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Sept. 28, 2021

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Prohibition-era Clark County sheriff lost life to bootlegger

Encounter near Rock Creek ends with fatal gunshot

By , Columbian Editor
Published:
7 Photos
Explorer Scout Ryan Wood, great-great grandson of fallen Sheriff Lester Wood, receives a Medal of Honor in Lester Wood's name at the 2015 Annual Law Enforcement Memorial Ceremony.
Explorer Scout Ryan Wood, great-great grandson of fallen Sheriff Lester Wood, receives a Medal of Honor in Lester Wood's name at the 2015 Annual Law Enforcement Memorial Ceremony. (The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

Clark County Sheriff Lester Wood pinned his star on his coat, grabbed his shotgun, and led three deputies up the trail.

Wood had only been sheriff for a few months, but he knew he was walking into danger on that Sunday afternoon, May 22, 1927. Prohibition was the law of the land, and a man named Douglas Lowery had been caught transporting moonshine. Now deputies were searching Dole Valley for Lowery’s source.

About 4:30 p.m., Wood and two of his deputies — Ben Miller and Roy Johnson — crossed a foot log across Rock Creek and headed, single file, up a narrow trail toward the point where three deputies had been accosted that morning.

Suddenly a man with a rifle emerged from the bushes and blocked the trail about 60 feet in front of the lawmen.

“Put up your hands! I’m the sheriff!” Wood called out. But the man raised the rifle and fired three shots.

Wood returned fire. One of the deputies also fired his weapon, but the rifleman disappeared into the trees and thick brush. Wood fell to the ground, mortally wounded just above the hip.

He died a few minutes later.

New sheriff in town

Lester Wood was a local kid of pioneer stock. Born in Vancouver on April 12, 1894, to Scott Wood and Jane Higdon, he attended Vancouver High School. For three straight years, he was declared the debating champion of Southwest Washington and was captain of the debating team.

After high school, he worked with his father in the furniture business. In 1915, he married Aeneid Duggan of Stevenson. By the election of 1926, he and Aeneid had four young sons. They attended First Baptist Church, where Lester served as Sunday School superintendent.

His candidacy was a long shot. He ran as a Democrat in a conservative county where no Democrats held public office. The Republican candidate was Vancouver Police Chief R.E. McCrite, a popular lawman who easily won the primary.

Two scandals propelled Wood into office. First, McCrite withdrew from the race after he was accused of deserting from the U.S. Army in 1906. The county Republican party then selected J.W. Adams to run for sheriff, but it came out that he had ties to the Ku Klux Klan. On Election Day, voters chose Wood.

Wood took the oath and accepted the sheriff’s star. But the new job had its dangers. On the Friday before he died, Wood ran into an old acquaintance at C.W. Gearhart’s soda fountain across the street from the courthouse, according to The Columbian.

“I don’t think I’ll be here much longer,” Wood allegedly said. “I’ve got a feeling that something is going to happen to me soon.”

Farming and bootlegging

Luther Baker, 59, farmed out in Hockinson for practically his entire life. But farming didn’t pay the bills. So he and his brother, Ellis, 51, took odd jobs. They grazed their cattle over in Dole Valley in the summer, and hunted there, too. They had a cabin there on land known as the old Erion place.

In the spring of 1927, Ellis Baker’s son, Lewis “Ted” Baker, 21, established a large moonshine still along Smith Creek, a tributary of Rock Creek, near the Erion place. And it was from there that Lowery got his 30 gallons of moonshine.

On the morning of May 22, Chief Criminal Deputy Tom Kemp and Deputies Hugh Jones and Roy Johnson went looking for the Bakers’ still. Sometime after 10 a.m., they were confronted by Ellis Baker, who was armed with a rifle, and told them to “Get out of here!” He followed them down the hill to Rock Creek, and watched them wade across the stream. Then he issued a final threat and disappeared into the brush.

Back at their car, which they had parked at an abandoned lumber camp, Johnson drove away to telephone the sheriff for backup. Wood and another deputy responded, and the men split up. Kemp and Jones circled around and soon found a 120-gallon still and three 500-gallon holding tanks, which they set to work destroying. They heard the shot that killed the sheriff.

Later that evening, a hastily organized sheriff’s posse surrounded the cabin on the Erion place, where they arrested Luther Baker, Ellis Baker and two other men. Ted Baker was arrested later in Vancouver.

All the suspects denied any part in the murder of Sheriff Wood, but deputies Miller and Johnson identified Luther Baker as the gunman. And there was physical evidence: shotgun pellets were embedded in a wound on Luther Baker’s leg, which were confirmed by a relatively new technology locally: an X-ray.

Crime and punishment

On July 25, Luther Baker, Ellis Baker and Ted Baker all stood trial in Clark County for first-degree murder. Luther Baker claimed he hadn’t heard Sheriff Wood identify himself, and that he only shot in self-defense after Wood fired first. The jury didn’t buy it. On Aug. 4, they returned unanimous guilty verdicts in about three hours — the shortest time on record in a local capital case. Luther Baker was sentenced to death, and Ellis and Ted received life sentences. All three appealed, and the state Supreme Court upheld two of the three convictions and sentences.

The court overturned the verdict against Ted Baker, Ellis’ son. Although he had set up and tended the still, and had taken a rifle to the cabin in his Ford automobile, testimony showed he was in Vancouver on the afternoon of the murder. He was released from the county jail on Dec. 13. But by that time, the tall, gaunt youth was sick with tuberculosis. He died at Hillcrest sanitarium on Sept. 30, 1929, at age 22.

His father, Ellis, was paroled from prison in March 1957 at age 81.

From his Death Row cell at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, Luther Baker told visitors he expected Gov. Roland Hartley to commute his sentence. “He’ll take time to sign for me,” Baker said. If not, he added, “I’ll take it as it comes.”

Scheduled for execution on March 29, 1929, he spent his last evening having a visit with Ellis Baker, then ate a “hearty” last meal of ham and eggs.

He walked to the gallows just after 4 a.m. He issued no apologies and refused a preacher, but offered some last words: “I want to thank everybody for all that has been done for me.” The hangman adjusted the noose and sprung the trap door at 4:34 a.m. By 4:46, Luther Baker was dead.

Luther Baker was buried at the prison cemetery. Sheriff Wood lies at rest in Vancouver’s Park Hill Cemetery, Plot B 65-2, where state industrial insurance helped pay for the headstone. His widow, Aeneid, lived to be 101 and died on New Year’s Eve 1995.

Today the fallen sheriff’s name is engraved on Clark County’s Law Enforcement Memorial in Vancouver, where it remains a symbol of character and valor.

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