On the night of September 14, 1935, while making his rounds, Newport City Marshall George Conniff (d. 1935) is shot multiple times when he comes upon a burglary in progress at the Newport Creamery. (Newport is the county seat of Pend Oreille County.) Conniff dies the next day in a Spokane hospital. During the Depression, with wages low or nonexistent and the price of butter high, theft from creameries is fairly common. Butter and other products are then delivered to restaurants of dubious character or otherwise fenced. Roadblocks and other measures fail to net the ringleader of the Newport crime. Later one alleged perpetrator will go to the federal penitentiary for another offense, and will divulge information that Spokane police will cover up. The case will remain cold until 1989, when Tony Bamonte (b. 1942), a former Spokane police officer and three-term sheriff of Pend Oreille County, will arouse renewed interest in it while writing a master’s thesis. Bamonte's investigations will be reported in newspapers far and wide, prompting several elderly people with knowledge of the case, including retired police officers, to come forward. Their startling accounts will lead to Bamonte’s discovery of the murder weapon and other evidence implicating former Spokane police detective Clyde Willis Ralstin (1899-1990), who will prove to be living in Montana. Ralstin, “the prime suspect in the nation’s oldest active murder case” (Bamonte, Sheriffs, 146) will die in 1990 without ever admitting any involvement in the crime.
The Crime and Ralstin's RuseOn that September night in 1935, Marshall Conniff was performing his usual night patrol protecting the homes and businesses of Newport, the county seat of Pend Oreille County. He was a family man well respected in the community, as he had been in nearby Sandpoint, Idaho, where he had served as chief of police. Conniff came upon three men crouched in the alley behind the Newport Creamery and demanded that they explain their presence. The only answer was a volley of gunfire from the fleeing men. Although Conniff fired back, he sustained wounds from which he would die the next day at St. Luke’s Hospital in Spokane. The burglars appeared to have escaped unharmed.
Pend Oreille County sheriff Elmer Black (1884-1955) immediately ordered roadblocks to be set up. One driver to pass through the roadblock on the north edge of Spokane was Spokane Police Detective Clyde Ralstin, who briskly waved his police identification at the rookie manning the roadblock and was allowed through. His passenger was not questioned.
During the next few days, Sheriff Black interrogated a number of possible suspects, mostly men in the area with previous criminal records. Especially suspicious was a truck stolen in nearby Priest River, Idaho, the night of the crime, which Spokane Police Detective Charles F. Sonnebend later found abandoned near the Northern Pacific Depot. Anger and fear ran high in the Newport area, but Black was able to head off the vigilante action he feared. The Spokane police conducted a desultory investigation, then quickly handed the case back to the jurisdiction of Pend Oreille County. A forensics laboratory in Seattle determined that the bullets from Conniff’s body came from a .32 caliber revolver.
The Mother's Kitchen Connection
A major breakthrough was the arrest of several people connected with creamery burglaries in Montana and elsewhere, including Ralstin’s friend Acie Logan. The ring was thought to be operating out of Spokane. Butter, hams, and bacon from these creameries were used at and fenced from a restaurant called Mother’s Kitchen, a favorite hangout for Spokane police.
The owner, Virgil Burch, employed an unusually large staff of waitresses, some of whom could be counted upon to provide more then food service. However, when Detective Sonnebend attempted to follow up on a possible connection with the Newport burglary and murder, his superior, Sergeant Daniel Mangan, stopped his investigation. Even Sheriff Black was never granted permission to speak later with suspect Acie Logan at McNeil Island Penitentiary.Acie Logan and Clyde Ralstin
In 1955, a Pend Oreille County sheriff, William M. Giles, was able to arrange a meeting with Charles Sonnebend, which former sheriff Elmer Black and United States Marshall Darrell O. Holmes also attended. This conference produced the following statement from Sonnebend, worth quoting almost in its entirety:
At this point, the report begins referring to Sonnebend in the third person, so perhaps it was written by Giles:
“During that time, back in 1935, there were a lot of creamery robberies. Mixed up in these was a fellow who was sent to the federal penitentiary for interstate motor vehicle theft and after three weeks of questioning this suspect, Acie Logan, he broke and admitted his part in the creamery robberies. He also put the finger on one of the city detectives, Clyde Roston [hereafter Ralstin], who owned a ranch a short distance from Spokane. According to Logan there were several men connected in this ring, but the stolen butter was taken to the Ralstin ranch and later disposed of through Mother’s Kitchen, located on Riverside Street in Spokane. ... Logan also admitted to breaking into a boxcar and stealing shoes, which were taken to the Ralstin ranch for later disposal. Logan admitted robbing a wholesale house in Spokane of cigarettes, cigars and tobacco, which were also disposed of through Mother’s Kitchen. The night of the Conniff murder the Spokane Police constructed a blockade at the north city limits of Spokane. It was conducted by two rookie officers. They told Sergeant Mangan of the Spokane Police Department that they had stopped a car that was boiling and hot and appeared as though it had been driven very hard. Driving this car was Detective Ralstin. He had another person with him.
“Ralstin was a very close friend of Acie Logan. Logan was the only man in the gang who could go directly to the Ralstin ranch. ... Sergeant Mangan retired from the department in 1939. Mangan knows all about this murder and the affiliation of Ralstin and Logan. Ralstin is supposedly the ringleader.
“At the time of the arrest of Logan, he was with his accomplice and the two women in a stolen car from Montana. Their car was searched as well as their hotel room. A .32 automatic and a .38 special were found in the room. These guns were kept by the department. ... This same gun was signed out of the Spokane Police Department by Ralstin just before or just after this creamery robbery. ... Ralstin reported it stolen. ... It was later reported to have been thrown into the Spokane River ...
"After Logan made his confession to Detective Sonnebend and the reports went to the Chief, Ralstin was fired from the Police Force. Logan stated that Ralstin was in on all of the creamery robberies that he himself was involved in. [Sonnebend] believes that Ralstin is the man who killed Conniff and that Sergeant Mangan is in complete knowledge of this. He also believes that it was Logan who was with Ralstin the night the car was stopped at the north city limits by the two rookie officers. ... " (Bamonte, Sheriffs, 140, 141)
Sheriff Giles was unable to track down any of the people mentioned in this statement. Two years later, the dying Sonnebend summoned Giles to his hospital room and confessed that he was the officer who had signed for and taken from Logan a gun that he later gave it to his nephew. (Subsequent evidence would show that this gun was unlikely to have been the murder weapon.) Sonnebend further insisted to Giles that Sergeant Mangan knew everything.
Tony Bamonte's Investigation
During the 1980s, as sheriff of Pend Oreille County, Tony Bamonte became increasingly dissatisfied with the lack of progress toward solving this cold case and reopened it. Currently, he was completing a master’s degree at Gonzaga University and decided to focus on the past sheriffs of Pend Oreille County for his thesis. This research provided much of the background for reopening the case.
When Bamonte contacted the Spokane Police Department on March 2, 1989, with his suspicions of Ralstin and others who had covered for him, he received a very belated reply that “We can find no employment records for any of the people and officers and most of the principals involved in this are dead anyhow” (Bamonte, Sheriffs, 144). However, as news of his efforts spread, people with information finally began to come forward, just as Sonnebend had done years earlier with Sheriff Giles. A frail 86-year-old Dan Mangan was one. Mangan recalled:
"I knew Ralstin fairly good. I knew he was into something. I didn’t know what. I heard that he was involved in all the creamery burglaries and he was peddling. I never had much contact with Ralstin, but he hung around with some shady characters. ... He was always mixed up with some dairy business and the café" (Bamonte, Sheriffs, 144).
Mangan went on to state that the Spokane Chief of Police called him and his partner into the office and "gave us this package. Hacker [Harrison “Hacker” Cox], when we came out, said this was Ralstin’s package. ... I knew about the murder ... thought this might have been the murder weapon. It’s been on my mind ever since” (Bamonte, Sheriffs, 146).
Mangan’s partner, Bill Parsons, drove the car and watched as Mangan threw the package into the Spokane River from the Post Street Bridge. When Parsons contacted FBI agents two days later, they advised him to keep quiet about it.
Pearl Keogh's Memories
Another important piece of evidence came in April 1989 from Pearl Keogh, an 85-year-old woman who had known Ralstin, Mangan, and Virgil Burch, her employer at Mother’s Restaurant. She told Bamonte that she had gone to the police with evidence early in the investigation but had been told to mind her own business. Pearl Keogh corroborated what Bamonte had already learned and added information implicating Burch. At dinner at her house in 1940 Burch had bragged about being with Ralstin when he shot Conniff and that he was under a tarp in the back seat of the getaway car that was allowed to pass through the north Spokane roadblock.
She also said that she had handled butter with Newport Creamery wrappers at Mother’s Restaurant, and that years later, when she moved into a house once owned by Burch, she found Newport Creamery wrappers stashed away in a closet. Mrs. Keogh’s husband had been a friend of Ralstin’s and had sworn her to secrecy on the matter. After he died, she phoned Bamonte with the information that Ralstin had once boasted in her presence of shooting Conniff.
The Weapon and the Suspect
Luckily for Bamonte, in August the Washington Water Power Company, which controlled the flow of the Spokane River by means of its dams, ordered an inspection drawdown. On August 22, 1989, this rare event enabled him to walk about on the dry riverbed. Within ten minutes, Bamonte had found the corroded gun exactly where Mangan said he had dropped it. The Washington Crime Laboratory in Seattle confirmed it as a .32 caliber revolver, the same type of weapon used to murder Conniff, and that the deterioration of the metal was consistent with having been in the water for 50 years.
On January 23, 1990, Clyde Ralstin died at St. Ignatius, Montana, a free man popular in his community. He had left Spokane in 1937, continuing a life in law enforcement, apparently without a hint of scandal. Tony Bamonte found himself vilified in St. Ignatius for supposedly having hounded a harmless old man to his death.
In 1992, Timothy Egan of The New York Times published his bestseller, Breaking Blue, based on this story. Tony Bamonte donated the murder weapon and his collection of documentary evidence to the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture. He is now a respected historian and publisher in Spokane.