Many of us have heard the incredible story of the capture of FBI’s most wanted Roy Gardner at what is today’s McMenamins Olympic Club Hotel (Centralia, Wash.) in 1921. While his arrest is an amazing tale, the story only continued to get more and more interesting… And lurid. And colorful. And weird.
In 1921, Roy Gardner was a household name. Throughout his criminal career, he stole over $350,000 in cash and securities, had a $5,000 reward for his head three times in less than a year and was known in the media as the “Smiling Bandit,” the “Mail Train Bandit,” and the “King of the Escape Artists.” He worked alone, unassociated with any of the gangs or mobs of the era. The fact that he was a handsome fella undoubtedly enhanced his reputation with the public as a dashing, daring criminal.
After yet another train robbery and escape, Gardner holed up in a room at what was then the Oxford Hotel (today’s Olympic Club Hotel) in Centralia, Washington. He was a well-known personage, thanks to the FBI posters, so he disguised himself by wrapping his face in bandages and claiming to be a burn victim. But after five days, the townsfolk – specifically hotel keeper Gertrude Howell and Centralia policeman Louis Sonney – had grown suspicious and so Sonney checked him out. His instincts proved correct. The notorious Gardner was captured after a brief struggle and went to prison (and later escaped, but went back to the big house, eventually ending up at the biggest house of them all: Alcatraz).
Then, things got weird.
Louis Sonney, the small-town police officer, decided to use his newfound fame as “the guy who captured Roy Gardner” to fashion an entirely new career for himself, in a niche of the film industry known as exploitation films. Initially, Sonney produced movies depicting and re-enacting the criminal exploits and capture of Gardner, even featuring the incarcerated convict in a few scenes. Through these interactions, the two men became friends, with Sonney remaining an advocate for Gardner until his release from prison in the late 1930s. The former cop secured employment for the ex-con, including a couple more film roles (as himself). Meanwhile, Louis Sonney was broadening his offerings of other kinds of exploitation flicks, including pioneering “nudie” films. Here are a few titles:
- Hell-A-Vision (1936), a “documentary/horror/crime” genre with full frontal nudity that also featured convicted bank robber John Dillinger in an uncredited role
- You Can’t Beat the Rap! (1936), in which Gardner and Sonney recreate their roles as cop and captured criminal
- Maniac (1934), renamed Sex Maniac, nominated as one of the 100 Most Amusingly Bad Movies Ever Made in The Official Razzie® Movie Guide.
Then, things got even more weird.
The exploitation film business stayed in the Sonney family. Louis Sonney’s son Dan went on to become (along with co-producer David Friedman) the undisputed masters of sleaze, smut and sexploitation films. They made a killing (so to speak) in Hollywood with credits that include Striptease Girl (1952), Blood Feast (1963) and The Defilers (1965), with topics ranging from rape to pedophilia to bestiality. It is perhaps karma that Dan Sonney and his wife had four kids, all girls.
Dan Sonney and Dave Friedman’s story was told in the film Mau Mau Sex Sex (2001), a documentary that was deemed “Great fun!” by the New York Times, “a genuine American success story” by the Chicago Tribune and “Delightful! Affectionate!” by the L.A. Times. The two guys, then in their 80s, reminisce about their days in the sexploitation film industry, a precursor to today’s multibillion-dollar porn industry. The documentary also includes clips of “our own” Roy Gardner, from just after his release from Alcatraz.
And to think… all of this got its start in sleepy little Centralia, Washington. It’s true. And you can go and visit the exact room in which Gardner and Sonney first crossed paths and began a journey that took turns both strange and wonderful.