by: Cloyd Steiger Updated:
Editor’s note: Cloyd Steiger is the Chief Criminal Investigator at Washington State Attorney General's Office Homicide Investigation Tracking System. He worked as a Seattle police officer from 1979 to 2016, including 22 years in the homicide unit.
He investigated hundreds of murders, including some of the city’s highest profile cases. Steiger also is a consulting committee member of the American Investigative Society of Cold Cases, and started reviewing the Sally Kelley case in January 2002.
He wrote this article after spending years looking into the unsolved case.
On Oct. 6, 1935, the world was a rapidly changing place.
Six years after Black Monday, the United States was still struggling through the Great Depression.
A subtle breeze had yet to escalate into the winds of war that would soon sweep across the entire planet.
The headlines of the day reported on the impending war, questioning whether France and Britain would become involved in the Ethiopian conflict after it was invaded by Italy.
Domestically, people wondered if Bruno Hauptman’s appeal of his conviction in the Baby Lindbergh kidnapping and murder would be heard.
It would still be four years before fans watched as Dorothy skipped down the Yellow Brick Road, and Rhett shocked audiences by telling Scarlett he didn’t give a damn.
The Detroit Tigers beat the Chicago Cubs four to three that day before 48,000 howling fanes at Navin Field in Detroit, winning the World Series in six games.
Seattle was still a sleepy little lumber and fishing town, mostly known as the Gateway to Alaska.
It was a typical early fall day in Seattle. A foggy morning gave way to a partly sunny afternoon with temperatures in the low 60s.
The temperature would drop drastically in the hearts of many people, however, when later that same day, little Sally Kelley went missing.
Last seen in the hallway
Phyllis Kelley and her husband, Albert, a local pharmacist, lived in a modest two-story home in the Ravenna section of Seattle, just off Northeast 65th Street.
The Kelleys were the parents of two children: a 1-year-old son and 6-year-old Sally, Phyllis’ daughter from a previous marriage. Albert had adopted Sally after he and Phyllis wed.
The Kelleys had plans that evening to have dinner with a local radio announcer, Ken Stuart. They asked Phyllis’ mother, Mrs. Edith Coolidge, to watch Sally while they were out.
A playful little girl with an angelic face, blonde hair and big gray eyes, Sally Kelley was a second grader at the Ravenna School. She was confident and comfortable in the company of adults: a trait which may have ultimately led to her death.
Edith Coolidge was a widow. Her late husband, Alfred, had been the founder of Trader’s National Bank in Spokane. She lived in apartment 402 at the Ben Lamond Apartments, a comfortable brownstone at 1057 Bellevue Court, located in a cul-de-sac just south of Belmont Avenue. She looked forward to spending the evening with her precocious granddaughter.
Phyllis and Alfred dropped Sally off with Mrs. Coolidge at about 5 p.m. that afternoon.
Sally felt at home at the Ben Lamond Apartments. She was often seen roaming the halls of the building during her visits.
Leonard Fayer worked as a janitor at the building. He lived with his wife and children in an apartment on the first floor.
At about 6 p.m. on that Sunday evening, he performed his nightly chore of turning on the lights in the hallways of the building.
When he approached apartment 402, he saw a little girl playing in the hallway. She wore a pretty red plaid dress with a white belt. She held a yardstick in her hand, using it as though it were a cane. He asked if she was Mrs. Coolidge’s granddaughter, and she told him she was. He continued his duties, and she followed him.
When he was through, he went back to his first floor apartment and Sally went back upstairs to the fourth floor. When she arrived back at her grandmother's, she told her about meeting the janitor and going with him to turn on the lights.
Sally and Mrs. Coolidge sat down to dinner. They finished about 7 p.m.
As Mrs. Coolidge washed the dishes, Sally went back out into the hallway, yardstick still in hand. She played in the hall just outside the apartment. She reached through garbage chute, and tapped her grandmother with the yardstick, then darted back out the hole. She did this a few times before Mrs. Coolidge told her to stop; she’d get her dress all dirty.
When Mrs. Coolidge finished her chores, she called for Sally to come in and get ready for bed. There was no response. She opened the door and looked out. Sally was nowhere to be found.
It was 7:30 p.m.
'I'm sure she's somewhere nearby'
C.M. Cassidy was visiting the Ben Lamond that night. He was visiting a friend, Miss Arnold and her mother, who lived in apartment 404. He arrived at the building at about 7:10 p.m.
As he passed apartment 402, he saw a little girl playing in the hallway. He heard a woman’s voice from inside the apartment say, “Don’t come in that way again. You’ll get yourself all dirty.” He went into the apartment next door.
He was there about ten or fifteen minutes when he heard a woman screaming in the hallway.
He stepped out to see what the problem was. An older woman was in the hall. She was very upset.
“Sally’s gone!” she said.
“Calm down,” he told her. “I just saw her playing in the hall a few minutes ago. I’m sure she’s somewhere nearby.”
We went back into apartment 404 to get his girlfriend. They left to walk to a show at the Broadway Theater.
That woman is getting all upset about nothing, he thought to himself.
The first call came in to the Seattle Police Department at about 7:50 p.m. Officer Trapp answered the phone. Edith Coolidge reported that her 6-year-old granddaughter was missing.
Officer H.A. Westman and U.R. Mitchell were working Prowler Car Five. They were dispatched to the scene and began the search for Sally.
News quickly spread through the neighborhood about the missing little girl, and the officers were joined by volunteers eager to help find her.
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The helpful neighbor
Among the neighbors who helped was 15-year-old Richard Sawyer. He was the adopted son of Seattle Police Patrolman Tom Sawyer. The Sawyers lived one floor up from Edith Coolidge in the Ben Lamond.
Richard, a student at Broadway High School, told the officers that earlier in the evening, he had been at the Garfield Drug Company, located at 759 Bellevue Avenue North, and saw Sally there. Officers went to the store and spoke with the owner, Orland Wood.
Yes, he said. He did see a little girl who matched Sally’s description walk past the store earlier in the evening. She peered in the window of an adjoining grocery store, and then walked back toward the Ben Lamond.
Richard searched the area north of the apartment building, along Belmont Avenue where it intersects with Bellevue Avenue before continuing down the hill west to Lakeview Avenue. There are a set of eight garages on the north side of Belmont. He looked inside them, but found one door locked. He looked in a window, but couldn’t see anything.
Sergeant E.C. Griffin was just starting his shift when he got a call from the officers at the scene. The little girl hadn’t been found. He was alarmed. It was almost 11 p.m. Children who wandered off are usually found well before this. He responded to the scene, and ordered other cars there, including the “emergency car” staffed by Officer C.C. Delp and J.A. Topman.
When he arrived, he gathered everyone involved in the search to go over what had been done so far. He assigned teams to each perimeter of the scene, north, south, east and west, down in the wooded area where Interstate 5 runs today.
Officers Perry Hackler and T.E. Tinsley were on Belmont Avenue. They came across the garages Richard Sawyer searched earlier. Finding the second door down locked, they forced entry.
Inside they found what everyone feared, but hoped wouldn’t be: The body of poor Sally Kelley hung from the latch on the garage door by a handkerchief, still wearing the red plaid dress she’d been last seen in.
They notified the others of their grisly find. Homicide detectives were summoned to the scene.
Magnuson joins the search
When detectives arrived in the early morning hours of Oct. 7, other volunteers insisted to them that they had checked that garage at 9 p.m., and Sally’s body had not been there. The detectives surmised that the body had probably been placed there between 10 and 11 p.m., during a lull in the search, right under the noses of those searching.
Captain Ernie Yoris commanded the Homicide Unit. He would oversee every step of the investigation from that moment forward.
Yoris arrived at the scene at about midnight, accompanied by Detectives Webb and Berg, as well as Chief of Police W.B. Kirtley and King County Coroner Otto Mittlestedt. They were later joined by Deputy King County Prosecutors John Schermer and Ed Henry.
A canvass of the area was implemented immediately. While officers went door to door, the detectives carried out the grim task of photographing the remains of Sally and collecting what evidence they could find.
When Seattle residents woke to the horrible news of Sally Kelley’s murder that Monday morning, a shroud of fear swept over the city like a late-November storm rolling in over Puget Sound. Headlines blared across all the local papers.The Seattle Daily Times featured a photo of a smiling Sally Kelley asking its readers to call the city editor if they saw her last night.
A child killer was on the loose, and every parent’s worst nightmare had come true for the Kelley family. Parents kept a closer eye on their own children, what kind of a monster would do such a thing to this poor little girl.
The investigation, which had gone on all night, was running on all cylinders the next morning.
Among the visitors to the scene that morning were Seattle Mayor Charles L. Smith and the young elected King County Prosecutor, Warren G. Magnuson.
Magnuson, who would later become a United States Senator from Washington, and whose name still adorns a building in the U.W. campus and a large park in North Seattle, took an active role in the investigation, personally searching for evidence at the scene.
He found a piece of cotton stuck to a board on a picket fence between the Ben Lamond Apartments and the garage where Sally had been found.
Detectives made a startling discovery: a yardstick was found on the ground a few feet from the garage where the body had been found. Other detectives insisted they’d searched there earlier and the yardstick had not been there. Captain Yoris, in a statement to the media, questioned this claim. The yardstick had likely just been missed in the darkness, he said.
The detectives believed the killer was walking among them.
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Evidence in the autopsy
The autopsy on Kelley was performed that morning at the King County Morgue by Dr. Gale Wilson. Her clothing was removed; her dress, shoes and socks were perfectly clean.
She had been hung by a cheap men’s handkerchief, bearing no markings.
Dr. Wilson opined that she had already been dead when she was hanged on the latch of the garage door. She’d been sexually assaulted, and semen was recovered.
Today, that would be a huge find, and would almost have assured a successful conclusion to the case. In 1935 it wasn’t nearly so valuable. It was examined microscopically for evidence of venereal disease. None was found. That was the only evidentiary value it could have had then.
Dr. Wilson believed that Sally had been bathed and redressed after her murder.
Seattle Police Headquarters was a beehive of activity. Strategies were discussed to find the killer. All known “fiends” would be rounded up and questioned. Anyone known to “harass” women and children would also be queried. The killer had to be a pervert: some boogey man who lurks in the bushes, pouncing on helpless little children.
Today we know that people who commit crimes like this are often undistinguishable from the general population, and probably appear as normal as anyone else. In 1935 they knew no better. Who else would commit such a horrific crime?
An early person of interest in the case was a 65-year-old Russian monk who lived in an apartment near the Ben Lamond. Another Russian man, wishing to remain anonymous, came to the detectives. The monk, whose last name was Mefody, had attempted to attack a 15-year-old Russian girl outside her home. She escaped by running into her house, but left her 7-year-old sister outside. Mefody reportedly attacked the younger girl.
Detectives rushed to Mefody’s apartment, battered down his door, and took him into custody. During questioning, he said nothing. He was forced to walk the hallways of the Ben Lamond, and to the garage where the body was found. He still didn’t answer questions.
He didn’t speak English.
Detectives enlisted the help of a Russian interpreter. Mefody denied any knowledge of Sally Kelley. He was held in jail for several days before ultimately being released for a lack of evidence.
Others were also detained and questioned. One by one, they were also released.
'Do you think I could have done it?'
Mrs. C.O. Bell, who lived at 7331 Mary Avenue Northwest reported to officers at the Wallingford precinct that a man had knocked on her door at about 2 p.m. that afternoon. He asked if she had any work he might do. She said she didn’t, but suggested she visit her husband at his business on 15th Avenue Northwest. Perhaps he had work the man could do.
The man struck up a conversation with Mrs. Bell. The Sally Kelley case came up. He asked her a peculiar question: “Do you think I could have done it?” He asked what she thought the police would do to him if he had done it and they caught him. At about that moment, they heard sirens. He looked nervous, biting his fingernails. When a fire engine passed by, he seemed to calm down. He talked to her until after 3 p.m.
She described the man to the officers as white, about 17-years-old, wearing a dark blue herringbone suit and a light shirt, which was torn in the back. He carried a straw bag or valise.
The report intrigued the patrol officers who took it. They took it upon themselves to investigate further. They found out that Mrs. Hubbard, who lived at 8314 15th Avenue Northwest had allowed the same man to stay in her basement all night two weeks prior. She gave him the herringbone suit he wore when Mrs. Bell spoke to him.
He was peculiar, she told the officers, and she was glad when he finally left. She still had a tan coat and blue chambray shirt he’d been wearing when he arrived. He’d told her his name was Joe Stewart, and that he’d recently worked at a restaurant in Kirkland.
The case drug on without much progress. The Veterans of Foreign Wars raised $2500.00 to hire “the best criminologist” to help with the investigation. Retired detective Luke S. May got the job. That did nothing to advance the case.
Tracking Aberdeen Red
A lead that drew the rapt attention of investigators came from the San Francisco Police Department. An informant named Henry Hoekstra had contacted them to report the following:
Hoekstra had been crossing a street in San Francisco when he was nearly hit by a car. The car was a 1933 Chevrolet with Washington license plates. The driver, it turned out, had been an old acquaintance of his. He invited the ginger-haired man, who he knew as “Aberdeen Red,” to his home. Once there, they had several drinks.
Red asked to use the restroom, and took off his coat. He had a .38 revolver in a holster.
Hoekstra asked why he was carrying a gun. Red told him to get the evening paper.
When Hoekstra handed him the paper, Red showed him an article about the Sally Kelley murder.
Hoekstra told the officers that he met Red while working at the Wilson Lumber Company in Aberdeen, Washington.
Detectives sent bulletins up and down the west coast asking if anyone could identify Aberdeen Red.
They learned about a man who lived in Aberdeen and had worked at the Wilson Lumber Company saw mill. This man was named George Johnson. He’d been arrested in 1918 for Indecent Exposure, and again in 1925 for “bothering little girls” before another arrest in 1926 for indecent exposure. He’d twice been committed to Western State Hospital, a psychiatric facility. He was known both as Red and Aberdeen Red.
In the meantime, detectives received a telegram from the Tonapah, Nevada police. They’d interviewed a very nervous man they believed could be the mysterious Aberdeen Red. This copper-haired man named Bert King had no car, and reportedly traveled “hobo style”.
Seattle detectives sent photos of both Johnson and King to San Francisco police, asking them to show the phots to Hoekstra.
In a letter dated October 16th, 1935, San Francisco police reported that they’d showed both photos to Hoekstra. He told them that neither Johnson nor King was Aberdeen Red. The San Francisco detectives assured their brethren in Seattle that they would continue to investigate the lead there and would report any progress.
The case continued to slog on with no real progress.
In 1938, a little girl was murdered in Los Angeles, and a suspect had been arrested. Seattle detectives sent a letter to Los Angeles. Could this be the same man who killed Sally Kelley?
In a letter dated April 26th, 1938, the Los Angeles County Sheriff reported that they’d tracked the movements of their suspect, Charles McLachlan. There was no indication he’d ever been to Seattle.
It was another dead end in a case full of dead ends.
Changes in investigation techniques
Murder investigations in 1935 are very different from those investigated today.
The Sally Kelley case file is a jumble of individual statements and reports. There’s no dynamic chronological central report tracking the steps taken in the investigation. As a result, promising leads get lost in the jumble of paper, ultimately forgotten among hundreds of other, less promising leads, never to be followed up on completely.
Entries in the file continued into the 1940s, including several letters and other correspondence from citizens acting as amateur sleuths, suggesting investigative techniques. Several are from self-proclaimed psychics, detailing visions they purportedly had that would certainly lead to an arrest in the case.
Every lead received was immediately released to the local press, and immediately reported on. The relationship between the police and press was very close, not the arms-length relationship that exists today.
Releasing leads as they come in is counter-productive. The detectives are figuratively whispering into the ear of the killer, who certainly follows the case closely in the news. He knows exactly where the case is. It’s reassuring to the killer if the police are obviously on the wrong track. If he doesn’t know what’s going on, his tension rises, maybe to the point that he makes a mistake that ultimately leads to his identification.
High profile cases like this generate hundreds or thousands of tips. The odds are, some of them are correct and could lead to an arrest, but the vast majority - probably more that 95 percent of them - have nothing to do with the case. That’s as true today as in 1935. The challenge is separating the wheat from the chaff, and ferreting out the good tips. Releasing them immediately only increases the likelihood of more irrelevant tips coming in.
Where is the killer now?
More than 80 years later, the identity of the person who killed Sally Kelley on that October Sunday remains a mystery.
Was it one of the people who spent hours “searching” for her that night? It seems likely. Where is the killer now? Did he die along with four hundred thousand other Americans of the Greatest Generation fighting tyranny in Hitler’s Europe or Hirohito’s South Pacific? Or did he lead a normal life, the dastardly secret known only to him. Perhaps that secret is still locked away in an atrophied mind in some nursing home somewhere.
Was it one of the “fiends” the detectives were sure was responsible, even checking local mental hospitals to see if anyone had been furloughed for the evening?
Could it have been the enigmatic Aberdeen Red? It’s hard to judge the veracity of Henry Hoekstra in San Francisco. Did he make the whole thing up? What are the odds that on the day of the purported near collision with Red, presumably several days after Sally’s murder, there would be a story in the local San Francisco paper about the murder that occurred in Seattle, conveniently there for Red to point out to Hoekstra after he’d seen him carrying a gun?
Or was he truthful, but when shown a photo of George Johnson, who not only matches the physical description he gave for Red, had a sex offender history, actually worked at the lumber yard in Aberdeen that he said Red worked at, but also was known by the sobriquet Aberdeen Red, he just lost his nerve and declined to identify him? Perhaps he made the entire story of nearly being run over up, but knew of Johnson’s sordid history, and wanted the police to look at him, but got cold feet about possibly pointing the finger at an innocent man, so he didn’t identify Johnson from the photo.
It seems pretty clear: George Johnson is Aberdeen Red. San Francisco detectives spoke to a bartender whom Hoekstra told the Aberdeen Red story. The bartender strongly suggested he needed to call the police.
The detectives also checked all vehicles with Washington plates entering California. They found that Johnson had crossed into California in July of 1935, three months before the Kelley murder, driving a 1929 Chevrolet. He purchased a permit, so he needn’t stop at the state line after that time.
What about the mysterious wanderer Joe Stewart, whose odd statements and questions had raised the hackles of Mrs. Bell? Today, we would collect the clothing he left with Mr. Hubbard, and process those for a DNA profile, and then compare it to DNA developed from the semen collected from Sally’s body.
Unfortunately, those weren’t options in 1935.
Questions for the helpful neighbor
If I were the lead detective in this case, one person I’d zero in on was the uber-helpful Richard Sawyer.
He may have truly been the young man detectives at the time believed him to be: eager to help, and perhaps even a witness himself.
There are several things about him, however, that raise red flags for me. He became involved early, and took an active role in the search. He even reported that he’d seen Sally at a drug store down the street earlier.
There was about a 15-minute window during which Sally went missing. How likely is it that she left the building and walked down the street?
She’d been to the Ben Lamond many times before and felt comfortable walking its hallways, but had she ever left the building by herself before? How did Sawyer know the girl he reportedly saw was Sally? Had he seen her before? He said he checked the garages where her body was eventually found, but couldn’t get in the one she was in. Is that a coincidence?
Did any of the detectives ask these questions?
And it’s too late to ask: Sawyer died in 1995.
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Police receive letters from amateur sleuths
In 1935 the thought of a 15-year-old committing such a crime was unheard of. People believed the killer must be a fiend. Today we know that the raging hormones of some -- fortunately few -- teenagers lead them to commit exactly this type of crime.
Sawyer was adopted. How old was he when he was adopted? Was he an infant, or much older? Was he a victim of sexual abuse by his birth parents early in his life?
These are questions I would asked if I were investigating the case.
Police received a letter from a woman in Davenport, Washington in February, 1936, suggesting that they look at Sawyer. The letter referenced the murder of a child in Chicago in 1934 in which the killer had been a 14-year-old boy.
But Sawyer was never suggested by investigators as a suspect. He may just been trying to help as he said.
And there were other theories from amateur sleuths.
Several letters to police suggested they look more closely at the Ben Lamond janitor, with whom Sally accompanied on his task of turning on lights.
He was investigated very thoroughly. He’d returned to his apartment with his family before Sally went missing, and Sally told her grandmother about meeting him. I think he’s a very unlikely suspect.
If Dr. Wilson, who had performed the autopsy, was correct in his opinion that Sally had been bathed and re-dressed after her death, it meant that the killer lived nearby or at least had access to a bathroom or water nearby
Case haunts detectives for decades
There are cases detectives investigate that haunt them the rest of their careers. That is no doubt true for Ernie Yoris, and the other detectives who worked tirelessly in a futile attempt to solve this case and bring the killer to justice.
Had this case occurred today, with the evidence that was recovered, there is no doubt it would have been solved. But investigative training, techniques and especially forensic science that are routine today, were not available in 1935.
No doubt in 1935, as it is today, very few truly innocent people get murdered. People make themselves much more likely to be killed by choices they make, in their lifestyles, or through criminal behavior. Detectives work hard on all murders, regardless of the victim, but when the victim is truly innocent, especially a child, that effort increases tenfold.
Everyone involved in this case surely thought about it the rest of their lives, from the patrol officers who first responded, to the detectives, and prosecutors.
There is truly nothing worse that can happen to a parent or grandparent than to lose a child.
To lose a child without the answers of who and why magnify the grief.
Edith Coolidge lived the rest of her life bearing the undeserved guilt this incident caused. If only she hadn’t let Sally leave the apartment, or kept a better eye on her. Phyllis and Albert Kelley suffered, never knowing who stole the love of their lives from them. Theirs was the fate of the secondary victims of homicide: the loved ones left behind.
What of Sally Kelley? In a just world, she would likely be a grandmother, or even great grandmother, doting over the loved ones that because of the actions of one man on one day, were never born.
The Ben Lamond still looms today like a citadel over Interstate 5 in Seattle, its name boldly emblazoned on its western facade.
Some of its current residents walk the hallways blissfully unaware of the dirty little secrets its silent walls hold: the secrets of innocence lost on a tragic evening in October 1935.
In the records vault of Seattle Police Headquarters, a box gathers dust on a shelf. It’s a time capsule of sorts, containing reports and records of this investigation. It contains glossy black and white photos, handwritten notes on the letterhead of Warren Magnuson, and an old Seattle streetcar ticket offered to detectives as an alibi by someone questioned by them. Very few people know that box exists, or what it represents. The family of Sally Kelley know.
It represents the life of a beautiful child whose life was stolen from the world before it had barely begun.
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