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.

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