On the evening of Jan. 14, 1974, Snohomish County Sheriff Don Jennings, his wife, Jean, and his mother-in-law pulled their motor home off a seldom-traveled road on the western slopes of the Sierra Madre mountains, about 10 miles outside the small central Mexican town of Santa Lucia.
The family was in the midst of a six-week vacation they’d planned for a year and expected to be back in Everett by the end of the month. They changed into their nightclothes and appeared to settle in for an overnight stay.
By morning they were dead.
Initially, authorities suspected robbery. All three had been shot. Three similar incidents had occurred in the previous three years in the same area of northern Sinaloa state, a region then rife with heroin and marijuana trafficking. Authorities speculated the family had been ambushed by bandits or possibly narcotics traffickers.
But the killers left behind $1,000 in travelers checks, credit cards and about $40 worth of pesos. And among the often-conflicting statements released by Mexican authorities, one reported the victims looked as if they’d been “tormented” before they were killed and that revenge may have been a motive.
Within hours rumors surfaced back home that Jennings might have been killed as part of conspiracy linked to his work in Snohomish County. At the time, the sheriff’s office had come under scrutiny for alleged abuse of prisoners in the county jail and items missing from the property room, and also was involved in an investigation of misconduct in another police department.
The acting sheriff dispatched two deputies and an interpreter south to help Mexican authorities with what seemed to be a chaotic investigation and return the slain family’s vehicle to Snohomish County. The Herald sent reporter Jim Haley.
When he retired from the newspaper in 2008, Haley cited that trip as among the more memorable of his 42-year journalism career.
“During the visit, we were accompanied by a federal Mexican police officer who walked around with a cocked .45 caliber pistol in his waistband and avoided paying for meals at restaurants by flashing his gun,” Haley wrote.
More than 500 people, many of them law enforcement officers, attended the Jan. 24, 1974, memorial service held for the three victims at First Baptist Church in Everett. Jennings, a Missoula, Montana native, had graduated from Gonzaga Law School in 1937 and practiced as an attorney, justice of the peace and police court judge until 1961, when he was appointed sheriff.
He was elected three times and had a year to go in his final term at the time of his death, the Herald reported. The couple had no children.
The killings remain unsolved.