‘Who was Percy Heckendorff?’
- Joe Toth
By Michael Redmon
Percy Heckendorff was one of the longest-tenured district attorneys in Santa Barbara County history, serving from 1931 to 1942. Heckendorff then went on to a distinguished career in state government before returning to Santa Barbara, where he was appointed a Superior Court judge in 1960.
Heckendorff was born in Santa Rosa, California, in 1898. In 1908 the family came to Santa Barbara where young Percy finished up his elementary and high school education. He received his B.A. from Stanford University in 1923 and earned his law degree there in 1926. After admittance to the California Bar, he returned to Santa Barbara and joined the firm of Heaney, Price, Postel. Today Price, Postel and Parma is the oldest law firm in Santa Barbara.
Heckendorff secured his first term as DA in the November 1930 election and would go on to be elected twice more. Entering office at the height of the Great Depression, he was forced to operate the office on a shoestring for several years. His own salary of $3,600 was undoubtedly a major cut from his earnings in private practice.
Heckendorff certainly saw his share of interesting cases. One of the most sensational occurred in 1934. In March, one Hazel “Dixie” Ross was arrested for operating a house of prostitution and proceeded to relate that she had been paying protection money to members of the Santa Barbara police force for years, including the chief of police himself. In May, a grand jury indicted the chief and three officers on corruption charges.
The subsequent two-week trial held the city in thrall. Heckendorff was lead prosecutor; one of the defense attorneys was Clarence Ward, a former DA after whom Clarence Ward Memorial Boulevard was later named. Heckendorff had three star witnesses: Ross; Frank “Chico” Larco, an alleged witness to some of the bribes; and one of the indicted officers who turned state’s evidence. It was all to no avail. Ross’s testimony was full of inconsistencies and it came out that she and Larco had business dealings together. The defense convinced the jury it was all a frame-up and the latter returned a verdict of not guilty. Heckendorff soon found himself in the middle of another firestorm — the saga of Mayor E. O. Hanson. Elected in 1935, Hanson began his mayoral tenure by firing virtually all city department heads.
Becoming ever more dictatorial, he arranged for the recall of five of the six city councilmembers, and forced city workers to fund his political newspaper, with which he waged fierce editorial battles with Tom Storke of the News-Press. He got into bar brawls, once reportedly pulled a gun on a city official during a dispute, and suggested that the county administration be “cleaned out” just as he had done with the city. Finally, Heckendorff brought charges of corruption over Hanson’s extorting money from city employees for his newspaper. The mayor was given a choice: resign or face a trial. In December 1936, Hanson resigned and soon after left town.
In 1942 Heckendorff left the DA’s office after his appointment by Governor Earl Warren to head the Department of Professional and Vocational Standards, the state’s primary licensing agency. In 1946 he returned to Santa Barbara and resumed private practice until Governor Edmund “Pat” Brown named him to the Superior Court bench.
Through the years Heckendorff was also involved in the community. He served on the City Council, on the City Water Commission, and had been active in seeing the Lake Cachuma project through to completion. He retired from the bench in 1968 but continued to periodically hear cases. He was presiding over a murder trial when he suffered the stroke that ultimately took his life early in 1975.