On January 26, 1969, civil rights leader and Seattle Urban League Executive Director Edwin Pratt (1930-1969) is killed by a shotgun blast in the doorway of his home at 17916 1st Avenue NE in Shoreline.
Edwin T. Pratt was born December 6, 1930, in Miami, Florida. He attended Clark College in Atlanta, Georgia, and received a Master's degree in Social Work from Atlanta University. He joined the Urban League and served in Cleveland and Kansas City before his appointment in 1956 as Community Relations Secretary of the Seattle Urban League. In 1961 he became Executive Director.
On the ill-fated Sunday evening of January 26, 1969, the city of Shoreline was covered in snow. Having cancelled their original plans as a result of the weather, Pratt and his wife Bettye were looking forward to "a quiet evening by the fireplace" (The Stranger). At around 9:00 p.m., shortly after putting their 5-year-old daughter Miriam Katherine to bed, Edwin and Bettye heard a noise outside that sounded like a snowball hitting the window. While Pratt went to the front door to investigate, Bettye looked out their bedroom window. From the window Bettye could see two men crouched down behind Pratt's car in the carport, and she noticed that one was carrying what appeared to be a shotgun. She immediately shouted to Pratt: "Look out, they've got a rifle!" (Seattle P-I, January 28, 1969). It was too late. Upon opening the door, Pratt was shot in the face and died almost instantly.
Witnesses reported seeing two men, both about six feet tall and in their late teens or early twenties, flee the Pratt home and head west onto NE 179th Street, where they jumped into a car and sped away. It is assumed that a third person was involved, as the driver of the getaway car. One neighbor told police that he thought the car was a two-toned newer model Buick Skylark, a sports type. No one was able to get a license plate number. Furthermore, because of the darkness no witness was able to tell whether the assailants were white or black.
The day after the shooting, a reward totaling $10,500 was offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Pratt's killers. Thomas A. Nault, Chief of King County Detectives said: "It looks like the only way we're going to get anywhere is if some citizen comes forward with valid information" (Seattle P-I, January 29, 1969).
Honoring Edwin Pratt
Thursday, January 30, 1969, was declared a public day of mourning for Edwin Pratt. Acting Mayor Floyd Miller issued a proclamation ordering all flags to be flown at half-staff and urged the public to attend a memorial service for Pratt at 5:30 p.m. in Saint Mark's Cathedral. Pratt's friends, family, and civic leaders expressed shock and sadness at his death and spoke with respect and admiration for his life. James I. Kimbrough, Urban League President from 1965 to 1967, said of his close friend Pratt: "There was no one in this community whom I respected more. This whole thing is senseless. I'm unable to grasp it."
Joseph L. McGavick, Chairman of the State Board Against Discrimination, said:
"Ed Pratt was one of the most responsible and able people in the whole area of civil rights. He was one of the most highly principled people I've ever worked with. He took a lot of heat at times from both whites and blacks, but he always maintained a perfect balance, perspective and sensitivity on human rights. He was an outstanding human being. I can't possibly imagine a motive for such a terrible thing" (Seattle P-I, January 27, 1969).
The Edwin Pratt Case
The day after the murder, the FBI entered the investigation at the request of the Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department. Despite the added manpower, after three and a half months, the investigation was at a standstill. Detective Sergeant Gordon Hartshorn of the King County Department of Public Safety said on May 7, 1969: "There's nothing to go on. Nothing. It's the most frustrating homicide I've worked on in my 14 years on the force" (Seattle P-I, May 8, 1969). Detective Sergeant Hartshorn said that the car was the closest to a clue police ever had. However, even that was now questionable. He said:
"It seems it could have been any of several General Motors sports types. Many look similar in the dark. We've checked out thousands of cars that people have tipped us off about. But ... we got nothing, nothing at all" (Seattle P-I, May 8, 1969).
In January 1970, the business groups who had offered the reward cancelled it. Sheriff Jack Porter explained, "It has been nearly a year now since the slaying. We felt that if the reward was going to produce results, it would be within a year" (Seattle P-I, January 13, 1970).
Case Not Closed
For the next 20-odd years, no new solid evidence was uncovered and no apparent progress was made in the Edwin Pratt murder investigation. In 1994, free-lance journalist David Newman took an interest in the Pratt case and requested that the police files be released under the Public Disclosure Act. Newman was not alone in his request: Former investigators, Pratt's daughter Miriam, and Metropolitan County Councilmen Larry Gosset (b. 1945), Larry Phillips (b. 1956), and Ron Sims (b. 1948) were also petitioning the King County Police Department to release the files, in the hope that the case might finally be solved with the public's help. Claiming exemption from the Act for police investigative files, King County only granted a partial release of the file. Several key documents, including interviews with suspects, were withheld. Captain Dan Richmond, homicide Commander, explained:
"The only reason for not opening it up is the chance that someone might confess. It's one or two items the perpetrator might know. It's not much. It's nothing that would solve the case, but it's something that would keep the wrong person from admitting to it" (Seattle P-I, November 10, 1994).
Newman subsequently filed a lawsuit against the County. A Superior Court judge agreed to release the files to Newman, but only once they had been vetted for any material pertinent in an active investigation. However, King County Police immediately appealed the decision and in November 1997, the Washington Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that so long as the Police Department deemed it necessary, the Pratt files should remain closed, as opening them to outside scrutiny would be counter to effective law enforcement.
Newman's investigation into Pratt's murder led him to question how well the police handled the case. One officer reportedly told Newman "I was unprepared for handling the homicide of a prominent person. In fact, this was my first homicide" (The Stranger). This officer was one of the first to arrive at the scene. Apparently, the crime scene was very poorly and improperly secured. So much so that Kevin O'Shaughnessy, a retired King County Police Officer, said that it is "used as a training scenario about potential mistakes in controlling a crime scene by the Sheriff's Department" (The Stranger). On the night of the murder, a hundred or so police, firemen, neighbors and other curious and concerned citizens wandered freely around the Pratt property, right through the middle of the crime scene.
Chief Detective Nault recalled other difficulties with the initial investigation. He said, "We tried to do a moulage from the snow where the suspects' vehicle was parked, but the snow kept melting and we couldn't even get a partial print" (The Stranger). They were unable to get any clues from the shell casing found at the scene, since it was of a common brand. Finally, the fatal bullet had no particular markings, so it was of no help either. Nault also commented to Newman on the FBI's involvement in the case, saying that it seemed to be more hindering than helpful, because of lack of communication and cooperation between the agencies.
The closest police have come to solving the Pratt murder was a theory presented in a 1994 Seattle Post-Intelligencer article. The theory was reminiscent of a Police statement in July 1970, which mentioned that the Department had a possible suspect in the Pratt killing, but the suspect had been murdered shortly thereafter. In 1970, Sergeant Hartshorn said: "We could be way off in left field. But one name keeps popping up and that man is dead" (Seattle P-I, July 23, 1970). In addition, Harstshorn indicated that Pratt's murder was possibly a contract hit. Although the police had some leads on the identity of the possible conspirators and accomplices, there was insufficient evidence to make any arrests.
In 1994, it came to light that the suspect was Tommy Kirk, a 21-year-old drug user, dealer, and "small-time hoodlum" (Seattle P-I, December 13, 1994). In May 1969, Kirk was found in a car at a Capitol Hill intersection, shot four times in the side. He was murdered by an acquaintance, Texas Barton Gray, who confessed to police that he shot Kirk in self-defense, because Kirk was about to kill him over a debt.
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer received information on the Pratt murder from a man named Steve Butler, a former convict, recovering heroin addict, and acquaintance of Kirk's. Butler said that Kirk, Gray, and a third man had been hired by construction contractors to kill Pratt. Supposedly, the contractors were angry at Pratt's efforts to integrate blacks into the workforce. Allegedly, Kirk fired the rifle, Gray accompanied him, and the other man drove the getaway car. In an effort to reduce his sentence in Kirk's murder, Gray told Seattle detectives in 1969 that Kirk had killed Pratt, but did not implicate himself in the crime.
When the P-I story was published in 1994, Gray was unable to defend himself against Butler's accusations, since he died in 1991 of a heart attack. The man Butler named as the driver said in an interview with the P-I that he had heard Kirk was Pratt's killer and understood how he could have been implicated in the crime: "I had a Buick GSX; it was yellow and black. That kind of car was seen in the neighborhood when this happened" (Seattle P-I, December 13, 1994). He said that police had examined his car, but apparently found nothing.
King County detective Rick Gies, who was investigating the case in 1994, said that he'd received a couple of calls from people naming Kirk as Pratt's killer, but they differed from each other and from Butler as to the names of the accomplices and the amount paid for the hit. Kirk's name had also surfaced in the Pratt investigation in 1974, when a man told detectives that on the night Pratt was murdered, Kirk showed up at his house with a shotgun and admitted to killing Pratt. The man, who passed a polygraph test, said that the gun was hidden in a Queen Anne storage locker. When police searched the locker, no gun was found (Seattle P-I, December 13, 1994).
Captain Dan Richmond said: "It's obvious he (Kirk) is the most promising name we have" (Seattle P-I, December 13, 1994). But he and Gies were quick to point out that (just as in 1969 through to 1974 and later) all they had was hearsay, not physical evidence, which is crucial to conclusively solving a murder investigation.
Consequently, the 1969 murder of civil rights leader Edwin Pratt officially remains unsolved.