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Father Joe Carroll’s recent car accident has gotten plenty of media attention. But it pales in comparison to perhaps the most infamous crash in San Diego’s history, a hit-and-run smash-up that spawned a sensational trial and landed the city’s mayor behind bars 74 years ago this week.
On a November afternoon in 1934, Mayor Rutherford Irones crashed a city-owned sedan known as the “royal coach” into another car and fled the scene in Mission Hills despite seriously injuring a Navy machinist’s wife.
The mayor, a physician, failed “to stop and assist, comfort or even sympathize with that little lady lying there with a broken back,” declared District Attorney Thomas Whelan during the trial.
Irones’ political career ended when he resigned before his trial, and he was soon forgotten. His death in 1948 warranted only nine paragraphs in The San Diego Union.
But during his prime as a political figure, Irones was a prominent Republican who made waves by opposing Prohibition, perhaps no surprise considering that police thought he was intoxicated when he crashed the city car. He was appointed mayor in 1934 after a prestigious career as a doctor (and a brief marriage to a European countess).
Shortly after becoming mayor, Irones asked the city to buy him a Lincoln sedan, which the press dubbed the “royal coach.” He was driving it on Reynard Way in Mission Hills in November 1934 when he crashed into the sailor’s car and lurched into a telephone pole near Washington Street.
An initial news story in the San Diego Sun only reported that Irones had hit a telephone pole while taking a trip to Los Angeles. Another story reported the hit-and-run crash, which left a woman with a broken pelvis, but the newspaper didn’t connect the two incidents.
Within weeks, however, the true story came out. Irones was charged as a hit-and-run driver and ultimately resigned before facing trial in 1935.
During the trial, Irones’ attorney denied that his client fled the scene, pointed out that police didn’t charge the mayor and argued that a guilty verdict would ruin him. “The consequences of any mistake you may make are enormous,” the attorney said. “If you convict Dr. Irones, you will have wrecked the life of a man of 60 years, ruined the life of his wife and put an end to his career as a practicing physician.”
Unfortunately for Irones, the prosecution found several women who lived in Mission Hills and saw the accident or its aftermath. They identified the mayor as the driver of the car; one said she’d twice received telephone threats warning her not to testify.
The jury of 10 women and two men found Irones guilty. He was sentenced to six months in county jail and began his sentence in late February 1935.
Irones died in 1948 at the age of 71. Records suggest that the victims of the crash lived until the 1980s and remained in San Diego.
Perhaps the city learned a lesson about buying cars for politicians. San Diego no longer provides a full-time “royal coach” to the mayor, and hefty auto allowances for City Council members have become controversial.