Yesterday’s Crimes: Butchered by Russian Nihilists
From SF Weekly
Luther Weber let himself into his parents’ modest grocery store on L Street in Sacramento at 10 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 30, 1894. As he made his way through the storeroom, he was startled to find a pool of drying blood on the floor. Seeing that the blood was dripping down from his parents’ upstairs apartment, he rushed up the back staircase.
There was more blood on the walls and floor of his parents’ living quarters. Luther pushed his way through the kitchen door and found his father, F.H.L. Weber, with a gaping wound in his head “from which the brains had oozed until they formed a ghastly pile beside the lifeless body” according a “Special Dispatch” to the San Francisco Chronicle.
His mother was slumped over only a few feet away.
“Her skull had been split wide open to the upper part of the nose and her brains were spattered all over the floor and walls for a distance of many feet,” the Chronicle read, sparing none of the gruesome details.
Luther ran out of his parents’ store screaming for police. The cops came, but so did 1,000 onlookers who had to be kept from tromping through the crime scene in search of ghastly souvenirs.
Police determined that at least two men had murdered the Webers. The killers had ransacked the apartment, leaving bloody bare footprints and finger marks throughout the bedroom and living room. They made off with two men’s suits, two watches, $200.00, a revolver and some underwear.
Investigators found the Webers’ ax covered in blood and matted hair in the backyard, along with a metal bar that the killers had used to break into the house. Police also found some blood-soaked clothes that the killers had likely discarded and replaced from Mr. Weber’s wardrobe.
F.H.L. Weber survived crossing the planes in 1858. He and his wife had run their store close to the state capitol for 30 years. They were well liked. Police told the Chronicle that if the killers had been caught that night, “they would be immediately hung.” State agencies offered a $1,500 reward for the arrest of “these fiends” as the Sacramento Daily-Union called them.
The next night, on New Year’s Eve, San Francisco police had rounded more drunks on the Barbary Coast than they had space for in the county jail. They stuffed 10 of them into a tight holding cell in the California Street station. After the drunks were kicked loose a day later, a trustee cleaning out the cell found a lady’s gold pocket watch behind the toilet.
The watch bore an inscription that read, “To M. Weber, from mother.” Luther Weber took a train from Sacramento to San Francisco and identified the watch as a gift to his mother from his grandmother. The SFPD had the killers, held them for a night, but let them go.
The Webers’ murderers went free for six months until a private detective agency seeking the reward broke the case. Questioning San Francisco pawnbrokers and Russian immigrants led the gumshoes to Ivan Kovalev alias John Koboloff, who had drunkenly boasted about hacking up the Webers.
A search of Kovalev’s room on Howard near Fourth Street turned up a pair of suspenders that was identified as belonging to F.H.L. Weber. Kovalev was arrested in June 1895, and turned over to Sacramento authorities by the end of that month.
Kovalev was a prisoner in a Czarist dungeon on Sakhalin, a Russian island off the coast of Siberia and north of Japan. In August 1893, he and nine other prisoners escaped across the Pacific in a small boat, in which “their sufferings from exposure, thirst and hunger were about to drive them insane,” according to Thomas Duke’s Celebrated Criminal Cases of America (1910).
The men were found and taken aboard an American sailing vessel and taken to San Francisco where they claimed they were political prisoners fleeing persecution by the Czar. This may have been true for some of the men, but it wasn’t the case with Kovalev, who had slaughtered a large Russian family before his island exile.
By the time he was arrested in San Francisco, Kovalev had murdered his accomplice in the Weber murders after a botched robbery of another merchant in San Jose on March 31, 1895. Kovalev’s partner, Mathieu Stcherbakov, was stabbed by the merchant during the attempted hold-up. Fearing that the wounded Stcherbakov would talk, Kovalev stabbed him through the heart and buried him in a shallow grave in the South Bay.
Kovalev was sentenced to death and hanged in Folsom on Feb. 21, 1896. In the hours before his execution, Kovalev refused “a tempting breakfast” and a glass of whiskey. He also wouldn’t meet with a priest. Kovalev didn’t believe in God or an afterlife.
An autopsy on Kovalev found that his brain “was in a normal condition, weighing slightly more than average,” The Associated Press reported.