1916 Seattle was a hotbed of sin when 2 officers were killed
In a city roiling with sin, keeping the peace was deadly business. So just what did happen on the night of July 24, 1916, in a shootout that ended the lives of two police officers and a watchman?
Russ Hanbey, a retired teacher who lives in North Seattle, is the great grandson of Seattle Police Sgt. John Finis Weedin. A freelance writer and volunteer backcountry ranger, Hanbey is researching a book that will include the story of his grandfather. He has consulted family members, news accounts, public documents and the Seattle Police Department in piecing together this story.
TALL AND ERECT, his mustache neatly trimmed, Seattle police Sgt. John Finis Weedin cut a fine figure in his buttoned-up uniform, the of an officer neatly pinned on his chest. On his hard-brimmed hat, a crested shield announced his position: Patrol Driver.
It was the summer of 1916, a turbulent time in a booming city on the fringe of the country's feral Western frontier. Gambling and prostitution were rampant, and access to liquor so loose that Washington had imposed its own prohibition laws, leaving "dry" Seattle with a serious drinking problem. Bootlegging was big business.
Weedin was 44 then, a 22-year veteran of the force and something of a celebrity around town as part of a team that ran a paddy wagon they called the Black Maria. One officer sat upfront to drive while another hung off the back as they made their rounds, picking up people who'd been arrested, backing up the Fire Department and serving as the city's only ambulance. Sometimes, the officers were even pressed into service moving prisoners to the train station and their ultimate destination, the state prison in Walla Walla. Perhaps because of that, people began to associate the Black Maria with trouble, and its patrolmen as harbingers of bad luck.
On the night of July 24, however, there was no sign of trouble as Weedin and a young police chauffeur, Robert R. Wiley, left a squad party after their shift, piled into a marked police car with five civilians and headed north up Westlake Avenue.
That same evening, Ichibe Suehiro likely felt the weight of the pistol heavy in his baggy pants as he crept around the edges of the hulking warehouse he'd been hired to guard. Earlier, his boss, Logan Billingsley, had handed him the weapon as his shift began — telling him to fire it if there was trouble.
Unfortunately, trouble was about to come rolling up the street. And all too soon, the city would be mourning the first multiple killing of Seattle police officers in the line of duty.
Since the shooting death of Officer David Sire in 1881 by a drunk on Occidental Avenue, nine Seattle policemen had, one by one, been killed in action, mostly in confrontations with criminal suspects. Weedin and Wiley would be next.
In the years since, so many others have fallen — nearly 60 in the city alone.
And with the brutal death of yet another Seattle officer this past fall, followed by the slayings of four officers in Lakewood and a sheriff's deputy in Eatonville, the community has felt again the grief and outrage that inevitably follows when our keepers of the peace are struck down.
SEATTLE WAS a town as rich as it was raw in the years after the Klondike Gold Rush and the Spanish-American War at the end of the 19th century. And as the new century reached its teens, Seattle's "civil indecency" was at full throttle as Republican Mayor Hiram Gill "opened" the city to brothels, gambling dens and saloons. He looked the other way as a 500-room brothel opened for business on Beacon Hill with a 15-year lease from the city.
Though newly voting women had joined a coalition of prohibitionists, church groups and progressives to push through his recall in 1911, Gill had joined forces with labor factions and bootleggers who helped put him back in the mayor's office by 1914. All were struggling for the soul of a city so wide open and on edge that soldiers from nearby bases were not allowed to take leave in it.
Fanning the flames were the Rev. Mark Matthews and his temperance movement "purity squads." Matthews, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, was on a mission to rid Seattle of sin and corruption. Never short on words, he treated his huge congregation to such declarations as, "The saloon is the most fiendish, corrupt, hell-soaked institution that ever crawled out of the slime of the eternal pit. . . . It is the open sore of this land."
With the opening of the Panama Canal in 1915, international maritime trade along the West Coast had exploded. The Great Northern Railway passage through Stevens Pass also opened the door to a massive movement of goods and raw materials in and out of Western Washington. The ever-expanding world war only added to the frenetic pace. War required raw materials, and the Northwest was ripe for harvesting.
For John Weedin and his fellow officers, though, there was little time to contemplate the larger sweep of history in the making.
West Coast ports were afire with a Longshoremen's strike that aimed to close down the shipping trade. In Seattle, the police were pressed into service, working 12-hour days trying to keep order on the docks.
Two unions, with Seattle's emerging black community in between, were going toe-to-toe over shipyard jobs. The primary labor organization was the American Federation of Labor, made up mostly of skilled middle-class white males. They supported a "closed shop" where the right gender and color predetermined admission. Providing an alternative were the famous Wobblies, the Industrial Workers of America. They believed in an all-inclusive union that didn't discriminate against anyone, including Chinese and Japanese immigrants.
Into this caldron came the brothers Billingsley — Logan and Fred — who managed the Westlake warehouse with a special wariness. In the basement, they were running a full-on whiskey-making operation, and the liquor was finding its way into many of the "blind pigs" or low-rent dives in the city. These were not men to mess with. Their brother, Sherman, was the proprietor of Chicago's famous Stork Club, home of organized crime at the time.
Suehiro, the Billingsleys' night watchman, was Issei, a first-generation Japanese immigrant who'd come to Seattle after a stop at Angel Island in San Francisco. He'd moved to a city where anti-Asian sentiment was running high and jobs were scarce. No doubt he felt lucky to have the warehouse work. The brothers didn't pay him much, but his $3.50 a day was always in cash — no records to fuss with.
To save the 10-cent electric-trolley fare to the foot of Queen Anne Hill, Suehiro sometimes walked to his job. It wasn't an easy commute. Giant steam shovels were gnawing away at Denny Hill, the debris from this phase of the massive Denny Regrade sluiced into Puget Sound. The entire area southeast of Queen Anne was a sea of mud. Suehiro had to skirt around this mess to get to the Billingsley warehouse.
If that wasn't enough to contend with, there was also the "problem" of the police, who sometimes gave him a hard time. Some didn't seem to know he was Japanese and had a right to be in the city. He had papers. The Chinese Exclusion Act was still in effect, and anyone with an Asian look was suspect. He likely feared getting picked up, thrown in jail or even getting deported, so he tried his best to blend into the background.
The stage was set for the dark events that would take place at 2128 Westlake Ave.
SGT. WEEDIN had moved from an increasingly crowded downtown to family-homestead land east of "Lake Green" in the emerging Ravenna neighborhood. He lived with his wife, Agnes, and eight children in a farmhouse at 6042 Sixth Ave. N.E. The poor lake had been diked, dredged and drained, and its once-free-flowing outlet stream, Ravenna Creek, had evolved into a wetland dependent on springs and minor tributaries. What was left in the creek's ravine was a tight thicket of alders, willows and a few towering cedars set off as Ravenna Park, where visitors were supposed to pay a small fee to enter.
There was a nice pathway through the ravine, and the Weedin kids had a field day playing in the murky landscape behind their house, despite the official boundaries. In front of their house was a forest dense with 600-year-old Douglas firs and hemlocks. Often, the sun didn't make it through the forest canopy to lighten up their home, but Sgt. Weedin traveled into the light daily on his trip to downtown Seattle and his job as operator of the Black Maria.
On July 24, Officers Weedin and Wiley had worked their shifts along the volatile piers before heading to the squad party downtown. Dressed in casual clothes, they piled into the police car with the five others at approximately 10:30 p.m. and headed for the University District.
Suehiro, meanwhile, had been watching the street from his post at the Billingsley warehouse.
What exactly happened next would become a matter of some speculation and dispute. But apparently, two men Suehiro didn't recognize appeared; he waved his gun in their direction and fired two shots. The men ran away, dropping several metal files and a pry bar that investigators later found.
Likely shaken, Suehiro slipped into the shadows behind a billboard.
As the two men came running down the middle of the street they encountered the Weedin-Wiley police car as it cruised near Denny Park. Confronted by the cops, the frightened pair pointed to the alley alongside the warehouse and said "an Oriental" had shot at them.
As Weedin and Wiley eased into the alley to investigate, they didn't notice the diminutive figure still lurking in the shadows. Wiley slipped out of the passenger seat and worked his way up the alley near the customer door, out of Weedin's sight. It was then that Wiley saw the silhouette behind the billboard and announced, "I'm a policeman. What are you doing in there?"
More shots rang out, and Wiley fell to the ground, hit in the groin. Moments later, as Weedin opened the door and started to step out of the car, he was shot point blank in the mouth.
Despite grave injury, Wiley fired from the ground, striking Suehiro in the stomach.
Suehiro died at the scene; Weedin was taken to Providence Hospital and died soon after. Wiley, on the force only a little more than two years, succumbed a week later in the same hospital.
IN THE DAYS after the shooting, the entire Police Department cloaked their badges in black crepe. Cloaked, too, were the details about what really happened in the alley that night. The passengers in Weedin and Wiley's car had scattered at the first sound of gunfire; the two men in the street vanished into obscurity.
And though news accounts said Suehiro issued a "dying statement" that he had shot both officers, questions remained as to other possible assailants. Two witnesses who lived nearby claimed they saw Sgt. Weedin shot by a "white man" who then disappeared into Denny Park. They testified in court that they heard two shots, then six more soon after. Weedin's service weapon was never recovered.
The official response to the killings had been swift and demonstrative. Under orders from Mayor Gill, police squads closed down and destroyed all operations suspected of selling the Billingsleys' booze. The Billingsleys themselves were charged with being accessories to murder. Both posted $20,000 cash bail within five minutes of their arrest, and all charges against them in the case were dropped.
Six days after Weedin's death, scores of officers paraded through the city before attending his funeral at First Presbyterian — with none other than the Rev. Mark Matthews officiating.
Wiley, who was just 28 years old, was buried two days later in Kirkland Cemetery. He left behind a widow and child.
Weedin's widow, Agnes, was forced to sell off most of the family land to survive. Her son, John K., quit school and went to work as a logger to help support the family. The street Weedin Place near Green Lake was named after the pioneer family.
Eventually, John K. and brothers Harry and William all became policemen with the Seattle department. Weedin's daughter Daphne became a store detective at Frederick & Nelson and the mother of a Los Angeles policeman.
Over the years, the Weedin legacy grew. In all, family members accumulated more than 100 years of police service to the city of Seattle, including that of Officer Garth Weedin, who retired in 2002 after 27 years on the force.
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