Treasures of the Valley

Who Burned Down The La Cañada Schoolhouse? – Part 2

Fifteen-year-old Lemuel Veilex was in a lot of trouble. If you remember last week, the mysterious arson fire on the evening of March 16, 1893 had burned down the La Cañada schoolhouse. A reward was offered and a young LA transient, O.M. Clement, figured he could either solve the crime or at least pin it on someone and thus pocket the reward. He befriended Lemuel and baited him with made-up stories of criminal adventure. Lemuel, wanting to appear tough, boasted it was he who had burned the schoolhouse, resulting in his arrest.

Fortunately for the Veilex family, their neighbor was Will Gould, an accomplished LA lawyer, who had a ranch in La Cañada (Gould Avenue is named for him). He was hired to defend Lemuel’s case in court.

The newspapers had a field day with this juicy story. They initially portrayed the accuser, O.M. Clement, as a “junior detective.” The LA Herald gushed: “The young detective, with a brightness which seemed remarkable in such a boyish fellow, formed a complete net work about the defendant.” That portrayal cooled as the trial proceeded and a more complete picture formed of both the accused and the accuser.

The defense started off the trial with the testimony of CV pioneer Theodor Pickens. He was living in a house at the top of what is today the straight portion of Angeles Crest Highway before it climbs into the mountains. He testified that on the evening of the fire he was playing cards with friends. He heard his dogs barking ferociously and about 15 minutes later barking again. In Pickens’ reckoning someone had walked past his house toward the schoolhouse, then walked back again toward the mountains. The school burned immediately after that. And this would not have been the route Lemuel Veilex would have taken.

When cross-examined about how he knew his dogs were barking at a person, Pickens replied that he could tell by the “expression” of their barks. The newspapers loved Pickens’ testimony, and the headlines read: “All In Their Bark. How A Man Knew What His Dogs Saw.”

This was followed by a string of Valley residents who testified to the goodness of Lemuel. Several surmised the fire was the work of some local Chinese laborers who had disappeared immediately after the fire. Next Lemuel’s brother testified that the night of the fire they were together all evening.

Lemuel was brought to the stand and told how he had made up the story of burning down the school simply to appear tough and to impress his new “friend” Clement. He said Clement had offered adventure and ill-gotten loot to Lemuel if he could prove himself hard and rugged enough. As to the key to the schoolhouse Lemuel had in his possession, he testified that he’d found it by the school’s wreckage.

The prosecution told how Clement had gotten two locals to hide and listen while he got Lemuel to talk about setting the fire. The two men who had heard Lemuel’s confession testified they had heard that.

But when Clement was brought up to the bench, the experienced attorney Gould tore him up. Gould, seeming almost amused, inquired minutely into Clement’s background and reasons for going after Lemuel, exposing some inconsistencies. He even got Clement to admit that he had visited Lemuel’s father before the trial started. Clement had tried to get Lemuel’s dad not to accept help from Will Gould. Clement had tried to scare him, telling him that if Mr. Gould got involved in the case, Gould would end up owning the Veilex’s ranch.

The district attorney saw the writing on the wall and, rather than continue the trial, he dropped the charges and Lemuel Veilex was released.

We don’t know whatever happened to the accuser Clement. Presumably he made himself scarce in the Valley. Young Lemuel, having learned a hard lesson about pretending to be tough, went on to a successful career in mining, manufacturing and the true “ill-gotten loot” of California: real estate.

Who burned down the schoolhouse? I guess we’ll never know.

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