SJPD Star


SJPD Fallen Officers

Officer John Covalesk

Officer John Covalesk

1916 - 1950

Killed in the Line of Duty November 15, 1950

We Honor the Sacrifice He Made

by
Dwight Messimer

 

On the morning of Wednesday, November 15, 1950, John J. Covalesk, age, 34, was walking one of the downtown foot beats. It was a lousy assignment that rookies were routinely given, and Covalesk, with just seven months on the department, qualified for both the title and the beat.

But Covalesk did not complain. Whatever discomforts pounding the lonely beat and shaking doors from midnight to 8:00 a.m. were minor compared with what the tall officer experienced just a few years earlier. John Covalesk had been on Wake Island on December 23, 1941 when the Japanese overran the U.S. Marine garrison after 12 days of bitter fighting. For the following three years and eight months, Covalesk suffered a brutal imprisonment in the Philippines, China and Japan.

Nor did Covalesk complain about the crushing boredom that characterized his assignment. Described as an "aggressive, gutsy cop," the rookie had already been commended twice for self-initiated arrests, and only a month earlier, he had single-handedly broken up a gang fight. On the latter occasion he was severely beaten on the head and shoulders by a board-wielding combatant. Covalesk healed quickly, but his assailant was still hobbling around on a broken leg.

This particular shift had been anything but boring. Bar fights and drunks kept him fairly busy until the bars closed. But the big excitement had occurred at about 3:30 a.m., when another rookie officer working the adjacent beat had flushed a burglar from Pacific Finance at 15 North Market Street. Covalesk, the other rookie, and the four midnight cars had spent an unsuccessful hour searching for the suspect.

The man the officers had scared away from Pacific Finance was 22-year-old Clifford Denham, "a skinny, highly-agitated," convicted burglar and one-time auto thief. Denham, on probation from Alameda County for a series of safe jobs, was married, had two children and worked as an aircraft mechanic for Trans Ocean Airlines in Oakland.

Having eluded the police, Denham used a crowbar to pry open the front door of the Mercantile Acceptance Corporation at 42 East San his Fernando Street. He was inside and had just broken into a steel box containing $1,650 when Officer Covalesk found the open door and saw the crowbar. It was about 5:40 a.m. when John Covalesk pushed the door open and stepped inside.

Several blocks away at police headquarters, the dispatchers and the desk sergeant were unaware that an officer had found an open door and was inside alone. Covalesk had called in on schedule at 5:00 a.m. and was due to check in again at six. Why the rookie officer had not gone to a call box and asked for a back-up is something about which we can only guess.

According to police officers who worked during-the decade following World War 11, there was strong peer-group pressure to 'go it alone". Officers who called for back-up in a situation that later proved to be less serious than initially believed were subject to ridicule. It has also been suggested that Covalesk assumed he had come upon a prior burglary rather than one in progress. Many believe that regardless of what he thought, Covalesk's "gutsy" character compelled him to enter alone. Whatever his reasons, he made a fatal decision.

Stepping inside, Covalesk found himself in a reception area that was separated from the business office by a four-foot rail and a swinging gate on the right. A heavy desk faced him just behind the rail, and along the right-hand wall, behind the swinging gate, were four opaque glass and wood booths.

As Covalesk stepped through the gate into the business office, he was silhouetted against a bright light in the front window. In that moment, Denham opened fire from inside the second booth, only four or five feet away. The officer, hit twice in the chest, crumpled to the floor, his feet folded under him as though he was kneeling. His back rested heavily against the corner of the desk.

Covalesk was still alive and conscious when he went down. Drawing his service revolver, he fired six times into the booth, splintering the wood and smashing the glass partitions. One of his rounds punched through the roll of stolen bills in Denham's right pocket. Another nicked the suspect's hip, and a third bullet dug into the gunman's side, plowed along under the skin and stopped near his spine.

There was a moment of silence broken only by the sound of officer's empty gun hitting the floor. Denham stepped out of his hiding place, leaned over the still conscious officer and shot him once between the eyes. Covalesk slumped to the left, and died.

Before leaving, Denham found one of Covalesk's spent bullets lying on the floor. He put the "souvenir" in his pocket and hurried out the front door.

Approximately one hour later, San Jose Mercury News carrier Donald Blanchard, age 17, found the front door of the Mercantile Acceptance corporation standing ajar. Thinking that the janitor was inside, the boy pushed the door open and tossed the paper in. As the paper "plopped" to the floor, Donald saw the lower half of Covalesk's body on the floor near the large desk. The dead officer's right knee was jammed against the swinging gate, holding it open. Pedaling as hard as he could, young Blanchard raced to a pay phone and called the police.

Officer Frank Ankenbauer, a four-year veteran, was the first officer on the scene. He was followed closely by then-Captain of Detectives "Bart" Collins and four detectives: John Collins, Charles Murry (who in 1933 had captured Officer John Buck's killer), George Cannell (later to become Assistant Chief of Police), and E. Dale McCay. The investigation was thorough, but there was little to indicate who the murderer was. The meager information was nevertheless broadcast statewide, with nearly instantaneous results.

Approximately 18 hours later, shortly after midnight on November 16, Clifford Denham was playing lowball in an Emeryville card parlor. The dealer became suspicious when the seedy-looking character unrolled a thick wad of bills. When he noted that all the bills were neatly punched with what looked like a bullet hole, the dealer's suspicions were heightened sufficiently to call the police .

The Emeryville police "Ordered Denham to cash in his chips" and took the man outside for questioning. Searching his car they found a bloodstained sweatshirt, undershirt and an Army fatigue jacket. They also found a loaded automatic pistol and more bullet-punctured money. In the jacket pocket was the souvenir slug that Denham had picked up at the scene.

Denham was then taken to the police station and strip-searched. At that time the officers discovered he was wounded and began to tie the circumstances together with the recently received San Jose teletype. While Denham was taken to a local hospital for treatment, San Jose police were notified, and John Collins and Charles Murry hurried to the tiny East Bay city of Emeryville.

Denham at first denied any knowledge of the Covalesk killing, but when confronted with the evidence at hand, he confessed. He insisted, however, that Covalesk had fired first - a claim that was quickly disproved. Denham was returned to San Jose at 1 1:00 p.m. that evening and charged with murder.

But Denham did not remain long in San Jose. The specter of the 1933 lynching at St. James Park shimmered menacingly and the killer was secretly moved to San Quentin to await trial. It was several days before the press learned of Denham's whereabouts, and in the meantime the San Jose Mercury said:

Covalesk was a popular man. He had many friends inside and outside the Police Department. The brutal murder has aroused them, but they must not let their anger get the best of their judgment and their duty as American citizens. All too close even now are the memories of events of November 1933. That must not happen again. The law must be permitted to take its way - a way in this instance which points surely and directly to the death penalty

While Denham was awaiting trial, the people of San Jose paid their final tribute to Officer John J. Covalesk. One hundred officers, city officials and the officer's family attended the services at St. Patrick's Church. Covalesk's body was flown home to Lawrence, Massachusetts, that afternoon.

The citizens of San Jose, supported by the San Jose Mercury, contributed heavily to Covalesk's widow, Anita. The woman, who was due to have her first child in a few days, received over $5,000 in contributions - an amount nearly equal to a patrolman's pay for two years. She was also promised pre- and post-natal care, as well as hospitalization at no cost.

Clifford Denham was prosecuted by Santa Clara County District Attorney Napoleon "Nate" Menard. Coincidentally, Menard was the same man who had defended Joseph Matlock - Officer John Buck's killer - in 1933.

Denham was found guilty of murder, but the jury was apparently moved by the young man's youth and the daily presence in court of his weeping wife and three small children. Denham was sentenced to life imprisonment. Eleven years later he was released on parole.

John Covalesk's death forcefully validated the axiom that caution is the better part of valor. There remains, however, one bit of tragic irony: the bullets Covalesk fired at his killer were wadcutters.

Ed. - For those readers unfamiliar with the term "wadcutters," they are relatively inexpensive, low-power, flat-nosed bullets used primarily for target practice. Had Covalesk been using regular ammunition, Denham may have been incapacitated to the point that he would have been unable to fire the final, fatal bullet.

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