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Blog: The cold-blooded killers who staged a suicide in San Mateo County Jail

A Cruel Game with a Fatal Outcome...

Editor's Note: This blog post contains graphic descriptions of violence and references to suicide. Any person who is feeling depressed, troubled or suicidal can call 1-800-784-2433 to speak with a crisis counselor. Spanish speakers can call 1-888-628-9454. People can reach trained counselors at Crisis Text Line by texting 741741. Additional resources can be found here.

At first, the jailers thought it was a suicide, but then the true story came out.

In the San Mateo County jail in late July 1957, transient machinist Robert Young was found hanging in his jail cell with a blanket around his neck. The men sharing the cell with Young stated that he hanged himself between the regular rounds of the guards.

Eventually, the truth came out via a thorough investigation led by Sheriff Earl Whitmore. 

Two other inmates in the cell, Jose Vietenheimer and Dan Howard (who had “Born to Hate Cops” tattooed on his stomach) had been annoyed with Young for failing to interact with the other inmates. He was too quiet and wouldn’t socialize. This bothered all of Young’s fellow cellmates, but it particularly irked Vietenheimer and Howard, so they organized a mock trial to determine a punishment for Young’s perceived crime. The “trial” soon spun out of control. After being found guilty by his two peers, the punishment began. The Times newspaper detailed what happened next: “They bound Young’s hands and feet, tore up a blanket into strips, stood Young up on his cot, tied one end of the blanket around his neck and the other around the top of the cell door. When Young sagged to the bed, the blanket broke, winning for Young a ‘reprieve’ in the execution.”

Seeing that Young was still alive, the two criminals beat Young about the face and “then took turns choking him with their bare hands. Other inmates sang to drown out any noise.” Vietenheimer and Howard told another inmate to hold Young’s arms behind his back. “They then fashioned a noose of towels and hung the body to the bars to make it appear a suicide.”

Based on the confession of the man who had held Young’s arms, described by an officer as “a gutless type,” Vietenheimer and Howard were interrogated and also confessed. But they remained emotionless, saying that the whole thing was just a joke that got out of control and they didn’t intend to kill Young. “They showed no more remorse than if they had stepped on an ant,” Sheriff Whitmore said. “I have absolutely no sympathy for them. They should get the gas chamber.”

In the following weeks, Vietenheimer and Howard pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and were quickly sentenced to life imprisonment. The man who held Young’s arms, who had no criminal record and was only in jail for failing to provide for his wife, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. He appeared unwilling to participate in the murder and only participated out of fear of Vietenheimer and Howard.

Many county residents clamored for the death penalty, but the judge said that “death was too good for them.”

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