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Wednesday, October 27, 2004 - Page updated at 12:48 A.M.
Kirkland man pieces together tale of 1926 killing
By Sherry Grindeland
The ghost of an unsolved slaying haunts Tom Hitzroth.
What began as a casual investigation has become a passion for the Kirkland man. Hitzroth, 53, has spent the past seven years researching the death of 14-year-old Letitia Whitehall.
Late Saturday afternoon on Oct. 30, 1926, Letitia left her Kirkland home and walked to the dentist's office. She never returned. Her body was found that Nov. 14 in the Sammamish River near what is now the Inglewood Golf Club in Kenmore. She had been raped and strangled.
The dentist, Chester Dobbs, was tried and found not guilty. No further investigation was done, and the case faded into oblivion.
Although Hitzroth grew up in the Houghton neighborhood of Kirkland and has been a longtime member of local historical groups, he had never heard of Letitia's slaying until a 1997 Seattle Times article retold the story. Since then he has worked hundreds of hours on the case.
"This turned into a puzzle that cried to be solved. And I love puzzles," he said.
Hitzroth will share the puzzle pieces he has uncovered tonight at a meeting of the Kirkland Heritage Society. He also plans to write a book.
A technical specialist with the state Department of Licensing, Hitzroth sometimes investigates fraud cases as part of his work. He's also built a reputation as a detail-oriented researcher in the local historical community, serving on the board of the former Marymoor Museum of Eastside History (now the Eastside Heritage Center) and hosting walking tours of the historic Marymoor Park grounds for many years. Currently, he's documenting a historic house in the Juanita area for the King County Historic Preservation Program.
"I've done a number of investigations, but the Whitehall case is the first one where I've kept a journal," he said.
His journal has spilled over into three slim volumes. He has learned, for instance, what time the power company turned on the Kirkland streetlights that afternoon.
"I walked the route that Letitia had to go that day," Hitzroth said. "I timed everything from how long it took her to get to the dentist to how long it took her to walk downtown afterward."
He walked it more than once, allowing for different scenarios. She was 5 feet 4 inches tall; Hitzroth is 5 feet 4 inches. He figures their strides can't be too different.
"She was wearing patent-leather pumps, and I'm an out-of-shape middle-aged man, so I figure we must walk at about the same pace," he said.
The rental house the Whitehalls occupied still exists, along with neighbors' homes Letitia visited on her way to the dentist's office. One witness testified he'd watched Letitia through the windows of a community clubhouse, a building that is now part of a private residence.
Much of the ground Hitzroth covered was raked over by law enforcement and a private investigation firm in 1926 and 1927. But he shakes his head at their conclusion.
"They tried the dentist for the crime," Hitzroth said. "He didn't have a car that worked, so how could he have raped her, strangled her and carried her body to the Kenmore bridge and dumped it over the side? This was a textbook case of how not to do an investigation."
Authorities tried to prove that Dobbs the dentist drugged, raped and killed Letitia. Two young men swore they'd seen Dobbs at the bridge. But at the trial, they recanted when their sister told authorities she had been at a party with them in Coalfield, near Renton, at the time of the murder. The men admitted they'd fabricated their testimony because they wanted to see their names in the newspaper.
"Dr. Dobbs' career and life were down the drain because of the ... brothers' prank," Hitzroth said. "Even though Letitia's mother always swore the dentist was innocent and even though the jury was only out 46 minutes before they found him not guilty, he and his family suffered all his life. The court of public opinion was less forgiving than the jury."
Hitzroth theorizes there may have been political maneuvering behind the mishandling of the case. Sheriff Matt Starwich was running for re-election that fall, and solving the Whitehall case became an election issue. He lost, and the new sheriff exhumed Letitia's body, looking for evidence that she had been drugged by Dobbs. A couple of months later, the newly elected prosecutor exhumed it again.
Effect on community
Hitzroth says he feels connected to Letitia, almost haunted by her. He's blown up a school picture showing her heart-shaped face framed in fluffy dark hair.
"She died on Oct. 30," he said. "I was born on Oct. 30. Her mother's maiden name was Heath. My grandmother's maiden name was Heath. Her mother was born in 1888 in Bancroft, Iowa. I have photos from the same time of my grandmother's people in Bancroft. When her [ancestors] came to America, they settled in North Carolina. My mother was from North Carolina."
Through interviews with classmates and family members and his chase after old documents, Hitzroth believes he knows what she was like.
At 14, she bore adult responsibilities without complaint. She came from a large family, and her mother had given birth to twins earlier that year. Letitia would rise at 5 a.m. to cook her father's breakfast. She cooked dinner, did the family laundry and sang in the church choir. A few letters filled with a typical 14-year-old's comments about boys and life survive in the University of Washington archives. People who remember her, Hitzroth said, all use the word "sweet" to describe her.
Her slaying, he said, affected everyone in the Kirkland and Redmond communities.
"People began locking their doors at night; girls were afraid to go anywhere by themselves," Hitzroth said. "The murder changed the Eastside community."
Two separate crimes?
Has he solved the crime?
He believes circumstantial evidence points to a solution hinted at in one detective's research.
"I think there were two crimes committed that night in 1926 by different people. I think she was raped first and murdered later," he said. "The problem was that investigators were looking for one person."
Letitia had rebuffed a young man's romantic overtures. While she was with friends, the young man threatened Letitia. That man was in the right place at the right time to intercept the girl on her way home from the dentist's, said Hitzroth. The man testified that he and a friend were sitting in a car at the intersection of Orchard Street (now Sixth Street South) and Kirkland Avenue at 5:45 p.m.
Witnesses saw a girl who matched Letitia's description in downtown Kirkland at about 5:30 that night, outside Pratt's Barbershop (now the south section of the Triple J Cafe).
Hitzroth walked the route from there, up Kirkland Avenue to Orchard and always arrived within 14 to 16 minutes which would have put Letitia at the intersection at the same time as the man who threatened her. Another witness who lived nearby testified that he heard screams at about 5:55 p.m.
As for the slaying itself, a number of Letitia's contemporaries have voiced suspicions that her father should have been further investigated. They describe the elder Whitehall as having a quick and violent temper, which one of Letitia's brothers told investigators at the time.
Did he, Hitzroth wonders, blame Letitia for being raped and then lose his temper?
Mabel Tweeter told investigators she saw something suspicious on the Kenmore bridge, near where the body was found, at about 9 p.m. on Oct. 30.
As Tweeter and her brother, A.A. Turner, drove south across the bridge, a car coming toward them made a U-turn and stopped. There wasn't enough room to pass, so they had to wait while the other vehicle moved closer to the edge of the bridge. Another car approaching from the south also had to stop, and its headlights illuminated the scene.
Tweeter testified that she saw a man at the wheel with an apparently unconscious woman beside him, her head drooping backward.
She said she thought the man was Letitia's father.
Although the father had been an early suspect in the investigation, no one ever followed up on Tweeter's testimony, said Hitzroth.
After Dobbs was found not guilty, the case faded from public scrutiny and official investigation. The Whitehalls eventually moved to Port Angeles, then to Seattle.
Only two of Letitia's siblings are still alive. One brother, born several years after her death, lives in Southern California. A sister said the tragedy has affected her entire life and declined to discuss it. Another brother, who has since died, met with Hitzroth and gave him family photos.
Hitzroth acknowledges that his theory is just that a theory and that no one may ever know exactly what happened in Kirkland 78 years ago this Saturday.
During his long years of investigation, he visited Letitia's unmarked grave in Seattle several times and found himself talking to her.
"All I could say was, 'I'm sorry,' " he said.
Sherry Grindeland: 206-515-5633 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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