Treasures of the Valley » Mike Lawler

Glendale’s Tomas Sanchez – One of L.A.’s Greatest Sheriffs

Mike Lawler is the former  president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at
Mike Lawler is the former
president of the Historical Society
of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at

I recently visited the Casa Adobe de San Rafael in Glendale, one of two local remnants of the Spanish and Mexican eras in Glendale (Catalina Verdugo Adobe is the other). The site is gorgeous, located in a residential neighborhood between downtown Glendale and the Verdugo Mountains. Over an acre of shaded parkland surrounds the thick-walled adobe home, built around 1870 as the retirement home for Tomas Sanchez. In the park’s literature, Sanchez is usually only casually mentioned as an early sheriff of Los Angeles, but he was so much more. He was a son of wealthy landed gentry, but he chose a life of action to tame a lawless city. He was revered for both his legendary physical prowess and his cool judgment. Treading a knife-edge between law and vigilantism, he often used violence in the name of justice in a town famed for its crime rate. Sounds kind of like Batman and Gotham City!

Tomas Sanchez was born into one of the original Spanish families that controlled the vast ranchos. At 16 he married 13-year-old Maria Sepulveda, who bore him an astonishing 21 children. In 1846, the 24-year-old Tomas inherited the Rancho La Cienega (4,000 acres around Baldwin Hills). Instead of enjoying the good life, the intrepid Tomas joined the Mexican Californios in their fight against the invading Americans. Tomas was a captain of lancers at the Battle of San Pasqual, where 100 mounted Californio lancers routed an American army force of nearly 200. They won the battle but lost the war, and Sanchez returned to Los Angeles where he skillfully transitioned to the new American government. Despite his split allegiance, he served as a Los Angeles City councilman in the new Anglo regime. In 1857, he showed uncommon valor when leading a posse after a gang of bandits, which so impressed the American population of L.A. that they elected him as county supervisor.

It was during this period of new American rule from 1850 to 1860 that L.A. became the most violent city in the U.S. The population swelled in numbers and was almost entirely made up of failed miners, prostitutes and gamblers that had been kicked out of other towns. Saloons and brothels dominated the businesses, and bandits and thugs infested the town and surrounding hills. The murder rate swelled to a staggering per-capita rate of 138 per 100,000 – almost unmatched in U.S. history. (By contrast, today’s L.A. murder rate is six per 100,000.)

During this period, Sanchez freely participated in and organized vigilante groups that commonly shot or hanged offenders without benefit of trial. He helped form the L.A. City Guards, which eventually evolved into the LAPD. Sanchez, despite being a Mexican in a white-man’s town, was so respected that in 1860 he was elected sheriff for seven consecutive years. Sanchez was a wealthy land-baron and family man – an unlikely choice for the dangerous job of sheriff in the murder capital of the nation. But he was fearless and the victor in many gun-battles and fistfights. With a combination of guile and gunplay, he oversaw L.A.’s transition from a lawless frontier town to a growing and prosperous American city. In seven years he turned the tide on crime in L.A.

Sanchez was so dedicated to his low-paying sheriff job that he neglected his finances. Like many Mexican rancho owners, he lost his land and fortune and, in 1868, retired to his wife’s hundred acres in what is now Glendale, land she inherited from the Verdugos. The Sanchez family built an adobe home and lived there until Tomas died in 1882. Glendale grew around the crumbling adobe and by 1930 plans were made to demolish it and subdivide the remaining land. The neighbors responded in vigilante fashion worthy of the Sanchez legacy. They stormed the grounds and stood between the bulldozers and the adobe. The community then lobbied the city to buy the property, and they used WPA labor to restore the building. The San Rafael Adobe is a proud reminder of old L.A., and worth a drive down the hill. Check the city’s website for their hours.