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  • Kalyn McCall

A Murder, A Mob, and Mose Gibson: Death in the time of Jim Crow - Part 2: The Suspects

Who killed Roy Trapp? Who committed the "Satanic midnight" murders?

Mirroring the Torres case, at first, it was believed that the perpetrators were Mexicans. Mrs. Trapp stated as such in her phone call to her neighbor the morning of the murder. The following day, the Los Angeles Times reported, "It was a first thought that the night attack upon Trapp and his wife was made by two Mexicans seeking revenge because of a quarrel over employment." Two men, identified as Aguilar and Otera, were immediately arrested for the crime. Additionally, the paper noted that "every Mexican who has worked on the Trapp ranch recently was being sought." Given Orange County's dependence on migratory labor, the possible suspects would have been endless. With an increased local Mexican population in the wake of the Mexican Revolution in addition to temporary, seasonal labor, it would be difficult to pinpoint the suspect if the two gentlemen were deemed innocent. In the case of Torres, he was named by witnesses as arguing with the eventual murder victim, William McKelvey, who was the foreman on Helen Modjeska's ranch. In this incidence, the setup was the same. The authorities simply needed more evidence.

Later in the day, the authorities began considering an unnamed Negro suspect, although they did not fully abandon the Mexican lead. A Fullerton merchant gave them a description of a Black man he had sold a flashlight to the day before the murder, which allegedly matched a description of a Black man seen at a train station in San Diego. The description read:

"The negro's description was given as 30 years old, 5 feet 8 inches tall, of stocky build, long hair for a negro, high cheek bones, looks like a Mexican and speaks Spanish fluently. The suspect wore dark clothes, a light felt hat and white shoes."

Two Mexicans became one Black man that looked like a Mexican and spoke Spanish fluently.

Three days after the attack, it was reported that Mrs. Trapp gave new suspects. Mrs. Trapp herself, in the early days of the investigation, never identified a Black man. But in her new account, two Mexicans became three white men. According to this account, the day before the murder, three unknown white men came to the Trapp home and knocked on the door. Roy greeted them, and they had a pleasant chat until one of the men asked Roy what he would do if someone tried to murder him. Freda said Roy laughed at the suggestion, but during the night the men came back and carried out the deed.

So, before Gibson was identified as the killer, three profiles emerged. First, Freda said it was two Mexicans. Then, she said it was three white men. In between, the authorities suggested it was a Spanish speaking Negro who looked Mexican and had long hair. In the end, local tensions necessitated an immediate arrest. The Fullerton community made that clear in a local paper, declaring: "Fullerton is law abiding but it wants quick justice." Someone needed to pay for this crime. Sheriff C.E. Jackson needed to act soon.

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