Past, Present & Beyond – In the Line of Duty, pt. 9

Did they catch them or didn't they? Barbara Roden explores the confusing trail left left by Isaac Decker's killer.

Commemorative mug for Isaac Decker

Commemorative mug for Isaac Decker

The man who called himself “Edward Smith”, and who was languishing in a Dillon, Montana jail cell in August 1910 following a botched bank hold-up, had been identified as Bill Haney, the man responsible for killing Special Constable Isaac Decker in Ashcroft in June 1909. Then a second person had identified “Smith” as either Bill Haney or his brother Dave; he wasn’t sure which. And then an already confusing situation took a turn into the surreal.

A police chief in Dubois, Idaho got wind of the Montana prisoner, and sent the Dillon sheriff a photograph of a man who was known as Ed Smith. And Frank Smith. And Fred Taylor. And Frank Jones, and Dr. Todd (or Dr. Dobbs). Whatever his name was, the man was known to be a big spender, although people were uncertain where he got his money. He was also suspected of being involved in a robbery in the town of Salmon, Idaho. The police chief wondered if the “Edward Smith” who had been arrested in Dillon was the Ed Smith (amongst other names) from Idaho. He also circulated the photograph of the Ed Smith from Idaho to other police departments, to see if it brought forth any more leads.

In the meantime, the chief of police in Dillon, who had been wracking his brains trying to figure out why the prisoner seemed familiar, realized he looked very much like a man named Fred Taylor, who had spent some weeks in Dillon the previous winter before departing for Idaho. During his time in Dillon he had spent money freely, and when he returned from Idaho – where he claimed to have been working on a ranch – he had more than $1,000 in cash; a sum which seemed excessive for someone who had been ranching.

As if Edward Smith did not already have enough aliases and identities, another one soon came to light. A marshal in Wyoming, who had seen the photograph sent out by the police chief in Idaho, identified Smith as one Martin Foley, who was said to have been a former associate of Butch Cassidy, and who had already served time in prison for manslaughter. Surveying the confusing state of affairs, the Dillon “Tribune” newspaper of Oct. 7, 1910 carried an article which read, in part, “Edward Smith, or whatever his name is . . . was again identified last Sunday . . . That the fellow is the most desperate, the most dangerous, and most noted outlaw ever confined in the Beaverhead county jail, goes without question.”

On Oct. 21, 1910 two new charges were added to those already facing Smith: first degree assault and prior conviction of a felony. As with all the other charges, the man pleaded Not Guilty. The new charges meant that, if convicted, he could be sent to prison for life.

Superintendent Fred Hussey, anxiously waiting for news in B.C., must have been deeply frustrated to see the identification of Smith as Bill Haney unraveling. The initial description of Edward Smith had tallied so closely with that of Bill Haney – right down to birthmarks and bullet scars – that it had seemed certain they were the same man. Now, however, there was so much doubt and confusion, so many conflicting statements, and so many different identifications of the man in Dillon jail that it was impossible to say who he was. The prisoner himself seemed to agree with any identity that was put to him (except that of Bill Haney), and continued to frustrate any attempts to photograph him.

By the end of August 1910, Supt. Hussey stated that he had practically given up hope of identifying the Dillon prisoner as Bill Haney. He had presumably also given up hope of having the man extradited to Canada, to face questioning here, since the only way to do that was to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the man was Bill Haney, wanted in connection with both the CPR train robbery near Kamloops in June 1909, and the murder of Isaac Decker a week later.

The Superintendent had been pursuing other leads, most notably the claim by one R.J. Rowe of Kelowna that he recognized the picture of Bill Haney which had been circulated, and that the man was really one C. Stoddard, originally from Rochester, Ontario. The claim was investigated thoroughly, but on June 15, 1910 Hussey was forced to write that “from the information received I formed the opinion that Mr. Rowe was entirely mistaken.”

The matter of extraditing “Edward Smith” became academic on Nov. 11, 1910 when – in a dramatic turn of events – Smith withdrew his plea of Not Guilty to the charges of assault and former conviction, and entered a plea of Guilty instead. The prisoner’s attorney asked for leniency in light of the Guilty plea, but the judge handed down a sentence of 20 years in prison. Said the Dillon “Tribune”, “Sheriffs [here] will feel greatly relieved with him in the penitentiary and off their hands.” There was still doubt, however, as to the man’s real identity; the Los Angeles “Times”, reporting on the case, averred that the man sent to the penitentiary in Deer Lodge, Montana was really Bill Haney.

On Feb. 15, 1920 – a little more than nine years after his conviction – the Dillon bank robber was paroled. On that day he left Deer Lodge Penitentiary, and also stepped out of history, for there is no further record of what happened to him. His real identity was never uncovered, and at no time did he reveal it himself. Was he Bill Haney? If not, then it must be merely a coincidence that the Dillon bank robber bore the same scars and birthmarks as Haney; and that Haney himself disappeared from history in late winter 1910, never to be heard from again.

To be concluded in the next installment.

Barbara Roden