The fate of the notorious former Emeryville Police Chief John LaCoste, whose name disappeared from local news headlines and politics in the late 1980’s, is finally known. A photo of LaCoste’s tombstone surfaced on an online gravestone database confirming his fate.
For years, it was unknown if LaCoste was alive or deceased. It was presumed that news of the death of someone with his notoriety would bubble to the surface. Instead, LaCoste passed away quietly three years ago without fanfare.
No obituaries have been written, nor mentions in local news of his life or accomplishments. The humble tombstone at the Fair Oaks Cemetery lists his proudest accomplishment as the Chief of Police of Emeryville, CA.
Bayle, Lacoste & Co.
The LaCoste name in Emeryville (also spelled “La Coste” or “Lacoste’’) goes back to the city’s founding. John’s grandfather, also named John, helped establish Emeryville Stockyard district often referred to as “Butchertown.”
The elder John LaCoste, a native of France, founded Bayle, LaCoste & Company along with fellow frenchman John Bayle. Bayle, LaCoste & Co. was established around 1885 along Bay Street (now Shellmound) and 63rd just west of the railroad tracks.
John and his wife Marie Dupuy had four children together.
Bayle-LaCoste was a wholesale meat-packing operation specialized in the byproducts or “offal” of butchering including tripe, calves heads & feat, oxtails, tongues, sweetbreads, livers and brains. They also produced fertilizer.
The stockyard district was once the most bustling parts of the city employing hundreds of workers.
Alfred “Al” LaCoste Enters Politics
John’s eldest son Alfred was born in 1890. After graduating from Oakland High in 1909, he worked in the family business and developed strong ties to the business community and served as The Elks Oakland chapter President. Al decided to seek public office and was first elected to Emeryville council in 1924 amid the country’s prohibition years.
LaCoste defended Emeryville’s reputation as a den for vice levied by Alameda County D. A. Earl Warren during this so-called “Rottenest City” era. It was suspected by some that LaCoste had some direct involvement in bootlegging operations. The interior of the LaCoste’s family home was described as being arranged in a way to make it defensible to raids by the feds which were common during this era.
Al LaCoste married Miss Elsie Mesnickow (11 years his junior) whom he met while tending his fathers sheep in fields that would eventually become Emeryville. Mesnickow was the sister of Frank Mesnickow, a retired Emeryville firefighter who constructed the Townhouse on Doyle Street in 1926. The Townhouse was rented out for bootlegging operations and did not become a restaurant until 1936.
Al and Elsie had two boys together including Alfred Jr. in 1938 and John on March 14, 1940.
The elder John LaCoste passed away in 1936 at the age of 79 years old. Following his father’s death, Al assumed leadership and ownership of Bayle, LaCoste & Co.
Bayle-LaCoste succumbed to a massive fire in 1940 causing $120,000 in damage. The plant was later rebuilt about 300 feet north of the old site.
John LaCoste Born and Raised in Emeryville
John Bernard LaCoste was born and raised in Emeryville attending Emeryville public schools including Anna Yates Elementary and Emery High. LaCoste demonstrated ambition and leadership early on and was voted Class President in High School.
Rheul Luttrell, a classmate of John’s whom he became best friends with, recalls John as a charismatic, fun guy and car enthusiast. “He was a gentlemen and very likable. His first car was a 47 Plymouth that he tricked out.”
Because of his father’s esteem, John got away with quite a bit around the city and Luttrell recalls racing along San Pablo Avenue and Frontage road with him as teenagers while evading authorities. “We raised quite a bit of hell together.”
John ended up being the best man at Luttrell‘s wedding in 1960 but the two drifted apart and only crossed paths once after Luttrell moved from the area.
Lutrell never met John’s mother and it was presumed that her and Al LaCoste had separated or were living apart.
John attended College in the University of California system but did not complete his degree. He instead opted to pursue law enforcement as a career and was initially hired as an officer with the Emeryville Police Department in 1963.
John’s father Al ended up serving for 40 years in Emeryville city government including 28 years as Mayor. He also ran for County Assessor in 1950 in a losing bid. He survived a recall attempt in 1961 and apparently developed a short fuse in his latter years even punching a critic of his.
He was eventually defeated in 1964 at the age of 75.
Rapid Ascension to Emeryville’s Chief of Police
John LaCoste experienced plenty of “bumps” along his law enforcement career including a 2-day suspension for insubordination in 1964 and a 15 day suspension in 1968 involving discharging a firearm at a party he hosted following his promotion and providing false information.
Despite these indiscretions, he quickly ascended the ranks in the force and was promoted to Deputy Police Chief in 1970.
1974 was a tough year for John personally as he lost both his parents. Elsie passed away in February and Al past away shortly after in April. Neither of them were present for what would be John’s highest accolade.
After a four year period of high turnover at the position, John was elevated to Chief of Police in 1974 at the age of just 34. The move was opposed by at least one councilmember at the time who called LaCoste “a boy” and “not qualified.”
“He always wanted to climb the ladder. He wanted to be Chief,” according to a retired Emeryville patrol officer familiar with the matter. “John was very political motivated. His presence on the force benefited the department in terms of equipment and training but it caused incredible friction inside the force.”
The Townhouse AKA “City Hall East”
LaCoste became heavily involved in the state Democratic Party and rose to the title of chairman of its Northern California finance committee. “[LaCoste] was a huge money man for the California Democratic party under chairwoman Nancy Pelosi,” Emeryville Guardian Editor David Phinney contended. “A ton of money was raised in Emeryville for Bay Area politicians and many of the players are still around.”
LaCoste also got cozy with developers including a flamboyant character named Tom Wenaas who worked for Lathrop Construction. Lathrop built out most of the Emeryville Peninsula including the massive Watergate complex, Trader Vic’s and several of the nearby office towers.
LaCoste’s business “office” was at the Townhouse owned by Wenaas and his attorney Jim Carniato at the time. Wenaas and Carniato were big contributors to the campaigns of “LaCoste-friendly” politicians Wally Fox and Jim Golden including a combined $26,000 in 1980.
LaCoste conducted official city business from a tabletop version of the video game Frogger and had his own dedicated phone line. LaCoste and Wenaas were partners in a mysterious investment company named “HUB Enterprises Ltd.” whose address was a home next door to the Townhouse.
LaCoste was purported to be a heavy drinker and racked up incredible bar tabs at the restaurant.
According to some, it was not uncommon to see Democratic party elites at the establishment with LaCoste including Willie Brown, Jerry Brown and Ron Dellums. “On any given weekday, one could walk into the Townhouse and bump into politicians, people working with the Alameda County District Attorney’s office, agents with with FBI and ATF and CIA operatives,” Phinney added.
John purportedly owned several pieces of property including a home near Lake Merritt and two units at the newly constructed Emery Bay Village. LaCoste’s stable of vehicles included a DeLorean, a Jaguar and a Porsche that he would dismiss as being “borrowed” from the wealthy Wenaas.
John held a longtime engagement to a mysterious woman named “Katie” who reportedly lived at his Lake Merritt property but John was known to maintain relations with other women.
KQED Special exposes LaCoste “Political Machine”
Things began to unravel for LaCoste in the early 1980s as Wenaas’ career unraveled and the regional media took an increasing interest in what was happening in Emeryville.
Emeryville Guardian editor Phinney sought to capture and expose the rumored corruption and undertook the documentary about LaCoste’s ties to development in Emeryville for KQED. His “Million Dollar Mudflats” special report follows LaCoste around the city in his DeLorean (outfitted with a police siren). “I’d love to clone some more democrats,” LaCoste quipped as he drove past pioneering biotech firm Cetus.
“He contends that everything is for the good of Emeryville,” the narrator details. The documentary exposed LaCoste and other players close ties to developers to the backdrop of the construction of the massive Pacific Park Plaza complex.
Following the 1983 election and a reshuffling of council, LaCoste was placed on administrative leave. The three councilmembers that ran on a slate of deposing LaCoste were Laura Davenport, Dottie Heintz and Nellie Hannon (Hannon is still active in Emeryville as the founder of ECAP and was recently honored with an affordable housing complex named in her honor).
Davenport cited a letter from the Emeryville Police Officers Association citing 23 separate charges including drinking on the job, vindictive behavior and not holding staff meetings.
Following the meeting, LaCoste attempted to remove files from the department. He was confronted and escorted off the property. LaCoste later sued to reclaim the files but lost in an appeals court. The city in turn sued LaCoste to reclaim city property including two handguns.
LaCoste was known to keep files on just about everyone á la J. Edgar Hoover presumably to use as political leverage if needed. This was apparent when LaCoste tried to take down his adversary Dottie Heintz after his ousting alleging she took a $10,000 bribe from a card club. This was never substantiated.
All told, the city filed 62 charges of misconduct against LaCoste. He successfully fought his dismissal in court but resigned the following year as part of a settlement agreement that included the city dropping all disciplinary action against him.
His ousting set the Emeryville Police Department on a series of reforms led by his successor Joe Maltby and continued by longtime chief Ken James that helped put the force in the positive standing it holds today.
“He would have been a great police chief, or a great politician,” a former officer that served under LaCoste lamented. “but he couldn’t be both. He got too close to the developers.”
Ousted from power and attempted comeback
Defiant until the end, LaCoste ran for Emeryville city council in 1987 in an attempted comeback. He formed a citizen group called C.A.R.E. – Citizen Alliance for the Restoration of Emeryville — to “restore Emeryville to its proper prosperity and respectability.”
Support for the embattled former chief never materialized and LaCoste placed a distant 4th although he claimed more votes than the two incumbents that deposed him (Davenport did not seek reelection).
“He hurts,” his campaign manager said to the press after LaCoste’s lopsided defeat. “I don’t think he’ll ever attempt a campaign again.”
It was a sea change election for the city with both incumbents losing to a slate of “pro-environment” candidates dubbed The All Emeryville Alliance. The shift temporarily slowed the city’s hyper-level of growth it was experiencing at the time.
A bitter Lacoste is quoted saying “Emeryville will enter a regressive era, to an extreme anti-growth. environmental mentality. I’m disappointed for the people of Emeryville.”
LaCoste name slowly fades from City Memory
Following the election defeat, LaCoste vanished from the public eye and little is known about his life after he departed Emeryville. He never married nor had any children during his Emeryville years.
The LaCoste family home at 1052 43rd Street is listed as having been sold in 1986 for $135,000.
The LaCoste Meat Co., the last meat packing company to operate in Emeryville, closed in 1989 and the building was razed soon thereafter. The destruction of the plant marked the end of Butchertown as slaughterhouses moved to more rural parts of the state.
LaCoste’s name resurfaced briefly when he was allegedly pulled over in Sonama County for speeding and brandishing a firearm. Accounts of the story say John flashed the badge from his former role as Chief to a CHP officer expecting to be let off but it was quickly determined that he was no longer employed by the force. LaCoste also sought and was denied a Concealed Weapons Permit.
Ancestry records show LaCoste living in Benicia by 1992 followed by San Francisco (1994), Oakland (1997) and Sacramento (1998).
Little is know about how LaCoste spent his final days but it is thought that he was cared for by his older brother Alfred. His last know address was in Roseville where he lived from 2008 until his passing.
The last remnant of the LaCoste family name in Emeryville is an obscure street with no known addresses that parallels Intestate 80.
Feature Image: KQED’s Million Dollar Mudflats