New book chronicles 1914 Sedro-Woolley bank robbery and massive manhunt in Whatcom County

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJuly 13, 2014 

Imagine this news story: Robbers hold up a bank, but not before an exchange of gunfire with employees, and a gun battle outside between their colleagues and law officers, a battle that leaves a bystander mortally wounded.

Although officers suspected a heist was in the offing and were waiting with extra ammo and personnel, the robbers nonetheless escaped into the rainy night. Several days later, officers see the bandits and a series of gunfights leaves one lawman and four robbers dead. One robber is never brought to justice, and a fortune in stolen gold coins remains missing.

Imagine no longer. That happened, 100 years ago, in the small town of Sedro-Woolley.

Growing up there, Rustan Robertson developed an early fascination with history. He made the 1914 robbery the focus of his high school research in the mid 1990s, and recently turned his findings into a book, "The Wages of Sin: The True Story & Photos of the Great Sedro-Woolley Bank Robbery of 1914," published by the Sedro-Woolley Museum.

Robertson's 88-page book includes nearly 100 photographs of the crime and chase scenes, the officers and citizens involved, and two of the robbers in an undertaker's parlor in Bellingham.

The photographs had been developed into glass-lantern slides - positive images on fragile glass about 4 inches by 5 inches. The slides were shown as commercial entertainment, to the accompaniment of a read-aloud script, in local movie theaters before the main bill.

A set of slides was donated to Sedro-Woolley Museum and were scanned for Robertson's book.

The crime occurred Oct. 17, 1914, in Skagit County, but the deadly chase reached into Whatcom County and lower British Columbia.

The bandits' identities were never confirmed, but it's believed they were part of a gang that committed multiple robberies in Washington and Canada. They spoke a foreign language, and might have been Russian.

During the Sedro-Woolley job, an estimated 200 shots were fired within 10 to 15 minutes. One bullet found the abdomen of a 13-year-old boy who, unfortunately and fatally, stepped outside of his house to investigate the tumult.

"It could have been a lot worse, with all the bullets flying around town," said Robertson, who now lives in Anacortes.

Four days after the robbery, an immigration inspector saw the bandits walking on railroad tracks in Ferndale. The chase was on. The next morning, guards saw them cross into Canada near Blaine, but the culprits escaped amid gunfire.

Later that morning, a major gunfight erupted near Hazelmere, B.C., an early part of Surrey. Two people died at the scene; a bandit, and a Canadian officer shot through the heart. Another bandit was wounded and later found dead, apparently killed by his comrades in crime.

The next day, a farmer near Blaine saw the three remaining bandits back on U.S. soil, and a farmer's wife near Ferndale, under duress, gave them six loaves of bread and two rolls of butter.

That evening, officers waited for the bandits to cross the Nooksack River.

At the Ferndale railroad bridge, officers rigged a car headlight to batteries. When they heard bandits crawling on the bridge, they illuminated the scene. Flummoxed, two of the burglars tried to shoot and flee, but officers shot them dead. A third bandit, farther back, escaped into the night.

Investigators had strong suspicions about the identity of the missing robber, but couldn't put together a case strong enough for trial.

Robertson doesn't know where the two bandits who died in Canada are buried. The two bandits shot on the bridge in Ferndale were buried in unmarked graves in Bayview Cemetery.

As for the money, the bandits stole $11,649, mostly in gold coins. About half was never recovered, coins that would be worth about $400,000 today, Robertson said.

"It could be up in the hills somewhere," he said.

MORE DETAILS

"The Wages of Sin" can be ordered online at 1914bankrobbery.com. During July, the $19.95 book is available for $14.95, plus tax.

The book also is available at amazon.com and at Sedro-Woolley Museum, 725 Murdock St. For museum details, go to sedrowoolleymuseum.org.

At noon Sept. 13, the bank robbery will be re-enacted in front of the museum as part of Sedro-Woolley's Founders' Day celebration.

For another article about the robbery, go to HistoryLink.org and search for "Sedro-Woolley robbery."

Reach Dean Kahn at 360-715-2291 or dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com .

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