. When his affairs were settled after his execution Sampsell had just $5.27 to his name.

   Like most professional robbers he regarded gunplay as the mark of an amateur. Unlike some professional robbers (Willie Sutton and Roy Gardner for instance) Sampson’s guns were always loaded and with real bullets. Sutton kept his Tommy gun unloaded. Gardner once loaded a revolver with imitation pine-wood slugs. Sampsell always loaded live ones. Eventually one killed a bystander and Sampsell paid the price.

   His execution in 1952 was the result of a moment’s over-aggression, the kind of amateurish blunder Sampsell himself looked down on. To Sampsell being a professional criminal meant acting like a professional, not a cowboy like Clyde Barrow or a homicidal sadist like ‘Baby Face’ Nelson. If anyone else had done it Sampsell would have had some choice words to say about them.

   That was not his only accomplishment. During an earlier stretch for armed robbery Sampsell also inadvertently inspired the formation of the California Department of Corrections. A scandal caused by his manipulating a prison warden cost the warden his job, forcing the Department’s creation after a lengthy inquiry led by California Governor and future US Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren. Though largely forgotten today Lloyd Sampsell holds an often-overlooked place in California crime. Though Sampsell himself is long-dead today’s California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation lives on.

   While Sampsell’s criminal pedigree was impressive Ethan McNabb’s social pedigree was even more so, at least according to McNabb himself. The black sheep of a prosperous New England family, McNabb claimed to be descended from Ethan Allen, leader of the Green Mountain Boys militia unit prominent in the Revolutionary War. Pre-dating the war itself they were disbanded in 1779 and re-formed for the War of 1812. Today their lineage extends via Vermont’s National Guard. If true McNabb was far from his family’s first to earn a reputation for hit-and-run tactics. Whether descended from high society or not, Ethan McNabb was a full-fledged outlaw.

   Although he died in 1952 Sampsell had been making headlines since the early 1920’s. He was active even before then, just not as prominent. He never held the national notoriety of Jesse James, John Dillinger or America’s other top-flight outlaws, but in California he was legendary. Managing a three-decade career in armed robbery without having killed anybody was unusual. Cruising the Pacific coastline like a latter-day Bloody Morgan was pure tabloid-fodder.

   Sampsell was unusual for his lifestyle. He was also a highly-intelligent, educated man, an intellectual who happened to rob banks for a living. In truth that counted against him, being bright enough not to need to steal did him no favors with California’s justice system when it could catch him.

   When it did Sampson turned his considerable brain to fighting his own case with advice from ‘Red Light Bandit’ Caryl Chessman. Chessman, a criminal of no great note but a writer of considerable substance, turned his case into an international issue. A willing and able student, Sampsell’s abilities kept him out of the gas chamber for five years but not forever. So gifted was Sampsell that even prosecutors were impressed. California’s Assistant Attorney General Clarence Linn described one of Sampson’s writs as “One of the best pieces of work I’ve ever seen.”  In April 1952 the Yacht Bandit was finally torpedoed. Chessman would follow him on May 2 1960.

   Born in Missouri in 1900 Sampsell was a natural criminal. Early petty crimes saw him sent to a Missouri reformatory as a juvenile offender. Aged only eighteen Sampsell escaped and was recaptured. It was then that he literally learned the ropes as a sailor, his maritime education coming via the Dollar Shipping Company based in California. Now renamed APL (American President Lines) the Dollar company had no idea he was a criminal. Sampsell learned well earning the rank of Bosun.

   It might have been better if he had stayed at sea. The early Roaring Twenties and Jazz Age saw him keeping less legitimate company, specifically Ethan McNabb. Despite his blue-chip birth (claimed or genuine) McNabb was a criminal from his boot-soles up. Like Sampsell he was an intelligent, educated man who preferred stealing money to earning it. Intelligent thugs are often among the most dangerous. Their ability to mix brains and brawn sets them apart from their more brutish peers. The ‘Yacht Bandits’ fit that bill to a tee and were about to begin their run.

1923 saw them begin their careers as big-league criminals. It also saw them serving their first stiff sentences and in a particularly rough prison. Opened in 1852 San Quentin welcomed them through its gates in 1923 and there they stayed for several years. Neither was impressed by the conditions at what California’s underworld called ‘The Q.’

   Both being accustomed to high-living and creature comforts Sampsell and McNabb found San Quentin had neither. It was a place of harsh discipline from guards and rampant violence among convicts. The biggest daily problem was mere survival. The mood was not lightened by its regular hangings, often more than one convict at a time.

   They left vowing to find a better way of avoiding detection. The maritime-minded Sampsell soon figured one out. His nautical and criminal experience suggested the sea was a far superior hideout to the land. They would meet fewer people, fewer Coast Guard boats to avoid or bluff and fewer chances of being dragged back to a life sentence or worse.

   With Sampsell’s sailing skills it seemed like the obvious solution. Before satellite surveillance and social media it was a wise idea that Sampsell would use later. Before then they decided to raise funds via a different though no less illegitimate means, the black market arms trade. Gun-running could be a gold-mine for enterprising crooks with ready sources of supply and demand and no less than Roy Gardner had tried his hand at it. With guns so easily obtained north of the Mexico border the best customers resided due south.

   There was one blot on their copybook in 1928, the Mexican affair. Illegal arms dealing was risky business at best, but the profit potential was huge especially with a conveniently-placed customer. With periodic revolutions, coups (failed and successful) and regular civil unrest Mexico was the ideal place to sell large amounts of firepower to anyone prepared to pay. Always assuming they had the funds and were prepared to do honest (f illegal) business.

   Had the scheme worked they might have made their money and abandoned robbery as a profession. Gun-running was highly illegal and not without personal risk, sometimes considerable. It was also a chance to make big money with lesser risk than regular robberies where they could be killed at any time. Trying to run guns and one million rounds of ammunition safely through a rebellion proved a dismal failure, especially as they were selling to the rebels. Government forces took a dim view and competitors were always a potential problem.

   Unfortunately for Sampsell and McNabb the illegal arms trade is a cut-throat business with double-dealing, fraud and theft considered standard practise. When their deal fell through their chance of making their fortunes remained exactly that, a mere chance. 1928 had not gone well for them. Pooling their diminished resources the pair bought the Sovereign from previous owner Louis Vergelius and 1929 marked their return to full-time thieving. It also marked their return to prison with one major difference; Ethan McNabb would not leave prison alive.

   One final land-based foray using an expensive San Francisco apartment complex as a hideout was a mixed blessing. It was a place where crooks were unlikely to be found so helped them avoid detection. Their own carelessness did not. Calling himself ‘Lloyd Summers’ Sampsell lived there with McNabb and Sampsell’s wife Lydia. Outwardly they were respectable, prosperous citizens. Well-mannered, urbane and polite, the trio took care not to stand out except on one occasion. That was their downfall.

   When they ordered an expensive car shipped from Seattle to a local garage they made a schoolboy error. Instead of clearing the car of anything incriminating they had left most of their weapons and equipment inside. Garage manager Tago Nielson took little time wondering why the car contained chemicals used in safe-cracking, automatic pistols in every pocket and several different sets of license plates. He took even less time informing local police who promptly arrived fully-armed and fully expecting a shoot-out. 

   The shoot-out never happened, but police were still surprised by what they found. Taken by surprise the trio were arrested without a fight and the two parolees (already with two convictions apiece) were in serious trouble. If the car was a treasure trove of evidence the apartment was a positive goldmine. High-powered rifles, tear gas guns, automatic weapons, ammunition for every weapon and a large pile of cash were discovered. To make matters even worse the $10,000 in the apartment was identified as coming from an unsolved bank robbery in Berkeley.

   At that point the ‘Yacht Bandits’ might as well have been the ‘Three-time Losers.’ Quickly extradited back to California, they were also headed back to a long stretch at Folsom Prison. It was a prospect neither viewed with any pleasure. San Quentin had been California’s first and only state prison until Folsom opened in 1880 and its grim reputation was no secret. Neither was that of Folsom. If anything Folsom was even worse and the pair had drawn life sentences.

   Their time together at Folsom was tumultuous at best, the pair eventually being separated for security reasons. McNabb stayed at Folsom while Sampsell returned to San Quentin with an armed escort. Though they would never see each other again after their separation they were still enduring similar if separate lives. Neither was enjoying it much.

   They had been separated partly because they were friend and accomplices but mainly for persistent escape attempts. Had they been so difficult a few years later they would likely have gone to Alcatraz. With Alcatraz not opening until 1934 they were split up instead. They proved as much trouble apart as they had been together.

   In 1930 Sampsell and McNabb vanished only to be caught hiding under Folsom’s blacksmith shop. In 1932 they were caught attempting to have guns smuggled into Folsom for which McNabb was shipped to San Quentin. In 1933 Sampsell and new escape partner Marty Colson took five hostages. Quickly surrounded by armed guards Sampsell gave himself up. Colson took his own life rather than endure Folsom any longer.

   At San Quentin McNabb’s record was even worse and it quickly cost him his life. In 1934 he was one of four convicts who disarmed a guard and took him hostage. Using the guard’s gun McNabb tried to murder a tower guard and failed. Guards shot and killed one of the escapers and captured the others.

   Despite not having killed anybody McNabb and fellow escaper William Bagley were condemned to hang. Under Section 4500 of the California Penal Code any lifer committing assault with intent to cause serious injury could be executed although very few actually were. The rule had been inaugurated specifically for Jake ‘Human Tiger’ Oppenheimer (see Murders, Mysteries and Misdemeanors in Northern California) and retained to deter other convicts. On September 6 1935 Bagley and McNabb were executed under its provisions. Theirs were the thirteenth and fourteenth of seventeen Californian executions that year alone.

   They mounted the gallows together at 10am on Friday 6 September 1935. McNabb was calm to the end, meeting death with composure and assurance. Bagley had been severely beaten the week before attempting to escape the condemned cells then known as ‘Hangman’s Hall.’ He was skinny, hobbling and trembling as he mounted the scaffold. Before they died McNabb muttered quietly to his co-defendant “Take it easy, Bill.” McNabb’s sister Mary was unable to take it easy. Ten days later she attempted suicide in Chicago.

   Over at Folsom, Sampsell doubtless knew of his partner’s execution. Whatever effect it might have had on others it did nothing to deter him. If anything it probably inspired him. Gaining the confidence and trust of Warden Plummer (too much of both as it turned out) Sampsell arranged assignment to a work camp outside the walls. The resulting scandal cost Plummer his job, resulting in an inquiry led by California Governor and future Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren and the founding of the California Department of Corrections.

   Under Plummer’s lax administration Sampsell later admitted he was regularly allowed to visit girlfriends in several different cities, lived in his own private bunkhouse, had been allowed to attend a dance and go shopping more than once. Arrested at the home of girlfriend Jacqueline de la Prevotiere, Sampsell quickly told all.

   Sampsell remained at Folsom until 1947. On being paroled he almost immediately returned to bank robbery. On 27 March 1948 he was robbing the Seacrest Finance Company in San Diego when customer Arthur Smith tried to grab his gun. A flustered Sampsell for once lost his trademark nerve and shot Smith dead then shot and wounded a police officer before fleeing. Although now on the FBI’s Most Wanted List he continued his series of robberies as though nothing had happened.

   Of course something had happened, certainly to the customer and police officer. Sampson probably knew it was only a matter of time before he would pay in full for the slaying. McNabb had gone to Hangman’s Hall for only trying to kill a prison officer. Sampsell had injured a policeman and murdered a citizen as well as being a committed felon with a lengthy record.

   He knew full well Calfornia’s rigid attitude towards his crime. Sampsell now faced a penalty newer than McNabb’s but no less lethal. In 1937 only two years after McNabb’s execution the gallows had been discarded. If caught, Sampsell was facing something new; the gas chamber. Before long he would be caught and from then his fate was sealed as tight as the chamber door.

   Sampsell (by now the father of a young son) simply continued robbing up and down the Pacific Coast. He now had nothing left to lose. He was captured for the last time in Tucson, Arizona on March 25 1949, almost exactly a year since murdering Arthur Smith. By the end of that year he had been tried, convicted and condemned for first-degree murder. Sitting in his cell he decided that San Quentin’s new ‘Condemned Row’ (previously the top floor of North Block) was not to his liking. Something, he decided, had to be done.

   Just as he had fought outside of the death cells Sampsell would continue his fight via the legal system. Having arrived in May 1948 Caryl Chessman was a prodigy among death house lawyers, eventually delaying his execution until 1960. Both very intelligent men, his friendship with Sampsell led to Chessman advising him on his own appeals. Sampsell too had a certain talent for  law, evading the executioner for almost five years with clever, well-presented motions and writs.

   As good as they had been Sampsell’s legal manouvers eventually came to nothing. He led the State of California a merry dance through state and Federal courts but eventually it was time to pay the piper. His last appeal was denied, his final date set for Friday April 25 1952.

   This time there would be no escape, legal or otherwise. Security precautions on Condemned Row made a break impossible, not that successful escapes were Sampsell’s strong suit. Just getting as far as the prison yard involved escaping a locked cell, a secured elevator and five locked doors and gates without being clubbed or shot dead. It was hopeless even to contemplate the idea.

   Legally, things were no better. Governor Warren was uninterested, almost certainly remembering the fuss Sampsell caused at Folsom years before. The State Supreme Court likewise saw no reason for a stay. Federal Judge Louis Goodman, a jurist known for his fairness especially in capital cases, also saw no reason to delay things further. Barring a sudden change of official mood or a legal miracle Sampsell’s race was run.

   Sampsell had already accepted his fate. He had remarked once to Warden Harley Teets that his legal fight was only postponing the inevitable and he was right. No convict with his record was likely to escape execution, especially not one so notorious for his crimes, prison record and antagonizing penal officials. The elevator down from Condemned Row would be his last ride, the dozen steps between the ‘ready room’ and gas chamber his last mile.  

   On April 24 he was taken downstairs. On the brief walk from the cells it was customary for the prisoner to say their last goodbyes if they had any. With that done the elevator would take them down. They seldom went back up. That particular elevator stopped only on the ground and top floors, its sole purpose transporting convicts between the yard and their cells or their cells and the gas chamber.

   Inmates winning last-minute stays often had to be helped back up to their cells, their nerves shattered. A few were certified insane, the strain having proved too much. Others walked out into the general population with their sentences commuted to life. Some of those would eventually leave the prison altogether after earning parole.

   Lloyd Sampsell would not be one of them.  He owed California his life and California was determined to collect. Even had he scored a legal victory or Governor Earl Warren granted clemency it would probably have made little difference. At some point during his incarceration Sampsell had contracted double tuberculosis. If the chamber had not claimed Sampsell double TB very likely would have.

   His last twelve hours were spent under the permanent watch of two death-watch guards. Inside his barred cage Sampsell regaled them and the prison Chaplain with stories of his glory days. At 5am he began writing letters to those he felt like writing to. There would be no more visitors besides the Warden, two Chaplains and the prison doctor.

   Occasionally there was a noise from the chamber room next door. The guards prepared as quietly as possible but the occasional sound was unavoidable. Sampsell remained impassive, knowing what the sounds meant did not shatter his measured calm. Sampsell was ready to go. He knew he was almost certainly going to go. At 10am the next morning the Yacht Bandit finally did go.

   Byron Eshelman was San Quentin’s Chaplain from 1952 to 1971. Part of his job was counselling the condemned if they wanted his help and he often spent their last hours with them. His book ‘Death Row Chaplain’ is required reading for anyone interested in San Quentin and America’s death penalty. He visited Sampsell during his last night and shortly before his execution with Father Dingberg and takes up the story:

“I appreciate your being here.” he told us, “But please make it clear that you are here only as friends, I wouldn’t want to make it look like I was getting weak at the last minute and grabbing at the crutch of religion.”

   He had left seven letters in the hands of Associate Warden Douglas Rigg to be delivered after his death. He also took a brief moment to thank Warden Teets, a man known for his compassion toward California’s condemned. Once California’s Public Enemy Number One, Sampsell would die exactly three weeks after his fifty-second birthday.

   Sampsell’s wife came to see him before his transfer to the ‘ready room.’ Bernadine, known in 1929 as ‘Lydia Summers,’ had moved to Sacramento but still visited him a week before he died. His parents, now elderly and infirm, saw him for the last time three days before he died. Theirs was a heavy burden to carry, their visit a sad one.

   Shortly before dying Sampsell saw Eshelman and Dingberg for the last time. He wanted no prayers or Bible readings at his execution or funeral. He remarked “This is no time for pretense and insincerity and that’s all it would be for me.” His last words were to Eshelman, Dingberg and Warden Teets. Wanting to ensure he had left something decent behind him Sampsell remarked to Teets:

“They say I’ve lived a wasted life. But look, here’s something I’ve never told anyone. I’ve got a son. He’s six-foot-three and 170 pounds. He’s married, got two kids. He’s in the service overseas now. So I’ve left something good. You can’t say my life was wasted.”

   With that Sampsell walked his last mile unaided at his own request. As he sat down the straps were buckled and the extended stethoscope quickly applied. Sampsell was curious about the straps, watching intently as they were pulled tight. While being prepared Sampsell noticed a familiar if not necessarily friendly face, Deputy Sheriff Frank Wilson of Alameda County. Recognizing him, Sampsell twisted round as far as his restraints permitted and shot Wilson a long, slow wink.

   At 10:03am the lever was pulled. Ten minutes later California’s former Public Enemy Number One was dead. Despite the adjoining witness room being designed for approximately forty witnesses around eighty had gathered to watch the legendary Yacht Bandit die. As Father Eshelman later described it:

“When the heavy metal door slammed shut, he fingered his wedding ring. The pellets splashed into the acid under his chair. He took a deep breath, gasped a few times but died more peacefully than most men do in the chamber. It was as though he wanted to sleep.”

Sampsell’s story appears with those of fifteen other notable California criminals in my latest book ‘Murders, Mysteries and Misdemeanors in Southern California,’ available in bookstores and online.

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