Hostage Drama


December, 2005

On July 27, 1979, Marin County Sheriff Al Howenstein faced a thicket of tightly-clutched microphones on Melrose and said, “It’s over.” There was applause from at least two dozen news gatherers from the Chronicle, the Examiner, the Independent Journal, and the wire services. TV channels 2, 4, 5, and 7 were also there with their vans, cords and cameras. What a scene.

Following an armed robbery at Bret Harte supermarket in San Rafael, police chased the get-away car to Mill Valley. One suspect jumped out of the car at Sycamore and Camino Alto and was arrested. The driver sped off and came to a dead end on Evergreen Lane at Homestead School. He ran through the school yard and kicked in the door of the house across the street on Melrose – Orville and Letty Erringer’s. He told Orville to leave and tell the cops he wouldn’t hurt Letty. He held Letty hostage with a .45 caliber revolver.

40 police agents flocked to the scene. Nearby residents evacuated. Streets were cordoned off. A command post was set up at the fire station next door. Officers from the San Rafael tactical squad – dressed in camouflage outfits and armed with automatic rifles – surrounded the house, hiding in bushes and perched on rooftops. When the Erringer daughters and son arrived home from school, the three joined Orville in the fire station.

Sheriff’s negotiators set up phone contact with the suspect and credited Letty’s para-professional training in counseling with helping to keep him calm.

At first he said he was coming off heroin and would not be taken alive. Later he said he didn’t want to hurt anyone. In the end, he made certain demands which were later satisfied: he would not be harmed; he would be given time with his family; he would receive medical help. His parents were brought to the command post, but they could not speak with him on the phone.

Finally, after four hours as a hostage, Letty emerged and calmly handed the gun to Sheriff Howenstein who noticed that the gun was loaded and cocked. A negotiator went into the house and handcuffed the suspect who spent 30 minutes in the fire station with his parents and then left in a patrol car.

The five Erringers climbed over the fire station fence to their back yard, got into their car and drove off to Red Boy Pizza without talking to the press.

If you have comments or questions about this article or other topics
pertaining to the history of Homestead Valley,
please feel free to e-mail Chuck Oldenburg.