Many new to the Snoqualmie Valley move here for its relative safety, natural beauty and warm community. It is always shocking when an act of violence happens here, in part because such acts are so infrequent.
In the past weeks after the officer-involved shooting in Torguson Park, the Museum has noticed several social media comments mentioning that this was the first officer-involved shooting in North Bend. There, in fact have been others, though rare and each with their own unique circumstances.
While the community awaits the results of the investigation into the more recent shooting, it is an opportune time to reflect on other incidents in our community. This post will recall the December 12, 1949, officer-involved shooting in Ernie’s Grove. As with many such incidents, there are conflicting reports on some of the details.
In the 1940s, an elderly man in his 50s purchased a farm in Ernie’s Grove. He was known by some as an “an eccentric but harmless” “friendly little man” with a “whining voice”. A World War I veteran who had served in the Spruce Division or the Air Service (his headstone application has conflicting information), Walter Peden had spent his early adulthood working as a farm laborer in Eastern Washington where he was born and also in Idaho before moving to Vancouver, Washington in his 30s to work as a restaurant cook.
Between 1930 and 1931 he moved to Multnomah, Oregon, where, in his early 40s, he had married an accountant and started a small family. The marriage lasted only 7 years before a divorce was instantiated by his wife for “cruelty”. He later worked as a hospital attendant in Oregon before moving back to Washington. In both 1944 and 1947, Peden was briefly institutionalized. Shortly before purchasing the farm in Ernie’s Grove, a roommate awoke to Peden trying to strangle him in the middle of the night at the boarding house they were staying at.
Peden lived in Ernie’s Grove for several years, mostly keeping to himself, but occasionally having dinner with neighbors. He was known for his fondness of kittens and his odd habit of always keeping a sawed-off shotgun under his shirt. The neighbors also noticed that he was paranoid and imagined deceased enemies were out to get him. One neighbor reported this behavior to the Veterans Administration; only to have Peden get irate at him.
On December 11, 1949, County Detective Gordon Sandell and Deputy Sheriff Howard Rutan went to the community to investigate a complaint by Peden that certain individuals were trying to “get him”. The officers could find nothing to support Peden’s fears and were told that some of his imagined enemies were deceased by neighbors. While there, the officers also were told that residents of the community had planned to file complaints against Peden the next day, seeking a sanity hearing for him. That night, Peden had dinner with his neighbors George and Leah Fitzgerald.
The next day was an overcast, chilly December morning. George Fitzgerald planned to go to Seattle with neighbor C.F. Johnston. Walter Peden and Leah Fitzgerald chatted happily for over an hour that morning in the yard before he returned back to his cabin where he proceeded to kill his 30 chickens, dog and cat. Some reports state he also killed some neighbor’s animals; some reports say he shot the animals and others that he strangled some of them.
As Fitzgerald pulled out of his garage to go pick up Johnstone, Peden stepped out of his cabin and shot Fitzgerald in the arm. Leaning out the window to yell at Peden for shooting him, Fitzgerald looked across to see neighbor Johnstone had also been shot, shot in the face. Fitzgerald pulled Johnstone into his car and raced him to Nelems Hospital in Snoqualmie.
While Fitzgerald and Johnstone were rushing to the hospital, Peden walked into the Fitzgerald house where Leah Fitzgerald was still home. He told her that no one would hurt her, and proceeded to take a box of Fitzgerald’s .22 cartridges. He then left when Leah Fitzgerald told him his cabin lights were still on. On the way home, he shot neighbor Gordon Peters in the chest, who not knowing about the shootings had just stepped into his front yard. By this time the police had been notified and arrived minutes later at the Peden cabin.
At this time North Bend had one sheriff assigned to town Sgt. Baker, the rest of the law enforcement was covered by several Washington State Patrol officers who covered the Snoqualmie Pass district from Easton to Preston who were often several hours away.
As Officers Paul Johnson and Clare Powers stopped in front of his cabin, Peden opened fire on their car. As they dove for cover, officer Johnson was shot between the eyes, some reports mention multiple gunshot wounds. Officer Powers returned fire. A visitor to Ernie’s Grove, Perry Buholm assisted Powers by reloading his weapons and trying to stabilize Johnson. They were able to get Peden to retreat enough, to load Johnson into the police car and rush him to Nelems Hospital.
In the meantime, Fitzgerald returned home and readied his own weapon. His sister Myrtle Drake and niece Joan had also arrived at his house not realizing the danger. After taking Johnson to the hospital, Powers met other officers who had sped to the scene from Seattle; some reports state 3 other officers, others say there were 18 officers. Everyone in the community had gone into their homes, many guarding their doors with loaded weapons. The Fitzgeralds discussed the situation and decided to try to take Peden down as they didn’t know when help could arrive.
Leah Fitzgerald called Peden over while George hid behind the front door with his own shotgun. When Peden entered they jumped him and subdued him. Powers, Officer Furseth and two other patrolmen arrived at a covered position 100 yards from Peden’s cabin. They were separated: Powers and Furseth went to the right of the cabin. The two others crept below the cabin to the left. As the officers were closing in on the cabin, Mrs. Fitzgerald dashed from her home and shouted: “He’s over here. We’ve got him!” The officers then took Peden into custody.
Some reports state that the officers fired into the Peden house and threw tear gas instead. Some reports state that they shot Peden 21 times but he survived, pictures from the next day would suggest he was not shot.
Johnson was transferred to Providence Hospital for emergency surgery for multiple gunshot wounds. After being resuscitated twice, he succumb to his wounds just before midnight. Peters was transferred to the Marine hospital and recovered from his wounds. Johnstone was treated at Nelems hospital and recovered from his wounds.
When interviewed Peden claimed not to remember the shootings and when in his cell would fill the sink with water, pat the water and then salute it. Within the week Peden was sent for a judge who declared him insane and sent him to Western State Hospital at Steilacoom until he was well enough to stand trial. Though due to privacy laws, Western State Hospital can not release information on his stay or when he was released. It appears from Peden’s death certification that he was transferred to Eastern State Hospital at Medical Lake by January 1950 and that he remained there until his death in 1952 from coronary thrombosis, arteriosclerosis due to organic brain disease.
Though until that time the community had felt that he was “an eccentric but harmless” “friendly little man”, they then reflected that there were warning signs that he needed help. They reflected that before he bought his farm at Ernie’s Grove he tried to strangle a fellow roommate in the middle of the night at the boarding house he stayed at. He always carried a sawed-off shotgun under his shirt. There were rumors that he had been institutionalized before.
Officer Johnson, aged 32, served the Washington State Patrol for three years. Born and reared in Seattle, he graduated from Ballard High School in 1936. He spent five years in the Army during World War II and was stationed in Kodiak, Alaska, as a military policeman much of that time. In October 1946, he joined the Washington State Patrol. His career with the Washington State Highway Patrol began as a clerk in Wenatchee on August 5, 1946. He was a member of the 14th cadet class and commissioned as a patrolman on October 1, 1946. He was assigned to Olympia, then transferred to North Bend, Renton, Seattle, and back to North Bend in 1949 where he was a member of the organization’s Snoqualmie Pass detachment. He was unmarried.
From the census, phone book and death records, it appears Clare Powers was 39 years of age. He had been a locomotive fireman in his youth before serving as a guard man during World War II. After the war, he became a patrol officer and later a fraud investigator. He would continue to work and live in Washington before moving to Indiana in his 80s. He would die in 2004 at the age of 94.
Not discussed in the newspaper accounts of the time or more recently, were questions that probably would be asked today by the community. Questions like: What were the backgrounds of the other responding officers? Were the neighbors shot, the same neighbors that were seeking an insanity hearing? Were Fitzgerald and Johnstone on their way to Seattle to that day to seek a hearing?
Seattle Daily Times, December 14, 1949, page 14
Seattle Daily Times, December 12, 1949, page one
Snoqualmie Valley Record, December 15, 1949, page one and eight
[Reprinted with permission from the Snoqualmie Valley Historical Museum. See the original post here]