Community policing: Legends from Silverton law enforcement history

July 2019 Posted in Community

Vic Grossnickle

By Brenna Wiegand

The road to law and order in Silverton’s early years proved long and bumpy. Its first residents, in search of timber and water power, began a small settlement they called Silverton in 1854 which they incorporated in 1885.

By 1894, the population was nearly 900. The young town was a trading and banking center and one of the most progressive towns in Western Oregon. It was also a logging town, bringing in workers by the hundreds, many from the Midwest. Though lesser outfits came and went, records show that in the early 1900s the well-established Silverton Lumber and Silver Falls Timber companies employed more than 1,200 between local sawmills and the lumber camps scattered throughout the rich timberlands above Silverton.

Back in town, bar fights and other drunk and disorderly activities were commonplace. Finding someone to get things under control proved difficult.

When the town incorporated in 1885, S.D. Hanson was the lawman and city recorder until 1891 when he was arrested and charged with fighting.

The next marshal, G.A. Webb, just a year after taking office, was arrested along with his wife for assault and battery. Webb requested a change of venue and charges were ultimately dismissed “for lack of evidence.”

Enter Tilghman A. Hutton, appointed chief of police in 1893 just six months before his arrest for being “drunk on the streets of Silverton.” Saying this “conflicted with his duties as chief of police,” the city accepted his resignation and H.J. Rupert stepped in for seven months at which time Hutton was reinstated as chief, this time serving four years. Six years later, in 1904, he was chief again for one month.

Oregon State Representative and former Silverton Chief of Police Rick Lewis, who retired in 2012 after 14 years of service, began compiling the history of Silverton Police Department upon taking office in 1998. He often contributed tidbits to the city newsletter. One day some of Hutton’s descendants paid him a visit, saying “Yes, he became the town drunk, but you need to hear the rest of the story.”

“He was living upstairs in the house of two old spinster ladies and the only way he could get away from them was to go downtown and drink,” Lewis laughed.

The City of Silverton went through at least 13 police chiefs by its 25th birthday.

Those years would also see C.N. Matlock, chief from 1903-1904, arrested for “selling liquor on Sunday” and, in 1908, just months before becoming chief, R.S. Pettit was charged with “using profane language on his premises and in the streets of Silverton.” The office of mayor suffered similar growing pains.

By the early 1930s, as the timber industry was beginning to wane due to depleted forests, Silverton had its first murder in 40 years, that of Night Marshal Jim Iverson. The event rocked the region and was featured in lengthy articles in The Master Detective and Dynamic Detective, popular magazines at the time.

It happened on May 2, 1931 around 2:30 a.m. when Iverson happened upon three men preparing to rob the pool hall. One of the men shot Iverson through the head, the bullet proceeding to smash the pool hall’s plate glass window. Iverson’s hand was in his pocket, reaching for his gun, when he was found.

A stolen getaway car was found in The Dalles but numerous interviews of locals and getting the word out yielded nothing. Silverton Mayor Lestor Eastman asked the newly formed Oregon State Police to take up the case, which became OSP’s first murder investigation.

A lead came when one of the officers grew a three weeks’ beard and “…mingled with the tougher element of the hill country,” becoming “friendly with most of the moonshiners.” That information took them on a convoluted trail to 23-year-old Joseph Robert Ripley, a.k.a. “Old Believe It or Not,” who was hiding out at the Washington State Reformatory.

After two days and two nights of interrogation Ripley finally gave a full confession implicating Dupree Poe and Frank Manning. While the first two received life sentences, Manning turned state’s witness and received ten years.

The next fatality came June 8, 1952, when Brutus Ashcroft shot officer Emery J. Jackson, who’d been summoned by Ashcroft’s daughter because he was making threats to kill family members and himself. As Jackson stepped up to the rear door of Northside Grocery, where Ashcroft and his wife lived and ran the store, Ashcroft shot him point blank. It appeared to be the culmination of a long-brewing family dispute.

City officer Eldon Mobley, who had accompanied Jackson on the call, was just steps behind and when
the shot rang out he ran around a parked car and
subdued Ashcroft.

Then Police Chief Vic Grossnickle said Jackson was acquainted with Ashcroft and had little or no reason to think he would use a gun. He also stated that Jackson was fearless in his duty and that he had often cautioned him to be more careful.

Grossnickle was a well-thought of police chief who spent 16 years in office. Among his many achievements was the 1944 formation of a youth bicycle patrol to cite violators who then appeared in a “youth court.”

“However, it didn’t last long as the young patrolmen soon lost their friends,” local historian Jack Hande quipped. However, Grossnickle is responsible for the widely popular Pal Boxing club and boxing commission where world champion middleweight Bobo Olson once trained. In 1961 Grossnickle organized the Silverton Flywheels club in hopes of putting a stop to kids’ illegal street racing. The club thrives to this day.

Grossnickle was between terms in 1955 when another tragic murder rocked the peaceful farming community. Local hop grower Ervin Kaser was shot down from another car shortly after pulling into his driveway. Though the car sped off, Marion County Sheriff Denver Young and Silverton Police Chief Rell R. Main soon apprehended suspect Cap Oveross and took him into custody. Oveross’ ex-wife Ethel Oveross and Kaser had supposedly been dating.

Oveross’ 30-30 rifle was found in the Pudding River by three boys – Larry Wacker and brothers Neil and Ralph Beutler – and its ownership traced to Ames Hardware where it had been sold to Oveross. However, his defense attorneys were skillful and the jury ruled Oveross innocent. No other arrests were ever made.

“It’s interesting to me to see how policing and the criminal justice system evolved,” Lewis said. “Technology has come so far. There was a time when it was just a red light downtown and no police radios in the car; when they did get them they weren’t portable. That was still true when I started police work in the early ‘70s.

“When I entered police work they’d just started the National Crime Information Center (NCIS),” Lewis said. “You didn’t have the opportunity to check anybody for warrants or stolen vehicle when you were making a traffic stop. Now the expectation is if you don’t get an answer within five or ten seconds, that’s too long.”

Though the phrase had yet to be coined, Lewis said Community Policing was the practice in the old days.

“That’s really what it was,” he said, “They built ties with the community and relied on citizens to provide information; that’s how they did their job. At one point – before police officers got in their cars – there was more connection with the community and with the business folks and citizens.”

Lewis’ successor Jeff Fossholm, a 32-year veteran of the Silverton force, is continuing Lewis’ work in this area and, like Lewis, hopes to “leave Silverton in better condition than when he got here.”

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