“No one who enjoys mystery can fail to savor this study of a classic case of detection.”
On the night of September 14, 1935, George Conniff, a town marshal in Pend Oreille County in the state of Washington, was shot to death. A lawman had been killed, yet there seemed to be no uproar, no major investigation. No suspect was brought to trial. More than fifty years later, the sheriff of Pend Oreille County, Tony Bamonte, in pursuit of both justice and a master’s degree in history, dug into the files of the Conniff case—by then the oldest open murder case in the United States. Gradually, what started out as an intellectual exercise became an obsession, as Bamonte asked questions that unfolded layer upon layer of unsavory detail.
In Timothy Egan’s vivid account, which reads like a thriller, we follow Bamonte as his investigation plunges him back in time to the Depression era of rampant black-market crime and police corruption. We see how the suppressed reports he uncovers and the ambiguous answers his questions evoke lead him to the murder weapon—missing for half a century—and then to the man, an ex-cop, he is convinced was the murderer.
Bamonte himself—a logger’s son and a Vietnam veteran—had joined the Spokane police force in the late 1960s, a time when increasingly enlightened and educated police departments across the country were shaking off the “dirty cop” stigma. But as he got closer to actually solving the crime, questioning elderly retired members of the force, he found himself more and more isolated, shut out by tight-lipped hostility, and made dramatically aware of the fraternal sin he had committed—breaking the blue code.
Breaking Blue is a gripping story of cop against cop. But it also describes a collision between two generations of lawmen and two very different moments in our nation’s history.
In 1935, Spokane, Wash., was in the sixth year of the Great Depression. Unemployment was high. Civilian Conservation Corps workers were arriving in droves from the East for the Grand Coulee Dam project. Crime was rampant, and a series of creamery robberies had the town on edge. Then, on Sept. 4, the Pend Oreille County town marshal investigating these crimes was murdered. The mystery of George Conniff's death went unsolved until 1989, when Tony Bamonte, sheriff of Pend Oreille County and a graduate student, inadvertently uncovered information that generations of police had conspired to keep hidden. Egan ( The Good Rain ), Seattle bureau chief for the New York Times, lumbers occasionally, but his account of the reopened investigation generally resonates with regional color. Bamonte's investigation of the killing started as scholarly research, but stepped up when ``a convergence of conscience and coincidence'' suggested that the marshal had been shot by a cop protecting colleagues associated with the robberies. In a deathbed confession, a cop revealed that the Spokane police were involved in more than ``a conspiracy of small corruptions.'' Egan evocatively resurrects the scenes and raw insensitivities of '30s police life in the region, from Mother's Place, the diner where cops plotted their heists, to the Hotel de Gink, where transients stayed.