By Starla Pointer • Staff Writer • 

Book: Breaking Blue

“Breaking Blue” is the true story of a murder, a culture of corruption and coverups, the Great Depression, remote Northeast Washington and, most of all, an interest that becomes a passion that becomes an obsession.

The “blue” in the title refers to law enforcement — in this case, a very thick blue line dividing officers from everyone else. In 1935, when the murder takes place, and in modern times, as well, officers in Spokane and the surrounding area protect one another, author Timothy Egan asserts — even if that means covering up the criminal behavior of their brothers in blue.

In 1935, Spokane officers regularly stretched the law to suit their own needs, writes Egan, whose research included talking to people who were there at the time as well as examining historical documents and law enforcement records.

The men, and they all were men, accepted free meals, booty from thefts and bribes to look the other way. And some blatantly participated in crimes, as well, stealing from and hurting the people they had vowed to protect.

That year, in the depths of the Depression, unemployment was extremely high in Spokane, as it was nationwide. Trainloads of desperate people arrived daily. They hoped the Northwest would be the promised land, especially with the Grand Coulee Dam in the works; most ended up homeless and still poor.

It also was a terrible year for agriculture, with drought conditions and crop failures. As a result, butter was in short supply and high demand. Creamery thefts became common, some of them masterminded by one of the Spokane detectives, his cafe-owning best friend and their ex-con buddy.

George Coniff Sr., town marshal of Newport, Washington, interrupted one of the thefts and paid for his vigilance with his life. Although it was soon common knowledge among Spokane officers that their own detective was involved in the murder, the men closed ranks. The crime was never solved.

Then, more than half a century later, a straight-arrow sheriff started looking into the cold case files. As Egan describes it, Sheriff Tony Bamonte quickly grew obsessed with solving the Coniff murder. Although Spokane police and other law enforcement officials tried to maintain the coverup, he discovered the likely suspect was still alive — a 90-year-old who had, after the murder, gone on to live an exemplary life.

“Breaking Blue” by Timothy Egan, 1992, Knopf/Thorndike Press.

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