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The Trick-or-Treat Dentist – Podcast #98

A couple of months ago my wife and I went for a walk up our road. Along the way, we stopped at our neighbor Harriet’s house.  Harriet and her late husband purchased that house in the 1940s and at nearly 103 years of age, she is still able to live on her own. Harriet’s daughter just happened to be in town and mentioned to us that the previous owner of our house, William “Bill” Shyne, had recently passed away.  Naturally curious, I turned to the Internet to find out more.

And just like there is more than one Steve Silverman in this world, it turns out that there is also more than one William Shyne. It is one of those William Shynes – in this case, dentist William Vincent Shyne – who is the subject of today’s story.

So let’s take a quantum leap back in time to October 31, 1959. The children of the Glenmoor Gardens residential neighborhood of Fremont, California were doing what all kids love to do on Halloween: they were dressed in their costumes and went door-to-door in search of candy.  As the children arrived home, some of the parents were alarmed to find little heart-shaped, sugar-coated, white pills at the bottom of the treat bags.

The parents quickly concluded that the pills were being handed out by whoever lived at 4844 Norris Road but needed proof before they called the police. They decided to set a trap. A few of the older children were given empty treat bags and went to the door of the suspected house.  The man and woman who answered the door gave each of the kids lollipops and then sent them on their way.  The parents immediately inspected the bags, and more pills were found.

The police were finally contacted and sixteen separate complaints were filed.  Officers went to Dr. Shyne’s home and, as you would expect, he denied any involvement with the distribution of the pills. He was not charged with any crime at that point, mainly because the police weren’t sure what the pills were.  Maybe they really were candy, maybe the pills weren’t. Laboratory analysis determined that they were aloe pills, which were used mainly as a laxative at the time.  They appeared to be manufactured by a pharmaceutical company – not the doctor himself.

It was hard to imagine how a man like William Shyne could have done this.  He had a successful practice and was well respected.  Since moving into the house back in 1952 or 1953, he was considered by neighbors to be a quiet man with whom they had little interaction.

But it was hard to avoid the evidence stacked up against him.  The police had checked 250 homes and recovered 450 pills. The normal adult dose was two pills, yet the kids had as many as thirty tablets placed into their bags.  At least 16 children received pills, with four being known to have suffered stomach cramps and vomiting.  Luckily the pills were so bitter that most of the children spit them right out and none required hospitalization.

Within twenty-four hours of the uproar, the doctor had disappeared. An all-points bulletin was issued by police Lieutenant Lowell Creighton.  The dentist was now wanted on two misdemeanor charges.  The first was unlawfully dispensing a drug.  The second was outraging the public decency and endangering the health of children.  If found guilty, the doctor could face up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Police felt that it was highly unlikely that Shyne would skip town on two misdemeanor charges.  He had too much to lose: he had an expensive house and an established medical practice loaded with costly dental equipment. And then they received an anonymous inquiry regarding bail – which was set at $1050 (about $8600 today) – police were fairly certain that he would show up shortly.

The nurse at Dr. Shyne’s office reported receiving threatening phone calls.  He had not been in the office since Halloween day and when asked when he would return, she replied, “I don’t know when he’s coming back.”  She continued, “I canceled his appointments Monday and Tuesday.”

On November 3rd, it was reported that an unknown woman had stopped by the house to pick up Dr. Shyne’s dog.  Could this be the mysterious woman who had handed out treats with Dr. Shyne that night? A “Jane Doe” warrant was issued for her arrest.

The next day 53-year-old Hazel Engelby, a nurse at the Livermore Veterans Hospital, was arrested by police and booked at the county’s prison farm at Santa Rita.  She had been a good friend of Dr. Shyne since the time that both were in the US Army.  They may have had her but Dr. Shyne still eluded the police.

And he was still nowhere to be found on November 5th when Hazel was brought into the courtroom of Judge E.A. Quaresma and a battery of reporters. Wearing a trim blue suit, she received the same misdemeanor charges given to Dr. Shyne and was released on the same $1050 bail.

Later that day, police received a call from the wife of Rex F. Kimberling.  She said that she had received word from her husband that the dentist was on a planned elk hunting trip in the Bitterroot Mountain Range of Idaho. Kimberling’s group had planned to fly up with the dentist, but Shyne canceled the flight and drove his own car there instead. He said, “He’s back in the woods and won’t return for several days.”  “I’ll tell him he’s wanted when he returns to camp. I doubt if he knows.”

Police Chief Richard Condon believed the dentist was not aware of the charges against him. Fremont Police Inspector Lee Rieman commented, “It’s a misdemeanor charge and we can’t go out of state and extradite.”

It was reported on November 9th that he had left the hunting party and was presumably on his way back to California by car. Late in the evening of the 11th, Shyne surrendered to the police.  He made no statement, was quickly released on bail, and ordered to appear before the Municipal Court at 9:30 the next morning.  The press made a beeline for his house, but he had once again dropped out of sight.  It was noted that the newspapers had piled up on the front porch of his house and egg was still splattered on his garage door.

Dr. William Shyne with his attorney, Richard Kaplan.
Dr. William Shyne (left) with his attorney, Richard Kaplan. Image appeared on page 3 of the November 13, 1959 publication of the Oakland Tribune.

Both Dr. Shyne and Ms. Engelby were hauled into court on November 20th. It also marked the first time that Judge Quaresma was required to wear a robe in court under a new state law.   Both of the accused denied any involvement in the crime, claiming that they had only handed out lollipops. Richard M. Kaplan, their attorney, introduced into evidence a letter that had been mailed from San Leandro that may have been written by another person who may have placed the pills in the trick-or-treat bags.   He said, “This letter was obviously written by a person who dislikes children and if you can find out who wrote it you may find the person that really handed out the pills.”

It was announced on November 25th that the charges had been amended, removing the phrase “menacing public health”.  This was agreed to because none of the children who had swallowed the pills were severely injured.

A plea in the case was delayed until December 2nd and, as one would expect, both entered a plea of not guilty and requested a trial by jury.  The judge scheduled the trial to start on January 25th, but they never got that far.  On January 23rd, the charge of illegally dispensing drugs was dropped. Shyne waived the scheduled jury trial to avoid subjecting “innocent persons”, which implied Ms. Engelby, to the ordeal of a lengthy trial.  Shyne was found guilty on the charge of outraging public decency and was scheduled to be sentenced at 1:30 PM on Monday.  He was facing six months behind bars and a $500 fine. All charges were dropped against Ms. Engelby and she was set free.

On January 25th, Dr. Shyne was given a 4-month suspended jail sentence, 2-years probation, and a fine of $525. But, his fight was not over. He learned that he was now facing possible punitive action from the State Board of Dental Examiners.  They could choose to issue a reprimand, suspend him from practicing for a period of time, or, in the worst case, revoke his license permanently.

Three days later, Attorney Kaplan filed a motion to appeal the dentist’s conviction.  He argued that insufficient evidence had been introduced during the trial to convict Dr. Shyne of outraging the public decency.  He argued that Shyne’s act wasn’t public and only became public after the newspapers picked up the story. As a result, there was no way that he could have outraged public decency.

The State Board of Dental Examiners placed the review of his case on hold until a final decision was issued by the courts.  That came on May 5, 1961, when the Alameda County Appellate Court upheld a decision that Dr. Shyne had outraged the public decency.

Fearing the loss of his license, on February 17, 1961, Dr. Shyne appeared before the dental panel reviewing his case and offered his sincerest apology for what he had supposedly done.  On February 25th, the dental board found him guilty of unbecoming conduct.  They placed him on probation for a period of two years.

Dr. Shyne managed to stay out of the news until November 1, 1962.  That is when it was announced that his wife Dorothy was suing him for divorce. The couple had been married on June 4, 1941, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and separated in 1952, seven years before he pulled his awful Halloween prank.  They had no children and Mrs. Shyne had since moved to New York City.  She charged him with extreme cruelty and claimed that he had a large and lucrative practice.

The next time Dr. Shyne appeared in the press was on December 17, 1963.  This time he had been arrested at his dental office at 40880 Fremont Blvd. The charge was insurance fraud. He had supposedly billed insurance companies for work that he had never performed.  Once again he ended up in the courtroom of Judge E.A. Quaresma.  He posted $1,650 bail and was released.

On March 5, 1964, Dr. Shyne plead not guilty to two counts of insurance fraud in front of Judge E. Lecara. On September 12th, he was given a 6-month suspended sentence and placed on probation for one year.  But, he had violated the conditions of his probation and was ordered to spend two months in the county jail as a result.

The U.S. Public Records Index shows that Dr. Shyne continued to live at his Fremont residence long after the scandals died down.  He passed away on November 2, 2007, 13 days shy of his 88th birthday, in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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