The never-before-told story of the 1960 Cal-Stanford axe heist

Ross MacDonald

STANFORD, Calif. -- In the corner of the two-year-old Stanford Athletics Home of Champions is a vault-like display case. Surveillance cameras scattered above a large, mostly open room make it impossible to get near it without being detected. Its contents are embedded in the wall and protected by three layers of thick, possibly bulletproof, glass. Motion sensors sit behind the last layer.

The case is outfitted with its own alarm system and over the past three months multiple Stanford officials have alluded to the existence of a trapdoor-like failsafe. Should a crew of thieves arrive in the middle of the night, evade capture and penetrate the glass, that trapdoor will supposedly still keep the Stanford Axe safe.

As far as the university is concerned, the axe, a plaque awarded to the winner of the Stanford-Cal rivalry, is to be guarded like the Declaration of Independence. Attempts by ESPN to learn more about the security measures in place for the symbol, which features a 120-year-old red axe blade mounted above scores from the Big Game since 1933, were met with both silence and laughter.

What's not visible from the outside is something that has puzzled the axe's handlers for decades. Carved into the back of the handle are the letters "WUTH," and the number "60."

"It's not in a position where it's readily viewed by a general audience," said Jon Erickson, adviser to the Stanford Axe Committee since 1980. "But those of us who have had to maintain the trophy, which means taking it apart sometimes to clean it, we've seen the W-U-T-H. We had no idea what it was."

Until approached by ESPN recently to confirm the presence of the carving, Erickson also had no idea his minor mystery ran parallel to a much larger one. A mystery that played out as front-page news in several San Francisco Bay Area newspapers for nearly a week in 1960, before a lack of credible leads caused it to fade from public consciousness, rendering it all but lost to history.

The mystery started with a stolen safe combination and an inside job. It led to a car theft, the creation of a fake Stanford Axe and a midnight rendezvous with a newspaper photographer. Student pilots took to the skies. Mice were let loose in a Stanford women's dorm. The Oakland Tribune credited a "commando team known as 'The Fearsome Five'" for carrying out the mission.

Much has been written about various heists of the Stanford Axe since it was first stolen in 1899, but the details of the axe's disappearance from a locked safe in Berkeley 59 years ago -- and its circuitous route back to campus -- have previously been shared through only word of mouth. For most of the past six decades, that's how those most closely involved preferred it. And if not for a telling at a neighborhood party a couple of years ago that found its way to YouTube, that's likely how it would have stayed.

Thursday, Nov. 17, 1960, wasn't exactly a slow news day.

President Dwight Eisenhower had ordered U.S. Navy warships to help Guatemala and Nicaragua "seek out and prevent" any communist-directed attacks. Vice President Richard Nixon's Electoral College victory in California was confirmed, though it had no impact on John F. Kennedy's win in the presidential election. A triple-murderer was captured after an eight-month manhunt, and Clark Gable, one of the most famous actors in history, died of a heart attack the night before.

These were all front-page stories in the Oakland Tribune, but the most prominent headline that afternoon read: "Old Blues See Red -- The Axe Is Missing!"

Even then, security was taken seriously. History required it. A couple of days after the axe's first public appearance in 1899, it was stolen at a Cal-Stanford baseball game and taken to Berkeley, where it remained until 1930. That's when a group of Stanford students, since known as the Immortal 21, executed an elaborate heist to finally -- after years of failed attempts -- bring the axe back to its original home. Three years later, the universities decided annual custody disputes would be settled in the most logical way: on the football field.

It was the week of the Big Game, so the axe had been taken from its usual storage location inside the UC Berkeley police department building to the student union on campus, where it was displayed for onlookers each day. At night, staffers would lock it in a six-foot, 500-pound combination safe in a locked office until they returned the following morning.

When an administrative assistant showed up to work Thursday, two days before game day, the axe had simply vanished. The most widely held assumption was that Stanford students were responsible, but there were no leads. The Tribune received an anonymous call that credited the "Fearsome Five," but that led nowhere.

High jinks leading up to the Big Game were to be expected, but after the axe went missing, things ramped up to a level that wouldn't be possible in 2019.

A group of four Cal students dropped approximately 10,000 leaflets out of a low-flying plane onto Stanford's "Beat Cal" rally. The leaflets instructed Stanford, its football team riding a nine-game losing streak, to surrender. Other Cal students unleashed about 175 mice, dyed blue, inside a Stanford women's dorm. Stanford students painted a large white "S" on Strawberry Hill, overlooking Memorial Stadium in Berkeley. Ten Cal students, intent on lighting Stanford's bonfire rally prematurely, were caught with 10 gallons of gasoline and sent back to Berkeley with a stern warning.

By Friday, the axe's disappearance had become a full-blown media sensation. Every newspaper in the Bay Area carried the story on the front page, which is how, like most everyone else, Mick Wuth initially learned of the caper.

He hadn't been a student at Cal for a few years but still returned occasionally for different events. "I got into enjoying the social life there and after a while my grades went to s---," Wuth, who is now 84 years old, told ESPN. "Basically, they said take a hike."

The football game didn't figure to be worthwhile. First-year Cal coach Marv Levy, whose staff included a young assistant named Bill Walsh, had guided the Bears to just one win, and Stanford was even worse. But Wuth was always down to party. That's what brought him back to campus the night before the game, where he met up with some friends at their old fraternity.

It was on the Phi Kappa Tau porch where active members shared details of how the axe went missing. One of them was a member of ASUC, the student association, and came into possession of the safe's combination. He, along with some friends, broke into the building, got into the safe and slipped out with the axe, leaving the other contents, including an undisclosed amount of cash, untouched.

"They're sitting there talking and bragging on how they did it," Wuth said. "I said, 'I hope you guys have it safely protected.' And the owner of the car said, 'Yeah, we have it locked up in the trunk of the car,' and then he pointed at the car."

Neither Wuth, nor his friend Richard Schurz, who also confirmed these events to ESPN, recall why, exactly, they decided to steal it for themselves, but alcohol almost definitely played a role. Along with another friend, Wuth and Schurz went to the parked car and tried to see if they could access the trunk or possibly move the car to a more secluded location.

"Well, the police saw what was going on, and I said that we had a dead battery and all we were trying to do is coast down the hill so we can get a compression start," Wuth said. "So, the police actually helped us push the car away from the curb, and we rolled it downhill for a couple blocks until we found a place where we could park."

Getting into the trunk was easy and, sure enough, the axe was there.

"We were really confident the police weren't going to find us," Schurz said. "That was the least of our worries. But now that we have it, what are we going to do with it?"

As news of the disappearance spread, Stanford student Erik O'Dowd, the chairman of the Rally Committee, was loving it. Most of the public still assumed the axe was stolen by Stanford, so he and a friend, Ed White, hatched a plan to come with an imitation version to display at the bonfire rally Friday night.

It didn't need to be perfect. It just needed to be able pass for the real thing for a few seconds to rile up the crowd. O'Dowd and White found a blade that was close enough and painted it red in the right places. Anyone who looked closely at it would have been able to tell it wasn't the real thing, but it worked for their purposes.

They arrived just as the rally was getting started. "The fire hadn't yet been set and we stormed on the stage," O'Dowd, 78, told ESPN. "We present our axe, starting the chant, 'We've got the axe! We've got the axe!' The place goes crazy."

As quickly as the forgery showed up, it was whisked away, handed off to a friend of O'Dowd and White to discard. The Stanford Daily reported it was almost surely a fake, but it fooled a lot of people. O'Dowd fed reporters in attendance a bogus backstory to help sell it.

The San Jose Mercury News and San Francisco Chronicle reported the appearance of O'Dowd's axe as the real thing. The San Francisco Examiner declared the mystery solved. The papers had all provided daily updates. Palo Alto police and a group of Cal students would show up later at O'Dowd and White's fraternity to retrieve it, according to various newspaper reports.

Only a few people knew the actual axe was with Wuth in San Francisco.

After 59 years, Wuth's recall of the specific timeline is fuzzy, but he knows they called up a newspaper and met with a reporter and a photographer at a local bar.

Using cloth diapers to cover their faces, the trio posed for a photo while holding the axe, still mounted to its display plaque. The picture found its way into multiple Bay Area newspapers, including the front page of the Examiner. A copy of the newspaper, along with a few photos he took while he had the axe, has remained in Wuth's possession ever since.

In past Stanford Axe heists, the most recent of which had occurred in 1953, it was customary for those who nabbed it to return it the day of the game. Wuth did not, and it remains the last time the axe was not present and awarded to the winner of the Big Game.

He's not sure where he was during the game, but he assumed he watched it at his parents' home in Oakland or at a friend's house. It was at his parents' place, he said, that he detached the axe from its plaque and carved his name into the back of the handle, unwittingly giving life to a mystery that would live on for decades. Until recently, Wuth, who has lived just 10 miles from Stanford's campus for several years, had assumed the carving had been buffed out or otherwise removed.

Wuth knew he had to give the axe back, but the steps he took to make that happen now mostly escape him.

Here's what we know: The axe didn't reappear until the day after the game, when, according to several newspaper accounts, a radio news host in Oakland was given the axe to return to Cal by a pair of purported good Samaritans.

According to the Oakland Tribune, these men, "former Cal students Mick Wuth and Richard Schurz," claimed to have overheard Stanford students bragging about how they had the axe stashed in a car in Palo Alto. With a tremendous amount of good fortune, they said, they were able to track down the car and retrieved the axe so they could return it to Cal -- the rightful owner -- after a 21-10 victory. Follow-up attempts by various newspapers to press Wuth and Schurz for more details were fruitless.

Wuth thinks a friend of his who worked in law enforcement knew someone at an Oakland radio station and arranged for the axe to be delivered to him. The San Francisco Chronicle reported Wuth and Schurz gave it back at approximately 2 a.m. Sunday morning, but there were differing reports.

Once the axe was returned, UC police chief Frank Woodward closed the case. According to the Tribune, he said he would like to see the true story of the axe's disappearance come out one day, but more so out of curiosity than for any crime-fighting purposes.

All the newspapers came to the same conclusion: Though the axe had been safely returned, mystery remained. And without anything that replicated a plausible explanation, interest in the 1960 disappearance mostly fizzled out.

Until being contacted by ESPN, Schurz had no intention to ever share what happened.

"It would've been different if we had stolen it from Stanford; we'd be bragging about it all the time," Schurz said. "Why would we or anybody else that we knew want to mention that we stole it from ourselves? I have certainly never mentioned it."

Wuth has been far less secretive over the past six decades. He gets a kick out of retelling the story on occasion and admits, maybe after a couple glasses of wine, there have been some embellishments over the years. A version he told to a neighbor's son at a party was uploaded to YouTube last year.

O'Dowd and White have told the story of their fake axe at Stanford reunions for years. White and his wife, Patti, long displayed their own plaque that commemorates the event in their home -- a gift from O'Dowd -- and it recently moved with them to a retirement community close to Stanford.

"Every time someone would tell the story -- either Ed or Erik O'Dowd, usually -- we would wonder: What really did happen?" said Patti, who was at the Stanford rally in 1960. "Because we had no idea. All we knew was that it was missing, and we always wondered what happened to the real axe.

"For 60 years that has been a mystery. It didn't occur to us that it might have been a Cal student, to be quite honest. We didn't have any good theories."

Little did they know, the man with the answers, Wuth, lived about two miles away in the same town for several decades. As far as they're aware, they never crossed paths.