By LAUREL BUSBY
Special to Circling the News
When John Wilson was in elementary school, he helped build Pacific Palisades.
His father, Robert, a prolific architect and builder, designed and constructed buildings in the Marquez Knolls and Palisades Village, including the Bay Theater and about 80 percent of the town’s businesses in the mid-20th century. The younger Wilson was paid 25 cents an hour to join the effort.
“My dad had a tremendous work ethic,” said Wilson, now 80. “He put me to work on the jobs putting in nails and picking up trash when I was about 8 years old. He wanted me to be a contractor. I remember particularly the Marquez property. I nailed all the floors up there and a lot of the walls.”
Together, the Wilson family built everything on the south side of Antioch between Via and Sunset. The elder Wilson and his brother George also created structures along both the north side of Sunset from Swarthmore down to Monument and the stretch of Via de la Paz across from Pali Elementary. Most of the buildings still stand, although the businesses they constructed in the early 1950s on both sides of Swarthmore from Sunset up to Monument have since been replaced.
In fact, his father built so much of the town that his son regretted some of the changes. As a boy, he had loved the many rural areas and undeveloped residential lots in the Palisades.
“At the time, it was a free area with lots of room to roam,” he recalled. The Marquez family even had a horse that ran loose, and John was welcome to catch it and ride it.
“The horse would go up to you,” Wilson said. “You would put a bridle on it and ride it bareback. It was a gentle, gentle horse. To this day, I kind of resent the loss of where I used to play.”
The family’s construction projects extended to other areas. For example, in Santa Monica, the Wilsons built numerous apartment complexes, and after the Northridge earthquake hit, his father visited each one to see how it fared.
“They were very simple box designs; therefore, they were very sturdy,” his son noted. “Every one of them was still there.”
A Scottish immigrant, the elder Wilson, who died in 1995 at 98 years old, was an active community member and 1951 Palisades Citizen of the Year. In addition, in 1952, he helped start the town’s Rotary Club and was the president of the Santa Monica Ocean Park Chamber of Commerce.
As an adult, John Wilson veered away from the family interest in construction to become a Los Angeles City prosecuting attorney specializing in stalking cases and later a police detective focused on elder abuse. Still, like his father, he retained an interest in buildings and business.
Today, he owns the structure he helped to build on Marquez Avenue that houses a half-dozen businesses, including Vittorio’s and Ronny’s Market. For many years, he also co-owned, along with more than a dozen relatives, commercial property that eventually was purchased by Rick Caruso to make way for the new Palisades Village shopping complex.
Growing up, Wilson found his father and extended family impressive.
“My dad was brilliant,” he noted. “In his later years, he took on the job of learning six languages. He was an artist, an architect, and the only person in the state at the time with both a contractor’s and engineering license.”
His father was also both a sailor and a pilot, while the extended family, which moved to Santa Monica at the start of World War I, were all builders, including John’s aunt, uncle and grandfather. His uncle worked with Don Douglas in the early days of Douglas Aircraft on the world’s first rocket engine.
After graduating from University High in 1958, John Wilson began carving his own path. First, in 1964, he earned a bachelor’s degree in business from Cal Poly Pomona. He then garnered a teaching credential from UCLA, and graduated from Southwestern Law School in 1970.
The following year, he began working at the L.A. City Attorney’s office, and he remained there for 27 years.
“Every time I wanted to quit, I got a raise,” Wilson joked.
His work brought him into contact with some of the city’s most notorious cases, including the Night Stalker and the two Hillside Stranglers, who were all prosecuted in part due to his cases.
“The Night Stalker came through my court on a stolen car case, and through that case they were able to identify him,” Wilson said. “The Hillside Stranglers came through my court as misdemeanors. They were identified by the records we got in my arrests.”
In addition, Wilson began to specialize in stalking cases, which he discovered were often tied to domestic violence. Through his work and that of others specializing in the field, stalking laws were strengthened, changing the crime from a misdemeanor to a felony.
“We started to realize the breadth of this disease and what we could do about it,” Wilson said. “Now you can’t get out of jail until you see the judge, which has cut down the homicide rate substantially.”
In 1995, he retired, but three years later he was back at work.
“I made the mistake of going to lunch with the West L.A. police captain,” Wilson kidded. The captain suggested he volunteer as a reserve specialist to tackle cases that the department didn’t have the resources to investigate fully. Soon the position transitioned into detective, and he spent 15 years there, becoming an expert in elder abuse. He volunteered on varied cases, ranging from people who tricked the elderly out of their nest eggs to celebrity cases, such as issues surrounding both CBS owner Sumner Redstone and radio disc jockey Casey Kasem.
Regarding the latter, “I got so upset at Mrs. Kasem,” he said. “I got yanked off the case rightly by the supervisor.”
All during these years, Wilson volunteered with the Boy Scouts, which happened to be how he met his wife, Gloria. Working in the Boy Scout office, she spotted him and told a friend she was going to marry him some day.
“That’s spooky isn’t it,” Wilson commented. “And she’s decided for 53-odd years to stick with me.”
The couple raised two sons.
Wilson also has retained his interest in the Boy Scouts ever since he became active with the organization in 1961. He worked first with Troop 90, then was assistant Scoutmaster with Troop 223 for about 25 years, including a couple years as Scoutmaster. Finally, he led Troop 23 for about 20 years, before returning to Troop 223 this year.
“Did you ever see a young colt out in the pasture kicking up his heels?” Wilson said. “That’s a Boy Scout. They do all the stupid things that little kids will do, and they all turn out to be wonderful people.”