SAN BERNARDINO - About a dozen young men outside a dance hall closed in on Johnnie Epps after the rookie policeman pushed one of the youths to the ground.

They were unhappy, some had been drinking, and Epps was alone. Within seconds, Epps' revolver fired, striking 20-year-old Ramon Rios in the back of the neck and killing him.

Most of the traces from that night on July 9, 1949, have long since vanished. The downtown Municipal Auditorium, where the dance was held, was torn down to make way for the Norman F. Feldheym Central Library. A black-and-white photo of Epps once on display at the San Bernardino Police Department disappeared when the department moved out of its Arrowhead Avenue station. And the only image his wife, Mariah

Jane Epps, has of him is a small, framed copy of that same photo.

Like former San Bernardino County Sheriff's Deputy Ivory J. Webb Jr., whose trial in the shooting of an off-duty airman continues next week, Epps was charged by the District Attorney's Office.

There are differences in the cases, to be sure, not least of which is the political and cultural climate of the times.

But there are similarities, too.

Mariah Epps, 81, pauses with a faraway look when asked about about her late husband. After all, it has been nearly sixty years.

"I've lived with this a long time," she said.

Epps, like Webb, was a black man, charged in the shooting of a Latino man. Rios, however, died in the shooting, and Epps was charged with manslaughter. Elio Carrion, the man shot by Webb at the end of a police chase in Chino, survived the shooting. Webb has been charged with attempted voluntary manslaughter.

For Epps' family, it was a traumatic time because, despite friends and family rallying to Epps' side, the incident sparked racial tensions and no one knew how the case would turn out.

"There was always a possibility of him going to jail," his wife said.

More than 100 people jammed into the courtroom for the preliminary hearing, forcing the judge to transfer the case to another department.

A judge dismissed the charge before the case went to trial.

Epps, the first black officer to work for the San Bernardino Police Department, feared for his family's safety after the incident.

"He thought it would affect his kids by him shooting this person of a different race," Epps said. "He thought it might affect his kids growing up in the community."

Thankfully, Epps says, that never became an issue. Three of the children were too young to go to school, and his wife was pregnant with twins. Most people had forgotten the case by the time the children grew older.

Mariah never heard from the family of Ramon Rios.

But Rios' death haunted Johnnie Epps.

Different times

Even in California's ethnic melting pot, tensions existed between racial groups in the 1940s. There were segregated neighborhoods, the occasional confrontation between blacks and Latinos, and 1943's Zoot Suit Riots.

"There's no question that from time to time there were tensions there," said Ralph L. Crowder, ethnic studies professor at UC Riverside. "Sometimes these tensions did flare into confrontations."

Public agencies, meanwhile, were trying to adapt to the changing times after World War II.

Across the country, city police agencies began integrating black officers into their departments. Most of the new officers were assigned to patrol black communities. If they did arrest a white person, the case was immediately turned over to a white officer, sometimes of lower rank, Crowder said.

Some segregation also existed in the Inland Empire. Mariah Epps, however, said she didn't see those issues that were occurring in Los Angeles and other parts of the country.

"The times were different," Mariah Epps said. "I didn't know anything about the gangs, kids killing each other. We didn't have to lock our doors."

She raised her children in the Waterman Gardens region of San Bernardino, an area now plagued with crime.

Before he met his wife, Johnnie Epps had been a military man, sneaking into the U.S. Army at 15 years old. He was "always a big boy" and the recruiters assumed he was 18, his wife says. After serving in World War II, he decided to try police work.

Though she described him as a jolly man who frequently cracked jokes, he also had a silent side. It was that side that masked any challenges he may have faced as the lone black officer at his new job at the San Bernardino Police Department.

"It was truly breaking the ice," Epps said. "I can imagine it was a lonely experience."

But his time in the military must have helped, she added, because many of his fellow officers were also from the military. That feeling of camaraderie followed him.

Two years into his new job, Epps was working off-duty as a peace officer at a Municipal Auditorium dance when he ran into a group of 16 people in front of the building. The men were trying to get into the dance, and Epps had been asked to clear them from the entrance.

During the confrontation, Epps - a broad-shouldered stocky man who stood at 5-feet-9 inches tall and weighed about 239 pounds - pushed a 17-year-old boy to the concrete floor. Articles from The Sun said Rios came to the aid of the boy and then exchanged words with Epps. Witnesses told police when Rios turned to walk down the steps, Epps struck him with his gun. The gun, which had been cocked when the crowd rushed him, went off.

Rios fell to the ground. Epps turned to Rios' brother, Ernest, and asked him if he "wanted the same medicine," Ernest Rios testified during Epps' preliminary hearing.

Epps issued a statement through his attorney after the shooting, saying "I am most sympathetic to the family of the deceased and feel certain that a thorough investigation of the incident will result in my complete exoneration."

Meanwhile, the incident shed light on concerns over police training. A former policeman wrote a letter to the editor of The Sun in response to the shooting, saying as much as 95 percent of San Bernardino's officers lacked firearms proficiency training. The department promised to eventually issue 50 practice rounds per month to each officer, according to the letter.

On July 26, 1949, San Bernardino County Justice of the Peace W.E. Balcom dismissed Epps' case, saying the officer was "acting in self defense in attempting to repel a young mob."

Returning to the army

The Police Department reassigned Epps to work at a correctional facility following the shooting. Despite being cleared of any wrongdoing, he only worked in the jail for several months and then gave up police work.

He rejoined the Army in September 1950 with a company that had just been activated to go fight in the Korean War.

His wife didn't know if his return to the military was because of the shooting. Again, hazy memories and her husband's silent side left gaps.

But Jack Hill, a platoon sergeant in the same company that Epps joined, assumed the officer-involved shooting played a role.

"I have a feeling it was his way of just getting away from all of it," he said.

Hill didn't know Epps prior to him joining the National Guard, but had read about him in the newspaper. Epps never spoke to him about his experiences as a policeman.

Though Epps was likely anxious to join his fellow soldiers in Korea, he never made it back into battle.

Four days after his 25th birthday, Johnnie Epps was in a car about nine miles east of Palmdale when the driver lost control and overturned. The vehicle rolled twice, throwing Epps out of the vehicle. Four other people, including three from San Bernardino, were injured.

Epps died at the scene.

The last time Mariah Epps saw her husband, he was heading out the door, but stopped to kiss one of his daughters before he left.

Mariah Epps leaned on her parents for support after her husband died. Eventually, she took a job at the San Bernardino County Library.

She never remarried.

"I was too busy raising my kids and I didn't have time to get married," she said.

But even though her children were too young to know their father, they've heard many stories about him through relatives.

The Epps family attended the 100-year celebration of the San Bernardino Police Department in 2005, where Johnnie Epps was recognized as the department's first black officer.

They place flowers on his grave at Pioneer Cemetery in San Bernardino every Memorial Day.


BS Ranch Perspective

I love history, I know that I didn't leave much of a bump in history, I really don't care at this point in my life, I figure what the heck, who would miss me. I Think that it was great that the San Bernardino Police Department Gave the Oppertunty to Epps to work for a Police Department at a time when the Police was more Respected, before the Sixties made the turn. I am sorry that he was involved in that shooting and it ended up changing his life the way that it did. It was back in a time when there was no such thing as counciling. and it had to have been hard.

God Bless the Epps, Family for allowing his story to be told, Thank you.

BS Ranch