Duncan McDougal Johnston was a WWI veteran who served in France with Battery B, 146th field artillery unit. He moved to Twin Falls from Boise in 1928 to open a jewelry store. By 1936 he was the Mayor of Twin Falls. That was the year he was briefly a candidate for congress in Idaho’s second congressional district, running against incumbent Congressman D. Worth Clark in the Democratic primary. In April 1938 he was the toastmaster at the Jefferson Day banquet in Twin Falls, lauding Congressman Clark. By December of 1938, at age 39, he was the former mayor of Twin Falls and he had been convicted of murder.
Johnston was convicted of killing a jewelry salesman by the name of George L. Olson of Salt Lake. Olson was found locked in his car at a Twin Falls hotel some days after being shot in the head. About $18,000 worth of Olson’s jewelry along with a .25-caliber gun believed to have been the murder weapon were found in the basement of Johnston’s jewelry store.
In one of many novel-worthy twists, the judge for Johnston’s trial, James W. Porter, had been the man’s commanding officer during the war.
Early in the investigation there was some question about Salt Lake City police officers getting involved with the case. Salt Lake City Police Bureau Sergeant Albert H. Roberts put that to rest when he said that Twin Falls Police Chief Howard Gillette “(knew) his onions” when it came to interviewing suspects. And, yes, I gratuitously included that otherwise unimportant quote simply because it sounded like something out of a Mickey Spillane novel.
It wasn’t the only pulp fiction moment. One headline in The Times News read, “Slain Man With Beautiful Boise Girl, Proprietors and Chef Assert.” The proprietors were Mr. and Mrs. Howard McKray, owners of the tourist park where Olson had stayed, and the chef worked at a nearby restaurant. They were witnesses who saw the beautiful girl.
“I know it was him because that was the name he used. He was registered with us from Salt Lake City, was a jewelry salesman, and the picture in the papers was an exact likeness of him,” Mrs. McKray told reporters. Breathlessly, perhaps.
“Olson ran up a bill of $16,” the chef said, “and finally he traded me a wedding ring and engagement ring which I am going to give to my girl, Flossie Colson, who is working for me, when I marry her.” No word on how Flossie felt about getting a $16 wedding set swapped for corned beef hash.
During the trial one witness was described—Spillane style—as “a pretty, bespectacled telephone operator.” The newspaper reporter noted that she gave one of her answers “with a toss of her head.”
Meanwhile, the victim’s wife was a “pretty, youthful widow” and another witness was described as “comely.”
Patrolman Craig T. Bracken was a key witness in the case. His role was to hide in the basement of the jewelry store and spy on Johnston. The basement was accessible not only from the jewelry store but from an adjacent dress shop. He watched the man come down the stairs, toss something in the furnace, then turn and stare at a break or crack in the basement wall for a few seconds. Johnston left, but came back down the stairs a few minutes later, again paying some attention to the hole in the wall. That’s when the jeweler noticed the patrolman hiding behind the furnace. Bracken called out to Johnston, saying “Well, Dunc, they put me down here to watch you and see what you were doing.” Bracken arrested Johnston and took him to the station. Chief Gillette and another patrolmen went to the store and into the basement where they found 557 rings tied up in a towel, keys to the murdered man’s car, and a .25-caliber pistol.
Johnston and his assistant in the Jewelry store, William LaVonde, were arrested on suspicion of murder. LaVonde was more than an assistant to Johnston. They had served in the war together and were long time buddies. LaVonde was also a former desk sergeant with the Twin Falls police.
The men, both well-known in the community, were arrested June 2. On June 6, while in jail, Johnston completed the sale of his jewelry store to Don Kugler, of Idaho Falls. Had Johnston’s business been in trouble? Was that a motive for murder and robbery?
There was no provision for posting bail in Idaho at the time when one was accused of first-degree murder. LaVonde, the assistant in the jewelry store, asked for a writ of habeas corpus on the grounds there was no compelling evidence against him. On September 16, the Idaho Supreme Court granted his petition and LaVonde went free. But not for long. A revised complaint got him tossed back in jail on the 20th. But not for long. A judge freed him on the 26th citing a lack of evidence against LaVonde in the case, but at the same time binding over Johnston for trial.
Even in an agricultural community it was a little odd that twelve men—11 of them farmers and the 12th a retired farmer—would pass judgement on Johnston. They were particularly qualified to understand when one of the prosecution witnesses explained why pieces of earth found in the victim’s car had not been analyzed. “There’s a lot of dirt in Twin Falls County,” the witness said.
The prosecution was built largely on the fact that the stolen jewels, the victim’s car keys, and an alleged murder weapon—the FBI could not say whether or not it had been the one used—were found in the basement of Johnston’s jewelry store. Meanwhile, the defense pointed out that furnace service men, the dress shop owners, employees of a Chinese restaurant, and a rooming house operator all had keys to the same basement.
The defense opted not to make a final statement in the trial, perhaps assuming that a case built on circumstantial evidence didn’t need a summation to point that out. Or, maybe it did. The jury came back after eight hours of deliberation with a guilty verdict. Johnston was sentenced to life in prison.
On December 15, 1938, Duncan Johnston greeted an old friend by saying, “Hello, Pearl,” and giving Pearl C. Meredith a smile. Meredith was the warden of the Idaho State Penitentiary.
In 1939, the Idaho Supreme Court ordered a retrial of Johnston, citing questionable testimony by the Twin Falls Chief of Police. Johnston spent much more time on the stand defending himself in this trial. It didn’t help. He was found guilty, again. Johnston appealed, again, to the Idaho Supreme Court.
Then the confession showed up. On March 19, 1941, Governor Chase Clark received a note using letters cut from The Salt Lake Tribune and pasted on the paper in the fashion of a ransom demand. The anonymous message sender claimed that Johnston was the victim of a “vicious frame-up.” Although a cut-up Salt Lake newspaper was used, the letter came from Klamath Falls, Oregon.
Though interesting, the note proved nothing. The supreme court denied Johnston a third trial.
So, in December of 1941, the convicted murderer petitioned the pardon board for clemency.
At his January 1942 hearing, Johnston stood up to give an impassioned speech as the pardon board was rising to leave. The Idaho Statesman quoted him as saying, “Three and one-half years ago, or a little more, I sat as you gentlemen here today. My word had never been doubted. My integrity was as high… as anyone.
“From the time I was arrested until the present day, I have been a dastardly liar. I have been a Capone. I have been the coldest blooded murderer in the State of Idaho. Dillinger is a sissy to the side of me…
“You gentlemen have no idea what it means to sit behind bars and listen to the clang of chains and keys, when you did not commit the crime that was framed against you. It is almost unbelievable that in the United States, where we criticize the Nazis and the Gestapo, that you can find it right here in your own community.”
His pardon was denied by a 2-1 vote of the board.
He was back, again, in April asking for a pardon. Again, the vote was 2-1 against.
Then, there was a new twist. On December 21, 1942, the front-page headline spread across eight columns in The Statesman read, “Duncan Johnston Escapes From Prison.”
Under the cover of “pea-soup” fog, Johnston ran through the freshly fallen snow to an awaiting car in the 1400 block of East Washington and made his escape. He had constructed a dummy to occupy his bed during his getaway. His breakout was made easier because he wasn’t living in the prison. Johnston was a trusty residing in a small house adjacent to the hot-water pumps that supplied water to Warm Springs Avenue homes.
At least, that was the sensational story on December 21. By the next day, the front-page story was not nearly so dramatic. The headline read, “Johnston Returns to Cell After Going Bye-Bye Third Time.” Wait. Third time? Yes, it turned out Johnston had walked away a couple of other times, visiting Public School Field and the Ada County Courthouse the previous two times. The warden had neglected to mention those incidents. Johnston wasn’t captured. He simply walked back to the prison after spending seven hours walking around trying to “relieve a feeling of despondency” over his prison term.
So, pardon was probably off the table, right? Stand by.
His appeal for pardon that December, which happened to be decided the day after he walked away—and back—was denied.
His fourth application for pardon came in April 1943. It was denied.
In July 1943, the board denied his fifth application. His six application was denied that October.
On his seventh application, the board vote flipped in Johnston’s favor when Attorney General Bert H. Miller changed his vote. Why? He had determined through exhaustive investigation that several jurors as well as the prosecutors, were not convinced that Johnston had fired the fatal shot. Miller thought there was no proof he had fired the shot, and therefore Johnston had not been proved guilty. Miller was quoted in The Times News as saying, “I am not voting to pardon Johnston, but to release him from punishment for a crime for which he was unjustly convicted.”
Mr. and Mrs. C.D. Merrill, of Ketchum, had taken on Johnston’s case almost as a hobby, continuing to pester the pardon board time after time. They truly believed in his innocence and didn’t have a personal dog in the fight. They didn’t even know Johnston before he was imprisoned.
Johnston was grateful to the Merrills, but remained bitter, saying he wanted a reversal of his murder conviction in court instead of a pardon. “Naturally, I am terribly thankful for my freedom,” he said, “And it is hard to say thanks for something you don’t want—that is, I am glad to be free, but I didn’t want it to come this way.”
Johnston planned to go into defense work for the military, perhaps in California. “I went through five campaigns in the last war and came out a disabled veteran. Nothing would please me more than to do something in this campaign.”
Whether Johnston ever served in any capacity in WWII is unknown. He apparently left Idaho shortly after his pardon. His grandniece contacted me after this story ran the first time to say that he had operated a successful jewelry store in the Mission District of San Francisco for many years. He lived to be 90, passing away in San Mateo California in 1989.
The Olson murder case was never reopened.
But what of Attorney General Bert H. Miller? Many were outraged at his vote that set Johnston free. There were grumblings that his time as attorney general would soon be over. It was, but not in the way those who disagreed with him on the Johnston case might have hoped. He was elected a justice of Idaho’s Supreme Court in 1944, then elected a U.S. senator from Idaho in 1948, defeating Senator Henry Dworshak. Miller served only nine months in that office before dying of a heart attack. In a twist that probably ruffled a few feathers, Governor C.A. Robbins appointed Dworshak, the man Miller narrowly defeated, to fill out his term. Dworshak would remain a senator until 1962, when he, too, died of a heart attack while in office.