Armed robber holds up Green Lake State Bank on September 27, 1938.

  • By Daryl C. McClary
  • Posted 8/10/2003
  • Essay 4231
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On Tuesday afternoon, September 27, 1938, a lone gunman enters the Green Lake State Bank at East 72nd Street and Woodlawn Avenue, hands the teller, "Dorothy" (Dorothea) Pfister, a note which reads: “Don’t make a sound or an alarm. Clean out your cage. Stickup” and shows her a pistol. The teller hands over the money. The bank president, observing the robbery in progress, calls the Seattle Police Department. Detectives quickly learn that a man answering the robber's description has boarded the bus for Everett. The bus is met in Everett by detectives who find the suspect, Ralph Sullivan, in possession of a satchel containing $581 in currency and a pistol. They arrest him for armed robbery.

At about 2:30 p.m., Ralph Sullivan, age 25, arrived at the 7th Avenue and Pike Street taxicab stand and engaged Farwest Taxicab driver John A. Page, to take him to the Green Lake District. Sullivan directed the taxicab to pull up in front of the Green Lake State Bank at East 72nd Street and Woodlawn Avenue and asked Page to wait. At 2:45 p.m., Sullivan entered Green Lake State Bank carrying a small leather satchel.

After entering the bank, Sullivan loitered in the foyer for several minutes while several customers completed their transactions. Seeing an open teller’s window, Sullivan walked up and handed a note the teller, "Dorothy" (Dorothea) Pfister. The note, written in ink on a deposit slip, read “Don’t make a sound or an alarm. Clean out your cage. Stickup.” He then put his satchel on the counter and opened it, showing Pfister a black pistol. She removed all the paper currency from her cash drawer and put it into Sullivan’s satchel. He then closed the bag and walked casually out of the bank, the entire robbery taking less than 10 minutes. Unfortunately for Sullivan, the bank president, Louis K. Lear, observed the hold-up and called the Seattle Police Department.

When Sullivan came out of the bank, he reentered Page’s taxicab, and asked to be driven to the University District. Page, unaware of the robbery, dropped Sullivan at E 45th Street and University Way, collected his fare, along with a generous 60 cent tip, and hurried back to his cab-stand in downtown Seattle.

Sullivan stopped for a shoeshine, then walked into a drug store and drank a milkshake before calling for another taxicab. While Sullivan dallied, the police were scrambling about, trying to get leads on the bank robber. The manhunt had begun.

Seattle Police detectives learned from witnesses at the bank that the robbery suspect departed in a Farwest Taxi. The Farwest dispatcher put detectives in contact with John Page who told them where he had picked up and dropped off his fare. Witnesses at the drug store told police the suspect made a telephone call and left shortly thereafter in another cab. Taxicab driver James Livingston told detectives he drove a man, matching the robber's description, to the bus station at E 45th Avenue and Roosevelt Way.

Detectives rushed to the station to apprehend Sullivan, but learned from witnesses that he had boarded a northbound bus and was en route to Everett. Detective Captain Marshall C. Scrafford dispatched police units to locate the bus and keep it under discreet surveillance. At 3:40 p.m., Captain Scrafford called the Everett Police Department, giving them the details of the hold-up and a complete description of the suspect.

Everett Police Detectives John Refnes and Chester Jones drove to Beverly Park, a few miles south of Everett, to wait for the bus. When the bus arrived, the detectives boarded and saw Sullivan but did not attempt to arrest him, fearing the passengers would be endangered. Detectives Refnes and Jones, posing as passengers, rode the bus into Everett while other detectives set up for the arrival. Sullivan was arrested at 5:00 p.m., just as he stepped off the bus in the Everett Bus Terminal. He was in possession of a small leather satchel containing $581 in currency and the black pistol. Sullivan was transported back to Seattle and booked into the King County Jail at 7:15 p.m.

On the morning of September 28, 1938, Ralph Sullivan was arraigned before Federal Commissioner H. S. Elliott where he pleaded guilty to a federal bank robbery charge. Commissioner Elliott ordered that Sullivan be held in the King County Jail pending further proceedings in federal court; bail was set at $10,000.

Sullivan readily confessed all the details of bank robbery but claimed it was his first crime. He told police he arrived in Seattle on Monday, September 26, 1938 from Oakland, California, where he worked in a grocery store but had been out of work for several months. “I was broke and hungry and I thought I might as well stick up a bank as a service station or store, because I’d get more money” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer).


“Youth Admits Bank Holdup at Green Lake,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 28, 1938, p. 1; “Two Pawns and Principal in $500 Bank Holdup,” Ibid., September 28, 1938, p. 3; “Shoe Shine Helps Police Get Robber; Youth Captured After Holding Up North End Bank of $500,” The Seattle Star, September 28, 1938, p. 2; “Hungry Salesman Confesses Green Lake Bank Hold-Up,” The Seattle Times, September 28, 1938, p. 3.

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