Whidbey Island is not the best place to pull off a bank robbery… especially not in 1922 when Deception Pass Bridge had yet to be built.
That is what three bank robbers learned the hard way when their escape plans were foiled by a ‘neighborhood watch’ type of observation by Myrtle Smith of Clinton and swift action by Sheriff’s Deputy Jake Simmons who covered the south end of the Island.
On March 1 the three robbers stole a rowboat on Camano Island and rowed to Coupeville, planning to rob the bank there. They changed their minds when they discovered that a house adjoining the bank was occupied. They decided instead to rob the Oak Harbor State Bank.
According to an account in the March 17 Seattle Star, the robbery was a crime of passion, sort of, at least for the youngest robber: George King, age 21. He told how he had participated in the robbery to gain enough money to marry his fiancée from Portland. She owned a $15,000 millinery establishment (hat store), and it seems George wanted to appear to be on an equal financial footing as her, but was without a job.
In the newspaper interview, he gave the following account:
“Together with Claude Cosman and Johnny Laird, I went to Oak Harbor two days before we pulled the job. We camped out in the woods and I posed as looking for work.
“… I had previously looked over the bank and figured the money would be easy to get as the ‘safe deposit’ boxes were merely cubby holes with brown envelopes to put your money in,” King said.
“The bank was easy to get into, but the envelopes had all been put into the vault. We decided to blow it and used an acetylene torch to cut a few holes in the door.
“After the explosion, I went inside and found the money, about $1,000 in cash (mainly coins) and war savings stamps, and located a five gallon jug of alcohol in there, too…
“I don’t know who owned the alcohol, but I don’t remember reading about its loss in the papers, so I guess we weren’t blamed for that…
“We’d brought over a rowboat to make our getaway, but after the job had been pulled, we found it had been torn to pieces by a heavy storm. That blow was fatal to our escape,” King continued.
“Wednesday night we nearly froze lying out in the freezing cold woods, not daring to light a fire. Thursday we made our way cautiously down the highway a few miles, or thru the brush. Then we buried about $600 of the money.
“The wind and rain were cutting thru us that night as we tramped down the beach road, cold and hungry… All day Friday we laid low in the brush, while the officers were searching near us. We had nothing to eat…
“That night we reached Clinton and stayed near town. We sent Laird ahead the next morning to hire a launch to take us to Seattle. The cops grabbed Laird as soon as he went over to town, and we backed out…” King said.
What actually happened is that Myrtle Smith, the sister of Clinton’s postmaster Guy Smith, noticed the three suspicious-looking unkempt men and alerted her neighbors, among whom was Jake Simmons– an acting Deputy Sheriff for the south end.
By that time the men had disappeared, but Simmons, acting on a hunch went down to the dock and saw a launch departing with a single man on it.
He signaled the launch owner to return to shore, and when it did, Simmons aimed his revolver at Laird and ordered him to surrender. He did, though at the time Laird had his hand on a gun in his pocket, and fortunately he decided not to chance it.
According to the Island County Times article of March 10, 1922, Island County Sheriff William Gookins and other deputies were on their way down the Island and had asked that the Clinton to Everett ferry be held as long as possible.
Although they did not arrive on time to board it, they did notify the sheriff in Everett, who was standing at the dock along with well-armed deputies when the ferry arrived. Cosman and King quickly stashed their stolen money and surrendered.
All the caches of ‘loot’ were found.
Claude Cosman and Johhny Laird were sentenced to five to 20 years in Walla Walla State Penitentiary while George King received two-and-a-half to 15 years there. No word on whether he married his fiancée upon his release.