Ex-convicts Claude H. Ryan and Walter Seelert kill Lewis County Deputy Sheriff Seth R. Jackson on April 7, 1937.

  • By Daryl C. McClary
  • Posted 9/18/2007
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8239

On April 7, 1937, Lewis County Deputy Sheriffs Seth R. Jackson (1879-1937) and James D. Compton attempt to arrest ex-convicts Claude H. Ryan and Walter Seelert near Meskill, approximately 10 miles west of Chehalis, for a burglary in South Bend, Pacific County, Washington. A gun battle ensues during which Deputy Jackson is killed and Deputy Compton is wounded. The two fugitives steal the sheriff's car and escape.  Ryan is caught one week later in Electron, near Lake Kapowsin. He is convicted of first-degree murder in May 1937 and sentenced to death. Seelert escapes to Denver, Colorado, where he will be killed in a shoot-out with police.  After the appeals process has run its course, Ryan will be hanged at the Washington State Penitentiary on February 25, 1938.

Armed Robbery

At about 2:30 a.m. on Wednesday, April 7, 1937, two men, armed with handguns, broke into the home of Mrs. Emma Cartier, age 67, in South Bend, Pacific County.  The burglars told her they were looking for money, bonds, and jewelry.  On their promise to leave if she gave them money, she forked over five $20 bills.  Instead, they bound her wrists and ankles with adhesive tape and gagged her.  Mrs. Cartier, a widow, had only been occupying one upstairs bedroom and that’s where she kept her records and valuables.  The burglars searched only that room and knew where the key to her safe was hidden.  While one man stood guard, the other ransacked her desk drawers, file cabinets and safe, but after an hour and a half found only $20 in dimes and nickels and $500 in postal savings coupons.  One of the bandits remarked: “Three weeks work for nothing!” (Centralia Daily Chronicle).  Before leaving, they cut the wires to her telephone.  Mrs. Cartier managed to free herself and then notified her neighbor, Dr. John M. Hammert, who spread the alarm. 

South Bend Sheriff Roy Trezise broadcast an alert to all the surrounding counties to be on the lookout for the two armed robbers.  One man was described as being tall, wearing striped overalls and a tan felt hat; the other was of medium height and stout, wearing blue overalls and a brown checkered cap; method and direction of travel unknown.  In Chehalis, Lewis County Deputy Sheriff Seth R. Jackson, age 57, wrote down the descriptions of the bandits, then he and Deputy James D. Compton, age 53, jumped into a patrol car and headed west down the Ocean Beach Highway (State Route 6) to search for the culprits.

At about 5:00 a.m., the deputies spotted two speeding automobiles heading east in tandem and decided to investigate.  The vehicles ignored the patrol car’s siren and a high-speed chase ensued.  Near Meskill in western Lewis County, one vehicle developed an engine problem and stopped; the other vehicle continued on.

The Shoot-Out

Deputy Compton pulled alongside the disabled vehicle.  As Deputy Jackson stepped from the passenger side of the patrol car, he was shot through the heart and fell dead.  Deputy Compton scrambled from the car with a shotgun and was immediately wounded in the temple.  He fired back, hitting the gunman.  The driver of the getaway car got out and grabbed Jackson’s gun. Then he and Compton engaged in a fierce gun battle with the patrol car in between.  Compton was shot in the arm.  At that moment, a truck drove up and Compton made a dash for it, reloading his revolver.  Meanwhile, the second bandit helped his wounded companion into the patrol car and they sped away.

Deputy Compton told the truck driver, Freeland H. Miller, to leave him and go for help.  Miller drove up the road about two miles, found a telephone and called the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office with news of the fray and Jackson’s murder.  Then he returned to Compton and rushed him to Saint Helen Hospital in Chehalis.

Sheriff John A. Blankenship immediately ordered a county-wide dragnet for the two bandits and the missing patrol car.  A short while later, Deputies found the patrol car, wrecked and abandoned on a dead-end road near Claquato, three miles west of Chehalis.  Inside they found Mrs. Cartier’s five $20 bills, her postal savings coupons, Jackson’s .38-caliber revolver, and blood on the upholstery.

A search of the bandit’s automobile abandoned near Meskill revealed two black masks, a brown checkered cap, two set of coveralls, one blue and one striped, a roll of adhesive tape, with strands of gray hair stuck to it, a .38-caliber revolver and a makeshift .22-caliber pistol, fitted with a silencer.  The vehicle was registered to Walter Seelert, a.k.a. Walter “Pinky” Mason, age 39, a well-known criminal from Tacoma.

Meanwhile, sheriff’s posses set up roadblocks on all roads and highways leading out of the county.  Scores of police officers poured into Lewis County to help search for the two cop-killers.  The King County Sheriff’s Department brought a pack of bloodhounds in an attempt pick up their trail.  Local radio stations broadcast descriptions of the men and asked the public to report anyone or anything suspicious.

Seelert and Ryan

Tacoma Police detectives were sent to locate Seelert, but he was not at his tenement and had failed to appear for work at a Northern Pacific Railway machine shop that morning.  They knew he had been associating with another ex-convict, Claude H. Ryan, age 33.  Both men were on parole from the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.  Seelert had been sentenced on December 30, 1931, to serve five to 10 years for the armed robbery of a service station in Seattle.  He was released on parole on March 18, 1936.  Ryan, and an associate, Ray Stark, had been convicted of manslaughter in November 1930 for killing Northern Pacific Railway special officer John M. True in Tacoma on July 11, 1930.  He was sentenced on November 6, 1930, to serve five to 10 years, but was released on parole on September 28, 1933, after serving only 34 months.  Both Seelert and Ryan were frequent visitors to the Tacoma Police Department where they were questioned about various crimes in the area.

The weapon that killed Deputy Jackson was a .22-caliber pistol, fashioned from a single-shot rifle.  The stock had been removed, the barrel shortened and a home-made silencer attached.  While searching Seelert’s apartment, detectives found a letter postmarked in Portland, Oregon, from Michael O. Swenson, concerning the gun.  Swenson was a merchant seaman and when detectives learned that his ship was about to sail, had him arrested by the Portland police and brought to Chehalis for questioning.

Swenson said he met Seelert while they were inmates at the Washington State Penitentiary and had kept in touch.  Swenson made the gun and silencer at Seelert’s request and had given it to him some 10 days before Jackson’s murder.  On April 2, Seelert introduced him to Ryan and the two men talked about committing a big robbery in the Portland area and suggested they might need help.  When Swenson, who was shipping out in a week, declined to participate, the job was ostensibly called off.  After signing his statement, Swenson was lodged in the Lewis County jail as a material witness.

Burying Seth Jackson

On Friday afternoon, April 10, funeral services for Seth Riving Jackson were held at the Newell-Hoerling Mortuary chapel, 205 W Pine Street, in Centralia under the auspices of the United Spanish War Veterans and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. 

The service was attended by hundreds of law enforcement officers and friends.  Lloyd H. Dysart, Lewis County assistant district attorney, gave the eulogy.  Jackson was buried in the Pioneer Section of the Mountain View Cemetery in Chehalis. 

Finding Ryan

The hunt for the killers dragged on for a week.  Posses continued investigating every sighting and lead without result.  Finally, on Tuesday night, April 13, Tacoma Police Detective Lieutenant William Ferrar received a telephone tip that Ryan was drinking in a tavern at Electron, near Lake Kapowsin.  At 10:00 p.m. Ryan, drunk, was taken into custody by Lieutenant Ferrar and three police officers without a struggle, then transported to the Pierce County Jail where he was questioned for four hours.  On Wednesday morning, Ryan was taken to Chehalis where District Attorney James E. Sareault charged him and Walter Seelert, in absentia, in superior court with first-degree murder.

Ryan made a statement detailing his association with Seelert, the burglary at South Bend, the gun battle at Meskill, and their subsequent escape but refused to sign it.  He said they had been on foot since wrecking the sheriff’s car, hiding during the day and traveling at night.  Seelert had been slightly injured by shotgun pellets, but neither was hurt in the car wreck. 

Early Tuesday morning, April 13, the fugitives found themselves near Rainier and Ryan, hungry and exhausted, told Seelert he wanted to give up.  When Seelert refused, the pair decided to split up.  Seelert boarded a bus headed for Tacoma and Ryan thumbed a ride on an ice wagon to Electron in search of a former prison pal, Ray Stark, and a place to hide.  He met Stark in a tavern, got drunk and then was captured by police.  When asked about Seelert, Ryan, adhering to the criminal’s code, stated flatly: “I won’t tell you where Seelert is” (Centralia Daily Chronicle).

The Trial

Ryan was arraigned on Friday, April 30, 1937, before Lewis County Superior Court Judge Chester A. Studebaker, who appointed Judge George B. Simpson from Clark County to preside over the trial.  District Attorney Sareault selected his assistant, Lloyd Dysart, to prosecute the case.  Ryan’s attorney, who had been retained by friends, was Warren Hardy of Seattle.  As expected with a charge of first-degree murder, Ryan pleaded not guilty.  A change-of-venue motion by defense attorney Hardy, citing community prejudice, was denied.

The trial began on Monday morning, May 17, 1937.  On Tuesday afternoon, after impaneling a jury, consisting of five women and seven men plus one alternate, Prosecutor Dysart outlined the state’s case against Ryan for first-degree murder.  Ryan and Seelert, while absconding from the scene of a robbery, shot and killed Deputy Jackson and seriously wounded Deputy Compton.  Witnesses saw them commit the crimes and positively identified Ryan as one of the gunmen.  In addition, he confessed to being present during their commission.  Dysart asked for a conviction of premeditated murder on the ground that both Seelert and Ryan, while committing felony robbery, carried deadly weapons and were determined to kill anyone who to tried to stop them.

Defense attorney Hardy went with the “missing man” strategy: Seelert did it.  Ryan drove the car as a favor to Seelert, but knew nothing about the robbery.  Seelert killed Deputy Jackson and wounded Deputy Compton; Ryan was never armed.  After the shoot-out, Seelert forced Ryan at gun point to accompany him, threatening death if Ryan did not obey.  And finally, although Ryan may be held legally responsible, he was not morally responsible for Jackson’s murder.

The prosecution rested its case on Thursday afternoon, May 20, after having called more than 50 witnesses to testify.  The defense called only one witness, Claude H. Ryan, who testified he had been an unwitting and unwilling participant in Seelert’s robbery scheme and the events resulting in the death of Deputy Jackson.  He placed the blame entirely on Seelert and unknown persons who planned the Cartier robbery.  During Ryan’s cross examination, discrepancies in his testimony were either unexplained or misunderstandings.  He finally admitted shooting at Deputy Compton, using Deputy Jackson’s gun, but claimed it was only in self defense.

The defense rested its case at 2:45 p.m. Friday, May 21, followed by closing arguments, and the case went to the jury at 9:00 p.m.  After deliberating for three-and-a-half hours and casting eight ballots, the jury reached its verdict.  Both Ryan and Seelert were found guilty of first-degree murder and the jury voted to impose the death penalty.  Judge Simpson announced the verdict on Saturday morning, May 22, and scheduled Ryans’s sentencing for the following Saturday.

Sentenced to Hang

On Saturday morning, May 29, Judge Simpson sentenced Claude Ryan “to be hanged by the neck until dead,” set the execution date for Friday, July 23, 1937, at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla and signed the commitment order.  Defense Attorney Hardy filed a motion for a new trial and an arrested judgment, both of which were denied.  Then Hardy filed a notice of appeal to the Washington State Supreme Court on behalf of both defendants based on insufficient evidence, jury prejudice, and judicial error.

On Tuesday, June 15, 1937, Deputy Compton resumed his duties with the Lewis County Sheriff’s Department and the following Tuesday, June 22, accompanied Sheriff Blankenship, Deputy William C. Wilmore, and Judge Studebaker on a trip to Walla Walla, delivering Ryan to the Washington State Penitentiary for execution.

Finding Seelert

On Wednesday, June 23, 1937, Sheriff Blankenship sent a telegram to Detective Captain James E. Childers, Denver Police Department, stating he had received information that Walter Seelert was living in Denver under the name Ira Tate.  Captain Childers sent out a dozen detectives to investigate and within an hour they found Seelert and another ex-convict, C. B. Wilson, holed-up in a downtown rooming house.  An informant told detectives the men had been watching two Denver beer parlors and planed to blow the safes on Sunday night and steal the weekend receipts.  Seelert told the informant he would never be taken alive and boasted he had enough nitroglycerin to blow up the entire city.

At 6:00 a.m. on Thursday, June 24, Captain Joseph Duffy and six detectives put the rooming house under surveillance, waiting for the men to come out.  The bandits occupied a rear room on the ground floor.  When they failed to appear after two hours, Captain Duffy decided to attempt an arrest inside the building.

While two detectives covered the back entrance, Captain Duffy and his men crept down a narrow, dark hallway to Seelert’s room, hoping to catch them asleep.  When the detectives burst through the door, both men were laying on the bed.  Seelert, who had been lying on his stomach with gun-in-hand, fired at the detectives point blank, but his bullet hit the brass bedstead and was deflected into the wall.  Wilson jumped up and reached under a pillow for a weapon.  The detectives opened fire, four bullets hitting Seelert and two striking Wilson, killing both men outright.  A search of the room disclosed two .38-caliber revolvers, two tear-gas guns wired behind a dresser mirror, a satchel containing a complete set of safecracking tools, and a small amount of nitroglycerin in a wooden vial.  A $100 reward, authorized by the Lewis County board of commissioners, was wired to the Denver Police for payment to the informant.  After autopsy, the unclaimed bodies of Seelert and Wilson were buried in unmarked graves in potter’s field at Denver’s Riverside Cemetery.

On July 9, 1937, Michael O. Swenson, maker of the gun that killed Jackson, was the subject of a sanity hearing.  He had been in the county jail, held as a material witness, since April and began acting peculiar.  At the hearing, Swenson told the judge he was hearing the voices of Ryan and Seelert berating him and calling him names for squealing on them.  He was ordered committed to the Western State Hospital for the Insane in Steilacoom.

Ryan's Hanging

On July 17, Ryan’s execution date was vacated when his attorney, Warren Hardy, filed an appeal with the Washington State Supreme Court.  Arguments were heard during the fall session and, on November 8, the supreme court upheld the lower court’s conviction, but granted Ryan the right to petition for a rehearing.  On December 30, tribunal turned down Ryan’s appeal for a second hearing and he was brought back to Chehalis for re-sentencing.  On January 13, 1938, Superior Court Judge James E. Stone, visiting from Cowlitz County, set Friday, February 25, as Ryan’s execution date. His last chance was an appeal to Governor Clarence D. Martin (1884-1955) for a commutation of the death sentence to life in prison.  But Governor Martin decided not to interfere with the execution.

Early Wednesday morning, February 23, Ryan calmly watched as death-row associate, Clifford Hawkins, age 25, a double murderer from Skagit County, was escorted from his cell to the gallows.  On Thursday evening, however, Ryan was so nervous he couldn’t eat his last meal and, as his final hour approached, he suffered a near breakdown.  He refused all religious rites, but asked Reverend Arvid C. Ohrnell, the prison chaplain, to accompany him to the gallows.  At 12:04 a.m., on February 25, 1938, the trap dropped beneath Ryan’s feet and 11 minutes later, prison doctors pronounced him dead.  After a brief funeral service on Saturday, his unclaimed body was buried in the prison cemetery, identified only as convict No. 13363.

In addition to the usual spectators, Ryan’s hanging was witnessed by more than 140 law enforcement officers who happened to be in Walla Walla attending a Washington Sheriffs and Police Chiefs Association conference. It was the largest crowd ever to witness an execution at the Washington State Penitentiary.  Ryan was the 42nd prisoner to be executed in Washington state since the death penalty was established in 1904.

Sources: “Bandits Slay County Officer,” Centralia Daily Chronicle, April 7, 1937, p. 1; “Weapon Is Found,” Ibid., April 8, 1937, p. 1; “Continue Man-Hunt,” Ibid., April 9, 1937, p. 1; “Identifies Revolver,” Ibid., April 10, 1937, p. 1; “Bandit Is Returned,” Ibid., April 15, 1937, p. 1; “Ryan Identified by Mrs. Cartier,” Ibid., April 16, 1937, p. 1; “Shooters Captured,” Ibid., April 17, 1937, p. 1; “Arraignment of Ryan Postponed,” Ibid., April 22, 1937, p. 8; “Jury Term to Start Monday,” Ibid., May 11, 1937, p. 3; “Trying to Pick Jury,” Ibid., May 18, 1937, p. 1; “Compton on Stand,” Ibid., May 19, 1937, p. 1; “”Defense Started,” Ibid., May 20, 1937, p. 1; “Ryan Is Grilled,” Ibid., May 21, 1937, p. 1; “Ryan Guilty of Killing Deputy,” Ibid., May 22, 1937, p. 1; “Slayer to Hang,” Ibid., May 29, 1937, p. 1; “Duties Are Resumed by Wounded Deputy,” Ibid., June 16, 1937, p. 1; “Ryan Is Removed to Walla Walla,” Ibid., June 22, 1937, p. 1; “Seelert Slain in Denver,” Ibid., June 24, 1937, p. 1; “Maker of Death Weapon Insane,” Ibid., July 9, 1937, p. 8; “Ryan Trying to Dodge Gallows,” Ibid., July 19, 1937, p. 3; “To Hear Appeal,” Ibid., July 28, 1937, p. 8; “Ryan to Receive Death Sentence,” Ibid., January 12, 1938, p. 8; “End Near for Ryan,” Ibid., February 23, 1938, p. 1; “”Slayer Will Be Hanged Tonight,” Ibid., February 24, 1938, p. 1; “Chief Returns From Meeting,” Ibid., February 26, 1938, p. 1; “One of Bandits Caught Tuesday,” Chehalis Bee-Nugget, April 16, 1937, p. 1; “Ryan’s Trial Is Being Delayed,” Ibid., April 23, 1937, p. 1; “Compton to Specialist,” Ibid., May 14, 1937, p. 11; “Murder Case Is Before the Jury,” Ibid., May 21, 1937, p. 1; “Death Penalty for C. H. Ryan,” Ibid., May 28, 1937, p. 1; “Ryan Testimony Closes Murder Trial,” Ibid., May 28, 1937, p. 2A; “Ryan to Hang Friday, July 23,” Ibid., June 4, 1937, p. 1; “Deputy Compton at Work,” Ibid., June 18, 1937, p. 1; “Maker of Silencer Gun Is Sent to Asylum,” Ibid., July 9, 1937, p. 5; Ryan Execution Will Be Delayed,” Ibid., July 23, 1937, p. 1; “Right to Petition High Court Granted Ryan,” Ibid., December 3, 1937, p. 1; “Man Who slew Deputy Hangs at Walla Walla,” The Seattle Star, February 25, 1938, p. 5; “Ryan Hanged in State Prison,” Seattle Post Intelligencer, February 25, 1938, p. 4; “Ryan Hangs for Slaying Officer,” The Seattle Times, February 25, 1938, p. 9; “Two Desperadoes Shot to Death in Battle With Denver Officers,” The Denver Post, June 24, 1937, p. 1; “Slain Desperado Expected to Lie in Potter’s Field,” Ibid., June 26, 1937, p. 5; “Slain Gunman Identified Thru Federal Record,” Ibid., June 28, 1937, p. 3; “Deputy Sheriff Seth Riving Jackson,” The Officer Down Memorial Page website accessed May 2007 (www.odmp.org).
Note: This essay was emended on January 25, 2012, to correct the birthdate of Clarence D. Martin.

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