Drinking on the Deadly Job: Last Call Leads to Last Words
Despite having taken place nearly seventy years ago, the murder of JoAnn Dewey remains one of the more infamous crimes ever to have taken place in the state of Washington. Dewey, a young woman who was kidnapped, raped, and murdered in Vancouver, WA, in March 1950, was seemingly selected at random, by two brothers who could just as easily have preyed on night nurses walking home from the nearby hospital, where they accosted her. As author Pat Jollota details, nothing about this case was simple. The two brothers accused and convicted of the crime, Utah and Turman Wilson, had come from a large and complicated family, with numerous run-ins with the law (and years of jail time already under their belts). Yet their alibi initially held up—allegedly fearful of being accused of another crime concurrent at the time, they had fled the Vancouver area to avoid undeserved suspicion, switching cars and traveling under fake names for weeks.
Moreover, following Dewey’s disappearance, the law enforcement officers assigned to the case had their own share of problems. Many of the sheriffs and deputies involved, having just come into power in a recent election, had little to no experience, and many of the county officials (such as the coroner) were, by quirks of local law, bereft of any practical training for their jobs. Despite their sincerity and determination to crack the case, Pat Jollota writes, they were in many ways simply unprepared for the job.
But one thing was simple, a small detail of the murder scene that ultimately sent the Wilson brothers to the gallows. Either Utah or Turman—likely both—had, while the two waited in the car for their unfortunate victim, been knocking back a couple of beers. When they assaulted and kidnapped Dewey that March night, among the evidence at the crime scene outside St Joseph’s Hospital was a silver hair barrette, a broken purse strap, and a bottle of Olympia brand beer that one of them had cast aside.
The Wilsons had long fled the scene, and Dewey died later that night, but the investigation was only just beginning. For months officers labored to collect evidence and testimony from witnesses, family, and acquaintances. Even after Dewey’s body was found floating in the Wind River weeks later, little additional evidence proved conclusive. In the meantime, however, investigators had managed to recover a set of prints from the discarded Olympia beer bottle. Sent to the FBI lab, eventually the prints came back positive: they were Utah’s.
Eventually the Wilson brothers were found hiding in Sacramento, and returned in custody to Vancouver, WA. Despite weeks of courtroom wrangling, with impassioned testimony from countless witnesses, secret jailhouse audiorecordings, and legal drama from both prosecution and defense alike, they were eventually found guilty of first-degree murder. Among the preponderance of evidence against them was something that Sergeant Carl Forsbeck had keenly observed when he collected the bottle: that the liquid was still cold and the bubbles were still large. Utah’s fingerprint placed the brothers squarely at the scene of the abduction, and in the eyes of the jury, every movement they made afterwards pointed to their guilt.
Appeal after appeal failed, and stay of execution after stay of execution ran out too. On the day after New Year’s, 1953, the Wilson brothers approached the gallows. That morning, Pat Jollota notes, they had enjoyed a last meal of “roast chicken with giblet gravy, fried rabbit, cranberry sauce, French-fried potatoes, hot biscuits, cherry pie and a devil’s food cake with ice cream, milk, and coffee.”
Nowhere on the menu was a mention of Olympia beer.