Sunday, December 20, 2020

Since retiring many years ago from my "day job," I have completed and published four books:  
Boise River Gold Country
Before the Spud: Indians, Buckaroos, and Sheepherders in Pioneer Idaho
Idaho: Year One – The Territory's First Year
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 at the top. 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 (mostly) Idaho history on the South Fork Companion. Here, I am posting items related to forensic science, “true crime,” and American Sherlock, the biography of 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.

Of course, American Sherlock is about May. Thus, the book focuses on his 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.
    Murder on the Olympic Peninsula       Yakima Love (?) Triangle   
Mercer Island Murder Shooting Death in Pasco
Almost a Triple Murder    Snoqualmie Valley Shootout    
Lawless Men, Violent Deeds Ambush in Algona
Obsession Leads To Murder Crooks Follow The Money Too
The Rosebud County Sniper Murder On A Train
Puzzling Countryside Murders Shades of the Old West
Sad End of a Long March Jealousy – Even Justified – Is A Deadly Sin

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, October 15, 2019

Jealousy – Even Justified – Is A Deadly Sin

Weather in Port Townsend, Washington for the weekend before Christmas of 1930 was “normal.” That is, they had temperatures in the forties, with occasional blustery wind and rain showers from the somber overcast. Lulu Hilsinger decided to lighten the mood. Husband George was off at nearby Fort Worden, doing whatever an Army warrant officer did on a Sunday afternoon when he had to work. She most likely persuaded her two children, aged sixteen and eight, to go visit friends.
Fort Worden, Washington

Then she and her friend Shirley invited their boyfriends over. We have no photos of Lulu, but she was clearly an attractive woman. Despite her age (she was 42 years old) and the children, she had gained the fond attentions of Homer Cameron, a local carpenter who was just 24 years old. Shirley, ten years younger than Lulu, was also married, but separated from her husband. She too had attracted a youthful admirer, a soldier who was a year younger than Cameron.

The couples danced and, at times, Shirley played current romantic tunes on a piano while everyone sang along. It’s unclear how long this had been going on when George walked in unexpectedly. He became livid with anger and ordered Cameron out of the house.

Cameron may have hesitated too long, so the soldier went after him with his fists. But George, almost fifty years old and in shaky health, lost. In fact, he received a black eye for his troubles. With humiliation added to anger, George began shouting curses and threats at Lulu. The two young men tried to hold him back, but he broke free and started at her. She later claimed that she called out a warning, but the others could not recall one way or another. Then Lulu shot, hitting him in the forehead with a .32-caliber bullet. He died almost instantly.

Military officials opened a brief inquiry having to do with family benefits, but civil authorities  carried on after that. Lulu was charged with first degree murder, and prosecutors scheduled her trial to begin in mid-March, 1931.

Lulu Traylor was born in July 1888, in Louisiana. She married Chester H. Peters in McLennan County, Texas (near Waco), in October 1911. Peters was white, so that entailed some risk and/or subterfuge. At that time, most southern and some northern states strictly enforced laws against interracial marriages. And for both the 1900 and 1910 censuses, Lulu and her family were identified as persons of color – “mulatto” in the 1910 census. But Lulu could successfully “pass” for white (she would be listed as white in later censuses).

Chester and Lulu had their first child, a boy, in 1913. Chester worked for the railroad and moved around, so their daughter was born in San Antonio, in January 1921. But some time after that, the couple divorced, with Lulu retaining custody of the two kids.

We don’t know when or where she met George Hilsinger, a long-time veteran of the U.S. Army. Born around 1882 in New Hampshire, George enlisted in August 1905. Available records don’t say where he spent World War I, but he was at a base in Wisconsin in 1920. He was then married, but must have divorced not long after that.

Records show that Hilsinger did have duty stations in Texas, so that is presumably where he met and married Lulu. The family lived in the Philippines from late 1922 until the summer of 1924. On the return trip, Lulu told the boarding agent that she was 29 years old, trimming about six years off her age.

But all was not well in the Hilsinger household, and the couple divorced some time in the next year or so. Still, the two worked things out and they remarried in April 1928. At that time, George was stationed at Fort Worden, a coastal defense and training station. Lulu remained consistent for the 1930 census taker, giving her age as 35 (she was actually over 41).

Despite the apparent reconciliation, acquaintances reported that the couple quarreled a lot. There also seemed to be evidence of physical as well as verbal abuse. Later, Lulu would assert that she was again considering divorce.

The death weapon naturally became a matter of interest. “Some weeks” before the shooting, Cameron had tried to give Lulu an automatic pistol. One may presume he wanted her to have some protection against George’s abuse. But Lulu apparently refused to keep the gun around. On the day of the shooting, Cameron had the pistol in his coat pocket. He naturally set his coat aside at the start of the party. When the fistfight began, Lulu retrieved the weapon, fearing what might happen … rightly, as it turned out.

When the case came to trial, Lulu’s attorneys pled temporary insanity, and self-defense. Oddly enough, criminologist Luke May logged this case as a handwriting assessment, not a firearms investigation. (Prosecutors must have already had all they needed for the weapon.) May was hired to examine recent letters to Lulu that had supposedly been written by George when he was away on an extended trip. Luke verified that they were indeed from husband to wife.

Lulu basically claimed that she panicked because her husband had previously been cruel to her, inflicting physical as well as mental harm. And she had proof of that, including at least one broken leg or ankle. The prosecution countered with George’s letters, which were apparently warm and affectionate.

Beyond that, prosecutors pointed out the odd circumstances involving the death weapon. And Lulu certainly was “fooling around” on her husband, although it was unclear if she and Cameron had a sexual relationship. In the end, the jury found her guilty of second-degree murder.

Then the case went to the state Supreme Court on appeal. That court found several questionable factors in how the prosecution handled the case. But the critical problem came in the instructions from the judge to the jury. As required by law, the judge outlined the legal criteria necessary to find a defendant guilty of first-degree murder, versus second-degree murder. The key difference was “premeditation,” or lack thereof.

However, early in his instructions, the judge said, “The killing of a human being is murder in the second degree when committed … without premeditation.” In doing so, he left out some crucial wording from the statute: “unless it is excusable or justifiable.” The judge did mention the notion of “justifiable” in his later summing up. However, the Supreme Court decided his approach only served to confuse the jury. The court reversed the verdict and sent the case back for retrial.

Because of all the publicity for the first trial, a change of venue was granted. The new jury heard the same evidence, including the indications of Lulu’s unfaithfulness. From that, they could sympathize with George’s anger. But his past abuse, plus his seeming to “fly off the handle” also gave them reason to believe that his wife had good cause to fear bodily harm. Weighing all the factors, the jury found her “not guilty” of murder, acknowledging her right to “stand her ground” in the face of an imminent physical attack.

During the protracted legal battle, Lulu had sent her children back to Texas to live with relatives. After the ordeal, she returned there and found a job as a waitress. She also reverted to her first married name of “Peters.”
References: “[Hilsinger Shooting],” Daily Olympian, Olympia, Seattle Times, Bellingham Herald, Washington; The Oregonian, Portland, Oregon  (December 1930 – October 1932).
Luke S. May, Luke S. May Papers, Special Collections, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington (1969).
Charles Frank Robinson II, Dangerous Liaisons: Sex and Love in the Segregated South, The University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville (2009).
State v. Hilsinger, 167 Wash. 427, 9 P.2d 357 (March 29, 1932).
Photo credit: Fort Worden Site & Facilities Plan, Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission, Olympia, Washington (August 2008).

Friday, October 4, 2019

Sad End of a Long March

November 26, 1921, the Saturday after Thanksgiving, was overcast and chilly in Wenatchee, Washington. Temperatures were in the high forties, but the showers of the previous few days had blown on through. Jacob Weber’s hearing wasn’t so good any more and he walked with a cane, but he was pretty spry for a man approaching 78 years of age. He decided to go for a late afternoon walk. Jacob had tramped successfully through years of what most consider the deadliest war in U.S. history. This march – walk – would not end so well.

Sadly, a tragically wrong rumor, perhaps no more than a casual remark, fueled what happened. For some time, a youth gang had been meeting at a local pool hall to plan thefts – burglaries and outright robberies. Money was the obvious motivation, but some seemed to be in it mostly for the thrills. On this afternoon, two of the group (there might have been a third) decided to check out the notion that the old guy visiting from Nebraska was carrying a lot of cash.

Picking an empty bit of street near where Jacob was staying, they confronted him and demanded his money. Jacob could tell from the voices and builds that the would-be robbers were mere boys (they wore only rudimentary masks). Not intimidated, he immediately whacked the nearest one with his cane. Stunned at the unexpected resistance, the bandits backed off and started to run away. Then, surely out of spite at the humiliation, one turned and fired three shots, hitting Jacob once in the midriff.

Jacob reached the local hospital alive, but there was little hope for his survival. He did manage to give passable descriptions – clothing, build, hair, etc. – of at least two of his assailants. In a sad, bitter scrap of irony, the juvenile criminals were about the same age as Jacob had been when he joined the crusade to save the Union and end slavery.

Jacob Weber was born on January 15, 1844 in Ripley County, Indiana, an area of scattered settlements in the southeast corner of the state. After his father died in 1856, the boy was apprenticed as a cigar maker, which would set the main course of his life.
Jacob Weber, ca 1862. Family Archives

Before that life could begin, however, Jacob enlisted in the Seventh Indiana Infantry for duty in the Civil War. Just seventeen years old, he marched off to war with youthful hope and optimism. The Seventh Indiana fought in all the great battles in the east, including Antietam, Gettysburg, and the Siege of Petersburg. By the end, even after consolidation with other remnants, only a company-sized contingent remained on active duty. Jacob was among the fortunate few who were still there to witness the surrender of General Lee’s Confederate army at Appomattox Courthouse.

It’s unknown what Jacob did for the early years after the war. However, on November 9, 1871 he married Eva Egelhoff. Two or three years later, they moved to Pawnee City, Nebraska, about 58 miles southeast of Lincoln. Jacob started a cigar-making business, and he and Eva would live there until early 1921.

Jacob and Eva had three children who survived to adulthood. Their son, William, married in 1893, but the couple had no children and the wife died in the fall of 1919. In 1920, he was back in Pawnee City. Daughters Lula and May Carrie married and between them gave Jacob and Eva a grandson and three granddaughters. In 1920, Lula’s family lived in Dodge City, Kansas, while May Carrie’s family was in Wenatchee, Washington.

In February of 1921, William married again. The ceremony was performed in Wenatchee, and it seems almost certain that Jacob and Eva attended the wedding. Eva’s health had deteriorated and they hoped “a more agreeable climate” might help. Apparently it did, because she was able to attend a “Nebraskans in Washington” reunion in April.

The family also began planning a Golden Anniversary celebration for Jacob and Eva in Wenatchee. Daughter Lula even came from Dodge City to help with the arrangements. Sadly, Eva’s health took a turn for the worse and the great day came and went. She was still bed-ridden when Jacob went for his fateful walk.

Right after the shooting, police rounded up seven members of the youth gang, which they had been keeping an eye on anyway. Shocked at the sudden change, several of those held began blurting out confessions to robberies around the area. Two names eventually emerged which, for reasons that will become clear, we will call Tom and Dick.

The older of the two, Dick, had been born in Chelan county. He was about 16 years old and his family had always lived in, or within a day’s travel of, Wenatchee. Tom, the slightly younger youth, had been born in Oregon, but the family had moved to Wenatchee by 1907. Those local connections would become an important factor in subsequent events.

Jacob Weber died three days after he was shot. Shortly after that, his wife awoke in her sickbed, and asked desperately to see him. Family members managed to calm her, but she surely sensed the worst … and soon passed away herself. A double funeral was held in Wenatchee on December 2. Then the bodies were transported to Pawnee City and buried side by side in the cemetery there.

Tom and Dick were charged with murder and went on trial in April, 1922. Prosecutors probably sensed they had an uphill battle. Newspapers repeatedly emphasized that the suspects were “just boys.” Few wanted to believe that two “kids” from well-known local families could do such a terrible thing.

Jacob’s dying words, and witnesses who had seen the two near the murder site, pointed to Tom as the shooter. Criminologist Luke S. May appeared on the stand to identify the kind of gun used. However, the death weapon was never found, and officials failed to find any witness willing to say that Tom owned a weapon.

One of May’s agents provided testimony that should have been the clincher. He had gone to jail posing as a safe cracker and mingled with the prisoners. Tom not only admitted shooting the old man, he showed off the mark where the veteran had smacked him with his cane.

The defense made little effort to counter any of that. They went straight to an alibi. Their witnesses claimed to have seen the two downtown, well away from the robbery site, at the time of the shooting. None could offer any hard evidence – a purchase receipt, perhaps – to support their contentions, but they were “sure” when they had seen the boys. Still, under cross-examination, one such witness admitted that Tom’s grandmother had pressured her into changing her time recollection to more closely fit the preferred story. That should have seriously shaken the defense, but was apparently shrugged off.

In fact, according to post-trial accounts, the jury never even considered the first degree murder indictment. They finally split on a lesser charge, so a new trial began in June. The opening defense statement set their confident tone. Despite the obvious instance of witness tampering, they would again rely on the time alibi. Also, the defense would show “that neither boy admitted any knowledge of the shooting to reputable citizens of the city.”

May’s agent had posed as a criminal to obtain key information. That entailed considerable risk to himself, since police informers sometimes end up dead. But … he was an outsider and even ordinary folks seemed to consider the practice somehow disreputable. The second jury brought in a “not guilty” verdict.

Tom, the admitted shooter, managed to stay out of the news for a time. However, later reports suggest he may have engaged in petty theft throughout the following years. He did get married in the spring of 1925, and fathered two daughters over the next few years. The girls did not see a lot of their father, however, because he spent the time in and out of jail. That included at least one grand larceny charge, to which he pled guilty. At the time of the 1930 census, he was confined at the state reformatory.

Tom made the news in a big way in 1931. Events included a jailbreak (he was soon captured), at least two forgery counts, and, finally, a trip to the state penitentiary. We don’t know how long he spent in prison, but his wife divorced him some time before 1937. The last reliable public record for him was in Missoula, Montana in 1943, when a second wife obtained an annulment.

In one small sense, Jacob’s sad death was perhaps not totally in vain. After the trial, Dick also stayed out of the news. But unlike Tom’s probable rap sheet, records show that Dick settled down to work on his father’s farm northwest of Wenatchee. In 1931, he married and began raising a family. After the repeal of Prohibition, he opened a tavern and game room in the area. He registered for the draft in 1942 and may have served some time in the Marines.
References: Frederick H. Dyer, A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion, Part 4, The Dyer Publishing Company, Des Moines, Iowa (1908).
Luke S. May, Luke S. May Papers, Special Collections, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington (1969).
“[News Relevant to Weber Murder],” Lincoln Journal, Lincoln Star, Nebraska; The Olympian, Olympia, Spokesman-Review, Spokane, Leavenworth Echo, Spokane Chronicle, Bellingham Herald, Chehalis Bee-Nugget, Washington; The Oregonian, Portland (April 1921 – July 1931).

Friday, September 27, 2019

Shades of the Old Wild West

The weather was chilly in remote Okanogan County, Washington on November 17, 1936, with nighttime temperatures below freezing in the high country. Trouble that had been brewing for quite some time came to a head in the afternoon. Stockman Bob Neil had discovered a number of his steers mingled with those of his son-in-law, Robert Minton. Bad blood had developed between Neil and the Mintons soon after Robert had married Bob’s daughter Margaret. Much of that seemed to have been fomented by Robert’s father, Charles Robert, often referred to as “C.R.”

No one could tell if Bob’s stock had been “encouraged” to wander, but now he asked a neighbor to help him “cut the critters out of the herd.” The neighbor did not have a horse right then, but said he’d come along on foot to drift animals back towards Bob’s range.

Not long after Bob rode on ahead, the neighbor heard a flurry of gunshots. Moments later, the cattleman came back. He stated that C.R. had apparently been waiting for him, and ordered Bob off “his” land. Bob complied, but either didn’t move fast enough or perhaps took the wrong route. Thus, C.R. cut him off along the trail and started at him, brandishing a large butcher knife. Bob produced a revolver and, when C.R. refused to back down, shot him four times. The wounded man died shortly after medical help arrived.

Robert H. Neil was born March 26, 1873, somewhere in Texas. He thus grew to manhood during the period when the so-called “Wild West” era flourished and then faded. (Historians consider 1895 as roughly the end of that era.) Thus, this affray on the range quite likely evoked a sense of tragic déjà vu
Tunk Creek Scenery. Real Estate photo.

Bob Neil first appeared in public records in 1909, when he filed on a homestead in Okanogan County, near Tunk Creek. Tiny Riverside was about five miles to the southwest, but the nearest city of any size, Spokane, was over 110 miles away. The holding included Bob Neal Lake as a water source and proved suitable for stock raising. (Over the years, different reports would alternative between the two spellings of the last name.)

Neil married and began raising a family in 1916, when he was over forty years old. Daughter Margaret married Robert Minton in April 1935; she was 18 years old, he was 21.

Robert (actually “Charles Robert,” like his father) was born near Los Angeles. His father had been born in Salem, Oregon, in 1894. He studied briefly at Willamette University, but married Ada Leggett in 1913. They moved to Los Angeles within a few years. There, C.R. tried his hand as a blacksmith, salesman, waiter, restaurant operator, and wholesale flower raiser. By 1930, C.R. and Ada had four sons, including Robert, Jr.

The Minton family moved to Washington after 1930, but it’s unclear exactly when. Nor do we know how Margaret and Robert met. Soon after Margaret and Robert got married, Bob Neil had turned over a small herd of cattle to the couple. Details of the accompanying contract are unknown, but they were to share costs and profits from the venture. The deal became a bone of contention almost immediately. Reports note that C.R. and Robert filed “numerous” lawsuits against Bob, and even started proceedings to have him declared insane.

All of that failed, but Margaret told her father that they still had plans “to drive him off his Tunk Creek homestead.” In fact, in January 1936, after less than nine months of marriage, Margaret filed for divorce. However, the couple somehow patched things up and she did not follow through at that time.

The harassment continued, C.R. taking the lead. In fact, the elder Minton proved himself to be a contentious fellow all around. That fall, a few weeks before the situation exploded, a neighbor gave C.R. a ride, headed into Riverside. Then, for reasons known only to himself, C.R. began to bad-mouth the driver’s son-in-law. The diatribe escalated to the point that the driver finally told C.R. to get out and walk.

Now, of course, his argumentative nature had gotten him shot and killed. A hearing quickly freed Bob on his plea of self-defense. However, a second hearing was called when C.R.’s widow made the claim that the cattleman had planted the knife at the scene. That assertion could not be verified, so authorities again dropped the murder charge. However, evidence did show that C.R. had been shot with a revolver, not a rifle, as Bob had initially stated. This information was surely provided by criminologist Luke S. May, who logged this case as a firearms investigation.

Bob admitted that he had indeed used a handgun. Oddly enough, although Bob served at times as a deputy sheriff, he did not have a weapons permit for the revolver. In fact, testimony would confirm that it was only a coincidence that Bob had the gun with him. Earlier on the day of the shooting, he had basically confiscated the revolver from his oldest son, who worked for a nearby cattleman. The son didn’t have a permit either, but liked to carry the gun out on the range, apparently just for the glamor of the thing. Bob spent five months in jail on the weapons charge. And that seemed to be the end of it.

However, a year after the shooting, newspapers reported that the Washington state attorney general had opened his own investigation. That action was quickly identified as a test of a statute recently passed by the state legislature. The new law allowed the state office to proceed when they thought local authorities had made an error. Reporters soon learned that officials in Olympia had received several anonymous letters, purporting to offer “new evidence” about the case.

Finally, in late March 1938, the AG demanded that local officials file a first degree murder charge against Robert H. Neil. The county prosecutor said, basically, “Sure … after you show us this new evidence.” Taking full advantage of the new law, the state filed the charge themselves. So far as one can tell now, state officials never did share the information that led to their preemptive action. In fact, there seems have been no effort made to identify the source(s) of the letters.

At the subsequent trial, witnesses split on whether or not Bob Neil had actually threatened to “get” C.R. Minton. One or two said he did. More said he expressed anger and frustration about Minton’s harassment, but made no threats of bodily harm. Of course, Bob had already admitted to shooting the victim. It does not appear that the defense raised the issue of how Neil could get a fair trial, given the huge publicity generated by the state’s actions.

In any case, the jury issued a guilty verdict – perhaps deciding that four gunshots were just too many for a case of simple self-defense. Neil was sentenced to life in prison. A week later, Bob said he would not have his lawyers contest the verdict, although he was sure they’d win an appeal. He told a reporter, “I am an old man, and I’m tired.” He was, of course, 65 years old at that point. Moreover, three years of almost nonstop litigation, first against the Mintons and then in criminal court, had left him flat broke. He died five years later.

The result devastated the Neil family. Less than two weeks after Bob’s no-appeal declaration, Margaret was granted a divorce from her husband. Where she went after that can not be determined. At the 1940 census, Bob’s wife was listed as an “inmate” at the Okanogan County Poor House. The oldest son, working as a poorly-paid cowboy and farm hand, could do nothing to help her. She died in 1947. The youngest son simple disappeared from available public records.

The Minton family gained nothing from the dispute either. All but the youngest son returned to Los Angeles to eke out meager livings during and after the war. The youngest apparently went to live with relatives in Oregon or southwestern Washington.
References: Luke S. May, Luke S. May Papers, Special Collections, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington (1969).
“[Neil-Minton Shooting News],” Seattle Times, Bellingham Herald, Spokesman-Review, Spokane, Washington (January 1936 – July 1938).
David Wilma, “Okanogan County — Thumbnail History,” Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History,, Seattle, Washington (January 21, 2006).

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Puzzling Countryside Murders

Double-killer Paul Staren was a deadly enigma. He was apparently born around 1885, in a part of Poland then controlled by Russia. If his later statements can be believed, he came to the U.S. in 1914. That was perhaps to avoid being mobilized to fight for Russia in World War I. However, immigration records for that general period do not list any matches to “Paul Staren,” “Paul Staroń,” or any reasonable variant. (“Staroń,” is a known Polish surname, while “Staren” is not.) Thus, one may infer that Staren might not have been his real name.

Staren’s first five years in the U.S. are another mystery. In fact, nothing about his life before the summer of 1919 can be verified. We do know he was a fervent Anarchist with Bolshevik leanings. He also became a strong supporter of the International Workers of the World union, the “Wobblies,” an organization with deep Anarchist roots. And, at some point, he made his way to the Pacific Northwest. There, his only known employment was as a transient laborer. He blamed a skewed foot on an injury incurred preparing grade for a new stretch of railroad.
Paul Staren. Seattle Star News Photo.

Staren also did farm work near places like Othello, Washington. In 1920, Othello existed mainly because the railroad needed a watering stop. The nearest town of any size was Yakima, about 66 miles to the west-southwest. The Harry Gregg ranch, east of Othello, was even more remote. Yet on the evening of September 29, a masked stranger appeared at their door. He brandished an automatic pistol, tied Harry to a chair, and ordered Mrs. Gregg about in what sounded like a Germanic accent.

When Harry squirmed to loosen his bonds, the intruder shot him three times, then stabbed him. Mrs. Gregg tried to protect her husband, so the assailant shot her too. Still, she managed to attack him with a chair. Then, when he turned to flee, she marked the back of the head with a chunk of concrete. Despite her wounds, Mrs. Gregg got the word out and, by the next morning, bands of armed men were combing the hills for the shooter. Despite all that, the fugitive vanished.

Born in Missouri, in 1880, Harry Gregg moved to Washington some time after 1900. He was appointed postmaster of the Othello post office in 1906, the same year he married Essie May Chavis. It’s not clear how long he remained postmaster, but in 1910 he was buyer for a grain company. By 1920, the couple owned the ranch outside of Othello and had two sons and two daughters. Sadly, the children lost their father on October 2, 1920. Luckily, Essie Gregg recovered from her wounds. A total of $3,000 in rewards was offered for leads, but nothing came of that.

A strange event in late October offered short-lived hope. Authorities discovered the body of a man who had shot himself floating in the Columbia River just 20 miles from Othello. His clothing, general appearance, and age matched the killer “in every detail.” However, he had shot himself with a cheap .38-caliber revolver. By now, criminologist Luke S. May had identified the Gregg death weapon as a .25-20 automatic pistol. A couple weeks after the body was found, the suicide victim was proved to not be the shooter. The case went cold at that point.

The breakthrough began two years later, at the Joseph Bongiorni ranch near Wilson Creek. About 40 miles due north of the Gregg tragedy, the Wilson Creek place was even further from any large town. Spokane, the closest, was about 80 miles away.

Originally from Italy, the Bongiorni family immigrated to the U.S. in 1900-1903, settling first in Connecticut. August Bongiorni, fourth child of Antonio and Teresa, was born there in April 1905. Five years later, the couple – with a brood that had grown to seven – were living on a farm about 14 miles northeast of Everett, Washington. The household included Antonio’s brothers, Joseph and John.

Joseph, Antonio, Teresa, and the children moved to Wilson Creek within a year or so. But Antonio died in early 1915. Joseph must have married his brother’s widow soon after that, because they had two children in the three years following. By 1920, they would have had quite a large family at home.

Paul Staren worked for Joe Bongiorni during the haying season of 1919, and may have done so again in 1921. For 1922, we know that he had a job in August and early September at a ranch about 25 miles southwest Spokane. The rancher’s teenage daughter told a reporter that she had talked to him a number of times. She found him rather scary: “The mere mention of government or religion would send him into a fury.”

In any case, on the evening of September 19, a man wearing a rudimentary mask strode into the yard of the Bongiorni ranch. He never explained why he shot and instantly killed seventeen-year-old August. Perhaps he was simply keyed up. When Joseph rushed out to see what was going on, the intruder shot him three times. He emptied his automatic into the ranch house door, then tried to drag a daughter outside. But, as in the Gregg instance, the mother drove him off with an impromptu club. The ranch had no phone, so one of the sons rode for help.

Again, armed men went out in force to track the shooter. Finally, a railroad conductor spotted him near a train stop about ten miles east of the ranch. Taken into custody, Paul Staren freely admitted that he had shot August Bongiorni. He said he actually meant to kill Joe, although he expressed no particular regret that he’d got the wrong victim. Under state law, a confessed murderer had to undergo a trial, allowing a jury to assess the evidence and decide between a prison sentence or death.

The only real surprise came when widow Essie Gregg appeared to finger Staren as the man who killed her husband two years before. She apparently saw press photos and recognized him from the exposed upper part of his face. One clincher was a scar on the back his head, which she had inflicted with the thrown chunk of concrete. Also, although authorities apparently did not have Luke May do a microscopic bullet comparison, the make and model of the .25-20 death weapon matched that of the Gregg shooting. Staren conceded nothing, but did not deny the shooting either.

The jury chose the death penalty, but Staren cheated the public hangman. A few weeks before his scheduled execution, he hanged himself with a strip from his bed sheet.

His death left two mysteries unsolved. He did seem to have a set modus operandi (MO). Both locations were far from large towns, where there might be professional law enforcement. The target ranches were isolated and neither had telephone service. Yet both were within two or three miles of a rail line. That was how Staren tried to get away after the Bongiorni hit, and almost certainly how he escaped after the Gregg murder.

In any case, the most obvious puzzle was his motive. Why did he kill? He said nothing about the Gregg murder, of course. He claimed Joe Bongiorni had shorted him on his pay back in 1919 … all of $5-6 out of a few hundred dollars. Who would commit murder over that? Besides that, Joe’s wife remembered Staren, but could not recall any dispute over wages.

Perhaps Staren saw Harry and Joe as personifications of hated religion and oppressive authority. Joe was the patriarch of a large family, and committed to the Roman Catholic church. The Gregg family was smaller, but still included a wife and four minor children. And the Greggs were apparently strong adherents of the Churches of Christ. In 1906, they had traveled over 60 miles to be married by an Elder in Ritzville … no small matter since Othello had no railroad service at that time.

Such a “psychological” motive is only speculation. But at least it offers a reason, however warped, for murders that otherwise make no sense.

The second mystery has to do with Staren’s financial situation. He carried bank books that showed at least two fairly recent deposits of over a thousand dollars each. After his death, authorities were able to locate and verify an estate of around $1,116. In terms of today’s pay scales, that’s equivalent to over $65,000 … roughly four times what a minimum-wage employee now earns annually. Even after Staren became known to authorities, he was never implicated in any major hold-ups or burglaries. How could a man typically earning just $2-4 a day at short-duration jobs accumulate so much money?

A year after the Bongiorni murder, an arsonist set fire to five huge stacks of alfalfa at the ranch. The entire season’s production went up in smoke, leaving the family practically destitute. The close timing – “almost to the hour” when August was shot the year before – made people wonder if the two events were somehow connected. Staren might have been part of some dark conspiracy, which paid him for sabotage or murder. Was this their revenge?

In the end, we have no answers to any of these questions.
References: Census and immigration records, city directory listings, and other genealogical sources were consulted extensively. Online sources included and others.
“[Bongiorni Murder News],” Seattle Star, Seattle Times, Spokane Chronicle, Spokesman-Review, Spokane, Washington; The Oregonian, Portland, Oregon (September 1922 – September 1923).
“[Gregg Murder News],” Seattle Star, Tacoma Ledger, Spokane Chronicle, Washington (October 4 – November 8, 1920).
Luke S. May, Luke S. May Papers, Special Collections, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington (1969).

Friday, September 6, 2019

Murder On A Train

Friday, September 19, 1930. The evening weather was chilly in Shelby, Montana, located almost 75 miles north and slightly west of Great Falls. Nighttime temperatures would drop to a few degrees above freezing. A couple dozen transient workers and casual drifters huddled around a bonfire near the Great Northern Railway yard. Among them were three men whose future would soon be tragically intertwined.

Shelby was a junction town, and “travelers” could snag a freight car going north, south, east, or west. Rail companies around the country differed in how they approached such freeloaders. On some, railroad “bulls” – company policemen – enforced strict “no ride” policies. But here, on the sparsely populated high plains, it was in the company’s interest to allow these men to ride. Most were following the harvest, which required a major influx of seasonal workers. No harvest meant no business for the railroad … hauling products out and bringing supplies in.

John Joseph Wright sought a ride south. His sister later said he might go to Canada, but perhaps he had missed the harvest peak there. A transplanted Englishman, Wright had served with the Royal Engineers in France during the Great War, attaining the rank of sergeant. He earned the Military Medal for gallantry, as well as two other lesser awards. After the war, he lived in a distant suburb of Manchester. (A full biography of Sergeant Wright can be found here. Wright moved to the U.S. in 1921 and found work as a mechanic with a Packard automobile dealership in Chicago.

However, two years later, he was felled by an illness that rendered him unconscious for 54 days. Although doctors in Chicago did not identify the malady, his symptoms point to a case of Encephalitis lethargica. A substantial epidemic occurred during and after World War I, and Manchester, England was one of the harder hit areas. Estimates suggest that up to a third of all known cases ended in death.

While some made a full recovery, many ended up like Wright, with symptoms much like Parkinson’s Disease. He could no longer work as a mechanic, probably due to tremors, halting mobility, unusual fatigue, and memory problems. He also had speech difficulties and impaired hearing, and was very sensitive to artificial light. A sad come-down for a man of such valor and promise.

The men who preyed on him were at the opposite end of the spectrum. Thomas H. Groves, a native of Maryland, lied about his age and joined the U.S. Marines in early 1912, when he was seventeen years old. There, he had discipline problems and left the service after two years. Then he used a false name to join the Texas National Guard, but lasted only about five months in that organization. He later claimed that his crippled left hand was caused by an injury during the Great War, but there is no evidence to support that assertion.

His activities after about 1917 cannot be reliably traced. However, when he was captured in Montana, he at first gave authorities a fake name. An exhaustive newspaper search, using various aliases, suggests that Groves compiled quite a record in the interim: Petty theft in North Dakota; liquor and morals charges in Anaconda, Montana; and dealing drugs in Washington. He may have spent time in federal prison on a narcotics charges. All that was probably just the proverbial “tip of the iceberg.”

Harry E. Miller. Montana Prison Records.
 Groves’ accomplice, Harry E. Miller, was born in Illinois, in 1909. His divorced or widowed mother apparently couldn’t, or wouldn’t, handle him. Thus, he spent time in an Illinois orphanage and then an Iowa reform school before he was fifteen years old. By the time he was twenty, he had made his way to Seattle, where he was jailed on a disorderly conduct charge. He had a California license as a truck driver when he was captured in Montana. However, the most recent employment he could recall was as a waiter, for nine days, in Los Angeles.

The two said they had met around 1927, but they apparently did not team up until later. In 1930, they got together in North Dakota and began to work their way west. Thus, they too boarded the freight headed to Great Falls. Soon after the train left Shelby, Groves and Miller moved ahead over the cars and and began robbing other riders. One man hesitated when told to jump off, so Groves fired a shot from an automatic pistol to hurry him along.

The crooks continued forward and found Wright in another car. With his disabilities, the Englishman was probably slow to respond. Thus, the impatient Groves fired three shots, at least two of which hit their victim, killing him almost instantly. Wright had no money on him whatsoever.

The killers left the train at the first stop. Wright’s body was discovered shortly after that and an alert was transmitted to authorities from the next stop. His medals were found among his personal effects, so the front page headline in the Great Falls Tribune read, “Train Bandits Slay English Hero.”

The two crooks headed for Fort Benton on foot, getting car rides when they could. They were captured about twenty miles from their goal. As noted earlier, Groves first gave officials an alias. However, he soon admitted to his real name. Most importantly, he still had the automatic pistol in his possession, and said he had owned it for at least two years.

The Great Falls posts of the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) conducted the funeral service for Wright. He was buried in the soldiers’ plot in the local Highland Cemetery. His medals were returned to his mother back in England.

The murder trials of Groves and Miller were held in December. Victims of the robberies identified the two from their clothing, build, and glimpses of their features. But the firearms work of private criminologist Luke S. May provided the crucial link. The Luke May Papers did not contain a lot about this case, but his findings can be recreated from newspaper and court reports.

By this time, May had handled more than 140 death cases, over ninety of which involved firearms. He could use so-called “class characteristics” – visible marks left by rifling and other design features – to identify the make and model of every commonly used firearm in the world. The death weapon was a 7.65 mm pistol of Spanish or French make. Groves loaded it with .32-caliber ammunition made in the U.S., a close-enough fit.

“Individual characteristics” – microscopic scratches and impressions unique to a given firearm – verified that Groves’ pistol had fired the fatal shots. May then presented greatly enlarged photographic images to explain the matches to the jury.

May was also an expert in bullet trajectory and wound analysis. Evidence showed that Wright had his arms upright, or at least out, when he was shot – as expected for someone being robbed. By law, all perpetrators of a felony when a death occurs are equally culpable. Thus, both Groves, the shooter, and Miller, the accomplice, were convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
References: Dr. Ava Easton, Encephalitis Lethargica, Encephalitis Society, North Yorkshire, United Kingdom (April 2014).
Paul Bernard Foley, “Encephalitis lethargica … epidemiology and symptoms,” Journal of Neural Transmission, Vol. 116, No. 10, Springer Science, Switzerland (October 2009) p. 1295-1308.
Luke S. May, Luke S. May Papers, Special Collections, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington (1969).
Richard Nelson, Killed By Bandits: The Story of John Joseph Wright M. M., blog, (January 26, 2017).
“[Possible Arrests of Groves Under Aliases],” Grand Forks Herald, North Dakota; Spokane Chronicle, Washington; Anaconda Standard, Montana Standard, Butte, Independent-Record, Helena, Montana (August 1920 – December 1928).
State v. Miller, 9 P.2d 474 Montana (March 21, 1932).
“[Wright Murder Case],” Independent-Record, Helena, Billings Gazette, Great Falls Tribune, Montana; Standard-Examiner, Ogden, Utah (September 1930 – March 1932).

Friday, August 23, 2019

The Rosebud County Sniper

In the outside world of April 1, 1949, the Cold War was heating up. Yet all of that might have seemed rather remote to Russ Bean in his small farm home, located about fourteen miles west of Forsyth, Montana. The time was approaching 8 o’clock in the evening, and he sat with his family at the supper table. An outside window was behind him, but the only natural light came from a sliver of crescent moon. Thus, the room lights were shining brightly – making him, as it happened, a perfect target.

Then that peaceful scene exploded.

A bullet punched through the window and chair-back, pierced Russell’s chest from behind, grazed the head of a child sitting across from him, and clanged against an iron stove at the end. No words can adequately express the shock and devastation the family must have felt as Russ slumped forward, almost instantly dead.

They surely took some time to recover. Still, the county coroner was at the crime scene within about an hour and an undersheriff not long after. Sheriff Floyd “Whitey” Dowlin was there by 10 o’clock. The undersheriff had already talked with the two nearest neighbors. One of those was Mrs. Helen (Bean) Storm, Russell’s sister. The Bean family later spent the night at her place. Although they had to contend with some “sightseers,” officials did an adequate job of securing the Bean premises.

After matters were mostly settled at the crime scene, Sheriff Dowlin interviewed the other nearby neighbor, John Loy Storm. John was the ex-husband of Helen, and therefore ex-brother-in-law of Russell Bean. He and his thirty-year old son lived in a trailer home to the west of Helen’s house. In fact, Storm, his ex-wife, and the Bean family all lived within a half mile of each other. When the sheriff talked to Storm, he would have surely known about the family relationships.

Russell Owens Bean was born on a ranch near Forsyth in 1887. He graduated from the Billings Polytechnic Institute (a precursor to today’s Rocky Mountain College) in 1914. The following year he was a witness in Billings for his sister’s marriage to John Loy Storm. Born in Illinois, Storm had homesteaded west of Forsyth a year or two before the marriage, when he was about twenty years old. He would stay with the farm near Forsyth until 1949.
Russell O. "Russ" Bean, ca 1918.
Posted at FindAGrave by “Sharon.”

Russell Bean served in France with an artillery unit during World War I. He married his first wife in 1920 and worked for many years as an electrician. However, around 1934, Bean became a sewing machine salesman. He continued in that line of work for over a decade, even owning a store in Miles City for a time. During this period, he also divorced and remarried.

Then, right after World War II, he moved to the place west of Forsyth. Several of Bean’s relatives had homesteaded in the area when they moved to Montana from Texas in the early 1880s. Available records do not say if he owned or inherited family land, or simply purchased some at this time. Not long after his return to the area, he and John Storm (then still his brother-in-law) partnered in a joint venture to raise wheat. In 1948, Bean purchased a laundry business in Forsyth.

When Sheriff Dowlin went to quiz Storm, he probably knew that Bean’s sister had divorced John a bit over six months earlier. That could possibly have caused some tension in the partnership. The sheriff might have also heard that Russell and John were involved in some sort of business dispute. So perhaps Dowlin was not totally surprised at Storm’s reply when he was told about the shooting: “Good, I’m glad, the son of a bitch was no good anyhow.”

After the interview, Dowlin went home. He returned to the Bean place shortly after sunup and began recording key observations about the crime scene. That included the position of the bullet hole in the window. Then he and two other men searched the yard where the shot had originated. About fifty feet from the window, they found what was judged to be the impression of someone’s knee.

From that point, they sorted through footprints (some of the sightseers had wandered in the yard) to establish a trail of widely-separated tracks. This ultimately led them to within fifty yards or so of Storm’s trailer home. Some marks were distinct enough so that plaster casts could be made. However, others – including the knee “print” – would have required specialized photographic equipment, and skills, that this remote rural county did not have. All they could do was write down a general description of each.

Around 9 o’clock in the morning, the sheriff asked “an experienced civil engineer” to come out and help. They first used stout fish line to backtrack the bullet path from where it hit the stove, through the hole in the window, and then out into the yard. Tellingly, the path ran directly over the knee impression, at a height consistent with someone kneeling to aim a weapon. The engineer also helped the sheriff map the location of every foot impression found earlier.

Some time during the morning, Sheriff Dowlin contacted the Lost Persons Foundation, an outfit that specialized in finding hikers and hunters lost in Montana’s wild back-country. A handler arrived at the crime scene with two bloodhounds at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Put on the scent at the knee impression, the hounds followed the general path defined by the faint tracks found by the sheriff. They stopped, satisfied, outside the trailer home until John Storm came out. They then immediately jumped on him in a friendly manner and licked his hands, just as they were trained to do when they found a scent-trailed missing person. The handler said simply, “There’s your man.”

By this time, several people had told Dowlin about vehement death threats Storm had made against Bean, including some on the day of the shooting. At this point, the sheriff jailed John, stating that a murder charge would soon follow. He also secured as evidence a .270 Winchester rifle found in the trailer home.

The case went to trial the following December. Storm’s death threats arose over a tractor he and Bean owned as part of their joint venture. Storm had tried, unsuccessfully, to arrange a deal where one or the other had full ownership of the tractor. Storm’s ex-wife and son both testified that he was enraged by the failure to reach an agreement. That was reinforced by Storm’s remark upon hearing of Bean’s death. How could such a seemingly mundane disagreement escalate so much?

One cannot escape the notion that the Storm divorce played a role. After over thirty years of marriage, Ethel had been the one to file, on the grounds of “habitual intemperance.” A quaint way to say he drank to excess, such behavior might well have gone along with spousal abuse. In any case, Russell Bean would have almost certainly taken his sister’s side, putting a strain on the business relationship. Ethel being awarded the family home would have exacerbated the problem. No such theory was presented at the trial, however.

Still, the business dispute would have established motive. For the means, criminologist Luke S. May appeared on the stand to confirm that the bullet that killed Bean was fired from a .270 Winchester rifle. Because the slug had fragmented, he could not tie the bullet to Storm’s specific weapon … but there were no markings to eliminate it either.

To establish opportunity, the court spent a lot of time on the tracks found by the sheriff … and especially the actions of the bloodhounds. The prosecution took the handler through the dogs’ pedigree, training, and past performance in great depth. Naturally, the defense quizzed him relentlessly, but the handler’s testimony held up.

To “seal the deal,” the prosecution put Herbert Hay, a former jail-mate of Storm’s, on the stand. Hay himself had a small-time criminal record. But he was judged reasonably credible since his testimony in this case gained him little … four days off of a 30-day sentence for passing a bad check. Hay stated that, in an unguarded moment, Storm had said, “I did kill the son of a bitch.” In the end, the jury found John Loy Storm guilty of second-degree murder and he was sentenced to twenty years in prison. Records show that he was admitted to prison on December 21, 1949.

However, in late 1951, the Montana Supreme Court, by a 3-2 margin, overturned that verdict, rejecting the use of what they chose to called “bloodhound testimony.” (Of course, it’s the handler who testifies, not the dogs.) The majority opinion seemed heavily prejudiced against the very idea. The text was loaded with phrases like “dogs and other dumb animals do not qualify as witnesses” and “evidence of the actions of the dogs themselves should find no place in a Court of law.” They ruled that the judge should not have allowed the jury to hear the evidence and decide on its credibility for themselves.

The dissenting opinion retorted, “The overwhelming weight of authority, however, holds that such evidence is admissible if there has been a proper foundation laid.” In the Storm case, that final proviso was satisfied by the intensive cross-examination about the training and capabilities of the dogs and their handler. At that time, 21 states had tested the issue legally and the vast majority allowed the use of dog tracking evidence. Today, 39 states and the District of Columbia approve and only 4 states disagree. (The issue has apparently not been tested in the other 7 states.)

Be that as it may, Storm was retried in 1952, without any of the bloodhound tracking testimony. A new jury again found him guilty, and he was again sentenced to twenty years in prison. Then, fifteen months later, the Supreme Court used legal hair-splitting to again over-rule the jury … and Storm was a free man. Despite being twice convicted of murder, he served just four years in prison.
References: “[Bean Murder, Storm Legalities],” Independent-Record, Helena; Montana Standard, Butte; Great Falls Tribune, Billings Gazette, Montana (April 1949 – May 1954).
Luke S. May, Luke S. May Papers, Special Collections, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington (1969).
SC-6 – Summaries of Case Law, K9Sensus, Lucas, Iowa (2005).
State v. Storm 238 P.2d 1161 (December 15, 1951. State v. Storm 265 P.2d 971 (December 3, 1953).