BACK WHEN: Jail break on the Olympic Peninsula

Thomas Riley, left, Charles Butt, right

Thomas Riley, left, Charles Butt, right

THE STORIES OF life and crime can take many twists and turns. In 1922, a planned robbery at the recreation hall of Discovery Bay Logging Company grew to include murder.

It all began on March 25, 1922, around 9 p.m. Two masked men entered the camp’s recreation hall brandishing guns. There were about 50 men in the hall participating in various games of chance. Since they were gambling, these 50 men would have had more money on them than usual. That implies the robbers knew what was going on. It was not a chance encounter.

All 50 men were lined up against a wall. One robber covered the men while the other robber went through their pockets.

Another unidentified person outside the hall fired a shotgun through the window at the robber standing guard. The robber fired back. In the ensuing exchange of gunfire, Ray Light, who was standing with his face to the wall, was struck by a bullet and later died. Light was a World War I veteran.

Soon, a manhunt went on in multiple directions. Reports came in from throughout the area. Two men were spotted near Discovery Bay. Suspicious people were seen in Hoodsport.

King County Sheriff Matt Starwich was also asked to join in the search. He called in an expert tracker and his two bloodhounds, Rambler and Rattler. Starwich found an airplane. “The dogs were lifted into the plane and in forty minutes we landed on the beach at Maynard’s.” (Discover Bay)

Things were further complicated by a bank robbery in Sequim on March 24. Initially, the robbers in both cases were suspected to be the same people. The robbers in Sequim were different men, though.

Suspicious men were spotted in Pysht and near Forks. They would refuse help but wanted to see a newspaper. Were they in the paper?

About six miles south of Forks, Sheriff Nelson and two deputies were tracking through a foot of snow. They heard voices inside a cabin by the trail. The sheriff entered the cabin, announced who he was and told them to put their hands up. One immediately complied. The other made a move for his gun hiding under his coat. But Nelson poked his revolver against his ribs. They were handcuffed and taken to Port Angeles. Along with the men, they found other guns, bags of money and other loot.

Thomas Riley, left, Charles Butt, right

Thomas Riley, left, Charles Butt, right

Positive identification was not easy. Both men failed to give their real names. Soon it was believed their real names were Arthur King and George Roe. They were later identified as Thomas Riley and Charles Butt.

Nelson took both men to Maynard on April 15 to be identified by the victims. Nearly all the men who were robbed and witnessed the killing were present.

One key piece of evidence was items recovered during the arrest. Were these the items stolen from these men? A large diamond ring in a Tiffany setting belonging to one of the victims was also a key piece of evidence.

Being keen on modern forensics, the sheriff called in the Revelare International Secret Service from Seattle to collect fingerprints and take photographs. The name sounds ominous, but the company was cutting edge on forensics.

The company was founded by Luke May of Seattle. May was considered “America’s Sherlock Holmes.” He was a serious and effective scientific investigator before the era of crime laboratories.

For a time, there was uncertainty whether the trial would be in Clallam County or Jefferson counties. Surveyors for each county had to settle where the county line was. A surveyor for the Discovery Bay Logging Company found that the recreation hall was in Clallam County. It appeared the county line ran through the cook house and the recreation hall was several hundred feet west of that.

So, Clallam County was the winner (Or loser, depending upon your point of view.).

The trial began on June 19, 1922. The trial was hard fought. The trial was led by Prosecuting Attorney William Richie and Seattle attorney Thomas Carmody.

The evidence against the men was seen as circumstantial. Defense Attorney George Vanderveer directed his efforts toward identification of Riley and Butt since the robbers wore masks.

The defense attorney tried to add a bit of Perry Mason-style showmanship to the defense’s case. Attorney Vanderveer was examining Peter Nielsen. Nielsen claimed he recognized Butt by his brown eyes. At this point a masked man entered the court room in plain view. He was dressed in a long coat and wearing a blue bandana mask. Judge Ralston stopped the whole show and ordered the man out of the court room. Judge Ralston would not allow anyone unknown to himself to be a witness.

Vanderveer’s plan was simple. Men known to Nielsen would be paraded out dressed like the bandits. Then, could Nielsen identify men he personally knew simply by their eyes? It seems like a stroke of genius cut short by the judge.

On June 23, 1922, Riley and Butt were found guilty of murder in the first degree. Riley was convicted of actually firing the shot that killed Light. The jury deliberated for seven hours before arriving at a verdict. The jury recommended life in prison. Since the robbers were masked, Riley and Butt were convicted mostly on circumstantial evidence.

Jails were different a century ago. Security was limited to steel bars and strong locks. Yet the windows are open. Some unidentified friend smuggled two saw blades to Butt through the window. They possessed the saw blade before the trial started. It was material ripe for a noir crime film.

Riley later stated that “Sheriff Nelson did not search our cell for five months and we had the blades all the time.” On December 5, 1922, Charles Butt escaped from the Clallam County jail. Butt sawed the jail’s bars and crawled through. It appears Butt had been hard at work for several weeks. He covered up the saw marks with soap until it was time to escape.

Butt used the same soap lubricate his body to help squeeze through the gap in the bars.

Timing was important. On December 5th a snowstorm was raging. All the telephone and telegraph wires were down at the time. So, there was no way to alert other law enforcement people of the escape. In addition, the snowstorm covered his footprints and hid his escape route.

Riley did not escape. Maybe he hoped it would help him during his appeal. Or as reported later, his shoulders were too wide to fit through the gap. Riley was transferred to the King County jail for safe keeping.

On December 8th, a reward of $100 ($1,750 today) was offered for information leading to Butt’s arrest. The notices were posted throughout the northwest.

On August 31, 1923, the Washington Supreme Court upheld their sentences .

On November 22, 1923, Charles Butt was captured in Idaho.

In 1943, their sentences were reduced by Governor Aurthur B. Langlie.

I suppose Riley and Butt wondered if their crime was worth the lives they ruined.

________

John McNutt is a descendant of Clallam County pioneers and treasurer of the North Olympic History Center Board of Directors. He can be reached at woodrowsilly@gmail.com.

John’s Clallam history column appears the first Saturday of every month.

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