Jeff Jardine

Modesto’s cruising-era enforcer dies at 84

Former Modesto police Officer Leroy Applequist was honored with a “Legend of the Cruise” sidewalk marker on the Modesto Historic Graffiti Cruise Route Walk of Fame on 10th Street in Modesto on June 4, 2014.
Former Modesto police Officer Leroy Applequist was honored with a “Legend of the Cruise” sidewalk marker on the Modesto Historic Graffiti Cruise Route Walk of Fame on 10th Street in Modesto on June 4, 2014. Modesto Bee file

Cruisers remember Leroy Applequist.

Chances are, if they raced their cars on Modesto’s streets, he gave them a ticket. Over time, though, he also became their friend.

“I’ve had people stand there and cuss me out,” he told me when I visited him just over a year ago, only days before he was honored with a plaque on the Legends of the Cruise Walk of Fame in downtown Modesto. “Later, they’d come back and apologize, and I couldn’t even remember what they’d said.”

Applequist died Friday at age 84, and his passing came way too soon for Bob Guthrie and Gail Smith, who are in the process of documenting the history of the Modesto Police Department. They lost both a friend and someone who knew the very kinds of stories they are trying to compile.

“He knew a lot of the history,” Guthrie said.

He was a big part of it, the cruising era in particular. From 1955 through 1960, he spent his nights patrolling downtown and trying to keep order at a time when loud cars and thrill-seeking teens ruled the streets. You could say he was Modesto’s downtown enforcer. Or, you could say he was a dedicated autograph hound, issuing citations that required signatures.

“I was writing 200 (tickets) a month,” he said.

“He gave me my share,” said Lloyd Ploutz. “A dozen or more.” Ploutz, though, later became a Clamper with Applequist and joined us the day we chatted.

In fact, Ploutz and friend Don Livingston raced down 10th Street one summer night, and Ploutz got the ticket.

“Don just kept going, then went back to Ceres,” Ploutz said. “I said, ‘Why me?’ And Leroy said, ‘Because I got you!’ ”

Some of the cruisers got their way, though. They’d pour motor oil at the intersection of 10th and M streets, where the Lucky store (now the Cash & Carry) did business. That kept Applequist and his motorcycle at bay while they spun donuts with their cars in the intersection.

Bart Bartoni, one of the premiere custom car builders of the era, said Applequist’s tough-cop persona didn’t match the man he got to know over the years.

“That’s the way they portrayed him, but he actually was a pretty nice guy,” Bartoni said. “I had my share of problems with the police, but not with him.”

That, Bartoni said, probably was because he knew Applequist from their childhood.

“Leroy was a younger kid at the time,” Bartoni said “I knew him as a kid. He was a nice kid.”

A Valley native, Applequist joined MPD as a motorcycle officer, working the city’s streets from 1955 until 1960 before being promoted.

The irony, he told me, was that his wife, Jackie, and daughter, Karla, cruised McHenry Avenue in their twin Camaros in the 1970s. By that time, though, he’d advanced to become a detective and continued to investigate cases until he retired in December 1986 after 36 years on the force.

In June 2014, he was among the initial Legends of the Cruise inductees in a class that also included Bartoni, George Lucas, and his “American Graffiti” stars Candy Clark, Bo Hopkins and Paul LeMat, along with Chuck Billington, car builder Gene Winfield and Terry McGrath.

A service is scheduled for 10 a.m. Sunday at Salas Brothers Chapel, followed by a celebration of life at the Modesto Elks Lodge. Expect lots of storytelling from the cruisers who later became his friends. They won’t need a ticket to get in, though.

He’d already given them plenty.

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