Today, signs placed northbound along U.S. Highway 101 near the Dr. Fine Bridge over the Smith River and southbound near the Oregon border mark the nine mile stretch of highway dedicated to California Highway Patrol Office Ernie Felio. And every time I see them, I can’t help but think about the night of September 7, 1980.
It was a Sunday evening and I was about two and half hours into my air shift at KCRE, in Crescent City, California. I was supposed to still be training, but instead I was filling in for the guy who usually worked the shift had called in sick.
Not only was he supposed to be working the shift, he was supposed to be training me to do the overnight weekends. I was a little more than stressed because I had only been in training for two nights prior to this, so I was operating by the seat of my pants.
That’s when all hell broke loose across the street from the station. The window was open to the studio and as I looked out it, I saw several deputies come pouring out of the sheriff’s office across the street – including three who jumped out the open window of the break room and rushed to their patrol cars.
Since the song I was playing was nearly over, I waited to begin a new one. Once that was done, I got up and walked across the hall to the production/news room and turned on the scanner hoping to hear what was going on.
It became clear from the radio traffic that something ‘big’ had gone down. I heard Sheriff Tom Hopper being called out, his call number being 231, and responding officers calling in saying they were en route and were so many miles from Smith River.
At the sheriff’s office, I could imagine the dispatcher clearing the radio, calling for officers to respond to a radio check. One call sign, 95-3, never answered.
Then – an eerie silence. Soon that was followed by a nerve-racking, “beep-beep-beep,” and the words, “All units prepare to copy a BOLO (be on look out,) on a 187 of a peace officer in the Crescent City area.”
PC 187: Homicide. The willful taking of a human life without justification — and this one was compounded as the life taken was that of a law enforcement officer.
That’s when I decided to call the station manager and ask him what I should do. He suggested I call the news director which I did.
The news director walked up the stairs to the newsroom about 20 minutes later. Eventually, I gave up my seat so he could make the announcement that California Highway Patrol Officer shot and killed during a traffic stop in Smith River.
Soon the teletype in the hallway began ringing – alerting us to the same information the news director had jus’ put out over the airwaves. I pulled it from the machine and handed it to him, saying, “For your scrap-book.”
Smiling, he wadded it up and tossed it in the round file, replying “I don’t save them – if I did, I have a thousand of them by now.”
As soon as he left the studio, I retrieved it knowing that it may be someone I knew.
The following day, the shock of the murder was hitting Crescent City hard. And yes, I knew who the officer was as I had graduated from Del Norte High School with his daughter, Carol, in 1978.
Ernie Felio, an 18-year veteran of the CHP, died while making a “routine traffic stop,” around 8:20 p.m. An hour later, Josephine County, Oregon sheriff’s duty Larry Michaels stopped a car in the Cave Junction area, fitting the description of a car seen at the time of the shooting and arrested its driver, Ronald Chester Hawkins.
My father and I were sharing my small apartment on Elk Valley Drive and we were listening to the radio and upon hearing the words, “routine traffic-stop,’ Dad shook his head and sighed.
“What?” I had to ask.
“You know the saying, ‘Familiarity breeds contempt?” Dad continued.
Having heard it before, I nodded my head.
“Well, it sounds like Ernie got careless and treated this pull-over like every other pull-over and that’s what got him killed.”
“How was he supposed to know he had a gun!” I heard myself exclaim, thinking my old man, an ex-cop himself, was blaming Ernie for his own death.
Nodding, Dad sensed what I was thinking, “All I’m saying is Ernie should’ve approached the guy in the car as if he were armed and dangerous.”
For me, the light-bulb went on and it was burning bright, because I knew that aside from domestic calls, pulling over a driver is one of the most dangerous things a law enforcement officer can do. The realization brought a chill to my body and I shivered.
For the next few months, very little was reported about Ernie’s death and by the time something did break, I had left the radio station because I didn’t want to work for free.
It was May 28, 1981, when Hawkins’ murder trial began with Del Norte County District Attorney Robert Weir telling the jury that the murder had been done “execution style.” It was obvious that Weir was aiming for the death penalty and was pulling no punches about it.
By this time the trial had been moved to the Shasta County Superior Court. Hawkins’ defense attorney Jere Hurley had argued successfully that his client wouldn’t be able to get a fair trial because of all the publicity.
Mike Luttrell, who worked in the Smith River Lily fields with Hawkins, testified that he was present when both Hawkins and Ernie pulled up into the drive way along Westbrook Lane. After an exchange of pleasantries with Luttrell, Ernie walked around his squad car and was confronted by Hawkins, who fired twice at the unsuspecting officer.
At hearing the first two pistol shots, Lutrell said he ran from the scene, fearing he’d be next. The farmhand also described hearing Ernie shout, “No, not me!” before two more pistol shots rang out.
Meanwhile, Hurley argued that Hawkins couldn’t be responsible for first-degree murder because he was an alcoholic with a diminished mental capacity and therefore incapable of premeditated murder. A few days later, Hawkins brother and girlfriend were in court trying to convince the jury of the same.
Bonnie Orton, Hawkins’s girlfriend, testified that she witnessed Hawkins drink seven to 10 cans of beer while they drove from Southern Oregon to Smith River the day of Ernie’s murder. She also claimed she’d seen him drunk on 15 to 20 occasions, “and possibly more than that,” in the two months she had known him.
Hawkins’ brother, Ed Hawkins, testified that the defendant had a history of drinking problems and appeared to have been drinking when he saw him several hours before Ernie was slain. Hawkins’ eyes were glazed, he was jumpy and tried to pick a fight with him, the brother claimed.
A psychiatrist said Hawkins might have “blacked out” during the slaying, meaning he didn’t remember what had happened. However, David Pike testified that Hawkins bragged about killing Ernie and expressed regret that he hadn’t killed Lutrell, too. Pike and Hawkins had shared a Del Norte County jail cell after the shooting.
It was Monday, June 15, 1981, when a jury found Hawkins guilty of first-degree murder in the shooting death of a California Highway Patrolman Ernest Ray Felio. The following month, and the day after my 21st birthday, Hawkins was formally given a sentence of death.
During the penalty phase of the trial, Superior Court Judge Richard Abbe also fined Hurley $500 and gave him a day in jail for sending an investigator to contact a juror during the trial. Evidently, while enough to piss off the Judge; the illegal meeting wasn’t enough to warrant a mistrial, which is what Abbe suspected Hurley was trying to get.
Abbe, following the jury’s recommendation, ordered Hawkins to death row at San Quentin Prison. Hawkins, however, committed suicide by hanging himself on January 17, 1983 using a bed sheet he had tied to a wall ventilator.
Ernie was also posthumously honored in December 2010 with the California State Employee Medal of Valor for his efforts in saving a teenage boy from electrocution. It was March 8, 1969, when Ernie, who was off duty at the time, came upon the scene of a traffic collision.
A vehicle had collided with a power pole that was carrying several 12,000 volt electrical lines. As a result of the collision, several live wires were hanging across the roadway in disarray and at varying heights.
The teen lived across the street from the accident and came outside to see what was happening, but because of the darkness, the black power lines, and no street lights, he walked into a live wire. Ernie saw a bluish flame leap from the boy’s head and shoulders as soon as the kid made contact with the wire, then saw him fall to the ground.
Realizing, the boy would die, Ernie raced through and around the wires to help the teenager. When he reached the boy he found him rigid, unconscious and not breathing.
Ernie was able to open his airway and begin mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and after several minutes, the boy finally began to breathe on his own and was transported to the hospital. The boy was released a few days later and made a full recovery.