Robles kidnapping shocked community

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By Tom Prezelski
The capture of John Dillinger, and his subsequent extradition through the efforts of Pima County Attorney Clarence Houston, brought national attention to Tucson in January 1934. Only a few months later, another crime story, this one involving one of The Old Pueblo’s most prominent families, made national headlines.

At 3 p.m. on April 25, 6-year old June Robles was snatched from in front of Roskruge School by what was described as an Anglo-American man in a beat-up black Ford sedan. Two hours later, her father, Fernando, received a note at his electrical shop demanding $15,000 for his daughter’s safe return. Though Historic courthouseFernando wanted to keep the affair quiet, the police somehow learned of it and by sundown, an effort which would eventually mobilize hundreds of volunteers and bring to bear the full force of J. Edgar Hoover’s Division of Investigation was underway.

Though the motives were unclear at this point, and would largely remain so, no one believed that this was a random crime, as June and Fernando were members of a high-profile family. June’s grandfather, Bernabe Robles, had arrived in Tucson from Sonora as a child in 1864 and built a ranching and business empire that made him one of the wealthiest men in Southern Arizona. Robles Junction west of Tucson, which was once his ranch, is named in his honor. Meanwhile June’s Uncle Carlos, the first Mexican-American graduate of the University of Arizona College of Law, was the Deputy Pima County Attorney.

Kidnapping for ransom had become a particular problem nationwide during the interwar years. There were even gangs who specialized in the so-called “snatch racket.” The spate of high- profile kidnappings around the country would prompt the U.S. Congress to pass the Kidnapping Act of 1932, which meant that there would be federal assistance in the Robles investigation.

For the next three weeks, Tucson was rife with rumors as law enforcement and the press followed up on dead ends, false leads, and tips from an assortment of cranks. Some with the Sheriff’s office posited that allies of the Dillinger gang had kidnapped Robles in an effort to get back at the County Attorney. Nothing came of any of this. Meanwhile, Hoover’s top G-Men pursued leads all over the country.

Federal agents were frustrated by what they saw as a lack of cooperation on the part of the family. In particular, Bernabe Robles was mistrustful of authority. To be fair, the old man seems to have been content to pursue his own investigation, going so far as to reach out to a psychic in Sonora for help.

After 19 days, the County Attorney’s office received a mysterious letter from Chicago which purported to reveal June’s location. Without consulting police or federal agents, Houston and his Deputy, Carlos Robles, drove out to the site. After searching the remote desert that is now the East Side of Tucson, they found the girl in a corrugated iron box, dirty, bruised, burned and terrified, but alive.

With June safely returned, the family slowly withdrew from cooperating with the federal investigation, eventually stopping altogether. Frustrated, the G-Men suspected that the family or the County Attorney’s office was somehow complicit in the crime. Though the evidence was circumstantial and weak, these suspicions were widespread in the community and cast a cloud over Houston’s attempt to run for re-election. Houston narrowly lost in the Democratic Primary later that year. The Robles affair was not the only thing working against him that year, as Houston was also the target of a whisper campaign by a racist “America First” faction that sought to gain a foothold in the Democratic Party. Houston had also thrown in with former Governor George W.P. Hunt, who was attempting a comeback that year even as his progressive politics had fallen out of favor.

In any case, the bad feelings did not last. Houston returned to private practice and remained active in Democratic politics, serving a very productive term on the Board of Regents. Carlos Robles stayed on with the County Attorney’s office for a few more years before likewise hanging up a shingle. The events of 1934 would get little mention in subsequent decades. Like the Robles family, the community had largely moved on.

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 was a finalist for the 2016 Latino Book Awards.
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