42 years later, the shootout that changed the face of police
firearms training comes under new scrutiny.
Stories can be altered as they’re passed down over the decades, but those who ignore the lessons of history are still doomed to repeat them.
On April 5, 1970, a gunfight occurred shortly before midnight in the parking lot of a restaurant and gas station in Newhall, California that would send shockwaves through law enforcement and change the face of police firearms and tactics training throughout the nation. I wrote about the Newhall Incident, sometimes called the Newhall Massacre, many years ago in these pages. That particular Ayoob Files became a chapter in my 1995 collection Ayoob Files: The Book published by Police Bookshelf (P.O. Box 122, Concord, NH 03302). In has been more than 42 years since that incident, yet new information continues to emerge to the public. For that I thank Michael Wood, about whom you’ll hear more shortly.
It began when the California Highway Patrol received a phone call from a motorist about what we would now call a “road rage” incident, in which the driver of a red 1964 Pontiac had waved what appeared to be a snubnose .38 at him. The caller had fled and gotten to the first available telephone. It was broadcast to CHP officers as a gun-brandishing incident.
Highway Patrolman Roger Gore, driving the black and white Dodge Polara patrol car, and his partner Walter Frago, spotted the vehicle and requested backup. The closest available CHP unit, containing Officer James Pence, Jr. at the wheel and George Alleyn in the “shotgun seat,” radioed back they were responding.
The suspects saw the flashing red lights of Gore and Frago’s marked car and exited the freeway on the Henry Mayo off-ramp, suddenly pulling into a truck stop that comprised a Standard gas station and J’s Restaurant. The backup car had not yet arrived when the lawmen emerged from their vehicle, Gore taking a cover position with his .357 Colt Python drawn and leveled over the hood and engine block of the police Dodge, and Frago standing behind the “curtain of light” from their headlights with the patrol car’s Remington 870 at port arms. Gore loudly and repeatedly ordered the suspects out of the car. They did not comply.
Gore moved forward toward the suspect vehicle, and Frago followed. The dominoes were beginning to fall. The two highway patrolmen had no way of knowing that Bobby Davis, in the driver’s seat, and Jack Twining in the passenger, seat were hardcore cons on parole, both of whom were stone killers who hated cops, and both of whom were armed.
Gore, on the left side of the Pontiac, ordered Davis out. Davis, seemingly meek, complied and put his hands on the side of the car when Gore ordered him to do so. Gore holstered his revolver to do a pat-down frisk. As Frago approached on the right, his shotgun butt on his right hip and the muzzle in the air as he held the gun in his right hand, he reached down with his left for the door handle.
Suddenly, Jack Twining swung the door open. Frago tried to bring the shotgun down into firing position, but Twining already had a 4″ Smith & Wesson Highway Patrolman in his hand, and he shot the officer twice in the chest. The two .357 Magnum slugs tore through and through Walter Frago, and he instantly collapsed, dying.
On the other side of the car, Roger Gore turned his attention from his suspect to the new and deadly threat, redrawing his .357. He fired one shot at his partner’s killer, which missed, and Bobby Davis was now able to whip a 2″ Smith & Wesson Bodyguard revolver from his waistband and shoot Gore twice in the chest. Reports would later say Gore was killed instantly.
It was then the backup car with Pence and Alleyn aboard swept into the scene. They pulled up to the left of the first patrol car, with Pence urgently broadcasting that officers needed assistance and shots were fired. Then he dropped the radio mic and drew his own Python, as Alleyn exited the vehicle from the right. Exposed to the perpetrators, Alleyn began maneuvering to use the first patrol car, on his right for cover.
Pence fired all six rounds in his revolver at the perpetrators. None of the Magnum bullets struck their targets. The suspects were simultaneously firing at the officers, emptying both of the revolvers they had used to kill the first two CHP men. Twining and Davis dove into their car to retrieve more guns: they had some loaded in the back seat, and more in the trunk. Twining dug out a 1911 .45 and fired one shot at the officers, and the gun jammed, its slide locked back with a full 7-round magazine still in the gun, but now useless to him. He dropped it and grabbed another 1911. By now, however, Alleyn was returning fire, and one double-ought pellet from his 870 pierced the back window of the Pontiac and, its force blunted by the heavy safety glass, inflicted a painful but non-fatal wound to Twining’s forehead. Enraged by the pain, Twining emerged from the vehicle with the second .45 and opened fire on Pence.
Meanwhile, Alleyn’s shotgun had run dry. His weapon had been loaded with only four shells, and CHP policy of the time had required tape around the shotgun’s barrel and slide to show supervisors it had been broken any time an officer racked a round into the chamber. Some believe the tape fouled the mechanism, because the evidence shows Alleyn fired only three rounds, and somehow ejected a live round uselessly onto the ground. Alleyn drew his Smith & Wesson Model 19 to continue returning fire.
But Davis had reemerged from the Pontiac with a sawed-off shotgun. From two car lengths away, he hosed Alleyn with it. One blast of buckshot caught Alleyn in the chest — it was the time before soft body armor, remember — and another hit him in the face. Alleyn slumped down behind the patrol car, mortally wounded.
Simultaneously, Twining was shooting at Patrolman Pence with deadly accuracy. He fired four shots, hitting the policeman with three bullets, one in the chest and one in each leg. Still, the young cop desperately tried to reload his Colt, one cartridge at a time from Highway Patrol-issue dump pouches.
As this was occurring, former Marine, Gary Kness, entered the scene, saw what was happening, and courageously moved in to assist. He picked up Alleyn’s dropped shotgun, pulled the trigger, and realized the gun wasn’t firing. He pumped the action and was returned with a measly empty “click.” Realizing now the 870 was empty; he picked up Alleyn’s dropped revolver, carefully aimed at Bobby Davis, and fired. However, the .357 Magnum bullet from Alleyn’s S&W apparently encountered the Pontiac first, because all that hit Davis was a bullet fragment that caused a superficial chest wound. Kness triggered the dying state policeman’s .357 again, but it clicked on a spent casing. Knowing he now had no way to fight back, Kness sprinted to cover.
At about this time, to Kness’ left, Jack Twining cautiously approached around the left side of Pence’s patrol car, behind which Pence had taken cover. He apparently saw the officer’s cylinder was still open. Emboldened, he lunged forward and was heard by witnesses to say, “Got you now, (expletive deleted)!” and, as Pence was just starting to close his reloaded cylinder, Twining shot Pence through the brain at close range, killing him instantly.
The gunfight was over. Both cop-killers convened at their car, picking up the revolvers and the shotgun of the first two officers. At this point a third CHP vehicle, containing Highway Patrolmen Ed Holmes and Richard Robinson, pulled into the scene. Both wounded and apparently unwilling to continue the fight, one or both of the cop-killers fired at the third pair of CHP men and put a bullet into their patrol car, then sped away in the Pontiac as Holmes fired two shots at them from his revolver.
Bobby Davis would be captured that night after another encounter with an armed citizen who wounded him, and the next morning, Jack Twining would make his way to a home where he took hostages and had dialogues by telephone with police and even a radio personality. When police stormed the house, Twining killed himself with Frago’s shotgun. Convicted of murder and sentenced to death, Davis escaped the electric chair when California declared a moratorium on the death penalty, and hung himself in prison in 2009, at the age of 67.
To the agency’s everlasting credit, CHP studied the tragedy intensively and in 1975 created a training film that recapped the incident and concluded with seven lessons, using the mnemonic “NEWHALL.”
The Lessons were: Never approach (until you have control of the scene). Evaluate the Offense. (The call had come in as one man brandishing a gun. It turned out to be far more dangerous than that.) Wait for backup. (Had the first two officers done so, they would have had the perpetrators outnumbered, and might have escaped the “action beats reaction” advantage held by Davis and Twining.) Always maintain advantage. A proper felony stop would have had force of numbers on the officers’ side, and would have included waiting until the officers had a more preponderant position of advantage. Look for the unusual. None of the four young highway patrolmen in this incident had more than two years on the job. It has been said Gore had never before had a suspect fail to comply with his orders. Veteran cops concluded the suspects’ refusal to initially exit the vehicle would have tipped a more experienced officer to the possibility of an ambush plan on their part, which turns out to have been the case. Leave the scene when in doubt, maneuvering to a position of greater tactical advantage.
Lessons From Lessons
The quadruple cop killing at Newhall sent powerful ripples throughout the LE world. For instance, of the three officers who returned fire, all were shooting full power .357 Magnum ammunition none had trained or qualified with, at a time when CHP used primarily light .38 Special loads in the training/qualification function. The violent recoil and particularly the blinding muzzleblast of .357 Magnum ammo, even from the 6″ barrel revolvers all of them were firing, could not have been conducive to accurate hits under stress in poor light.
It was later determined 40 shots were fired during the encounter, 25 by the perpetrators. Walter Frago had been killed before he could fire a shot. Roger Gore fired once at Davis before he was murdered by Twining. James Pence fired six shots and was killed before he could complete his reload. George Alleyn went through three rounds fired and one unfired, but inadvertently ejected from his shotgun, and four from his revolver before he went down, mortally wounded. Highway Patrolman Holmes fired two shots at the suspects from his revolver, at the end of the encounter.
Shortly after this incident, though the CHP had allowed its personnel to carry .357s loaded with Magnum ammo instead of the standard .38, .357 ammunition was forbidden for some time and all sworn officers of CHP were required to carry the new standard 110-grain .38 Special +P+ load. This order was later modified to allow .357 Magnum ammunition to be carried at the local post commander’s discretion. It’s my understanding only a few CHP districts, primarily in the northern part of California, were ever actually given this option. In 1990, all CHP personnel were mandated to carry department issue .40 S&W autos.
Clearly, a mechanical inability to reload in time cost the seriously wounded James Pence his life. The last of the officers to fall, he might have been able to cut down his approaching executioner Twining if he had been able to close the cylinder of his Colt Python and return it to action even one second sooner than he did.
Standard issue ammunition carriers for CHP in 1970 were slim, low-profile “drop pouches,” sometimes called “spill pouches” because they spilled loose cartridges into the hand of the officer performing the reload. Not long after that, the California Highway Patrol authorized — and then became the first large American state police agency to issue — speedloaders. Anyone who has ever worked with rapid reloading of revolvers knows how much faster a speedloader is than refilling with loose cartridges one or two at a time.
Twenty years after Newhall, in 1990, California Highway Patrol became the first major American police department to adopt the Smith & Wesson Model 4006 semiautomatic pistol. It carried twice the ammo payload of a 6-shot revolver when fully loaded, and allowed a reload with a spare 11-round magazine faster than any revolver reload in equally skilled hands. The S&W 4006 remains standard issue for CHP to this day, and has served the department well for the entire period, by all accounts.
The application of tape to the mechanism of the Remington 870s was done away with shortly after the Newhall incident, and CHP went to great lengths to teach and reinforce modern tactics of felony stops and officer survival tactics.
Mike Wood’s Revelations
One of my graduates, Mike Wood, was intrigued by the briefing on the Newhall incident when he took my class, and he resolved to study it further. He did something the rest of us had not done: he went to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which had conducted the actual investigation into this incident, since it had occurred in their jurisdiction. All the rest of us had relied mainly on the CHP interpretation. LASD had never made their results public. Wood discovered some interesting things.
One was that, though it was known from the beginning the cop-killers had used S&W revolvers to kill the first two officers, it was widely assumed only one of the four CHP men had a Colt and the rest had S&Ws too. This turns out to be incorrect. All of the CHP officers were carrying 6″ revolvers, but only one — George Alleyn’s Model 19 — was a Smith & Wesson. All three of the others carried Colts: Walter Frago was armed with a Colt Officer’s Model Match .38 Special, which was not fired until Bobby Davis snatched it from his holster and fired it at Alleyn, without effect. It was recovered from him after his surrender; he had fired one shot at the armed citizen in the subsequent encounter, and run it empty, before his surrender. Only John Anderson’s 1999 book on the incident mentioned Roger Gore’s gun was a Colt Python, and not until Wood’s research with LASD was it made public that Pence was armed with a Colt Python, too.
A Myth … Busted?
Since the incident, it was said Officer James Pence was found with six spent casings in his trouser pocket, having been trained to pocket his brass before reloading. This would have slowed down his reloading process greatly, contributing to his inability to engage his killer before Twining shot him through the brain. This had already become accepted doctrine when I came into police training in 1972, and I, like so many others, dutifully accepted it as gospel.
By the time I researched this case and wrote it up for American Handgunner the first time however, it had become a subject of debate. As noted in Ayoob Files: The Book in 1995, “Though official sources deny it, some CHP officers insist Pence was found with spent casings in his pocket, a legacy of range training.” It would appear Mike Wood has resolved the debate through his research of LASD Homicide files.
In September 2011, Mike told me the LASD file included a scene photo of Pence’s six spent .357 casings lying on the asphalt where he fell. By third quarter 2012, he was able to show me that evidence photo. I can now accept Pence did indeed eject his empties in his desperate attempt to reload and get back in the fight.
Whence came this story? On May 9, 2012, Mark Schraer wrote in the electronic journal PoliceOne.com he thought it came from the fact the CHP, in changing its training after Newhall, also made it clear putting brass in the pocket was no longer doctrine. This apparently led to a generation of CHP officers believing this mistake must have been made at Newhall.
Not putting brass in the pocket is, of course, still a good idea, and if the point seems moot in the time of the semiautomatic service pistol, remember some auto pistol instructors still insist every reload must be a tactical reload, with every depleted magazine pocketed, even if it’s empty — and even if there’s nothing to refill it with.
In the classic 1980 police training text Street Survival, we find on Page 22 the statement, “Some officers have been killed because they took extra time to catch the ejected cases and put them in their pockets, as they’d done when shooting targets on the range.” We know this was a problem long before Newhall. Bill Jordan wrote in the 1960s of at least one Border Patrol gun battle in which officers found their pockets full of spent revolver brass when it was all over.
The lessons from Newhall — the slap in the face of American police training that began the “Officer Survival” training of today — endure. But the diligent research of men like Mike Wood reinvigorates those timeless lessons. Keep an eye out for Mike’s forthcoming book on this case. It will be titled something like Newhall: A Tactical Analysis, and will come from FW Publications, the Gun Digest folks, with an electronic edition very likely preceding the printed version.
By Massad Ayoob