John Smith shoots and kills Seattle police officers William T. Angle and Neil C. McMillan and Detective James J. O'Brien on January 21, 1921.

  • By Daryl C. McClary
  • Posted 11/13/2012
  • Essay 10094

On Friday night, January 21, 1921, Seattle police officers William T. Angle (1894-1921) and Neil C. McMillan (1891-1921) are gunned down while on foot patrol in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood. The assailant escapes, but witnesses provide police with a description of the man, which is given to every officer on duty. Helpful citizens immediately take Officers Angle and McMillan to nearby hospitals, but their wounds will eventually prove fatal. Approximately one hour after the shootings, Seattle police detectives James J. O'Brien (1884-1921) and Theodore G. Montgomery (1880-1937) spot the gunman in downtown Seattle. When the detectives attempt an arrest, the suspect pulls a pistol from his coat pocket and opens fire, hitting O'Brien in the chest and wounding a bystander in the leg. The detectives return fire, wound the gunman, and Detective Montgomery takes him into custody. O'Brien, shot in the heart, dies before reaching a hospital. The suspect identifies himself as John Smith, age 26, a German immigrant. Five days later, on January 27, 1921, Smith pleads guilty to first-degree murder in King County Superior Court. After a brief trial, a jury sentences him to death. Refusing to appeal, Smith will be taken to the Washington State Penitentiary and hanged on April 1, 1921. Frontier justice aside, it is one of the fastest journeys from apprehension to gallows in the history of Washington state.

The First Crime

On a wet and windy Friday night, January 21, 1921, Seattle police officers William T. Angle, age 26, and Neil C. McMillan, age 29, were on foot patrol on Capitol Hill. McMillan, a rookie officer, with only 17 days on the job, had been partnered with Angle, a World War I combat veteran who had been with the Seattle Police Department for one year. At approximately 8:45 p.m. the two patrolmen were walking south on Broadway from E Prospect Street, checking doors making sure they were locked. Between E Mercer and E Republican Streets, Officer Angle spotted a suspicious man whom he decided to stop and search for weapons. As Officer McMillan continued shaking doors, Angle approached the suspect, asking where he was going. Without a word, the man drew a pistol from side pocket of his coat and shot Angle twice in the abdomen before the patrolman had an opportunity to draw his gun. He then turned to McMillan, who was standing approximately 10 feet away, and shot him twice in the abdomen. McMillan was able to draw his revolver, and fired twice at the assailant as he darted across Broadway, and ran up E Harrison Street.

A passing automobile took Officer Angle to City Emergency Hospital at 4th Avenue and Yesler Way. Doctors reported one bullet had passed through his diaphragm and the other entered his lower abdomen. Another concerned citizen transported Officer McMillan to Minor Private Hospital, 1420 Spring Street, where doctors found two bullets had entered his lower abdomen.

The Second Crime

Seattle Police Headquarters received numerous reports of the shootings and dispatched every available police car and motorcycle patrol officer to Capitol Hill to search for the gunman. Several people who witnessed the event described the suspect as a white, male, short and stocky, wearing a red buffalo-plaid mackinaw and a tan cap. Police officers, augmented by more than 100 volunteers, combed the neighborhood, but not a trace of the gunman was found.

At approximately 10:00 p.m., Detectives James J. O'Brien and Theodore G. Montgomery were walking Seattle's downtown streets looking for the suspect. In front of the Hoge Building, 2nd Avenue and Cherry Street, they stopped and asked Dean Carman, age 22, an acquaintance who lived in the Livingston Hotel, 1st Avenue and Virginia Street, if he had seen anyone wearing a red mackinaw and tan cap in his travels. Detective O'Brien suddenly recognized a man meeting the description of the gunman, walking down 2nd Avenue. He drew his revolver and moved to block the man's path. Without hesitation, the suspect drew a pistol from the right pocket of his mackinaw and a wild gunfight ensued. O'Brien fired twice, but was shot in the chest and fell to the sidewalk, dropping his gun. The suspect then turned and emptied his pistol at Detective Montgomery and Carmen, who were standing in the entryway to the Hoge Building.

The Capture

Dean Carman ducked for cover, but was hit twice in the left thigh. Detective Montgomery escaped the fusillade unharmed.. Montgomery emptied his revolver at the gunman, hitting him in the groin, and he collapsed onto the pavement. Montgomery rushed the suspect, grabbed his pistol, a semi-automatic, .380 caliber Remington UMC Model 51, punched him in the face and snapped on a set of handcuffs. Seattle City Jailer Philip Holland was at 3rd Avenue and Cherry Street when the shooting started and hurried to the scene. He was in time to help Detective Montgomery frisk the prisoner and found a fully-loaded Colt's .38 caliber semiautomatic pistol in the left pocket of the his mackinaw. In addition, Holland found two loaded pistol magazines plus dozens of loose .380 and .38 caliber cartridges in the gunman's other pockets.

Detective O'Brien died at the scene and was taken to the county morgue. Someone in the crowd of bystanders stole his revolver off the sidewalk. Carman was taken to City Emergency Hospital with two serious bullet wounds in the left thigh, one fracturing the femur. The gunman was treated at City Emergency Hospital for badly swollen right eye and three bullet wounds. One slug passed through his inner left thigh, another gouged a furrow along his right hip, and the third grazed his right ankle, without striking a bone. Detective Montgomery was unscathed, except for his right hand which he injured striking the assailant in the face and two bullet holes he found in his overcoat.

Conveniently, the Public Safety Building, (now the Yesler Building), 400 Yesler Way, housed not only City Emergency Hospital on the third floor, but also Seattle City Jail and Seattle Police Headquarters. After his wounds were dressed, the prisoner was brought to an interrogation room where he told Captain of Detectives Charles Tennant (1876-1933), Detective Lieutenant William B. Kent (1880-1958), and King County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Emlyn I. Jones that his name was Johann Schmitt, age 26, but had been using "John Smith," the English version of the name, since emigrating  from Germany in 1910. He eventually confessed to shooting Officers Angle and McMillan, but claimed it was in self-defense. "I thought that first policeman who stopped me was going to shoot; he had his hand on his gun. So I beat him to it; I wasn't going to stand there and be shot" ("Lone Bandit Kills Officer in Fight on Second Avenue"). Asked why he shot Detective O'Brien, Smith replied simply he wasn't going to be taken for the Capitol Hill shootings.

A ticket found in Smith's pocket revealed he had arrived in Seattle from Tacoma on the Puget Sound Electric Railway on Friday morning and checked a suitcase at the interurban depot, located in the Pacific Block (now the Interurban Building), on the southeast corner of Yesler Way and Occidental Avenue. In addition to clothing, the bag contained a tan raincoat, gun oil, extra ammunition and a book titled Automatic Pistol Shooting, which advised to always shoot first if you wanted to win a gunfight.

On Saturday, January 22, 1921, King County Prosecutor Malcolm Douglas (1888-1968) filed an information in Superior Court, charging Smith with the first-degree murder of Detective O'Brien.

Officer Angle

That afternoon, Officer Angle underwent an emergency operation to stop internal bleeding and was given a transfusion. Doctors began collecting blood donations for a second transfusion, however, Angle died from complications at 11:45 p.m.

William Theodore Angle was born in Muscatine, Iowa, on June 22, 1894 and was a World War I (1914-1918) veteran. He enlisted in the army shortly after the United States declared war on Germany on June 4, 1917. He was assigned to the 361st Infantry Regiment that formed in September 1917 and trained at Camp Lewis in Pierce County. In August 1918, the 361st Infantry Regiment was attached to the 91st Infantry Division and sent to France. Angle served overseas for 10 months, surviving the war unscathed. After his discharge in the spring of 1919, he worked at the Todd Pacific Shipyards Corporation on Harbor Island until joining the Seattle Police Department on December 7, 1920. He was survived by his wife Lula A. Goodwin, whom he married on June 23, 1920. (When Angle died, Lula was six months pregnant and gave birth to a son, William Theodore Jr., on April 13, 1921. The child died on January 1, 1922.)

Legal Proceedings

On Monday morning, January 24, 1921, Smith appeared in King County Superior Court before Chief Judge James T. Ronald (1855-1951) for arraignment. To preclude trouble, he was accompanied by Sheriff Matt Starwich and four armed deputies. Smith told Judge Ronald he didn't need an attorney and wanted to plead guilty to murdering Detective O'Brien.

The judge told the defendant that counsel and a jury trial were required in capital cases regardless of his plea. He appointed attorney Louis T. Silvain, who happened to be in the courtroom on another matter, to represent Smith. After a brief consultation with Attorney Silvain, Smith pleaded guilt to one count of first-degree murder. Judge Ronald scheduled the trial to determine his punishment for Thursday, January 27, and ordered that a special venire of 150 names be drawn for immediate service. Sheriff Starwich returned Smith to the King County Jail, but hearing threats of violence, quietly moved Smith to the Pierce County Jail late that night.

Officer Neil McMillan and Detective James O'Brien

Neil C. McMillan died from his wounds at Minor Hospital at 1:51 p.m., on Monday, January 24, 1921. He was born in North Dakota on January 26, 1891, and was unmarried. McMillan had been living in Seattle for three years and had been employed as a streetcar motorman before joining the Seattle Police Department on January 4, 1921. Prior to coming to Seattle, he had been a police officer in Vancouver, British Colombia, Canada, for five years. He was survived by his parents, Hugh and Margaret McMillan, living in Orangedale, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Canada, and two brothers, John and James, and two sisters, Ruth and Agnes.

At 9:00 a.m. Wednesday, January 26, a funeral mass for James J. O'Brien was held at Saint Edward's Catholic Church, located at 4205 S Orcas Street in Hillman City (Rainier Valley). O'Brien was born in Ireland on March 27, 1884, and immigrated to the United States in 1905. He worked at the Frye and Company meat packing plant before joining the Seattle Police Department on June 12 1910. He rose quickly from patrolman to the rank of detective. He was survived by his wife, Mary, age 31, and four children: John, age 8; James, age 6; Martin, age 4, and Mary, age three months.

Honoring the Dead

At 11:00 a.m. a funeral cortege a half mile in length, headed by a squad of motorcycle patrolmen and the Seattle Police Band, escorted the caskets of the three slain police officers from the Public Safety Building through Seattle's central business district. Mayor Hugh M. Caldwell requested businesses along the route be closed while the funeral procession was passing, as a token of respect.

When the procession disbanded at 7th Avenue and Olive Way, the body of Detective O'Brien was taken to Calvary Catholic Cemetery, 5041 35th Avenue NE in Ravenna for burial. Officer Angle's funeral was held at 2:00 p.m. at Eagles Auditorium, (now ACT - A Contemporary Theater), 700 Union Street, after which he was interred at the Lake View Cemetery, located at 1554 15th Avenue E on Capitol Hill. The body of Officer McMillan was returned to the E. R. Butterworth and Sons Mortuary, 300 E. Pine Street. On Thursday morning, the Seattle Police Band and a contingent of uniformed police officers escorted his casket to King Street Station for the long rail journey across Canada to Nova Scotia for burial.

Their names were inscribed on a silver plaque at Seattle Police headquarters, honoring all the police officers killed in the line of duty since 1897. (Today [2012] the Seattle Police Officers Wall of Honor is located in the foyer of Seattle Police Headquarters, 610 5th Avenue.)

Trial and Conviction

Smith's trial began at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday, January 27, 1921, in King County Superior Court before Judge Archibald W. Frater (1856-1925). A jury, consisting of eight men and four women was impaneled and sworn before the noon recess. King County Deputy Prosecutor John D. Carmody called only six witnesses: Jailer Philip Holland, who described helping Detective Montgomery arrest Smith; Patrolman Sidney H. O'Dell, who was assigned to the patrol wagon on the night Detective O'Brien was killed; Captain Charles Tennant, Detective Lieutenant William B. Kent, and Chief Deputy Prosecutor Emlyn I. Jones, who testified regarding the defendant's confession that he shot Officers Angle and McMillan and later Detective O'Brien; and Detective Montgomery, who described the furious gun battle with Smith. The state rested its case at 2:45 p.m.

After a brief recess, Attorney Silvain announced to the court that the defense would offer no testimony and rested the case. Judge Frater's instructions to the jury and closing arguments followed and the case was delivered to the jury at 4:05 p.m. At 4:57 p.m., jury foreman Herbert A. Munter reported to the bailiff they had reached a verdict. As expected, the jury found Smith guilty of first-degree murder and mandated the death penalty. Attorney Silvain immediately filed a motion for a new trial and an arrest of judgment. Smith, however, seem pleased with the verdict, remarking to reporters: "Ordinarily, I don't believe in capital punishment, but in my case I do. It's the only way out. I'd rather be hanged than go to prison for life. Some people could stand the imprisonment, but not I" ("Women Jurors Agree in Decision to Hang Patrolmen's Slayer")

On Tuesday, February 1, 1921, Judge Frater called a hearing on defense motions for a new trial and an arrest of judgment. Attorney Silvain immediately addressed the court saying his client wished to withdraw the motions and his right to appeal the verdict to the Washington State Supreme Court. After receiving a verbal acknowledgment from Smith, Judge Frater sentenced him to be executed at the Washington State Penitentiary on April 1, 1921. The court released Silvain from any further responsibility for his client. Sheriff Starwich took Smith upstairs to the county jail to await issuance of commitment papers and the death warrant.

A Life of Crime

During an informal interview, set up by Sheriff Starwich at the King County Jail, Smith told newspaper reporters about his life of crime. He refused to give any details of his earlier life, but intimated "Smith" was only an alias. When the United States declared war on Germany (1917), he had tried to enlist in the U.S. Army, but was supposedly rejected because of his bad teeth. After the war ended (1918), Smith couldn't find work because of his German accent, so he embarked on a life of crime.

Banditry became his profession and guns were his hobby. Smith had committed scores of burglaries and armed robberies in Washington and Oregon over a two year period. He boasted about pulling jobs in nearly every city in the Pacific Northwest and had never been caught. Smith said his favorite targets for quick and easy money were gasoline service stations. And rather than being bothered with laundry, he stole new clothes from men's stores. Smith avoided bank robberies because they required a car for a fast getaway and he had never learned to drive. Also, banks were well protected and the police usually made an extra effort to catch the robber.

Smith claimed he used an accomplice on only one occasion: the robbery of the Coliseum Theater at 5th Avenue and Pike Street, on August 18, 1920. It was a daring holdup that took place at 10:30 p.m., just as the last show was letting out. During the confusion, the robbers slipped into the box office with guns drawn, tied the manager and cashier to chairs and stole $533 from the safe. However, they missed over $2,000 in the locked cash drawer.

Smith also confessed to being the "unknown assassin" who shot and killed special deputy Edward Henry Schultz (1890-1919) in Olympia on December 22, 1919, after robbing the J. C. Penny & Company store of $1,500. Schultz, proprietor of Schultz Auto Company, 5th Avenue and Washington Street, heard the commotion, grabbed his revolver from the desk drawer, and chased the bandit. Smith hid in a dark alleyway and when Shultz entered, shot him in the head. (Schultz was survived by his wife, Frances, and four children, ranging in ages from 2 to 8 years old.) Smith claimed that prior to shooting the three police officers, Schultz was the only man he had killed.

On Wednesday morning, February 2, 1921, Sheriff Starwich, accompanied by two traveling guards from the Washington State Penitentiary, took Smith and two other prisoners from the county jail to the King Street Station. The assemblage boarded a Northern Pacific Railway passenger train, which left the station at 9:00 a.m., for Walla Walla via Yakima.

The Issue of Capital Punishment

On Friday, March 4, 1921, Henry Drum (1858-1950) unexpectedly resigned his position as warden of the Washington State Penitentiary to avoid executing John Smith. Drum had been appointed to the position by Governor Ernest Lister (1870-1919) on March 22, 1913, shortly after capital punishment was abolished in Washington state. The death penalty statute was reenacted in 1919 and Smith qualified as the state's first victim.

Drum notified Governor Louis F. Hart (1862-1929) that he was unwilling to take responsibility for executing Smith, as his job required. Governor Hart appointed William George Potts (1872-1959), a former state senator and a member of the Washington State Board of Control, to replace Drum effective Thursday, March 31, 1921, the day before the execution. Drum was appointed superintendent of the state game farm adjoining the penitentiary grounds, operated in part by trustees. The position had been vacant due to the arrest of the incumbent, Ludlow J. Esses, on February 3, 1921, for transporting bootleg whiskey.

The Death Penalty and the Execution

Meanwhile, Deputy Warden John G. Burke continued making arrangements for the execution. The gallows was erected between the laundry and surrounding wall, in a private area on the north side of the prison yard. A rope had been special ordered from the California State Penitentiary in San Quentin and thoroughly tested with heavy bags of sand.

On the day before Warden Potts officially assumed office, he announced that only penitentiary officials would be allowed to witness Smith's execution. In making his decision, Warden Potts declared he was acting under the authority of state law which gave him the power as superintendent to arrange for executions and decide who would be allowed to attend. The press was outraged and sent telegrams of protest to Governor Hart's office, but to no avail. Warden Potts informed the newsmen who had gathered at the penitentiary, that Deputy Warden Burke would supply all details after the execution.

At 5:00 a.m. Friday, April 1, 1921 (April Fool's Day), two penitentiary guards walked Smith across the yard to the gallows. He was accompanied by Reverend Stephen Buckley, from Saint Patrick's Catholic Church in Walla Walla, and Warden Potts, who read Smith the death warrant before being handed over to the executioner. Only a small group of prison officials and attendants stood about the scaffold as Smith mounted the 13 steps to the platform.

According to penitentiary records, the trap door was released at 5:10 a.m., dropping the prisoner six feet, eight inches to his death. Smith was pronounced dead at 5:22 a.m. by Dr. Jessie W. Ingram, the prison physician. The body was cut down at 5:28 a.m. and taken to a local mortuary. On Saturday morning, a private funeral service was held at Saint Patrick's Catholic Church followed by burial in an unmarked grave at Mountain View Cemetery, owned and operated by the city of Walla Walla. Although it had been rumored that Smith had approximately $5,000 cached somewhere in Seattle, he told Father Buckley it was untrue. He donated his entire fortune, $8.74, to the Catholic Church for charity.

John Smith was the second person to be sentenced to death after the re-enactment of Washington's capital punishment statute in 1919. The other death row inmate was Isom White, age 20, convicted of killing Lee Linton, an Everett taxicab driver, on November 19, 1919. The jury had given White's accomplice in the murder, 15-year-old Joseph Darwin Morton, a life sentence. Although the Washington State Supreme Court upheld White's conviction and death sentence, his attorney, former state senator Joseph H. Smith, Warden Potts and two state psychiatrists convinced Governor Hart that White was mentally irresponsible. On June 15, 1921, Governor Hart commuted White's sentence to life imprisonment.

Sources: "E. H. Schultz Killed in Pursuit of Robber Fleeing With $1,500," The Morning Olympian, December 23, 1919, p. 1; "Sleuth Empties Gun Even After Heart Is Pierced by Bullet," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 22, 1921, p. 1; "Death Takes Second Policeman and Fatality of Third Is Feared as Result of Bandit's Bullets," Ibid., January 23, 1921, p. 1; "Confessed Murdered Faces Co-Workers of Detective O'Brien in Taciturn Mood," Ibid.,. January 23, 1921, p. 8; "O'Brien's Slayer to Be Arraigned for Crime Today," Ibid.,. January 24, 1921, p. 1; "Bandit Victim's Families to Be Given Comforts," Ibid., January 24, 1921, p. 1; "Slayer of Three Hastily Pleads Guilty in Court," Ibid., January 25, 1921, p. 1; "Fourth Victim of Bandit Guns Dies of Wounds," Ibid., January 25, 1921, p. 1; "Law Guardians Accorded Final Tribute by City," Ibid., January 26, 1921, p. 1; "Police Slayer to Leave Hiding for Trial Today," Ibid., January 27, 1921, p. 1; "Woman Jurors Agree in Decision to Hang Patrolmen's Slayer," Ibid., January 28, 1921, p. 1; "Death Sentence Heard by Smith Without Quiver," Ibid., February 2, 1921, p. 1; "Condemned Murderer Confesses the Killing of Olympia Citizen and Long Career of Banditry," Ibid., February 2, 1921, p. 1; "Loan Bandit Kills Officer in Fight on Second Avenue," The Seattle Times, January 22, 1921, p. 1; "Patrolman Angle, Second Victim of Highwayman's Revolver, Dies of Wounds," Ibid., January 23, 1921, p. 1; I'm Guilty, Says Murderer of Two," Ibid.,. January 24, 1921, p. 1; "Seattle Pauses to Pay Tribute to Dead Heroes," Ibid., January 25, 1921, p. 1; Dora Dean, "Slayer Has Dogged Determination to Plead and Have It Over With," Ibid., January 25, 1921, p. 3; "Prepared to Take Punishment Says Officer's Killer," Ibid., January 27, 1921, p. 1; "Smith to Hang for Taking Life of Detective," Ibid., January 28, 1921, p. 1; "Murderer of Policemen to Hang April 1," Ibid., February 1, 1921, p. 1; "Four Murders Are Confessed by Doomed Man," Ibid.,. February 2, 1921, p. 1; "John Smith Executed for Murder of Three Policemen in Seattle," Ibid.,. April 1, 1921, p. 1; "Seattle Police Told to Be Ready to Shoot," Bellingham Herald, February 1, 1921, p. 1; "Enters Guilty Plea," Ibid., January 24, 1921, p. 4; "Death Overtakes Wounded Officer," Ibid., January 24, 1921, p. 5; "Wants to Be Hanged," Ibid., January 28, 1921, p. 2; "Smith Admits Killing of F. H. Schultz," Ibid., February 3, 1921, p. 1; "New Warden's First Duty Will Be to Hang Murderer From Seattle," Ibid., March 5, 1921, p. 4; "Seattle Murderer Calmly Awaits Doom," Ibid., March 15, 1921, p. 9; "Bandit Murderer of Seattle Officers Repents," Ibid.. March 31, 1921, p. 1; "Schmidt, Gunman, Is Hanged at State Prison," Ibid., April 1, 1921, p. 1.

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