It was a quiet Tuesday noon hour on Feb. 5, 1924, when a stranger entered the First State Bank at 401 Pollasky in Clovis.
Assistant cashier Thomas Howison, who was alone in the bank, greeted the stranger with his usual “How do you do?” as the man threw down a $20 bill and asked for change.
It was a decade before the daring bank robberies by such bandits as John Dillinger and Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd. Bank heists were fairly rare in the Central Valley, so Howison probably had no reason to expect what was about to unfold.
While the stranger, Thomas Griffin, 36, nicknamed “The Owl,” waited for his change, Felix “The Lone Wolf” Sloper, a young man in his mid-20s, slipped in through a rear door and crept up behind the cashier.
Howison turned and found himself looking down the barrel of a revolver and ordered to “stick ’em up.” The men tied his hands behind his back and shoved him into the vault, which they quickly looted of $31,000 of gold, currency and securities.
As they were leaving, they were surprised by bank Vice President Emory Reyburn, returning early from lunch. They ordered him into a corner and jumped into their still-running getaway car, a stolen Chandler, which they’d tried to disguise by sloppily painting black over the original blue.
The bandits made a fast break out of town, south on Clovis Avenue. Reyburn ran down the street to a garage, where he and the garage owner jumped into a car to give chase. But their pursuit was cut short by the trail of large-headed roofing nails the pair had strewn on the road as they got away.
Meanwhile, “The Owl” and “The Lone Wolf” met up with an accomplice, 25-year-old Catherine Ryan, and ditched the car.
Sheriff’s investigators traced them to a house on Roosevelt Avenue in Fresno, which they rented before carrying out the well-planned heist.
Sharp detective work led by Sheriff Bill Jones and Deputy Sheriff O.J. King uncovered a key piece of evidence left behind: a piece of clothing with an Oakland laundry tag on it. From the tag King found where Ryan lived and put her under surveillance. That led him to Griffin, whom he arrested at gunpoint.
“The Owl” and Ryan were returned to Clovis, where she was released after evidence against her was ruled insufficient. It turned out that Griffin was already a known figure in the San Francisco underworld, having served two terms in prison for two bank robberies and a payroll heist. Despite that, he objected to his $100,000 bail, telling reporters authorities were trying to cast him as “a second Jesse James.”
He was found guilty of the Clovis robbery and sentenced to Folsom Prison. But in November 1926 he and two other inmates escaped, in part by swimming across the bitterly cold American River. Abandoned by his accomplices because of a sprained ankle, he was found dead of pneumonia three days later.
“The Lone Wolf” gunned down a police officer during a San Francisco bank robbery in 1925, and was hanged at Folsom in 1926. Before his execution, he admitted his role in the Clovis robbery.
The bank building, at the southeast corner of Pollasky Avenue and Fourth Street, was built in 1912. It later became the city’s municipal and judicial courthouse until 1981, when it was acquired by the Clovis-Big Dry Creek Historical Society. Now it houses the Clovis Museum.