On Saturday evening, October 17, 1914, a gang of armed bandits robs the First National Bank in Sedro-Woolley of $11,649 in gold coins and currency. During a 15-minute barrage, the gang indiscriminately fires more than 100 rounds, mainly intended to intimidate the town's citizens and small police force. After shooting up the town, the bandits quickly withdraw and escape into the darkness without leaving a trace. Three bystanders have been seriously wounded and one, a young boy, will die from peritonitis. Four days later, five men, believed to the bank robbers, are spotted in Ferndale, heading north toward the Canadian border. They are intercepted near Hazelmere, British Columbia, north of Blaine, where two of the men and a Canadian immigration officer are killed in a fierce gun-battle. The remaining three men flee into the woods and quietly backtrack across the border, but are seen again heading south toward Bellingham. Anticipating their escape route, sheriff's posses guard all the bridges across the Nooksack River. Early Saturday morning, October 24, the fugitives are trapped on the Great Northern Railway bridge at Ferndale. Officers shoot and kill two of the fugitives, but one manages to escape on foot. Authorities in Washington and British Columbia arrest and question dozens of suspicious transients, but none are charged with the crimes. Although a $1,000 reward is offered for the capture of the last fugitive, he is never found.
Saturday Night in Sedro-Woolley
Sedro-Woolley was particularly busy on weekends, catering to men who came in from construction and logging camps, mines, and mills to carouse and spend their hard-earned wages at the many saloons, brothels, and eateries. The town had two banks, the Bingham Bank and the First National Bank, located in the Wixson Hotel along with a telephone exchange, the Wixson Café and the adjoining Wilson Saloon. Both were open Saturday night between 9:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m. giving the town’s merchants the opportunity to safeguard their daily receipts in the bank’s vaults.On Saturday evening, October 17, 1914, a gang of six unmasked, roughly dressed men (some newspapers reported five) assembled outside the First National Bank, discreetly watching and waiting for it to open. At about 8:50 p.m., the staff, John K. Guddall, head cashier, Jeremiah Marsden, assistant cashier, and Frank Lebold, bookkeeper, opened the bank for business. Shortly thereafter, two men entered the front of the bank, pulled out pistols and demanded money. Hoping to draw the attention of the town marshal, Guddall pulled a .38-caliber revolver from underneath the counter of the teller’s cage and began firing. When the bandits returned fire, Marsden and Lebold dove for cover behind their desks.
After the shooting began, another bandit stationed behind the bank, kicked in the back door and got the drop on Guddall, who had since run out of ammunition. The bandits forced him to open the vault and made off with $11,649.45, mostly in gold coins.Meanwhile, the gunfire attracted the attention of Sedro-Woolley’s town marshal, Charles Villenueve Jr., and some of its armed citizens. A 15-minute gun-battle ensued during which the bandits indiscriminately fired at least 100 rounds, mostly intended to intimidate the town’s citizens and keep its law enforcement officers at bay. They also seemed to take particular pleasure in shooting out many of the large plate glass windows in nearby businesses. After the robbery, the men ran down Ferry Street to the east and then turned north on Murdock Street, where they disappeared into the night. Witnesses surmised they had stashed a getaway car somewhere in the underbrush, or possibly had absconded with a railroad speeder (a small rail car used for track maintenance), but no one actually had any idea how they escaped or which direction they headed. But witnesses agreed that the men definitely spoke to each other in a foreign language.
When the shooting started, Helen Hanson, the switchboard operator, whose office was adjacent to the Wixson Café, telephoned Skagit County Sheriff Edwin Wells in Mount Vernon, for help. Sheriff Wells arrived a short time later and gathered a posse of 100 men to chase the outlaws. Since he hadn’t a clue which way the bandits had gone, Wells sent small posses of men into the Skagit hills to search deserted logging camps in hopes of locating the fugitives' hideout. Marshal Villenueve and his deputy, Jasper Holman, stayed behind to guard the town and the Bingham Bank. It rained heavily on Saturday night, spoiling all hopes of tracking the men with bloodhounds.
During the shooting spree, three bystanders were hit by stray bullets. The victims were: Melvin Wilson, age 13, who was shot in the abdomen and died of peritonitis the following night; Fred Carline, a bartender at the Wilson Saloon, who was wounded in the thigh; and Joseph Peterson, a logger, who was hit in the neck. One of the bandits, whom Guddall had fired upon point-blank, was also believed wounded as blood was seen on the floor of the bank where he had fallen.
Sheriff Wells concluded the bandits were part of a gang of approximately 20 foreigners, variously described by eyewitnesses as Austrian, Russian, or Eastern European, who had committed four other robberies in Washington and British Columbia in recent months. The first was of the Granite Falls Bank in Snohomish County in January 1914 followed by the robberies of the Abbotsford Bank in British Columbia and the Elma Bank in Chehalis County in March. On April 7, however, seven foreigners attempted to rob the Union Bank of Canada in New Hazelton, B.C. Canadian authorities killed three of the bandits and captured three, but one escaped. A rumor circulating around the law enforcement community held that the gang intended to rob a bank for each member caught or killed.
On Tuesday, October 20, a small posse reported seeing two men, one thought to be wounded, taking shelter in large hollow stump, seven miles from Mount Vernon. They notified Sheriff Wells in Sedro-Woolley, who sent a posse of 100 men to surround the area, but when they finally reached the stump, the suspects were gone. Another posse reported finding strips of cloth spotted with fresh blood in another abandoned camp. Posses pressed the search for the bandits throughout Skagit County, but were unsuccessful.
At 2:45 a.m. on Wednesday, October 21, U.S. Immigration Inspector Thomas Wyckoff, always on the lookout for illegal immigrants, attempted to detain three men on the Great Northern Railway (GNR) tracks in Ferndale. They pulled guns on Wyckoff and told him, in broken English, to get lost. These men were joined by two others with guns and they headed north along the tracks towards the Canadian border. Inspector Wyckoff ran back to his office to grab a shotgun and spread the alarm. The hunt for the bandits immediately shifted from Skagit to Whatcom County and Whatcom County Sheriff Lewis A. Thomas posted guards on all roads leading to the International Boundary, hoping to intercept the men and prevent them from fleeing into British Columbia.
When the First National Bank was robbed, many witnesses in Sedro-Woolley declared there were six bandits, three inside the bank and three outside. But Inspector Wyckoff had seen only five men in Ferndale, leading to much speculation. Sheriff Wells surmised the man John Guddall shot during the robbery either died of his wound or was killed by his comrades and buried somewhere in the Skagit hills.
Border-Crossings and Killings
At about 2:00 a.m. on Thursday, October 22, U. S. Immigration Inspector William Schaffner saw five men walking along the GNR tracks at Boblet Street in Blaine, less than a half-mile from the border. A short while later, Immigration Inspectors Frank McDowell and Lee Hyde saw them sneaking across the border near the Douglas (Pacific Highway) Port of Entry and ordered them to halt, but the men ran and disappeared into the underbrush. Inspector Schaffner sent word to a small posse, watching the tracks near Hazelmere, B.C., two miles north of Blaine, to head off the bandits. Meanwhile, Sheriffs Thomas and Wells assembled a large posse in Blaine to take up the chase north from the border.
From Hazelmere, the posse, consisting of one Canadian and two Americans, proceeded south down the GNR tracks and at 3:00 a.m. encountered five men walking north along the roadbed. When U.S. Immigration Officer A. E. Burke ordered them to halt, the men drew guns and a fierce gunfight ensued. Officer Burke killed one man outright and another was shot in the hip. The remaining men ran up the tracks, dragging their wounded companion with them and leaving the dead man behind. In the exchange of gunfire, Canadian Immigration Officer Clifford J. Adams, age 22, was shot in the heart and killed, and GNR detective Amos Kile was struck in the wrist by a bullet.
Hearing gunfire, the posse from Blaine hurried north along the GNR right-of-way, arriving at the scene just minutes later. They found the body of one outlaw lying on the tracks with a money-belt containing $1,400 in gold coins. A trail of blood led the posse to the body of the outlaw who had been wounded. His comrades had shot him in the back of the head, torn open his shirt, and taken his money belt. His pockets had been emptied, but they left behind $167.20 in silver coins tied up in a neckerchief. In the morning, the bodies were taken to Cloverdale, B.C., for a close examination.
A search of the men’s clothing failed to give a single clue to their identities; pockets were mostly empty and all the marks and labels had been removed. Both outlaws carried .38-caliber Colt’s automatic pistols and an ample supply of ammunition. They found the first bandit had another money belt strapped around his waist containing an additional $1,500 in gold coins, bringing the total amount recovered to $3,067.20. The money was held by the Canadian government, pending First National Bank’s proof of ownership.
On Thursday afternoon, Melvin Wilson was buried in Sedro-Woolley. And reports circulated in the newspapers that the three remaining bandits had been surrounded in Canada and either captured or killed, but they were all incorrect. In fact, they had quietly backtracked across the border and were hiding in the woods somewhere between Blaine and Lynden.
Back in the USA
The first definite information the trio was in back the U.S. came on Friday afternoon, October 23, from Mrs. Rosa Wilson, wife of Otho Wilson, whose farm was approximately six miles north of Ferndale. Three men came to the house at 7:30 a.m. and demanded food. She gave them five loves of bread and a pound of butter for which they paid her one silver dollar. Before leaving, they warned Mrs. Wilson not to tell anyone they had been at the farm or they’d return and kill both her and her husband. Finally, about noon, she gathered enough courage to inform a neighbor, who then notified the authorities.
About 6:00 p.m., Alick McGee, who owned a farm near Blaine, reported seeing three men walking west on the road. After asking for directions to Custer, they turned south, walked a short distance, then ducked into the thick underbrush. Sheriffs Wells and Thomas dispatched armed men to watch every bridge and intersection south of Blaine. One thing they knew for sure, the fugitives had to cross the Nooksack River at some point and would probably be traveling at night. Sheriff Thomas took the bridge at Lynden to guard and Sheriff Wells took Ferndale.
Whatcom County Deputy Sheriff Wilson Stewart, Ferndale Fire Chief Fred Roessel, and two William J. Burns International Detective Agency detectives were assigned to guard the Great Northern Railway bridge in Ferndale. The deck of the bridge was covered in sheet metal and was noisy when walked on. Sheriff Wells and several deputies were guarding the heavily-used wagon bridge, a short distance away, down river. Deputy Stewart, convinced the fugitives would attempt to cross the railroad bridge, decided to set a trap. First they made a barricade from railroad ties to protect themselves from gunfire. Next they took a headlight from a Ford Model-T automobile and attached it to a six-volt dry-cell battery with a knife switch, making an improvised searchlight. Then they waited for darkness.
Caught on the Bridge
At 12:20 a.m., on Saturday, October 24, Deputy Stewart heard noises on the bridge and turned on the searchlight, revealing two men carefully attempting to cross. They ignored commands to halt and surrender and went for their guns. Roessel fired his shotgun and brought down one; Stewart fired his shotgun and brought down the other. A third man, following some distance behind, jumped off the tracks and fled down a path bordering the Nooksack River. Posse members fired shots at the fugitive and immediately gave chase, but he escaped in the darkness. Hunting a desperate armed felon in the dark was useless as well as dangerous, so Sheriff Wells delayed the search until daylight. But he sent a posse to the small milltown of Marietta to watch the ferry dock.
At 2:00 a.m., Whatcom County Deputy Coroner Robert B. Stuart attended the scene of the shooting and determined the facts were so apparent there was nothing for him to investigate. He ordered the bodies to be brought to the Anders G. Wickman Undertaking Parlors, 1146 Elk (now State) Street in Bellingham for close examination. Both men were wearing money belts under their clothing, one with $1,544.45 and the other with $1,543.65, mostly in gold coins. The money was turned over to Whatcom County Coroner Dr. Henry Thompson until its rightful owner was established. The bodies had no papers or identification and the marks and labels had been removed from their clothing. Both were carrying .38-caliber Colt’s automatic pistols and plenty of ammunition. One of the pistols had six notches carved in the grip.
Early Saturday morning, October 24, bank cashier John Guddall and three witness from Sedro-Woolley traveled to Cloverdale, B.C. to see the two outlaws killed near Hazelmere. After identifying them as two of the bank robbers, the witnesses made their way to Bellingham and also identified the bodies there as members of the gang. Saturday and Sunday, thousands of curious onlookers also viewed the remains and many believed they had seen the men in Bellingham. But the bodies remained unidentified.
The Last Fugitive
Meanwhile, Sheriff Thomas sent a large posse to search the area west of the Nooksack River for the last bandit, believed to be hiding near Marietta or on the Lummi Indian Reservation. When the search proved unsuccessful, Sheriff Thomas concluded that the fugitive had probably escaped from the reservation in a small boat. Armed men had been posted on all roads north and east of Ferndale, hoping to block an escape into Canada, and Sheriff Wells continued running down every lead and rumor. Police in Bellingham were busy rounding up suspicious-looking men for questioning and identification.
On Tuesday morning, October 27, Washington State Governor Ernest Lister (1870-1919) offered a $500 reward for the apprehension, arrest, and conviction of the last Sedro-Woolley bank robber. The Board of Skagit County Commissioners followed suit, authorizing Sheriff Wells to post a $500 reward for the outlaw’s capture, dead or alive. That afternoon, the two unidentified men, shot and killed in Ferndale, were buried in the potter’s field (section 19) at the Bay View Cemetery in Bellingham.
On Wednesday, October 28, Sheriffs Thomas and Wells finally called in all the posses, abandoning the organized hunt for the remaining fugitive. An incentive of a $1,000 cash reward would be more than enough to keep bounty hunters occupied for weeks. Sheriff Ed Wells, age 55, returned to Mount Vernon and took a well deserved rest after having spent 10 straight days chasing the bank robbers.
Over the next few days, newspapers reported sightings of suspicious-looking suspects, fitting the description of the last bandit. Since he seemed to be heading south, Sheriff Wells notified the Everett and Seattle Police Departments to be on the lookout for the suspect’s arrival. One sighting was near McMurray in southern Skagit County, by a Northern Pacific Railway section gang. Another sighting was near Golden Gardens in northwest King County, by two employees of the General Petroleum Company at Meadow Point. But the man (or men) was never found.
The Burns Detective Agency
After the Granite Falls Bank in Snohomish County was robbed on January 15, 1914, the American Banker Association hired the William J. Burns International Detective Agency to track the elusive gang of foreigners roaming about the Pacific Northwest robbing banks. Two Burns Agency detectives, acting on information that suspicious strangers had been casing the Sedro-Woolley banks the previous week, were in town when the First National Bank was robbed. Burns Agency detectives also participated in the manhunt in Skagit and Whatcom counties and in British Columbia.
Acting on a tip, Burns Agency detectives had been tracking a suspect for the three days in the area around King Street in Seattle, but they never got close enough to make an apprehension. Walter R. Thayer, manager of the Burns International Detective Agency’s Seattle office, contacted Sheriff Wells and asked him to assist in the suspect’s capture and identification. Just before midnight on Monday, November 9, the suspect appeared at the Panama Pool Hall at 6th Avenue and King Street. When Thayer and Sheriff Wells walked through the door to make the arrest, the suspect quickly elbowed his way through the crowd and escaped through the back door.
The Question of Kazansias
On Tuesday, November 10, Burns detectives kept the Panama Pool Hall under surveillance all day. About 6:00 p.m. the suspect left the saloon and was immediately arrested by Thayer and Sheriff Wells. His first words were: “You fellows don’t have anything on me” (Mount Vernon Herald). He identified himself as Haig Kazansias, a Russian-born Armenian, age 29, and claimed he hadn’t been out of Seattle since he arrived from Vancouver, B.C., on July 25, 1914, where he owned a fruit stand. Kazansias said he’d been working part-time as a longshoreman on the Seattle waterfront at Pier D and doing other odd jobs. The following morning, Sheriff Wells took his prisoner to the Skagit County Jail in Mount Vernon. Meanwhile, acting on a tip, police searched in the woods north of Seattle for a cache containing the missing loot ($5,448.55) and Kazansias's pistol.
On Wednesday, November 11, Sheriff Wells brought three witnesses to Mount Vernon to view 15 prisoners lodged in the county jail: John Guddall, cashier at the First National Bank; Mrs. Anna Murray, whose husband, Charles, owned a dairy farm near Lynden where the fugitives stopped for food; and Alick McGee, who had a farm near Blaine where the fugitives asked for directions to Custer. All the witnesses picked Kazansias as a member of the bandit gang.
Over the next two weeks, Sheriff Wells and Skagit County Prosecutor Charles D. Beagle thoroughly investigated Kazansias's alibi and decided there was not enough evidence to warrant the expense of a trial. The suspect had not been found in possession of a gun or gold and the witness identifications were insufficient to sustain a conviction for robbery and murder. On Tuesday night, November 24, Haig Kazansias was released from custody.
Honoring Sheriff Wells
On New Year’s day, Jan 1, 1915, Sheriff Wells was presented with the gift of a Sterling silver badge inscribed on the front: “Sheriff of Skagit County,” and on the reverse: “Presented to Sheriff Ed Wells by First National Bank of Sedro-Woolley as a souvenir for splendid service in bandit chase, Oct. 1914.” In the center of the badge was a $5 gold piece that had been hit by a bullet while in possession of one of the outlaws. With the badge was a letter:
“Dear sir: On behalf of the bank, I am presenting you with a little token of remembrance of the chase and the two battles with the bandits at Hazelmere, B.C. and Ferndale, Washington, in October 1914. This coin was one of several, which were bent by bullets in these fights. We trust that you will find pleasure in wearing it. In this connection, I want to thank you for the splendid service you rendered, for we recognize that it was due to your good judgment, energy and sticktoittiveness that this lawless band was finally wiped out. Trusting that all future work for you will be less hazardous and wishing you the most happy and prosperous New Year, I am yours very truly, J. Guddall, Cashier” (Mount Vernon Herald).
On Tuesday, February 23, The Vancouver Police requested Sheriff Wells and John Guddall make a quick trip to Canada to identify a possible robbery suspect. He was a Russian who gave his name as Danzaloff and when the police searched his room, they found a large cache of guns and ammunition. The Canadians believed he was a member of the gang of foreign outlaws who had been plaguing the Pacific Northwest, but Sheriff Wells and Guddall were unable to make an identification. The William J. Burns International Detective Agency expanded their search for the last bandit, to include all of North America, but neither he, nor the missing loot, was ever found.