Local

Shadow of the past Unsolved 1932 slaying still stings

Editor’s note: This story was originally published on Dec. 3, 2007.

Her name was Grace Stonequist, and Tacoma killed her.

She was a 37-year-old waitress at the city’s swankiest hotel when she disappeared three days before Christmas in 1932. Her body turned up three months later at the edge of a swamp in Fircrest. The county coroner found four bullet holes in her skull.

She left behind two young daughters, evidence that vanished and a public wound that never healed.

Eight decades later, a pair of Tacoma police veterans hope to give her descendants a small measure of redress.

“This is an open murder case,” says Tom Strickland, recently appointed assistant chief.

“It’s an egregious case,” says officer Erik Timothy, department historian, “a serious wrong that’s not right. It should never have happened.”

No one was charged with Stonequist’s murder, but high-ranking police leaders were accused of concealing the evidence that could have corralled her killer. The one man who might have solved the case - John Strickland, captain of detectives - was forced from the department and threatened with death.

“There are several people in this city who know the details of this murder,” a Pierce County grand jury concluded in 1935. “If the case at the time of its commission had been handled efficiently by an efficient police department, there would have been no difficulty in bringing the murderer to justice.

“Even the Captain of Detectives was hampered in his work by the Chief of the Department.”

Echoes

History tends to echo. John Strickland’s grandson serves on the force today. That would be Tom Strickland.

“Personally, I’d like to know what happened,” he says. “Why my grandfather was booted off the department.”

Timothy also wonders. In more than two decades of culling department lore, he has returned to the Stonequist case again and again.

He has interviewed long-retired police veterans and a now-dead News Tribune police reporter, amassed articles and dusty records and searched for answers to the ancient riddle - the oldest unsolved murder on the city’s books.

“It’s bothered me for 20 years,” Timothy says. “We owe it to the citizens and the Stonequist family to do whatever we can to clear it up.”

For Timothy and Strickland, it’s an off-the-clock inquiry, a personal quest that doesn’t consume official hours. They noodle on the case in their spare time.

They know the chances of resolution are unlikely. They hope a public airing will unearth stray crumbs of evidence. Though 75 years have passed, they figure someone might remember something.

“It was important to somebody to cover up this murder for two decades,” Timothy says. “We can safely say that important people were involved in this.”

The open city

In 1932, corruption in Tacoma didn’t hide behind layers of bureaucracy. It strutted down the middle of Broadway.

Racketeers ran the city from bottom to top. At least three dozen brothels fueled by illegal liquor operated openly within 11 blocks of City Hall, according to records from the U.S. Treasury Department, which then included the Bureau of Prohibition.

Every joint paid monthly protection fees. Gangsters greased city leaders with the proceeds in exchange for police indifference. Even federal liquor agents were on the take, according to the old records.

Police Commissioner Dyer Dyment got a cut. So did Police Chief Marvin Guy. Mayor Melvin G. Tennant commanded the biggest payoff - $1,000 a month, federal records say.

The syndicate strings danced in the fingers of a puppeteer: Vito Cuttone, a seemingly mild-mannered car dealer with an inscrutable smile and a knack for persuasion.

Chief fixer, king bootlegger, collector, ruling head, self-styled cousin of Al Capone - such references to Cuttone’s grip on Tacoma swim through hundreds of pages of records compiled by Treasury Department investigators in the 1930s, housed at the Seattle branch of the National Archives.

“The evidence indicates that the City of Tacoma has been under the dominance of an Italian super-government, with Vito Cuttone as its dictator,” a Treasury agent wrote in 1932.

With Dyment, Guy and Tennant on his personal payroll, Cuttone controlled department assignments, ensuring free rein for the speakeasies and brothels under his protection, federal agents found.

A three-man police “dry squad” oversaw vice - liquor and prostitution enforcement. The agents interviewed beat cops, who said they were instructed not to interfere with the squad. Any officer who broke ranks and dinged a protected joint could expect swift reassignment, sometimes within hours, typically to a night shift in “the sticks.”

In 1932, as waitress Grace Stonequist served patrons at the posh Tacoma Hotel, federal agents were slowly building a case aimed at Cuttone’s syndicate and the public officials under his control.

Disappearance and discovery

Stonequist lived on South 55th Street with her two daughters, Frances and Lorene. She was separated from her husband, Carl, according to news accounts of the time.

She worked at the coffee shop of the Tacoma Hotel on 10th and A streets - a fabulous structure that filled a city block and burned to the ground in 1935.

On Dec. 22, 1932, a Thursday, she left home in the early evening, headed for work or a party, according to conflicting news reports. She was last seen getting out of a streetcar at South 15th Street and Pacific Avenue.

She never came home. The next night, a woman matching Stonequist’s description knocked on a door in Fircrest and asked for the address of someone named Black, who supposedly lived nearby.

The man who answered the door had no idea where Black lived. The woman tottered away. She looked drunk or drugged, the man told police later. He added that a strange car had driven past his house eight or 10 times before the woman appeared.

That same night on South 55th Street, a neighbor of Stonequist’s had an unexpected visitor - a man who asked where Stonequist lived.

The neighbor pointed to Stonequist’s home. The man didn’t go to the home. He got into a car with another man and drove away.

Another Fircrest man told police he heard shots that night: four or five, coming from the direction of the swamp.

Police knew none of that information when Stonequist disappeared. It didn’t surface until March 1, 1933. That Wednesday, John Strickland, captain of detectives, called Tacoma News Tribune reporter Herman Hunt with a tip: Three woodchoppers in Fircrest had found a body.

The corpse was partially buried in refuse, shot four times through the head, shod in slippers with zippers. It was Grace Stonequist.

‘Honest John’

Capt. John Strickland, then in his 50s, was a bespectacled, bookish sort with a passion for cigars and no use for politics.

“Honest John” was his nickname. His reputation for police work stretched up and down the West Coast, according to historical reports. He was also Hunt’s best source.

Before joining the force in 1909, Strickland had been a rancher, a machinist and a pharmacist. The last experience supposedly served him well in Tacoma’s drug dens. He was appointed captain of detectives in 1916 and retained the position through six police administrations.

The discovery of Stonequist’s body lit a fire under Hunt and his competitors at the city’s two other newspapers, The Tacoma Ledger and The Tacoma Times. All three followed the case.

Within two days of the body’s discovery, seven people, known associates and friends of associates of Stonequist, were arrested and questioned. Police found a revolver that looked like the murder weapon.

A cryptic anecdote seized by reporters added mystery to the coverage. A Tacoma landlady reportedly told police she had overheard a phone call to one of her tenants. One voice said, “The body has been found - what next?”

“Thanks,” another voice replied, and hung up.

By March 8, a week after Stonequist’s body was discovered, the suspects were released. There were no more arrests.

The papers lost interest. The story faded. Two years would pass before it resurfaced.

No progress

The Treasury investigation led to indictments of Cuttone and other city leaders in 1933, but it came to nothing. Federal prosecutors cited the statute of limitations and weakness of evidence.

Cuttone went on to new ventures in the post-Prohibition era. Gambling was his specialty. (When he died in 1958, a News Tribune headline referred to him as “the pinball king.”)

The failed federal investigation didn’t satisfy a public fed up with city corruption. A county grand jury formed in September 1934, and investigated many of the same allegations unearthed by the feds. Grand jurors also dug into the still unsolved murder of Grace Stone-quist.

All the major players testified, including Dyment, Guy and Tennant. The grand jury worked through the end of 1934, and into January 1935, eventually returning 33 indictments against prominent figures, most of which went nowhere.

The investigation uncovered widespread graft, but no new leads in the Stonequist case. County prosecutor Bertil Johnston publicly complained that some witnesses were refusing to answer the jury’s questions.

What those witnesses said or refused to say is unclear. Records of the investigation survive at the County Clerk’s Office, but they don’t include transcripts of the hearings.

Near the end of the probe, John Strickland testified. It signaled the end of his 26-year career.

The grand jury’s final report, printed in full, blared across the front pages of all three newspapers on Feb. 7, 1935. It blistered city leaders, and reserved special venom for the Stonequist case.

“There is too much evidence of evasions and concealments in the Police Department and too many mentions in evidence of certain favored officers who were acquainted with and associated with certain of the characters in the tragedy to exonerate them from the responsibility of this unsolved case.”

Special prosecutor A.O. Burmeister, who led the grand jury, singled out Strickland for praise.

“He is a capable, honest and efficient officer,” Burmeister said. “But he was hampered at every turn by a favored few in the department.”

A month after the grand jury report was released, Strickland resigned. No hint of the reason appears in news accounts of the time.

Privately, Strickland told his family he was a marked man, according to Tom Strickland, his grandson. There were death threats, threats to burn his house down, threats against his family.

He didn’t discuss the Stone-quist case in later years. It wasn’t his way. He died in 1946, after a short illness.

Missing records

Two decades after Grace Stonequist’s death, the case gained new life. Police Chief Jack Elich, who as a patrol officer had been the first to find Stonequist’s body in 1932, announced the investigation would be reopened.

A skeptical Herman Hunt, still covering crime for The News Tribune, took note of the announcement in his private notebooks.

“Bosh!” he wrote.

Looking for the Stonequist case reports, Elich made an unsettling discovery. They were gone: witness interviews, arrest reports, narrative descriptions, the missing-person announcement, everything. All that remained was the coroner’s report and a box of blood-spattered clothing.

“The case just doesn’t exist in police files,” Elich said.

Timothy, the department historian, conducted a similar search almost 50 years later, and found even less. Every shred of evidence was gone - all that remained was an index card noting the discovery of the body.

It didn’t surprise him that the oldest records were gone - but there were no records from the 1950s, either, no indication the case was ever reopened, no sign of the box of clothing.

“Where did it go?” he asks. “There’s no reason they wouldn’t have created a file.”

Herman Hunt retired from The News Tribune in the mid-1960s, and died in 1989. Before his death, he shared his old notebooks with Timothy, who asked him about the Stonequist case.

Hunt, then in his 80s, leaned forward with a reporter’s gleam in his eye.

“What have you heard?” he whispered.

The veteran

Among many retired cops Timothy has interviewed over the years, there is one he describes but will not name: a hard-nosed veteran who spent almost three decades on the force starting in the early 1940s.

When Timothy asked about the Stonequist case, the man remembered something: a fishing trip with an older officer.

The memory was dim. It was back when the veteran was a young beat cop, still new to the department. Going fishing with the older guy felt a little strange. They barely knew each other.

On the water, the older officer started talking.

The exact words are long gone. Decades later, the veteran could not remember them - only the way they were spoken, the sound of remorse.

“A guilty conscience,” he told Timothy.

The older officer spilled a secret. He “implicated himself” in the death of Grace Stonequist, the veteran said.

How? When? Why?

The veteran had no answers for Timothy. The details were buried five decades deep. “Implicated” was the best he could do.

The guilt-ridden officer’s name is a familiar one to Timothy, who recites department legends from memory.

It’s not the only name. Timothy knows another - a detective from the old days, somehow linked to Stonequist’s death. The tip came from Hunt, who never revealed his source, though Timothy suspects it was John Strickland.

It’s all hearsay: memories of old men, old gossip, old rumors. Nothing that would hold up in court.

Timothy keeps it to himself, not wanting to smear officers without solid evidence.

“I think everyone kept their mouth shut out of fear, or the fact that everyone had dirt on everyone else,” he says.

The daughters

Grace Stonequist’s daughters, Frances and Lorene, grew into young women in the 1940s, and lived in Western Washington for the rest of their lives. Frances died in the 1980s. Lorene, the younger daughter, died in 2005. Her nickname was Rocky.

Her mother’s death haunted her for years.

“She loved her mother so much - she was so devastated to lose her so young,” says Carol Lunt, Lorene’s daughter, who lives in Seattle.

The murder was a dark story in family circles. To her children, Lorene would say that Grandma Grace knew too much.

“It was something that had to do with what she called gangsters back then,” Lunt says. “And that they were in with the Police Department. That’s why Grandma always felt safe. But (Lorene) said it was a double cross.”

The news that Tacoma police haven’t forgotten the case comforts Carol Lunt. She plans to tell Lorene.

“It would put my mother’s mind at ease,” she says. “I go over and talk to her. I go over to the gravesite and talk to her all the time.”

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486

srobinson@thenewstribune.com

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