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The Cline Gang: Woman discovers truth behind her family’s murderous past

UPDATED: Sun., Sept. 15, 2019

Lila Peterson looks through her many family photos and clippings which tell the story of her mother's family, the Clines, at the office where she works in Spokane Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019.  The Clines became the scourge of police from the 1930s to the 1960s, committing hundreds of thefts around the region.  Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Lila Peterson looks through her many family photos and clippings which tell the story of her mother's family, the Clines, at the office where she works in Spokane Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019. The Clines became the scourge of police from the 1930s to the 1960s, committing hundreds of thefts around the region. Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Lila Peterson thought she had a normal childhood.

Her friends always wanted to come over to her house, because her mom, Jessie Cline, was fun and gave them money to go buy ice cream.

Her dad was a farmer and aspiring musician. Her stepdad was a successful business man.

Animals of every kind – dogs, cats, chickens, geese, and even a skunk – were household pets.

She never got picked on at school.

Lila was happy.

Jesse Tinsley -

So she brushed off her mother encouraging her younger sister Liz’s kleptomania as a sick game they played. And she thought the frequent lies they told her were odd and mostly harmless.

But as a result of growing up taking everything her mother said with a healthy dose of skepticism, Lila was left with many questions about some dark moments in her mother’s life after her death in February 2014. Two of those mysteries involved people who were killed.

Just before her mom died in a nursing home, Lila decided to ask an uncle, Jay Cline, about her mother’s life. She knew she’d never get a straight answer from her mom.

They set up a visit with Jay’s wife, Phyllis Cline, and two of his children. Lila brought a tape recorder to document some of her family history and get some answers.

Mostly, she wanted to know if her mom ever said anything to her uncle about the murder of Lila’s stepfather, Don Folkman. But she also was curious if the rumor was true that her mother and father were responsible for the disappearance of one of Jessie’s former lovers.

Lila learned the answers to those questions were both yes, but got more information than she bargained for.

Not only was her mother implicated in the murder of two former lovers, but she learned the Cline family was a multigenerational Spokane criminal enterprise that is among the most notorious in the region’s history. Their crimes ranged from petty theft to safe heists and possibly murder.

Suddenly, Lila’s unusual upbringing and her mother’s oddities began to make sense.

The Cline Family

Lee and Leone Cline raised Jessie Cline and her six older siblings to steal.

It was the 1930s and times were hard.

There were few jobs, so the family moved from place to place between Spokane and western Montana, often camping.

They made money scavenging for scrap metal and supplementing those dollars by stealing fruit and vegetables from farmers, as well as bags of freshly sheared wool to sell at markets.

Lila found the beginnings of a story Jessie wrote about her childhood in a box of her things after she died. The family was stealing produce from a field when gunshots rang out. The Clines fled to their car to find bullet holes in the bumper.

“That’s the only thing I’ve ever read or ever seen from my mother’s perspective about her childhood,” she said. “She didn’t write much down. She probably had to hide things her entire life and was just very careful.”

But not all of the Cline family’s thievery was simply for survival.

Jessie’s mother, Leone Cline, wanted to make sure her kids had a normal childhood, too. They never missed out on Christmas or birthday presents, because she always got the best deals – via “five-finger discount,” as Lila referred to the family’s shoplifting.

That tradition continued into her years as a grandparent. But Lila’s fondest memories are of Leone’s lessons about flowers and birds, as well as digging through the scrap heap behind her grandparents’ Spokane Valley mobile home.

So it was impressed on the Cline children from a young age and throughout their lives to simply take what they could when they wanted to without regard for right or wrong.

Jay Cline remembered stealing from the time he was a toddler. He took a liking to a hat he saw at JC Penney that was popular among kids.

“So I went down there the next day, parked my scooter on the sidewalk for a quick getaway,” he told Lila in a conversation recorded after her mother died. “I went in, and I had my coveralls unbuttoned down the front. And I went in, snagged the cap, stuffed it in there, out the door, and got on my getaway vehicle. I had me a brand new cap.”

Even though he wound up losing the hat, he learned he could get away with stealing. That sentiment stuck with him throughout his life.

In 1946, about two years after he joined the Merchant Marines at age 17, Jay and an accomplice were arrested in North Idaho for stealing a Buick sedan and about $8,000 of goods in a string of burglaries.

The two burglars confessed they had stripped the car of its parts, hacked it into pieces with an ax and dumped them into the Spokane River at the Post Falls dam, according to Spokesman-Review archives. Deputies found metal splinters from the car strewn across the North Idaho farm where they were arrested.

Using a giant magnet, deputies recovered pieces of the car from the riverbed. Law enforcement searches around the family farm also turned up stolen tires, fishing gear, tools and car parts from years of robberies.

“They had so much stuff cached in the brush of the Idaho farm they have forgotten where part of it is,” Kootenai County Deputy Sheriff Arthur Aikman told The Spokesman-Review at the time.

Just before he was sent to the Idaho state prison in August 1946, the Kootenai County Jail allowed Jay to walk across the street with a guard to be married to his first wife, Irene Dolan. His first son, Robert, would be born the following January as he served a 3 1/2-year prison sentence.

Around the same time, Leone Cline was charged with receiving more than $15,000 worth of stolen goods from Jay. Five other Clines already had criminal records.

Jay was arrested again in Coeur d’Alene in 1949 for burglary and only stopped fleeing from police after he abandoned his stolen Jeep and bullets rained down at his feet. He admitted to stealing three safes that he never cracked.

He and accomplices took one of them from a Safeway in northwest Spokane.

“They used to be so big, concrete. I look at them, and I think, ‘Look at that,’ ” Jay told Lila. “So we backed the Cadillac up to the doors.”

Jay’s crew managed to get a log chain around the safe to tow it.

“We were pulling that safe, and it was going everywhere. Back behind that car looked like a comet, sparks flying. We got it up there about a mile or so, managed to roll it into the truck,” he said.

Once they got the safe to a field to crack it, the property owner showed up.

“The owner got suspicious and called the cops,” Jay said. “So we never did get that safe open.”

His father, brothers Lee Jr. and Leonard, and Bob Peterson, Lila’s father, were all arrested in Montana in connection with the safe burglaries. Police caught them dumping a stolen car in a river while covering it with tree branches.

The Spokane Chronicle dubbed the group of robbers “the Cline gang” in a December 1949 article.

The Clines and their friends were said to be a part of a crime wave from Sept. 1 to Dec. 31 of 1949 that led to 37 arrests for burglary, larceny and forgery in Spokane, the Chronicle reported. Police said a number of other ex-convicts from around the country flocked to Spokane because it was supposedly easy pickings.

After serving two more years in prison, Jay began his next game of cat and mouse with police in February 1955.

Spokane police impounded his stolen Buick outfitted with a high-power stolen engine and he wanted it back. After a week of being on the lam with a warrant out for his arrest, he stole the car from police impound to get rid of the evidence against him.

He became the Spokane Police Department’s most wanted man in March. The police asked for the public’s help finding the stocky, 5-and-a-half-foot tall man with blue eyes and dark brown hair.

It wasn’t until August that police finally arrested Jay in Clark Fork, Idaho, after what police said was possibly the “greatest series of thefts” in city history, the Spokane Chronicle reported.

They caught a break in the case when investigators staking out the Cline parents’ home spotted Lee and Leone leaving Spokane Valley headed toward Idaho towing a stolen trailer home.

Law enforcement in Clark Fork simultaneously raided the family farm and caught Jay and his brother Wallace without incident, despite the fact they had dozens of stolen guns at their disposal.

Between three locations in Eastern Washington and Idaho, police found televisions, a Jeep, fencing, car parts, sheriff’s horse posse saddles, sewing machines and a bulldozer. Among the stolen items, police also found a Spokane detective’s radio, which they guessed had helped Jay elude them for so long.

One of the stashes was at Bob Peterson’s 60-acre ranch, which had appliances, car tires and a tractor, among other items. He was convicted of possessing stolen property and confessed to stealing six cars and 40 bales of hay from a farmer’s field.

“This arrest may clear up some big burglaries from here to Wyoming,” Spokane police detective Al Stoeser told the Chronicle.

Spokane detectives put a sign over the Buick Jay stole from them in police impound in 1955.

“Closed. Job finished. Gone fishing,” it read.

But the case was never really closed. People still wrote to the police daily inquiring about items they believed the Clines had stolen, the Chronicle reported.

Jay smiled when the judge read the charges against him in court. He had admitted to stealing 21 cars, six safes and three house trailers, in addition to all the smaller items.

He blamed his lack of supervision and the influences of his friends for his bad behavior.

“When I get out this time, I’m going to associate with the right kind of friends, like (detective) Al Stoeser, for one,” he said in court.

After Jay pleaded guilty, Judge Ralph E. Foley sentenced him with FBI agents in the room. Jessie managed to stay out of the headlines until she was spotted by the press in court that day.

Although she wasn’t implicated in the Cline gang’s burglaries, Lila is sure Jessie was arrested for shoplifting around then.

“I think she was especially close to Jay and Lee, the two youngest boys, and close to her parents as well,” Lila said.

Jay ended up serving 7 1/2 years and married Phyllis in Spokane shortly after he was released in 1962.

Phyllis said Jay never talked about the time he served, but he continued to go on evening runs with the Cline gang.

“Jay was always so good to me and to the kids that it was just one of those things that was a part of our life,” Phyllis said, adding that their children never knew about the stealing.

Jay worked as a forklift mechanic for the lift truck company L&T for much of the time they were married. So he knew his power tools.

For Phyllis to get to beauty school, Jay stole a Ford Thunderbird and swapped the engine into her broken-down car. She said he often stole cars, tools and building materials for friends.

Bob Peterson got out of prison in 1959 after he was sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison, partly for stashing Jay’s loot.

Leone had a record of all of the Cline gang escapades; each time a family member or friend made it into the paper for breaking the law, she cut out the story, often with photos of them in handcuffs.

But looking at clippings her grandma saved, Lila realized she was born in 1958, and Peterson would have been in jail during her conception.

Jessie Cline

Jessie Cline had an on-again, off-again relationship with Bob Peterson.

They were first married in 1948 when she was 18. The couple first filed for divorce in 1955 and had it granted in 1957. They filed for another marriage license while he was in jail in 1958, the year Lila was born.

Lila spent the first few years of her life living on Peterson’s Browne Mountain ranch south of Spokane. Her only memory of that time is of a dirt road filled with weeds and the smell of hot dirt as the family walked up to the tower at the top of the mountain.

The home they lived in was three stories, run down and drafty. It had electricity, but no running water.

She thought of Peterson as a mountain man. He farmed the land they lived on and worked as a truck driver while he pursued a music career.

She never knew her father as a criminal and had no idea about all of the stolen goods that were once stashed on the farm.

Jessie didn’t tell stories about her childhood. She was secretive, Lila said. And they weren’t the type of family to have reunions or get together on the holidays. Her uncle Lee came by the most often.

“He was a very giving, helpful type of person. If someone needed anything, he was always there,” Lila remembers.

“I was happily oblivious,” she said.

Soon after her sister, Liz, was born in 1960, the family moved to a home on the South Hill with a big backyard teeming with critters.

Lila inherited a love of animals from her mother, who let the geese she kept defecate inside the house. The family had a pet skunk named Sugar Lump.

Lila has been a vegetarian since she was young, because she has vivid memories of her father butchering chickens in the backyard.

She grew up riding her bike and swimming at Underhill Park. She also liked to sling mud with her sister in the duck pond turned bog that Jessie dug in their backyard.

Her father spent his nights playing guitar and singing along to country western records in his underwear, while the two girls sneaked out of bed to listen.

Lila attended a musical kindergarten and was on the local children’s television program “The Captain Cy Show.” She went to first grade at the old Sheridan Elementary School and remembers walking to class by herself each day on Freya Street back when it was a quiet street, not a bustling arterial.

Lila’s life changed drastically when her parents divorced for good around 1965. She doesn’t know what happened to their relationship.

Jessie married Lila’s stepfather, Don Folkman, about a year later. He brought two sons from a previous marriage, Spike and Mike, into the family.

Folkman worked at an egg inspection plant in Spokane for another year until he bought Emerald Cleaners in Wallace, Idaho, and moved the family to the nearby small town of Osburn.

Jessie painted their new kitchen floor white then added spots of different colors with a sponge. Two racoons lived in the home for a time.

Within a couple of years, the family moved to Wallace when Folkman bought another store.

The town had a population of about 2,000 at the time – it’s about 780 now – and was full of strange, hardened people and brothels.

“I guess we just fit right in,” Lila said.

Jessie threw Lila a “hobo party” for her 10th birthday. She gave each child a stick and a bandana. They donned patchy beards of cream and coffee grounds.

“We hiked down the railroad tracks half a mile or so wearing these packs like we were hobos,” Lila remembers.

They roasted hot dogs at a campfire when they decided they’d walked far enough.

When Jessie briefly became the leader of the local Blue Birds, a youth scouting group, all of the kids wanted to be in her troop.

But as Lila entered her teenage years, and in turn became more likely to brashly announce her opinions, she often clashed with her mother.

She remembers one confrontation as the family left a Chinese restaurant.

“We left and my mother walks out to the car,” Lila said. “And she’s so happy that they stole a menu. And I was just pissed.

“I just grabbed it from her. And I took it back in. I just thought it was stupid”

That’s when she stopped going places with her mother and sister because she didn’t want to be involved in their petty thefts.

“She thought it was great sport. She used to take us down to the little drug store or something and in essence was training us to get a five-finger discount,” she said. “I realized what she was doing wasn’t right and I just wouldn’t go with them anymore.”

Lila became independent from her family and her parents stopped paying attention to her.

“I was in band, for example. High school, junior high, grade school, always performing at different functions,” Lila said. “My mother never once came to any of my school events or anything that I was a part of. My stepdad did once when I was a senior in high school.”

Her parents moved to Hayden for the last part of her senior year of high school. Lila refused to go and lived with a friend in Wallace instead.

She ranked 11th in her high school class in 1976 and her parents weren’t there to see her walk across the stage at graduation.

She moved into her parents’ home in Hayden for a while, then tried living in Spokane. She returned home again because she was lonely.

Lila left for good when she saw Jessie and Don’s relationship deteriorating.

She didn’t know what she was witnessing before she left, but by 1980 Don Folkman was dead.

Lila Peterson

Lila got a call from her sister at about 2 a.m. in August 1980.

“You’ve got to go to the cleaners right away. Something has happened to Don,” Liz said, Lila remembered.

He had been shot twice in the back of the head as he slept in the apartment above his store in Kellogg.. Jessie was the only other person home and ran frantically to the police station when she said she found him.

She claimed a burglar had broken in while she was in the bathroom.

The rumor mill churned out theories that Don had a mistress and that Jessie and Don were about to get a divorce. But Jessie escaped criminal prosecution and claimed $1.4 million from her late husband’s life insurance policies.

Don’s son Spike filed a wrongful death lawsuit in Kootenai County against Jessie based on Idaho’s slayer statute because he thought she killed him.

Lila blocked out any news of the case once she found out she didn’t have to testify.

“I told them all, ‘Don is rolling over in his grave because of this,’ ” she said. “And I walked away.”

Lila stayed in the Silver Valley. Her mom moved to western Washington and changed her name to Fran Peterson. Spike moved to Vancouver, and Liz was living in Priest Lake.

Lila tried to stay in touch but was living on the road as a musician with her new husband.

She found out Spike won the lawsuit, but she didn’t read the court’s findings until years later.

Court documents detail how Don had moved out to live with a mistress for stints of time and was deciding whether he’d move in with her permanently in the months leading up to his death.

A scientist determined bullet fragments at the scene were the same type of ammunition as shells found in the drawer beneath Jessie and Don’s bed. A gun they owned was missing.

The court found that the prospect of a burglar shooting Don was “too improbable to be true,” because the person would have had to enter a high-up window, leave the apartment furniture undisturbed, enter the bedroom without alerting Jessie and leave without taking anything except a portion of the bills in Don’s wallet.

Lila wasn’t surprised. Her relationship with her mother didn’t change, because they already weren’t on speaking terms.

By then, Jessie was married to Tom Lane, another friend of the Clines with a rap sheet. He died a year after they were married in February 1982 – from natural causes.

Lila’s primary escape from her immediate family during those years was visiting Bob Peterson in Priest Lake. Lila visited him in high school up and until 1986, when he died from colon cancer at age 60.

She was living in Spokane and playing music with her husband on the road full time.

It was the type of life her father had always dreamed of.

“I think it really did him some good to see me playing music like him,” she said.

Her first son, Robert, was born in 1989, and her second son, Jonathon, came about two years later.

Lila said having her sons was the only part of her marriage that wasn’t a mistake, because she endured 23 years of abuse before divorcing her husband in 1999.

“I can’t jibe how the me I was before I met him and the me I am after I got enough guts to leave him are not anything like the me I was when I was married,” she said. “Most likely the damage was done to me as a child, dealing with a mentally unbalanced mother and not realizing. Who knows what kind of weird (stuff) went on in my head?”

Lila spent the early 2000s getting her life back on track. Then she got a call from Liz out of the blue.

She said Lila needed to know three things.

One: Robert Peterson was not Lila’s real father.

Two: When they were young, Don Folkman molested Liz.

And three: Liz knew Jessie killed Don, because she helped her.

Lila put everything Liz said out of mind for the next decade.

Within a year, Liz was dead at 43 due to complications of alcoholism.

In hindsight, Lila said it makes sense that her stepfather molesting Liz could have driven her to drink so early on.

“She never got a chance to actually get her life straightened out and deal with the crap that killed her,” she said.

Lila continued to work and get her life together for the next decade. She was homeless and living in a tent in a friend’s backyard at one point, but she eventually got enough money to rent a small house in Spokane.

Not long after, a woman named Patricia Matlock showed up on Lila’s porch in 2012 and said she was looking for Bob or Jessie Peterson because they were the last ones to see Matlock’s brother-in-law alive.

Her brother-in-law, Alvin “Buddy” Matlock, had vanished in 1951 at age 21.

The story spread around Spokane at the time goes that Jessie had been having an affair with Matlock and shot him when he got into an argument with Bob. In the days after he went missing, Bob was seen covered in bruises and told Matlock’s mother, Marie, that her son had gone to Alaska, Patricia said.

Patricia, 74, and her husband, Matlock’s younger brother Clyde, 80, have been searching for the truth since 2009.

They haven’t come up with any concrete evidence, but to them it’s just a matter of finding the body. Everyone knows who killed him, she said.

“It really bothers my husband. He was his only brother,” Patricia Matlock said. “He always stuck up for him and protected him.”

Jay told Lila that Bob and Jessie burned Matlock’s body in their furnace on Browne Mountain. Patricia believes the Petersons buried Matlock in his car with the help of a friend who owned a tractor. That’s the first version Lila was told, too.

“We just want closure,” Patricia said. “We want to know where the body is.”

Patricia said they went to see Jessie after Lila gave them her address, but they were too nervous to ask her about Matlock’s death. Instead, Jessie went on about her disputes with Don Folkman.

Jessie had a stroke the following year and never lived on her own again. She died in a Deer Park nursing home in February 2014, taking her secrets with her.

Lila said she wishes she had been more open with her mother. She said she never had a meaningful conversation with her.

When a friend said Lila should kiss and hug her mom on her deathbed, she said she couldn’t bring herself to do it.

“My attitude wasn’t warm and fuzzy,” she said. “It just felt too disingenuous and I couldn’t do it. And that’s what I regret to this day. I couldn’t overcome my own anger.”


Lila met with Jay a few months after her mom’s death.

He confirmed the stories about the murders, and said Liz had dumped the gun Jessie used to shoot Don in a paint bucket and threw it in the Coeur d’Alene River.

Jessie had come to him concerned about testing positive for gunshot residue. But her story to police, that Don had recently given her the gun as a present and that she had coincidentally fired a test shot earlier the day, apparently was convincing to investigators. She also told police the gun was now missing.

The Spokesman-Review ran a story about Matlock’s disappearance in 2016. Earlier this year, police in Kellogg told the Shoshone News Press they’d determined Jessie killed Don Folkman.

But when Lila learned about the Cline Gang, she felt she knew more about her mom than ever.

“Things started to fall into place a little bit more,” Lila said. “Then I think about those childhood events and I see it in a whole different perspective. No wonder she was acting that way.”

Jay died in 2017 at 90, 22 years after his final arrest in 1996. He and his brother Lee got off with a small fine after Spokane County sheriff’s deputies found a hole in a fence at a car lot and one of them inside a truck for sale.

Jay died before Lila could muster the strength to dive deeper into her family history for a book she wanted to write.

She still finds it difficult all these years later to talk about it.

“My stomach is all clenched,” she said.

But it’s improved as she’s shared and written things down.

She wanted to uncover her family history for her two sons. And she takes comfort in the fact she believes there’s nothing she could tell them about herself that would embarrass them.

Jay did leave behind more than Lila’s mother in hours of tape recordings and boxes of newspaper clippings.

“I think he wanted to document his adventures, too,” Lila said.

He never had any answers as to who Lila’s real father might be beyond rumors and an iffy last name.

But she said knowing where her genes come from doesn’t ultimately make a difference to her.

She submitted some DNA to on a whim. If a long-lost family member happens to match with her, she’d be interested in the information but nothing more.

“I don’t think of my family like maybe you do. I’ve never really been close to any of my family,” she said. “So it doesn’t feel like I’m missing anything.”

Just like people can choose their friends, she does the same with family.

Now she lives with her oldest son and her youngest lives across town. And she sees them every day.

“They would be there in a heartbeat for me if I needed them to be,” she said.

They still don’t celebrate holidays other than Thanksgiving.

When she told them she felt guilty about not having any family traditions, they assured her it was OK.

“My son said, ‘Mom, our tradition is that we have no traditions,’ ” Lila said.

“I like that,” she said.

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