During Washington’s dry years (1914-1920), saloons turned into soda bars and liquor production retreated into Clark County’s woodlands. Vancouver’s former bars sold soft drinks or “cider,” code for illegal alcohol. Many continued drinking, distilling or selling liquor and didn’t accept the state’s mandate.
By 1920, when the nation went dry, Washington outlaws had played the Prohibition game for years. No Clark County lawmen lost their lives until the Constitution’s 18th Amendment burdened them with enforcing an unenforceable law that turned the game deadly.
Between 1922 and 1932, county moonshiners killed four Southwest Washington law officers and wounded a fifth. The first was Clark County Deputy Sheriff Wilfred Rorison. He and James Morgan, a special agent from Seattle, set out to arrest Paul Hickey, who had failed to pay a $75 fine for moonshining.
Rorison heard rumors Hickey was distilling liquor 2 miles outside of Stevenson. He arrived at Hickey’s place midafternoon with the special agent on June 18, 1922, and caught Hickey working his still. Rorison ordered Hickey to surrender. Hickey retorted and fired his .30-30 rifle rapidly. One bullet hit Morgan’s hand; another nicked his scalp. Rorison gasped, falling when the bullet struck his heart, but he managed to fire one shot that mortally wounded Hickey.
After deputies captured a carload of liquor headed for Vancouver, the driver ratted out his source, the Baker brothers, and gave up their location. The Baker moonshine operation was believed the largest in Clark County.
The following day, May 22, 1927, Sheriff Lester Wood sent two deputies to raid the brothers’ distillery in Dole Valley. At about 10 a.m., the deputies arrived at a deserted logging camp in the valley and began searching. Soon under fire, they skedaddled to call for backup.
When Wood and more deputies arrived, they trekked uphill toward the still. Luther Baker threatened them with a rifle. Wood shouldered his double-barreled shotgun, declaring, “Put up your hands. I’m the sheriff.”
Luther fired. Wood yelped, “I’m shot.” As his deputies fired back, Wood bled out where he lay. He was the first elected Clark County lawman killed while in office.
On Sept. 19, 1932, in a Bureau of Prohibition sting, officers bought whiskey from Jesse Cousins, who owned 30 acres near Bonneville. While two agents ran backup, Ballard W. Turner and Ernest B. Vlasich purchased 2 gallons of booze from Cousins. When they said he was under arrest, Cousins blasted away. Three bullets snuffed out Turner. Vlasich, injured, crawled under a car and partly hid. Cousins beat it into the woods, hiding out there for two months. The uninjured agents rushed their bleeding comrades to St. Joseph’s Hospital. A bullet lodged in Vlasich’s liver killed him.
The killings led to funerals, a lawsuit, jail time and a hanging. Hundreds turned out for Sheriff Woods’ funeral. Twenty-six Ku Klux Klan members brought a colossal flower display to Deputy Rorison’s memorial, which cast a dark shadow over his service. Agent Turner’s widow filed a historic $50,000 damage lawsuit against Cousins for income she’d lost by her husband’s premature death. One moonshiner died, and others received life sentences. The state hung Luther Baker, who was convicted of killing Sheriff Wood.
Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.