Prohibition liquor raid near Albany went horribly wrong
When the sheriff arrived to enforce the law, he brought with him a pro-temperance preacher from one of the local churches — whose presence seems to have sparked a murderous response from the man he'd come to arrest.
By Finn J.D. John — November 27, 2016
On a broad flat stretch of the Willamette Valley floor, just across the freeway from the town of Shedd, lies a little cluster of buildings and a Mennonite church — all that remains of the little town of Plainview, Oregon.
This tiny, bucolic hamlet was, 95 years ago, the scene of a pair of murders that are still talked about in west Linn County today, the result of a Prohibition liquor raid gone horribly wrong. They’ve become known as the Plainview Killings.
The full story of the Plainview Killings can be found in Cory Frye’s book, Murder in Linn County, Oregon (History Press, 2016). But here are the basic bones of the story:
It all started out as a minor liquor raid on a rural farm, very similar to a thousand other Prohibition-enforcement operations in rural Oregon in the 1920s. What made this one different, other than the final outcome, was the fact that the preacher from the local Christian Church came along.
No one really knows any more why Sheriff Charles Kendall brought a temperance preacher with him that day. But it’s possible, maybe even likely, that doing so cost him his life, as well as the minister’s.
The farmer’s name was Dave West, and he was one of those prickly, individualistic mountain-man types, originally from rural Indiana. West had lived on a 40-acre farm near the tiny hamlet of Plainview for 11 years. He was in his late 60s, but still just as prickly as ever — and just as good a shot, too: his skills as a sharpshooter were locally famous.
Until that day in 1922, West’s nearest brush with the local criminal-justice system had been a prosecution for poaching. In general, he minded his own business and expected others to mind theirs, occasionally enforcing this preference with a pair of callused, farm-hardened fists.
But part of the business Dave West minded had always been a small still, located in the woodshed. There he produced small quantities of high-test grain alcohol, which he used for drinking and for making a home-remedy liniment for rheumatism. Of course, after “bone-dry” Prohibition passed in Oregon in 1915, he’d only admit to using his moonshine for the liniment; but nobody was really fooled.
Still, even after it was patently illegal, Dave West continued to run his still, more or less openly. His position was that since he was just making enough for his own personal use, and it never left his property, it was none of anybody’s business what he did in his own barn.
And Sheriff Kendall seemed to have agreed with that sentiment at first. Certainly he must have known about the little still for months, maybe even years, before he ever did anything about it.
But on the afternoon of June 21, 1922, Kendall was on his way to the West farm to, finally, enforce the law. And he’d brought the pastor of the First Christian Church, Rev. Roy Healy.
Why he did that is still a little controversial today. The Albany Democrat-Herald later said Healy was doing research for a book he was writing on liquor-law enforcement. Another theory was that the sheriff had only launched the raid, with some reluctance, in response to a complaint lodged by the Reverend, and that the Reverend had then insisted on accompanying him to make sure it got done and that Sheriff Kendall wasn’t tempted to look the other way, or pretend West wasn’t home, or let him off with a stern warning rather than making an example of him for the righteous.
Either way, it seems pretty clear that Dave West took it badly. He seems to have assumed that Healy was there to gloat over his downfall. And for a man of West’s temperament, that sort of thing was simply not to be borne.
According to the recollections of West’s wife, Ellen, Kendall and Healy arrived at about 3 p.m. West was outside working, and his nephew’s family was also there to help with haying season.
Sheriff Kendall asked Ellen West if there might be any alcohol on the premises, and she went and fetched a bottle of the family-recipe rheumatism liniment. No no, he replied; he was looking for drinking-liquor.
At that point, Dave West entered the house, and the conversation started to become heated. West, thinking Kendall and Healy were interrogating his wife, started out upset and only got more so. Accounts of the conversation that followed vary, with some sources saying the sheriff delivered a stern lecture and others claiming he apologetically told West he’d have to be booked on charges in Albany and offered to bring him back home afterward. Then the sheriff and the minister stepped outside and made their way to the woodshed, to dismantle the still.
They left behind an increasingly agitated Dave West. West grew angrier and angrier until, with a shout of, “I can’t stand it!,” he grabbed his Remington .32 rifle and, over Ellen’s objections, stormed out of the house.
Outside, he saw the two men emerging from the shed. Kendall was carrying two bottles of moonshine, which he set down by the gate. West shouldered his rifle — and shot him through the heart.
The Reverend Healy ran for the road, screaming for someone to call the police. From his place of concealment, West watched him and, when the coast was clear, shot him too.
After that, West sent for his nephew, who was away at a neighbor’s house; when he arrived, he was sent forth to bring the coroner and tell what had happened. After that, the Wests tried to have a normal evening, knowing very well that it would be their last. And finally, around 6 p.m., Ellen West left the house to stay with her son — and Dave West took up his rifle and went back to the barn one last time.
Meanwhile, back in Albany a great excitement was brewing. The district attorney was deputizing a posse of eager local residents to go out and bring West in. Someone had slipped the word to the press, and reporters had motored in from Portland, Eugene and everywhere in between. By 10:30 p.m., a large group of armed men was cautiously closing in around the property.
The house was soon searched, and proved empty and quiet as a tomb; but nobody seems to have expected West to make his final stand there. The barn, near the still: that’s where they would find him.
Cautiously they approached. Finally one of them, a 19-year-old named Alton Williams, slipped up to the door and entered. Walking cautiously through the place, rifle up and ready, he suddenly tripped over something on the floor and went sprawling — and saw that what he’d tripped over had been a corpse, still clutching the rifle that had killed him — the third and final victim, if that’s the right word, of the day’s violence.
It was Dave West.
(Sources: Frye, Cory. Murder in Linn County, Oregon: The True Story of the Legendary Plainview Killings. Charleston: History Press, 2016)