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News / Life / Clark County Life

Clark County History: Moonshiner

By Martin Middlewood, Columbian freelance contributor
Published: October 7, 2023, 6:03am

In Washington, urban and rural voters split in 1914 over alcohol. By an 18,632 margin, voters that year approved an initiative prohibiting liquor production, distribution and sale — but not consumption. The vote split between “wet” big cities and “dry” rural towns. Yet moonshiners in rural Clark County would illegally distill, distribute or sell liquor to those who sought it from then on. Law officers pursued these farmer-moonshiners.

September 30, 1932, The Columbian reported Sheriff R.E. McCrite led a posse “combing the hilly country southwest of Hockinson” for the shooter of two prohibition agents. The morning after the shooting, the posse arrested Lewis Cousins, 46, who claimed he’d not been home that night.

The evening before, two prohibition agents showed up at the Cousins’ farm near Livingston to buy liquor from Lewis’ younger brother. Inside the front gate, Jesse Cousins, 40, brought them a jug of liquor. One of the agents grabbed him. As they struggled, Jesse pulled out a pistol and fired. The lawmen shot back. Soon, both fell wounded. Cousins fled into the woods. Two hundred yards away, officers R. Crowell and W. Kirby, also involved in the buy, sped to the injured men and then away from the “murder farm” to St. Joseph’s Hospital.

Dr. Herbert Lieser pronounced Ballard Turner, 36, dead from bullet wounds in the heart. Edward Vlasich, 26, received three serious injuries. The officers spent months in Clark County pursuing illegal liquor violators. They compiled 11 cases and were set to testify before a grand jury.

Because Vlasich believed Lewis shot him, he needed to make a dramatic hospital bedside identification. The agent, propped up with a pillow, confronted the suspect, standing coolly with his hat in hand.

The wounded agent beckoned Lewis closer and asked him to pull down his lower lip to reveal his teeth, but he didn’t find the dental feature he expected. Both brothers faced liquor violation charges, but Jesse Cousins also faced charges for Ballard’s murder. When Vlasich died of his wounds before the trial, Jesse Cousins faced a second murder charge.

In January 1933, Judge George Simpson and a jury of five men and seven women listened to the evidence. (A newspaper notice named one juror, Mrs. C.G. Tweedt of Fern Prairie.) Jesse Cousins pled not guilty, and his lawyers argued self-defense. The prosecutor dropped Lewis’ charges, who appeared as a witness. Using bullets from the wounded agents, a Portland police ballistic expert spent three hours on the stand explaining how his tests proved they came from Jesse Cousins’ automatic handgun.

Cousins stood calmly on January 18, 1933, as the jury declared him guilty of first-degree murder and Simpson handed him a life sentence at Walla Walla State Penitentiary. His attorneys made no motion for appeal. The indifferent inmate left for prison a week later.

In September 1958, almost exactly 25 years after his conviction, inmate Jesse Cousins died after being held at the Washington State Hospital for 19 days. His death certificate list several health problems, any of which could have proved fatal.

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

Columbian freelance contributor