In 1927, the people of Madera County elected Welton Rhodes as their sheriff. In the years that followed, that public confidence proved to be well-placed. Rhodes provided law and order without favoritism for two terms. During that time, he appointed W.O. Justice as one of his deputies, an act that he was later to regret.
Justice was made deputy sheriff in 1931 and served in that capacity for two years. Then he resigned and went to work for the Board of Equalization until he was fired in 1933. Justice was accused of “using his employment as an agent for the state to subserve his own political ends.” Apparently, Justice was laying plans to challenge his old boss for his job. Sheriff Rhodes’ former deputy wanted his badge.
Some of Justice’s supporters claimed that Rhodes had orchestrated his dismissal from his job with the Board of Equalization because he had learned of Justice’s plans to run against him for sheriff in the Nov. 1934 election.
In March 1934, Justice announced his candidacy for Madera County Sheriff, and Rhodes announced that he was a candidate for reelection. This set the stage for an ugly fight between the sheriff and his former deputy, which found its way into the Fresno Bee.
For some reason, Justice was able to secure the endorsement of A.L. Vignaut, editor of the Bee. Not only did the Fresno newspaperman support Justice, he immersed himself in the challenger’s election campaign. Vignaut began by charging that Rhodes had helped Justice get the government job and then got him fired. Then he began a public parade of the horribles in the Bee.
Vignaut accused Rhodes of wasting the public’s money while he was sheriff. He contended that over the past year, the expenses of the sheriff’s office exceeded his predecessor’s by $17,000. Rhodes shot back that there was an increase all right, but it was only $4,797, and that was due to the “higher cost of all commodities, the hiring of two additional deputies, the acquisition of three automobiles, and almost double the number of arrests. Rhodes’ supporters insisted that the sheriff had done well to “carry the increased burden of business at so small an increase in the cost of operation.”
Vignaut retorted that there were only four more arrests by the sheriff in his first year of office than his predecessor had made in his last year. Rhodes countered that by claiming 931 more arrests in 1927 than in 1926, the year before he was sheriff.
Vignaut charged that while the demands of government had increased in every county, the cost of governance had decreased by 60 percent. While other counties were cutting their budgets, however, Madera County was increasing its spending, and leading the pack was the sheriff’s office.
Rhodes alleged that Vignaut’s opposition was personal vengeance. The sheriff claimed that Vignault’s grievance came about when he attempted to gain access to “unprivileged information” in a recent, notorious case, and the sheriff refused to release it prior to trial.
As the campaign drew to a close, Rhodes published letters of support from two fellow sheriffs: George Campbell of Imperial County and William Emig of Santa Clara County. On November 6, 1934, Rhodes held his breath as the voters went to the polls. He knew that Justice was a popular cotton rancher who had been operating the Desmond ranch south of Madera. He and his family were well-known and well-liked by local residents.
As things turned out, the election of 1934 was a disaster for all incumbents of Madera County offices. The Superintendent of Schools, the County Tax Collector, and the County Treasurer all lost to their challengers, and the race for sheriff followed suit. Justice defeated Rhodes 3,349 to 2,733.
So Welton Rhodes lost the badge he had carried for eight years, and W.O. Justice put it on. He served as Madera County Sheriff for 20 years, and then he got a surprise of his own.
In 1954 Justice decided to run again but so did his former Undersheriff, Marlin Young, and history repeated itself. An incumbent sheriff once again was defeated by a former deputy.
Justice left Madera and moved to Santa Cruz where he died in 1965. He was brought back to Madera and buried in Arbor Vitae Cemetery.
Today none of the political rancor of yesteryear is recalled. William Otto Justice is remembered only for 20 years of faithful service to the people of Madera County, and that is as it should be.
Originally published November 2, 2019, in the Madera Tribune.