“Marijuana Orgies Before Terror Sorties Bared in Gang Roundup.” That was the banner headline for a Los Angeles newspaper in August 1942. The story was about the still unsolved murder now referenced as the Sleepy Lagoon case. The story and headline provide a glimpse into that atmosphere in Los Angeles that hot summer.
The city’s newspapers had been publishing increasingly incendiary stories about a “Juvenile War” waged on Los Angeles streets by Latino kids between June 1942 to May 1943. Descriptors such as “delinquents,” “goons” and “hoodlums” peppered most stories. The articles often referenced “marijuana induced violence” and “gangs corrupting the city’s youth with marijuana.”
The Mexican government saw opportunity in the coverage. These stories in Los Angeles newspapers, the Sleepy Lagoon murder, and a series of incidents known collectively as the “Zoot Suit Riots” were blamed on ultra nationalist Sinarquista groups in Mexico. Claims were made that agents of these groups operating in the United States were providing young Mexican Americans with marijuana and political propaganda.
The Sleepy Lagoon case, and a few high profile gang incidents, gave the stories credence. But government funded studies reported found that in a five year period, youth crime or delinquency had remained relatively flat. A surprisingly balanced article published on May 20, 1943 noted that the, “Increase in juvenile delinquency here has been grossly exaggerated as a wartime factor, it was asserted today by Herman G. Stark, director of the Civilian Service Corps and Co-ordinating Council of Los Angeles County.”
As segregation prevented members of the Mexican American community from using most public swimming pools, a water reservoir in a gravel pit located on the Williams Ranch in East Los Angeles became a popular gathering place. It was known to locals as Sleepy Lagoon.
On the morning of August 2, 1942 the body of José Díaz was found along a dirt road near the reservoir. Witnesses from the party at the site the night before pointed out Henry Leyvas and the 38th Street Gang as the most likely murderers.
Six hundred Mexican American youth were rounded in a citywide dragnet led by the Los Angeles Police Department. Published stories alluded to marijuana induced sex parties. Some noted that the raid had curtailed auto thefts and robberies in the city. On October 13, 1942 People v. Zamora went to trial as the largest mass trial in California history. Eventually twenty-two alleged members of the 38th Street Gang were accused of the murder of José Díaz and three were sentenced to life in prison.
In 1944, the Second District Court of Appeals overturned the verdicts of the case citing insufficient evidence, the denial of the defendants’ right to counsel, the overt bias of Judge Fricke, and the forging of evidence. No charges were filed in regards to infractions, and the murder remains unsolved.
History is often taught in a manner that ensures a life long avoidance of the subject. But history has tremendous relevance. History serves as milestones. Consider the public perception of marijuana in the 1940s to the perception today that allows for the operation of stores like The Bud Farmacy in Needles, California.