Marie, Fay, Ted and Will McDonald were four Spokane siblings charged with the murder of real estate man W. H. McNutt in 1919. McNutt was last seen walking to their apartment to confront them over a money dispute. Five months later, a mysterious tipster directed police to search a ranch near Newport, where McNutt's corpse was exhumed. Marie, Fay and Ted McDonald were arrested for murder in Los Angeles. The fourth sibling, Will McDonald, had vanished. The trial in Spokane was one of the most sensational in Spokane's history. The three siblings admitted that McNutt had been murdered with a hammer, but blamed it all on the missing Will McDonald. The three other siblings were acquitted, but Marie and Fay were subsequently tried and convicted on forgery charges stemming from the murder. Both sisters fled before being sent to prison. A detective subsequently located Fay in Mexico and she served three years in prison. Marie was never found. Neither was Will McDonald, making the McNutt murder, officially, unsolved. In Part 1, Marie, Fay, and Ted exhibit strange behavior before the jury returns with a surprising verdict.
A Verdict, and a Surprise
First, the jury declared all three McDonalds not guilty of murder. The jurors refused to talk to reporters, but they were apparently convinced either that the true perpetrator was the absent Will McDonald, or that the murder was in self-defense, or both. Pearl McNutt called the verdict "quite disheartening" ("M'Donalds Not Guilty"). Marie declared herself "very happy at the outcome" and Ted said he was "happy, full of pep, and rarin' to go" ("M'Donalds Not Guilty"). Fay said "a great weight had been lifted from us" ("M'Donalds Not Guilty").
That weight was not lifted long, because the second big twist came before they ever left the courthouse. All three were re-arrested -- Marie and Fay on forgery charges, and Ted on grand theft auto charges. Bond was set at $1,000 for each sister and $2,000 for Ted, and all three were sent back to jail. C. T. McDonald, their uncle and lawyer, railed that it was "persecution instead of prosecution" ("M'Donalds Not Guilty").
The charges set the stage for one more round of legal dramas. The charges against Marie and Fay stemmed from the infamous check that Marie had allegedly tried to cash the day after the murder. The check had been written as a lodging house payment and had been given to McNutt to deliver to a Mrs. Mary Wunderlich. The prosecution said the McDonalds took the check from the pocket of the dead man. Fay was charged with falsely forging the name of Dolores Steely on the check and Marie was charged with falsely endorsing it as "Mrs. Wunderlich" and attempting to pass the check. Separate trials were scheduled for each sister. Ted would also have a separate trial on the grand-larceny charge, to which Marie's name had also been added.
Fay's forgery trial came up first, on April 6, 1920. The prosecution scored a key point when handwriting experts confirmed that the handwriting on the check was identical to Fay McDonald's signature on a piano bill of sale. The jury found her guilty that night, and Fay "broke into a storm of weeping" ("Jury Finds Fay M'Donald Guilty"). Marie came to her side and tried to comfort her.
Three days later, it was Marie who would need the comforting. Handwriting analysis also implicated her, although C. T. McDonald tried to sow doubt. At one particularly dramatic moment, he declared "we are entitled to a verdict of not guilty," at which point McNutt's aunt stood up in the gallery and shouted, "You're not!" ("Marie M'Donald Guilty"). The aunt turned out to be correct. The jury came back with a guilty verdict. After the verdict was read, Marie "collapsed in a faint and was carried from the courtroom and placed in an automobile" ("Marie M'Donald Guilty"). One woman in the gallery, identified as a relative of the siblings, shouted, "I do not know how any juror can sleep tonight after they convicted her" ("Marie M'Donald Guilty"). Fay, who was out on bail, wailed, "I know she will die; I think she will die before morning!" ("Marie M'Donald Guilty"). She survived the night, yet because of her ill health, her trial (with Ted) for grand larceny was delayed for a month.
The grand larceny trial began on May 11, 1920. Ted and Marie's defense was similar to the one they used successfully in Los Angeles. They said that McNutt had legally sold the Stephens auto to Will McDonald before he died. The defense produced contracts which seemed to back that up. Since neither Will nor McNutt was available to testify, it was a difficult argument to refute. The jury in the grand-larceny case deliberated less than an hour before acquitting both Ted and Marie. Ted was now in the clear, yet the sisters' forgery convictions continued to hang over their heads, with sentencing pending.
A judge soon had handed down Fay's sentence: Three-to-20 years at the state penitentiary at Walla Walla. The jury had urged clemency, but the judge said he decided on a relatively tough three-year minimum because "considering the circumstances of the crime," he was convinced that the defendant "was of an abandoned disposition" ("Fay M'Donald Sentenced"). Fay stood up and said tearfully, "I am innocent. If I were guilty, I would have said so long ago" ("Fay M'Donald Sentenced").
Less than a week later, a judge sentenced Marie to one-to-20 years at Walla Walla on the forgery charge. Her judge was considerably more sympathetic than Fay's had been, partly because the jury had recommended extreme leniency, but also because the judge felt sorry for her. "This defendant has so appealed to my sympathy that if I were permitted to do so, I would tell her, 'Go woman, and sin no more.' The law, however, does not permit me to do so. … I must abide by the law" ("Marie M'Donald Given One Year at Walla Walla").
Others were equally sympathetic. A month later, 75 Spokane citizens sent a petition to the governor asking for a full pardon for Marie. This wasn't explicitly based on a belief in her innocence. It was based on their certainty that imprisonment would "materially shorten Miss McDonald's life, owning to her being a victim of incipient pulmonary tuberculosis" ("Petition Asks Full Pardon"). The most remarkable aspect of this petition: It contained the signatures of "practically every member of the Superior Court jury which found Miss McDonald guilty" ("Petition Asks Full Pardon"). Their petition, however, was unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, both sisters appealed to the Washington State Supreme Court. They were both released on bond pending the outcome. Both ultimately lost their appeals. When they were summoned back to court for final disposition, the McDonald sisters sprang one final surprise. They had vanished.
Holed up in Tampico
The first hint of a problem came when C. T. McDonald informed the court that he "hadn't heard from Marie for months and have no knowledge of her whereabouts" ("Marie M'Donald Gone"). The prosecutor warned that if she did not appear to serve her sentence, the "bond will be declared forfeited and we will scour the country for her" ("Marie M'Donald Gone"). But scour where? Her uncle said he heard vague rumors that she had gone to Seattle, but had no idea. Her bondsmen, who were on the hook for her $2,000 bond, heard a story that she may be in Mexico. But that was just a rumor as well. A week later, when she still hadn't appeared, her bond was forfeited and she was declared a fugitive from justice.
A few days later, nervous prosecutors filed a motion to increase Fay's bond, for obvious reasons. The judge complied, but he increased it only from $2,000 to $3,000. This was woefully inadequate, as would become clear in a few months when she, too, failed to appear. C. T. McDonald's wife told reporters that she and her husband had no idea where she was, and furthermore, "Mr. McDonald has done all he is going to do for them – he's all through with them" ("Lose Trace"). Both women were now fugitives from justice, and authorities suspected that both sisters had fled to Mexico.
Spokane police put city detective Chester Edwards on the trail, and he proved a dogged bloodhound. All he knew for certain was that they had gone south. On September 30, 1921, he went to Denver, where he uncovered a few clues, but no McDonalds. Then he went to Fort Worth, then Houston, then Galveston, and then Laredo and then the Mexican border. Finally, the trail led him to Tampico, Mexico, hundreds of miles south. It was "the longest trip ever made by a Spokane officer in search of a criminal" ("Fay M'Donald Now in Mexico").
In Tampico, he was just about to give up the chase when he walked into Madame Rossi's dance resort, one of the biggest in Mexico, where American women were known to congregate. There, he heard a voice behind him saying, "I'm tired of it. I'd give anything to get out of this place and back home" ("Fay M'Donald Now in Mexico"). He turned around and recognized Fay McDonald, "gaudily attired with diamond earrings hanging from her ears" ("Fay M'Donald Now in Mexico"). He asked her if she wanted a drink and he took her to the bar and chatted with her long enough to establish her identity. He did not admit who he was – he waited until the next morning, when he alerted a Mexican detective, who came with him to her room and arrested her. She finally recognized Edwards, whom she had known from her stay in the Spokane city jail. "Chet, I'm tired of it all," he reported her as saying. "I would rather spend three years in Walla Walla than any more time here. I want to go back with you. I've lost Marie, Ted and Will. I don't know where they are. I'm here among the rough element. I'll willingly go back ("Fay M'Donald Now in Mexico").
At Edwards's request, the Mexican detective took her to a secure Tampico hospital cell with bars -– not to the Tampico jail, because it was so "dirty" ("Fay M'Donald Now in Mexico"). The next day Mexican authorities informed Edwards that extradition was impossible, and flatly refused to release Fay to his custody. In the meantime, Fay's friends agitated for her release. "Down there, she is keeping company with a high-class Mexican toreador, or bullfighter, and he was instrumental in raising the money for her protection," said Edwards ("Fay M'Donald Now in Mexico"). Edwards claimed Marie's friends in Mexico threatened him. The American consul advised Edwards to leave at once, without Fay, for his "own protection" ("Fay M'Donald Now in Mexico"). Edwards, spooked, took that advice. He left Fay in the hospital, abandoned his search for Marie, and skedaddled back to the U.S.
Fay later told a different story. She had not been willing to go back with Edwards. She "laughingly" recounted how her friends had rescued her and given Edwards an ultimatum to get out of the country in 24 hours ("Jail in United States"). Also, she wasn't a mere dance-hall habitue; she was a performer. She was earning her living in Mexico by singing in American-style cabarets. A correspondent reported that her "grace and singing made her popular there, especially among Americans" ("Who Tipped Me Off"). She said she was "earning $50 to $150 a day," although business had recently fallen off and she had little money left ("Jail in United States"). Edwards said she was going under the pseudonym Harriet Levernson, but everyone called her "Harry" ("Think Fay McDonald").
Back in Spokane, Edwards was resigned to the idea that he had missed his "last chance to get Fay back … unless she voluntarily comes back and gives herself up" ("Fay M'Donald Now In Mexico"). He did, however, think that the latter was a distinct possibility. He said her living conditions in Tampico were "unbearable" and unsanitary, the cost of living was enormous, and she was clearly homesick and miserable ("Think Fay McDonald").
For nearly a year, it appeared that Edwards had guessed wrong. Then on October 14, 1922, the telegraph wires buzzed with a bulletin from Beaumont, Texas: Fay McDonald was in a Beaumont jail, awaiting extradition back to Spokane. How did she end up in Beaumont? "I was homesick for the States," she told reporters. "I decided to take a chance on getting caught" ("Jail in United States"). She boarded a steamer for New Orleans, and then went to Beaumont, where she attempted to lay low. Once again, a mysterious tipster made a phone call. Someone informed on her to Beaumont authorities, who arrested her as a fugitive from justice on the forgery conviction.
Fay was peeved that anybody even cared. "I don't see why they keep haunting me with that old case," she said, from a Texas jail. "I ran away, it's true, but the bond I was under has been paid for and that ought to satisfy even a policeman ("Who Tipped Me Off"). She clung to one hope -- that she would not be extradited back to Washington. "I intend to fight extradition," she said. But the words were hardly out of her mouth before she amended that statement. She would come back on her own "if the police will tell me who tipped me off here – that is the one thing I'd like to know now" ("Who Tipped Me Off"). This tipster was never revealed, either.
When it became clear that Texas was sending her back to Washington, Fay made the best of it. "I would rather be in jail in the United States than free in Mexico," she said ("Jail in United States"). She said she simply "could not stand it any longer" ("Who Tipped Me Off"). Her femme-fatale reputation – puffed up by the Spokane newspapers -- sparked a minor ruckus after Spokane jailer Thomas Hadley refused to escort Fay back from Texas unless the state paid for his wife to come along, too. "Without a woman assistant," he said, "slanderous charges would be made" ("Woman To Get Fay"). The sheriff solved the problem by pulling Hadley off the assignment and instead sending female deputy Alma Sundin.
A correspondent in Beaumont watched as the pair boarded the train. He was struck by the unshackled fugitive's appearance. "Wearing a black velvet coat with heavy fur collar, black satin dress, black silk hose and satin slippers, and a red turban hat with a silver ornament, the young woman presented a picture of latest dress, rather than one of prisoner," he wired back to Spokane. "She might have been mistaken for a follies leader, but for the presence of Miss Sundin" ("No Handcuffs"). The image of a carefree chorus dancer was belied by one detail: Fay wept, from the time she arrived at the station until the train departed.
Into the Wind
In Spokane, she was taken before a judge, who asked if she admitted that she was, in fact, the same Fay McDonald named in the bench warrant. "Why, I certainly do," she said ("Fay M'Donald in Court"). The judge already knew the answer to that question, since he was Joseph Lindsley, the former prosecutor, now turned Judge Lindsley. On November 4, 1922, Fay McDonald arrived at the State Penitentiary at Walla Walla to serve her three-year sentence. She was the only McDonald sibling to serve jail time on any charge.
Marie and Will were still at large, but Detective Chester Edwards had not abandoned the chase. Later that month, he embarked on a 7,000-mile search for them, having apparently picked up some leads. His five-week search took him to 13 states and Mexico. He returned empty-handed. His optimism, however, was undimmed. "I believe Will and Marie will soon be in custody, but I am not at liberty to make any public information," he said ("Chet Edwards Says"). He was wrong about this. Months passed, then years, and the fugitives were still at large. Other leads arrived over the decades, but Edwards was no longer pursuing them – he committed suicide in 1925.
Meanwhile, when Fay was released after three years, she eschewed Spokane and moved to St. Louis, where she turned up in the news one final time. She had made friends with two other convicts, Karl Franklin Wyatt and Robert DuPree, while in Walla Walla. After their release, these two "suave young men" posed as U.S. government lawmen and embarked on a huge West Coast check-forging spree ("Fake Sleuths in Forgery Net"). With the unwitting help of Fay, the U.S. Department of Justice caught the men in 1927. The agents staked out her St. Louis home on the theory that they might pay their friend Fay a visit. They did, and agents pounced on them when they showed up at her door. Fay was apparently not implicated in their crimes and she never showed up in the news again. How she spent the remainder of her life remains a mystery.
Will and Marie were never located. In 1944, Spokane County Sheriff George Harber looked back on his department's 25-year hunt for Will. "The search has gone from Havana, Cuba, to Petersburg, Alaska," said the sheriff. "But we haven't caught up with him. He has been reported to be as close to Spokane as Mason City in 1935 ... We were reasonably sure he was in Havana in 1924, but the Cuban authorities failed to arrest him, saying he wasn't the right man. In 1928, we had reason to believe he was running whiskey between Key West and Havana, but again he slipped away before he was arrested" ("Sheriff Harber Unthankful").
Harber said he was thankful for plenty of things in his long life, but there was one thing a law-enforcement officer could never be thankful for: a murder case left dangling ("Sheriff Harber Unthankful"). With no Will McDonald, the McNutt murder remained, officially, unsolved.
That, said the sheriff, was the biggest regret of his entire career. The McDonald case remains, to this day, the most sensational unsolved murder case in Spokane history.