PRENTICE, James Milton (1907-1994) [549-16-0318], Texas-born son of Edna Elliott and step-so of Lyman Elliott, who moved to San Nicolas Island with his parents in March of 1929. The Elliotts were hired by Robert Brooks to look after his sheep on San Nicolas Island. Milton and Lyman built a small shack at the exposed east end of the island, which was subsequently used as a lookout station and guardhouse. Milton frequently stayed in the shack while watching for poachers. He was involved in a shooting incident on February 23, 1930 in which fisherman, Steve Semerenko was killed, and John Heise was wounded. Then 17-year-old Milton chased a party of sheep thieves off the island by firing some shots in the vicinity of their boat. He and the Elliotts were surprised to find a sheriff back on the island a few days later with a warrant for Milton’s arrest. Prentice was arrested, convicted and imprisoned for his crime. Governor Rolph signed a commutation of sentence in July 1931.
In the News~
February 25, 1930 [OT]: “Boat murder under probe. Avalon, Santa Catalina Island, February 25. An investigation is underway today into a harrowing tale of an ambush at San Nicolas Island west of here where Captain Tom Lobospoff of the fishing boat Talyo related one of his sailors was killed and another critically wounded. Captain Lobospoff brought the 35-foot craft into port here last night, bearing the body of Steve Semerenko, of Lancaster, California, and John Heise, of San Pedro, California, the owner of the boat who was wounded. The three men comprised the crew. The skipper said the vessel was lying at anchor in a cove at San Nicolas Island, a barren bit of land 64 miles off the California coast when a disturbance was heard on shore Sunday afternoon. The three men, according to the story, which was corroborated by Heise from a hospital cot here, were asleep in the cabin, but all were awakened. Semerenko went on deck to reconoiter. A shot was heard from the island, and Semerenko fell with a bullet in his heart. Heise then went on deck and was shot. Captain Lobospoff crawled out of the cabin on hands and knees, in an effort to get a glimpse of the assailant over the boat’s railing, but could see nothing. After dark he cut the Talyo’s anchor rope with a penknife, and maneuvered her to sea. As the crafty left the cove two additional bullets ripped the side of her cabin. Heise told a story similar to that of Captain Lobospoff. Officers said they discovered the bullet that killed Semerenko struck him in the side and ranged upward. Heise and Captain Lobospoff denied there had been a quarrel on board the ship, or that they had carried any liquor.”
April 30, 1930 [LAT]: “Island feud enters case. Indications of the existence of a bitted feud between ranchers on the Channel Islands and fishermen were brought out in testimony offered today by island ranchers who were called by the defense in the case of Milton W. Prentice, 18-year-old San Nicolas Island sheepherder, who is charged with killing Steve Semerenko, fisherman, while the latter was on a fishing boat anchored off the island February 23. Prentice, a slim sandy-haired youth, was arrested by a posse under sheriff Robert E. Clark following the shooting. He at first pleaded not guilty, but later changed his plea to one of guilty, and applied for probation and also asked that the charge against him be reduced from first degree murder to one of a lesser degree. Merle J. Rogers represents him. While District Atty. James C. Hollingsworth is conducting the prosecution. The hearing today was continued to next Monday. Ranchers from Santa Rosa, San Clemente, San Nicolas and Santa Cruz islands took their turns on the stand before Superior Judge Edward Henderson and told of depredations which assertedly have occurred on the islands for many years. These depredations, they asserted, had been committed by fishermen, who came ashore and killed sheep and cattle ruthlessly for food. In some cases, armed patrols of mounted men ride the shore lines of the islands to keep the cattle free from molestation, it was brought out. Robert L. Brooks of Los Angeles, owner of the San Nicolas Island lease from which young Prentice has admitted he fired shots at the fishing smack Taiyo, on which Semerenko was fatally wounded, testified that the feeling between the islanders and fishermen is intense, saying that ‘Two islanders can’t get together without talking about these depredations.’ Miss L. Albina Caire [?] of Lakeland, scion of the Caire family, which has extensive holdings on Santa Cruz Island, said that many times she has seen the remains of sheep killed by fishermen, and that she also had seen men running away when the islanders had approached the scenes of these cattle killings. Erve G. Blair of San Pedro, San Clemente Island rancher, declared that he maintained an armed and mounted guard to patrol his holdings on the island. He said that on one occasion he encountered six men who had killed six of his sheep. He asserted that he had never sworn out a complaint against any of the asserted guilty persons, but that he ‘took the law into his own hands.’ Ed N. Vail, manager of the cattle ranch on Santa Rosa Island, and who flew here from the island this morning, testified that on that island they had little difficulty with ‘poachers’ because the island was so inaccessible and because they had no sheep. Cattle, he said, were too large for a few persons to kill and remove from the island. Others put on the stand by Attorney Rogers were Mr. and Mrs. Elliott and Kenneth Prentice, 24-year-old brother of Milton, all of whom testified as to the character of the yhouth charged with the killing of Semerenko.”
May 2, 1930 [LAT]: “Weavers of romantic yarns will find good material for a romantic novel in the bitter feud between the fishermen who cruise about the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara and the ranchers of San Nciolas, San Clemente and the other dots of land shown on the map as parts of the State of California. The story of this feud, which has been going on for years, has been told by witnesses in a homicide case in a Ventura court recently. A San Nicolas Island sheepherder was charged with the killing of a fisherman who, so it was asserted, had slain some of his sheep. Ranchers from several of the islands testified as to the numerous depradations of fishermen, who had gone ashore and ruthlessly killed sheep and cattle and carried off their carcasses. In some cases armed patrols of mounted men ride the shore lines of the islands to keep off the mauraders. One witness testified that the feeling between the islanders and the fisherfolk is so intense that ‘two islanders can’t get together without talking about these depredations.’ A cattle rancher flew from Santa Rosa Island to testify that poachers don’t bother him, because his island is so inaccessible. There it is—island romance at our own front door, so to speak—virtually a virgin field for the novelist. And he might weave in the old, and perhaps true story of the San Nicolas woman castaway who, according to tradition, was rescued in the sixties by a sea captain after she had lived alone on that most remote of all the Channel Islands from early childhood.”
May 18, 1930 [LAT]: “…The windswept, desolate, ocean speck again has lived up to its ill-omened reputation with the conviction and sentence last week of 18-year-old Milton Prentice for the murder of Steve Semerenko, a fisherman who was thought to have been stealing sheep from the island’s flocks. During the course of the month-long trial on a charge of second-degree murder it was revealed that the Channel Islands, of which San Nicolas is one, are the last out-post of organized rustling in the West. Several of the islands, San Clemente, Santa Rosa and Catalina, in addition to San Nicolas, have large flocks of sheep, easy prey to the stealthy attacks of marauding fishermen with an increasing and bitter feeling between them and the stockmen which culminated in the fatal shooting of Semerenko and the wounding of John Heise on February 23 on board the launch Taiyo, while anchored in a cove at San Nicolas Island. The circumstances leading to the shooting as told at the Ventura trial were that Prentice had gone to the island to be with his parents, who were in charge of the 1200 sheep pastured there. Frequent stories of fishermen led to the building of a small guard hut near the landing beach where the youth watched, armed with rifle. Lonely days rolled by until the Taiyo anchored and a dory put off to make a landing. Prentice is said to have waved and then fired a warning shot. This was answered by a shot from the boat and intermittent fire continued between the Taiyo and the shack until Semerenko lay dead and Heise wounded. Heise managed to navigate the boat into Avalon Harbor where he told of the attack and Prentice’s arrest and conviction followed.”
February 23, 1931 [REG]: “Los Angeles. Island owner named in suit. This business of owning an island has its drawbacks. Robert L. Brooks, who owns San Nicolas Island, off Ventura, California, is being sued in Superior Court here for $10,000 damages because of the death of Steve Semerenko, fisherman. Mrs. Efrosinia Semerenko charges her son was killed by a rifle bullet fired from the defendant’s island last February 25. Milton W. Prentice, eighteen- year-old ranch hand, pleaded guilty last May to killing Semerenko and was sentenced to serve from five years to life in prison. Witnesses at Prentice’s preliminary hearing testified there was a bitter fued between the island ranchers and fishermen because of the theft of sheep and cattle.”
July 2, 1931 [The Press Democrat]: “Rolph Pardons Slayer. Governor Rolph yesterday signed a commutation of sentence for Milton W. Prentice, who was sent to San Quentin in May, 1930, to serve from five years to life for accidentally killing a fisherman at San Nicolas Island, off the Ventura county coast.”