Many people believe in God, saints, and angels. St. Michael has become the patron saint of police and St. Florian the patron saint of firefighters. Many believers wear or carry these symbols in the form of medals of sterling silver and gold.
Some, who find themselves in extraordinary situations, like law enforcement officers, have chosen to believe that luck, full moons, black cats, odd numbers, Friday the 13th, and rabbits’ feet have the power to influence the calls on any given shift. Some believe that it is the day before the full moon is significant while others think the day after has the power to create radio calls from the dark side.
Regardless of what you believe, the situations that law enforcement officers engage in can occasionally be unbelievable. Just when you thought you had seen or heard it all, another story is told that might be dismissed as a mere urban legend; until it happens to you.
This story is about a deputy, two patrol car crashes, a nurse, and an unknown woman who came to the rescue after making a wrong turn. The deputy, Lewis ‘Mitch’ Mitchell, was a deputy sheriff for San Diego from January of 1953 to 1959 when he was medically retired. Prior to becoming a deputy, he was a reserve officer on the newly formed Carlsbad Police Department. After leaving the Sheriff’s Department, he went on to be very successful with the State of California Department of Corrections working narcotics and parole. He later became a college instructor for law enforcement at Mira Costa College in Oceanside.
The first patrol car (called “prowl cars” back then) crash happened in May of 1955 when Mitch and Dep. Warren E. “Swede” Larson were on the East county patrol, Unit 604. This was at a time when there were only three night patrol cars in the entire county—602 in the south, 604 in the east, and 603 in the north.
Mitch and Swede were driving the patrol car that belonged to Sgt.Lester Henneuse, having switched cars at the sergeant’s request to “put some miles on it” for him. The two deputies had just cleared a call in the east end of the beat and were westbound on old Highway 80 coming up on Flynn Springs. Swede was driving with Mitch riding Shotgun. As they entered the small community, a car turned in front of them and caused a head-on collision. The majority of the impact was on the passenger side of the patrol car.
With no seat belts to hold them in, Swede was thrown from the car. When he stood up, he was in a daze from head trauma and shock; his training and experience were the only things controlling his actions. In his mind, he recognized a threat and was walking around the crash scene trying to get his gun out of its holster to address that threat. Having trouble with this, he returned to the car and tried to unlock the shotgun rack but could not get a key in the lock. Anyone who has truly had their “bell rung” in an accident or fall can understand the disorientation that follows.
Meanwhile, Mitch was still in the car, but could not move. In the crash, he had been thrown forward into the dashboard striking the shotgun rack and his head made contact with the windshield. He suffered two broken wrists and a broken right ankle. Luckily, the car did not catch fire, as Mitch was unable to move himself to safety. While Mitch sat there in pain, watching his partner suffering from the accident and unable to help, he felt the passenger door open. A woman stood there, offering assistance. Mitch asked her to get Swede to settle down and try to get his gun away from him, which she managed to do. She then returned to the passenger side and, with her sister, assisted in getting Mitch out of the car and more comfortable with a blanket on him. His wrist was swelling, and she took off his watch to ease that pain. The woman and her sister stayed with the two injured deputies until the ambulance arrived and transported them to Mercy Hospital.
At this point of the story, there does not seem to be anything out of the ordinary. Accidents happen and sometimes citizens get involved. Mitch recovered from his injuries and returned to patrol duty in August. He was later sent to Fallbrook by Sheriff Bert Strand to take the position of “deputy sheriff and constable” in June of 1956. He was a Deputy Sheriff and also an officer of the Fallbrook Township Justice Court. (This dual duty was held by civil service deputies who were then appointed by the Sheriff.) There, he was able to have direct community involvement in this small town in the middle of the 1950s. Mitch, who just barely made the height requirement for a Deputy Sheriff, had established himself with the community and even the youth of Fallbrook. He was known as a great listener and communicated very well.
In March of 1957, Mitch was on patrol in Fallbrook, covering the night shift for the country deputy’s day off. (‘Country Deputies’ were part time deputies and did not fall under the civil service commission). Sometime after midnight, Mitch was driving on Mission Road when a car driven by a drunk driver struck him head-on. Again, Mitch found himself trapped in another crushed patrol car, only this time he was the driver and alone.
Lew Mitchell looked up and saw the headlights from an approaching vehicle coming his way and thought he was about to be finished off right then and there, but the other car stopped before hitting his unit. The woman driver of the arriving car went right up to the smashed up patrol unit and recognized the driver.
“Mitchell is that you?” The woman said.
“Yes.” He replied and directed her to go back to the Fallbrook Fire Station for help, which she did and then returned to the crash scene.
Later that same woman visited Mitch at the hospital. She asked him if he remembered her, and he did not. She said she was the same person who helped him in 1955 on old Highway 80. What brought her to Fallbrook was a mistake. She went on to explain to Mitch that she didn’t live in Fallbrook. In fact, she was traveling back to San Diego and happened to make a wrong turn that took her through Fallbrook that night.
After these two car crashes, Lew Mitchell’s injuries were such that he could no longer work as a deputy sheriff. The name of the woman who stopped to help Mitch has unfortunately been forgotten over time. Surreptitiously, she was there at two sheriff car crashes, which were two years apart, located at the opposite ends of the county. She came to the aid of the same deputy both times to expedite his treatment.
If the above coincidence was not enough, there are further coincidences to the Mitchell Patrol car crashes. Mitch was at Mercy Hospital following the first crash; there he was attended to by a student nurse. After the second crash, Mitch was again attended to by the same nurse, only she had since become the head nurse for that shift at Palomar Hospital.
While at the Mercy Hospital, Mitch shared a room with a man who was also his roommate after the Fallbrook crash. This was discovered by Mitch’s wife Donna who recognized the unique gruff voice of the elderly man. She spoke to him and they compared each others past, realizing that they were once again roommates in the same hospital.
Lew Mitchell came close to death twice as a deputy sheriff for San Diego County. He went on to have a successful career in law enforcement, and to this day, his family continues to be part of the law enforcement family in San Diego. Those roots started early, when Donna Mitchell went to Grossmont High School with a young man named John Duffy who would later become Sheriff; much to her surprise. Whether by fate or a true guardian angel, Mitch lives to serve another day. ?
Thanks to Mitch for saving these photos for all these years. (Many thanks, also, to Donna for filling in a few of the blanks of the story—the way only wives are profoundly expert at…)