By Adam Faber.
When Mary Robnett took office as Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney, she brought the historical photos of former prosecuting attorneys out of storage and put them back on the office’s entrance wall. That display sparked an interest in the history of those men, and the helpful staff of the Northwest Room at the downtown Tacoma Public Library provided us their biographical files.
While there are surely interesting stories behind each of the 25 former prosecuting attorneys, it would be hard to top that of William Askren, who was nearly taken out by a female assassin 100 years ago.
Billy the Bootblack
Before the incident that would be splashed across newspapers around the nation, Askren followed an unlikely path to prominence. According to a profile in the Oct. 1919 issue of Sunset magazine, he worked as a shoeshine in Oklahoma, as a bellhop after moving to Tacoma, and later as a jewelry store manager.
Askren did not graduate high school and never attended college, but after an older brother earned a law degree at UW, “Billy reasoned that if his brother could be a lawyer he could be one too, so he bought some law books and studied evenings.” He passed the bar in 1908 at age 23 and launched a legal career, the real motivation for which, Sunset reported, was “a desire to show his father that he could make just as good a lawyer as his brother, even if he didn’t go to the university.”
Askren started a private practice but served a stretch as a deputy prosecutor in 1913-14. In 1918, he was elected Prosecuting Attorney and took office at age 33.
Started with an “illegal operation” charge
The story of how a Tacoma stenographer nearly assassinated the elected county prosecutor starts with a criminal charge by Askren’s predecessor, Fred Remann, against Mrs. Julia B. Smith for what was described in the newspapers as “criminal malpractice” or “performing an illegal operation.” The charging document wasn’t so euphemistic – the former nurse was charged with performing an illegal abortion.
Remann dropped that 1918 charge for insufficient evidence, but Smith faced a new abortion charge in 1919 during Askren’s tenure. This time Smith was convicted, and was apparently none-too-pleased with the sentence: a 2-5 year term in the state prison at Walla Walla. Crucially, she was released on a $5,000 bond pending the start of her sentence.
Dressed to deceive
Smith asked for extensions of her prison report date, first for two weeks, then an additional week, which Askren granted. On the morning of Saturday, April 3, 1920 – two days before she was due to report to prison – she telephoned to ask for another three-day extension. “I asked for the time so that I might finish some sewing for my baby,” she told a reporter soon after her arrest. “When Mr. Askren granted me three days, I thanked him.”
But later that night, she drove to the prosecutor’s house at 2708 N. Tyler St. in Tacoma. Dressed in men’s clothing to confuse possible witnesses, Smith walked to the back door and knocked.
Askren, who had just returned from buying the early editions of the Sunday newspapers, answered the door himself. Smith said nothing but fired off two shots, with one connecting. The bullet pierced Askren’s left lung near the heart, his doctor would later report, and exited near his left shoulder blade.
Smith ran to the car – borrowed from her former employer, Tacoma attorney Rufus L. Sherrill – and fled. Believing himself to be dying, Askren dictated a statement to his wife Bessie describing the attack and identifying the shooter: Julia Smith.
On the lam, briefly
The manhunt was on, but it didn’t last long. Descriptions of Smith and the borrowed Paige car were dispatched to nearby police departments. Askren’s wife called on members of the American Legion and the Elks Club to join the search. Two hours after the attack, Smith was spotted driving the Paige through Puyallup and taken into custody.
Smith was in women’s attire at the time of her arrest. Police believed she stopped at the Puyallup River and dumped the men’s clothing, but dragnetting garnered neither a gun nor clothes. A wig was found in the car, and her purse contained bullets similar in caliber to the Askren shooting. Attorney Sherrill, also suspected of involvement, was tracked down at his office during the search for Smith and held on an “open charge,” but by Sunday night deputy prosecutors concluded he should be released.
The talk of the town
The incident was, of course, the biggest story going in Pierce County, and far-flung newspapers picked it up off the AP wire. Deputy prosecutor James W. Selden, who would soon succeed Askren as prosecuting attorney, led the investigation while the community closely followed news reports of Askren’s recovery at St. Joseph’s. One local editorial wished Askren not just a good recovery, but also a new job:
You are fighting Death now, Billie, and Tacoma’s hopes and prayers are with you. Tacoma wants grim justice meted out to your assailant, but would rather a thousand time [sic] the she coward who shot you down went free and unscathed than to have you lose this fight.
FIGHT IT OUT, BILLIE!
GET WELL, FOR TACOMA NEEDS YOU! Tacoma’s going to take you out of the prosecuting attorney’s office where you have served so well, and put you on the superior bench. It’s the least we can do.
The case was not handled like it might be today. Selden charged Julia Smith with first-degree assault after getting direct approvalfrom the victim, his hospitalized boss, and the trial was held in Pierce County – no change of venue. After deliberating 16 hours, the jury found her guilty and Smith was again sentenced to Walla Walla, this time for a 10-30 year stint.
The incident greatly added to Askren’s notoriety, and he used the publicity as a springboard to the Superior Court bench in the fall 1920 election. It also led to Sherrill’s disbarment. In 1921 the state Supreme Court disbarred him because, among other reasons, he “aided and abetted one Julia B. Smith in the practice of criminal abortion” and tried to persuade witnesses from her trial “to make false affidavits” he could use in a petition asking the governor to pardon Smith.
In 1924 Askren ran for state Supreme Court, recruited by state bar leaders who wanted to unseat an incumbent they considered too much of a leftist. He won a seat on the high court but served just under four years of a six-year term. Resigning in Dec. 1928, he explained that with both of his daughters at UW, “we feel that it will add to the happiness of the family if we all live in the same city.” One daughter, Marian, went on to graduate from UW Law and joined her father as a member of the bar in 1931.[i]
Askren returned to private practice, later joining what is now the Ryan Swanson firm in Seattle. He “received a divorce in 1939 when the court declared Bessie incurably insane” (which sounds like its own interesting story) and remarried the next year[ii]. He remained active in Republican politics, the Seattle Public Library board, the Elks, various commissions, and as an amateur magician. At age 79, Askren collapsed and died while golfing at the Seattle Golf & Country Club in Oct. 1964 – more than 44 years after his near-fatal encounter with Julia Smith.
Adam Faber is the communications manager at the Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.
[i] Charles H. Sheldon, The Washington High Bench: A Biographical History of the State Supreme Court, 1889-1991 (Washington State University Press, 1992), 78.
[ii] Sheldon, Washington High Bench, 78.