Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Lawmen arrest robbery suspects from wrong crime

A saloon holdup in 1902 led to the arrest of two suspects — from a different robbery.

A pair of masked men entered the Kentucky Saloon in Freewater the evening of August 14, 1902, startling the bartender and his five patrons lined up at the bar. The men were relieved of about $10 in cash and the thieves also rifled the cash drawer, making off with about $150 in total.

Two days later, Umatilla County Sheriff Til Taylor received a phone call saying one of his deputies, Pat Ritchie, had been shot in the leg while attempting to arrest the saloon robbers at a house just outside Athena. After receiving a tip, Ritchie had placed two deputies covering the exits of the house while he began sneaking up on the front of the building. Suddenly, the front door flew open and bullets started flying. Ritchie, whose gun jammed, was hit in the fleshy part of one thigh and fell. The shooters, thinking the deputy was dead, stole his horse and rode away. The other deputies fled the scene without stopping to help Ritchie.

A posse was soon on the trail of the escaped suspects, aided by a pack of bloodhounds from Walla Walla. The posse stopped near Touchet Station after two days of searching and were preparing for dinner when a man raced to their camp saying a Swedish man had been attacked and beaten almost to death by a pair of thugs. Sheriff Taylor’s posse caught up with the bandits a mile and a half away, where a running shootout took place. The suspects managed to escape into the brush and disappear.

On August 19 Sheriff Taylor finally ran one of the suspects to ground, arresting George McDonald as he worked with a threshing crew on the farm of John King near Athena. It was then that the posse discovered they had been trailing the wrong pair of robbers since the altercation near Touchet Station. McDonald confessed to the robbery of the Swedish man and he and his accomplice, who was arrested at a neighboring farm, were turned over to the Walla Walla County sheriff.

And the Kentucky Saloon robbers? Al Cofer, a notorious local outlaw, was fingered as one of the culprits, but he and his partner had disappeared while the posse chased after the Touchet robbery suspects.

Cofer’s criminal career was a long and varied one, having a criminal history in Washington and California as well as serving time in the Oregon penitentiary. The Pendleton native was linked to a gang of stock rustlers in the Butter Creek area and was a champion jailbreaker, escaping from the Heppner jail three times in a five-week period before almost losing his life when he fell down an abandoned well in the dark. A sheepherder out looking for strays rescued Cofer after three days without food and water, and Cofer was arrested again a few days later. To prevent him from escaping again, Cofer was tried and sentenced to the penitentiary immediately. He was released after serving that prison term shortly before the robbery at Freewater.

The mystery of Cofer’s whereabouts was solved almost a year later. Sheriff Taylor read about a train robbery in New Mexico and wrote to the sheriff in Santa Fe, including a photo of Cofer. He was told Cofer had been arrested for the train robbery, and that he and a Mexican prisoner killed a jailer in a subsequent escape attempt. Cofer was sentenced to life in prison for the killing, but was never brought before a judge for the Freewater robbery.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Autograph signing devolves into fisticuffs

A service station in Memphis, Tennessee, erupted into a brawl on Oct. 18, 1956, and when the dust settled Elvis Presley was cleared of disorderly conduct charges while two station employees were fined for starting the fight.

Presley, 21, was in his hometown briefly between tours and had stopped by the station of Ed Hopper to have him check the gas tank of his Lincoln Continental Mark II for leaks. While Presley waited, a crowd gathered at the station and he began signing autographs. The trouble started when the crowd began blocking traffic to the station, and Hopper asked Presley to move on so the station could get back to regular business. “I asked him three times to move, in a nice way,” said Hopper, 42.

Presley agreed to move his car, but dawdled to sign just a few more autographs. Hopper, irate at the delay (and apparently not impressed by Presley’s celebrity status), leaned into the car and slapped Presley on the back of the head, snapping, “I said to move on.”

According to witness Harvey Huff, the 6-foot 1-inch, 185-pound Presley jumped out of the car and landed a right cross on the smaller Hopper, leaving a gash near his left eye. Hopper then allegedly tried to pull a pocket knife on Presley. A policeman and another bystander broke up the fight, but station attendant Aubrey Brown waded into the fray and took a swing at Presley, who grazed Brown with another right.

All three men appeared in court the next morning, Hopper sporting a beaut of a black eye. Judge Sam Friedman fined Hopper $25 and Brown $15 for assault and battery, and Presley was cleared of disorderly conduct charges.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Hermiston sisters shun bus, ride horses to school

Located in Eastern Oregon, Hermiston recently passed Pendleton as the largest city in the region. But with its largest economic engine in irrigated farming, Hermiston is still considered a rural community. Many of the area’s children live outside the city limits and rely on school buses to get to and from school. But in 1987 sisters Connie and Ciara Christiansen were eschewing the normal transportation arrangement for a more enjoyable conveyance: the family horses.

Connie, a fourth-grader, and Ciara, a first-grader, mounted up every morning, rain or shine, and trotted the five-minute route to Highland Hills Elementary School. Since Connie began riding her horse to school as a first-grader in 1983, the school bus no longer stopped at the family’s North Ott Road ranch. Their father, Gerth Christiansen, contended the one-mile trip wasn’t too bad even in cold weather, and the horses could make the trip faster than the school bus. The girls took the main roads into town and left the horses in a pasture owned by Dr. Milton Johnson, near the school on Highland Avenue.

In 1986, when Ciara first joined her sister on the daily rides, she had to catch a shuttle at Highland Hills to the First Christian Church across town, where she attended kindergarten. One morning she missed the shuttle, so she rode her horse to the church to avoid being late. When the principal found the horse tied to the flagpole outside the church, she ordered Ciara to ride the horse back to the pasture and met her there with her car to give her a lift back to school.

In trade for using the pasture, the girls helped train Dr. Johnson’s granddaughter’s pony.

Each day after school, the girls walked the block back to the pasture, often accompanied by friends who watched them exercise their steeds with wistful expressions. But the girls couldn’t dawdle; Connie and Ciara were expected at home to help dad with the chores, where Gerth Christiansen bred and trained 80 head of jumping horses.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Dishes turn deadly in 1924 house fire

Homesteading in the early days of the pioneer West often called for living in camp-like conditions. A McKay Creek family was visited by tragedy when the simple act of washing the dinner dishes led to a conflagration that took the life of a 19-year-old mother of two.

Maurice Hall worked as a teamster on the McKay Dam construction project near Pendleton. Mabel Lackey Hall, Maurice’s wife, was preparing to washing dishes from the evening meal about 5 p.m. on December 15, 1924, in the family’s home, a combination canvas tent and wooden shack. Mabel pulled a pan of boiling water off the stove and picked up a nearby bucket to cool the wash water.

The bucket contained gasoline instead of water.

The resulting explosion immediately ignited the interior of the house. Mabel frantically grabbed what she thought was her older child, two-year-old Leslie, and ran out of the house. But the boy was still inside the home when Mabel burst out the door, engulfed in flames. Maurice and a neighbor, C.A. Piquet, were talking about 100 feet from the house when she appeared. They beat out the flames on her clothes and in her hair, and then rushed into the inferno when Mabel screamed that the children were still inside the burning building.

Young Leslie made it outside on his own, but Maurice and Mr. Piquet had to break out a window at the back of the house to rescue the three-month-old baby from his crib. The baby was unscathed, but Leslie suffered burns to his arm, hips and head. He and his mother were rushed to St. Anthony Hospital in Pendleton, where Mrs. Hall succumbed to her injuries.