The secret of the Halloween murder

EVERETT — Eleanor Buehrig Vogel lost her father to a bandit’s bullet on a rainy Halloween night in 1934.

Just eight weeks old, the only child was being tended to by her mother in an upstairs apartment. Downstairs, two young robbers with criminal records walked into her family’s bakery at 2101 Colby Ave.

A .32-caliber semiautomatic pistol barked twice.

The first shot went into the floor; the second pierced William Buehrig’s heart before passing through his shoulder and lodging in a carton of waxed paper.

Buehrig died within minutes.

His wife, Ellen, descended the stairs in time to peer a final time into his eyes. He tried to tell her something before he faded away.

Powder burns on his shirt and right hand offered evidence that the hard-working German immigrant wrestled with the gunman. The cash register was knocked to the floor, and one of the men lost his checkered cap while fleeing the shop.

Halloween proved to be an ally in their escape.

A baker working in the back of the shop heard the robbers demands for money, but he thought it was Halloween revelers.

James Bushfield, a neighbor guarding his shrubs from pranksters, watched two young men dash by. He figured the ruckus from the bakery moments before was just Halloween high jinks, maybe kids knocking over bread pans.

The case baffled police. They arrested and released six people, all with airtight alibis.

Lawmen exhausted their scant leads. The case went ice cold.

Within months, Buehrig’s widow returned to Germany. Over the next 75 years, their daughter, Eleanor, — today a Michigan grandmother — often wondered who killed her father in Everett.

Last fall, with help from historians at the Everett Public Library, she finally learned the killer’s identity.

Henry Young was a bank robber, burglar, kidnapper and killer whose intelligence and cunning frightened prosecutors and exasperated prison officials. A prison report labelled Young “one of the most cold-blooded prisoners at Alcatraz.”

Young had a flair for sensational trials. He twice faced the death penalty and lived to tell about it. He eluded the gas chamber in California and the gallows in Washington state.

Young’s life at Alcatraz reached the big screen in the 1990s. The movie smoothed his savage edges to create a sympathetic character, part Quasimodo, part Count of Monte Cristo, and a total victim.

No mention was made of the German baker murdered in a Pacific Northwest mill town during the Great Depression.

* * *

As a National Park Service ranger, John Nevins walks the Alcatraz Island beat.

The history buff leads dozens of tours each year.

He tells stories about some of the infamous inmates who served time on The Rock, a federal prison in San Francisco Bay from 1934 to 1963. The guest register included the likes of Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly.

Today, many tourists arrive at Alcatraz with romanticized perceptions of Henry Young. The 1995 movie “Murder In The First” starring Kevin Bacon turned Young into a martyr for mistreated prisoners.

The Hollywood drama also took enormous literary license. Nevins tries to set the record straight.

Young, for instance, was not the petty thief who stole $5 from a grocery store to feed himself and his orphan sister as depicted in the movie. In the real world, Young and his cronies robbed a bank in Lind, Wash., of $406. That was 1934 and less than a month after he had been released from another prison hitch. They were caught when their stolen car got a flat.

Before that, Young did time in Montana for robbing a drifter. He and a partner bound, gagged and put a bag over the man’s head then dumped him in a boxcar, hoping he’d freeze to death. They stole his pocketknife, flashlight, razor and blanket.

The movie’s portrayal of Young in solitary confinement in a dark dungeon for three years also is untrue. So too is a scene of an associate warden crippling Young after an escape attempt. Nor did Young die at Alcatraz in the 1940s. Indeed, it’s possible, at 99, that he is alive today.

Alcatraz was home to murderers, bank robbers and other hard-boiled criminals. It housed violent inmates, escape risks and discipline problems. Young was deemed to be all three. He racked up violations, including his role in a 1937 work strike in which he dumped 400 pounds of vegetables on a kitchen floor. He hooked up with a band bent on escape.

“Murder in the First”

Actor Kevin Bacon has had many notable roles, including playing Henry Young in the 1995 film “Murder in the First.” Although the movie is said to be based on a true story, it is a work of fiction. Here are the facts.

The film The reality

In the movie, Kevin Bacon’s character was locked in a dungeon for three years in solitary confinement.

Henry Young really was imprisoned in Alcatraz. It was a tough prison in the 1940s, but Young wasn’t in solitary for years.

Bacon’s Henry Young was imprisoned for stealing $5 to feed his sister.

The real Henry Young was in Alcatraz for bank robbery. By age 22, the sometimes carnival worker already had done time in Washington state and Montana prisons for multiple felonies.

“Murder in the First” suggests that Young died in his Alcatraz cell.

Young’s story actually played out for decades in Washington, where he was sent to serve a life sentence after admitting a 1934 murder in Everett.

Bacon’s character in the film was disfigured and crippled.

Prison records show that Young was in excellent physical and mental condition when he was paroled in 1972. The slender 62-year-old left prison and disappeared. The state in 1999 legally declared him dead.

See the Trailer for “Murder in the First” or read more about it here.

Over 13 months, Young served as a lookout while inmates William Martin, Arthur “Doc” Barker and Rufus McCain cut through the prison’s iron bars.

They made their move on a foggy January night in 1939. They paddled about 30 yards into the bay before their rickety driftwood raft started to break apart.

Barker was shot and killed. Young and others landed in solitary.

After the failed escape, Young and McCain began a deadly feud. That August, Young tried to stab his former friend. Four months later, he succeeded. Young, then 29, was charged with first-degree murder.

He asked the judge for two young attorneys. Lawyers Sol A. Abrams and James MacInnis put Alcatraz on trial, arguing that prisoners were so mistreated they couldn’t be responsible for their actions.

A parade of criminals serving long sentences took their shots at The Rock.

Inmate James Groves testified that he saw guards push Young down a flight of stairs and beat him with clubs.

Defense attorneys claimed Young had been in isolation for three years and couldn’t be guilty of murder because he was “psychologically unconscious” when he stabbed McCain.

The jury bought it. Young was convicted of the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter, avoiding a possible death sentence.

The jury was so swayed, its foreman sent a telegram to the director of prisons condemning the “unbelievably brutal and inhumane” treatment of inmates. The panel asked that “a proper and speedy investigation of Alcatraz be made so that justice and humanity may be served.”

Nevins is amazed by the defense’s ability to turn the tables.

“The whole trial was really the tail wagging the dog,” he said.

The reality is Young spent 41 days in solitary confinement over several stretches during the months leading up to McCain’s stabbing. For its time, operations and penal philosophy at Alcatraz were considered progressive, Nevins said.

The park ranger has amassed a mini-library of Henry Young’s records. He’s become fascinated by the myths.

His research leads him to believe Young was a master at manipulation. Even how he spelled his first name — sometimes ending in a y; sometimes in an i — seemed an exercise in artifice.

“You could say Henry Young was an odds-on candidate for being the worst problem child Alcatraz ever had,” he said.

* * *

Henry Young went on trial in 1944 for the murder in Everett. William Buehrig’s family may as well have been on another planet.

His widow returned to Germany in 1935. By the 1940s, World War II was raging in Europe.

She had no idea a suspect had come forward in her husband’s murder. There were plenty of other worries.

She remarried, but her new husband, a factory owner, was an outspoken critic of Adolf Hitler. He died of food poisoning in 1940, the year after Hitler invaded Poland. Once again, the family had to start over. Because she was born in Everett, Eleanor was an American citizen. Food was scarce in post-war Germany. Her heritage allowed Eleanor and her mother in 1947 to go live with relatives in Michigan. She grew up hearing stories about her dad.

William Buehrig had been a decorated German submarine officer in World War I. He once saved his crew after their vessel became stuck on the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea.

After the war, Buehrig became a banker. In the 1920s, he struck up a friendship with an American while on a train in Germany. The visitor offered to sponsor him if he ever wanted to immigrate.

Buehrig took him up on the offer, becoming an apprentice at a bakery in Kentucky. His love of the water and mountains attracted him to Everett where he opened his own bakery. He became a part of the local German community and enjoyed dancing polkas and waltzes with his wife.

A few years ago, Eleanor Vogel returned to Everett where her life began. She visited 2101 Colby Ave. and studied the outside of the old bakery, now a florist shop.

Vogel later began to gather information about her family history. She e-mailed the Everett Public Library asking for help finding a newspaper clipping about her father’s murder

Melinda Van Wingen, one of two librarians who specialize in regional history, found a few yellowed articles in a manila “Crime and Criminals” file folder.

“This is so sad,” she told her colleague David Dilgard.

Vogel had no idea the case had been solved. Dilgard, however, remembered it. Van Wingen tracked down newspaper clippings from the trial. One had a photograph of Young.

“I finally saw that face,” Vogel said. “I thought my dad must have looked into that face. It wasn’t very pleasant.”

“I wanted to know more,” she added. “I wanted to know what made him like that and his reason for going into that shop. I don’t think they had a great deal of money.”

Vogel was right. Young killed her father for $10.

* * *

The secret behind Everett’s Halloween murder lasted nine years.

At Alcatraz, Young was reading the Bible and books on philosophy and psychology. He also was corresponding with his Aunt Amelia, a Catholic nun.

In 1943, he asked for permission to visit with a priest. He also wrote a letter to Snohomish County Prosecutor Leslie Cooper revealing his role in Buehrig’s murder.

Young was transported from Alcatraz to Snohomish County. He pleaded guilty in November of 1944. A month later, a jury was asked to decide whether Young should get life in prison or die by hanging.

The prosecutor lined up nearly two dozen witnesses. Young subpoenaed just three, including Cooper and George Nelson, then Everett’s police chief, who had taken his confession.

Young took the witness stand in his own behalf.

He said he confessed “to become a good Catholic.” He had to come clean on every crime he ever committed. On the stand, Young also admitted to an armed robbery in Tacoma, a car theft in Kennewick and two kidnappings near Spokane.

Then 32, Young told the jury of inner conflicts. The wiry man in a white shirt and black tie said he was studying religion, philosophy and psychology to discover the cause of his own incorrigibility.

He claimed to be a follower of German philosopher Friederich Nietzsche, who advocated “living dangerously.” He also claimed to have received “the gift” of religious conversion. Young dabbed tears with a handkerchief.

The prosecutor wasn’t buying it.

“Martyrs die for their faith; they don’t need to hide behind it,” Cooper responded. “They live humbly; they don’t live dangerously.”

The verdict was reached in about six hours, coming in at 8:50 p.m. on Dec. 20, 1944.

The form asked: “Shall the accused, Henry Young, suffer punishment by death.”

The jury’s answer: “No.”

In closing arguments, Cooper had urged hanging, arguing the prisoner would most likely attempt to escape from the state penitentiary. His prediction would prove prophetic.

“We are dealing with the most brilliant criminal ever to take the stand in this courtroom,” Cooper told the jury. “I am incapable of keeping up with him.”

In an interview after the verdict, a serene Young told a Herald reporter he would not try to escape because he was a “true-conversionist” studying for the priesthood so he could rehabilitate criminals.

* * *

Henry Young never did become a priest.

He was returned to Alcatraz. In 1954, 20 years after the murder, Young returned to Washington state to begin serving time for killing the Everett bakery shop owner.

Prison officials in Walla Walla had misgivings. Some wanted him sent to a state mental hospital for the criminally insane.

Walla Walla housed some of the state’s most hardened criminals under legendary Superintendent B.J. Rhay. During Young’s stay, four men — a laborer, a roofer, a soldier and a mechanic — were executed inside the walls of the maximum security prison.

For the most part, Young’s violations were minor. In 1963, for instance, he pleaded guilty to “possession of contraband” after being caught with a gallon can of cherries.

Young worked in the prison cannery, plumbing shop and on the construction crew. He seldom attended Mass.

He eventually was allowed to move into minimum security unit. Then, on June 8, 1967, Young was nowhere to be found. As Cooper predicted, he’d escaped.

Young earned a spot on the FBI’s “Most Wanted List.” The 58-year-old fugitive was described right down to his tattoos: a kewpie doll, a winged head with a dagger, and the words “Little Henry.”

The law caught up with him seven months later on a Kansas City sidewalk.

By the time he was paroled from Walla Walla in 1972, corrections officers had hope for the convict. By then, he’d spent two-thirds of his life behind bars. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was in his first term when the gates at Alcatraz first shut on Young. Richard Nixon was about to face the wrath of Watergate when Young left Walla Walla.

“He has done remarkably well at this institution,” the final report to the parole board said. “He has a good parole plan.”

Young was released March 17, 1972. Within two weeks his parole was revoked. He’d simply disappeared.

His fate is a mystery. The state Department of Corrections declared him dead in 1999.

Whether Young is dead or alive, Nevins, the Alcatraz park ranger, isn’t ready to let him off the hook.

He continues to ferret out details, refusing to let Henry Young escape his past.

“This guy doesn’t deserve to get away,” Nevins said. “That should not be his legacy.”

Eric Stevick:, 425-339-3446

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