On a November night 38 years ago, three men in a Cadillac barreled through the Sierra Nevada, tire chains churning up fresh-fallen snow. They were in a hurry because a few hours earlier they had robbed a Bank of America branch on Northgate Boulevard. It took them three minutes to scoop up the cash.
Robert Burns, a parolee from Oregon for robbery and assault, was behind the wheel. He, and fellow parolees Roger Mealman and Clifford Toycen Jr., had already held up a liquor store in Arizona and a grocery store in Bakersfield.
CHP Officer Glenn Carlson pulled over the car and gave Burns a speeding ticket. As the trio rolled away, Carlson, a five-year veteran, learned the Cadillac’s plates were stolen off a junk car. He radioed for help and chased the Cadillac, stopping it again near Truckee.
Burns and Mealman, a 29-year-old career criminal from Sacramento, bounded from the car toward Carlson, who was still alone. Mealman, armed with a 9 mm pistol, fired five times, hitting the 33-year-old patrolman. One of the bullets pierced the citation he had just written to the suspects.
Mealman would later brag that the force of the gunshots blew the officer off the road. Another officer found Carlson’s body in the snow alongside the road within an hour. Carlson had three children. The youngest turned 4 the day after his father was killed.
The three men, who had met in prison, were captured shortly after the killing, and Burns pleaded guilty and served five years of a life term in Folsom State Prison. Then, at his request, he was shipped to Oregon to finish a prison term for parole violation.
When he was released in 1974, the Oregon governor refused to sign papers that would return him to California to finish his prison time – about two years. Instead, the governor allowed him to remain free in Oregon.
All the men were convicted of the killing of a California Highway Patrol officer and the biggest bank heist in Sacramento history, a $45,000 caper. Mealman and Toycen served their sentences in California and were paroled in the 1970s.
But Burns, who only served a portion of the murder conviction before transferring to Oregon to serve time for criminal offenses there, never completed the California murder sentence. Now, February 2001, a quarter century after Oregon declared him rehabilitated and let him walk away from prison – after he married, raised a family of five children and established a successful business, California wants him back.
Eric Carlson, youngest son of the murdered highway patrolman, has no personal memories of his father. But he says his mother, Jane Westbrook, always made sure her children knew who he was, even after she remarried. Carlson, 41, a construction worker in Truckee, has two children.
When he thinks of Burn’s plight, he thinks of how his family members, on their way to Donner Lake, always had to pass by the roadside where his father lay dying.
Carlson thinks of his father’s mountain dream house he helped design and build, the grandchildren he never knew.
“You make choices in your life,” he says of Burns. “He had a choice to go get help for my father.”
Although Carlson accepts that people can change, he believes Burns should return to California.
“What kind of message does that send if he doesn’t?” he says.
Officer Glenn Carlson is buried in Truckee. Buried next to him is his oldest son, who died in a motorcycle accident several years ago.
After Carlson’s death, the California Highway Patrol successfully lobbied state lawmakers for more officers so that fewer CHP officers worked alone.
In 2000, the California Legislature named a bypass that will be built in the Truckee area after the slain officer.
Mealman, the man who fatally shot Carlson, was paroled in 1977 from San Quentin State Prison. He is a retired construction worker and a volunteer jail chaplain in the Northwest.
Mealman says what he did won’t go away. “It’s something I am going to live with for the rest of my life,” he said.
The 67-year-old former prisoner says he tries to inspire criminals to change, using his own past and his religious convictions.
Carlson’s widow lived in the Truckee area until recently.