Ex-Seattle police official helped expose corruption in department

At a time blind eyes were cast to corruption within the ranks of the Seattle Police Department, Assistant Chief Eugene Corr helped expose an illegal payoff system — and then paid a price for his courage.

Mr. Corr, 82, who died of lung cancer Sunday, emerged through it all with his integrity intact, earning distinction as a model public servant.

President Reagan appointed him U.S. marshal for Western Washington in 1983. Mr. Corr also is credited with aggressively recruiting women and minorities to the Seattle Police Department and being an effective liaison between the police force and Seattle's minority communities during turbulent times.

"The guy was a renaissance man in many ways," said Roy Skagen, a retired 31-year police veteran who worked under Mr. Corr. "He was a very brilliant individual. People who are very bright and instigate change are sometimes going to be controversial. In my view, that's the definition of a leader."

In the late 1960s, Mr. Corr aided an investigation of alleged police payoffs at a time when the department appeared to tolerate vice and illegal gambling. In 1969, he led an internal revolt that led to the ouster of Police Chief Frank Ramon.

In 1970, Mr. Corr testified during a trial that he saw a vice-squad sergeant pass mysterious envelopes to two assistant police chiefs, and that routine arrests had to be approved by a particular sergeant.

"I regarded him a hero and the epitome of what a good law-enforcement officer should be," said former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., who carried Mr. Corr's nomination as marshal and was Washington's attorney general during the police-department corruption scandal. "He was willing to go against accepted department polices, following the courage of his convictions to be on the right, but not necessarily popular side."

But those on the police force who rejected reform considered Mr. Corr a snitch. A conflict with his chief led to his leaving the department in 1971.

Mr. Corr had talked to a King County grand jury without first alerting Chief George Tielsch, who demoted him from assistant chief to captain. With 24 years on the force, Mr. Corr resigned rather than accept the demotion.

In what Mr. Corr's admirers considered a blatant case of retaliation, Seattle police charged him with embezzling $76 from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. A grand jury branded the complaint "frivolous and malicious" in tossing it aside.

"He made some enemies, he had death threats and our home phone line was tapped," said one of his five sons, Casey Corr, a City Council candidate, one-time Seattle Times editorial writer and former aide to Mayor Greg Nickels. "There were those who wanted to punish him but they never succeeded. His story is a lesson to those who think Seattle is just a nice town where hardball politics is never played."

After leaving the Police Department, Mr. Corr directed the community-services department at Seattle University, a police-science degree program, and later served as a member of the state Board of Prison Terms and Paroles.

After being appointed U.S. marshal, Mr. Corr faced yet another challenge to his integrity. Based on a tip from a convicted pimp, a federal grand jury investigated him for allegedly accepting a bribe to arrange for the early release of an extortionist and ex-police officer. When the Department of Justice dropped the investigation after a year, Mr. Corr demanded a formal apology to clear his name.

"When you are a leader at the focal point of change, the best way to avoid controversy is to do nothing," Skagen said. "That wasn't Gene Corr. There's no two ways about it, he was a hard taskmaster who could often be very direct and brusque. He may have rankled a lot of people. But when you step back, you realize that he really had the public interest in mind in everything he did."

To his family and to the Northeast Seattle neighbor kids who went to his door often and called him "Pop Pop," Mr. Corr was a gentle soul, witty and compassionate. He liked to take seemingly everything out of the refrigerator, heat it up in a big pot and call it soup. He made shake-shingle doll houses and miniature furniture for his granddaughters. During his retirement, he enjoyed shopping for bargains and sharing that bonanza with his family.

The father of five sons and grandfather of 13, Mr. Corr grew up in Philadelphia as the child of Irish immigrants. At age 7, he sold vegetables and fruits on the streets to help earn money for his family.

While stationed at the Puget Sound Naval Air Station at Sand Point during World War II, Mr. Corr met Kathleen Forhan, also a child of Irish immigrants. The couple married six months after they met and remained in Seattle, settling near Magnuson Park. Mrs. Corr died in 1995.

Mr. Corr, who retired as marshal in 1988, made his final arrest two years ago at age 80, detaining and interrogating a prowler at his home.

"I was standing at my dad's side and it was clear that he had no concern about his ability to control this guy," Casey Corr said.

Mr. Corr was a Seattle University regent, Community College District IV trustee, recipient of Seattle s Public Service Award in 1987 and grand marshal of the 1987 St. Patrick's Day Parade in Seattle.

He was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer on Christmas Eve and declined to continue with difficult treatments that might have extended his life, explaining to his family in a voice turned raspy by his illness: "I've loved and I've been loved. What more do you need?"

Mr. Corr is survived by his sister, Eileen Williams of Kensington, Md.; brothers James and Joseph, both of the Philadelphia area; sons, Kelly, Kerry, Casey, Patrick and Chris, all of Seattle; and 13 grandchildren.

A celebration of Mr. Corr's life will be held from 4 to 7 p.m. Sunday at the Broadmoor Golf Club, 2340 Broadmoor Drive E.. Memorials may be made to the Kathleen Corr Library Fund at Assumption-St. Bridget School, 6220 32nd Ave. N.E., Seattle, WA 98115.

Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293 or seskenazi@seattletimes.com