October 24, 2010 in City

Ex-boxer said he and murder victim fought over teeth

By The Spokesman-Review
 
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Criminal history

It’s not hard to rattle off the names of notorious criminals in the Inland Northwest’s recent past: Joseph Duncan. Robert Yates Jr. Kevin Coe.

But long before these names appeared in the newspapers, other killers and criminals captivated the region’s attention and filled the news pages.

For this special series, reporter Meghann M. Cuniff went deep into The Spokesman-Review and Spokane Daily Chronicle archives to unearth the stories of killers whose names used to be right on the tips of residents’ tongues.

The taunting note on the dead man’s chest was the first clue.

“This will teach you not to fool with married women or sell bum whiskey,” it read, pinned to the clothes of a man with a history of bootlegging liquor during Prohibition.

It was Sept. 4, 1944, and the bludgeoned body of John Coffeen, 61, had been discovered inside his home at 205 N. Magnolia St. in Spokane. There was a gun next to his body, but police said it hadn’t been fired.

Coffeen had been beaten to death and died in a pool of his own blood. A washcloth was stuffed in his mouth and an old Army shirt placed over his head.

The headline in the Spokane Daily Chronicle the next day screamed, “Man Murdered on North Side: Note on Chest Says Sale of Whiskey Was Reason.”

But the motive for Coffeen’s murder, which investigators said took place Sept. 2, turned out to be more complex.

Ex-Spokane boxer Martin Needham, 43, soon told police he’d killed Coffeen, his former boxing manager, in a dispute over payment for Needham’s two front teeth, which were knocked out in a fight in the 1920s.

Coffeen demanded Needham repay him the cash spent to replace the teeth.

“We got to fighting over this, and in self-defense I fought back,” Needham told police, according to a Sept. 13, 1944, article. “Finally I clipped him on the chin and knocked him out. He had been making a lot of noise, so I stuck a gag in his mouth.”

Needham couldn’t explain the note except to say that, according to the article, “he did write something before he left.”

Handwriting samples identified Needham as the note’s author, but Needham later denied leaving the note.

Several Spokane residents told police they saw Needham gamble away hundreds of dollars – using two wallets – just after Coffeen’s murder.

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