The Man Who Tried To Be
By Detective Sergeant
JAMES R. O'BRIEN
Oregon State Police
NOTE: Revealed here for the first time in any publication is the complete story of a cause célèbre that won for the Medford Mail Tribune the coveted Pulitzer Prize for the year of 1933 for its reporting of this most unusual criminal case.--EDITOR.
In 1926, there moved into Jackson County, Oregon--the richest fruit-producing and mining county in the state--Llewellyn A. Banks, a reputedly wealthy and experienced orchardist from Riverside, California. He first bought a large orchard, then, in 1928, purchased an enterprising newspaper, the Medford Daily News. By this time, he was being hailed as one of the leading citizens of the state. People, however, began to wonder just who this man was, when his editorials commenced to be tinged with more than just a trace of radicalism.
By 1931, his newspaper was carrying to every corner of the state fiery denouncements of our government. He blasted the so-called moneyed men, the power interests, our courts and our elected officials. All were subjected to daily diatribes of vilification and abuse, and accused of charges originated from grounds wholly fanciful and fantastic.
He used his newspaper as a medium to inflame the minds of malcontents. He harangued them, and all who would listen, until he made them think he was a martyr and they were being martyred with him. Thousands, harassed by the lean years of the depression, flocked to his side.
During‘this period, there also lived in Medford, the county seat, Earl H. Fehl, editor and publisher of the Pacific Record Herald. Fehl also had long since been gathering editorial fodder from his opinion of the manner in which the affairs of the government were being handled. His writings had always been of a violent nature, often bordering on the very edge of criminal syndicalism.
The two publishers, seeing in each other an ally, joined forces. And so was formed the team that, under the pretext of "fighting for the people's cause," was to make criminal history.
By 1932, their followers numbering into the thousands and completely under their control, they decided the time had come to reap the financial harvest and make their bid for power by molding a solid organization from the masses. The organization was named the "Good Government Congress," a very disarming title, as we shall soon see.
For officers this so-called Good Government Congress elected Henrietta Martin, a noisy agitator, as president; C. H. Brown, her father, secretary; and C. J. Conners, vice president and chairman of the secret membership committee. But they were only puppets. In a separate resolution, Banks was elected honorary president and given full general veto and dictatorial powers. Each member was to be assessed the "small sum" of fifty cents per month. Banks was fast accomplishing his end. Thousands of dollars a month would soon be pouring into his coffers--and he was now the "Dictator."
This much accomplished, Banks stepped out to get control of every office in the county and set up his own domain from which he could spread over the entire country like a cancerous sore--through terrorism if need be--and still remain free from prosecution. In the elections of 1932, he set up his own candidate--who was none other than his fellow radical, Earl Fehl--for the important office of County Judge. For the powerful office of Sheriff, he sponsored Gordon L. Schermerhorn, for District Attorney, he sponsored M. O. Wilkins.
No great amount of alarm over this was felt by the law-abiding citizens, however, for the incumbents in these offices were men of unimpeachable character, with years of faithful and meritorious service to their credit.
But something slipped, Fehl was elected County Judge, and Schermerhorn was elected Sheriff. District Attorney Codding barely managed to hold his office by a slight margin, much to the displeasure of the Dictator. The position of District Attorney, however, was now a farce. He would have no Sheriff to entrust with important confidential investigations, serve warrants, maintain order, etc. Furthermore, he would be facing an adverse County Judge.
The election of Fehl to the county judgeship put a powerful weapon in the Dictator's hands, and he did not hesitate to use it in the months to come. The county court then had charge of relief disbursements, could throw open the doors of the county commissary, had charge of roads, appointed election officials and fixed polling places, etc. But most important of all, he would occupy the bench to rule on the destiny of those brought before him for justice, to judge right from wrong, and an unlawful act from a lawful one.
In the meantime, District Attorney Codding began receiving tips that all had not been as it should be at the election polls. In view of this, the incumbent Sheriff, Ralph Jennings, an upright and outstanding officer, decided to file suit for a recount in Circuit Court of the election ballots. On the face of the election count, he had been defeated by but 123 votes.
The moment the suit was filed, the entire election took on a bad odor. Sheriff-elect Schermerhorn went into hiding immediately to avoid service and summons. After a long and unsuccessful search for him, it became obvious that he intended to remain in hiding until the date of assuming office, January 2nd, 1933. This would permit him to get control of the important and powerful office and hold same until such time as the suit could be acted upon by the courts. A lot could happen during this period. and, unfortunately, it did happen.
At twelve o'clock midnight, January 1st, 1933, Earl Fehl automatically became County Judge. At six o'clock in the morning of the same day, there was a strange meeting at the Judge's house. Sheriff-elect Schermerhorn arrived from his hiding place in Northern California, accompanied by two carloads of men. He was sworn in as Sheriff by Judge Fehl and, in turn, he swore in his companions as deputy sheriffs. Promptly at eight o'clock, they marched on the courthouse to take the office by force, if necessary. The retiring Sheriff, however, was perfectly content to let the courts decide the matter, and they met with no resistance.
The moment Judge Fehl settled himself in his high-backed chair, he made the announcement, "I am the duly elected Judge of Jackson County--Judge of all the people." Immediately, he plunged the courthouse and the entire county into a maelstrom of discord and strife. The building was continually jammed to capacity with loiterers and agitators.
Court sessions became nightmares, and no official could perform his duties in the turmoil that existed. Judge Fehl seemed to be directing his entire efforts to building and enlarging the Good Government Congress. The courthouse auditorium was thrown open to weekly meetings of that organization. No words can describe the situation.
Dictator Banks, as he was now being referred to throughout the county, was fast becoming drunk with power. He delivered speeches from the very steps of the courthouse, that were so violent they far exceeded the imagination of any clear-thinking people. He demanded that District Attorney Codding and Circuit Judge Norton, two of the most upright officials in the state, resign at once. They were the only stumbling blocks in his march to complete power. In open speeches to his followers, he encouraged them to seize these officials by force, tie them to whipping posts. If this didn't force their resignations, he suggested use of the hangman's noose.
February 2nd, in a speech to his followers, the Dictator declared, "We have now come to the great showdown where blood will have to be spilled." In another on February 10th, he shouted, "The Good. Government Congress serves notice on Circuit Judge Norton and District Attorney Codding, that either you will destroy us or we will destroy you." Then, in a later speech from the courthouse steps, he announced to a howling mob, "I am ready to lead the field in open revolution."
The situation was desperate--was fast reaching a climax. The county was rampant with hatred and distrust. People were disposing of their homes and businesses and moving elsewhere to seek peace and safety. Editors of other newspapers throughout the nation were warning the people to suppress this uprising. But the climax was yet to come.
Perhaps the reader will wonder why the efficient Oregon State Police were not taking a hand in this vital case. The reason was a simple but binding one. We were not permitted to participate in disputes involving labor troubles or an election contest, except upon orders from the Governor of the State. Inasmuch as an election contest had been involved in this series of atrocities, we were prohibited by law from taking action.
A ray of hope appeared on the horizon, however, when, on February 20th, Circuit Judge George Skipworth, occupying the Jackson County bench on the recount case after an affidavit of prejudice had been filed against Circuit Judge Norton, ordered that the election ballots be counted again the following morning in open court. By this time, many were certain that irregularities had existed in the election, and that a recount would automatically remove the radicals from control of the county affairs.
Early on the morning of February 21st, I was startled from my sleep by the persistent ringing of my telephone. I was soon wide awake, however, as I listened to the excited voice of my caller. The most openly defiant and brazen act in the history of the state had been committed. The courthouse vault had been broken into, and the ballots, which were to have been counted before Circuit Judge Skipworth, had been stolen.
This was too much. District Attorney Codding and Chief McCredie, of the Medford Police, had phoned long distance to Charles P. Pray, Superintendent of State Police, and requested our assistance, stating that the situation had now gotten completely out of their control. Superintendent Pray, after a hasty inquiry into the facts, immediately instructed my superior officer, Captain Lee M. Bown, commanding officer of District Three, to render the District Attorney and city
police any and all assistance they might require. I was immediately assigned to investigate the case.
Arriving at the scene of the crime, I found that the window of the vault, which is at the rear of the courthouse building, had been smashed in, in such a manner as to permit the burglars to reach in and release the latch. An inventory revealed nothing stolen but ballot pouches. Of these, thirty-six were gone.
A search for fingerprints was practically useless. Crowds had been in and out of the vault before my arrival, and, as usual, had handled and disturbed everything. I was fortunate, however, to find, clinging to a sharp corner of the window frame, a small piece of cloth such as that commonly used in the manufacture of men's pants. This tiny fragment of cloth was destined to become of great importance and give us our first break in the case. The information regarding this find was quietly given to state and city police officers present. They were told to mingle with the crowds and watch for some man with torn pants of the same material.
Continuing the investigation, my attention was attracted to several significant facts. The steel shutters protecting the window through which entrance had been gained had been left open on the night of the theft. Also, Captain Bown and Chief McCredie discovered the tops of eighteen ballot pouches concealed behind an inspection door off the boiler room which is used to gain access to the plumbing under the building. Extinguishing the fires in the furnaces, we were further rewarded with the discovery of metal clasps and hinges from the tops of approximately a dozen ballot pouches.
All of the aforementioned pointed to only one thing--an inside job. It could be no one except some person, or persons, who had access to both the boiler room and the vault. Conferring with County Clerk George Carter, custodian of the vault, we were advised that he had been assisted in the vault on the day of the theft by Mason and Wilbur Sexton, two brothers, aged twenty-one and nineteen respectively. They were fairly well known to the police, their most recent introduction having been gained through a brawl on New Year's Eve, in which there was supposedly a display and the use of knives, resulting in their arrest. After being confined several days, the grand jury, then in session, investigated their case and returned a "not a true bill." Instead of accepting release, however, the brothers remained at the courthouse, and roomed and boarded at the county jail. They were soon known to be circulating literature and ambitiously soliciting new members for the Good Government Congress.
There had been considerable comment as to why the Sextons had been kept around the courthouse--perhaps for just such a thing as the ballot theft. In any event, we resolved to find out. Chief McCredie spotted Mason Sexton mingling with crowds in the courthouse. Maneuvering into the right position, the Chief's keen eyes quickly appraised Sexton's pants. He was wearing a pair of the same material as the fragment of cloth found on the window frame--and they were torn in the right leg.
Following Sexton around the building, the Chief finally found an opportunity to arrest him and get him to the city jail without being seen. The arrest was handled in this manner, as we did not wish to reveal the trend of our investigation. An hour or so later, his brother, Wilbur, was similarly taken into custody by Captain Bown and myself.
When Mason was brought into my office for examination, not a word was spoken as I removed the fragment of cloth from an envelope, matched it to his pants, clipped another small piece from, the trousers and subjected both to microscopical comparison end examination. The cloth was identical. Sexton paled as he watched these proceedings in the ominous silence that prevailed in the room. He knew he was doomed--doomed by a small shred of cloth.
But it was not Sexton that we wanted. To send him to prison and leave the leaders free to continue their march of destruction would be accomplishing exactly nothing. For four days and nights, Mason and Wilbur were questioned by Captain Bown, Chief McCredie, Deputy District Attorney Neilson and myself. They were hopelessly trapped, they realized, but as to the leaders, they would not utter one word. When the conversation and questioning drifted into those channels, they would merely "clam up."
It was obvious that they felt secure in the thought that they were backed by the strongest influences in the county, and that it would be only a matter of a day or so until they would be out again and free--if they just stayed "right guys." This much they practically admitted.
However, as time wore on and no help was forthcoming, they began to wonder. Finally, in the early hours of the morning of the fourth day, Mason, tired, worn out and fighting mad at not being rescued by his cohorts, jumped from his chair and shouted, "I'll talk and talk plenty." We all breathed a sigh of relief, for at last we were going to get the whole story.
The confessions of Mason and Wilbur Sexton consisted of fourteen full legal-size, single-spaced typewritten sheets, and contained revelations that left us stunned and shocked. The audacity and brazenness of the perpetrators of the bold theft was beyond comprehension. In their confessions, the brothers told how they had been given permission by Judge Fehl and Sheriff Schermerhorn to live at the jail. In return, they were to obtain new members for the Good Government Congress, etc., as related earlier in this story.
Referring to the night of the ballot theft, they told of coming out of the courthouse auditorium, where a meeting of the Congress was being called to order, and encountering in front of the vault a group in serious conversation. In this group were County Judge Fehl; Chief County Jailer John Glenn; Deputy Sheriff Charles Davis; Walter Jones, Mayor of Rogue River and County Road Supervisor; C. J. Conners, Vice President of the Congress; Thomas Brecheen, Ashland ward leader, bond broker and claimant of seven years service in the United States Secret Service; and Milton Sexton, the youths' father, who was merely standing by as a listener.
They were asked by Brecheen to join the men. Then, in the presence of the others and without any further ceremony, he bluntly asked them whether they knew the combination to the vault. When they replied they did not, he questioned them about the possibility of getting in through the rear window. They explained the setup inside, stating that there was a collapsible steel shutter inside the window which was not in use at the present time. Judge Fehl, after questioning them to determine whether they were positive in this respect, left to attend the meeting.
The boys went on to relate that after the judge left, the rest of the group--with the exception of their father, who took no part in the conversation, and Chief Jailer Glenn, who had to return to his office--went to the boiler room and obtained a crowbar. Deputy Sheriff Davis then tried to pry the window open with the crowbar but found he could not budge it. They then returned to the boiler room and obtained a huge monkey wrench. Mayor Jones smashed the glass in the window, reached in and unfastened the latch. The window open, the rest of the mob swarmed into the vault and began hauling out ballot pouches.
There were, the brothers estimated, about twelve or fourteen men engaged in the actual theft. Others were standing guard, armed with pieces of gas pipe, clubs, pistols, etc., in case any state or city police should happen on the scene.
Some of the pouches were loaded into a Ford delivery wagon, owned and driven by E. A. Fleming, an active Congress member; others were put in a Willys Knight roadster, owned and driven by Arthur LaDieu, business manager of the Medford Daily News; and more yet were thrown in a Ford coupé, the identity of the owner not being known to the Sextons. In addition to those mentioned earlier as participating in the original plans to rob the vault, they were able to identify Wesley McKitrick, James D. Gaddy, R. C. Cummings, Earl Bryant and C. J. Conners, all active in the Congress, as having taken part in the bold theft.
After the cars were loaded, the boys got in with the driver of the Ford coupé and drove out to the Bybee Bridge, which crosses the Rogue River. When they were pulling away from the courthouse with their load of pouches, they passed the Sheriff standing in the shadows of the trees on the back street where he had been watching the theft. As they passed him, he raised his hand in a signal of greeting.
After dumping their load of pouches in the river, they returned to Medford and found that the mass meeting was over and everything quiet. Brecheen, however, was still loafing around, and, upon meeting them, he told them there had not been enough pouches stolen and instructed them to go back into the vault and take out fifteen or twenty more. He would go to the Medford Daily News office and get a car to haul them away. The brothers took out what they estimated to be about twenty pouches and carried them into the boiler room to await the coming of the car.
After waiting nearly an hour, they became nervous and decided to burn the pouches in the fireboxes. They cut the tops off the bags and hid them behind a door, intending to dispose of them the next day. The sacks and their contents they burned. Finishing this, they returned to the jail and went to bed.
The following morning, after the theft had been discovered, they met the Sheriff on the third floor of the courthouse and asked him what would be done about the recount now that the ballots were stolen. His reply was, "You fellows keep your mouths shut about the recount and the ballots being stolen. Don't say a word to anyone, not even to your own mother. If you do, you'll find yourself in serious trouble."
When the confessions were completed, we realized for the first time what a deplorable mess the county had got into, and the magnitude of the situation that faced us. The Sheriff--the highest officer of the county--a County Judge and a Mayor were involved in the robbing of the building it was their sworn duty to protect. Surely, a lower and more despicable lot of public officials could not be found anywhere.
Continuing our investigation, we located the crowbar used by Deputy Sheriff Davis in his attempt to pry open the vault window. We found that the prying edge fitted the marks on the windows to perfection. The monkey wrench, also recovered, was found, under microscopical examination, to contain flecks of aluminum paint and pulverized bits of glass. Sergeant E. E. Walker of the Game Division of the State Police, accompanied by Officers Roach, Malcolm and Levya, succeeded in retrieving four of the stolen pouches from the Rogue River.
All this provided corroboration for Mason's and Wilbur's confession, and our case was beginning to shape up. District Attorney Codding immediately went before Justice of the Peace Coleman and obtained warrants of arrest, charging all the known participants in the brazen theft and five "John Does" with burglary. The stage was now set for the most sensational roundup in Oregon's police history.
On the morning of February 25th, just four days after the crime, a group of picked and determined officers gathered at State Police Headquarters. Warrants were distributed, and we were told not to come back until we had got our men. But the arrests were to be made quietly and kept strictly secret until we were ready to announce our move to the public. This also had its psychological effect? on the prisoners, for several, languishing alone in cells, did not know that any of the others had been picked up and consequently believed that they had been singled out and "stooled" on by their former allies.
The Sheriff had been lured to my office and arrested. by the Coroner, since no officer excepting the Governor or a Coroner has the power to arrest a Sheriff. Deputies were also lured to my office and the city police station on various pretexts, and, upon arrival, were served with a warrant.
So quietly did we work, that no news of the arrests leaked out until the following morning, and by that time we had accounted for all except Judge Fehl, who, in some manner, had been tipped off and fled. We had one other regret. Dictator Banks, the most dangerous of the lot, was still free and at liberty. We had hopes that after the arrests, we might persuade some of the prisoners to talk and give us enough evidence to obtain a warrant for his arrest. But the farther we went, the more apparent it became that he had been his usual cagey self and had covered his tracks well.
When the news of the roundup finally broke, it was blazoned across the front
pages of every paper throughout the state. Meanwhile, other things had been happening fast and furious, and the events of the day left the people dizzy and reeling. Their Sheriff, chief jailer, a Mayor and others equally as prominent, were all under arrest. The Dictator, suddenly taken aback by this move on our part, was fighting desperately to hold his mob together. Gangs of them were gathering everywhere. There were fights, sluggings, threats and every known form of violence
throughout the county. Sirens were screaming continually as heavily armed officers rushed out every few minutes to quell some new uprising. The city jail was fast filling.
Leonard Hall. editor and publisher of another local newspaper which had been fighting the "Congress" to the limit and relentlessly exposing the true purpose and intent of this organization, was seized, in the center of the business district during the busiest part of the day, by C. H. Brown, the secretary of the Congress, and L. O. Van Wegen, an organizer. They pinioned his arms around a post and held him while Henrietta Martin, the puppet president, proceeded to lash him furiously across the face with a horsewhip. He was rescued by State Police Lieutenant Dunn and a squad of officers, and Henrietta and her two cohorts were clamped in jail.
On the morning of February 27th, we were tipped off that Judge Fehl was back on the bench "meting out justice." Our informants went on to advise us, however, that the Judge had no intention of submitting to arrest. He was surrounded by a mob of his followers, we were told, and if need be, would declare his court in session continually. Then if we tried to serve him with a warrant, he would order deputy sheriffs to arrest us for contempt of court.
This was another new one on us in the never-ending succession of surprises. District Attorney Codding was hastily summoned and advised of this new and baffling situation. He finally decided, however, that inasmuch as we were now armed with a warrant from another court ordering us to arrest the Judge, we would be in contempt of that court if we failed to carry out its order. It seemed we were in for it either way.
Finally, City Officer Prescott, a veteran of over thirty years service and beloved by all who knew him, and myself, decided that we would serve the warrant on the Judge if we had to turn a fire hose on the mob. We further decided that no deputy sheriffs were going to arrest us until we had completed our mission, at least. Certain that if once we got through the crowd to the Judge we'd bring him out, we loaded our pockets with tear gas bombs and left for the courthouse.
As we ascended the stairs, we could see the mob overflowing from the Judge's chambers far into the hall. We were met with scowls and threats, but we realized that to hesitate one moment would start trouble. Not so much as slowing our pace, we began shouldering our way through, and, in a few minutes, we were standing before "His Honor." The warrant was quickly read to him, and he was placed under arrest.
When told to accompany us, he hesitated a moment as though deciding whether or not to give an order. It was a tense moment as every eye in that angry mob was focused on Judge Fehl--waiting. Officer Prescott and I gingerly fingered the gas bombs in our pockets and moved back against the windows. One false move from the crowd and the place would be a sorry mess. Judge Fehl apparently realized as much and finally arose to accompany us, ordering that room be made for our passage. This, I believe, was the first time a County Judge has ever been arrested while he sat on the bench.
Judge Fehl posted bail, and, as we were planning our next move, startling information came to us that swung us into speedy action. The Judge was now planning another move that not only piled more surprises onto our already overburdened shoulders, but threatened to destroy everything we had accomplished so far. He was issuing writs of habeas corpus for every prisoner we were holding on the theft. This would compel us to expose every bit of evidence we had so far accumulated. Even this would do no good, for we well knew he would turn them loose regardless.
Captain Bown, upon learning of this unprecedented move on the part of the Judge, quickly made up his mind what to do. We bundled all our prisoners into fast police cars, and, within forty minutes, they were safely lodged in a neighboring county jail and out of jurisdiction of Judge Fehl. This move was perfectly legal and was made just in the nick of time. However, the near disaster left us wondering what to expect next.
Meanwhile, State Police Detective Sergeants Warren and Lumsden, two of the best interrogators in the entire state, and Deputy District Attorney Neilson, a tireless worker who possessed an uncanny ability to worm a confession out of the hardest of criminals, were questioning Wesley McKitrick, a lieutenant of the Dictator and known to be a member of the inner circle. After hours of grilling, he finally broke, making a nineteen-page confession. We were startled and dumbfounded when he revealed Banks' latest and most diabolical plot.
Banks was going to order his Sheriff, who was now out on bail, to select 250 trusted members of the Good Government Congress and appoint them deputy sheriffs without salary. Thus, they could go about legally armed and make arrests. He had already selected an abandoned mining bunkhouse deep in the hills and strategically located to withstand attack. The building was solidly built of heavy logs and was practically impregnable. This was to serve as their jail.
Then he was going to announce in his paper that detectives from San Francisco, who had been employed by the Good Government Congress, had been secretly investigating the entire case and startling revelations would be forthcoming. This was to be followed by the dramatic announcement that the entire plot was at last exposed, and that the whole thing was a scheme to overthrow the Congress. Circuit Judge Norton and District Attorney Codding were to be accused of being the leaders and of having had the ballots stolen. Investigating officers of the state and city police were to be accused of being their lieutenants. He would further claim that his detectives possessed sufficient indisputable evidence to more than ensure the conviction of the plotters.
At this stage, the mob of deputy sheriffs were to descend on the city and state police offices and arrest every officer they could lay their hands on. Then a favorable backwoods justice of the peace was to act as committing magistrate. The officers would be held in the abandoned mine bunkhouse.
In the case of the arrests of District Attorney Codding and Circuit Judge Norton, however, it was to be an entirely different matter. They were to be quietly spirited away into the hills, hanged and their bodies disposed of where they would never be found. He would cover the "disappearance" of the Circuit Judge and District Attorney by crying long and loud in his paper that they had fled to escape prosecution, now that the whole plot was "exposed" and they knew that the detectives possessed concrete evidence against them.
According to McKitrick, these plans were in the last stages and were practically complete. As a matter of fact, he had been busy for several days prior to his arrest, selecting members to be deputized. He, himself, was to be a captain of the organization when it was completed.
No sooner had McKitrick completed his confession than we immediately began making plans to counteract this bold move. We hoped that we might be in time, but as matters now looked, wholesale bloodshed would be inevitable. For we were certainly not going to stop now and leave the citizens of the state to the mercy of this unlawful and ruthless mob, which would not hesitate to tear the county apart to satisfy the whims of the Dictator who led them around like a flock of sheep.
Our first move was to throw a heavy bodyguard around District Attorney Codding and Circuit Judge Norton. Then the District Attorney hastily summoned a grand jury. The members were carefully examined as to whether or not they might have any connections with the so-called Good Government Congress. Thomas J. Bell, Jr., was chosen foreman, and they went into session at once. All the evidence in our possession was presented, and, on March 15th, 1933, they returned thirty-two indictments.
All those already arrested in connection with the ballot theft were indicted. In addition, Henrietta Martin and her two cohorts in the public horsewhipping of Editor Hall were indicted--as were many other lesser lights--on charges ranging from riotous and disorderly conduct to criminal syndicalism.
And finally the Dictator was reached. He was indicted with the others on burglary charges, as we were now able to show from the various confessions that he not only supervised the original planning to rob the courthouse vault, but also had prepared the alibis for his trusted lieutenants. But this was not all. He was also indicted on several charges of criminal syndicalism, which were more than well founded due to his blasphemous, fiery and threatening speeches and newspaper editorials.
Hearing of the indictments, a huge mass meeting of the Congress was called by Banks. The leaders were now fighting with their backs to the wall. The Dictator was shouting encouragement to his followers. It was at this meeting that he roared, "I am ready to lead the field in open revolution." He climaxed his speech by stating that he would kill the first officer who tried to serve him a warrant. This he followed with a blaring front page announcement in his paper which stated, "I will spill the blood of any officer who attempts to cross my threshold with a warrant for my arrest." And, sadly enough, this was no idle threat.
On the morning following the return of the indictments, when a cold wind was blowing off the Siskiyou Mountains, we made preparations to arrest the raving agitator, Banks. Detective Sergeants Warren and Lumsden were summoned and instructed to follow in a second police car and arrive at the back door of the Dictator's home at the exact moment City Officer Prescott and myself arrived
at the front to serve the warrant.
We took these precautions because informants had tipped us off that Banks planned to kill whoever came after him, flee through the rear and escape to a mountain hideout. Then he was going to produce witnesses to prove that we attempted to "assassinate" him, and that he had had to kill in order to save his own life. His theory was "Dead men tell no tales."
Just as we were preparing to leave, Prescott asked that I delay the matter long enough to permit him to run home and see his wife for a few minutes. She was bedridden, and a trained nurse was in constant attendance. The trouble and strife during the past months and the threats against the lives of the officers, were more than this kindly, motherly woman could bear. Her shattered nerves finally collapsed and she suffered a complete breakdown.
And well that Prescott did spend those precious minutes with his ailing wife, for the endearing words he spoke in that short visit were to be the last he would ever speak to her. As I look back on the whole affair now, I cannot help but feel that he had a very definite premonition. Still he did not hesitate one minute to do his sworn duty. How different from the skulking rats we had been dealing with during the past months.
When Prescott returned we left at once for Banks' palatial residence at 1000 West Main Street. It was a silent trip. Somehow we seemed to feel that either or both of us would not be coming back. It was definitely certain that the Dictator would attempt to make good his threats. He had gone too far to back out now, and he certainly had every advantage in his favor. He would be concealed behind the walls of his home and could shoot first. We were at the disadvantage that some officer, somewhere, has to face every day. He must first be baptized with gunfire before he can return it.
But, we had a sworn duty to perform, even though it might be at the cost of a life. We saw Detective Sergeants Warren and Lumsden taking their places at the rear as we pulled up in front. We had got through this whole nightmare until now without a shot being fired, or a life being lost, and this was to be the last act. If it could only be concluded like the rest.
As we mounted the steps of that gloomy dwelling. I was filled with a strange foreboding. When I knocked at the door, there came a faint noise from within--like that made by some one creeping. Tensely we waited, not knowing at what moment a bullet would come crashing through the door.
After perhaps a minute, I knocked at the door again. This time it began to open slowly until it reached the length of the burglar chain. We were somewhat relieved to see Mrs. Banks appear at the small opening.
Prescott greeted her. "I am sorry, Mrs. Banks}; he said, "but we have a warrant for--"
He never finished the sentence, for, at that moment, I saw Banks suddenly appear from behind a colonnade in the dining room with a rifle leveled directly at us. He shouted "all right" to Mrs. Banks, and I cried a warning to, my companion, seized him and started shoving him out of the line of fire. But I was too late. Banks squeezed the trigger, and the mushroom bullet struck Prescott first in the hand and then penetrated his body.
The momentum of my body carried us both along the porch, finally falling directly in front of a large bay window. I managed somehow to keep the dying officer's head from striking the floor. As I tried to make him comfortable, he muttered two words, "Tell my--" Those were his last. The gallant officer, who had to give a despicable killer the first break, died with but one thought on his mind--his bedridden wife. At his feet lay the warrant for Banks' arrest--covered with blood.
As I got up, I looked through the window just in time to see the grinning killer level his rifle at me. I jumped to my feet and pulled out my service pistol.
At that instant, the great Dictator showed his true colors. Armed with a high-powered, accurate-shooting rifle, he had but one chance in a thousand of missing. He was afraid to take that chance against a small pistol, afraid that he might miss and himself feel the fatal impact of a bullet. He would kill, yes, but only from behind a woman's skirts. Upon seeing my pistol, he had jumped back behind the colonnade from which he first appeared to deal death.
I walked over to the door, tried the latch, and found it locked again. Peering through another window at the other end of the porch, I still could see no one within. Taking refuge behind a pillar. I made the following, notations in my log book:
10:22--Officer Prescott killed. Banks shot with rifle from dining room.The reason for these notations is obvious. Banks was still inside heavily armed and, should he succeed in completing his mission, my log book would serve as evidence.
10:24--exact time this notation. I am on porch.
Meanwhile another scene was being enacted behind Banks' home. Hearing the shot, Warren and Lumsden, with drawn revolvers, crept closer to the back porch. Suddenly a man came bounding through the rear doorway and down the steps. Then, he froze in his tracks as he looked into the barrels of two revolvers in the hands of a pair of grim officers. He was E. A. Fleming, out on bail on the burglary charge, and had been discussing defense plans with Banks at the time we arrived. The two detectives handcuffed him to their car and continued their vigil, guarding the rear door and the garage containing Banks' powerful Cadillac coupé, which was ready for flight.
I carefully considered my next move. Banks had killed a man, and we would be fully justified in blasting him out of the stronghold. Reinforcements, however, were needed for this. Knowing of a telephone in the hallway of a nearby apartment house, which I could use and still keep the front of the house under observation, I decided to try and reach it. I got to the phone safely and put in my call to Headquarters. Soon the sirens could be heard, and. in a few moments, the place was completely surrounded by fifteen grim-faced officers armed with submachine guns, rifles and tear gas guns.
Banks, now realizing that he was hopelessly trapped, decided upon another move to save his cowardly skin. He phoned Captain Bown--who was just leaving to take command of the siege--and offered to surrender. As we were striving to get the fast-gathering crowd out of the line of fire, the Captain drove up, ordering all officers to stay at a distance and hold the crowd back. Then he ran up the steps of that house of death. Was he entering a trap? We felt none too sure as we watched the door slowly open and saw him enter the gloomy interior.
Finally the door opened again and Captain Bown emerged, leading the killer. The latter threw out his chest and assumed his favorite pose for the admiration of his followers. But things had suddenly changed. Instead of his great crowd of followers to cheer and idolize him, he faced an angry, howling mob that suddenly broke through the police ranks yelling for a rope. He was completely overcome with surprise. Hearing the threats to hang him, he was glad to run to the car for the protection of the police, the men he swore to kill and one of whose number lay in death on his front porch.
The situation was completely reversed. It now became our duty to protect the despicable killer from the very people we had been attempting to protect from him. As we strove to keep the angry crowd back, Banks was hustled into Captain Bown's car, which did not stop until it reached the Josephine County jail in. the neighboring county.
Mrs. Banks was also arrested and hustled off to jail. Then, Detective Sergeants Warren and Lumsden and I began an investigation of the premises. The death weapon was lying on a card table in the dining room with the fired shell ejected and another in the chamber ready to deal death. The rifle proved to be a 30.06 Newton, big game rifle and was loaded with the dreaded soft-nosed bullets. Beside it was another gun, a .44 Smith and Wesson revolver with holster and a completely filled cartridge belt. In a hallway leading to the rear door, we found a suitcase fully packed with outdoor clothing, several boxes of ammunition and another gun, a .38 Colt automatic. This find bore out the information we had previously received as to Banks' plans when his arrest would be attempted. And, he was well equipped to continue his campaign of death.
Upon examining his records, we were amazed at the calculating mind of the Dictator. He had planned to get full and complete judicial control of Jackson County, from which he could spread and envelop the entire country in his so-called Good Government Congress, and yet remain immune from prosecution.
More worthy of note than the power he was attaining was the accompanying wealth. Each member was assessed the "small sum" of fifty cents per month. With a boasted membership of 15,000 after only a few months, this was a nice little racket, if nothing else. Had he gone no farther in increasing his membership roll, he would have a neat income of $90,000 per year. And the amazing part of this monetary plan was the provision made for its control. No payoffs for him or big salaries to henchmen. He was to have complete supervision and control and the only mention made of expenditure of dues was that the money was to be used as "working capital."
Although there is much I am not at liberty to reveal regarding the examination of his records, I am firmly convinced the citizens themselves were financing a movement that, had it been permitted to continue a year or two longer, would have brought disastrous results.
Our investigation in the Dictator's stronghold completed, we returned to Headquarters. But so enveloped had we been in the events of the day, we all but forgot the possible aftermath. If we thought things were bad before, we were mistaken. The whole county was in an uproar. Everything pointed to a general uprising. Was this killing going to render nil all our efforts to restore peace and
law and order? The situation was fast threatening to get completely out of control, and Captain Bown sent an emergency call to State Police Headquarters at Salem for thirty additional patrolmen. It was a county gone mad.
In a few hours, state police officers began converging on Medford from all points. The whole third floor of the city hall was turned into quarters for the coming officers. State Police Sergeant E. E. Houston, speeding to the scene with siren screaming, suddenly saw a car dart out of a side road and directly into the path of the speeding police car. There was a screeching of brakes and the squeal of burning rubber; then a terrific crash. Carlos Masters, a Portland realtor, died from his injuries. He was not the last to die before the case was ended. A man upon whose shoulders rested the entire and final responsibility for bringing to an end this terrifying nightmare, was to one day walk out of the courtroom and never return.
One thing we were definitely certain of, however, the Good Government Congress was finished. It was obvious that it was an unlawful organization, dedicated to an unlawful purpose, and its existence would no longer be tolerated in any degree if it took the last officer in the state to effect its end. Patrolmen now lost no time in cracking down on mobs gathering in the streets. Agitators were quickly clamped in jail without warrant, warning or ceremony. We were determined to clean it out to the very core.
Sunday, March 20th, Officer Prescott was laid to rest. Heads were bowed in sorrow at the largest and most impressive funeral in the history of the state. Over 6,000 persons were in attendance, not counting those that lined the streets as spectators. The services were held in the State Armory. Legionnaires stood at attention the full length of the aisles all. through the service. The casket was placed on the stage, which was solidly banked with flowers. And covering the entire background of the huge platform was the thing for which this gallant officer had given his life, the American flag.
We were now faced with the task of bringing the agents of destruction to trial. Not until such was done would the county be restored to peace, happiness and safety. So much depended on the outcome of these vital trials that District Attorney Codding, not wanting to leave any opening for claims of personal prejudice, appealed to Attorney General I. H. Van Winkle for a Special Prosecutor. After a careful study of his staff, the Attorney General appointed Assistant Attorney General William Levins to prosecute the murder and ballot theft. A more capable choice could not have been made, for Mr. Levins had long been known as one of the most noted prosecutors in the state, with a brilliant record of over twenty years' experience as a District Attorney and Assistant Attorney General.
Upon arriving in Medford, he was faced with the seemingly impossible task of acquainting himself with all the facts and preparing the cases for trial in the limited time allowed. He would have hundreds of pages of reports, confessions, etc., to review, but he accepted his task willingly and without complaint.
The leaders of the Congress, however, were still resting in perfect security insofar as fear of conviction was concerned. But we had not been idle in the meantime, and they were due for a jolt, a jolt that was to quickly jar them out of their indifferent, confident attitude and push them back against the wall in fear.
On April 2nd, Wesley McKitrick, the once destined captain of the 250 armed deputies; C. J. Conners, vice president of the Good Government Congress; R. C. Cummings, its organizer; Deputy Sheriff Davis; Earl Bryant; James D. Gaddy, Mason Sexton and Wilbur Sexton, were all brought before Circuit Judge William Duncan for arraignment on the indictments charging them with the crime of burglary. As each in turn was asked what his plea would be, the answer was the
same--guilty. Passing of sentence was withheld pending completion of the remaining trials. This threw the leaders into complete disorder, for the pleas revealed that the prisoners had talked and were no longer co-defendants. Their testimony could now be used to secure convictions.
On April 12th, Banks and his wife, Edythe, were brought into court for arraignment, and it was a dramatic scene. It was to be the first appearance of the Dictator since the killing. Showman that he was, he entered the courtroom, eyes straight ahead, stopped and stood erect to receive the applause of a courtroom filled with his admirers. But there was no sound from the spectators' seats. Slowly he turned his head and gazed to the rear. There were less than a dozen people in that immense room. The vacant seats stared at him like ghosts from a long forgotten past. His empire had crumpled.
Visibly shaken by the absence of his once faithful followers and seeing the chances of a "favorable" jury gone, Banks held a hurried conference with his attorneys. Immediately an application for change of venue was filed. The change was granted and the trial set for May 1st, at Eugene, Oregon, before Circuit Judge George F. Skipworth.
The day before the date of the trial, Assistant Attorney General Levins announced that he was ready. By this time, he was plainly showing the strain of working feverishly night and day. He was fully cognizant of the vital responsibilities that were his. Should this scheming killer get free, he would renew his efforts to create a reign of terror.
The trial of Banks and his wife, on charges of murder in the first degree, opened promptly at 9:30, May 1st. The defendants were represented by Attorneys Frank Lonergan and Joseph Hammersly, of Portland; W. A. Hardy, of Eugene; and W. E. Phipps and T. J. Enright, of Medford. Judge Sturgeon of Los Angeles was also present in an advisory capacity. The trial promised to be the hardest fought legal battle in the history of the state, for no stronger battery of defense attorneys could be found anywhere. Attorneys Lonergan, Hammersly and Hardy are unquestionably three of the best trial lawyers in the State of Oregon.
The state was represented by Assistant Attorney General Levins, assisted by District Attorney Codding, Deputy District Attorney Neilson and Special Deputy District Attorney Ralph Moody. The latter was a valuable asset to the prosecution. He was the son of one of the pioneer governors of Oregon, and, after a brilliant career as an attorney, came to Southern Oregon to retire and enjoy a quiet and peaceful life. Instead, he found himself in the midst of the greatest turmoil it had ever been his experience to witness. Seeing the District Attorney taxed to the limit, he volunteered his assistance, which was accepted with great appreciation.
Selection of the jury began. The state was under the unfair disadvantage of only one challenge to the two allowed the defense under Oregon law. Regardless of these and other odds against him, Assistant Attorney General Levins went ahead with his important and vital task. At the end of the first day, five jurors had been chosen.
The second day the tedious task of selecting the jurors continued until the noon recess. Court convened again at 1:30, but Assistant Attorney General Levins was missing from his place as head of the Prosecution. Then a state police officer entered and whispered to District Attorney Codding. The District Attorney, visibly shocked, sat stunned and frozen to his chair. A moment later, he arose and walked slowly to the bench and whispered a few words to Circuit Judge Skipworth. The gravity of the situation was plainly noticeable as a strange quiet enveloped the entire courtroom.
Judge Skipworth turned slowly to the jurors and bailiffs and instructed that they
retire to their quarters. Then he announced court adjourned for the day. Visibly shaken by the loss of a lifelong friend, the Judge retired to his chambers. Assistant Attorney General Levins was dead. Completely exhausted by overwork and worry over the weight of responsibility, he had collapsed after a hurried lunch. He was rushed to the office of a local doctor, but died of heart failure before medical aid could be administered. And thus ended a brilliant career. Another noble life sacrificed in the fight against Dictator Banks.
Needless to say, the death of Assistant Attorney General Levins was a severe blow to the Prosecution. The State Attorney General now had charge of the case. The District Attorney could not again assume jurisdiction. Yet the trial had started and must go on.
To assign another Assistant Attorney General to the case and expect him to acquaint himself with the mass of evidence within a few hours was out of the question. The bad luck that dogged us from the very start of this bizarre case seemed to have at last won.
When everything seemed the blackest and we were discouraged to the point of discarding everything, a long distance call came from the state capital, instructing us to rush Special Deputy District Attorney Moody to the office of Attorney General Van Winkle. A fast state police car carried him the eighty miles in as many minutes. Three hours later he was back in Eugene, and in his pocket he carried his new commission as Assistant Attorney General for the State of Oregon. Upon being informed of this move by the astute Attorney General, everyone concerned with the Prosecution took on a new spirit of hopefulness.
Although he was in no way prepared to try the case himself, Mr. Moody knew all the facts. He spent the entire night going over the files of the late Mr. Levins, and, by morning, the new Assistant Attorney General announced he was ready to proceed. The jury was not informed of the death of Mr. Levins, and, although visibly curious as to what had happened, they continued without this knowledge until the trial was over.
A parade of witnesses marched to the stand and told of the innermost secrets of the Good Government Congress, the threats against the lives of the officers, the plans to develop a new form of government--in fact, everything that has heretofore been explained to the reader.
I was the last witness to testify for the State. I spent a day and a half on the stand under direct and cross examination, and my testimony covered everything as related earlier in this story. Assistant Attorney General Moody brought my testimony to a dramatic finale by handing me a stained document and asking me to tell the jury what it was. My answer was: "That is the warrant for Mr. Banks' arrest which Officer Prescott and I were attempting to serve." Mr. Moody then asked what was the red substance with which the document was coated. To this I replied, "The blood of the dead officer, George Prescott."
The state's case was complete in every detail. Premeditation was definitely established. We could see no possible defense.
As Attorney Hammersly, who made the opening statement to the jury in behalf of the defendants, got into his speech, we began to see what the defense would be. Banks was going to use the same tactics he had used throughout his career in Jackson County. He was going to try and convert the jury to his principles and claim that due to his "fight for the cause of the people," the moneyed men had conspired against him and made plans to silence him by taking his life. Through knowledge of this, he was driven by indescribable fear to take the life of an officer in order to save his own.
This mode of defense caused no little amount of consternation to the Prosecution. And why shouldn't it? Banks had successfully swayed thousands in this manner, a much greater task than that of convincing "twelve good men and true."
Assistant Attorney General Moody centered his attack on Banks himself. In his closing arguments, he pictured him as a despicable killer, hiding behind the skirts of a woman to take the life of a gallant officer as he performed his sworn duty; an officer who left behind a broken, bedridden wife, who no longer could listen for his footsteps or have his kindly care.
The trial was the most bitterly fought on record and ended May 20th, just one day short of three weeks. The jury retired to deliberate and I returned to Medford to await the verdict.
As the hours passed and no verdict was forthcoming, Assistant Attorney General Moody and all the rest of us were becoming visibly worried.
Saturday passed and Sunday dawned with still no verdict. Was this despicable killer, in spite of a preponderance of evidence, going to escape and again be turned loose on the people to continue his plundering and wrecking?
At two o'clock Sunday afternoon, my phone rang. Eagerly I lifted the receiver and listened tensely as I was told the jury had reached a verdict. Mrs. Banks was acquitted as an accomplice. But the Dictator was found guilty of first degree murder with a recommendation of life imprisonment. From this there could be no escape--no parole.
The following days saw speedy trials for those held for burglary of the courthouse vault. Defense attorneys fought long and bitterly to secure the freedom of their clients, but the mass of evidence now accumulated was too great. John Glenn was the only one to escape conviction when a jury on the Fourth of July, after being cooped up in the small jury room for two days and nights, found him not guilty. The rest were all found guilty, and the convictions automatically stripped them of their official status.
Came the day of sentencing. Davis, Conners, Cummings, Bryant, Caddy and Mason and Wilbur Sexton, all received suspended sentences in view of their assistance to the State. McKitrick, however, although he turned state's evidence, had a past record that could not be overlooked by the Court, and he was sentenced to two years in the Oregon State Penitentiary. Arthur LaDieu, Banks' former business manager, received a similar sentence.
All those indicted on the criminal syndicalism and riotous and disorderly conduct charges were handled by the District Attorney's office and dealt with accordingly. Some received prison sentences and others were put on probation.
Then came the ringleaders of one of the most diabolical plots on record. Once defiant, brazen and drunk with power, today they stood alone at the end of the road, the ultimate end of all criminals--alone and beaten before the bar of justice they once so openly mocked. Thomas Brecheen, ex-Mayor Jones, ex-Sheriff Schermerhorn and ex-County Judge Fehl were all sentenced to spend the next four years behind the cold, gray walls of the Oregon State Penitentiary.
On August 14th, after exhausting every effort to obtain a new trial, the once great Dictator heard the massive gates of the penitentiary close behind him, shutting him off from the outside world and the country that, in his greed for wealth and power, he sought to wreck and plunder. A very befitting end for one who left nothing in his wake but ruin and sorrow. And silenced forever was that organ of hatred and distrust, the Medford Daily News.
Back in Jackson County, when it was all over, a strange lull and quiet prevailed as the people once again breathed the air of a free and peaceful land. Near the beautiful city park in Medford where happy people stroll once again, stands a grim reminder, the monument erected in memory of Officer George Prescott. A lasting tribute to a gallant officer who, knowing that he was going to face a blast of death, did not hesitate for one moment to do his duty.
True Detective, February 1940, pages 44-102
Last revised June 7, 2017