San Quentin Death Row Inmate Bert Ross Pleads for Prison Reform

by Brian K. Crawford

Bert Ross was a notorious criminal in California around the turn of the twentieth century. His name was in the papers for years. But we know very little about who he really was because of his habit of using false names and lying. He used a first name of Elmer, Elmore, Herbert, Zoro, Zono, and Bert, and a last name of Golden, Holden, Pierce, Akers, Meredith, and Ross. He gave his place of birth as Louisiana, Illinois, New York, Montana, and “east of the Rocky Mountains.” He was born between 1870 and 1876. He was most often called Bert Ross, so we will use that name.

It is clear that he came of a good family who were wealthy and that he was intelligent and well-educated. By his own admission, his troubles were due to impulsiveness and a lack of self-control. These traits would eventually lead him to the gallows at San Quentin.

As he waited for execution in 1902, he gave a lengthy account of his life to a newspaper reporter and made some remarkably colorful claims:

My name is not Ross,” said the condemned man, “but I will not tell my right name. My mother is alive and she knows nothing of my fate. I was born east of the Rocky Mountains, where my father was superintendent of a coal mine. He was killed by an explosion in 1893[1]. I have three brothers and one sister living in California. They know of my condition, and have helped me with means to save my life. They have kept everything from my mother as to what I have done.

I was educated in the public schools of the State in which I was born and I attended the State University of Kansas for one year. I was preparing to study medicine, but gave it up. I was brought up in a ranch country and I longed to go back to that kind of life.

I never drank three glasses of liquor in all my life. I never gambled and I did not smoke until I went to prison for the first time. No one can say that I was quarrelsome. I never had but three trifling fist fights in all my days.

Ross then told how he had started out in life for himself after leaving college. He says that in 1889 he accompanied Professors Van Buren and Wilson of the Smithsonian Institution on a trip to South America, acting as servant and general helper to the scientists. Then he went to British Columbia and later journeyed to the South Seas with Captain Baxter, in a missionary ship. From the Tonga Islands, Ross says, he went to Japan, returned to Vancouver in 1892 and went to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, riding for Buffalo Bill as a vaquero in the Wild West show.[2]

Ross learned of his father’s death in 1893 and went home in February, 1894, and later joined his brothers and sisters in the Puget Sound country.

That was the happiest time of my life, and though I had to work hard in a logging camp I had nothing to bother about. I left that country on account of a girl. I don’t want to mention her name, for it would only disgrace her. I ran away with her, but her folks got track of us and the police took her back and let me go away. We were in love with each other and it broke me all up. I came to California and had but little money left. I managed to get a job for a draying firm for $20 a month in San Francisco and a few weeks later I went down to Hanford.

The best work I could do was to drive a four-mule team for 75 cents a day. I was sick at heart and felt disappointed with myself. I went around trying to get a decent job, but there were dozens of men idle at that time.”[3]

Ross first began his life of crime in Tulare, California, on May 9, 1895, as he recounted in the same article:

I made the greatest mistake of my life at Tulare, and it was the first step that subsequently brought me to where I now am. I ran into a number of tramps outside Tulare and they talked of how easy it was to ‘turn a trick and get away.’ They were talking of crime and planning robberies and mentioned Goldman’s store in Tulare. The thought of committing crime never entered my head. I walked into Tulare and out of curiosity located Goldman’s place. I looked in the store and then I saw an open cellar door. On the impulse of the moment I went in, remained until the store was closed up and then stole some jewelry and a few suits of clothing.

He shipped his loot by express to San Francisco, then went there himself to pick it up. He took a room on Sacramento Street near Kearney. It isn’t known how they got onto him, but two weeks later two detectives knocked at his door. He had pawned two watches for a total of $30, but the rest of the loot was still in his room. He gave his name as Elmer Golden, but the papers said his alias was Zono or Zoro Meredith. He was arrested and sent back to Tulare County to stand trial for burglary. He was taken to the Visalia jail and put into a cell on the upper floor in the southwest corner of the building. On June 2nd, when a trustee brought his breakfast at 7:30, he found the cell empty. Ross had stood on the bars of the window of his cell, cut his way through the wood and plaster overhead with a sharp knife, got into the loft and thence down to the main floor and out through the front door. His blankets, laid on the floor, deadened the sound of the plaster so that no one heard him escape, although W.E. Russell, the special night guard, was on duty and Deputy Sheriff Daggett occupied the room below his cell. There was no clue as to which way the prisoner had gone.

Visalia & Tulare Railroad car, circa 1896. Courtesy San Joaquin Valley Library System.

Three months later, in September 1895, Constable J. W. Nantez of Tulare County was visiting the San Joaquin County jail in Stockton. He noticed one of the prisoners serving a short sentence for vagrancy. The young man had given his name as Pierce, but Nantez recognized him as the escaped prisoner he knew as Elmore Golden. When “Pierce” had completed his sentence for vagrancy, he was turned over to the Tulare County officers and returned to the Visalia jail.

He was convicted and sentenced to four years for the burglary and two more for the jail break. He was sent to Folsom Penitentiary, where this photograph was taken.

From the Folsom Prison Register. The release date should read 1898.

He hated prison and the rough and violent men he was incarcerated with. As he said himself, “An angel in San Quentin or Folsom would be corrupted.” He tried to improve himself, and spent much of his time reading the classic literature. He resolved to lead a better life when he was released. He had three brothers and a sister living in California, and they apparently tried to do what they could. At the end of his first term in November 1898, they filed a writ of habeas corpus to have him released early, and it was granted. He got out on November 23rd, hoping to put his criminal life behind him.

Again, by his own account, his past continued to haunt him:

I have a brother and a brother-in-law who are in business in San Francisco and I appealed to them. They promised to give me a start in life. I went to Red Bluff and opened a fish and game store. I had a partner and we opened the Oak-street market[4]. We did well and I was making more than $125 a month clear profit.

The news that I was doing well set many ex-convicts on my track. They would drop in to see me and forced me to help them with money and provisions. My Nemesis was an ex-convict known as ‘Nosey’ McDonald. With another convict McDonald located me at my store and demanded $50 from me, threatening to expose me as an ex-convict. I refused to be blackmailed and he gave me away. In a day everyone in Red Bluff knew that I had been in Folsom. In the presence of many lady customers a deputy sheriff came up to me in the store and said: ‘So you are an ex-convict. I will keep my eyes on you.’ My business fell off and I quit in disgust. I gave my share to my partner, but he closed up in a month.

I went to Carbonado, Wash., and got work in a coal mine. I went under my right name, as there were many people there who knew my folks. One night an ex-convict named Riley saw me at a dance. He wanted to dance with a certain girl and she refused to dance with him. Then, in the presence of every one, he said to her, ‘Well, you can’t afford to dance with that fellow; he is an ex-convict from Folsom, California.’ I denied it, but it was no use. He told everything he knew about me, and my friends went back on me. I had to leave my boardinghouse, and again started away and went to Montana, where I got a job loading coke at $5 a day.

I felt sure that I would be all right there, but again I was tracked. An ex-convict known as ‘Wooden Peg Leg’ recognized me and told everyone in the place. I was discharged from my position and had to leave the town.

Then I went back to the Puget Sound country, and after a time came to California, as my brother and brother-in-law offered to give me a position in their business in San Francisco. One day I was with my sister in Chinatown when a morphine fiend came up to me and said he was with me in Folsom and wanted an introduction to my sister. I refused to do so and he abused me on the street, calling me an ex-convict in the presence of my sister and strangers who were on the sidewalk.

I felt that my life was a burden to me and that no matter where I went my record at Folsom would follow me.

He wandered down the coast looking for a way to make some money. In Santa Cruz he met a young man named Henry R. Reynolds in a similar situation. The two became partners. In Los Angeles they entered the United States Hotel. They broke into the manager’s room and several guest rooms, stealing some clothing and jewelry. They walked out unmolested. The hotel management reported the crime to the police but asked that it not be made public, fearing the news would hurt their business. Encouraged by their easy success, Ross and Reynolds went to Santa Ana and robbed another hotel, the Rossmore, with similar results. They moved on to San Diego.

The Los Angeles sheriff put Deputy Sheriff Whitcher on the case. Because the two robberies were so similar, Whitcher believed they were committed by the same men. He also guessed that they were moving south, so he got on the train to San Diego.

Ross and Reynolds arrived in San Diego and immediately went to work, hitting three boarding houses, three hotels, and the home of the County Treasurer in one busy Sunday afternoon. Although they again got away, they had been spotted and their descriptions were published in the San Diego Union. The boys shipped some of the stolen suitcases and a trunk to San Francisco, and another valise to Bakersfield. Then they bought train tickets to Oceanside.

Oceanside, California, circa 1895. Courtesy San Diego History Center.

Unfortunately for them, Mr. A. Nosler, an agent for a shipping company, was on the same train. He had read the accounts of the burglaries and an officer had given him a detailed description of the suspects, asking Nosler to keep an eye out for them. Once the train had left the station, Nosler went through the entire train but did not see them. An hour later he decided to make another pass, and this time he spotted two boys fitting the description, whispering furtively together and studying everyone around them. When the train was pulling into the station in Oceanside, the boys jumped off the train and headed west toward the coastal bluffs. Nosler got off at the station and searched for a police officer. It took a few minutes, but he soon found Constable Hubbard. Hubbard gathered a few men and headed for the bluffs, but before they had gone far, one shouted that he saw two men hiding under one of the train coaches. The posse hurried back and dragged the two boys out from under the car, just before the train started up. They were taken to the police station and searched, and were found to be carrying much of the stolen goods. They were taken to the county jail in San Diego. Ross gave his name as J. Akers, but he was soon identified as Bert Ross. He said he was from Butte, Montana.

Soon after this, Deputy Whitcher arrived from Los Angeles, only to find his quarry already taken. He identified some of the goods taken from the hotels in LA and Santa Ana, confirming they were guilty of all the burglaries. Wires were sent to Wells-Fargo in San Francisco and Bakersfield to have the stolen luggage sent back to San Diego. Said the San Diego Union on November 12, 1899:

He is considered to be one of the most desperate and hardened criminals ever seen in this city. While in jail here he admitted to officials of the sheriff’s office that he was formerly a convict in Folsom prison, under another name. Deputy Sheriff Jennings, who made a close study of the fellow, said that Ross had the most hardened appearance of any man he had ever seen, his countenance being entirely devoid of any indication of kindness or good nature.

The two young men were brought up on charges of first-degree burglary. The boys pleaded guilty, but both said that they were the primary criminal and that the other should be released. Ross said:

“Reynolds is not nearly so much to blame as I am. I did most of it. I saw Spooner’s name among the hotel arrivals published in the paper, and suggested to Reynolds that we enter his room. I had pass keys which let me into the room without difficulty. I have told the police and others where everything was hidden, and I have no reason for holding anything back. I have known Reynolds only ten days.”

The judge was not inclined to be lenient, and sentenced both to ten years in San Quentin. On Saturday, November 11, Ross was placed aboard the steamer Santa Rosa, accompanied by San Diego County Deputy Sheriff Will J. Ward, an experienced and careful officer. He had formerly been a deputy in Tombstone, Arizona, where his father was sheriff, and had been responsible for successfully capturing many criminals and a gang of murderers. Ward took no chances and made sure Ross was handcuffed and chained. One foot was placed into a 16-pound iron clamp called an Oregon Boot. They shared a stateroom.

Passenger steamer Santa Rosa at Pacific Coast Steamship Company Wharf, circa 1890. Courtesy San Diego History Center.

When the steamer reached Santa Barbara, Sheriff Nat Stewart boarded the vessel with a prisoner named Andrew Castro, also on his way to San Quentin. The Santa Rosa continued on to San Luis Obispo, where it tied up to the wharf at Port Harford. The two officers and their prisoners took a promenade on the deck during the afternoon. Ross asked Ward to take him to his cabin, as he was feeling tired and sleepy.

Ward complied with the request, and escorted his shackled prisoner to his stateroom. Ross lay down on his bed and Ward relaxed in an easy chair and soon fell asleep. Ross, terrified of going back to prison, determined to take advantage of the opportunity to escape. At 2 PM he slipped from the bed, took from a table a heavy glass water decanter, and brought it down with all his strength on Ward’s head. The deputy was stunned, but not knocked out. He fought back fiercely, and Ross struck him five or six more times until Ward collapsed on the floor. Ross went through his pockets and stole $20 and his keys. He unlocked his manacles and chains but couldn’t open the Oregon boot. He slipped out of the cabin, located a rope, and lowered himself from a window into the water. He found that he could not swim a stroke with the boot weighing him down. He managed to clamber into the pilings under the wharf and hide.

Sheriff Stewart and his prisoner Castro were still on the deck, and Stewart spotted a figure moving in the shadows under the dock. Clipping Castro’s cuffs to the railing, he hurried to Ward’s stateroom and found him unconscious and covered with blood. He rushed out on deck, called some men to assist him, and succeeded in dragging Ross out from under the dock. Ward was transported to a hospital in San Luis Obispo. Stewart took Ross into his charge and accompanied both prisoners to San Quentin, where they arrived at 11 the next morning. Ross was placed into solitary confinement.

Steamer SS Santa Rosa, circa 1910

A passenger on the steamer, Phillip Morse, took it upon himself to send a telegram to San Diego County Sheriff Fred Jennings, notifying him of the attack. A flurry of wires went back and forth between the two sheriff’s offices as Jennings tried to learn more details. He sent word to Ward’s wife, who gathered their 16-year-old daughter Lola, and they and the sheriff set off for San Luis Obispo. They arrived the next day to find Ward still unconscious. The doctors said his skull was fractured in two places, with some of the bone protruding into his brain. That afternoon they operated to relieve the pressure on the brain, but they offered little hope he could live. He died November 29. On December 13, a grand jury in San Luis Obispo indicted Ross for murder. He probably did not enjoy the celebrations for the start of the 20th century a few weeks later.

On January 26, 1900, San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ivins went up to San Quentin and brought Ross back for trial, traveling by train this time, with Ross in leg irons and handcuffs. A crowd of angry and curious citizens greeted him at the depot. He was put into the steel tanks at the county jail and was closely guarded at all times.

He was arraigned on the 29th. The next day he appeared in court. His family had again hired good attorneys to represent him, William Graves of San Luis Obispo and ex-Supreme Court Justice William Cary Van Fleet. They filed a motion to set aside the indictment, claiming that each and every one of the jurors had expressed an unqualified opinion of guilt before they became members of the jury. A hearing on the motion was scheduled for February 5, when the motion was denied. Trial was set for February 14, continued to the 26, then March 5, March 26, April 16, and April 23. It took more than a week to empanel a jury, due to strong sentiments against the defendant. Ross was the only witness for the defense. He readily admitted to striking Ward, but said he only intended to stun him to allow Ross to escape. He felt he was guilty of involuntary manslaughter, but not murder.

Various prosecution witnesses testified as to the facts of the case. Andrew Castro, the other prisoner who had been aboard the steamer, and another San Quentin prisoner, J.S. Slyter, were brought down from prison to testify against Ross.

Castro said that Ross had said some things to him which indicated he had intended to kill Ward. Slyter said that Ross had talked about the murder in prison and admitted the killing was intentional. The sheriffs of San Diego, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo all said under oath they thought Ross was guilty of murder and a hardened desperate criminal.

On May 5, after being out all night, the jury returned a verdict of guilty of first degree murder. The judge sentenced him to be hanged at San Quentin at a date to be announced. His attorneys stated that they intended to move for a retrial.

At the sentencing hearing on May 24, the attorneys moved the verdict be stricken due to errors in the original indictment. The judge denied the motion and set the date of the hanging for July 27. It was only the second death sentence ever issued in the county. Ross was sent back to San Quentin the next morning, chained hand and foot. The San Luis Obispo Morning Tribune reported:

Some very interesting facts have come to light in connection with the Ross confinement here. It is well known that he several times attempted to gain his freedom. He resorted to every possible method. It was ascertained that he communicated with his brother, Bard, in Sacramento by means of cipher characters. It is also known that a third party residing at that time in this city was in league with Ross. This third party it was found out had communicated with Ross either through the brother in Sacramento or other indirect means and had planned to supply the prisoner with steel saws. They were to be given him in his cell at night by being attached to a jointed fish pole and passed in through the bars. Ross’ cell at this time was nearest the street on the east side of the jail.

When the plot was discovered, the prisoner’s cell was moved to the interior of the jail with no direct communication with the outside.

Attempts were then made to pass the saws in to Ross by a person hired for the purpose. The Sheriff’s office awaited this opportunity, and caught the saws on their way in to Ross. They are now in the office in the Court House. There are twelve saws, each one sharp and able to do the required work. Had these reached Ross he would have escaped beyond doubt.

Although he kept his plans to himself, it was known by some of his fellow prisoners that he was plotting to escape. He often talked of his crime with the other prisoners, and upon one occasion remarked: “I’d be willing to let them hang me, if I thought I could meet Stewart and Castro in hell.” Stewart is the Santa Barbara County Sheriff who took him into custody after his murder of Ward, and Castro is the prisoner whose evidence did so much to convict Ross.

His time in jail, while not mapping out his escape, Bert Ross spent in writing poetry, of which there is a huge collection in the Sheriff’s office. He wrote of the life of a convict, and tells of his own misfortunes in this way. The sentiment throughout is of remorse and repentance, and occasionally there is a philosophical reflection.

There are not many like Ross, and the local officers have little regret in passing him on.

His attorneys filed a notice of appeal on the Fourth of July, and Ross was issued a reprieve. Apparently the appeal was not successful, because the case was appealed to the California Supreme Court, for its session starting April 3, 1901. Again the execution was stayed pending the decision. On October 2, the Supreme Court affirmed the conviction and sentence.

Warden’s Office at San Quentin, 1910. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

In November, Sheriff Ivins was again sent to San Quentin to bring Ross back for resentencing. When he arrived at the prison, Warden Aguirre told him he had noticed that Ross was limping while exercising in the prison yard. They suspected that Ross had something concealed on him. He was brought into a private room, stripped and searched. Nothing was found in his clothes. The prison surgeon, Dr. Casey, then examined his body, and found a sore-looking open wound. When he probed the opening, he discovered something hard inside. He cut it out and found three steel saw blades four inches long. Ross had cut himself and inserted the saws under his skin.

As Dr. Casey cut them out and held them up for inspection, Ross exclaimed, tragically:

“Doctor, you were my Waterloo.”

“Who gave you those saws, Ross?” inquired Warden Aguirre.

To this question the murderer vouchsafed no reply. He had determined to shield his accomplices. He declared that he had made up his mind to escape if he could.

“You can’t blame me,” he said; “I am in desperate straits and took a desperate chance. It was the best I could do.”

Ross was bandaged up and Sheriff Ivins brought him back to San Luis Obispo. He was sentenced to hang on Friday, January 10, 1902. The evening before he was returned to San Quentin, he wrote with a candle flame on the wall of his cell, the word “Hope.”

In January, his attorneys filed a writ of habeas corpus to the U.S. Circuit Court. The judge denied the writ and the case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The governor delayed the execution a second time, to February 15.

On January 6, 1902, he gave an interview to the San Francisco Call:

“I admit that I assaulted Deputy Sheriff Ward when he was bringing me up on the Santa Rosa. I never intended to kill him. All I thought of was to make my escape. I dreaded the term in prison. I had no plans laid as to how I could get away. When Ward took me to the cabin he dozed off to sleep in a chair. I saw the heavy water bottle and the thought came into my head that if I could render him senseless for an hour or so I could get away. I struck him a light blow and he jumped up and grappled with me. I struck him again, and as he continued to fight I hit him a third time. If I had intended to kill him I could have done so with one heavy blow of the bottle. I could have crushed his head like an egg with that thick bottle if I had so desired.

“I got his keys and $20 in gold from his pockets and slid down a rope into the water. I hid under the wharf. I was there for more than an hour. Then I wondered if I had hurt Ward seriously and I made up my mind to go back to the ship.

“I climbed up a rope and went to Sheriff Stewart. I was afraid that I had hurt Ward badly as everything was so quiet on the ship. I told Stewart that I had struck Ward and I wanted him to see if his injuries were very bad. Stewart took me to the cabin and broke the door in that I had locked. He found Ward sitting in a chair with his bead resting in his hands and bleeding.

“Stewart cursed me and said, ‘If that man dies I will hang you for it.’ I was convicted on perjured testimony. Castro, the convict, swore that when he was ironed to me that I told him I intended to kill both the officers. He has confessed to three people since then that he gave false evidence in order to help himself. I sent him a letter here in San Quentin and he told me that if my lawyer would get him out of trouble he would tell the truth.

“I believe that I am guilty of manslaughter and have never denied striking Ward. I am not a brute devoid of all feeling, as some want to make me out. A few minutes before Ward took me to the cabin he showed me the photos of his wife and children. I had no feeling against him, for he treated me kindly. Why should I kill him? I only wanted to render him senseless so that I could escape.

“I realize that I have lacked will power and self-control and that there is no excuse why I should have committed any crime. I should have told everyone that I was an ex-convict when I first came out of Folsom and asked them to help me along. If judges and law officers would help ex-convicts to reform instead of persecuting them and hounding them, lots of young men would leave prison and become good citizens. The only encouragement they now receive is from old convicts, who lead them on to deeper crime.

“Prisons should be so governed that the prisoners should be graded. The association of young prisoners, sent up for small offenses, with old and hardened criminals eradicates all good feelings and dooms them to a felon’s fate.

“Even in prison it is possible for a convict to show that he is a man and a decent man. If my death sentence is changed to life imprisonment I would try to earn my pardon in the course of time. It is easy for people to say that death is to be preferred to life imprisonment, but they do not know what it means to be in the shadow of death at the hands of the law. I realize that if the Supreme Court of the United States will not interfere in my case that I have but four days to live. I am resigned to my fate, and if I am to die I will do so manfully.”

Ross was visited yesterday afternoon by his sister and her husband. The officers of San Quentin Prison declined to make known their identity.

Ross has given no trouble to the officers who have him in charge and many of them feel that but for his previous convictions he would have not been convicted of murder in the first degree, but would have been given the penalty of life imprisonment.

On April 25, the Supreme Court denied the motion for a new trial. The execution was set for May 15. But on the 14th the governor delayed it again, to August 19, pending another appeal. In August it was delayed to November, then to February 1903, then June, then October. On the 7th of October, California Attorney General U. S. Webb traveled to Washington to defend the state’s conviction before the Supreme Court. Ross’ family spent on his defense at least $10,000, the equivalent of about $300,000 today. Finally, on November 3, 1903, the Supreme Court declined to interfere in the case. The execution was scheduled for November 13.

San Quentin Prison, 1910. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

But four days before that date, the new governor, George Pardee, granted a ninth reprieve, this time to December 18. Ross had now had his date of execution set eleven times. Seven times he had been moved to the death cell, right next to the gallows. On December 15, his attorneys appealed directly to the governor to commute the sentence to life imprisonment. Andreas Castro, the convict who testified against Ross, wrote to the Governor saying that he was drunk at the time he gave his testimony and did not know what he was saying. On the morning of the 18th, the governor said he could find no reason for extending executive clemency to Ross.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported:

Murderer Bert Ross has lost his confident bearing and occupies himself continually with weeping and praying on bended knees. It has been difficult for him to realize that the efforts of three years to obtain a commutation of sentence, during which he was granted eleven stays of proceedings, have gone for naught, and that it is but a question of hours when, in all probability, he will be called upon to expiate his crime.

At 10:30 in the morning, Ross was led into the execution chamber, accompanied by a priest and the prison chaplain. He mounted the thirteen steps to the gallows unassisted. As the noose was being placed over his head he exclaimed, “God have mercy upon my soul, a miserable sinner.”

Bert Ross. San Francisco Call, January 6, 1902.

The trap was sprung at 10:33. Ross fell 5 feet 6 inches. During his fall through space Ross clasped his hands in prayer. After the drop his body moved convulsively four times. Dr. T. B. Barney of San Francisco, Dr. Hyde, the prison surgeon, and Dr. R. F. Casey of San Francisco pronounced Ross dead at 10:43. No relative of the condemned man was present at the execution. He was buried in San Rafael.

Notes:

[1] This could have been a mine explosion at King, Colorado, on January 10, 1893, killing 27 miners, two of whom were named Peter and Tom Ross.

[2] None of these claims have been verified.

[3] San Francisco Call, 6 January 1902

[4] The market was on Oak near Main Street and was run by Louis De Shields and Jack Silver. Perhaps one of these was yet another alias for Ross. It closed in 1899.

Editor’s Note: A copy of this essay is available on our digital archive as part of our Anne T. Kent California Room Collection: San Quentin Prison — Album IV, Prisoner Mugshots, c. 1890–1912.

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