George Skalla’s parents begged him not to go.
“I stopped him at the door and asked him again to reconsider,” his father, George Skalla Sr., told a Los Angeles reporter. “He told me not to worry and then turned and said, ‘Wish me a lot of luck, Dad.’ ”
The 25-year-old informed his mother, Lila, that he’d be late for supper, but asked her to save a steak for him.
At 6 p.m., the telephone rang at the Beverly Hills home of millionaire philanthropist Leonard K. Firestone. There was no turning back.
An Akron scion, Firestone, 58, the third son of Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. founder Harvey S. Firestone, was a director of the global company and president of its California subsidiary in January 1966.
He lived in a luxurious home among Hollywood stars on Alpine Drive. Firestone’s friends and neighbors included Jimmy Stewart, Walter Matthau, Donna Reed, June Allyson, Dick Powell, Edgar Bergen and Randolph Scott.
Firestone was part owner of the California Angels and Los Angeles Rams. He was chairman of the University of Southern California board of trustees, national executive of Boy Scouts of America, director of the Salvation Army and a member of the Beverly Hills City Council.
After losing his wife, Polly, to cancer a year earlier, Firestone was dating socialite Barbara Heatley, the widow of a banking executive.
A woman answered the telephone Jan. 13 at Firestone’s home. She told the male caller that Firestone couldn’t come to the phone. Twenty minutes later, a black 1965 Ford pulled into the driveway.
The doorbell rang.
“Who’s there?” the woman asked through the door.
“Parcel post, Ma’am.”
When the door creaked open, two gloved gunmen, one wearing a Halloween mask, pushed their way into the vestibule. Gunfire exploded in the quiet neighborhood.
It all went as George Skalla planned — until the gunfire.
The servant who answered the phone was really a policewoman. Standing inside the door were three plainclothes cops with shotguns and .38-caliber revolvers. They had been staking out the residence for days.
Firestone wasn’t anywhere near home. He had been hiding in Pebble Beach with armed guards after police told him that dangerous men planned to kidnap him for at least a $2 million ransom.
“This has been a very distressing and upsetting thing to have gone through,” Firestone later told reporters.
“I was very much disturbed and concerned. I just made up my mind that I would try to work with the police as best I could.”
Calvin Bailey, 44, the man in the Halloween mask, was struck by two shotgun blasts when he pointed his pistol at an undercover officer, authorities said. Falling dead to the floor, he held a large bag containing a roll of adhesive tape to tie up the millionaire.
“In my opinion, they were prepared to shoot us,” Detective Lt. B.L. Cork explained later. “We shot first.”
Sgt. Jack Egger followed as Skalla staggered outside and collapsed with bullet wounds to the abdomen and neck.
“Why didn’t you hit the deck?” Egger asked him.
“I froze,” Skalla replied.
Shortly afterward, Skalla died of his wounds.
In a startling twist worthy of a crime novel, police revealed that Skalla was the informant who had tipped them off about the plot. In fact, he was the mastermind.
He had recruited three men for the job, but two backed out, leaving Bailey as the only conspirator. Bailey, who had served 12 years in prison for robbery, was moody, impulsive and violent.
Skalla realized he was in over his head. In fear for his life, he approached police, authorities said.
“He later became afraid of Bailey, and believed that, if he didn’t go through with it, Bailey would kill him,” Beverly Hills Police Capt. John E. Hankins explained to reporters. “He said he knew Bailey would kill him after the kidnapping to shut him up.”
A suspect in 100 break-ins, Skalla was awaiting sentencing on burglary and robbery charges. He may have hoped to get a lighter sentence by being a police informant.
Rejected for service in the Air Force and Army, Skalla was a loner who drank to excess and exhibited anti-social behavior. A probation officer wrote that Skalla posed “a serious threat to society.”
Skalla told his parents that he was cooperating with police about a kidnapping plot. Police waiting in Firestone’s home knew Skalla was an informant. He had been told to duck if gunfire erupted, but everything happened too fast.
Two small-time criminals with a get-rich scheme were pronounced dead on arrival.
Firestone thanked police for doing a “thorough, intelligent, masterful job.” He called his Akron kin to let them know he wasn’t hurt. His sons Kimball and Brooks Firestone and brothers Harvey Jr. and Raymond Firestone were all greatly relieved.
“He seemed very calm about it, but it’s a terrible thing and he was very distressed,” CEO Raymond Firestone told the Beacon Journal. “I certainly didn’t feel good about it. You don’t know how these things will go.”
Despite the circumstances, Leonard Firestone refused to cancel his appearance in the pro-amateur Bing Crosby Golf Tournament the following week at Pebble Beach.
“I’m going to help some professional get a good score,” he joked with reporters. “I’m nervous enough in a tournament. Think how I’ll be now.”
A coroner’s inquest Jan. 26 cleared police of any wrongdoing in the shootings, ruling that Bailey’s killing was justifiable homicide and Skalla’s death was accidental.
Firestone declined to live in the mansion where the men were slain. Two weeks later, he married Barbara Heatley in a private ceremony March 4, 1966, at All Saints Episcopal Church in Carmel.
Firestone retired as president of the California unit in 1970. President Richard M. Nixon named him U.S. ambassador to Belgium in 1974.
In 1977, President Ford and his wife, Betty, moved next to Leonard and Barbara Firestone in Rancho Mirage, Calif. Through that acquaintance, Firestone served as a director of the National Council of Alcoholism and co-founder of the Betty Ford Center.
In 1980, he returned to Firestone’s board, which gave him the opportunity to visit Akron once a month.
“It’s good to be home,” he told the Beacon Journal during a 1980 trip. “Our family had great affection for Akron. I’m glad to be living in California, but my roots are here.”
By the end of the decade, the family had divested itself from the business. The company was sold to Japanese owners, moved its base out of Akron and became Bridgestone.
Leonard Firestone, 89, was a great-great-grandfather and the last surviving son of Harvey Firestone when he died of respiratory failure Dec. 24, 1996, in Pebble Beach. His ashes were interred in the Firestone family plot in Columbiana Cemetery.
He outlived his kidnappers by 30 years.
Copy editor Mark J. Price is author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or firstname.lastname@example.org.