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  • Dillinger’s Tucson history about more than his capture

    The Way We Were logo

    By Tom Prezelski
    Every January, Tucsonans turn out Downtown to commemorate the anniversary of the 1934 capture of John Dillinger by the Old Pueblo’s finest. Local pride about this incident is entirely justified. While the heavy-handed tactics of other law-enforcement agencies failed, Tucson police employed straight, competent detective work and were able to arrest the gang without violence.

    The arrest drew national attention, and moviegoers around the country were treated to newsreels featuring the courthouse where Dillinger was briefly held Petrocelli TV showpending his extradition. The building was still fairly new, having been completed in 1929 to replace an older, Victorian-style building that no longer served the needs of a growing county. Designed, as were so many of the County’s iconic public structures of the era, by Tucson architect Roy Place, it reflected contemporary local interest in Spanish influence. It must have looked exotic to folks in eastern states.

    The upstairs courtroom where Dillinger, represented by future Pima County Attorney Rose Silver, faced his extradition hearing, continued to host trials and hearings for the next several decades. It appeared again on screen, the small one this time, in 1974 with the premiere of Petrocelli, a legal drama that ran for two seasons. It starred Barry Newman as a crusading defense attorney in a fictional southwestern city that looked suspiciously like Tucson. 

    Also featured was Arnold Jeffers, who had worked in radio and owned a local advertising agency. Jeffers had a recurring role as a judge on the show, though, according to IMDB, he was not always the same judge. Apparently, judges in these parts all look the same.

    After the show was canceled, Jeffers went on to serve two terms as a Republican representing the east side of Tucson in the State House. In 1980, he was elected Pima County Assessor, serving until 1991. There, he became known for his crusade against “rent-a-cow” schemes that slick developers used to avoid property taxes. When he died in 2001, the Tucson Citizen’s obituary made no mention of his acting career.

    The filming of the show was occasionally disruptive and there were occasional misunderstandings with local law officials. In one incident, Newman, on a break from filming, was sitting at one of the fountains on the courthouse patio. Three women, jurors on break from a murder trial, approached Newman for autographs. The actor jokingly asked if the defendant needed a new lawyer. This got back to the lawyers arguing the case, who called for a mistrial. Judge Robert O. Roylston called the actor into court and demanded that he explain himself before moving on with the case. Even fictional lawyers have to respect the rules.

    The courtroom, which would eventually become known as “Courtroom 8,” was again featured, along with the courthouse exterior, in 1980’s Stir Crazy starring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. Fantasy crossed into reality in a strange way in 1992 when Johnny Depp, who would play Dillinger nearly two decades later in Public Enemies, faced charges of reckless driving in the same courtroom.
In 1975, the Superior Court, the Board of Supervisors and much of county government moved into new buildings south of the courthouse. The Justice Courts, Assessor, Treasurer and Recorder remained in the older courthouse, but, as had happened with the Victorian courthouse, the 1929 courthouse eventually proved inadequate. By the time the last offices were vacated in 2015, it was well past time to move into a new building.

    The last judge who presided in Courtroom 8 was José Luis Castillo, who took a great personal interest in its preservation as the building is repurposed as a visitor’s center. He joined others in arguing that that the courthouse is part of our “national patrimony,” not only for its history but also for its unique layout and elegant furnishings, some of which may date back to the previous courthouse. These efforts have assured that this beautiful and unique piece of history will be available to future generations, and maybe a film-maker or two as well.

    Pima County FYI is featuring a monthly column on some of the history behind the people and places of Pima County, written by Tom Prezelski. Prezelski is a Tucson native and former member of the Arizona House of Representatives. His first book, Californio Lancers: The 1st Battalion of Native Cavalry in the Far West is a finalist for the 2016 Latino Book Awards.
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