Unsolved case still talk of the town

PORT ORCHARD — It'll be 41 years next month since James "Jimmy" Smith was found dead behind the counter of the Hi-Joy Bowl. The 31-year old janitor at the lanes was killed with a hatchet. The slaying looked like a botched robbery, although $270 was found in the cash register and Smith's wallet was still tucked into his back pocket.

Four decades later, there have been no arrests — and Port Orchard's only unsolved killing continues to captivate the town. Whispers have grown over time until one person emerged as a suspect. People were careful in what they said. It's important to be discreet when the accused is the chief of police.

The whispers ended yesterday in, of all places, a nook of the Port Orchard Library next to the children's department. There, Ed Rollman, a Bremerton city councilman and part-time historian, outlined his case against Gale Dow, Port Orchard's police chief from 1959 to 1976, who died five years ago.

Rollman talked about the scene of the killing, about an investigation that went nowhere, about Dow's motives and the evidence he said points to him as the killer.

"This was a deliberate murder, a premeditated murder," said Rollman, who is trying to write a book on the case. "He had the opportunity, and he did it in cold blood."

As he talked — in grisly detail — a woman with two young girls in the kids' section blanched and then whisked the children away.

News of Rollman's announcement provoked Stan James to dig two boxes of documents from a closet. James, a six-year police veteran, is the caretaker of the Jimmy Smith case.

The killing gets frequent, intermittent attention. It nags at people in the department. Every time a detective joins the force, it gets another look. And they keep coming back to the same question: Could Dow have done it?

"I'm still trying to keep an open mind," James said. "As a police officer, I'm not sure the evidence is there to convict him. As Stan the citizen, I'd likely believe it."

Alan Townsend, the chief since 1999, said he doesn't anticipate ever fully reopening the case.

"To expend resources when all witnesses are dead is not something we can really do," he said.

But within the next two months, James, inspired by Rollman's accusations, expects to perform a small bit of work that could prove crucial.

On Dow's property was an old well that has since been filled with dirt. James has a hunch the murder weapon is at the bottom of the well. Of course, looking into the well could prove nothing.

Gale Dow died on July 25, 1997, in Seattle. He was 71 and a convicted sex offender, sentenced to 20 years in prison in 1985 for statutory rape and indecent liberties.

When Dow, who served in World War II as a Marine machine gunner in the Pacific, was named chief in March 1959, the town was still run by a handful of men. Dow, who was known for a quick temper, was feared above all the others.

"Nobody wanted to cross him," said David Southard, who had worked at the Hi-Joy with Smith. "He had the ultimate power in town."

When Smith's body was found, Dow made some decisions critical to the investigation. He floated a theory that the killer was probably a transient, shifting, James said, the investigation to an area that would lead nowhere. And right up until he left the force in 1976, Dow secured the physical evidence in a filing cabinet in his own office.

"It was the only case where he didn't follow procedures, which was a little weird," James said. "When the new chief came in to replace him, (the evidence) was all gone."

Before the killing, Dow and Smith were frequently seen together in the Hi-Joy's restaurant. Many people who knew Smith described him as "slow." Tom Myers, a Port Orchard native who bought the bowling alley in 1968, said he was the kind of person who would help anyone. Those who believe Dow is guilty say Smith must have known something that could have ruined Dow's career.

Suspicions about Dow started soon after the slaying. A size-9 shoeprint found in the dirt out back turned out to be Dow's. At the time, all it provoked in the department was a laugh.

As time wore on, Dow's second wife began telling people she suspected he was guilty, James said. Rollman said he interviewed several surviving investigators who said she told them Dow was out the entire night of the killing and returned disheveled with blood on his uniform.

Myers and Southard, who both knew Dow's wife, said she made her point many times before her death last year.

When combined with the missing evidence, the shoe print, Dow's later conviction on sex charges and his fierce reputation, the former chief was all but convicted among the town's citizens.

It's a situation that Dow's remaining family in town wish would just go away. "It's caused a lot of pain to his family and children," said his niece, Pat Parks, who is the city clerk. "If there was evidence it would be one thing, but it's just speculation. He's dead and can't defend himself."

Forty-one years is a long time to wonder about a homicide. For those who lived through the saga, the case will probably never be closed. Until everyone with direct memory of the killing is gone, Gale Dow will continue to be tried in the coffee shops and living rooms of Port Orchard.

But Port Orchard today is not the same town it was in 1961. It's larger and less insular. Along Bay Street, the stores are not for the old-timers as much as the new arrivals and tourists. These people have never heard of Gale Dow or Jimmy Smith.

The Hi-Joy has burned and been rebuilt. It now boasts video games, pull tabs, computer scoring and a card room. There is no sign that this is the same place where Smith was killed so long ago.

As one employee said, "It's like it never happened."

John Zebrowski: 206-464-8292 or jzebrowski@seattletimes.com.