Luther Baker

It had the elements of a saga of the Old West.

A popular sheriff was gunned down in a shootout on the trail. An armed posse captured the suspects. A grizzled mountain man went silently to the gallows after a big breakfast of ham and eggs.

The murder of Clark County Sheriff Lester Wood on May 22, 1927, was so shocking to the community that The Columbian hit the streets with a special edition on Sunday night, something that had never been done before.

Wood, who had grown up in Vancouver and was highly respected, had joined deputies on that Sunday afternoon in a raid on a big moonshine operation in the Dole Valley area, about nine miles southeast of Yacolt. Carrying a double-barreled shotgun, Wood was the lead man as the group walked single-file along the narrow trail.

Suddenly, a figure popped out of the brush and shot the sheriff through the abdomen with a rifle. Wood, mortally wounded, managed to fire his shotgun before he died.

The rest of the raiding party retreated to regroup. When word spread through Vancouver of the slaying, a posse was hastily formed. Among the posse members were L.E. McCurdy, Jim Thompson, William Thompson, Ira Cresap, W.W. Laws and Claude Snider.

The posse hurried to the scene and surrounded a cabin, forcing the surrender of Luther Baker, 59, and several others, including a brother and nephew. Baker was described as “a grizzled mountaineer-moonshiner.”

The trial was held in Vancouver. Evidence against Baker included something brand new in criminal investigations, the use of an X-ray. When arrested, Baker had two puncture marks just below the knee on his left leg. The suspect said they were caused by a barbed wire fence, but the X-ray disclosed two shotgun pellets, supposedly from Wood’s gun, were buried in the leg.

The trial ended Aug. 5, 1927, and the jury took only four hours to bring back a verdict of guilty to first degree murder. “The man’s(Baker) lined, aged face went slack,” The Columbian reported. “His mouth drooped, a hint of utter weariness about it.”

Baker went to the gallows at Walla Walla at 4:30 a.m. on March 29, 1929. He remained tight-lipped about the actual crime but thanking his jailers for “their kindness.”

“Only a few yards from the gallows sat Ellis Baker, Luther’s brother, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment for the same crime,” according to newspaper accounts. “He was more shaken at the moment of execution than the man who climbed the 13 steps.”

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