Joe and Frank Crappa owned the Crappa Brothers Grocery, which stood on the northeast corner of 4th Street and Gateway Drive in the 1920s. It was a prosperous little Italian market until Frank Crappa got himself in trouble during prohibition.
There is no evidence that the law ever had its eyes on Joe Crappa. He seemed not to have known about his brother’s misdeeds — or at least he didn’t take part in them. Frank Crappa, on the other hand, couldn’t seem to keep himself on the right side of the law.
As far back as 1916, Frank was caught stealing a steer and a hog from J. W. Schmitz, and he didn’t get away with it — exactly. After being arrested, Frank begged for prohibition rather than prison.
While Superior Court Judge William Conley was taking it under advisement, more than 200 of Schmitz’s friends petitioned the Judge to have no mercy on the steer and hog thief. Judge Conley, however, was in a benevolent mood.
When Frank came before him, the jurist asked, “Have you been in trouble before?” Frank shook his head no, so Judge Conley then requested probation officer J. B. Williams to investigate his past Iife. Since Crappa had a family, in order to allow him to provide for his loved ones, the Judge put him on ten years’ probation. Schmitz got his steer and hog back, and Frank Crappa got his freedom and would have retained it had it not been for prohibition.
Fast forward now to 1923. Frank was minding his store on Oct. 9, 1923, when all of a sudden two cars drove up in front of his market and four men jumped out. They grabbed Frank and threw him into one of the cars, but before they could drive off, Crappa got shot. The Madera newspaper called it a “mystery shooting.”
Three of the men who swooped down on Frank that day were Constable Russell, his deputy, W. W. Smith, and Federal Agent T. J. Nicely. They were in one car. Clyde Rex, a Fresno newspaperman, drove the other car, and it was his auto into which they threw Frank.
For some reason, Rex had a gun and when Crappa tried to escape from the car, Rex shot him in the leg. He took the profusely bleeding man to Dr. Dow Ransom’s Sanitarium and then sped off. The three lawmen drove up just as he was pulling away.
When the story hit the newspaper the next day, everybody was scratching their head. Who was it that shot Frank Crappa?
Agent Nicely told a Tribune reporter that Frank Crappa was a federal prisoner, but oddly enough, there was no officer at the hospital and no warrant had been served on Crappa.
He told the Mercury that he was going to swear to a complaint against Rex. For his part, Nicely told a reporter that 10 gallons of liquor had been found in Crappa’s place and that he had sold some of that liquor for $60 in marked money.
Both Frank and his brother Joe said they had no booze of any kind in their store and had taken no money from anyone. Meanwhile, Frank filed a complaint against Rex for assault. The problem was, while the newspaperman was reported not to have been an officer, he was working as an undercover informant with Prohibition, so nothing came of the complaint.
Faced with the inevitable, Frank Crappa entered a guilty plea to the liquor charge, but that put him on the horns of a dilemma — not for selling booze, but for violating his probation from the 1916 steer and hog stealing conviction.
Frank was given a suspended sentence for violating the Volstead Act but was ordered to San Quentin for violation of his probation, 1 1/2 years of which he still had to serve.
On April 14, 1925, Sheriff John Barnett took Frank Crappa to San Quentin to finish out the terms of his parole violation.
Frank got out of prison and came back home in 1927 to join his brother in operating the Crappa Brothers Market. Joe Crappa died in 1962 at the age of 72. Frank died in 1987 at the age of 98.
The next time you drive by that corner where Madera’s first Taco Bell used to stand, just think about all the action that took place there almost 100 years ago.
Originally published in the Madera Tribune