Dropping In On Spokane's Crime-Novel Hero, Tony Bamonte

SPOKANE - On the road with Tiger . . .

Here in Spokane (lovely city, by the way), I came to call on the hero of Timothy Egan's new book, "Breaking Blue," an exciting crime saga set in Pend Oreille County. It was a time when cops were strong, brutal and often corrupt.

This hero I am talking about is a slim-waisted, 50-year-old ex-sheriff named Tony Bamonte. He is a former officer on the Spokane Police Department and a three-term sheriff of Pend Oreille County, a few miles north of here.

Pend Oreille County, with only two significant towns, was sparsely populated. Yet as Tim Egan points out, it was a dangerous place to be.

The county's life story was: "Forty homicides (seven of them unsolved), 110 drownings, 87 fatal industrial accidents, 153 fatal auto accidents, 71 suicides."

The most spectacular crime occurred on Sept. 15, 1935, in Newport, a small town 59 miles north of Spokane. The town marshal, George Conniff, making his rounds that evening, came upon a creamery robbery. He was gunned down by three burglars. While he lay on the ground, there was a final, calculated, fatal shot.

What made this crime unusual was the strong belief that the killing was done by a Spokane police detective, a tough, dominating character named Clyde Ralstin.

Crime, as Egan put it, "was tolerated as long as it was the right KIND of crime. Bootlegging. Cathouses. Gambling. Wife-beating. Gun-running. No harm there."

Cops habitually beat up prisoners. One officer, "Hacker" Cox, got his nickname by brutalizing prisoners during elevator rides at police headquarters, sinisterly named The Fortress.

Creameries? Yes, creameries were the prime target of gangs and the Spokane cops. Creameries yielded valuable stuff in those terrible Depression days - cheese, bacon and, most of all, butter. Butter became valuable because so many farmers were dumping their worthless milk rather than selling it at a loss.

Much of the stuff was fenced through a restaurant called Mother's Kitchen on Riverside Avenue. It was owned by a particularly odious thug named Virgil Burch. He was a good friend of the cops, particularly Clyde Ralstin.

Burch kept 23 part-time "waitresses" around, for whatever kind of convenience a cop or a friend might desire.

The Conniff murder happened in 1935; by 1989, says Egan, "it was the oldest active murder case in the nation, a probe that had occupied the time of three sheriffs and the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation."

A lot of Spokane cops who seemed to know later said that their fellow officer, Ralstin, had murdered the marshal of Newport, a town of 1,400 people.

But Ralstin was never charged. The "code" was simple: "Thou shalt not snitch on a fellow officer." Violating this code was called "Breaking Blue."

Ralstin regarded himself above the law.

The unsolved case dragged on and on, into 1966, when young Tony Bamonte joined the force. A native of Pend Oreille County, a Vietnam war veteran, a crack pistol shot, good-looking and amiable, Tony was forthright, compassionate and brave, the ideal young career officer.

After 12 years on the Spokane Police Department, Tony was elected sheriff of Pend Oreille County three times.

For his master's thesis, Tony wrote a book about murders in Pend Oreille and the 11 sheriffs involved.

He became especially interested in the unsolved murder of Marshal George Conniff, and his thesis eventually became a book, "Sheriffs 1911-1989."

Out of this came Tim Egan's riveting account of the Pend Oreille mystery.

As for Tony, he was stubborn. He kept poking. Probing. He kept looking for anything that might crack open the hushed-up case of cop killing cop. He became, quite bluntly, a pain in the butt to many Spokane police officials.

Some people called him "the Serpico of the West," a reference to the famous New York cop who went up against the system. Tony even got a letter from a New York policeman deriding him as "a Serpico," a snitch, a betrayer of a fellow officer.

Tony Bamonte was the first person I called when we pulled our motor home into Spokane.

(Thursday - The gun in the bottom of the river.)

Emmett Watson's column appears Sunday and Thursday in the Northwest section of The Times.