A bootlegger shoots and kills Clark County Sheriff Lester Wood on May 22, 1927.

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 3/19/2007
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8116
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On May 22, 1927, Clark County Sheriff Lester Wood (1894-1927) is shot and killed as he is investigating a bootlegging operation in Dole Valley, Washington, about eight miles southeast of Yacolt (Clark County).  Three men are charged and convicted of the crime, but the following year the Washington State Supreme Court reverses one defendant’s conviction and dismisses the case against him. The Court affirms the life sentence of a second defendant, and the death sentence of the third defendant, Luther Baker, the actual triggerman. Baker is hanged for the crime on March 29, 1929.

Lester Wood's Ruthless War 

Prohibition, which outlawed the sale and manufacture of intoxicating liquors, took effect in Washington state on January 1, 1916.  Bootlegging soon followed, and sheriffs everywhere had their hands full raiding illegal stills.  Clark County was no stranger to bootlegging or to the violence that sometimes accompanied it -- in 1922 a Clark County deputy was killed in a raid on a still, and he would not be the last such casualty.

In 1926, Lester Wood, in his first bid for any political office, ran for sheriff as a Democrat. He was at first given little chance of winning, as Clark County at the time was a Republican stronghold. But the popular Republican candidate for sheriff withdrew from the race after allegations that he had lost his American citizenship 20 years earlier for deserting from the Army, and his replacement had ties to the Ku Klux Klan.  Wood won easily, becoming the only Democrat elected to public office in all of Clark County in the November 1926 election. He took office in January 1927 and began “conducting a ruthless war on liquor violators” (Morning Oregonian, May 23, 1927, p. 2).   

A Dole Valley Still

On Sunday morning, May 22, 1927, Wood sent three deputies to Dole Valley, about 25 miles northeast of Vancouver, to look for a still that he believed was operating at the head of the valley.  He was right: A week or two earlier Luther Baker (1868?- 1929), his younger brother Ellis, and Ellis’s 21-year-old son Ted Baker had set up a still in a densely wooded area near the south bank of Smith Creek. The deputies drove to Huston’s camp (an old logging camp) in Dole Valley, arriving about 10 a.m., and began their search. They soon found a trail and followed it until they spotted the 125-gallon still (plus three 500 gallon holding tanks) about 25 feet in front of them.  Just then Ellis Baker appeared, aimed a rifle at the deputies, and ordered them to leave. They did. To insure their departure, Ellis followed them along the trail for several hundred feet, rifle at the ready. After forcing the deputies to cross a creek, Ellis again ordered the deputies to stay away, and disappeared into the woods.

The deputies returned to Huston’s camp and telephoned for backup. Wood and another deputy drove from Vancouver to the camp, arriving after noon.  In the meantime, one of the deputies waited for Wood while the other two took a different route to the still. Finding it unguarded, the deputies destroyed it. At about the same time, Sheriff Wood and his deputy arrived at Huston’s camp. Along with the deputy who had waited for them, they began walking the trail toward the still. Meanwhile, the two deputies who had destroyed the still finished the job and began to leave the area. As they did, they heard gunshots.   

The Shootout

The investigation established that Luther Baker was nearby when his brother Ellis had earlier run off the deputies. The Bakers correctly surmised that the deputies would return, and waited for them.  Luther apparently heard the two deputies demolishing the still and began stalking them, but before reaching the still, he was surprised on the trail by Sheriff Wood and his deputies. Wood raised his shotgun and yelled, “Put up your hands, I’m the sheriff!” Instead, from a distance of about 60 feet, Luther fired at the three lawmen, who returned fire. Wood was struck with a rifle shot just above his hip and died within minutes.  The two deputies with Wood were not injured. Luther was nicked in the leg by two shotgun pellets from Wood’s gun.

Word of the murder quickly spread.  Guards were posted on the Washington and the Oregon sides of the interstate bridge crossing the Columbia River from Vancouver to Portland to prevent the killers from leaving the state. A posse was formed and soon surrounded a farmhouse where the Bakers were staying, located about a mile from the shooting. Luther and Ellis Baker (and two others) were arrested there without incident. By late that night, seven people had been arrested. Three were charged with the crime: Luther, Ellis and Ted Baker.   

The Trial

The three men pleaded not guilty, and their trial began in Vancouver on July 25, 1927.  Luther Baker claimed that he shot the sheriff in self-defense, and said he was fired on without provocation and returned fire without even knowing who he was shooting at. (He claimed he did not hear Wood identify himself as sheriff.) After a 10-day trial, the jury found all three men guilty in less than three hours of deliberations, the shortest jury deliberations recorded for a capital case in Clark County up to that time.  Luther Baker was sentenced to death. Ellis and Ted both received life in prison.

All three men appealed their convictions. In November 1928 the Washington State Supreme Court affirmed the death sentence for Luther and the life sentence for Ellis. Ellis spent nearly 30 years in the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla before being paroled at age 81 in March 1957.  However,  the charge against Ted was dismissed. The evidence showed that on the day before the murder Ted and a friend, Hugh Miller, had taken a rifle to the farmhouse near the still. But there was no evidence that Ted had taken the rifle to the farmhouse with any criminal intent, and indeed, when the murder occurred, he was in Vancouver and unaware of it.  Ted Baker would not enjoy his freedom for long: He died from tuberculosis in September 1929.

Luther Baker was hanged before dawn on March 29, 1929.  “The condemned man went to his death calmly and was outwardly unmoved during the proceedings,” observed the Morning Oregonian in a brief article the next day. Meanwhile, Prohibition remained in effect -- and bootlegging continued -- in Clark County until Prohibition was repealed by the 21st Amendment to the United States Constitution in December 1933.

Sources: “Sheriff Killed In Gun Battle,” Morning Oregonian, May 23, 1927, p.1, 2;  “Sheriff’s Killer Trailed In Clark,” Ibid.,  May 24, 1927, p. 1;  “Three Found Guilty Of Slaying Sheriff,” Ibid., August 5, 1927, p.1;  “Luther Baker Hanged,” Ibid., March 30, 1929, p. 1;   State v.  Baker, 150 Wash. 82, 272 P. 80 (1928); “Lester M. Wood,” The Columbian, website accessed February 19, 2007, (http://www.columbian.com/history/profiles/wood.cfm); David McKay, “History of the [Clark County Sheriff’s] Office, website accessed February 19, 2007, (http://www.co.clark.wa.us/SHERIFF/about/history.html); “Sheriff Lester Wood,” The Officer Down Memorial Page website accessed February 19, 2007, (http://www.odmp.org). 

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