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Sunday, March 1, 2015

Breaking into vault of history
Tim Egan's 'Breaking Blue' unveils mystery, history of 1930s-era Spokane

At a glance
Breaking Blue
by Tim Egan

Sasquatch Books
272 pages, $14.95

On the morning of Aug. 21, 1989, Tony Bamonte reached down into the swirling waters of the Spokane River and pulled out an old, rusty pistol. And with that simple act, Bamonte — one-time sheriff of Pend Oreille County —put what he claimed was the final piece in the puzzle that was a 54-year-old murder.

The story of Bamonte’s discovery, and everything that led up to it, is what Seattle journalist and author Tim Egan tells in his 1992 non-fiction book "Breaking Blue." Far more than the mere story of a murder investigation, albeit one that’s a half-century old, Egan’s book is a look at Spokane history without the gauze of public-relations niceties.

"Set in a grand breach sliced through the basalt layers of the upper Columbia Plateau, Spokane was a town of cumbrous secrets," Egan wrote, "where the jazz artist Billy Tipton lived most of her adult life disguised as a man, and the worst rapist in the city’s history turned out to be the son of a leading citizen, the managing editor of the afternoon newspaper."

One of those secrets involved the shooting death of Newport night marshall George Coniff one Saturday night in 1935. Confronting a number of men outside the town’s creamery, Coniff was mortally wounded by gunfire that Egan — and Bamonte before him — believe came from the pistol of Spokane police detective Clyde Ralstin.

Bamonte had stumbled on to the Coniff murder while doing research for a thesis that he was writing to earn a master’s degree from Gonzaga University. He later (with the help of a former sheriff’s dispatcher named Betty Jackson) expanded the thesis into a book titled "Sheriff’s: 1911-1989, A History of Murders in the Wilderness of Washington’s Last County (Arthur H. Clarke, 251 pages, $35).

But Bamonte’s book is to Egan's what cheese and eggs are to a soufflé. Bamonte recites the facts, but Egan blends those facts with the region's landscape, its people and a picture of a particular place in time to create an overall work of art.

He describes a Spokane that developed as a "well-groomed town on a tight leash" ruled by a conservative enclave whose power was enforced by blue-clad officers of the Spokane Police Department. He describes life in the West of the mid-1930s as something so bad as to be almost biblical.

"In 1935," he wrote, "something happened to parts of the American West and midsection that only God in the foulest of Old Testament moods was supposed to be capable of causing: the land died."

And he describes the people who populated that world, especially cops such as Ralstin, as hard to the extreme.

"At just over six foot three inches tall — with a 54-inch chest — Ralstin towered over all but one man at the Stone Fortress," Egan wrote. "Several nights a week, he took on all contenders inside the Stone Fortress. Nobody ever pinned him. But as strong as Ralstin was physically, his real power came from psychological intimidation."

Ultimately, besides telling Bamonte’s story — not only the steps of his investigation but the tribulations of his life, which included loss of job and divorce — Egan gives a good explanation of just how hard it was for some the common man to live in the self-decribed "Queen City of the Richest Empire in the Western Hemisphere." He makes it clear how it could come to be that one man would shoot another over butter. Above all, he weaves a portrait of Spokane as a place ruled by tough men in blue whose greatest loyalty was to each other.

That loyalty would last a long time. Until a stubborn ex-sheriff reached into the Spokane river one day and pulled out the bit of rusty iron that, finally, cracked the policeman’s most sacred code.

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