Sunday, May 10, 2020

For reasons explained elsewhere, I decided to “re-purpose” this older blog to talk about my books – three out already and another due out in August. The three that are already out are: Boise River Gold Country; Before the Spud: Indians, Buckaroos, and Sheepherders in Pioneer Idaho; and Idaho: Year One – The Territory's First Year. The latest is American Sherlock: Remembering a Pioneer in Scientific Crime Detection.

You can find more details, and ordering information, for each book by clicking the shorthand title above. Or click here to go directly to specific ordering information. To learn more about us and how these books happened, click here.

I continue to post items of Idaho history on the South Fork Companion. I do cover other topics there, but most are still related in some way to history. Older posts here focused on events from the Idaho Territorial Sesquicentennial, which is long over.

I now plan to use this site for items related to forensic science, “true crime,” and American Sherlock. Most will probably be cases handled by pioneer criminologist Luke S. May. May handled over two thousand cases during his long career. That included over 270 death cases, involving more than 300 victims. (An amazing number, really, considered that he was a private detective and consulting criminologist.) Thus, I had to leave out far more cases than I could include in the book.

So, in the future, you will find some of those stories here. Of course, American Sherlock is about Luke May. Thus, the book naturally focuses on May’s role in a particular event. Here, I can provide more details on other aspects of a case. To see those stories, click on the title below.

A Note About Sources. I try to provide full references for the articles posted on this blog, with a couple of exceptions.

First, I usually summarize the newspapers used. That is, I give a “generic” title, list the identities of the specific publications, and show the overall time span involved. My articles often take “tidbits” from many individual news items – often as many as a dozen or more – so this greatly streamlines the presentation. Any reader curious about a specific point is free to contact me for more information.

Second, I generally do not show the genealogical sources (census records, city directories, etc.) that I always use to supplement and/or verify statements made in newspapers or the Luke May Papers. Most of that information is retrieved from the fee-based online repositories at, with some other additions. I will include a reminder of those sources when I feel they played a greater-than-normal role in completing the article.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Almost a Triple Murder

Pomeroy, Washington was (and still is) a small, quiet farm town, about 45 miles northeast of Walla Walla. It is, in fact, the only incorporated town in Garfield County, the least populated county in the state. As you could expect, it is also the county seat. But an evening in the spring of 1924 proved that violence could strike anywhere.
Garfield County Courthouse, Pomeroy, Washington.
Vintage postcard
Henry and Barbara Waldman came to the U.S. from Germany – Henry in 1880, his future wife ten years later. Unfortunately, available records do not show Barbara’s maiden name. They married in 1894 and had their one son about a year later. By 1910, they were farming in the Pomeroy area. Crops suitable for the region were wheat, barley, and potatoes, and stockmen also raised cattle and sheep. There is some evidence that the Waldmans mainly raised wheat. Over the years, they added more and more acreage to their holdings.

But Henry died in December 1923, leaving Barbara and son Alfred to run the farm. She did have one source of contentment. Finally, at the age of 32, Alfred had gotten married, and to a nice German girl who had once lived just five doors away. Twenty-two years old, Ida Behlau was the second oldest daughter in a family that had come to Pomeroy straight from Germany in 1909. The father died three years later, but the mother had married a local man the following year. Ida left the area in late 1922 or early 1923.

Then, in March 1924, she returned to Pomeroy and quickly married Alfred, on the 19th. Available news reports don’t say that the two had courted before, but that seems highly likely. The marriage was performed in Lewiston, Idaho, about 28 miles east of Pomeroy. As we’ll see, that was most likely to complete the ceremony as soon as possible. After the wedding, they had rejoined Mother Waldman at the farm.

Thursday, April 3 was cool, in the mid- to high-forties, with a breeze from the southwest. That evening, Alfred walked to the door to answer a knock. The stranger standing outside said, “Here’s a letter for you.”

Curious, Ida had followed him. Looking over his shoulder, she screamed. The stranger instantly shot her husband, and then her. Knowing only that something was terribly wrong, Barbara Waldman hurried toward the telephone … and the man shot her too. The door closed, and she tried again to reach the phone. Moments later, the killer returned, shot her four more times, then left.

Despite her wounds, Barbara found the phone and gasped out the awful news. In short order, every man in Pomeroy, armed with rifles and shotguns, was out looking for the shooter. Luckily, the stranger had asked several people how to get to the Waldman place, so officials were soon able to put out his description. Ralph M. Waller was captured the very next day in Lewiston.

The day after that, the Garfield County sheriff hurriedly transferred his prisoner to the state prison at Walla Walla to avoid a possible lynching. Even before he was moved, Waller confessed freely to the shootings and told a bizarre story. The strange account would need verification for the jury trial required for a capital crime. Thus, on April 8, officials contracted with criminologist Luke S. May to investigate. The next day, May was in Walla Walla to hear Waller’s story first-hand.

He then set out to assess the account, along with other evidence officials had collected. That included Waller’s weapon as well as some torn-up letters. Authorities hoped he’d find fingerprints on the letters, but none could be retrieved. However, May’s analysis of the handwriting and content showed that the letters had been written by Ida (Behlau) Waldman and addressed to Waller. Her words supported, and added to, Ralph’s narrative.

Born around 1890 in German Bohemia, Waller probably came to this country as a child. When he grew up, he worked mostly in Butte, Montana, as a miner. But he also moved around a lot, including trips out to California. News reports did not say if he was seeking better-paying work, liked to visit scattered family members, or simply had a bit of wanderlust.

In February 1921, Ralph married Ida’s older (by a year) sister Lucille. The ceremony took place in Spokane and it’s not clear that anyone else in the family had actually met Ralph. In any case, Ida visited the couple in Butte about a year or so after the marriage. Ralph discovered he liked the sister better than his wife, and she was attracted to him. No one ever explained what the living arrangements became after that. However, by the end of 1923, Ida and Ralph had an “understanding” that she would marry him as soon as Lucille gave him a divorce.

The following spring, Ralph and Ida left Lucille in California and headed north. They separated at some point, and Ralph went on to Butte. Ida, of course, returned to Pomeroy and married Alfred. Ralph called that a “double-cross” of their “agreement.” However, her letters to him showed that, as May put it in his report, “Ida was evidently in a delicate condition through living with Waller.”

May’s notes do not suggest how far advanced she was in her pregnancy. Still, she surely must have decided she did not have time for Ralph to get a divorce. But Ralph was infuriated when he heard the news and raced back. Along the way, he bought a gun in a small town about 30 miles from Pomeroy (easily traced, later). May quickly verified the death weapon, including one particular feature. The action was cranky and the gun would sometimes misfire. He asked Waller about that, and the killer agreed that “it did not always fire the cartridge the first time he pulled the trigger.”

Since the evidence was so conclusive, May did not feel they would need him at the trial. (A considerable savings for the county, since May charged $100 per day, plus expenses, when he had to appear in court.) Authorities originally planned to expedite the trial. However, they held off a few weeks when doctors said that Barbara Waldman, a tough pioneer lady, would soon recover enough to testify in court.

The trial was the expected formality, and Waller refused to appeal. The killer went to the gallows on the morning of June 27, 1924, less than three months after the shooting.
References: Paula Becker, “Pomeroy – Thumbnail History,” Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History,, Seattle, Washington (September 24, 2010).
Luke S. May, Luke S. May Papers, Special Collections, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington (1969).
“[Waldman Murder News],” Seattle Times, Bellingham Herald, Washington; The Oregonian, Portland (April 4, 1924 – June 27, 1924).

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Shooting Death in Pasco

Times were tough in the summer of 1935. Tough everywhere and even more so in Pasco, Washington. For Pasco was a railroad town and the Great Depression hit railroad companies especially hard, with many of them going under. Those hard times were probably at least partly to blame for a tragedy early on the morning of August 6th.

A couple hours before sunrise, two patients arrived at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital. There was a connection between the men’s injuries, but no one knew quite what it was. Isaac I. “Ike” Turya had been shot in the abdomen and was near death. As quickly as possible, surgeons worked to repair the damage, hoping to preserve his life. The other patient, Earl B. Mooney, did not have life-threatening wounds. Still, he had been badly beaten, with severe contusions around the eyes.

Originally from Minnesota, Turya had briefly served in the Army during World War I. He, his wife, and a son arrived in Pasco around 1919. A Kentuckian, Mooney and his wife moved to Pasco some time before 1920. When the 1920 census was recorded, both men worked for the Northern Pacific Railroad. Turya, then aged 22, was a brakeman, while Mooney, age 38, was a rail yard switchman.

Northern Pacific Steam Locomotive.
Northern Pacific Railway Historical Association.
The two were friends for many years after that. However, the relationship had apparently cooled by the early thirties. At about that time, Turya’s wife divorced him and remarried. Meanwhile, Mooney and his wife had become estranged. At least Turya still had his job with the railroad. Mooney did not, but we don’t know whether he had been laid off (most likely) or terminated for other reasons.

Although badly wounded, Turya lived about five days and gave a strange account at first. Around 2 o’clock in the morning, Turya said, he had walked home after a night on the town. At his doorstep, a masked gunman robbed him and then forced him to walk toward the edge of town. Fearful for his life, he had turned suddenly and punched the follower. That dislodged the mask, revealing the thief to be Mooney. But, even as Turya struck, Mooney shot him. Despite his wound, the much younger Turya proceeded to beat Mooney senseless. He then stumbled toward his home, but did not quite make it. He came to in the hospital.

Mooney told a different story. He too had been out late and happened to run into Turya near the latter’s home. They began a conversation while walking along the street away from Turya’s place. Then, Mooney said, some remark of his caused Turya to turn and slug him. When Mooney began to get the worst of the ensuing fight, he pulled out a revolver and tried to beat Turya with it. They scuffled over the weapon, which went off and wounded Turya. Even so, Turya knocked Mooney down and out. When Mooney came to, he staggered back to Turya’s place, found him outside on the ground, and called an ambulance.

These conflicting accounts had everybody puzzled. One of the first newspaper articles said, “Trouble is said to have been over liquor.” But then the story changed to one where the two argued “over private matters, which both men refused to disclose.” Finally, during the trial, Mooney asserted that Turya had made an offensive remark about Mooney’s estranged wife. The ensuing fight ended with Turya shot “accidentally,” and Mooney unconscious on the ground.

None of the accounts mentioned how the revolver ended up in an alley near Turya’s home. Turya may have grabbed the weapon to keep Mooney from using it again, then tossed it as he neared home. Or Mooney still had it when he came to and followed Turya, but slung it into the alley at the last. In any case, the sheriff found it there during his investigation. At the trial, criminologist Luke S. May testified that a bullet from that weapon had killed Turya.

Authorities prosecuted Mooney for both robbery and first degree murder. The jury labored over the verdict for many hours, trying to sort out what happened. It appears they quickly discounted the supposed robbery, finding little to support that story. However, the inarguable fact remained that Mooney had shot and killed a man during what started as a fist fight. The jury finally said “not guilty” on the robbery charge and reduced the other to a second degree murder conviction.

Mooney was sentenced to 30 years in prison, and his appeal was denied. However, he served a much reduced time, being back in Pasco to register for the World War II draft in the summer of 1943.
References: Susan Davis Faulkner, Images of America: Early Pasco, © Susan Davis Faulkner, Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, South Carolina (2009).
Luke S. May, Luke S. May Papers, Special Collections, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington (1969).
State v. Mooney, 185 Wash. 681, 56 P.2d 722 (1936).
“[Turya Shot by Mooney, Mooney Charged],” The Oregonian, Portland (August 12-17, 1935).
“[Trial and Conviction of Mooney for Turya Murder],” Olympian, Olympia; Seattle Times, Washington (November 13-18).

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Mercer Island Murder

King County Sheriff Matt Starwich first learned of trouble on Mercer Island via a phone call from former deputy Albert Bailey. Bailey said that Adolph Boos was headed for Seattle to surrender himself to the sheriff. Boos had been in a fight and the other man had been killed. The date was May 12, 1923.

Mercer Island – not quite five miles long and a bit over six square miles in area – sits in the middle of Lake Washington, east of Seattle. There was no bridge back then, and ferry service was minimal, forcing Boos to summon a launch that operated between Rainier Beach and points on Mercer.
Early Mercer Island, Seattle Public School Histories.

Boos was badly battered and bruised. He told a rather odd story. About 2 o’clock in the afternoon, he’d been working near the shoreline in front of his house when he heard a commotion out back. Boos rushed around the house where, he said, the door had been broken open. Inside, he found Joseph C. Smith, who threatened him with a shotgun. Boos desperately grabbed the barrel and they wrestled over the gun. He avoided a first blast, fired in the kitchen, and then they somehow ended up outside. After a good half hour of struggle, Boos said, “Smith managed to load the gun again; I don’t know how, and it was fired again and he was hit.”

But that story proved to be literally unbelievable. At the death scene, officers discovered a .38-caliber revolver on the ground, five or six feet from Smith’s body. It had been fired once. Where did that fit in?  They also found a single empty 12-gauge shotgun shell in the yard. But there was no sign that the gun had been fired anywhere inside the house. And even a cursory look showed that Smith had not been shot at close range. Boos tried several explanations of these discrepancies, none of which were very convincing. He probably blamed his lack of consistency on how badly he’d been beaten.

Authorities interviewed several people they thought might have relevant information, including Bailey and Smith’s ex-wife. The results showed that there was far more to the story than just “a fight.” Thus, six days after the shooting, King County prosecutors charged Boos with murder.

Boos held out for several weeks, but finally told an even more bizarre story. It was all Bailey’s doing. He had killed Smith and induced Boos to confess to the self-defense shooting. Boos first said that Bailey had hypnotized him into the confession. When that didn’t quite fly, he “admitted” that Bailey (not Smith) had beaten him up, and threatened to kill him.

As it happened, officers had also begun to suspect that there was something fishy about Bailey’s role in the incident. During different interviews, he had changed his account of key details on the day of the shooting. Beyond that, some of his statements conflicted with those of witnesses who had been in the general area. That included two who had seen him on the trail that led to the Boos place shortly after they saw Smith headed the same way. Bailey was arrested and charged with murder on the evening of June 22.

Boos had purchased the revolver from a Seattle pawn shop. The weapon had been delivered to his home around noon on the day of the shooting. Yes, I bought it, Boos said, but that was Bailey’s idea … to use it to kill Smith. Bailey admitted to being at the house when the gun was delivered, unwrapped, and loaded. But he denied everything else. From there, claims and counter-claims swirled into a maelstrom of contradictions.

A week after Bailey’s arrest, prosecutors hired Luke May to investigate further and try to reconstruct what actually happened. Together, May and the sheriff uncovered several oddities in the links among the three men. Born in Michigan, Boos had moved to Seattle around 1908 with his wife and daughter. He was about 53 years old at the time of the shooting.

Albert M. Bailey had been born in Kansas, moved to Seattle in 1914, and married two years after that. He was 43 years old in 1923. Smith being such a common name, it’s more difficult to learn a lot about Joseph C. He married during the summer of 1920 but was divorced within a couple years or so. Smith was 40 years old at the time of his death.

The common thread might have started with work at a shipyard. Bailey definitely had a shipyard job in 1920 and later, and Boos probably so. Smith was a skilled mold-maker and could have found work at a shipyard foundry. In any case, investigators uncovered evidence that the three were engaged in a joint bootlegging venture. There were other indications that Boos and Bailey, and perhaps even Smith, had been part of a conspiracy to burn down structures to collect the insurance money.

The revolver turned out to be something of a dead end. No one had been wounded by the weapon and it was not possible to locate the bullet that had been fired. Oddly enough, we have no information about where the other gun came from. Neither Smith nor Bailey carried a shotgun when they were seen on the path to Boos’s place. May identified it as a semi-automatic shotgun, which could hold four rounds in its magazine. Boos’s statement that Smith “somehow” reloaded after a claimed first shot would indicate that he knew nothing about how the weapon worked.

There was no mention of fingerprints on the shotgun. That would have been a key finding if they confirmed that Boos had grasped the barrel at an odd angle. Either officers had mishandled that piece of evidence (certainly possible in that era), or the weapon had been wiped clean.

May’s assessment showed that the shotgun had been fired from the door of the house, with light shot buried in the wall of a woodshed located against the back of the house. The coroner judged that Smith had been injured by the pellets that hit him, but those alone would not have been immediately fatal. He had, in the end, died by strangulation.

Both Boos and Bailey had cause to dislike or fear Smith. Before the shooting, Smith had told his lawyer that there had been at least two acts of arson on the island. He hoped soon to have more details. As it happened, some time earlier, fire had destroyed most of the Boos home and Smith had been helping rebuild it. But a few days before the shooting, Boos had the sheriff issue a writ to keep Smith off his property. Ironically, he claimed he wanted the order because Smith had a secret still on the island and kept bringing moonshine around.

Both men owed Smith money and had openly quarreled with him about it. Added to that, a few days before the shooting, Bailey argued with Smith about something, and Bailey’s wife had been knocked off a dock into the water.

The minutiae of what followed would not make interesting reading. Suffice to say, vague or conflicting evidence and muddled testimony from Boos were not enough for a jury to convict Bailey of anything.

When it was Boos’ turn, his lawyer arranged a deal to plead guilty to manslaughter, for which Boos received a sentence of 5 to 20 years in prison. Then, because of an earlier agreement in return for testifying against Bailey, he spent only three years in the penitentiary. Significantly, Boos was convicted of arson for burning down his Mercer Island home in 1931. He did not spend much time in prison for that, however. In late 1935, he was at home in Seattle and committed suicide.

We can never know exactly what happened on that fateful day in 1923. Still, the evidence suggests a few likely scenarios. We’ll go with the simplest, starting with Smith at the Boos place, alone with two men who had reason to want him out of the way.

Recall that Boos was basically clueless about the shotgun. Most likely then, Boos first tried to shoot Smith with the revolver. If he had no experience with a handgun, a miss was not unexpected, even from as close as five or six feet. (May would later discuss this kind of situation in his “true crime” column.) It is also at least plausible that the blast of noise and recoil caused him to lose his grip on the gun.

Bailey probably fired the shotgun as soon as he saw his partner’s attempt fail. The pellets incapacitated Smith enough so he could be choked to death. Boos was close by, while Bailey had shot from the door of the house. Thus, in this scenario, Boos pounced immediately on their victim. But Smith was fighting for his life … and severely battered his assailant before he died.

There’s no definitive way to explain the impossible account that Boos initially gave the sheriff. Before Boos turned himself in, he and Bailey surely concocted some sort of explanation that made sense. However, between his battered condition and the turmoil of the moment, Boos may have simply forgotten his lines. He then made up a story up on the spot, “improving” it with dramatic details. That was his undoing … at least to the extent of three years in prison.
References: “[Boos - Bailey - Smith News],” Seattle Times, Washington (May 1923 – December 1935).
Luke S. May, Luke S. May Papers, Special Collections, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington (1969).

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Yakima Love (?) Triangle

No one could, or would, say when the liaison that led to trouble started. After the incident, the person who might have explained … couldn’t, and her husband was dead. Their killer, quite naturally, told a story meant to save him from the gallows. But the ferment apparently came to a head at a community dance in the hamlet of Harrah, about fourteen mile south of Yakima, Washington.
Early Yakima Valley. Library of Congress.

Born and raised in Illinois, Claude Labbee married and fathered a daughter there. The family moved to the Yakima Valley around 1902, when Claude was about twenty-three. Soon after, the couple had a son. In the fall of 1919, Claude was involved in an altercation with a Yakima County deputy sheriff. The officer had come to retrieve Claude’s three-year-old nephew, who had been spirited out of Idaho in a divorce dispute. Claude, who apparently went armed on a regular basis, threatened the deputy with what newspapers called “a large revolver.” Then he simply drove off after allowing the officer to read the custody writ to him aloud. Reports said charges would be filed, but there was nothing in the news about any follow-up.

Claude did well enough to have his own farm operation by the time of the 1920 census, although the property was rented. His situation probably improved when his daughter married in the summer of that year.

Arthur and Odessa Wright, both born and raised in Iowa, married there in 1904. He was about twenty-four, she a year younger. Arthur ran a farm operation on leased land, with some success. The couple – they had no children – moved to the valley between 1910 and 1920. Whatever the initial arrangement, their spread near Harrah was mortgage-free by 1920.

On June 17, 1922, Arthur, Odessa, and Claude all attended a Saturday evening dance in Harrah. At some point, Claude asked Odessa for a dance. (His wife was apparently not there. She died in the Yakima hospital less than a year later.) Odessa refused, and Arthur saw something that led him to later declare that the real trouble started right then. The following Tuesday was warm and muggy, with temperatures in the high eighties under cloudy skies. That evening, apparently by pre-arrangement, Odessa met Claude near the Wright horse corral. The story of what happened next depends upon who did the telling.

Arthur Wright, in his dying statement, declared that Claude had shot him “as soon as he stepped out of the house.” Naturally, Claude said that Arthur opened fire first. Each man was hit three times, Arthur going down from his wounds. Then Claude turned and shot Odessa.

Local investigators never displayed a diagram of the crime scene, so the exact position of the victims is unclear. However, later testimony confirmed that Odessa fled the immediate scene when the shooting started. She was returning when Claude shot her. The consensus view was that he wanted to eliminate the only actual eye witness, but there might have been more to the story. The other potential witness was a hired hand working for Claude. He was not, however, close enough to have a good view in the gathering dusk. Nor do we have an adequate explanation of why he had accompanied his boss to the rendezvous.

Arthur suffered almost a week before he died from wounds in the leg, abdomen, and head. Most of that time he was too weak to say much. Odessa, hit in the forehead, remained coherent long enough to say that Claude had shot her and Arthur. She then lapsed into a coma from which she never recovered. (Doctors would not risk trying to remove the bullet in her brain.) A week after the affray, Claude was well enough to be released from the Yakima hospital to the county jail. The sheriff might have pushed that a bit because rumors suggested that neighbors might “come after” the shooter.

Records show that Luke May and another agent were in the valley at the end of August. (The file is rather skimpy for this old case, so it’s not clear exactly when he was hired.) In Yakima itself, no one seemed to know much. The agent “visited two cigar stands and card rooms” looking for information, but found only “passing and very general knowledge of the crime or its principals.” Of course, it’s quite possible that locals would not share more than that with an outsider.

Claude went on trial in mid-November for the murder of Arthur Wright. Testimony soon established that Claude and Odessa had been having an affair “for a number of years” prior to the shooting incident. Did Arthur suspect … and see something at the dance to confirm his suspicions? Or was Odessa trying to break it off? With Arthur dead and Odessa incapacitated, only Claude could have his say. He claimed that Odessa had asked him to come over to be a “peacemaker” between she and her husband. But he apparently could not quite recall what he was supposed to help make peace about.

The hired hand testified that Claude had been the aggressor in the shootout, and had promised him “a job for life” if he would say that Arthur fired first. But the jury must have judged him to be an unreliable witness. They decided that, with bullets flying both ways, Claude’s self-defense claim was justified. They issued a not guilty verdict the same day that Odessa Wright finally died from her head wound.

The acquittal aroused tremendous anger in the community. The sheriff received many anonymous phone calls expressing that rage. He had already received a note that said Claude would be lynched if he didn’t “get the limit” as a penalty. None of the callers made such threats, but rumors persisted after the acquittal.

A few weeks later, that anger was somewhat deflected when Claude was charged with murder in Odessa’s death. Claude had initially claimed that she had been hit by a stray bullet from her husband’s gun. But Arthur used a .32-caliber weapon, while Claude’s was a .25-caliber. After her death, examination quickly established that she had been hit by a .25-caliber slug. There’s no evidence that Luke was asked to specifically link the bullet to Claude’s weapon, probably because that wasn’t really needed.

The defense tried to claim that Odessa was wounded accidentally, “in the heat of the moment.” However, the trajectories of the various shots made that unlikely in the extreme. As suggested above, Claude probably wanted to eliminate the only eye witness to the shooting. In the process, he could also snuff out the one person who might reveal first-hand knowledge of their illicit affair.

The jury found Claude Labbee guilty of second-degree murder and he received a 10 to 25 year prison sentence.
References: Luke S. May, Luke S. May Papers, Special Collections, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington (1969).
State v. Labbee, 134 Wash. 55, 234 Pac. 1049 (1925).
“[Wright-Labbee News Items],” Daily Ledger, Tacoma, Seattle Times, Washington; The Oregonian, Portland (October 1919 – April 1925).

Friday, May 10, 2019

Murder on the Olympic Peninsula

Olympic Peninsula, Forest Structures.
National Park Service
Evening, March 25, 1922, a Saturday. The Discovery Bay Logging Camp, located about 12-15 miles southwest of Port Townsend, Washington, had been shrouded in darkness for an hour. The workers had no way to run into town and were amusing themselves in the dining/recreation hall as best they could. Logger Ray Light sat playing cards with some other men.

Suddenly, the door swung open, and two armed men entered. This was a stickup, one announced, and they should stand against the wall with their hands up. Some reports suggested that one robber almost immediately swung his weapon around and shot and killed Ray Light. During the trial, however, that proved to be erroneous. Instead, for some time, one gunman threatened the victims while his partner moved around the hall, emptying pockets and grabbing whatever else looked valuable.

Then someone outside the hall saw what was going on, grabbed a shotgun, and took a shot at the man on guard. He returned fire, and one bullet fatally wounded Ray Light. The bandits then fled into the dark forest.

The sheriff was notified, while Light's fellow workers were left to ponder his death. A native of Missouri, Light had become a sawmill worker while he was still in his teens. He moved to the northwest after 1910 and had enlisted in the Army from Ellensburg. After the war, he was stationed in Mayen, Germany as part of the Allied occupation forces. His regiment was inactivated at the end of 1921 and Light returned to find a job in Washington. He was about 32 years old when he was murdered.

The murder-robbery set off a tremendous manhunt, with posses scouring the area for clues and suspicious characters. As it happened, lawmen were already out on the prowl in the area. Coincidentally (as it turned out),  the day before the murder, two men had robbed the bank in Sequim, a town about eight miles from the logging camp.

Deputies now believed they were tracking, not “just” a pair of bank robbers, but also at least one killer. About a week later, deputies confronted two suspicious strangers near a bridge about fourteen miles south of the camp. When one man made a break under the bridge, a deputy shot and wounded him so badly he died two days later.

But these fugitives carried loot only from the bank. They had nothing from the logging camp and denied any part in that incident. Now faced with two separate incidents, a question of jurisdiction arose. Was the logging camp in Clallam or Jefferson County? A surveyor was rushed into the dense forest, and he found that the camp was west of the county line.

Authorities then hired private criminologist Luke S. May to sort out the evidence. May’s initial typed log entry said “Sequim bank robbery, fingerprints.” Next to that was the hand-written addendum: “Ray Light murder, Clallam Co.”

He did not have a lot to go on. One bandit had worn a mask most, if not all of the time, he was in sight of the victims. The other was masked at least part of the time. Thus, eye-witnesses were a bit vague in describing the men’s features. They were, however, able to provide good accounts of the intruders’ clothing, build, and movements. May did have the death bullet but, a fortnight after the incident, definite fingerprint evidence at the crime scene was hard to come by.

Finally, nearly three weeks after the murder, deputies captured two men who answered the descriptions. They had made their way to a run-down forest cabin about 65 miles to the west. They had with them several items stolen from the loggers … along with four revolvers. Soon after, many victims positively identified the men as the bandits.

The two initially gave fake names to authorities, but went on trial under the names Thomas H.  Riley and Charles Butt. Both listed their occupations as loggers and belonged to the radical International Workers of the World union (IWW). Two years earlier, Butt was incarcerated in Spokane, having been jailed in 1919.

Butt was then secretary of the IWW local in Spokane. The overall issues involving the IWW are far beyond our scope here. However, there was no doubt that some IWW locals openly advocated illegal acts to support their cause. That included arson and bombing, key thefts to hamper a business, and harassment and physical violence against those who hindered their activities. Butt was sent to jail for such advocacy.

Riley’s location in 1920 was unclear because he had been charged with similar activities in Aberdeen, Washington, and had fled the area. Accounts of the trial do not say why the two chose to rob a bunch of poorly-paid loggers at a remote forest location. They gleaned only a few hundred dollars from the roughly fifty men in the hall.

Sadly, my research did not include a copy of Luke May’s full report for this case. But by the spring of 1922, May had handled at least forty death cases. Three-quarters of those involved firearms in some way. For several cases, he had used “individual characteristics” – microscopic scratches and impressions – to identify a particular death weapon.

He surely used those techniques to determine which of the four guns carried by Riley and Butt had killed Light. Fingerprints would have then verified that Riley had been using that weapon. The two were convicted and sentenced to life.

But the story does not quite end there. In late 1922, someone slipped hacksaw blades to the two in the Port Angeles jail. They cut through one bar and Butt – aided by soap on his body – slithered through and escaped. Riley was apparently too big to get between the bars. Despite a snowstorm that hampered the pursuit, Butt was eventually recaptured. In early 1943, the Washington governor commuted their life sentences, but it’s not entirely clear when, or if, they were actually released.
References: “Langlie Pardons Astound Some,” Seattle Times, Washington (January 25, 1943).
“[Logging Camp Robbery-Murder],” Seattle Times, Tacoma Ledger, Washington; The Oregonian, Portland (April 15 - December 6, 1922).
Luke S. May, Luke S. May Papers, Special Collections, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington (1969).
“[Sequiam Bank Robbery],” Bellingham Herald, Olympian, Seattle Times, Washington (April 1-3, 1922).
State v. Riley, 126 Wash. 256, 218 Pac. 238 (1923).

Thursday, May 9, 2019

How We Got Here

Caroline Filby
After graduating from San Jose State University, my wife Caroline and I both went on for graduate degrees from New Mexico State University. I attained a Ph.D., she a Masters degree – both in chemistry. Then, for about thirty years, we had “day jobs,” I as a research scientist and project manager, while Caroline was a laboratory supervisor.

But, for various reasons, we chose to retire early and indulge our urge to travel. Much of that took us to historical places, mostly in the state of Idaho. As we visited sites and browsed museum book racks, it struck me that none offered anything about the cowboy (specifically, “buckaroo”) heritage of the state. I did eventually find three, all of which focused on just the “Owyhee Country” (the county in Idaho and across the state line into Oregon).

To make a long story short, I decided to write the book I could not find. By the time I had most of the book written, I had also collected a huge amount of research material. I therefore created a web page – the original South Fork Revue – and, in September 2009, the South Fork Companion blog. On those venues, I posted a lot of information that I had gleaned with all that research.

That soon put me in touch with fellow history buff Skip Myers. Back then, Skip and his wife owned a grocery store and café in Idaho City, plus a small grocery outlet in Placerville. The sesquicentennial of the first settlements (gold mining camps) in the Boise Basin was coming up in 2012. But Skip discovered that he had nothing to sell that described the history of the gold camps and what came after.

To compress another long story: While I continued to peddle my buckaroo book to publishers, I – with Skip’s input – wrote and assembled Boise Basin Gold Country. Because of the tight timeline, I went straight into self-publishing through the CreateSpace print-on-demand service. At our first big book event, in Skip’s café, we signed over seventy copies.

Later, we did a book signing in New Centerville, about five miles from Idaho City and a couple miles southwest of the original Centerville. Centerville/New Centerville was once a thriving area with around 4,000 people. Now hardly anyone lives there and New Centerville is basically an old weathered railway station. The book has continued to sell steadily ever since.
Skip and I at the New Centerville Book signing.

The process went so well for Gold Country, I then chose to also publish Before the Spud through CreateSpace. But I still had all this material, and 2013 was the sesquicentennial of the creation of Idaho Territory. So, for that event, I created and self-published Idaho: Year One.

With three books out under my personal imprint, I started this second blog, then titled Sourdough Publishing. As noted earlier, I posted items from Year One on this blog, along with information about the books.

Through all this, I kept adding material to the South Fork Companion. One such item was: America’s Sherlock Holmes – Innovative Forensic Detective Luke May, posted on his birth date, December 2.

During my research for that article, I discovered the significant role May had played in the development of scientific methods of crime investigation. Scans of newspaper from back then also highlighted just how much of a celebrity he was in his day. So… Why was there no biography of this fellow?

An exchange of e-mails and phone calls with his granddaughter, Mindi Reid, revealed that a writer (in Seattle, as I recall) was working on such a project. That fell through, but another writer took up the task. All this time, I was working on my three books.

But finally, with Idaho: Year One out, I called Mindi and asked, “How’s that biography going?” Answer: “It isn’t.” The second writer had also abandoned the project. I won’t speculate on a reason. However, the fact that it took me about three years of research and writing to have a “product” may have something to do with that.

When Rowman & Littlefield agreed to publish the book, I began to gear up ways to reach readers. One thread was to revamp my original South Fork Revue, which I had “put on the back burner.” That’s when I discovered that my ISP had taken it down, as part of a policy of removing a free personal web page from the membership package.

Exploring that event further seems rather pointless, so I won’t go there. But that’s when I decided to re-purpose this blog rather than try to pick a new web host and start a site from scratch. On the main page (which I have made “sticky”), I’ll keep you updated on the status of the new book, and other projects I start.

Beyond that, I have (literally) dozens of Luke May cases that I could not fit into the book. Anyone interested in scientific crime investigation or just “true crime” stories, should find plenty to like when I get that going.