Since the Lake Tahoe Basin was first inhabited by non-indigenous persons, it has attracted more than its share of characters. As with any backwater, its remoteness is well suited to those bent on escape, and while some of its residents have escaped to, others are escaping from.
It was in the mid-1920s when John Stevens, a man whose motives were primarily of the latter variety, visited Tahoe City with his wife Betty. The couple found the town and its beautiful surroundings to their liking and soon took up residence there, renting a cabin in the Bittencourt Tract from Tim Butler, General Manager of the Tahoe Tavern. Stevens soon became an employee of the Tavern, and both he and Betty began to take an active part in the life of the community. Betty became a founding member of the Federated Women’s Club of Tahoe City in 1927, and as the couple took up other civic involvements, they gradually gained a reputation among their neighbors as “solid citizens.”
David Bienert, who lived next door to the Stevens on Pioneer Way, recalled in a 1986 interview that John “was a really nice guy”, and had held the position of Night Clerk at the Tavern, while Betty worked as a chambermaid for the hotel. In winter, Bienert remembered, the couple typically migrated to Palm Springs or Castle Hot Springs, Arizona, where they were similarly employed.
Then one day, everything changed. It was the afternoon of Wednesday, November 10, 1937, when Stevens, then working as a night clerk at Sierra Tavern in Truckee, was confronted by Sheriff Carl Tobiassen and subsequently taken into custody.
Tobiassen was in the company of one Brewster Cameron, an agent working in behalf of the American Surety Company. Cameron claimed that Stevens, a policyholder, had revealed his whereabouts to American Surety when he attempted to borrow money on his policy, and that for many years he had been considered a fugitive by the state of New York.
It seems that Stevens, who by then had been a resident of Tahoe City for more than a decade, had previously lived in New York City, where he had been cashier for the Knickerbocker Club. In 1923, the Knickerbocker had suffered the embezzlement of some $13,000, this loss coinciding quite precisely with the disappearance of Stevens, who abandoned New York for California, leaving behind a wife and son.
Stevens had apparently relocated first to Southern California and then to San Francisco before settling in Tahoe City. Along the way, he met and married Betty, who, on being informed of the charges against her husband, claimed to have no knowledge of his fugitive past and said that she would stand by him in his trouble.
On November 23, 1937, having waived extradition, Stevens left for New York in the custody of two New York policemen, to answer to the 14-year old charges. American Surety maintained that as cashier for the exclusive New York club, Stevens had issued a fictitious check, defrauding its members. Arraigned on December 1, Stevens offered no defense, but plead guilty to third degree forgery, asking for probation in light of his subsequent good behavior. He was remanded for sentence on December 13.
During their years in Tahoe City, John and Betty had made many friends, most of whom had been caught completely unawares by news of the arrest, and as the events of the strange case played out, Tahoe residents followed news of the distant proceedings with interest. On December 30 an item in the Truckee Republican revealed Stevens’ fate: owing to efforts to rehabilitate himself during the years since the commission of the crime, the long-standing fugitive was given a ten-year suspended sentence.
It is an interesting commentary on advances in the science of crime detection that during John Stevens’ extended period on the lam, he had consistently used his correct name, making no active attempt to disguise his identity or evade capture.
As for the members of the community where John and Betty Stevens had spent so many years, no impropriety of such ancient commission could hope to trump their long-standing opinion of their fellow citizen and his unsuspecting wife. On January 17, 1938, Betty Stevens was honored at a bridge luncheon held in celebration of her birthday. And eleven days later, when John arrived in Tahoe City following his release from a Big Apple hoosegow, local newspaper columnist Eleanor “Swanee” Swanson described the miscreant as being “once more welcomed back to the bosom of his old friends and neighbors.”
The Stevens resumed their blissful Tahoe existence, enjoying many more years in the high esteem of their fellow citizens. John lived until 1962, and Betty survived to the ripe old age of 90, passing away November 24, 1975. They are buried in Trail’s End Cemetery in Tahoe City.
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