When Pete Cardoza died in May 1967, The Tribune called him a legend, and indeed he was, but not for the reasons the local newspaper cited.
True enough, three years earlier he was honored as the Grand Marshal in the Old Timers parade. True enough, everyone remembered him as the man who tied his horse to a parking meter when he came to town. True enough, folks said he could milk 50 cows a day by hand, but that’s not what made him a legend. Neither was it the fact that he was arrested once for riding his bike on the sidewalk, or that he was arrested for reckless driving, or that he was charged with causing an accident when he hit a car with his horse-drawn wagon.
All of those things were true, but that’s not what made him a legend in Madera. Pete Cardoza became a legend here because he was charged with committing statutory rape. His own stepdaughter was the alleged victim.
On June 30, 1916, 15-year-old Margaret Haley gave birth to a baby boy. She told authorities at the time that the baby’s father was Pete Cardoza, her stepfather.
Pete had been married to Mary McCeary who had been married before and was the mother of Margaret “Maggie” Haley. When Mary died, Margaret moved out on her own. Sometime after that, she became pregnant. When she gave birth, she accused Pete of the statutory offense against her, claiming that she had gone to his house to gather some of her clothes and spent the night. She claimed the assault took place at that time. Cardoza was arrested, and three months later he was in front of Judge Conley.
The courtroom was crowded that day because news had been leaked that District Attorney Stanley Murray was going to drop a bombshell. He was going to ask the judge to dismiss the charges against Pete; Margaret Haley had changed her story.
It was when investigators from the district attorney’s office saw Margaret’s baby that they became suspicious. It had blue eyes, fair skin, and straight hair. He didn’t resemble Pete at all. Cardoza, who had some African ancestry, was dark, brown-eyed, with very curly hair. Upon seeing the baby, the investigators began to grill Margaret.
It didn’t take them long to get what they thought was the truth out of her. Margaret confessed that she had lied, and she pointed her finger at Father Thomas King, the Catholic Priest in Madera.
Fr. King was arrested in November and stood trial in January 1917. It took the jury just 20 minutes to find him not guilty.
To this day, the identity of the father of Margaret Haley’s baby remains unknown, but everyone agrees that it was neither Pete Cardoza nor Fr. King. As the dust settled, they both went on with their lives.
Pete died on May 23, 1967, and with all that notoriety, one would have expected a huge crowd to turn out for his funeral. Such was not the case. As the Tribune editorial put it, “No cheering throng was on the sidelines and very little notice (was) taken of the passing of one who will take his place among the legendary figures of our community. Two old-time friends joined four volunteers from the St. Vincent de Paul Society who acted as his bearers and six friends and one baby made up the group attending his last rites. There were no known surviving relatives. Though he died a pauper, his church accorded him the honors due a prince and a friend saw that he was not buried in a potter’s field.
“Owning no property and poor in material things, he was rich in warmth and friendliness in a manner befitting a leading citizen. The streets of Madera will no longer echo the hoof beats of Pete Cardoza’s horse, but somewhere there’s a ghost rider turning in the saddle with a smile on his face and a cheery wave of the hand as he wends his way home.”
Originally published in the Madera Tribune.