In 1926, local newspapers were awash in one of the largest regional scandals of that era. Letitia Whitehall, a 14-year-old girl who lived near Kirkland, was brutally raped and murdered: Her body was found in the Sammamish River near Kenmore. Her killer was never found, but an innocent man was put on trial for his life.
Between 5:30 and 6:00 p.m., on Saturday, October 30, 1926, Letitia Whitehall left the offices of Dr. Chester C. Dobbs, Kirkland dentist. She'd had two teeth filled, and prepared to walk back to her parent’s house a few miles southeast of town. She buttoned her coat and walked out into the brisk autumn air. She never made it home.
The next day, Letitia's parents, George and Mabel Whitehall, searched the town to no avail. Frantically, they contacted King County Sheriff Matt Starwich for help finding their daughter. On Thursday, the East Side Journal, a weekly newspaper published in Kirkland, noted that the girl was still missing. The following Thursday they repeated an appeal to the community to help find her.
She was 14 years old. She was 5 feet 4 inches tall. She had dark bobbed hair, blue eyes, and freckles. She was a thin girl. She was last seen wearing a green lumberjack blazer, a sweater, a black skirt, gray stockings, and black patent leather shoes with one strap. Her mother missed her with all her heart.
On November 14, she was found dead, submerged in the Sammamish River a few miles north of Kirkland. She had been brutally raped and murdered
Investigations and Allegations
Two duck hunters, 17-year-old George Dulin and his uncle, Harry Ericksen, discovered her body close to the Kenmore Bridge, along the Sammamish slough. They had seen something the day before, but thought it was the body of a dog. Upon closer inspection on Sunday, they were shocked to see that it was a young girl, and immediately contacted the authorities.
Kirkland, at the time, was a town of about 2500 people. Local police were ill prepared to handle such a heinous crime. Sheriff Starwich promised that six men would be put on the case as soon as possible. In the meantime, Kirkland police, headed by town marshal C. R. Egbert, did what they could.
Before the grisly discovery, suspects had already been questioned and discounted. A young hooligan named Stringer, alias Jackson, was high on their list, but his alibi held up: He had stolen a car the night of the murder and had driven it to Olympia. Dr. Dobbs, the dentist, came under scrutiny, as he was the last to see young Whitehall alive. But after she'd left, he had gone downtown to buy groceries and to catch the football returns on the radio in the local drugstore, which was borne out by several men in the same drugstore.
The local police uncovered odd bits of information. Henry Kreiter, 16, claimed to have seen a girl who looked like Whitehall in Redmond on Halloween Eve, accompanied by a stocky man. Letitia’s mother, Mabel Whitehall, recalled that her daughter had expressed the wish to arm herself with a handgun just a few nights before she died. A neighbor, Mrs. Joseph Spigil, claimed that “Letty” seemed sullen and troubled in her last days, which was most unusual for the normally cheerful girl.
Meanwhile, Sheriff Starwich had assigned only two deputies to help with the investigation. Kirkland residents became bitter at his lack of concern. When asked by the press why help was not forthcoming, Starwich waved it off. “I don’t care to discuss the matter,” he said. “Besides, the newspapers know more about it than I do, anyway.”
All the News That Fits, We Print
Besides being overwhelmed with the murder and investigation, Kirkland residents were unaccustomed to having their fair town splashed over the front page of every edition of the Seattle newspapers. Day after day, the press analyzed every little detail of the case, no matter how relevant or salacious. Newspapermen swarmed the town looking for scoops of any kind.
This was not unusual at the time. The Halls-Mills case, concerning the murder of a minister and his secret mistress in New Jersey, was currently in the papers. The Leopold-Loeb thrill murders in Chicago had captivated the nation three years earlier. (In that case, two privileged young men, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, had murdered a schoolboy in an attempt to commit the "perfect crime.") Many newspaper readers were hungry for cheap thrills, and the press was right there to feed it to them.
Arrest First, Ask Questions Later
Under constant scrutiny by the press and the public, Starwich began making arrests. A 17-year-old boy, said to be a member of a gang of “roughnecks,” was held incommunicado in lieu of a $5000 bond. Six members of his alleged gang were arrested the next day. All of the young men were accused of attacking and annoying Kirkland schoolgirls. No connection was ever made to the Whitehall slaying. Another hoodlum connected with the boys fled, only to be arrested in Oregon. He too was grilled, but again, no evidence connected him with the crime.
Deputies also suspected a Kirkland butcher, Henry Viser, who was referred to in the press as the Scar-Faced Man. Three witnesses claimed to see him drive off with Whitehall in his car, after hearing her scream three times. Supposedly he had disappeared afterward. This theory went up in smoke when Viser voluntarily walked into the Sheriff’s office with an airtight alibi. Soon after, deputies arrested and grilled a Kirkland tailor for no apparent reason, and he too was let go.
Trying To Make Sense Of It All
With facts, rumors, accusations, and arrests madly flying about, a coroner’s inquest was called for. Led by Coroner W. H. Corson, an inquest jury convened on November 27.
On the first day, physicians testified that the young girl had indeed been raped. Marks were found on her throat, possibly caused by clutched hands. Bruises on her ankles, knees, and fingers indicated that she had put up a fight. She was missing a tooth and had a three-inch scalp wound, most likely caused by a blunt instrument. Her lungs contained water, indicating that she was still alive when her body was ignominiously tossed into the slough.
Witnesses were called. Dr. Dobbs took the stand and told of his whereabouts on the night that Whitehall left his office. Helen Fisk and Niota Davis, young chums of Letty, described conversations they had with Letitia that day, as did Whitehall’s parents and six of her brothers and sisters. The duck hunters told of finding the body, and of seeing an odd gray hat lying nearby. The hat was never found. No wonder, since the sheriff's office had neglected to dredge the crime scene until two weeks after the discovery. November weather had washed away any clues.
The Plot Thickens
On December 2, 1926, Letitia Whitehall was buried in Calvary Cemetery, more than a month after her death. The same day, the sheriff’s office put out a call for 25 more high school boys to appear for questioning. The Chamber of Commerce met to decide how to counter the “unfavorable publicity” the town had received, which they felt was unwarranted and exaggerated. The Sheriff offered to help with Kirkland’s image problems, but continued to grill town residents, sometimes seemingly at random. The inquest and press coverage went on unabated.
Previously unknown witnesses began appearing out of nowhere to spin their tales. Some claimed to have seen the body being thrown from the Kenmore Bridge. Others provided contradictory information. High school students were put under oath and reluctantly told of illegal moonshine and beer parties held that night in celebration of Halloween. Some thought that they may have seen Whitehall at some of them, but couldn’t be sure. Based on these eyewitnesses, Whitehall was seen that night everywhere from Redmond all the way to Snohomish County -- highly improbable.
For some of the public, the press coverage was unbearable. A Bothell mother, who had lost her husband the year before and was raising her children alone, became obsessed with every detail the press had to offer. On the evening of December 16, she left her home after dinner, despondent and brooding, and walked to the Kenmore Bridge. Locating the spot from which it was reported that Whitehall’s body had been thrown, she leapt to her death 20 feet below.
Others were nowhere near as despondent, but many in the community were upset with the lack of progress -- not the least of which was County Prosecutor Ewing D. Colvin. He had no leads, a few weak theories, piles of hearsay and innuendo, a watchdog press, and an angry populace demanding justice. What to do?
By the end of January, 1927, three months after the murder, Colvin had examined all of the data. The killer obviously had contact with the girl on the night she was murdered. The killer had to have a car to transport her body to the Kenmore Bridge. Since the girl most likely did not enter a stranger’s car, the killer had to have been known to her. Colvin believed he knew who the murderer was.
On January 25, in a complaint filed in court, County Prosecutor Ewing D. Colvin formally accused the dentist, Dr. Chester C. Dobbs, of the murder of Letitia Whitehall. For the next three months, Dobbs was on trial for his life -- accused of a crime he did not commit.
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