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Tahoe City: Law & Order, Part II

082213-SierraStories

Tahoe City managed to avoid the rough and tumble street fighting, bar brawling and violent vigilantism that marred Truckee’s reputation in the late 19th century. While Truckee employed a series of constables and sheriffs to keep the peace in the rowdy, railroad town (including one who was shot and killed in a gunfight in 1891 — not by a hoodlum but by another constable), Tahoe City’s top cops tended to remain quietly on the job for many years. In fact, just four constables took care of the community for most of the 20th century, until the position was eliminated in 1995.

Tahoe City’s first constable, Robert Montgomery Watson, was appointed in 1906 at the age of 52 and served the community with dedication for 26 years until his death in 1932. It was a sad day for the small community when the beloved Watson died. Legend has it that it was on the day of Watson’s funeral that Harry Johanson rode into town. Just a few years later, Johanson would become Tahoe City’s next constable.

Born in Sweden in 1889, Johanson had demonstrated exceptional youthful athleticism by taking top honors in many skiing, swimming and long-distance running competitions. He ended up winning a total of 84 medals and trophies. Johanson studied architectural drafting at the University of Upsala and, after graduation, he joined the Swedish Army Air Corp. In his late 30s, Harry immigrated to Canada where he became an officer with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Johanson received permission to enter the United States and arrived at Tahoe for a caretaker position at a West Shore estate.

In December 1934, he received his citizenship and two months later became Tahoe City’s second Constable. It soon became apparent, however, that “Harry Jo,” as locals liked to call him, was cut from a different cloth than Bob Watson. Watson was known as a quiet, reserved family man; Johanson was a confirmed bachelor with a flamboyant personality.

Harry Jo covered his beat of 200 square miles by horseback in summer and dogsled in winter. During the 1930s, Hollywood directors filmed many of that era’s adventure movies at Lake Tahoe, including such epics as “Call of the Wild” (Harry stood in for Clark Gable), “White Fang” and “Rose Marie” (he doubled for actor Nelson Eddy). Harry Jo preferred the devoted companionship of his dogs over any commitment to a woman, but the handsome constable with wavy blond hair certainly enjoyed the fairer sex. His brief marriage to local schoolteacher Dorothy Zaharias produced a child, but Harry argued that he was not the father and she angrily left town with the baby. Afterward, Harry said, “The more I see of women, the more I love my dogs.”

Despite his well-publicized sentiments regarding marriage and women, he nevertheless flirted with many of the eligible females in Tahoe City, always wearing his dashing uniform and service revolver, even while drinking in the local taverns. Rumor has it that the beautiful actress Jeanette MacDonald, star in “Rose Marie,” was one of his conquests.

Constable Johanson played an active role in regional law enforcement, not only capturing crooks (once nabbing a murder suspect in Tahoe City), but also in confiscating slot machines and shutting down local gambling operations. Johanson wore other hats, too, simultaneously performing the duties of deputy sheriff, deputy tax collector and deputy corner. In 1967, Harry Jo retired after 32 years of service. More than 200 people attended his retirement dinner at Sunnyside Lodge. Harry Jo eventually moved to Reno where he died in 1980, but, like Constable Watson, Johanson is buried in Tahoe City’s Trails End Cemetery.

After Johanson’s retirement in 1967, Adam Savat, a New Jersey native, was appointed Constable and he served for 10 years. In 1978, Michael “Mickey” Daniels, Tahoe City’s fourth and last constable, took over the position.

Constable Daniels had worked for the Tahoe City’s Sheriff’s Department in the early 1960s before transferring to the California Highway Patrol. He possessed a fine sense of humor and was usually ready to smile after any “serious business” had been taken care of. Born in October 1937 in Los Angeles, Daniels graduated Sacramento High School in 1955. His love of sports inspired him to pursue a career as a high school coach, so he attended junior college, which led him to a job giving swimming lessons to aspiring California Highway Patrol recruits. That experience got him thinking about a career in law enforcement and in 1957 he joined the Marine Corps. He served two years, including a stint with the Military Police at a San Diego brig. In 1960, Daniels married Sharon Bechdolt, whose family owned the old Tahoe Inn and the Tahoe City Golf Course. The Bechdolts are an old and influential family on the North Shore and have a long history in Tahoe City. After the wedding, father-in-law Carl Bechdolt Jr. welcomed Daniels into the family.

One day when Mickey Daniels mentioned that he would like to become a Tahoe City deputy, Carl called the Sheriff at 2 a.m. on a weekend to secure a job for his new son-in-law. Mickey was interviewed that Monday and without any training, was issued a gun, badge and patrol car the next day. Officer Daniels served with the sheriff’s department for three-and-a-half years, rising to the rank of sergeant.

During the December 1963 kidnapping of Frank Sinatra Jr. at South Lake Tahoe, Daniels manned the Tahoe City roadblock as law enforcement tried to catch the kidnappers. Despite the cordon that encircled the lake, the abductors managed to escape the dragnet in a snowstorm. In 1964, Daniels left Tahoe City for Sacramento where he trained at the California Highway Patrol Academy before joining the force. He was first assigned to Southern California and later transferred to South Lake Tahoe.

In early 1967, Daniels was sent to Truckee and assigned to patrol both the Truckee and Tahoe City areas. About 10 years later, he took on the role of Tahoe City Constable, an honored community position with deep-rooted history. Officer Daniels served for 17 years until 1995 when the job was eliminated.

In 1985, Mickey married his current wife Nora in a West Shore wedding where a rare, early September snowstorm chased everyone into a nearby boat storage facility. Today, Mickey Daniels is best known as the owner and skipper of Mickey’s Big Mack fishing charters in Carnelian Bay. He still has plenty of stories to share.

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at thestormking.com. You may reach him at mark@thestormking.com. Check out Mark’s blog at tahoenuggets.com.

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