On Monday afternoon, July 6, 1959, four prisoners attempt an escape from the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe (Snohomish County) by overpowering three guards and taking them, 26 visitors, and 11 inmates hostage. The prisoners, armed with long kitchen knives and sharp meat forks, sequester the hostages in the visitors' room, demand a getaway car and safe passage to Canada or they will "start killing people and rolling their heads out, one by one." After nearly 14 hours of negotiations, the situation is resolved when guards, wearing gas-masks, flood the room with tear gas, storm in, and subdue the rebellious inmates. Although shaken and suffering from the adverse effects of the gas attack, none of the hostages is injured. The incident is one of the most dramatic escape attempts in Washington state penal history.
The Washington State Reformatory, opened in 1910, is located in Monroe (Snohomish County), approximately 20 miles east of Everett. Now called the Washington State Reformatory Unit (WSRU), it is part of the Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC), which comprises four separate “units” with a total population of 2,500 male inmates and custody levels ranging from maximum to minimum. The WSRU houses up to 875 inmates in two large cell blocks that are the most prominent feature of this historical building.
A reformatory is a prison where legal minors and young adults, who are not hardened criminals, are sent by the courts for a chance at rehabilitation. Rather than a punishment, the institution is intended to reform antisocial behavior through a combination of education and strict discipline.
A Routine Visiting Day
As was the routine at the reformatory, most afternoons were available for family and friends to schedule weekly one-hour visits with inmates serving sentences. On Monday afternoon, July 6, 1959, five men and 13 women with eight small children were escorted through a metal door, with a glass viewing window, into the visitors room located behind the cell blocks, on the second floor, directly above the kitchen area. The room, approximately 18 feet wide and 35 feet long, had only one entrance and no restroom facilities.
Shortly thereafter, 11 inmates were led into the visitors room, single file. After greeting each other, everyone sat informally, without screens or barricades, on leatherette lounge chairs and chatted. (The administration allowed brief physical contact between the prisoners and visitors, but nothing prolonged.) Inside, the room was monitored by two unarmed Washington State Correctional Officers: Lieutenant Rudolph B. Maley, age 45, and Guard Hugh DeWalt, age 37.
Held Up at Knife-Point
At about 2:30 p.m. Guard Joseph M. Harris, age 41, was monitoring prisoners working in the kitchen area when he was confronted by four inmates, armed with two heavy, foot-long kitchen knives and two long, dual-pronged meat forks, and taken prisoner. The men marched Harris, at knife point, up the stairs to the second floor and into the visitors' room, slamming the door behind them and breaking the viewing window. They told everyone to be calm and nobody would get hurt. They intended to take a few hostages, probably guards, and break out of the reformatory. The hostage guards were told to sit on the floor in the back of the room and be silent.
The inmates were identified as: Richard Walter Murray, 20, sentenced in 1957 to serve not more than 15 years for grand larceny; Robert E. Jasmin, 23, sentenced in 1956 to serve not more than 20 years for armed robbery; Donald Dean DeCourcy, 22, sentenced in 1957 to serve not more than 15 years for grand larceny; David King Owens, 18, sentenced in January 1959 to serve up to 15 years for burglary. All the men had lengthy juvenile records, including assault, auto theft, and arson. Jasmin had escaped from the reformatory farm on February 23, 1959, and was recaptured the next day. Murray and DeCourcy had escaped from the reformatory farm on March 31, 1959. They were recaptured in Oregon four days later and brought back to Monroe by Lieutenant Maley, now a hostage.
Murray, the group’s ringleader, pointed his knife at Lieutenant Maley and told him to “get us out of here and see we get a car and a full tank of gas” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer). Maley said regulations forbade guards from following the prisoner’s orders without authorization from the prison’s superintendent or the state governor. Murray told him to call the warden, Ernest Carmel Timpani (1918-2007), on the inter-office telephone and Maley complied. Timpani wasn’t there, but his office promised they would attempt to contact him.
At about 3:00 p.m., Superintendent Timpani was in Monroe buying shoes for his son, Michael, when he saw a Washington State Patrol car, with emergency lights flashing and siren wailing, heading toward the reformatory. Timpani arrived there 10 minutes later and spoke with the agitated convicts through the broken viewing window in the visitors-room door.
Murray demanded a car with a full gas tank, the right to take a hostage and free passage into Canada. He told Timpani he had 20 minutes to comply or everyone in the room dies. Timpani offered himself as hostage if the men would release the others, but the idea, to immediately replace 40 hostages with one, was rejected at once. Meanwhile, caravans of Snohomish County Sheriff’s Deputies and Washington State Patrol Officers were arriving at the reformatory by the minute, hoping to contain the situation. Blockades were established on all roads leading into and out of Monroe. Nearly 40 news reporters, photographers, radio and television reporters, and camera operators arrived at the Administration Building to watch the drama unfold.
The Drama Unfolds
Twenty minutes passed, but nothing happened either inside or outside the visitors' room. The four inmates sat in front of the door, the 37 hostages were assembled in a tight circle in front of them on chairs in the middle of the room and the three guards sat, side by side, in the back of the room. After about an hour, Superintendent Timpani and Snohomish County Sheriff Robert W. Twitchell went to the door and attempted to reason with the convicts, advising the escape attempt was pure folly. But the angry inmates issued another ultimatum; a car by nightfall and now they wanted to take four hostages. Timpani and Twitchell listened to the demands, then walked away without comment.
Some cigarettes were provided for the adults, but no food. Small cartons of milk, however, were passed through the broken viewing window for the children. The hostages were allowed to talk quietly among themselves, but the three guards were warned to be silent or their throats would be slit. Occasionally one person, leaving their loved ones behind and with a promise to return, would be allowed outside to visit the restroom. Owens’s mother arrived from Burlington (Skagit County) and, over the reformatory intercom, repeatedly begged him to surrender, but to no avail.
At about 10:00 p.m. it was finally dark and the four convicts nervously paced the room, swearing loudly, brandishing their weapons, and threatening to kill hostages. Meanwhile, several guards had quietly moved into position in the corridor outside the door, ready to break in if any violence erupted. Supervisor Timpani appeared at the window, telling the men it was no use and if any of the hostages were harmed, there would be dire consequences. He said he would be in his office, waiting for their call offering to surrender. Then he left the area.
Murray was outraged. He called Timpani and declared: “If we’re not out of here by 6:00 a.m., everyone’s coming out one by one -- dead” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer). The men, declaring they had nothing to loose, threatened suicide rather than surrender or be captured.
Hours Creep By
At about 11:00 p.m. Mrs. Marlene Oxford, visiting her son Bruce, became ill and began vomiting. When she began throwing up blood, the hostages demanded that she be released and the convicts reluctantly agreed. Apart from Bruce, Mrs. Oxford unwillingly left behind six members of her immediate family, including her four-year-old grandson, Bobby.
As the hours crept by, more than 150 correctional officers, state patrolmen, police officers, and deputy sheriffs had assembled with riot gear, ready to act at a moment's notice, and 50 Seattle Police officers were on standby. Lieutenant William McKelvey, a state Correctional Officer, made frequent visits to the broken window to chat with the four convicts and monitor the situation. As convicts DeCourcy and Owens dozed on the floor, Murray and Jasmin continued nervously pacing the room. The hostages, exhausted from the hours of tense confrontation, tried to rest but had been ordered to remain in their chairs.
At 2:00 a.m., July 7, Timpani, Lawrence Delmore, Supervisor of Adult Correctional Institutions, and Dr. Garrett V. Hayns, Director of State Institutions, decided they couldn’t afford to wait much longer without action. After consulting with Sheriff Twitchell, Washington State Patrol Chief Roy Betlatch and Captain William B. Clark, head of the reformatory’s Correctional Officers, they decided to rush the visitors room at 4:00 a.m., a time when the men would be fatigued and more apt to be caught by surprise.
They planned to use tear gas, followed immediately by an assault team wearing gas masks and armed with batons. Because of the danger to the hostages, firearms were out of the question. Medical teams and ambulances would be at the ready to treat any casualties and the reformatory hospital was prepared for emergencies. The element of surprise and overwhelming force would be their key to success.
Meantime, Lieutenant McKelvey continued his frequent unannounced visits with the rebellious convicts to assure them progress was being made. At 3:30 a.m. an assault team of six reformatory guards, backed by 25 state patrol officers, began quietly assembling in the corridor. The signal to launch the attack was the word “Olympia” used in conversation with the ringleaders.
At 4:00 a.m., Lieutenant McKelvey appeared at the door and called for Murray and Jasmin to come to the broken viewing window for some news. He told them the warden couldn’t grant them any concessions without permission from the state capital in “Olympia.” McKelvey then dropped to the floor, allowing Guard John Martin to toss a teargas grenade through the window into the room. Then McKelvey jumped to his feet, reached through the broken window and unlatched the door from the inside. The assault team surged in and overpowered the insurgents in seconds, pummeling them into submission. The hostage guards immediately joined the action, helping to subdue the four convicts.
The 11 hostage inmates didn’t join the fray, but wisely chose to shield their families from the violence surrounding them. Masked state patrol officers quickly removed hostages from the gas-filled room to the fresh air outside the building. After being treated for the effects of tear-gas, the families members were sent home and the inmates were returned to their cells to await their next scheduled visitors' day.
Owens, who had collapsed to the floor crying “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” was uninjured and immediately placed in solitary confinement. Murray, Jasmin, and DeCourcy were taken to the reformatory hospital where they were treated for cuts and bruises and tear-gas burns. Murray and Jasmin had been standing just behind the door, armed with knives, and took the brunt of the tear-gas explosion and subsequent assault. After being hospitalized for two days, they were moved into solitary confinement until Supervisor Timpani could determine a course of action.
In addition to being proven escape risks, the men were now in mortal danger from many of the reformatory’s 850 inmates, seeking retribution for terrorizing the families of fellow inmates and causing trouble. On Thursday, July 30, charges of assault, holding hostages and escape, each a felony carrying a 10 year sentence, were filed against the four rebellious prisoners in Snohomish County Superior Court before Judge Thomas R. Stiger.
At their initial appearance, held on Tuesday, August 4, Deputy Prosecutor Lloyd Meeds (1927-2005) formally read the charges against the four defendants. Judge Stiger appointed lawyers to represent each of the inmates and ordered a four-week continuance of the proceedings, giving appointed counsel time to consult with their respective clients.
At the arraignments, held on September 1 and 2, defendants Murray, Jasmin, and DeCourcy pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Their attorneys asked that a sanity commission be appointed to examine the inmates. Owens simply pleaded not guilty to all charges. Judge Steiger continued the hearing until Friday, September 4, to give the county prosecutor time examine the request and respond. When court reconvened, Judge Steiger announced that the requests for sanity hearings were denied. The defense of insanity, however, could be offered during trial for the jury’s consideration.
On Tuesday, November 17, 1959, Murray, Jasmine, and DeCourcy appeared in Snohomish Superior Court before Judge Edward M. Nollmeyer and pleaded guilty to charges of attempted escape and holding hostages. For using violence and deadly weapons in the escape attempt and taking hostages, Judge Nollmeyer (a World War II ace fighter pilot, credited with destroying five enemy aircraft) gave the trio an extra 10 years maximum imprisonment to serve for their troubles. He rejected appeals from the defense attorneys who called them “misguided adolescents,” deserving of another chance at rehabilitation at the reformatory, and ordered their immediate transfer to the Washington State Penitentiary, a maximum security facility, in Walla Walla.
On November 20, David Owens, who the other escapees called “chicken,” appeared before Judge Nollmeyer and pleaded guilty to charges of attempted escape and holding hostages. Judge Nollmeyer sentenced him to a 10-year maximum term but showed leniency by recommending a seven-year minimum. Although he ordered that Owens also be sent to the Washington State Penitentiary, Judge Nollmeyer recommended he eventually be returned to the reformatory for rehabilitation.
The Washington State Board of Prison Terms and Paroles, consisting of five members, ultimately determines the minimum terms of imprisonment for an inmate. On February 23, 1960, in a controversial split vote, the state board fixed DeCourcy’s 10-year sentence at seven-and-a-half years, and then cut two years off the sentence he was serving for grand larceny. Owens’s sentence was also fixed at seven-and-a-half years imprisonment, although the court had recommended only seven years.
On April 14, 1960, in two more controversial split votes, the state board also fixed the recommended 10-year sentences for Murray and Jasmin at seven-and-a-half years in prison. When newsmen questioned the board’s leniency toward the hostage-takers, the board’s chairman, Harris Hunter, refused comment. Two board members, George F. Parks and James Skaggs, openly protested the decisions, asserting the board dealt too lightly with the recalcitrant inmates.