Standing nearly 7 feet tall when clad in his signature white Stetson cowboy hat and cowboy boots, Jack H. Brown was a feared and respected lawman while serving as San Bernardino County Sheriff Walter Shay's top investigator in the 1920s.

An expert marksman, Brown was known for his ability to fire a bullet at a wooden matchstick from 30 feet away and ignite it. He was also an expert tracker, a skill he acquired from the Shoshone Indians while growing up in Kingman, Ariz.

His investigative skills were of such repute that he was recruited in 1928 by Riverside County Sheriff Clem Sweeters to help bring a serial child murderer to justice.

The case, dubbed the "Wineville chicken-coop murders," is one of the most gruesome and horrific in Riverside County history.

Jack Brown Jr., CEO of Stater Bros., wears the diamond-studded gold badge his father, a deputy sheriff, was given for his work in solving a series of
Jack Brown Jr., CEO of Stater Bros., wears the diamond-studded gold badge his father, a deputy sheriff, was given for his work in solving a series of murders in Riverside County in the late 1920s. (Eric Reed/Staff Photographer)
The murders brought such notoriety to Wineville that weary townsfolk ultimately changed its name to Mira Loma.

With the opening Friday of director Clint Eastwood's film "Changeling," which tells the true story of the plight of the mother of one of the murdered boys, Stater Bros. Chairman and CEO Jack Brown Jr. reflected on the role his father played in the case.

Coincidentally, the younger Brown sent Eastwood's production company, Malpaso Productions, a copy of his 16-page book "The Badge," which chronicles his father's role in the Northcott case, about three years ago in hopes of sparking interest in a film.

"I could see Clint Eastwood playing my dad," Brown said.

But it wasn't Brown's story that would be translated to the big screen. Instead, Eastwood opted to shoot a film based on accounts gleaned from James Jeffrey Paul's book "Nothing is Strange with You."

Gordon Stewart Northcott was convicted of killing Pomona brothers Nelson and Lewis Winslow, 10 and 12, respectively, and an unidentified Mexican boy who was shot through the heart with a .22-caliber rifle, decapitated and dumped in a La Puente ditch.

Northcott's mother admitted to slaying 9-year-old Los Angeles resident Walter Collins with an ax. It was the plight of Collins' mother and her dealings with the Los Angeles Police Department on which the film "Changeling" is based.

"By far, it was the most horrific case that had ever happened in Riverside County until that time," said Steve Lech, president of the Riverside Historical Society, who was a consultant on the film.

Authorities suspected Northcott may have killed as many as 20 boys.

Northcott lured the young boys to his family's chicken ranch near Wineville and Limonite avenues by placing help wanted ads in newspapers. At the time, it was common for young boys to leave home to work and help provide for their families.

When the boys failed to return home, parents notified authorities.

While searching the perimeter of the ranch on his horse, Brown noticed something out of place: a splintered piece of yellow wood. He looked further and unearthed a ukulele.

Brown remembered the parents of the Winslow brothers telling him that their youngest boy had taken a ukulele they had given him for Christmas with him when he left.

"He knew then that he was near the crime scene," the younger Brown said.

The elder Brown and a team of investigators started digging up the ranch. By this time, Northcott and his mother had fled to Canada.

No bodies were ever recovered, but authorities did find bone fragments, blood-soaked earth, a finger, quicklime believed used to expedite decomposition, and bits of a blood-stained mattress.

It is believed, based on transcripts from the trial, that Northcott and his mother exhumed the bodies, burned them in the desert and scattered the ashes, Lech said.

When Northcott and his mother were arrested in Canada, Brown hopped in his patrol car and drove to Canada to interrogate him.

Irate with the killer's smugness, Brown kicked down the back door of the jail, placed Northcott in his patrol car and drove him back to Riverside County to face charges.

"That's the amazing story. (Northcott's) so smug and so sure he's going to fight extradition out of Canada that it really upsets Jack Brown Sr., and he winds up kicking the door down and bringing Northcott back," said San Bernardino County Undersheriff Richard Beemer. 

Beemer said he was unaware of the case until it was brought to his attention about a month ago.

"I started looking into it and thought, `What a great story,"' Beemer said. "It's a great resolution to what was a horrible crime - just unheard of brutality. And for him (Brown Sr.) to be cross-deputized by Riverside County is a testament to the kind of sheriff's deputy he was."

Following Northcott's conviction, Jack Brown Sr. accompanied Northcott on a train to San Quentin to his execution, on Oct. 2, 1930.

Along the way, the two played cards.

"On the back of the deck, he wrote, `To Jack Brown, on the way to my death. Gordon Stewart Northcott,"' the younger Brown said.

Northcott's mother was sentenced to life in prison for Walter Collins' killing.

In recognition of his work, the Citizens of the West End of San Bernardino County presented the elder Brown with an 18-karat gold badge studded with four diamonds on Christmas Eve 1930.

When his father died in October 1946, Brown inherited the badge, as well as his father's Stetson hat, handcuffs, photos and other memorabilia.

Brown said he keeps his father's honorary badge in his desk drawer.

"My father was my hero. There's no question," he said.

As for "Changeling," Brown said he's looking forward to seeing it, even though it may not have been the film he would have liked to have seen made.

"I'm going to go see it because I've lived with this all my life, and I'm curious to see one view of one victim," said Brown, a captain with the sheriff's reserves, which he has been associated with for 25 years. "But I think the whole story is bigger than just one person."

joe.nelson@inlandnewspapers.com

(909) 386-3874


"My father was my hero. There's no question." JACK BROWN JR. about his father, Jack H. Brown.

The elder Brown was a deputy sheriff in San Bernardino and Riverside counties who worked to solve the murders that inspired the movie "Changeling."