Sunday, June 13, 2021
June 13, 2021

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Clark County History: X-ray helps convict sheriff’s killer

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As the smoke cleared after a woodsy 1927 gunfight, the Clark County sheriff lay on a narrow path bleeding out. It would take one of the state’s earliest forensic uses of an X-ray to convict his killer.

Sheriff Lester Wood (1894-1927) and several deputies were after an illegal still in Dole Valley, rumored the largest in Clark County. Leaving their car at Hudson’s Camp, the lawmen split up and hiked in.

The old growth was gone, and a dense forest of second-growth impeded walking. Wood and others followed the same trail the moonshiners used to haul corn and supplies. Along the path, a man appeared, rifle ready, and roared, “Get out.”

Shouldering his shotgun, the sheriff bellowed back, “Hands up, I’m the sheriff!” The man fired. A bullet struck Wood. Deputies returned fire. Wood fell and triggered off a spray of shotgun pellets at the man. The bushwhacker evaporated into the smoke of the firefight.

After destroying the still and its 3,500-gallon tank of moonshine, the deputies, joined by a posse led by Ira Cresap, Vancouver’s chief of police, rounded up the three Baker brothers at their farmhouse and confiscated their firearms.

Arrested, Luther Baker denied any knowledge of the shooting. He claimed the deputies shot at him unprovoked during his trial, so he fired his 30-40 Winchester in self-defense. As for the wound in his left knee, he claimed he cut it when his horse ran into barbed wire.

Prosecution witness Dr. J.B. Blair explained that with a deputy watching, he probed Baker’s wounds and felt two pellets. Blair confirmed the buckshot with an X-ray. The doctor accented his point by showing an X-ray photo of an apple containing buckshot. Luther Baker’s alibi collapsed.

Next, the prosecutor called a Portland firearms expert, R.H. Craddock, to verify the source of bullet fragments taken from the sheriff’s body. He swore they came from a 30-40 box magazine Winchester like Luther Baker owned. Still, Baker clung to his story.

Judge George Barton Simpson found the three Bakers guilty and sentenced Luther to hang. When a Supreme Court appeal failed, Luther climbed the Walla Walla prison gallows steps March 29, 1929.

Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.

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