The Ojai murder case that put Johnny Cash behind bars at Folsom Prison
By Mark Lewis
Ojai is not renowned for famous murders. But there was one local case, involving an accused murderer named Earl Green, that deserves at least a footnote in the history books, because it set off an unlikely chain of events which eventually led to the making of Johnny Cash’s legendary “At Folsom Prison” live album.
Cash never did any hard time in his life, but Green did – in Folsom Prison, no less. And Cash never actually shot a man in Reno “just to watch him die” – but Green crushed a man’s skull with a baseball bat near Ojai, just for $9 and a wristwatch. That at least was the DA’s version of events; Green claimed he acted in self-defense. The jury bought the DA’s version and sent Earl to death row. But he ultimately evaded the gas chamber and ended up in Folsom, serving a life sentence. As a result, years later, Green was able to play a key role in bringing Cash there to perform. In fact, if Green had never picked up that baseball bat, Cash’s Folsom concert might never have happened.
The story begins on Labor Day 1954, when Earl Compton Green Jr. and his friend Joseph Oliver LaChance drove from Pasadena to Ojai to apply for work at a local resort.
Green, 27, was an ex-Marine and a convicted felon from Florida, who recently had moved to Pasadena with his second wife and her 3-year-old daughter by an earlier marriage. He found work as a kitchen helper at the Annandale Golf Club under an assumed name. There he met LaChance, 49, an ex-con from Canada who worked at Annandale as a guard.
Green already was itching to move on from Pasadena. He was afraid that his mother-in-law, who resided there, would report him to the Florida authorities for breaking the terms of his parole by leaving the state. (He had served three years for armed robbery. Apparently the mother-in-law did not consider him a suitable match for her daughter.) LaChance had an idea: Why not move to out-of-the-way Ojai, where no one would know who he was?
LaChance apparently had worked at an Ojai resort in the past (probably Matilija Hot Springs), and he offered to use his contacts there to find jobs for both Green and himself. On Labor Day they drove in LaChance’s car to Ojai, stopping several times along the way to have a few beers. When they arrived at the resort, they were told that the man they wanted to see would be away from his office for two hours. So they had a few more beers and drove out to Matilija Lake to kill some time while they waited.
The police theory of what happened next is that Green saw an opportunity to rob LaChance, so he bashed him twice on the back of his head with a bat when the older man stooped down to get a drink of water. Green’s version is that they had driven up there to do some target shooting, but instead LaChance made an aggressive pass at him.
“We got there and he didn’t want to shoot gun, he wanted to play around,” Green told Johnny Cash biographer Michael Streissguth many years later. “And so I hit him with a bat I picked up, and I hit him too hard and I killed him.”
(Streissguth, who filmed a lengthy interview with Green in 2007 for a documentary film about Cash, has graciously shared the interview transcript with the Ojai Quarterly.)
Green took LaChance’s wristwatch and the $9 he found in the man’s pockets, and drove off in LaChance’s 1951 Chevy sedan. He stopped in Pasadena just long enough to pick up his wife and her young daughter, then set off on a cross-country crime spree. He pawned the watch; sold the car somewhere in Ohio; robbed a supermarket in Richmond, Ind.; then committed another robbery in Ocala, Fla. Then he headed west again, moving from town to town, keeping one step ahead of the law. The police finally caught up to him in March 1955 by setting up a roadblock on Route 66.
“They run me down in Amarillo, Texas,” he told Streissguth. “They knew what kind of car I was driving and that’s how they got me.”
In the car they found Green, his wife and stepdaughter and an 18-year-old male accomplice, along with a .22 rifle and a sawed-off shotgun. Green put up no resistance. He had gotten away with $6,000 in cash from that Indiana supermarket robbery, but had less than 75 cents on him when he was arrested.
Three months later, on trial for his life in a Ventura County courtroom, Green admitted killing LaChance, but claimed temporary insanity. Being propositioned by a man, he said, had prompted a violent reaction, essentially in self-defense. The jurors didn’t buy it; they convicted him of first-degree murder and sentenced him to death.
All capital murder cases automatically were appealed, but Green had little reason to think that his conviction might be overturned. He spent the next 16 months on death row in San Quentin, waiting for his date with the gas chamber down in the prison basement.
“I thought, ‘This is it, man,'” Green recalled. “I’ve seen three men go down. They shook my hand and then they took them down the day before [their execution].”
But Green would never take that fatal trip to the basement. In October 1956, the California Supreme Court affirmed his murder conviction but overturned his death sentence, on the grounds that the trial judge had erred in his instructions to the jury. Reversing an 82-year-old precedent, the court stunned the state’s legal community by ordering a new trial to determine Green’s punishment.
Improbably, Green had a new lease on life. But Ventura County District Attorney Roy Gustafson still wanted his scalp, and Green had every reason to fear that the next jury, properly instructed, would send him right back to death row. So he developed a new strategy. He acted so bizarrely that he was declared incompetent to stand trial. This is not easy to do – if it were, then every capital-murder defendant would try it. But Earl Green pulled it off. “Green broke down and was declared hopelessly insane,” the Los Angeles Times reported.
He was sent to the Atascadero State Mental Hospital, where doctors eventually determined that he was fit to stand trial. Unwilling to face another jury, he escaped from Atascadero, but was soon recaptured. Hauled up before a judge in yet another Ventura County courtroom, he once again went into his crazy act. And once again it worked, earning him a return ticket to Atascadero. Then he surprised everyone by admitting that he had been faking insanity all along to avoid the gas chamber. “Green told Gustafson he was sorry he had caused so much trouble and was especially sorry about pretending to be God,” the Times reported.
So, back to death row? Not this time. Green had worn down Ventura County justice officials with all his antics, and they had little desire to put him on trial again. After a brief hearing in February 1958, a judge gave him a life sentence, and at the age of 30 he was sent to live out the rest of his days in Folsom Prison.
“Well, you know Folsom was for hardened criminals,” Green told Streissguth. “Those that were there were on the end of the line. No looking for parole or anything; you run out your life in prison. And it was a prison within a prison. It had them big old six-foot [thick] walls. And then you went through them and went down through the inner part, and there was another wall! And that was the inner prison, I was told.”
Green found Folsom more congenial than San Quentin in at least two respects: It had no gas chamber, and it was not dominated by inmate gangs. A man could “do his own time” at Folsom, meaning that if he minded his business and kept his nose clean, he could stay out of trouble with the guards and with his fellow inmates: “If you won’t bother them, they won’t bother you.”
Green steeled himself for the likelihood that he would pass three or four or even five decades behind those walls. His wife had borne him a son conceived before his arrest, but Earl told her to get a divorce, take the child and forget all about him. She took his advice; apparently he never saw her or the boy again. Nor did he maintain contact with his older son from an earlier marriage. He drew a curtain on the past, and settled in to do his time.
Green found solace by returning to his Christian roots. Raised as a churchgoer, he had fallen away from grace during his hell-raising years. But after his arrest, he had struck up a friendship with the Rev. Floyd Gressett, a Ventura pastor who ministered to county jail inmates. Gressett had visited Green on death row in San Quentin, and continued the visits after Earl landed in Folsom as a lifer.
Green also spent a lot of time in Folsom’s Greystone Chapel, which served both Protestants and Catholics. “I went there for my benefit to get spiritual uplifting,” he said.
To help the time pass more quickly, Green kept busy by playing country music with friends.
“I took up the bass guitar while I was in there,” he said. “I had my mother send me one, an electric guitar. And I learned the bass and I had me a little band. … And it was something that I did on my own to [keep from] going insane. I bet if you sat there watching walls all day you would go insane.”
One day he noticed a new inmate playing a guitar by himself in the prison yard. This was Glen Sherley, who was doing time for armed robbery. Glen was a decade younger than Earl, but the two men had similar musical tastes, and they hit it off. “So we got together and played, and he played me a lot of his songs,” Green recalled. Impressed with their quality, Green urged Sherley to try and sell them to a music publisher. Glen shrugged off the suggestion. “He thought nobody would do nothing with them songs,” Earl recalled. “He didn’t think nobody would do anything for him.”
The years passed and Green thrived in prison, to the extent possible. By 1964, he was serving as the in-house DJ, “the Voice of Folsom Prison,” spinning songs that inmates could listen to on headphones in their cells. Green was big Johnny Cash fan, and he knew that Johnny had performed several times for the inmates at San Quentin. (A young Merle Haggard attended at least one of those shows while serving time for burglary.) If Cash could play San Quentin, why not Folsom?
Green knew from Floyd Gressett that Cash was now living in the Ojai Valley, and sometimes attended services at Gressett’s nondenominational Avenue Community Church in Ventura. As Gressett later related the story to Ventura Star-Free Press reporter Gene Beley, it was Earl Green who now kicked off the chain of events that eventually brought Johnny Cash to Folsom Prison.
“One time when I visited Green,” Gressett said, “he asked me what the possibility was of Johnny visiting the inmates.”
Gressett relayed Green’s invitation to Cash, who eagerly accepted. Green helped sell the idea to the Folsom authorities. It took awhile to set up, but the unpublicized concert finally took place in November 1966, with Green himself serving as soundman. “He come on and did a terrific show and of course he was accepted [by the inmates],” Green said. “They just clapped and clapped and clapped for him.”
The show’s success seems to have inspired Cash to revive a pet project. For years he had wanted to record a live album at one of his prison shows, but his Columbia Records producers always vetoed the idea. Then, early in 1967, Cash was assigned to a new producer, Bob Johnston. When Cash pitched the prison idea to Johnston, he embraced it and made it happen. And so, on Jan. 13, 1968, Cash returned to Folsom with a truckload full of Columbia Records sound equipment to record “At Folsom Prison,” the live album that would transform his career.
Earl Green did not attend that second concert; he had been transferred to a minimum-security prison in Vacaville three months earlier. Nevertheless, he managed to play a key role in the proceedings. While still at Folsom, he had urged Glen Sherley to write a song for Cash. Sherley came up with “Greystone Chapel,” which echoed Green’s own discovery of salvation behind bars:
It takes a ring of keys to move here at Folsom
But the door to the House of God is never locked
Inside the walls of prison my body may be
But my Lord has set my soul free
Green recorded Sherley singing the song in the chapel, and slipped the tape to Gressett, who eventually played it for Cash. Johnny loved the song, and he performed it during his second Folsom concert, after pointing out Sherley in the audience as the man who wrote it. This performance was included on Cash’s live album, thus launching Sherley as a professional songwriter while he was still behind bars.
In 1971, Cash helped bring about Sherley’s parole and brought him to Nashville as a songwriter for Cash’s publishing firm, the House of Cash. Johnny also made Glen a featured performer in his touring stage review, “The Johnny Cash Show.” As a free man, Sherley went on to write “Portrait of My Woman” for Eddy Arnold, and he also recorded some albums of his own. Charismatic, talented and ruggedly handsome, Sherley seemed set for stardom in his own right.
Meanwhile, Earl Green had beaten the odds again: Despite his life sentence, he had become eligible for parole. Gressett asked him if he wanted to seek Cash’s help, but Green rejected the suggestion. He did not want anyone to pull any strings for him. He earned his freedom the hard way, by demonstrating over the years that he was no longer the man who had swung that baseball bat at Joseph LaChance’s head back in Matilija Canyon.
Paroled sometime in the early ’70s – the exact date is uncertain – Green followed his friends Sherley and Harlan Sanders (another parolee-turned-songwriter) to Nashville, where Green worked briefly as a DJ for a local radio station. He also worked (very briefly) at the House of Cash, in a make-work job that Johnny offered him “out of the kindness of his heart, like he felt I needed the money, which I did.”
Green never tried to reconnect with his long-lost sons, but he did marry again, and he helped his new wife, Sheila, raise her sons from a previous marriage. Green also tried to help his friend Glen Sherley, whose Cinderella story did not have a happy ending.
Ironically, Sherley’s main problem apparently was his pep-pill habit, the same addiction that had almost cut short Cash’s career, not to mention his life. Sherley grew sullen and withdrawn, and began to make threatening remarks that intimidated Cash’s other employees. “Back then he was taking them pills and John found out about it and that’s when John kicked him out,” Green said.
Spiraling downward, Sherley gave up on his once-promising Nashville career and returned to California. He had gone through all his money, he had few prospects, his wife had left him. One day in May 1978, he picked up a gun and blew his brains out. He was 42 years old.
“It was just sad, because Glen got on those pills so bad that they just controlled him,” Sheila Green told the Ojai Quarterly in a recent interview.
No such fate awaited Earl Green. He was content to work in a machine shop, and later as a sort of a handyman for the country stars Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White. “I was nanny to their children, and Earl, he did a little bit of everything,” Sheila said.
Sheila said she tried unsuccessfully to get Earl to write his memoirs “because so many things happened in his life. It would have made a real good book.”
Earl preferred not to dwell on the past. But he always remained very proud of the role he had played in helping to bring Johnny Cash to Folsom Prison.
“We stayed friends with Johnny,” Sheila said. “We went to dinners at their house.”
Earl also remained a churchgoer, and he remained married to Sheila for 37 years, until his death in Nashville in 2011 at the age of 84. Spared from the gas chamber, and from permanent confinement in Folsom, he had turned his life around and made it count for something. And that, more than the famous Johnny Cash concert, was his most impressive accomplishment.
“Of course I’m not the person who went into prison,” he told Streissguth. “I’m the person who come out of prison. And I changed. And I did that myself.”
(This story originally appeared in the spring 2013 issue of the Ojai Quarterly.)