No one knows better the danger that a tense circumstance can present than police in the United States. Constantly under pressure to control people who are guaranteed rights that provide them a wide latitude of no control, the scenarios that citizens can present range from the mundane to sheer terror, even for a trained professional. With that thought, we continue to reflect on moments in the history of law enforcement we wish we could get back, the sacrifices of those that have paid the ultimate price on our behalf.
A small jewel of a town in the middle of Palouse region, in southeast Washington State known as Washtucna can sneak up on you while driving along State Route 26. At its height, in the 1920’s, 359 people called Washtucna home. Some 17 miles southeast are the Palouse Falls, which were originally called the Gildersleeve Falls. They are one of the widest sets of waterfalls on the planet, and to see them in winter is one of the most breathtaking experiences available in the United States. Washtucna is the kind of town run could run away to, never to be found again. Sonny’s Tavern is still open on Main Street, but J&D Groceries is no longer. The further you venture into the east side of Washtucna, the quicker you’ll find some of the rounded steppes of the Palouse, that act as a barrier between town and country. Most will confuse it as a good place to be from, but they miss the finer details that make it a good place to be. That is why the story of our next officer is so tragic.
Town Marshal Walter Rupert Little
Marshal Little was born in farm country in Illinois, but as a toddler, his family moved to Washtucna, then the center of farm country in southeast Washington. At the time, it was a town where agriculture business was the buzz, and fed everything, from retail, to industry, to the food on everyone’s plate. We’re not sure when Marshal Little took up law enforcement, but we do know he was the one officer responsible for law and order in Washtucna. What we know of crime during the time of his service, was mostly men at bars drinking too much, making a mess of themselves, occasional fights, and mostly minor thefts. Washtucna wasn’t a town that had much trouble really. On Saturday, April 29th, 1961, Marshal Little was roaming around town, most likely not on official duty, but as Town Marshal, he technically always was on duty. He located a person he wasn’t familiar with in town, Edward J. Koehn. Koehn was a farmhand from South Dakota, who two weeks prior moved to a farm outside of town where he was working. Not much is known about Koehn prior to this day. He was inside the city limits of Washtucna, and was shooting a rifle for target practice. Marshal Little abruptly halted Koehn, and told him to stop shooting inside city limits, directing him back out to farmland, a more appropriate place for shooting guns in general. What’s important to note here is that Marshall Little didn’t detain or make an arrest. He didn’t issue a citation, or summons to court. He didn’t confiscate any property. He gave a verbal warning, possibly a stern one, considering the infraction at the time was an arrestable offense, and remains such in Washington State.
Marshal Little carried on his day, arriving at Hollenbeck Grocery to pick up some items for his home. As he brought his items to the counter, Koehn had stalked Marshal Little back from the original point of contact. He sat in his car, and took aim with his rifle from the driver’s seat. Marshal Little was carrying on a conversation with the store’s owner, when Koehn fired a round from his 30-06 rifle through the store’s glass door, striking Marshal Little in the neck. Koehn took off. People in town followed behind him, as he headed south further in the Palouse, apparently heading back towards the farm he worked. Meanwhile other townspeople rallied Sheriff Deputies, who in turn contacted the local area State Trooper, and they took directions from the people who followed Koehn into the isolated area he had driven into. The deputies and trooper drove into the area, and tried a road block to pin Koehn in, but he drove around them. Just as he got to the other side of the deputy’s vehicle, another deputy came into view, and managed to forced Koehn to the deputy’s passenger side, where Koehn struck the vehicle, which knocked his vehicle into a ditch line, and he was taken into custody for murder. Marshal Little died almost as soon as he fell to the ground at Hollenbeck’s Grocery.
Koehn was sentenced to life in prison, and eventually died there in 1975. He was buried in a community not far from the corrections facility he had been housed in. He did attempt to appeal his conviction, years after waiving his rights to an appeal, but after several attempts at doing so, the courts resoundingly said no and that was that.
There’s not much in the way of records that speak to the whereabouts of Marshal Little’s survivors, his wife and two daughters. And it appears that the Washtucna Town Marshal’s Office was shuttered in the wake of Marshal Little’s untimely death, the community losing a well-respected business and lawman, as well as part of its identity all in one lone gunshot. Marshal Little’s death reminds us how much is lost with each officer fatality, and how fragile the line between right and wrong is, at the intersection of dignity and accountability.
In memory of Town Marshal Walter Rupert Little.