From left: Jack Ryan, Carmen Wagner, and D.A. Stephen Metzler. Photos via the Humboldt Historian.

I must have been a very small child when I heard adults sitting around the kitchen table at 816 Harris Street talking of the Coyote Flat killings and saying that Jack Ryan, the man serving life-imprisonment for the murders, was innocent. Both my parents had spent their childhood at Showers Pass near Coyote Flat. Surely they knew Jack Ryan and also his half brother, Walter David. The murders of Henry Sweet and Carmen Wagner took place in 1925, two years before I was born, but, due to the many unexplained and questionable events surrounding the case, were still a topic of conversation when I was a child. A jury had found Jack Ryan innocent in 1926; then, two years later, Ryan confessed to the murders. I imagine there were others, besides my family, who questioned the circumstances surrounding Ryan’s confession.

In 1981, when one of Jack Ryan’s accusers admitted before her death that she had lied in court, investigator Richard Walton decided to find out what really happened on Coyote Flat in 1925. Walton spent ten years searching for the truth. He interviewed more than 400 people, including the sheriff ’s deputies who had witnessed District Attorney Stephen Metzler’s aggressive interrogation of Ryan, driving the young man to confess to murders he did not commit. Richard Walton concluded that Henry Sweet was killed over a bootlegging debt and that Carmen Wagner just happened to be in the killer’s way. On the other hand, one wonders if perhaps Henry and Carmen had stumbled upon a whiskey still while hunting and camping on Coyote Flat, and the bootleggers had felt they had to silence them.

An April 15, 1996 Los Angeles Times newspaper article on file at the Historical Society states that Sweet’s body was found near a cabin close to Coyote Flat. This was the Wagner cabin where the Phillips side of my family lived while building a house on their homestead just down the hill below Showers Rock. Several years ago, my husband, Ken, and I were fortunate enough to join a short caravan of family members interested in Showers Pass history. Erwin Fredrickson, a longtime family friend with a ranch at Iaqua, obtained permission from the Fort Baker Ranch, which now owns the Showers Pass and Coyote Flat property, for us to go in with a guide who had keys to the gates. We were shown where, back in 1925, Henry Sweet’s body had been found with a bullet in his head next to the Wagner cabin. Henry Sweet’s Roadster had been parked nearby loaded with camping gear and with the carcass of a deer tied to the running board. Sweet’s companion, Carmen Wagner, was missing. A volunteer posse of 40 men searched the mountains near Coyote Flat. Carmen’s body was found in a shallow grave. She had been shot twice, once in the head and once in the throat.

Immediately after each body was discovered the areas had been searched for clues. None were found. Jack Ryan and his half brother, Walter David, young half-Indian men who lived in the area, were arrested for the murders. Not until after the arrest was Carmen’s watch “discovered” in Jack Ryan’s chaps that had previously been searched and found empty. Shell casings supposedly from Ryan’s gun were found near Carmen’s grave. Jack’s half brother, Walter David, was released, as he had an alibi, but Jack Ryan had no alibi and went on trial for five weeks, the longest trial in the history of Humboldt County. The clumsy effort to frame Jack Ryan did not sway the jury. On March 12, 1926, Jack Ryan was acquitted.

Stephen Earl Metzler ran for District Attorney in 1927 on the platform that he would do away with the “dry squads” — authorities who smashed hidden whiskey stills. This plan would serve Metzler well, as, according to the Los Angeles Times newspaper article, he was a successful and powerful bootlegger. Metzler also vowed to solve the Coyote Flat murder within two years, or he would resign the position of District Attorney. It seems likely that he wanted the murders solved according to his own plans. When Jack Ryan’s brother, Walter David, was found brutally murdered in October 1927, Metzler did not investigate the case. Instead, he began sending letters to Ryan, warning that if Ryan did not confess, he would end up like his brother.

Additionally, Metzler arranged for a booby-trapped tripwire that would fire a rifle at Jack Ryan when he used his regularly traveled trail. Metzler also prevailed upon a woman (and may have paid her) to get Ryan drunk and elicit a confession to the murders, but this plan failed. Then as she was driving Ryan over a bridge, two gunmen fired three shots at the car. Ryan jumped from the bridge into the river and got away.

On June 12, 1928, Metzler paid another woman $100 to swear that Ryan had raped her thirteen-year-old daughter. Ryan was arrested and two other women came forward with similar charges against Ryan. In September, after an all-night interrogation by Metzler, Ryan appeared in court on the rape charges and shocked everyone by confessing to the murders of Henry Sweet and Carmen Wagner. Ryan was sentenced to life in prison and within ten hours transported to San Quentin, where he stayed for twenty-five years.

Eventually, Metzler was convicted of bootlegging and went to prison for fifteen months. When released, he used his political influence in Washington D.C. to win a pardon from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Metzler continued to oppose all Ryan’s petitions for parole. Why? And what about Jack Ryan’s half-brother, Walter David, who was found heinously murdered as a threatening example to Jack Ryan? Metzler secretly paid three women to testify against Ryan. It’s possible that he also paid someone to kill Carmen Wagner, Henry Sweet and Walter David. As District Attorney, Metzler had used the women’s testimony to force Ryan to claim he was guilty of the murders. Why would he do all of this unless he had something to cover up?

Ryan spent 25 years in the San Quentin State Prison, where he was a model inmate and worked in the cobbler shop. In 1953, at the age of 50, he was paroled with the condition that he could not return to Humboldt County. Ryan moved to Redding, where he worked on highway projects. He became friends with a family in Burney and helped the grandmother raise her grandchildren when they were orphaned. He is buried in this family’s graveyard.

Due to Richard Walton’s tenacious investigation, Jack Ryan was exonerated in 1996 when Governor Pete Wilson pardoned him posthumously. In his pardon, the Governor said, “We must remember that a just society may not always achieve justice, but it must constantly strive for justice.” The Governor quoted the philosopher Francis Bacon, “If we do not maintain justice, justice will not maintain us.” Governor Wilson continued, “Therefore, so that justice is maintained, I grant Jack Ryan posthumously a pardon based on innocence.”


The story above was originally printed in the Summer 2008 issue of The Humboldt Historian, a journal of the Humboldt County Historical Society, and is reprinted here with permission. The Humboldt County Historical Society is a nonprofit organization devoted to archiving, preserving and sharing Humboldt County’s rich history. You can become a member and receive a year’s worth of new issues of The Humboldt Historian at this link.