Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Hatchet Job Part One

Akin’s Murder Was Never Solved

The last year of Mayor Baker's reign became chaotic as rival factions began to vie for power.  By the time Mayor Carson took office in 1933 there were open power struggles in both the Portland Police Bureau and in Organized Crime. Photographer unknown.  Portland City Archive.
On November 20, 1933 W. Frank Akin, special investigator for Governor Julius Meier appointed to expose corruption in Portland’s Port Commission, was shot to death in his apartment in southwest Portland. His murder occurred a day before he was supposed to present his report on the Port Commission to the State Legislature. This is probably the most famous case of murder in Portland’s history. But the story somehow has been lost in the retelling.

Jewel Lansing, in her otherwise brilliant Portland: People, Power and Politics 1851-2001 gives the story one short inset, ending with this claim: Akin’s murder was never solved. It’s probably not fair to blame Jewel too much, because she relied very heavily on the work of Portland’s “official” historian E. Kimbark MacColl.

MacColl, in Growth of a City goes into great detail on the Port scandal and the politics that lay behind the murder, but gives Akin’s death itself only a passing wink:

“The timing and mysteriousness of the murder, which was never solved, generated numerous conspiracy theories to which the local press gave maximum coverage…. In February, 1936, two unknown and unlikely characters were indicted by the grand jury, but they escaped conviction. The evidence was strictly circumstantial.”
Leo Hall was executed for six murders he committed at Erland's Point on the Olympic Peninsula.  He was the also the hired gunman who shot Frank Akin.  Photographer unknown. Washington State Archive.
Investigation of the local press of that time shows that MacColl was not exactly right. Although the crime was sensational and generated a lot of interest the press coverage was, for the most part, straight forward. Rumors were reported, especially about Akin’s alleged philandering, but very little in the way of conspiracy theory can be found, except possible on the part of Kimbark MacColl.

The two “unlikely characters” that were charged with murder in Akin’s death turn out to be Leo Hall and Jack Bernard Justice. Hall was later hung by the state of Washington for another crime. Justice was convicted of hiring Hall to murder Akin for the benefit of “parties unknown.” Justice would serve nearly 9 years of a life sentence for 1st degree murder.
The Willamette River has always been a working river.  Frank Akin had just finished investigating illegal activity at the Port of Portland and was just about to look into the corrupt Portland Water Bureau when he was killed.
In one sense this crime hasn’t been solved, we still don’t know who Justice was working for, but we do know who pulled the trigger and why. Kimbark MacColl says that Governor Meier had ordered Akin to do a “hatchet job” on the Port Commission. I believe him, but I want to see if we can repair this “hatchet job” on history.

I have a pile of documents still to work through, but over the next few days I will share what I find with you. Together maybe we can finish putting the pieces of this puzzle together. Maybe we can start to make a guess about who was really responsible for this death.
Hatchet Job part two: The Port Investigation

More details will be revealed in my upcoming book with Theresa Griffin Kennedy
Murder and Scandal in Prohibition Portland: Vice, Sex and Misdeeds during Mayor Baker's Reign.
Coming in February 2016 from The History Press.

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