Jeff Jardine

Jardine: Modesto’s Crime of the Century, 1946 version

Morley Theaker, right, and his wife Dorothy identify robbery suspects at the police station.
Morley Theaker, right, and his wife Dorothy identify robbery suspects at the police station.

This is one that cries out for a Humphrey Bogart-style narration, say, in his Phillip Marlowe detective mode:

I sat at my desk one morning about a month ago, see ... .

A voice on the voice mail asked me what I knew about the great Sears store heist in Modesto in the 1940s.

Hmmm... Nothing, I thought. Never heard of it. But curiosity – the New York area code, something like that happening in Modesto at that point in time – got the best of me. I called him back.

He told me his name is David Crow. It was just a hunch, but I believed him. He told me his dad, Meredith Crow, did four years in San Quentin beginning March 6, 1948. Dad’s cellmate, Crow said? One of the four guys who pulled off the Modesto caper, that’s who. Of course, it intrigued me. I’ve been waiting decades for the right time to use the word “caper” in a column.

Crow told me he’s writing a book about his dad’s life and needed the lowdown on the robbery. He asked if I could help. Sure, I said. There’s got to be a column in it for me somewhere, too. But where to start? His dad’s memory of what the cellmate told him is foggy after all these years. He remembered the name “Buddy Figueroa.” He thought the Modesto job happened on Halloween night, 1946. I perused the microfilm through several days of the Bee for several days after Halloween of that year. Nothing doing. Must have been another holiday.

So I did what any enterprising columnist in Modesto would do: I emailed Janet Lancaster at the McHenry Museum. See, that dame can research like no other. (Just ask the ghost of Robert Henry Brewster, AKA Robert McHenry.) She remembered the crime even though she couldn’t have been more than a very young girl when it happened. After all, Modesto was a small town, maybe 25,000 people here in 1946. Big cases like this one didn’t happen often, or at all. So this was Modesto’s Crime of the Century.

A day or so went by. Then the bell in the newsroom lobby rang. I looked up. Janet stood there with a package in her arms. She had it all – newspaper clippings about the crime and family background about the perpetrators. And it happened just before Christmas, not on Halloween. Turns out Meredith Crow’s memory also blurred when it came to the ex-cellmate’s name. It was an Army veteran, James “Buddy” Figueiredo, not Figueroa.

Here’s how it all played out:

It was Dec. 21, 1946, in Modesto, a cold winter Saturday night – the last one before Christmas – and 69 years ago come Monday. The Theaker family – dad Morley, mom Dorothy and their teenage sons Lew and James – had just finished dinner at their home on Bonita Avenue in the La Loma neighborhood. Business had been brisk that day at the Sears store Morley Theaker managed downtown. Beat from a hard day at work, he headed to bed while his sons listened to the radio. Then, the front doorbell rang. When 14-year-old James opened it, he found himself looking down the barrel of a handgun. Three men stood on the porch, and a fourth stayed in the car. One of them told the Theaker boy to go back inside and followed him into the house. The wise guys kidnapped the Theakers. They made Morley drive them down to the store and open the safe. One of them smacked Morley Theaker on the side of the head when he fumbled with the safe knob.

Like I said, business at the Sears had been busy that day. In the 1940s, people paid with cash – Georges, Abes and their friends – or with checks. Credit cards barely existed. These robbers began casing the place six months before they hit it. They knew the store layout, and that the safe would be full of greenbacks after a busy Christmas shopping day like that.

They got away with more than $23,000, equal to about $287,000 today. But these wise guys weren’t Einsteins. They could have had $22,000 more if they’d looked a little harder. Still, the town had seen nothing like it before.

In The Bee the next day, Modesto police Chief Urban Pickering told the press, “This much can be told. They are outsiders. They are strictly professionals, the very best. They know their business from A to Z, and with one exception certainly are big timers in the criminal world.

“They made elaborate preparations and everything came off just as they planned.”

One scribe wrote that it had the feel of a Chicago-style mob job. And they got away with it – until they didn’t. The littlest guy among them – Figueiredo – not only talked the most during the heist, but also 14 months later when a gumshoe private eye in Los Angeles broke the case and arrested all four. He’d been breathing down their necks, and the pressure was getting to Figueiredo.

When they arrested him in Santa Monica, Figueiredo told the detectives, “I’m glad it’s over – every time I heard a knock on the door, I thought, ‘This is it,’ ” the Los Angeles Daily News reported. He also claimed his accomplices had double-crossed him. His cut of the $23,000 was only $3,700.

Figueiredo and another of the robbers sang like canaries during their interrogations. The cops swooped in to arrest the other two, including one in Modesto. They used tear gas to drive him out of his house. The police recovered only $57 of the $23,000. The cops flew Morley and Dorothy Theaker to L.A. to identify Figueiredo and Danny Condos, another of the bad guys. The Daily News story included a photo of the Theakers, Figueiredo, Condos and Chief Pickering in a room together in the City of Angels.

All four robbers pleaded guilty on Feb. 16, 1948. Two weeks later, Figueiredo and Meredith Crow became cellmates at San Quentin.

Until the arrests, some Modestans suspected it was an inside job, with Morley Theaker being part of the plot even though Pickering publicly refuted it from Day One. With the case over and the crooks in prison, the Theakers’ life in Modesto returned to normal. Morley helped start Del Rio Golf and Country Club the same year the robbery happened. In 1950, he and his wife moved to Hawaii, where he managed Sears’ Honolulu store. Morley died in 1991.

Son James, the kid who opened the door that night to find a gun pointed at his head, stayed in Modesto. He married Joan McCabe and ran the Coca-Cola bottling plant. They raised their family here. James died at 80 in 2014; their son John at 46 a year later.

Joan McCabe Theaker said the 1946 Sears job “left (James) with (emotional) scars.” He kept a gun close by at night. But the family always liked to talk about the robbery whenever they got together for reunions or the holidays, and she has a scrapbook full of newspaper clips.

“It was big,” she said. “Everybody knew about it.”

Including Meredith Crow, who heard the story while in San Quentin. And he heard it from Figueiredo himself, who spent more than seven years in prison before being paroled in 1955, pardoned by Gov. Pat Brown a decade later and died in 1997.

After all, they had lots of time to kill, and Buddy loved to talk, see ... .

Case closed.