The Phoenix Police Department’s Officer Earl O’Clair:

by Tim Moore and Clark Lohr


On Tuesday, May 19, 1936, Sergeant Laurence Fitzpatrick was working the front desk at Phoenix Police Headquarters at 17 South Second Avenue. At 11:17 pm, a Mr. W. H. Shandley entered the police station.

“I was driving my car in the alley behind Arnold’s Pickle and Olive Company,” Shandley said. “Arnold’s is on Van Buren and if you’ll send some officers out there right now, you’ll find two fellows boring into the back door.”

Fitzpatrick thanked Shandley and relayed the information to the police dispatcher, who sent Radio Car 116 to the alley south of Arnold’s Pickle and Olive Company at 1405 E. Van Buren Street.

Officer Harry Volgamott was driving Car 116. Officer Harry Troutman sat in the passenger seat. Officer Earl O’Clair was on “Special Duty” in the area of 11th and Moreland Streets. He heard the radio call come out and hurried to the scene to assist.

Volgamott turned into the alley behind Arnold’s. The two officers saw no disturbance and stopped the car. Suddenly, two men appeared, one from behind boxes on one side of the alley and the other from behind a light pole on the other side of the alley. The men jumped onto the running boards of 116 and pointed guns at both officers. “Put your hands up,” the gunman on the driver’s side said. The second gunman took Officer Troutman’s gun, ordered him out of the police car, and threatened to kill him.

At that point, Officer O’Clair drove into the alley and stopped behind Car 116. When the second gunman saw O’Clair’s police car he let go of Troutman and ran down the alley. The gunman fled to a car parked at Monroe Street and drove away, taking Officer Troutman’s handgun with him. Troutman took cover beside 116 and yelled to O’Clair, “They got both of us and got our guns. He’s gonna kill Harry!”

After disarming Officer Vulgamott, the first gunman had opened the driver’s side door and stuck both his .45 caliber handgun and the officer’s handgun into Vulgamott’s chest.

“Come around here and give me your gun, you son of a bitch, or I’ll kill this man,” he said O’Clair. “I’ve got him covered.”

O’Clair slid out of his car and walked in a crouch to the rear of car 116. “Let’s talk this over,” O’Clair said, but the gunman again threatened to kill Officer Vulgamott. Without a moment’s hesitation, O’Clair shot twice at the suspect and a gun battle ensued. The man flinched as both of O’Clair’s shots hit their mark. The gunman fired his .45 caliber pistol at O’Clair. The 45 jammed after one shot. The suspect dropped the .45 by the back door of Arnold’s and ran around the open driver door to the front of Car 116. He fired through the car at O’Clair, using Officer Vulgamott’s .38 caliber handgun. Vulgamott ducked down on the seat of 116. Two rounds went through the front windshield and out the back window of the patrol car. O’Clair had moved from his position behind 116, dodging both bullets. The gunman fired a third shot, which struck the front passenger seat. Wounded, the gunman fired two more shots that struck 116’s radiator and its hood just below the windshield.

O’Clair stood in the open on the driver’s side of 116 and traded shots with the gunman. The gunman then ran down the alley. O’Clair gave chase, firing at the gunman and hitting him twice. The gunman dropped to one knee, got to his feet, and shot at O’Clair. O’Clair had emptied his revolver. He reloaded, putting six more rounds in his weapon, while the suspect ran to Monroe Street. The gunman disappeared around the corner. O’Clair ran after him, rounding the corner of the building to find that the gunman had collapsed after running another one-hundred feet. The man lay dead, still clutching Vulgamott’s empty pistol. O’Clair had not been struck by any bullets. He’d fired six times at the gunman, striking the man with all six shots.

When the officers investigated the scene and went to the rear door of Arnold’s. There, they found a crow bar, a flashlight, and the .45 caliber pistol that had jammed after being fired once at Officer O’Clair. The officers counted ten holes bored into the rear door of Arnold’s and a section of the door had been pushed inward. The officers also found a brace and bit and a second crow bar. A sledge hammer and some drills lay in the alley outside the door.

Police identified the dead man as Homer Neely. Neely had been on parole from the Arizona State Prison for robbery. His criminal record began in Yavapai County in 1921, where he served three years for Felony Theft. In 1932, Neely held up a Municipal Street Railway Car Barn at 13th and Washington Streets in Phoenix and received a five to seven year prison sentence. After serving two years, he’d been paroled on May 15, 1935.

Sam Vance, the second gunman, had been sought throughout the Southwest on a robbery charge. Officers cornered Vance in a weed-grown field 15 miles southwest of Phoenix on May 24, 1936. It was close to 9 p.m. when Tolleson, Arizona, Constable Arthur Webster and Deputy Sheriff Ivy Wilson encouraged the unarmed burglar to surrender. Vance surrendered without further incident.

For his act of heroism, Officer O’Clair was awarded a medal as “Phoenix’s Outstanding Policeman” by the Luke- Greenway Post of the American Legion, the first award of its kind given to a Phoenix Police Officer. The Luke-Greenway Award is now given each year by the legion post to both career and reserve officers.

Earl L. O’Clair had been a motorcycle officer, then a detective. He went on to become a detective sergeant and then chief of detectives before his appointment as the Phoenix Police Department’s police chief in 1948.