Honoring Fallen San Jose Police Officer John Buck

April 5th, we remember fallen San Jose Police Officer John Buck. On this date in 1933, Officer Buck succumbed to injuries he received in a gun battle.

Below is the department's official account of Officer Buck's story.

By Dwight Messimer

Officers Clinton Moon and John Buck were patrolling down East Julian approaching 12th Street when Buck noted a suspicious looking car near a filling station at 12th and Julian. It was about 8:35 p.m. There had been an armed robbery at Toshi's Japanese Sweet Shop at 211 East Jackson the night before, and Buck felt the car might warrant a shakedown. His partner, Clinton Moon, wheeled their Pontiac in behind the car and followed it into the downtown area.

The suspicious car was a black Model A Ford with two male occupants. As the car moved aimlessly through the downtown -Area, both officers became increasingly suspicious. Despite their growing suspicions and the fact that their Pontiac was one of the department's four radio-equipped patrol cars, they did not broadcast their location or their activity. At 8:40 p.m., the officers decided to stop the Ford.

As the suspect car turned off Market Street onto Post, Moon pulled the police car up along the left side of the Ford and honked his horn while Buck, in the passenger's seat, shouted to the Ford's driver to pull over. The officers' suspicions may have been partially allayed by the quick response to their order to stop. The Ford pulled to the right curb and the police car stopped directly behind it.

It was February 27, 1933, and Officers Moon and Buck had just made a routine car stop. Their apparent lack of concern was demonstrated in part by the fact that they had used the horn to attract the driver's attention. More importantly, as Buck climbed out of the police car and walked forward, his gun remained strapped in his holster. Moon was still seated behind the steering wheel, radioing the stop and their location. Buck was approaching the rear of the Ford's passenger door. Both suspects sat motionless in the front seat, the doors closed and the windows rolled down. The time was 8:44 p.m.

Driving the Ford was 17-year-old Samuel Thomas. The passenger was 27-year-old Joseph Matlock, who had been paroled from San Quentin after having served seven years of a twenty-years-to-life sentence for burglary, grand theft and kidnapping. He had been out of prison for 183 days, during which time he had committed other crimes of burglary, auto theft and armed robbery. His latest crime had been the armed robbery at Toshi's the previous evening. But Officer John Buck, also twenty-seven, was unaware of those facts as he stepped up to the car door. He was also unaware that both men were armed, and that Matlock was about to add a new crime to his long criminal record. He was going to kill a cop!

As Buck opened the car door, Matlock twisted to the right, a long-barreled revolver in his right hand. Firing three times, he hit Buck in the left arm, the chest and the shoulder. Hard hit, Buck went down, grabbing Matlock by the collar and dragging him out of the car and onto the sidewalk. Moon had just stepped onto the sidewalk as the shots were fired and Buck fell. Matlock was already scrambling to his feet as Moon drew and fired, hitting the gunman four times. At that moment, Thomas put the Ford in gear and popped the clutch, causing the car to leap forward. Matlock fell, grabbed the right head-lamp and rolled onto the running board as the car sped away.

Two blocks from the scene, Thomas saw Matlock's hand gripping the door at the window base and realized that his partner had escaped with him. Stopping the car, Thomas dragged the wounded man into the car, then sped on. In the meantime, Moon broadcast a description of the suspects and the car. Then he loaded his badly wounded partner into the Pontiac and. raced him to San Jose Hospital.

Thomas drove to a trailer park - an "automobile camp" in 1933 - on the outskirts of San Jose, where he and Matlock had been staying. There, Donna Hord, age twenty-four, bandaged Matlock's wounds - three in the right arm and one in the right side. Though painful, the wounds were not serious, but Matlock definitely needed a doctor. It was decided that San Jose was too hot, and Thomas, Matlock, Hord and Hord's six-year-old son, Clifford, headed north.

Parked in the shadows at the Gish and Oakland Road intersection were Officer Lovell Guptill and Charles Murry. They had not been there long when they saw a car coming toward them on Oakland Road from San Jose. As the car went past, they saw it was a Model A and fell in behind it. Drawing closer, they checked the license plate against the one broadcast earlier. It matched. Much more prepared than Moon and Buck had been, Guptill and Murry made their car stop by the numbers.

Covered by Guptill who was armed with a shotgun, Murry moved to the right and ordered the suspects to raise their hands. Everyone but Matlock complied at once. His was not an act of defiance, but a matter of weakness due to loss of blood. Unnoticed by the two officers, Thomas had laid his revolver on the roof of the car. It appears he put it there not so that he might grab it later, but to avoid being captured while armed. The tactic worked and the gun remained unnoticed, falling into a ditch when the suspect’s car was towed away later that night.

By the time the two men, the woman and her child had been brought to the police station, an angry mob had formed on Market Street, "threatening the injured bandit and muttering threats." Nine months later, a similar crowd making similar threats would carry out the infamous St. James Park lynching. Had Matlock and Thomas been present, they would have been much more concerned about the crowd's mood. And had the same crowd been present on that night in 1933, the lynching in St. James Park might have occurred in February rather than in November.

Transferred to San Jose Hospital, Matlock underwent surgery to have three bullets removed from his right elbow and one from his right side. He came out of the operation in "satisfactory condition,' and his recovery progressed rapidly. The same was not true for John Buck.

One of Matlock's bullets had punched through Buck's police star, mushroomed, plowed through his chest, slashed open the pericardium (the membrane sack that encloses the heart), entered the pleural cavity and tore through the lung. The bullet that entered the shoulder hit bone, deflected down and severed the spinal cord. Buck's condition was listed as critical, and the doctors gloomily stated that even it he lived, he would never walk again. Department members gave blood and, for a short time, Buck seemed to get better. For nearly five weeks he hung on. Then, at 6:25 p.m. on April 5, 1933, Officer John Buck died, becoming the second San Jose police officer to be killed in the line of duty.

John Buck was buried on April 7, 1933 at Oak Hill Cemetery. Hundreds attended the funeral, and the chapel was so packed that people, "unable to find seats inside, thronged the sidewalks on both sides of the street." The City Council passed a special resolution of tribute to the slain patrolman and adjourned the regular weekly meeting. The funeral was attended by police agencies from around the bay and included the now traditional motorcycle phalanx and formations of uniformed officers.

But the public reaction to Buck's death was substantially less than that which had followed Sergeant Van Hubbard's line-of-duty death nine years earlier. There were several reasons for that, but it stemmed mostly from the fact that the lapse between the shooting and John's demise acted as a sort of cooling down period. The emotion displayed by the threatening crowd outside the police department in February had pretty well disappeared by April.

Additionally, the great depression was already 3 1/2 years old and getting worse. People had serious problems of their own to worry about, which accounts for the notable absence of a fund being established for Buck, as was done in Hubbard's case. It was not a matter of adversity hardening the public's heart so much as it was a matter that society was starting to change dramatically. But public outrage was not entirely lacking in April 1933, and one authority clearly recalls that a prominent public figure started a "rope fund" to ensure that Buck's killer received the justice he so sorely deserved.

On the day of the funeral, Matlock and Thomas were arraigned on the robbery charge stemming from the February 26 robbery of Toshi's. Matlock asked for a one-week continuance, saying, "This is a serious matter and I've been unable to secure final word from my attorney." Just what the "final word" was is not clear, but four prior convictions and a pending murder charge did indeed make it a "serious matter." The continuance was granted.

Thomas pled guilty to the robbery charge and asked for probation. The motion was intended to buy time for Thomas on the hope that the probation office might give him a favorable report. Thomas, who turned out to be Matlock's nephew, claimed that fear of his uncle caused him to take part in the robbery. In fact, he claimed that he had no idea that Matlock was going to pull a holdup until it actually happened. Thomas, however, was hard pressed to explain why he had bought a pistol the night before the robbery.

On April 10, the two men were arraigned for the murder of John Buck. Both pled innocent, and Thomas' attempt to be certified to the juvenile court was quickly quashed. Their preliminary examination was set for the following day, and both were quickly held to answer.

As motions and continuances slowed the trial, a public appeal was made on behalf of John Buck's widow and children for the return of his badge. It had apparently been torn off when the bullet punched through it, and someone at the scene had picked it up as a grisly souvenir. After John died, Mrs. Buck went to Chief John Newton Black and asked for her husband's badge. Chief Black had to tell the woman that he did not have it and did not know where it was. Inquiries were made at the police station, the hospital and the coroner's office, but the badge was not found. Finally, a large notice was placed in the San Jose Mercury Herald that read, in part: "Mrs. Buck and her two children now have nothing of their husband and father but a few mementos. And one of them should be his shield, the badge in whose name he faced an ex-convict's roaring gun." But the badge was never returned.

Mrs. Donna Hord, who had been with the men when they were arrested, was convicted of "simple vagrancy" and sentenced to 180 days in jail. The sentence, however, was set aside on the agreement that she got out of town "at once."

Thomas was tried and sentenced as an adult and sent to San Quentin "for life." There is no further information about him. Joe Matlock was paroled in 1954 and discharged from custody in 1978. He was last reported to be living in Alaska.

Many people believe that "in the old days" justice was swifter and surer than it is today. That may be true in most cases, but experience in San Jose indicates that it is not entirely so. One often hears the statement, "in the old days a cop-killer just didn't live." Obviously, Joseph Matlock did.

Buck's son, John Jr., joined the San Jose Police Department in 1953. He had been four years old when his father was killed. During the first few years he was on the department, John Jr. carried his dad's old service revolver, a Smith and Wesson that had been made in the days before hammer safeties.

One evening, Larry Otter (now a retired captain) and John Jr. were walking a downtown beat together when they found an open transom in one of the stores. Suspecting a burglar, they called for back-up, then Otter boosted Buck through the open transom. Given the size of the transom and the two patrolmen, Otter known to his friends as the "Owl" - would probably have been better suited to negotiate the narrow opening than Buck. While struggling to get through, Buck's gun fell from its holster and hit the ground near Otter. Lacking a hammer safety, the gun discharged, increasing the local stress index to about 1,000 on a 100 scale. The following day, Buck opted for progress and modernization and purchased a new gun.

John Buck, Jr. served the department for twenty years. He died in May of 1974.