Lest We Forget - Officer Walter Kesterson - February 4, 1946
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Officer Walter Kesterson - Shot and killed in a shootout on
February 4, 1946
 
Our whole class, except two of us who went undercover, were assigned on December 8, 1940 to traffic control in downtown L.A.

The rest of my time in traffic went quickly. Several rainy days added to the congestion. The heaviest day of traffic congestion, and the last day we extra officers worked, was December 26, when Christmas presents were exchanged and the after-Christmas sales started. I was told to report the next evening to the Reserve Unit, which was also assigned to Central Division.

In the 1940’s the Reserve Unit was a mobile crime-crushing unit. In a later Department Re-organization it came to be called Metropolitan Division. Its members worked in uniform or plain clothes, depending on the nature of the assignment. Reserve Unit officers were moved throughout the city to all the crime hot spots to suppress criminal activity. This was done with increased foot or motor patrol, or by staking out business places likely to attract criminal activity.

In the absence of a specific assignment, the Reserve Unit covered the skid row area of the city. This was the area from Main Street to Central Avenue, between 3rd and 7th Streets. Fifth and Main Streets were principal axis of activity. This was an area of cheap hotels, flop houses, missions, all night movies, pawn shops, liquor stores, cheap restaurants and cheaper bars, two bus stations and a street car terminal. It was mostly a masculine world. Some "flea bag" prostitutes hung out in the cheaper beer bars. Their customers were as destitute and burnt out as were the prostitutes. Female winos were a rarity. This area was frequented by winos, thieves, hustlers, drunk rollers, strong arm robbers, and ex-convicts, as well as by working men between jobs or down on their luck, construction workers, miners, lumber jacks, seamen, truck drivers an swampers and day laborers.

I was teamed up with Walter Kesterson, a veteran officer, for several nights to get the feeling of the area and the people who frequent it. Kesterson was a quiet and competent officer who knew how to get along with everyone, not only his brother officers, but also the people he put in jail. Some officers made a lot of arrests but had an equal number of altercations. Kesterson made as many arrests as anyone, but never had any trouble. He looked like he was carved out granite. He was all business, didn’t raise his voice and didn’t use any derogatory expressions. I was fortunate to be assigned with him. We wore plain clothes, stopped a lot of people and questioned them. I also was able to learn the geography of the area while working with Kesterson.

On Tuesday morning, February 5, 1946, I picked up the morning paper from the front yard. I would normally glance at the headlines and then put in it in the entry way hall for Grace when she got up. But when I opened it up this morning, there on the front page was sad and shocking news. Walter Kesterson, the officer who broke me in when I went to the Reserve Unit, was shot and killed at 10:00 p.m., the night before.

A theater at 126 East Santa Barbara Avenue was held up at 9:00 p.m. by three men. At 10:00 p.m., Kesterson and his partner spotted a car containing two men at 43rd Place and South Avalon Blvd. The suspects answered the description of the theater hold-up men. The officers pulled the car over. Kesterson got out and ordered the two men out of their car. His partner remained in the police car. The two men got out with .38 caliber revolvers in their hand and one, Nathaniel Cooper, age 20, shot Kesterson in the chest. Kesterson then drew his weapon a .357 magnum revolver and shot and killed both Cooper and the other man, Gus Boyd, age 18. Kesterson died at the scene. Kesterson had been on the Department eighteen years and was still assigned to the Reserve Unit.

I rode the bus to work that morning and thought of the times I had worked with Kesteson and what a great policeman and gentleman he was. I wished that I had been working with the night before, maybe the outcome would have been different. At least I would not have sitting on my ass in a police car when the shooting started.

When I got to the office, I learned more details. The two murders were now suspected of killing a City of Vernon police officer, Richard Pennington on January 24. Pennington, a motor officer, stopped a car containing two men for a traffic violation and told the driver to drive to the Vernon police station. After they arrived at the police station parking lot, the driver shot and killed Officer Pennington. Ballistic tests were being run on the two .38’s carried by the men killed by Kesterson. The bullet that killed Kesterson entered his chest. Had the bullet continued in a straight line and exited or traveled upward, instead of downward, the wound would not have fatal. Tragically, the bullet traveled downward and struck Kesterson’s heart. Despite this fatal wound, Kesterson’s courage and determination gave him the strength to draw and fire killing both suspects.

The theater cashier identified both men as the persons who held her up. Nathaniel Cooper was also identified by a witness as the person who killed Officer Pennington. Even the ballistic test confirmed that the .38 that Cooper was carrying had killed Pennington.

Article by Retired Inspector John "two gun" Powers

 
Note from Author:

The Department’s Medal of Valor was first awarded in 1925 to Sergeant Frank S. Harper in recognition of Harper’s actions during a shootout and capture of a bandit.

Officer Walter Kesterson’s actions would have deserved this small recognition of his courage and devotion to duty. However the award of the Department’s Medal of Valor was suspended from 1936 through 1952.