- Associated Press - Saturday, February 6, 2016

SULTAN, Wash. (AP) - It was dark when the lone figure heaved a large rock through the glass front door of Sultan’s Visitor Information Center.

The target was a glass display cabinet.

The burglar didn’t touch the dinosaur eggs, the mammoth’s tooth or the model train engine.

It was the gun - the old .38 Special - that warranted the risk on that Friday night in late November.

The revolver is widely believed to be the weapon used to kill Sultan Town Marshal Percy Z. Brewster on March 2, 1927, although it is hard to say.

Sultan police had little to go on after the break-in on Main Street. The few seconds of video footage taken from nearby City Hall are grainy, the thief a fleeting silhouette.

Brewster is one of 13 police and corrections officers from Snohomish County who have died in the line of duty.

The tragic tale of the small-town lawman has faded over the past 88 years, much like the weathered lettering on his grave.

Ray Bernethy, 68, understands that. The Gold Bar man grew up in Sultan. He is Brewster’s grandnephew. His father, George Bernethy, was 6 when his Uncle Percy was killed.

“We heard very little about him growing up,” Bernethy said. “For a long time, you could ask anyone in the valley about him and they never heard of him.”

In 2005, as the town dug into its past and celebrated its centennial, there was a ceremony to dedicate the Sultan visitor’s center in Brewster’s memory. The center was the Citizens State Bank back in 1927. The brick building on Main Street, the same one that Brewster was trying to protect when he was killed, now bears a plaque with his likeness for passers-by to see.

David Dilgard, a regional historian with the Everett Public Library, stumbled on the Brewster story several years ago. Something about the friendliness of the marshal’s name and the reckless bravado of his killer fascinated him.

The gun on display at the visitor center rekindled the story of Brewster’s sacrifice.

“That is what artifacts are about,” Dilgard said. “That’s what museums are about, that something that sparks, that causes a memory, that causes the connection to the past.”

A marshal’s murder

Merton Love became suspicious of the coupe parked near his Sultan furniture and hardware store and not far from the bank on that Wednesday morning in 1927.

Inside were two high-powered rifles and 100 rounds of ammunition.

The 30-year-old merchant informed the bank cashier and tracked down Marshal Brewster, who removed the rifles and ammo from the car and dropped them off at the town hall for safekeeping.

Brewster had driven into town to serve somebody with legal papers. His wife, Kathleen, had tagged along and waited for him in the passenger seat.

As Brewster and Love impounded the gun-carrying coupe at a garage, they were approached by a young man who tried to stop them. Brewster took the stranger into custody, but not before the man insisted on retrieving an overcoat and bag from the car.

Kathleen watched them pass on their way to the town jail with Love in tow.

As Brewster opened a cell door, the man pulled a gun.

“Put ‘em up, boys,” he commanded.

Love ran.

Brewster reached for his gun and was shot in the chest at close range. The bullet pierced his left shoulder, struck his backbone, severed two arteries and lodged in a lung.

Kathleen heard the gunshot and watched in horror as her husband staggered out of the jail, sinking onto the sidewalk.

“That fellow shot me,” Brewster told a mail carrier. “For God sakes, get me a doctor.”

The marshal was taken to Dr. R.G. Nelson’s office in town. Brewster was conscious and wondered aloud what would have happened if he’d heeded the gunman’s demand. He died in the doctor’s office with his wife nearby. He was 38.

The fugitive broke out a window at the jail and crawled through the broken glass. Blood stains were found on a window pane and sash. Later, detectives would recover a handkerchief and khaki trousers, both stained with blood.

Sheriff George Stever and his deputies, as well as Everett Police Chief Chester Dailey and a deputy U.S. marshal, descended on Sultan. Bloodhounds from the Monroe Reformatory were brought in to sniff about town.

A stranger mingled in the crowd that gathered downtown. He asked about the marshal’s condition and the manhunt.

It was Dailey who spotted the same man in a neat, dark-brown suit outside a home on Third Street. The chief noticed cobwebs on his coat. When Dailey began asking questions, the answers didn’t add up. The man claimed he was visiting an acquaintance. Mrs. Arthur Granstrom told the chief she had never seen him before.

According to one press account, the man then “made an attempt to pull a weapon, but was quickly disarmed.”

Witnesses who had seen the man earlier that morning said he appeared to have changed into the dark suit. His complexion also was different, more sallow, as though he had removed makeup. He had cuts on his hands.

Police soon learned that someone sneaked into the bank the night before, perhaps through a coal chute. They suspected the break-in was committed to learn the layout of the building and to look for possible exits after a holdup. A handgun kept at the bank was missing.

Brewster foiled the scheme. His mistake was not thoroughly frisking the suspect after the man grabbed the overcoat.

In Everett, Jack Spaulding was logged into the jail register for investigation of first-degree murder. Officer George Harding, in charge of identifying inmates, recognized the suspect in Brewster’s killing. He remembered him well. Years before, the suspect had stolen one of Harding’s guns.

Above the entry for Jack Spaulding on the jail log was added the killer’s real name: Edward Sickles. He would become infamous well beyond the county line.

Sickles, his hair slicked back, cocked his head and stared into the lens for his mug shot with a hint of a smile. It was the type of booking photo people would get used to seeing as the exploits of notorious thugs such as John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd captivated Depression-era America.

Swift justice

The judicial system worked at a faster clip in 1927 than it does today.

Sickles was arraigned March 3, the day after his arrest.

Charles R. Denney, for whom the Snohomish County Juvenile Detention Center is named today, would help argue the case for the state. He was a young deputy prosecutor, roughly the same age as the 27-year-old defendant. He later became a Snohomish County Superior Court judge.

The trial began 18 days later, on a Monday, only after defense attorney Clarence Coleman pleaded for extra time. There were more than 50 names on the prosecution’s list of potential witnesses.

Kathleen Brewster was among the parade of witnesses to testify.

“That’s the man,” the widow said, identifying the defendant.

That Wednesday, the jury began its deliberations at 8:15 p.m. It returned 45 minutes later.

Sickles was found guilty of first-degree murder. The jury agreed he should die for his crime.

The defendant appeared stunned. Tears rolled down his cheeks as his mother tried to console him.

He was the third man in county history to be sentenced to the gallows. Judge Guy C. Alston signed the death warrant on April 14, commanding state corrections leaders “to hang the said Edward Sickles by the neck until dead, on the 13th day of May, 1927, at the hour of twelve o’clock noon within the walls of the State Penitentiary at Walla Walla.”

On this occasion, Sickles showed no emotion.

“I didn’t shoot with premeditation or with malice,” he told the judge. “It was purely accidental.”

Coleman argued for a new trial and made an emergency appeal to the state Supreme Court. He raised the issue of jury misconduct after one juror alleged that after the verdict form was completed and folded, the jury foreman told his peers: “Well now I will tell you boys, I believe that is the same fellow that held me up last year; I recognized him the minute I laid eyes on him.”

Coleman’s vigorous legal efforts to keep his client’s neck out of the noose became moot on May 1.

Thirteen days before Sickles’ scheduled execution in Walla Walla, a Snohomish County Jail guard peered into the condemned man’s cell. It was empty.

Sometime between 1 a.m. and sunrise, Sickles had picked the padlock of his first-floor cell and crawled through a barred and wired window that had been cut and slit open by someone on the outside.

The next morning, Snohomish County commissioners offered a $300 reward for Sickles’ capture, dead or alive, and lawmen from Canada to California were on the lookout.

Cheat the hangman

Police around the Puget Sound region searched diligently for the escapee during the next three months.

As it turned out, Sickles did not wander far.

He often met with an Everett woman named Edith Collings, who worked for a bookbinding company. He took her for rides in expensive cars he’d stolen. They drove to Stevens Pass and attended a Fourth of July carnival in Everett.

Collings was with him on the evening of July 30 when Sickles parked near a Granite Falls cabin that served as his hideout.

In the shadows lurked deputies William Youngblood, Jack Johnson, Jack Ryan and Merton Waller. They’d had time to inspect the place. They found a large whiskey still, two sacks of sugar and a bin of barley. It appeared Sickles was making moonshine. They also found a second stolen car nearby.

According to one news account, a jealous woman provided the crucial tip that revealed his whereabouts.

As Sickles made his way toward the home, Youngblood and Johnson raised their sawed-off shotguns and ordered him to surrender.

The fugitive was illuminated in a flashlight beam. The deputies later reported he’d reached for his pistol. They fired, peppering his body with buckshot.

Sickles managed to get off a single errant round.

He died at a hospital the next day.

“It was he or Johnson and I,” Deputy Youngblood said. “Sickles was desperate and vowed that he would never hang. He made good on that boast.”

Hiding in plain sight

Sickles was dead, but prosecutors weren’t finished.

They wanted to know who helped him escape and elude capture.

Edith Collings was among the five people arrested for investigation of concealing a prisoner. Court records don’t show whether she was ever charged.

What is clear from the Snohomish County Superior Court archives is that Darius Pringle, who, like Sickles, had spent time in prison, would face the wrath of the law.

Pringle’s trial began Sept. 19; the jury returned the following day with a guilty verdict.

He was sentenced to the state penitentiary in Walla Walla for up to 10 years. He soon appealed.

Testimony at trial revealed that Sickles had remained in Snohomish County during his three months of freedom, that he drove around the county in “a high-powered Kissel automobile,” patronized stores, barber shops and other businesses; “that he rode on public stages”; that he frequently met with Collings in Everett and that he visited friends at Camp Lewis, including soldiers and military police.

In reviewing the transcript, the state Supreme Court quoted the trial judge who’d said: “The more I hear about Sickles the more I am dumfounded at the audacity of the fellow, that he, with the date set for his execution, seemed to care no more about making himself known than an ordinary citizen would. So it seems to me he was not trying to conceal himself from anybody. He was bringing ladies home here in Everett and going wherever he pleased, going down among people who knew him at Camp Lewis without any attempt to conceal himself. Neither he nor anyone else seemed to me trying to conceal.”

Sometimes, Sickles would stop by the Lake Stevens area home where Pringle stayed with his parents. Several children also resided there.

On one visit from Sickles, Pringle was said to have told the youngsters: “Mum is the word. If I catch any of you guys squealing, I will knock your block off.”

The Supreme Court drew a distinction between harboring and concealing an escapee and concluded that no one seemed to be hiding Sickles, who so often was in plain sight.

It reversed the conviction in April 1928 and Pringle was set free.

Traces of the past

The story of Percy Brewster and Edward Sickles has largely been lost.

Shards of their lives are found in old newspapers, in U.S. Census records, on reels of microfilm at the Snohomish County Courthouse, in an 87-year-old State Supreme Court opinion, in sheriff’s booking records and in court dockets kept at the state archives center in Bellingham and in a tiny International Order of Odd Fellows cemetery office in Monroe.

Sometimes fragments can be pieced together.

At the bottom of a funeral register form filled out March 4, 1927, is a billing notation in a cursive scrawl. It reads: “This account is ordered by and charged to Mrs. Robt. Bernethy, sister of Mrs. Brewster.”

The 88-year-old scribble provides a last name that leads to Brewster’s grandnephew, Ray Bernethy, still living in the valley. Ray’s father, George Bernethy, worked as a government trapper into his 90s. He never talked much about Uncle Percy.

Toward the end of his father’s life, Ray discovered photo albums and scrapbooks in a dust-covered chest in his dad’s home. Within the pages Percy Brewster’s face looked back at him.

In 2013, one month before he died, George Bernethy examined the photos he did not know existed. George and Ray - father and son - talked about the kinsman killed policing their hometown.

Brewster was born in California in 1891, lived in Sacramento when he was 9 and was lodging at an El Dorado home when he was 19. For a time, he worked in the shipyards.

His first marriage ended in a divorce so amicable that the former husband and wife were part of a triple marriage ceremony when they wed their second spouses. “The Brewsters, who acted as chaperones and sponsors for the entire party, obtained their final decree of divorce at Sacramento last Saturday,” the Woodland Daily Democrat reported in April 1919. “Each was most profuse in his and her well wishes for the better success of the other in the new marital venture.”

Brewster married Kathleen Lanegan, who’d moved from the Skykomish Valley to California as a young woman. She eventually returned to her hometown in Sultan, where her husband became the town’s marshal.

By 1930, Kathleen Brewster had moved to San Francisco. She never had children.

Sickles, the blue-eyed bandit, was born in North Dakota and lived in Seattle for part of his childhood. His parents divorced. By age 12, according to one account, he was largely on his own, staying off and on at the home of a mill worker on Fulton Street in Everett. Sickles began committing crimes in his teens and read dime novels describing the exploits of outlaws of the day.

The fatal encounter with Brewster was not the first time Sickles pointed a gun at a lawman.

In April 1914, when Sickles was just 16, Everett police spent the better part of a week trying to track him down. Guns and other goods had been stolen, and the teen was the prime suspect. The search led police to an island in the Snohomish River delta. Officer Earl Shaver and Detective George English split up. Sickles saw Shaver first. He pointed his gun and ordered the officer to put his hands up.

Shaver dove into the brush.

When English arrived, he did not remove his gun from its holster. He and Shaver merely talked to Sickles, eventually convincing him to lower the muzzle of his revolver. Before he did, Sickles pointed the weapon at his own head.

“There is not much for me to live for,” he told the lawmen.

The officers, the prosecutor and a probation officer expressed some level of sympathy for the teen from the broken home.

“He was made desperate because he could not find employment,” Detective English said.

Eleven years, at least two prison stints and a murder conviction later, there would be no such sympathy for Edward Sickles. He served time at a state training school in Chehalis and later at the state penitentiary in Deer Lodge, Montana. He was out on appeal after being convicted of a Seattle robbery when he shot Brewster.

Lonely grave

Aloha Zurfluh - or “Sis,” as she prefers to be called - is the caretaker at the International Order of Odd Fellows Cemetery off Monroe’s Old Owen Road. Her house, with a 1989 maroon Cadillac in the garage, touches the edge of the grassy expanse where generations of local families are buried.

She and her husband, Ed, moved to the cemetery 50 years ago. There she raised her children, and her grandchildren come to visit.

In the cemetery office beside the garage are maps and log books that guide her to find different markers. She escorts a visitor down a row of raised vaults and headstones.

To the untrained eye, it would be hard to deduce that Percy Brewster is buried in the shadows of a tall fir. The one-and-a-half-inch letters that spell out his name on his burial vault have faded, but Zurfluh comes prepared. She pulls out a rag, dabs at the wet concrete and brushes fir needles from the slab.

A pencil and butcher paper fail to yield an etching, but as she circles the vault she finds a vantage point where the natural light brings out the vague lettering. She works her way from the last letters in Brewster’s last name. Look hard enough and the “r,” then the “e” and “t” appear. Soon, the whole name can be seen if one squints hard enough.

There are no other Brewsters near him. There is no mention that he was a town marshal slain in the line of duty.

“I have never had anyone look for Percy in all the years I have been here,” Zurfluh said.

She would like to see that change. She hopes a modest marker can be installed with Percy Brewster’s name for all to see.

Legend of the gun

At the Sultan Visitor Information Center, a tiny model of the Empire Builder passenger train that once chugged through the Skykomish Valley rolls by on tracks overhead. Frank Sinatra’s voice croons in the background. And Debbie Copple, director of the Sky Valley Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Information Center, wants the gun back.

She saw to it that a $200 reward was posted for its return. There have been no leads.

The gun with the scratched-off serial number did not come with a certificate of authenticity. Its connection to the crime is based on oral history. By some early accounts, it was a Savage brand handgun that was used to kill Brewster. Court records don’t clarify either way. The charging papers merely describe “a revolver, then and there, with powder and ball.”

“It is part of a folk story,” Copple said. “We always knew there was a lot of gray area around that gun.”

C.H. Rowe, Sultan’s former mayor, loaned the relic to the visitor center many years back. Long ago, he removed the firing pin, rendering it useless for shooting.

In the 1980s, Rowe was driving supply trucks between Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay for the Alaska pipeline construction project when he met Eldon Holm, a fellow truck driver.

Both hailed from small towns in Snohomish County. When Holm learned that Rowe was from Sultan, he told him about the gun and the story he’d been told about its provenance. Rowe grew excited about the prospect of bringing it back to his hometown, and Holm eventually sold it to him.

In the 1970s, Holm bought the gun from a friend of his grandparents, Jesse Phelps, a logger from Marysville, who told him he acquired it from the police sometime after Sickles was killed.

“He was an old timer when I got it from him,” said Holm, now 70. “He kind of hated to part with it.”

Copple hopes to borrow Ray Bernethy’s photos of Percy Brewster, get high-quality prints made and place them in the display case where the .38 Special once was. The town has always wanted a photo of Brewster, but no one could seem to find one.

The image on the plaque outside the Percy Brewster building was drawn by a police sketch artist based on what people thought he looked like.

The burglar who grabbed the gun in November didn’t make off with the lawman’s legacy. To Dilgard, the Everett historian, the gun stolen from the visitor center is really just a symbol of a town’s determination to remember.

“With or without it, I don’t think Sultan is willing to forget Percy Brewster,” he said.


Information from: The Daily Herald, https://www.heraldnet.com

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