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Thurston County, Washington

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History of the Thurston County Sheriff's Office

1852 - 2009

By Chief Criminal Deputy Jim Chamberlain


The Thurston County area was first settled in about 1845. The area became part of the Oregon Territory of the United States in 1848. The area was originally part of a county called Lewis County for the next 4 years. Thurston County was first formed by the Oregon Territorial Council in January 1852. Thurston County then encompassed most of what is now Western Washington. Olympia was named the county seat in July of that year. Andrew J. Simmons was elected Sheriff of Thurston County, Oregon Territory in 1852 and was responsible for law enforcement in our area.

The Washington Territory was created in March 1853. Olympia, population 996, was the named the Territorial capital. The current boundaries were established in 1877.

The first Sheriff of Thurston County, Washington was appointed by the Governor and not elected. His name was Franklin Kennedy and he served in 1854. Sheriff Kennedy had arrived in this area by covered wagon in 1853 and owned property in the Kamilche area. Kennedy Creek was named for him. He later served as a judge in Mason County.

The first Deputy Sheriff for this area appears to have been A. Benton Moses who served Sheriff Simmons in 1852. He was killed in 1855 serving in the militia during the Washington Territory Indian Wars of 1855-1857. The famous Chief Leschi of the Nisqually tribe was convicted of leading the uprising in which Moses was killed. He was sentenced to be hanged in 1858. Thurston County Sheriff Isaac Hays refused to be a part of this miscarriage of justice which was thought to be an act of war not murder. The hanging was carried out by Deputy Sheriff William Mitchell and a posse of 12 men at Steilacoom when Sheriff Hays was absent. Chief Leschi was later exonerated in modern retrial by the “Historical Court of Justice”, which was chaired by Washington State Supreme Court’s Chief Justice in 2004.

Another murder case involved Yelm Jim (Owholit), a Native American of the Nisqually tribe, convicted of murdering his employer, William White, in March 1858. When Jim was not locked up in the local log blockhouse, he was shackled and allowed to play with Sheriff (1858-1860) George C. Blankenship’s young son at their home. The blockhouse, which acted as the first jail, was located in downtown Olympia in what was then called Capital Park. He was eventually pardoned by the Governor and released. George E. Blankenship, son of the Sheriff, and Owholit remained friends for years afterward. This is an example of the complex relationships and conflicts between the early pioneers and the Native Americans of the area.

The longest serving Sheriff in the history of the department was named William Billings. He moved to Olympia in 1851. This adventurous New Englander, served on a whaling ship in the Pacific in 1848, prospected for gold in California in 1849, was a member of the Free Soil and Whig political parties in 1854 (forerunners of the Republican party), served in the militia in 1855, survived a hurricane off Cape Hatteras in 1857, and was superintendent of the Puyallup Indian Reservation in late 1862.

He served as Sheriff for 12 terms (terms were two years at that time) or 24 years till 1891. He was the first Republican official elected in this county. His first term was from 1860 to 1862 but he did not complete it. In 1862, he heard the call of the gold fields in Idaho and tried his hand at prospecting on the Salmon River. His Deputy, R.W. Moxlie, assumed his duties and was elected Sheriff in the 1862 election and served till 1865. Billings ran for Sheriff again in 1868 and was re-elected 11 times in a row.

Sheriff Billings is famous for building the first county jail of brick from his own brickyard on 4th Avenue and Eastside Street in Olympia. The jail was located at Legion and Adams Street. It was in constant use till 1903. In 1874, Sheriff Billings also built and ran the first territorial prison at Seatco, now Bucoda. He was allowed to use the inmates as laborers and was paid 70 cents a day for housing them in his privately owned prison. It operated till 1887 when the prison at Walla Walla opened. Washington became a state in 1889. The 19th century closed with the son of William Billings serving as Sheriff.

Charles Billings, born on the Puyallup reservation, served as Thurston County Sheriff from 1896-1900. He was involved in two shootings during his time as Sheriff. In December 1897, a jail inmate named James Cronin attacked the Sheriff with slung shot (blackjack) in an escape attempt. A well-directed shot from the Sheriff’s revolver stopped the escape and nearly cost the inmate his life. The second incident occurred as Charles was bringing in a prisoner in his buggy and was looking for something to tighten the wheel. His revolver fell out of its holster and discharged. He was struck near the heart, suffered a broken rib and a punctured lung. The unknown prisoner tied the buggy wheel on with cords and raced it to Olympia. The Sheriff survived thanks to his prisoner. How ironic for a Sheriff to almost kill one prisoner only to be saved by another.

March 1, 1903 at 1500 hours, we suffered the loss of our first Deputy Sheriff killed in the line of duty. Deputy David Morrell was killed during an escape from the jail by prisoner Christ Benson. Deputy Morrell was putting the prisoners back in the cells after their dinner when he was struck by Benson with a piece of pipe pried from the jail walls. Deputy Morrell tried to fire his revolver but was disarmed. Benson then shot him to death and escaped. A trusty had summoned Sheriff Jesse T. Mills’ wife from her home. She responded to the jail with a revolver and kept the rest of the prisoners from escaping. Benson was eventually caught and convicted of manslaughter. Deputy Morrell’s name is etched on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington D.C. as well as on the memorial for Washington’s finest near the state capital building.

A couple of months later, Sheriff Mills closed the old brick jail (which had served 585 arrestees since 1897) built under Sheriff W. Billings. A new two-story stone facility with modern security features such as Bessemer steel-lined cells and double-barred windows was opened in cooperation with the City of Olympia. Deputies could use levers to open and close cells without coming into direct contact with inmates until they were ready to handle them. Deputy Morrell might not have died if the new jail had been in operation two months earlier.

Sheriff Mills had been a deputy for Sheriff C. Billings and Sheriff G. Gaston. He made 105 of the arrests that were deposited in the old jail. He founded Mills and Mills funeral home in Olympia in 1915 and was Mayor of Olympia during World War I.

Sheriff E.A. McClarty assumed office in 1904. He was a Spanish-American war veteran. He participated in the charge up San Juan Hill where his unit, the 16th Infantry Regiment, planted the first American flag on top of the Spanish blockhouse.

Sheriff Thomas Connelly (1906-1908) was the first to use an automobile in his job in 1907, when he borrowed a friend’s car to rush to Tacoma. He was getting a half-tone photo of suspected murderer Jesse White reproduced for public notification. White was alleged to have stabbed Frank Lamp 30-60 times on the wooden bridge near the Olympia Brewery where Lamp worked. Lamp lived long enough to identify his attacker.

Prohibition in the form of the 18th Amendment was enacted in 1920. However, Thurston County Sheriff John Gifford (1916-1920) had been busting moonshiners since 1918. Court records show 20 misdemeanors and 9 felony violations with nine stills busted in 1920. One intrepid burglar in an attempt to try and steal confiscated liquor tried to break into the county jail by sawing through two steel bars and busting the wooden window cover to the cell where the alcohol was stored. He was unsuccessful and Sheriff Gifford had to destroy several hundred quarts of illegal liquor as a result to prevent another attempt.

A high profile murder case occurred during Sheriff Gifford’s term. The case involved a ship caulker named Norman E. Burnette, who shotgunned his wife and two children in a fit of rage when she told him he was not the father of the youngest boy in May 1918. He buried them in a shallow grave on Hawks Prairie but hunters discovered the bodies several months later. Mr. Burnette confessed on the witness stand and was sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labor for first degree murder.

The need for jail space for female and juvenile prisoners led to a $10,485. renovation of the stone jail in 1919. It would now hold 30 prisoners.

Sheriff Gifford bought a five-passenger 1920 Dodge for the department with $1100. from liquor fines in July 1920. His old Dodge which he sold to the county in 1917 may have been the department’s first county-owned vehicle. He is said to have driven it 30,000 miles.

Sheriff Claud Havens came into office in 1925 (1925-1934) to fill the term of Sheriff Jackson who resigned to go back to ranching. He continued the fight against illegal liquor by destroying 453 stills. The Sheriff’s Office consisted of five Deputy Sheriffs and one Chief Deputy in addition to the Sheriff. The department had five cars but were without two-way radios. The budget for the office was $12,645.45 and $4,238.25 for the jail in 1928.

In 1930, a new sandstone courthouse opened across from the Capital building with a new jail on the top floor that started with 20 and would eventually hold 56 inmates after two upgrades. During Sheriff Havens’ tenure the department was credited with 1807 arrests of which 1,000 were for liquor violations. He also introduced the first department K-9, a bloodhound named “Sad Sam”.

Sheriff Havens received great acclaim when he broke up a large demonstration headed to Olympia called the “Hunger March” in 1933. This march was a protest of 5,000 out-of-work men who threatened to take over the Capital building and according to the Daily Olympian “terrorize the town”. Sheriff Havens and his Deputies meet the unruly group with a cadre of deputized citizens including a large group of longshoremen, Olympia P.D. and Washington Highway Patrol officers, near the top of the State Street hill and managed to prevent any trouble by this show of force. Sheriff Havens also experienced a major heroin case, an attempted jail break, two murders, and a hostage situation in which he was shot at during his tenure. It was definitely the Roaring 20s under Sheriff Havens.

Sheriff L.C. Huntamer (1934-1942), finished serving out the 1930’s. His salary was $200 a month and his deputies made $135. The budget had grown to $34,000 with six Deputies. The office still had only five cars but some had two-way radios. He introduced the first uniform to the department worn by Deputy Frank Kenney. The first female deputy was Maude O’Brien, who was Chief Civil Deputy and matron for Sheriff Huntamer.

​Frank Tamblyn (1942-1954), a Deputy for Sheriff Huntamer, was elected in 1941. He had eight Deputies and they were paid around $210 a month. The first Sheriff’s Posse, a mounted volunteer unit, was started in 1951. His time in office saw two high-profile murder convictions as well as the Sheriff himself being accused of a killing.

The “Snow White” murder of 31-year-old Frida Becker occurred in 1948 near Yelm. A witness who recalled part of a license plate led Deputies to the suspect. Over a year later, the repeated visits of Chief Deputy Ed Stearns got the suspect to crack and subsequently confess to killing Frida with a rock when she refused his sexual advances and threatened to tell her parents. The case made the “Detective” magazines and earned the moniker “the Snow White Murder” which was the neighborhood children’s nickname for Frida due to the victim’s kind and innocent personality.

June 1948 saw the second Deputy to die in the line of duty. This time it was Deputy John Johnson who was assigned to Tenino as their town police officer. He died at the wheel of his police car of a stroke.

The double murder of Geneva and L.E. Jessup by a handsome ex-con named Bruce Perkins nearly cost a Jail Deputy, George Tindall, his life. A recently-released cellmate of Perkins had agreed to break Perkins out of jail for several thousand dollars. Don Rixie came to the jail at the Courthouse on Capital Way on March 25th, 1949 and pointed a gun at the Deputy on duty and ordered him to release Perkins. Deputy Tindall dove through a nearby doorway and slammed the door. Rixie fired through the door grazing the Deputy in the back then fled but was later arrested. Perkins was convicted of the double murder and Rixie was sentenced to 25 years.

Sheriff Tamblyn’s chances for re-election dimmed in 1952 when he was vilified during the election for having caused the death of a man. The Sheriff allegedly struck the man in the stomach during an arrest and the man later died in the county jail. No charges were ever brought against the Sheriff but the mere suspicion caused the public to vote for his opponent and Deputy, Clarence Van Allen.

The new Sheriff served 4 terms and brought many modern innovations and changes to the office. These included a criminologist and polygraphist (Hank Baesen), a Reserve Deputy program (1954), a Dive Team (1956), Civil Service testing (1959), a Standard Operating Procedure manual (1960), four K-9 teams (1967), standard state authorized uniforms and equipment including shotguns and riot helmets, matron/dispatchers, fully marked patrol cars, and 24 hours a day patrol.

1959 saw the Office battling the County Commissioners for more pay. Deputies were approved to work unlimited hours for $380./month. Deputies opposed working only 56 hours a week as they said that was not enough time to do everything necessary to perform their duties with the staff available, according to Undersheriff John Wagner. Wagner was the first Thurston County Deputy to graduate from the prestigious F.B.I. National Academy.

The 1960’s were just as turbulent for Sheriff Van Allen and his Deputies as for the rest of America. Sheriff Van Allen faced a coroner’s inquest in February, 1961, when he and Deputy Ernie Dennis (future Tumwater Police Chief) shot and killed an escaped mental patient and suspected burglar, James Greene. The Sheriff and his Deputy were using military surplus .30 caliber carbines they had purchased with their own money. Apparently they were trying to shoot low and inadvertently killed the fleeing suspect as he ran down a railroad track near Fairview Road SW. The shooting was ruled justifiable homicide by jury of 6 local businessmen.

The 1960s saw conflicts with Nisqually Tribal members over fishing rights which were dubbed the “Fish Wars”. The Native Americans received support from outside the local area in their conflict with our Deputies and Washington State Fisheries Officers. Members of the Black Panther party had to be disarmed at gunpoint in one conflict on Conine Road. Activist Dick Gregory spent some time at the County jail after being arrested for civil disobedience for protesting in support of Indian fishing rights. He was visited by the likes of Jane Fonda, Robert Culp and Marlon Brando according to former Undersheriff Tony Sexton. The fishing rights issue was eventually resolved by the famous Boldt decision in 1974.

The force grew to 28 employees, 23 of which were Deputies and 5 were civilians mostly matrons, by 1967. One department car, a 1967 Ford, was equipped with a 427 cubic inch engine and after a little tinkering by Deputies was clocked on radar at 167 M.P.H. on I-5, recalls Deputy David Hooper.

September 1969 was notable for the Sky River Rock Festival which was held near Tenino. The Sheriff had to deal with drugs, nudity, illegal fires, blaring music, outlaw motorcycle gang members, prostitution and a variety of behaviors that was unheard of in this quiet rural area of southern Thurston County. The crowd at this mini-Woodstock was estimated by one journalist at 20,000 people.

Westport Police Chief and former Undersheriff for Sheriff Van Allen, Don Redmond (1971-1979), defeated his former boss in the 1970 election. He built on Van Allen’s innovations and added some of his own. He started programs like Crime Watch, the Mobile Substation Van, a volunteer Jeep Patrol, School Bicycle Safety program and Work Release in the Jail. He also saw a new Thurston County Courthouse and Jail built above Capital Lake. New equipment such as electric typewriters, tape recorders, light bars for the patrol cars and a “dumb” computer terminal to run license plates, stolen property and warrant checks replaced manual typewriters, dictation, single blue “bubble” lights and a teletype machine.

Sheriff Redmond’s two terms saw its fair share of challenges in combating crime too.

In February 1971, Deputy George Green was severely wounded when he was shot by a barricaded man off the Nels Brown Road.. The 30-30 rifle bullet went through a bull horn Deputy Green was holding and struck him in the face. He survived due to the fast actions to rescue him by other Deputies. The suspect was apprehended after being wounded in the leg by Undersheriff Jack Crawford.

A new group of rock festival promoters who called themselves the “Dinosaurs” held their outdoor rock festivals on private property at the end of Reichle Road SE near the Bald Hills in 1975.

Notorious serial killer Ted Bundy found one of his victims here, in 1972, when he kidnapped Donna Gail Manson from the Evergreen State College. He confessed to her murder before he was executed but her body has never been located.

The largest marijuana growing operation in the county’s history was discovered off James Road SW in 1975. Over 39,000 plants had to be removed by over 40 Deputies and volunteers. Organized crime was suspected as behind the operation. Only one suspect was ever charged.

Prisoners in the Jail rioted twice in 1976. On one occasion, the main tank prisoners set mattresses and bedding on fire which filled the jail with smoke. K-9s were brought in to drive the prisoners back into their cells. Prisoners got locked down for several days with only peanut butter and lettuce sandwiches to eat.

The biggest problem for Sheriff Redmond was the sauna parlors. Sauna parlors invaded the east side of the county along Martin Way in the mid-1970’s. These businesses were suspected fronts for prostitution and had names like “Pink Panther”, ‘Judy’s”, “King & I”, “Petite French”, and “Magic Fingers”. The Sheriff was accused of using “terror tactics” by the parlor owners in his battle with them. A two-year effort involving raids, undercover operations, and a new “Sauna Masseuse” licensing ordinance finally drove these operations out of the county.

1976 saw Deputies starting at $768.00 a month. The new Corrections facility that opened in 1978, along with the new courthouse, was a major improvement over the old jail (in the sandstone courthouse across from the State Capital). Electronic systems to open doors, a multi-camera surveillance system and intercoms allowed the new facility to hold 88 prisoners in concrete cell blocks without the traditional cell bars. Deputies would no longer work the jail but a new group of employees called Corrections Officers was created that would staff the new Corrections facility.

The 911 model of policing was popular during the late 1970’s and 1980’s as the most efficient way to provide law enforcement services to the public by putting cops in cars, who would respond to radio calls from dispatchers in a central communications center who would answer the emergency calls from citizens. The 911 emergency phone system made it easier, faster, and more efficient to get help to those with an emergency than ever before. Since they no longer had to dispatch the Deputies, several of our Matron/dispatchers transferred into the new 911 Dispatch Center in the basement of building 3 of the new courthouse to become full time dispatchers. The 911 system arrived in 1978.

Dan Montgomery (1979-1987), a former California Highway Patrol officer, replaced Redmond after a bitter election which divided the department in November 1978. He continued his predecessor’s efforts to make the office more professional and capable.

He formed a S.W.A.T. team after an officer-involved shooting in June 1979 demonstrated the need for better armed and specially trained Deputies for high risk situations.

The situation involved Deputy Pat Sweeney, who shot George Parker at the KOA campground off Kimmie Street SW. Parker had taken a young boy hostage and was armed with a rifle. When he pointed his rifle at the Deputy, Sweeney fired then ran forward and rescued the child. Deputies were only equipped with revolvers and shotguns at the time. The first light-weight ballistic vests were issued to Deputies the same year. 1985 saw the approval of semi-automatic pistols for Deputies and the first automatic weapons (Uzis) for S.W.A.T. which further enhanced our ability to deal with armed criminals.

The Office had grown to 79 employees, and a 2.4 million dollar budget by 1980. The unincorporated County had 75,000 people. There were 30 Deputies in patrol and 6 in Detectives. 19,728 calls for service were handled that year. Deputies were making from $1155. to $1637. a month.

A new motorcycle traffic unit was formed and brought three Kawasaki 1000 motorcycles into the agency in 1983. Three Deputies were trained as motor officers to ride these machines to investigate accidents and apprehend drunk drivers. The interlocal Narcotics Task Force was formed by Olympia, Lacey, Tumwater, and the Sheriff’s Office joining forces to form this specialized investigative unit to work on the illegal drug problem in 1981. The first Drug Abuse Resistance Education classes (D.A.R.E.) taught by Deputies during this period.

The Jail went through a major expansion and remodel which was completed in1986. The expansion added a whole new two-story cell block and other improvements. The construction was accomplished while the existing facility was still occupied. The new expanded facility would be able to house 145 inmates.

Deputy Gary Edwards ran against his boss in 1986 and defeated him in the primary election and easily won the general election. Sheriff Edwards (1987-2007) would be the second longest serving Sheriff in our history being elected to five straight terms. He is also one of the most memorable.

In 1989, the Sheriff shot and killed a fugitive after a wild car chase through the south county in which a County Commissioner was his passenger. This was just one of many controversial pursuits by the “Working Sheriff”.

Rainbow Valley, a 42-acre site along the Black River, was created in 1990 and events called “Peace gatherings” patrolled by a private security force of tie-dyed T-shirt-clad “Trout Scouts” were held at the site. The neighbors and Deputies called these gatherings rock concerts and a public nuisance. A nearly 10-year enforcement effort over these festivals ended with Rainbow Valley being forfeited to the Narcotics Task Force and sold to the Nature Conservancy to preserve as a wetland.

One of the biggest challenges under Sheriff Edwards was the proliferation of small but dangerous clandestine Methamphetamine labs which began increasing in 1998. In May 2000, two methamphetamine cooks were killed off Tilley Road when their clandestine lab exploded. A cooperative effort with local narcotics officers and the creation of the Special Enforcement Team to seek out and shut down these labs was one of his biggest accomplishments. The number of these small labs plummeted in just a few years from 150 incidents to near zero by the end of his tenure.

Corrections expanded its programs to include electronic home monitoring, day jail, chemical dependency, and several more that helped control an inmate population which had grown to 367 by 1998. The Corrections facility had tried to keep pace by double bunking each cell in 1993 and opening a 92-bed annex in 1996.

Y2K arrived with the new Millennium but caused few major problems. A Presidential visit by President Bill Clinton occurred in 2000 in which the campaigning president stopped in Yelm and Tenino.

  • The New Millennium saw economic problems due to shrinking revenues hit the Office more than once. Sheriff Edwards was faced with laying off five Deputies in 2003due to his budget being cut by the County Commissioners. These were the first lay-offs of Deputy Sheriffs since the early 1980’s, but more drastic. Things improved and most of these positions were recovered by the end of Sheriff Edwards’ fifth term in 2006.

    Sheriff Edwards had seen the department grow to 86 Deputies, 80 Corrections Officers and over 210 total employees by 2005. The budget was over 22 million dollars and there were 126,450 people in the unincorporated county. A starting Deputy Sheriff was making $4110. a month. Sheriff Edwards truly believed in serving the public especially the rural south county. He expanded the resident deputy program and created five patrol districts to improve response time. He implemented the use of Radars, Mobile Computer Terminals, Tazers, Pepper Spray, .223 rifles and cameras in patrol vehicles. He authorized the use of Precision Immobilization techniques and portable spike systems to stop high speed pursuits. He also acquired the first department helicopter. The budget had grown so complicated that a Chief Deputy position was created just to deal with the finances of the office. He brought the G.R.E.A.T. school program to the rural county and continued D.A.R.E. too. He also established our Sex Offender Registration unit to keep track and warn the public about the most dangerous offenders.

    The current Sheriff, Dan Kimball, succeeded his boss, as many Deputy Sheriffs had done before in our history, in 2007. He arrived on a platform of “Creating a Safer Community Together”. He implemented technology based improvements such as on-line reporting of crimes over the internet, a “Community Alert” network of neighborhood groups to which we could email crime alerts, a graphical-interfaced Crime Map that plots several crimes within eight hours, a Computer Forensics detective position, and a new Records Management System. He also made the office more efficient by eliminating some command positions so the Patrol Division could be increased. He created a Community Outreach Deputy to improve communication with the public and saw the beginning of construction on a new Corrections Facility called the A.R.C. (Accountability and Restitution Center). However, the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression hit Thurston County hard in 2008.

    The worst reduction in force to ever hit the Sheriff’s Office began by mid-2008 and resulted in seven Deputy Sheriff positions, four civilian jobs, and three Corrections Deputies being lost for 2009. The crisis deepened in 2009 with county revenues continuing to decline, and the Sheriff was forced to battle with the Commissioners to prevent the loss of up to 25 Deputy Sheriffs. The final results are still pending as this documentation of our history ends. The next several years will continue to be a challenge for the men and women of the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office - the best law enforcement agency in the state in my opinion but I am biased.

    Jim Chamberlain, July 4, 2009