January 3, 2013 in Washington Voices

Landmarks: Lawman’s murder unsolved for 54 years

By The Spokesman-Review
 
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The gravestone of George Conniff is seen at Greenwood Memorial Terrace in Spokane.
(Full-size photo)

About this feature

Landmarks is a regular feature about historic sites, buildings and monuments that often go unnoticed – signposts for our local history that tell a little bit about us and the region’s development.

If you have a suggestion for the Landmarks column, contact Stefanie Pettit at upwindsailor@comcast.net.

In the middle of September 1935 a Newport, Wash., marshal was making his nightly rounds. He was mortally wounded by gunfire when he happened upon a burglary at the Newport Creamery He died the next day in a Spokane hospital.

His murder, which had been called the nation’s oldest active murder case, was finally solved 54 years later when in 1989 three-term sheriff of Pend Oreille County and former Spokane police Officer Tony Bamonte began a dogged pursuit of the truth. What followed was a complex investigation that revealed duplicity, a cover-up, corruption and culpability by police officers, one of whom turned out to be the murderer. The investigation, begun when Bamonte was writing a master’s thesis in organizational management at Gonzaga University in which he examined law enforcement in northeast Washington, also became the subject matter of a popular nonfiction book “Breaking Blue” by Timothy Egan.

George Conniff was working as a night marshal in Pend Oreille County to help supplement the family’s income. He and his wife, Alma, farmed in Spring Valley, his granddaughter Leah Hansel said recently, and the income from his night job was greatly helpful during those days of the Great Depression.

After the shooting, he was first taken to Newport Hospital and then transferred to Spokane. He was buried at Riverside Memorial Terrace under a simple ground-level marker. When his wife, Alma Skog (she had remarried), died in 1955, she was buried next to her first love.

In his book “Sheriffs 1911-1989, A History of Murders in the Wilderness of Washington’s Last County,” Bamonte, now retired in Spokane and a writer and editor of regional historic material, recounted how the investigation of the butter burglary gone bad continued without much success for two decades.

George and Alma Conniff had three children – George Jr., Mary and Olive – all of whom wanted closure. Leah Hansel, Olive’s daughter, remembered: “Mom was a good Christian woman who didn’t have any anger but who always felt that someone, someday would make a deathbed confession and then they’d finally know.”

No such confession ever took place, but Bamonte’s investigation solved the case, including implicating a Spokane police detective in the murder and locating the murder weapon in the Spokane River, where it had been tossed decades earlier. It was a remarkable discovery, after so many years, and it brought much relief to the marshal’s three children, all of whom were elderly when they learned the truth, Hansel said.

Bamonte recalled that when he gathered the three Conniff offspring and told them the true story, “everyone was upset, everyone was in tears. But they wanted to know, and they deserved to know, as do all people who lose a parent or any loved one to violence.”

Hansel, of course, never knew her grandfather, but she said her mother Olive always talked about what a kind family man he was: “He was born near Missoula, the youngest of 14 children of Irish immigrant parents, and his father fought in the Civil War. I’ve been doing some research and know that George Conniff worked in the timber and lumber industry when he was young and met my grandmother at a logging camp near Lolo. I’m not sure what brought them to the Newport area, following the work maybe, but I know he worked at an ice house in Blanchard for a while.”

Lying at rest at Riverside beside George Conniff and Alma are their daughter, Olive Pearce, who died in 2004, and her husband Jay D. Pearce, who died in 2008. Hansel said she and her husband are purchasing a bench that will be placed by those graves, and their own cremated remains will be placed within it when they die.

“I was always close with my parents, so it just seemed like a good idea to do this.”


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