Whitehall Murder, Part 2

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 10/26/2000
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 2753

Letitia Whitehall, a 14-year-old girl from Kirkland, was murdered on Halloween Eve, 1926, on her way home from the dentist. For the next three months, the local police and the Sheriff’s office were stymied in their search for the assailant. Rumors, allegations, and innuendo, many of which were spread by the press, exacerbated the situation. Faced with an angry populace, King County prosecutor Ewing D. Colvin accused the dentist, Chester C. Dobbs, of committing the foul deed, with little or no evidence.

Digging for Clues

Dr. Chester C. Dobbs was questioned many times during both the investigation and the coroner’s inquest and had been most forthcoming with information. He claimed to have walked into downtown Kirkland the night of the murder to shop for groceries and to listen to football scores on the drugstore’s radio. This was borne out by people who vouched for his whereabouts.

This meant little to the prosecutor and the Sheriff. After months of dry leads elsewhere, they needed a killer, and Dobbs seemed, to them, to be the most logical choice -- He knew the victim well, and was the last to see her alive. All that was lacking was a motive, evidence, eyewitnesses, and/or a confession.

Undue Process

Colvin went looking for more clues. One week before Christmas, the prosecutor secretly had Letitia Whitehall’s body dug up, without informing her parents. A chemical analysis was made of her stomach contents and it appeared that cocaine was found.

On January 22, 1927, deputies raided Dobbs' Kirkland home without a warrant, and hauled in the doctor for more questioning. They were looking for cocaine. No dope was found, and Dobbs continued to stand firm with his alibi. During the next week, the police raided his home twice more. They found nothing.

Armed with little or no evidence, Colvin accused Dobbs of murder on January 27 and had him arrested. Dobbs hired attorney George Crandell, who immediately complained that his client was arrested without due process. Crandell fought to release Dobbs on low bail, but the Prosecutor set the amount at $25,000.

Dobbs’ wife Alice rallied a number of respected Kirkland businessmen. Most people in Kirkland felt that the dentist was being railroaded. Within a few days, the money was raised -- well over the amount needed. Dobbs was released and he returned home, pending the trial. The townspeople hailed him as a martyr.

No Evidence? No Problem!

Meanwhile, Colvin claimed to have valuable bits of information from anonymous tipsters. "Information" from tipsters who decline to give a name is totally useless in a court of law. Dobbs’ first hearing was delayed for weeks, while Colvin looked for solid evidence. During this time the newspapers printed every fact or rumor they could get their hands on.

Colvin was coming up empty. The cocaine in the girl’s stomach turned out to be novocaine, an anesthetic used by dentists. Considering that she was last seen at the dentist, this was no surprise. Also, new witnesses came forward who claimed to have seen Whitehall after she left the dentist’s office.

Nevertheless, Colvin had Dobbs arrested again, even without new evidence. This time a $35,000 bail was set. The townsfolk of Kirkland stepped up and gathered more cash, and paid to have Dobbs released one more time. The trial hadn’t even started, and the case was descending into farce.

Court Is Now In Session

The trial began on April 11, 1927. It was presided over by Superior Judge Charles P. Moriarty. Attorneys Crandell and Lucas Kells represented Dr. Dobbs, while Deputy Prosecutor Ethan Allen Peyser assisted Prosecutor Colvin. Both sides wanted to exclude women from the jury, and challenged all female panelists. After much heated discussion, the jury ended up 12 men.

Due to the public frenzy whipped up by the press, the courtroom was packed from day one. Four policemen were needed to preserve order outside in the corridors. Those attending the trial within got to witness a theater of the absurd.

Early on, Attorney Crandell called Prosecutor Colvin to the witness stand over a legal skirmish involving the use of evidence seized without a warrant from Dobbs' house. As if this weren’t odd enough, Colvin proceeded to cross-examine himself after Crandell had completed his questioning. As the jury and crowd looked on in amazement, Colvin asked himself a question on the witness stand, then answered it, asked again, and so on. The judge allowed this, and also allowed the questionable evidence in question to stand.

Exhumed, Yet Again

Colvin’s case rested on the fact that “drugs” were found in the dentist’s office. Of course, these drugs are what one would expect to find in a dentist’s office. Crandell, on the other hand, tried to shift suspicion onto the dead girl’s father. Colvin put two eyewitnesses on the stand who claimed to have seen Dobbs on the bridge the night of the murder, but one admitted under cross-examination that on the dark, unlit bridge, the man might even have looked like Mr. Whitehall.

Colvin became desperate. Seeking new evidence, the prosecutor once again had the dead girl’s body exhumed without her parent’s knowledge or consent. He and the coroner wished to determine if the girl’s missing tooth was extracted or knocked out. When Crandell learned this in court, he was appalled and he loudly accused Colvin of manufacturing evidence. The judge rebuked them both, but let the coroner’s testimony continue. The tooth had been knocked out, as was originally determined.

Losing Sight Of The Tragedy

Each day, banner headlines filled the front pages -- "Slain Girl’s Father on Stand! Mystery Handwriting Quiz!" -- "Youth Says He Saw Letty At 9 P.M." -- "State Given Drubbing in Dobbs Trial!" Other stories told what the defendant, lawyers, and spectators were wearing, along with “funny” anecdotes of each day’s events. Somehow in all this, the 14-year-old victim, Letitia Whitehall, became almost an afterthought.

After two weeks of testimony, the trail began to wind down. Before the final arguments, spectators got to see Prosecutor Colvin cross-examine himself once again. Crandell had accused Colvin of witness tampering, and asked him to take the stand. When Crandell finished his examination, Colvin stayed in the box and started to make an explanation to the jury. The judge instructed him to proceed by question and answer as he done before, and Colvin complied in a droll voice that elicited chuckles from the audience. Funny stuff, alright.

Free and Angry

Throughout the trail Dobbs remained calm and confident, and for good reason. He was innocent. On April 28, the jury was instructed to render a verdict. They left the room and returned in just 46 minutes. Dobbs was acquitted with speed and ease.

Interestingly enough, Dr. Dobbs had a good guess of the verdict a day earlier. While talking with a reporter outside of the courthouse on Wednesday evening, a paperclip landed on the ground next to them. Looking up, they saw some of the jurors leaning out of an open window, smiling and gesticulating positively. The two men beat a hasty retreat, not wanting be influenced by any false interpretations.

Relieved that his experience was over after acquital, Dobbs was nevertheless outraged that his life had been turned upside-down. To recoup lost income, and to warn the public of flaws in the judicial system, he went on a statewide lecture tour delivering an address called “Justice vs. Politics.” He later returned to his dentistry practice.

Justice Goes Unserved

After the trial, the tragic story of Letty Whitehall quickly faded from newspaper headlines and the public’s mind. No further investigation was performed. No one else was accused. No one was brought to trial.

Letitia's family stayed near Kirkland until the 1930s, but then moved to Port Angeles. Her mother Mabel Whitehall was depressed for many years afterward over the loss of her daughter.

A young girl’s life was unjustly taken from her. Her killer walked free, his crime unpaid here on earth. Sadly, in the end, few people cared.


Sources:

"Wife Maintains Innocence of Accused Doctor," The East Side Journal, January 27, 1927, pp. 1, 6; "Charges Fly in Dobbs Case; Tried in Newspapers," Ibid., February 10, 1927, p. 1; "Fight For Dobbs Following His Rearrest Wed.," Ibid., February 17, 1927, p. 1; "Dobbs Confident as Bail Granted," Ibid., February 24, 1927, p. 1; "Bothell Lady Takes Life at Murder Scene," Ibid., December 16, 1926, p. 1; "Whitehall Case Takes New Turn, May Be Solved," Ibid., January 06, 1927, p. 1; "Dr. Dobbs to Speak At Gateway, July 27," Ibid., July 21, 1927, p.1; "Dentist Asks All Property Be Returned," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 26, 1927, p. 1; "Girl Death Prosecution Given Blow," Ibid., January 28, 1927, pp. 1, 2; "$25,000 Bond in Whitehall Death Case," Ibid., January 29, 1927, pp. 1, 2; "Death Case Bond Pledged in Kirkland," Ibid., January 30, 1927, p. 1, 5; "Townspeople Hail Dentist as Martyr," Ibid., January 30, 1927, p. 1, 2; "Letter Clues in Whitehall Case Useless," Ibid., January 3, 1927, p. 1; "Judge Speeds Selection in Death Trial," Ibid., April 12, 1927; p. 1; "Lawyer’s Row High Spot in Dobbs Trial," Ibid., April 13, 1927, pp. 1, 2; "State Given Drubbing in Dobbs Trial," Ibid., April 23, 1927, p. 1, 2; "Witness For Dobbs, State Target Today," Ibid., April 25, 1927, pp. 1, 2; "Paper Clips Tell Verdict One Day Ahead," Ibid., April 29, 1927, p. 2; "Witness for Dobbs Hits State Case," The Seattle Times February 17, 1927, pp. 1, 3; "Judge Picks Jurors For Quizzing In Death Case," Ibid., April 11, 1927, p.1, 2; "Five Women Jurors Challenged; Colvin Ready to Reveal Dobbs Case," Ibid., April 12, 1927, pp. 1, 5; "Slain Girl’s Father on Stand; Mystery Handwriting Quiz," Ibid., April 14, 1927, pp. 1, 14; "Seizures in Dobbs’ Home Revealed," Ibid., April 16, 1927, pp. 1, 3; "Dobbs’ Defense Shakes Identification," Ibid., April 18, 1927, pp. 1, 3; "Dobbs Defense Assails Expert Witness," Ibid., April 19, 1927, pp. 1, 12; "Youth Says He Saw Letty At 9 P.M.," Ibid., April 23, 1927, pp. 1, 2; "Court Instructs Dobbs Jury," Ibid., April 27, 1927, pp. 1,13; "Girl's Killing in 1926 Remains a Mystery; Slaying That Rocked Area," Ibid., February 5, 1997, p. B-3.


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