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Out on parole and probation, in the broad daylight of Aug. 4, 1977, Morris and his crime partner (whom we'll say more about later) burst into Robert Mussleman's jewelry store in San Pablo. They ordered him to the floor at gunpoint. "We've killed before and we'll kill again," they told him.
Mussleman did as he was instructed, and was bound with telephone wire. The commotion set off a burglar alarm connected to the San Pablo police station, which relayed the call to Wheeler's radio.
As Wheeler entered the store, and before he could even draw his gun, Morris stood up from behind the counter. Though Morris says he yelled "Freeze," Mussleman has no memory of that. Morris also says he didn't mean to shoot, but his gun went off anyway. A bullet struck Wheeler in the face, instantly sending him to the floor.
Uncertain of whether the cop was alive or dead, the two men fled the store, dashed across a parking lot, and disappeared into a nearby residential complex.
Close on Wheeler's heels, several police officers discovered him lying on the floor of the jewelry store and summoned an ambulance. He died at Richmond Hospital shortly after arrival, becoming the first and only member of the San Pablo Police Department to lose his life in the line of duty.
At that point, every police officer from the department (and several neighboring departments) was called to the scene. They cordoned off the block and received instructions to knock at every door and request permission to search. If the answer was yes, they were to conduct the search. If the answer was no, they were to conduct the search. Every building was turned upside down; three unoccupied houses were also checked.
After several hours, a police dog caught a scent from underneath a home, and Morris was flushed out from its crawl space. Police also found a .38-caliber revolver wrapped in a glove; Morris had the other glove in his pocket. The second man had escaped, and police still do not know his identity. That is Lonnie Morris' secret, one he has managed to keep for 32 years.
Although revealing the man's name could be an important bargaining tool with the parole board, Morris says he will never give in. If he did, the man would likely face a murder charge and spend the rest of his life in prison.
Morris can't live with that. "That man had no idea what was going to happen," he said. "I take full responsibility for what I did."
In the San Quentin conference room, Morris removed his hat and jacket and lowered himself onto a torn seat cushion before Hollis Gillingham. She's a parole board commissioner known for her smoker's rasp and tough-love sensibility who used to work as a background investigator and probation officer.
"Okay. Hi there," she said brusquely.
If that was a cool reception, it was nothing compared to that from Wheeler's family members. Seated at the back of the room, his son Randall wore a scowl raw with hate, while the stony expression of his widow, June, betrayed no hint of compassion for the prisoner. That was nothing new.
The Wheelers have shown up to every parole hearing of Morris' over the past two decades to ask that he remain imprisoned. They did not agree to be interviewed, citing concern that a story about Morris might champion his cause, but they have suffered immeasurably, said San Pablo Police Chief Joseph Aita. The death was particularly hard on Wheeler's twin brother, who had continued working in the department. "I'm telling you, every time we saw Alan, it killed us," Aita said. "It was like we were looking at Bob."
As Gillingham reviewed the events of Aug. 4, 1977, and Morris' criminal history, the prisoner sank a little in his chair. Finally, she asked him the inevitable, loaded question. "So what made you so violent and antisocial?"
Morris knew that his reasoning would be picked apart for lack of insight, but what could he do? He began to talk about the death of his mother and the division of his family. "The real core of my violent behavior was based on anger and pain," he said. "No one had given me any understanding of why she died."
Gillingham probed Morris' relationship with his alcoholic father and learned that the boy had been beaten with switches and irons, but she seemed unimpressed. "Lots of kids lose their parents," she said. "Lots of kids get whupped. They don't end up violent with this total disregard for anybody else." Then she brought up the secret. "Was one of those brothers the one you perpetrated this robbery with?"
"No," Morris said.
"You've never given that person up, have you?"
"You've said you disavow the criminal code. Is that true?"
"How come I can't believe that?"
Morris wasn't expecting this kind of confrontation. "I don't know why you can't believe it," he said weakly. "If you look at my record in prison, I haven't been disciplined in over 22 years."
Morris' record is, in fact, nothing short of extraordinary.
When he entered San Quentin, he wasn't somebody who stood out much. He didn't often get into it with other prisoners. He didn't cause too much trouble. And, like almost everybody else, he claimed he was innocent. "I'm here for another man's beef that I didn't do," he'd say.
Then one day in 1981, Morris made a $10 bet with another prisoner that the Raiders would defeat the Eagles in the Super Bowl. The Raiders won, but the guy didn't want to pay, so instead he stabbed Morris in the chest.
"Two inches to the left, and that would have been it for me," Morris said.