Miller Sardella

Suzy Hopkins
By Suzy Hopkins March 15, 2009 15:17

Sitting behind a desk wasn’t Miller Sardella’s style.

The longtime Tuolumne County sheriff was far more comfortable on horseback or on his regular walking rounds of downtown Sonora. He was easy to spot, hunkered down on his heels in true cowboy fashion, telling stories of search and rescue and old rodeo days.

If you had cigarettes, he’d usually bum one. He’d tip his hat to women walking by and was quick with a “God Bless.” Chances are he liked you before he even knew you.

“He was so charming,” says Miller’s youngest sister, Leona Sardella Kisling. “Absolutely the most charming person on this earth.”

Born in Italy, Miller Sardella came to the U.S. in 1912 with his mother and three siblings. The family grew to nine children in the years ahead. Miller is the legend among them for his popular and long tenure as Tuolumne County Sheriff.

The stories his families and friends tell give a glimpse of the larger-than-life man who died 20 years ago. Here are a few of those stories.

Raising horses and raising hell were twin passions for the elder Sardella boys, who broke horses on the family’s Sonora ranch as boys and went on to run high-country pack stations.

“They were real showoffs,” recalls Mary Cassinetto, another of Miller’s sisters, “and the corrals were always filled with girls – they just loved cowboys.”

Reno, Miller and Curly worked with the movie companies on many Westerns made here. “Reno supplied all the movie companies with horses and buggies, stuff that they needed, even cows, chickens,” Mary recalls.

John Sardella, Miller’s youngest brother, recalls that they earned $10 a fall for stunts – and had their fair share of broken bones.

Miller worked with livestock and at the high-country pack stations during his younger years. Occasionally, he threw punches in the basement of a downtown Sonora theater.

“Miller would come home all scrapped up once in a while, I think he got five dollars a round,” says Leona. “He was a very good fighter, small, quick and fast.”

He was always up for a challenge, particularly when it involved horses.

“Miller got talking to a bunch of cowboys one time, said he had a race horse, which of course he didn’t,” Leona recalls. “This other guy said he had a race horse, too. They had a race – I was there, it was on the back road going to Columbia – and Miller won just by accident, he’d borrowed the horse from somebody else.”

When Miller enlisted in the Army, it was his wife’s decision.

Miller was cowboying at a rodeo in the early 1940s, got badly hurt when a horse rolled on him, and was on crutches for a long time. His wife, Mary Patterson Sardella, was secretary to the draft board.

“One day Mary saw him sitting outside the drugstore with his crutches. He had his hat open, and people were putting money in it,” Leona says. “It was a joke, like he was crippled and couldn’t work. She saw him making a big joke out of this and got angry and signed him up, put him first on the list.”

He was sent to the Northwest. When the Army found he wasn’t a U.S. citizen, they arrested him but didn’t tell his commanding officer, says Carlo De Ferrari, the county historian and Miller’s longtime friend.

“He was marching down the street with the POWS when the colonel came by in his car, stopped and ordered the man in charge to stop the bunch,” says De Ferrari. “The colonel asked Miller, ‘What are you doing here?’‍” And Miller says, ‘Well I’m not a citizen.’ In a couple of days they released him and he got his citizenship.”

De Ferrari first met Miller after starting work at the county courthouse in 1947.

“Miller came in three or four weeks later, reporting to duty on his first day as a deputy sheriff with his cowboy hat and old jeans on …  The sheriff was Don Vars, but the fella that handled everything in the sheriff’s office was an old-timer named Walter Hoskins. He took one look at Miller and said, ‘You go home, you shave, and you put on clean clothes – you’re a deputy sheriff now, you ought to look like one.’ Miller used to laugh about it, saying, He changed me all over.”

Hoskins was a city constable, sheriff’s deputy, and expert in serving legal papers.

“He took Miller under his arms, and he was a man who liked everybody, but you’d better not cross him,” De Ferrari recalls. “Walter was trying to train Miller how to serve papers properly. But every time Walter told him something, Miller would say, But why do I have to do it that way?”

“He asked one too many times, and finally Walter said, Because I told you so! And WHAM, he hit Miller, knocked him to the ground … Miller just thought it was funny. He told me, After that, I listened and I learned.”

Miller may not have known much about the job at first, but he was a smart political hire because he had so many friends. He was elected sheriff in 1962 and re-elected three more times before retiring in 1974. He seemed to inspire respect from all quarters, and was friendly even with prisoners.

“One time he came in the courthouse and he had a man under arrest, was taking him up to Superior Court,” De Ferrari recalls. “He was a very dangerous man and Miller didn’t even have handcuffs on him. Miller stopped to talk to me, and that man stood up on the stairs and waited patiently, waited and waited, and finally asked, Aren’t you going to come up with me?”

Another time, a prisoner bolted from custody – a rare occurrence. “Miller chased him downtown, finally tackled him near the cigar store at Washington and Linoberg and put the handcuffs on him.”

There’s another handcuff story, this one involving Jean Auser, who later married rancher Otis Rosasco. She was De Ferrari’s coworker at the time, head bookkeeper for the county auditor’s office.

“Miller always liked the girls, so he was talking to her, and he’d just got some new handcuffs, which he proceeded to demonstrate by cuffing her to this huge bookkeeping machine – then discovered he didn’t have the key to take them off,” De Ferrari says. “He had to go down to the sheriff’s office and rummage around, finally found a key that worked. I wasn’t worried at the time, but afterward I got to thinking – my God, what if there had been a fire? She was there for about an hour.”

Crime wasn’t a big factor, so even a minor crime spree tended to stand out. Mary Cassinetto, who with her husband, Ben, owned a Sonora motel, rented a room to a well-dressed gent passing through town.

“Later we found out that he had a go-between who would deliver the Stockton Record while looking into open garages and stealing from folks,” she recalls. “Miller found out and put them in jail.”

The light-fingered tenant stopped by after he got out.

“He said to me, You have one of the meanest sheriffs I’ve ever met in my life – he is so mean, it just scared me to pieces.”

Mary told him, “I know that sheriff and he’s a little guy but be careful, he’s real tough – he could take you down anytime.” She never told him Miller was her brother.

Miller Sardella was held in high regard by local reporters as a “quote machine,” a man who told it like it was, sometimes with a bit of robust embellishment.

But his comments also reflected his life – such as, “You can’t be a good sheriff unless you’ve been an outlaw first.”

He once told a reporter, “All the meanest person needs is a fair deal.”

And near the end of his law enforcement career:
“The grand jury called me a Model T sheriff and with all the problems we have today, maybe we should go back to the Model T.”

© 2009, Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Suzy Hopkins
By Suzy Hopkins March 15, 2009 15:17
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