No one could have possibly anticipated that a notorious homicide committed in Northern California 12 years ago would ultimately determine the fate of a U.S. Navy warship which served in combat during the Vietnam War.
What took place that murderous day on tiny Bradford Island in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, about 45 miles northeast of San Francisco, sounds as if it might have come from the plot of a paperback novel or television soap opera.
But the story is true.
The saga unfolded on Sept. 9, 2004, when Contra Costa County sheriff’s deputies responded to the call of a deadly shooting on the island, the home to an eclectic mix of approximately two dozen wheat farmers, fishermen and local business executives and their families.
When deputies arrived at the waterfront residence of 49-year-old William Gardner, a scrap metals dealer, they found him lying dead on the living room floor. A pistol lay near his body. The telephone call to the sheriff’s office had been made by Gardner’s next-door neighbor, David Hall, 56, a retired banker, but he refused to speak with officers when they questioned him at the killing scene.
Suspicion almost immediately pointed to Hall, who, according to neighbors, had been involved in a long-running, bitter feud with Gardner over a disputed strip of land separating their properties
that Hall wanted to sell to the ex-husband of Gardner’s girlfriend.
A witness to the murder also came forth, telling detectives that he had seen Hall shoot Gardner, but that Hall fired in “self-defense” after the two men had engaged in a “shouting match” and Gardner had “grabbed Hall’s beard and started smacking on his head,” according to a story that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle the following day.
Hall was arrested, handcuffed and driven in a patrol car to the jail in Martinez, the Contra Costa County seat. He subsequently plead guilty before a Superior Court judge who, taking into account his plea of self-defense, sentenced him to only six years in state prison.
After Hall had been transported to the county lockup, investigators decided to inspect the deceased Gardner’s sprawling property, and what they discovered tied up to its pier was unexpected, to say the least.
Looming before them was the rusting and listing USS Lucid (MSO-458), a 172-foot Navy minesweeper which had received multiple Navy awards for its four extended deployments during the Vietnam War and had been based at Long Beach Naval Base and conducted training exercises off the California coast.
While serving in Vietnam, the 775-ton Lucid, which had a crew of six officers and 65 enlisted men and was armed with two .50 cal. machine guns and two 40 mm bow and aft guns, hunted and destroyed enemy surface and underwater mines off the South Vietnamese coast. The Lucid was constructed of wood to reduce magnetic fields that could trigger mines, and its crew also performed patrol and reconnaissance of enemy shipping traffic, boarded 186 enemy junks, fishing boats and larger vessels and “contributed to a reduction of enemy infiltration of men and supplies at sea,”according to the Naval Historical Center in Washington, DC.
In the late 1970s, the Lucid and the other 100 “Aggressor” class minesweepers were declared too old and obsolete by the Navy for further service, decommissioned and prepared for scrapping.
But the Lucid, which was built in 1953 at Higgins Boatyard in New Orleans, was spared, thanks to two San Francisco married couples who purchased her from the U.S. Defense Reutilization and Marketing Service for $40,250 and turned the ship into a luxurious yacht which they berthed at various times in San Francisco, Oakland and Richmond.
In 1986, the Lucid’s owners , tired of maintaining the old ship as a pristine yacht, sold it for an undisclosed price to William Gardner 18 years before his murder, and he had it towed up the Sacramento River to his pier on Bradford Island, where he sold everything of value that was aboard and converted the former minesweeper into a massive warehouse after cutting a huge hole in the port side to serve as a door.
The USS Lucid sat forlorn, forsaken and full of junk following Gardner’s death in 2004, but it was ultimately discovered by a group of naval history buffs who persuaded Gardner’s relatives to donate the decrepit ship to become a floating maritime museum they plan to build on the downtown Stockton waterfront.
Today the Lucid is docked at a Sacramento River pier adjacent to Stockton’s Building Futures Academy, where academy students seeking vocational credentials in building trades such as carpentry, electoral and plumbing are working with local volunteers to restore the 63-year-old warship to its original, shipshape condition.
David Rajkovich, president of the Stockton Historical Maritime Museum Assn., took my wife, Ludie, and I on a tour of the Lucid, where rehabilitation and partial reconstruction are in high gear, as evidenced by the restoration of the ship’s wardroom, messing and berthing areas, captain’s cabin, deckhouse and chartroom.
“We have a lot more to do, but we’re getting there,” added Rajkovich, who said that workers in coming months will begin installing a fire sprinkler system, caulk, sand and paint the Lucid’s oak, pine and fir planking and, finally, paint the ship in its original Navy colors.
“I hope some former minesweeper crewmen will help us out financially. If we reach our goal of $1 million, I believe the Lucid can be completely restored in a year or so and will become the centerpiece of our new museum.
“I invite anyone interested in the restoration of the Lucid to visit us as we complete our work. I can be reached at email@example.com, (209) 993-8302 and (877) 285-8243. The ship’s website is wwwstocktonhistoricalmaritimemuseum.org.,” he stated.
David C. Henley is Publisher Emeritus of the LVN.