On August 8, 1924, bandits rob four Bon Marché Department Store employees as they are getting into a car in front of the store's Union Street entrance. One of the yeggs fires two shots, and an exciting police chase on the streets of downtown Seattle ensues. At least $22,000 ($310,000 in 2016 dollars) is taken. Over the following weeks the plot behind the robbery will come out, and will prove to be as intriguing as the robbery itself. The money will never be recovered.
Panic on Union Street
It was a pleasant, temperate Friday afternoon in Seattle on August 8, 1924. Just after 2 p.m., a car idled to a stop near the curb outside the Bon Marché's Union Street entrance. (In 1924, the store was located along the west side of 2nd Avenue between Pike and Union streets.) Arthur Anderson, a store employee returning to work after lunch, stopped to chat with the car's driver, W. J. Boutin. Soon three other Bon Marché employees -- James Whelan, S. M. Telfer (the store's assistant financial manager), and a Japanese porter identified both as "M. Tamaki" ("5 Held…") and "T. Tanaki" ("Says She Heard…") walked out of the building and toward the car. They were carrying the day's bank deposits in two satchels, said variously to total between $22,000 and $22,900 (between $310,000 and $323,000 in 2016 dollars), though all accounts agree that $14,000, or just shy of $200,000 in 2016 dollars, was in cash.
Anderson bade Boutin adieu and began walking toward the store. Seconds later, a Chevrolet (later determined to have been driven by John Callahan) pulled up in front of Boutin's vehicle. Simultaneously, three men who had been loitering nearby -- Joe Neal, Ed Fasick, and J. M. Dooley -- turned and lunged at the Bon Marché employees, struggling with them briefly before grabbing their satchels and running for the Chevrolet. Anderson saw what was happening and ducked into the store as one of the robbers yelled at him to stop and fired two shots at him. Both missed, but as a scare tactic it worked. "The shots and (subsequent) chase ... caused a near panic in the crowded street," described The Seattle Times ("Empty Cash Satchel…"). Pedestrians yelled and ran for cover. Cars pulled over to the curb. The robbers leaped into the Chevrolet and took off west on Union Street toward 1st Avenue.
Quirks of Fate
But fate was against them. Two Seattle police officers, Joseph Kokesh and George Cowan (or Cowen), were also driving west on Union within a block of the robbers. Though the two cops didn't see the robbery, they heard the gunfire and spotted the fleeing vehicle. They gave chase as the Chevrolet whipped left on 1st Avenue and headed south, the police car nearly mowing down a woman and her young daughter as they stood near the curb on 1st Avenue waiting for a streetcar. The bandits then hung a right on University Street and another right on Railroad Avenue, heading north. After a couple of blocks, they stopped between some boxcars. Dooley and Neal got out and began quickly removing the car's license plates, but almost immediately the police car was upon them. Callahan saw them coming and sped off, leaving his cronies in crime stranded. Dooley escaped, but Neal was caught right away. When he was identified, it was quickly learned that he had been a policeman for the Seattle Police Department between 1917 and 1920.
Neal denied all, but the crooks had another problem. As Fasick; his wife, Esther; Neal; and Dooley waited across the street from the Bon Marché just before the robbery, a woman acquainted with both Fasick and Neal was walking nearby and spotted Fasick. The woman, later identified as Martha Roper, had heard Fasick had recently married and wondered about his wife. She walked toward him, trying unsuccessfully to catch his eye and strike up a conversation, but he was engrossed in conversation with his wife and Dooley. As she politely waited, she saw him signal a woman in a parked Studebaker whom she recognized as Neal's wife, May. Roper knew of Joe Neal's shady recent past as a bootlegger, and she wondered why his wife was driving such a nice car. She became suspicious. Then she saw Joe Neal, who was also signaling. She became more suspicious, so much so that she wrote down the Studebaker's license-plate number. She watched and waited. Moments later she saw part of the robbery go down, and she called King County Sheriff Matt Starwich's office. Later in the afternoon Starwich (1879-1941) sent a couple of deputies to the Stanley Apartments at 7th and Madison and they arrested the Fasicks and May Neal.
It was speculated that May Neal was driving the Studebaker so the bandits could switch cars after the robbery, but the plan went awry, probably because of the fast action of the police. To make matters worse, in the rush back to the Stanley Apartments she wrecked the Studebaker. Though the defendants remained mum, within two days Starwich's office had ascertained that there were two more suspects in the robbery. But he police weren't sure who they were.
An Inside Job
But there was another link. It turned out the robbery was an inside job. The truth came out nearly a month later when a woman went to a Seattle attorney, James McCabe, in an effort to get a diamond ring back that a friend, Norris Lockwood, had taken from her. The woman, Lillian Quinville, told McCabe that several weeks before the robbery she'd been with Lockwood at Eddy's Place, a speakeasy on S Washington Street. While feigning to be passed out drunk, she'd overhead Fasick, Neal, and Lockwood, who worked as a porter at the Bon Marché, plotting the robbery. McCabe notified the police, and Lockwood was arrested on September 4. He promptly spilled the beans. He admitted that he had provided information about the daily transfer of store deposits to Fasick and Neal prior to the robbery, and that he had been signaling the men from inside the store on the day of the robbery to alert them when to make their move. He also identified Dooley and Callahan as the two other robbers. Dooley was arrested in October, but Callahan wasn't caught until the following March, seven months after the heist.
Both Edward and Esther Fasick, as well as Dooley, were convicted of the crime by a King County jury in February 1925. (Though Esther Fasick did not participate in the robbery itself, she knew of the scheme and was at the scene in the moments leading up to the robbery.) Callahan and Lockwood both pleaded guilty, and Lockwood was rewarded with a suspended sentence for his cooperation with the investigation. Joe and May Neal fled before their trial but were arrested in Minneapolis in October 1925 and returned to King County for trial. (That was a story in itself. May Neal's brother Guy Whitcomb personally tracked the couple to Minneapolis over a period of months and confronted Joe Neal in a knife fight.) Joe Neal soon pleaded guilty, but his wife (represented by attorney John Dore [1881-1938], later mayor of Seattle) went to trial a month later. The jury struggled with a verdict, and just when it appeared the judge was going to announce that they were hopelessly deadlocked, they gave it one last shot and acquitted her, a surprise ending in a story filled with intrigue.