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Blog: The ‘Possible’ Murder of James R. Knapp

There was an argument - but did it lead to murder?
Man with fists

A series of articles in The Times newspaper chronicled an unfolding alleged murder case in Redwood City in the first half of 1946.

The January 2nd edition reported that middle-aged William L. Harrigan (a resident of Redwood City living on Douglas Avenue) was charged with the murder of elderly handyman James R. Knapp, who died on Dec. 30 at a hospital in Redwood City. Knapp died more than 24 hours after being found unconscious in his cottage home at the rear of the Aviation Cafe. This establishment was located near the former Redwood City airport. Knapp’s landlady testified that she had heard arguing and the sound of a struggle. A medical examination of Knapp’s corpse stated that he died from injuries caused by “external blows.” Police later interviewed at least two persons who said that they had heard Harrigan threaten Knapp with violence in the past.

When questioned by police, Harrigan admitted that he had been with Knapp on the night in question but refused to confess to any physical altercation with the older man.

The Times reported two days later that a preliminary hearing had been set for Jan.14.

On Feb. 1, Coroner William J. Crosby included the Knapp inquest with five other unrelated deaths. An open verdict was returned in the Knapp case from the coroner’s jury.

By Feb. 20, the legal case was in full swing, and the prosecution’s case was “under attack…on technical grounds,” as Harrigan’s attorney moved for a complete dismissal due to delays on the district attorney’s part and because his attorney felt that Harrigan was being “held to answer without reasonable, probable cause.” His client was out and about after paying $5,000 bail.

It took Superior Court Judge Aylett R. Cotton more than a month to answer these objections, which he denied, stating that Harrigan must go to trial, which was set for May 14. At the start of that trial, Harrigan would plead not guilty.

The trial began, but Harrigan was unexpectedly caught up in unrelated legal troubles when he was arrested for drunk driving after his car shot off the edge of Woodside Road - with his passenger suffering a punctured lung, five fractured ribs and a broken shoulder. That situation would be addressed in the future in a separate legal hearing.

Meanwhile, The Times reported on June 27 that a series of trial witnesses were providing troublesome testimony for Harrigan. One witness said she actually saw an argument between the two men at the time of the alleged murder. Another witness of questionable veracity said he attempted to break up that argument by whacking Harrigan on the head with a hammer.

The Times predicted that the trial would go on for some time, which was why it reported “an abrupt surprise” the following day when Harrigan was acquitted. Harrigan’s attorney had presented a motion to Judge Cotton saying that the evidence was insufficient and that more than one doctor had testified to date that Knapp could have died from causes other than his violent argument with Harrigan. The judge agreed and directed the jury to find Harrigan not guilty, which they did.

So Harrigan could not face a murder conviction and could concentrate solely on that drunk driving situation. His strategy for that case was to state that he was not driving the vehicle when it flipped over several times and that it was entirely the fault of that passenger, who had sustained multiple injuries. The passenger denied this, of course, but the final result of the situation and Harrigan’s later life was not reported in The Times.

Douglas MacGowan

About the Author: Douglas MacGowan

Doug MacGowan has authored seven books and countless articles, mainly about history and true crime. He has been a resident of Redwood City since 2000.
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