This is Bing Crosby’s old hometown. Cheerful drivers open the door for you when you climb in and out of cabs here, and shoppers on the futuristic downtown “skywalk” catch your gaze and smile. In many ways, it is the ail-American city, a place of salubrious climate, big-sky setting and carefully preserved rococo buildings. But in recent months this placid community has endured an almost Dostoevskian tragedy, which paralyzed the citizenry with fear and virtually destroyed one of the city’s most prominent families.
For more than two years a rapist prowled the thick bushes, vacant lots and terraced lawns of the South Hill, an old, tree-lined neighborhood peopled by the city’s power elite. Operating only in darkness, the stalker chose his victims from joggers and walkers, his MO as singular as a palm print. He dragged his quarry down, threatened death by knife, asked urbanely in a resonant voice about his victim’s sexual experience, then rammed his heavily gloved hand deep into her mouth and committed the act of rape.
Residents picked up on the pattern long before police. Stores like the Gunatorium reported a run on weapons; kennels sold out of Dobermans and Great Danes; salesmen went door to door with sample cases of Mace and tear-gas pens. Women jogged in groups. Anonymous messages were painted in red on South Hill curbs and then in other parts of Spokane, warning “A woman was raped here.” The number of reported rapes in the city doubled. In the general hysteria, one woman who had armed herself with Mace ended up using it on a mother and infant during an argument, nearly suffocating the baby.
Like the undermanned police department (250 officers for 177,000 residents), the city’s business establishment seemed unwilling to admit the rapist’s existence. But in January 1981 the Spokane Spokesman-Review gave voice to the muted screams and broke the story big. Its sister paper, the Daily Chronicle, offered informants up to $1,000 in a “secret witness” program. Tipsters were impressed to find that their calls went straight through to the Chronicle’s managing editor himself—Gordon Coe, a respected second-generation Spokanite with a distinguished manner and wavy silver hair. Everyone was after the rapist. As Coe’s wife, Ruth, said later, “Spokane is such a sweet, homey town, a lovely place to raise children.” But some of the rapist’s victims were children themselves.
Six weeks after the newspaper revelations, an elite detective team, acting on a tip that grew out of another Spokesman-Review story, attached a transmitting bug to the underside of a silver-gray Chevrolet Citation and began trailing it through the hours of darkness. The car’s driver, usually dressed in warm-ups, would follow buses and check out jogging paths, sometimes spurting away on side streets as though he suspected a tail. A detective confided, “There’s no question this is the guy. He’s like a shark. He trolls in his car. It’s terrifying.” But the object of their attention made no illegal moves.
Two weeks passed. On a sunstruck Sunday in March 1981, an hour after the frustrated detectives had gone home to catch some sleep, a man in a blue sweater accosted an 18-year-old jogger in mid-city. He exposed and fondled himself, made lewd remarks in a “deep, unusual, eerie-sounding” voice, and kept repeating, “Are you watching me now? Come on, watch me now.” When the woman turned on him and yelled, he ran to a silver-gray Citation and sped away. Passersby noted the license number and called the police. It was the same car.
Two days later detectives arrested the driver, a 34-year-old real estate salesman. Spokane shuddered. He was Frederick Harlan Coe, the managing editor’s son.
Fred Coe is a highly verbal six-footer, clean-cut, teetotal, as conservative-looking as his native Spokane, with feathered brown hair and a tendency toward button-up three-piece suits. An athlete and student leader in South Hill public schools, he dropped out of Washington State and Gonzaga universities and became a Las Vegas disco deejay, author of a lampoonish paperback called Sex in the White House, and founder of a one-man booster group which he grandly called Spokane Metro Growth. He had a history of minor offenses and an impassioned explanation for each.
After victims viewed him in lineups, police charged the editor’s son with six rapes—and privately connected him with dozens of others. He hotly denied any connection with the exposure incident and said there was a simple explanation for what the detective teams had observed: He had been on his own manhunt for the South Hill rapist.
Released on bail, the energetic Coe conducted a media blitz in his mellow deejay’s voice. His handsome mother, Ruth, 61, a sometime lecturer on fashion and charm, protested her son’s innocence. “I think police are capable of the most vicious acts in the world,” she said. “That’s the real story here…they have taken a fine, clean, upstanding young man and ruined him.”
At the trial, the family produced voluminous alibi testimony for every charge. Mother Ruth confirmed that Fred had sought the South Hill rapist, sometimes with her help. “Son would jog and I would follow in the car.” Discouraged, the two of them abandoned the chase in the fall of 1980, she said, then resumed when husband Gordon’s Daily Chronicle offered a reward. “It gave us the idea to follow buses, looking for clues, looking for lone ladies getting off the bus with a man getting off behind them. But by the middle of February I was tired of it. Son said he was going to quit, too.”
According to Mrs. Coe’s testimony, Fred was with her and Gordon at the time of one of the offenses. How could she remember the events of a midnight 11 months before? “The Best of Carson was on,” she explained. “For me, they flipped over so I could see an Errol Flynn movie, Virginia City.”
In a brisk cross-examination, deputy prosecutor Patricia Thompson asked, “Have you ever covered for Fred, saying he was with you when he wasn’t?”
“Miss Thompson,” the mother answered, “if you are asking me whether I would lie for my son…”
“Yes or no.”
Ruth Coe stared over the tops of her half-glasses: “I rather think not,” she said.
Five women identified Fred Coe as their assailant, and the jury also heard corroborating evidence from Coe’s live-in girlfriend, among others. He was found guilty on four counts. When his sister, Kathleen, broke down and cried, the usually dignified Gordon Coe told reporters, “She’s not used to how rotten the world is yet.” Ruth Coe advised a photographer, “You shouldn’t take pictures of people when they’re down, because they look so much nicer when they’re up.” As her son was being led away in handcuffs, she said in a firm voice, “Down, but not out.”
At sentencing time, Superior Court Judge George Shields announced that he had “thought, read, researched and prayed.” He noted that the South Hill rapist had left many victims in his wake: “First and foremost, his mother and father.” Then he handed the immaculately dressed Frederick Harlan Coe one of the longest rape sentences in Washington history: life plus 75 years. Chief defense attorney Carl Maxey looked dolefully toward Gordon Coe, forced into early retirement by the case, and declared: “This whole affair has been a litany of tragedies.” Maxey now says that the decision and the sentence will be appealed.
From the modest lower reaches of the South Hill to the lavish homes along High Drive, women exulted and relaxed. In her own South Hill home, Ruth Coe, unable to sleep, complained about the police and the courts. Now and then she uttered threats against those she blamed for her son’s plight, but “always got over it and regained her perception,” her husband said.
And then last November, according to police, she hired a hit man to kill the judge and the chief prosecutor.
In affidavits, police claimed that Mrs. Coe wanted prosecutor Donald Brockett dead “for allowing the entire trial to be televised and photographed.” Apparently the judge was added to the hit list later. Authorities claimed to have a tight chain of evidence, some of it wiretapped, starting with Mrs. Coe’s contact with a woman she believed to have Mafia connections, down to the passing of a $500 advance (against a final $4,000) to the hit man, a wired policeman.
Facing two possible life sentences if convicted on the charges of criminal solicitation of murder, the editor’s wife appeared two months ago at a bond-reduction hearing well coiffed, wearing a V-neck white sweater, blue slacks and gold lamé high-heeled sandals. Defense attorney Maxey, Spokane’s most prominent criminal lawyer, accused police of a vendetta against the Coe family. Gordon Coe cried entrapment.”[The police] just happened to catch her at a point where she was emotionally over the brink and took advantage of her. It’s like handing a loaded gun to somebody who’s been threatening to commit suicide.”
His imprisoned son still in the forefront of his mind, the former editor told a reporter from his old newspaper, the Chronicle, “[My wife] and I are the only ones who know the Fred Coe case from end to end, and we are the only ones who know Fred Coe thoroughly. Her opinion and my opinion as to the fact he’s innocent can’t be scoffed at, because only we of all the people really know the case.”
The residents of Spokane, the commercial and cultural hub of a vast inter-mountain area known as “the inland empire,” went about their business, but not without pangs of civic doubt. Columnist Chris Peck of the Spokesman-Review recalled other local scandals and crimes and wondered in print if the town was becoming a Peyton Place. A pastor’s wife warned, “It’s just what the Lord said would happen in the final days.” But police chief Bob Panther insisted that crime was down and blamed the press for the city’s PR miseries.
Whether this sweet, homey town will be healed by the time the downtown lilacs come out in May is doubtful at best. There is recurrent talk among the city’s power brokers of cutting the skimpy police budget, as though to show doubters once and for all that the all-American city has no crime problem. But in recent weeks three boys have been homosexually raped on the South Hill. Two married women are missing from their South Hill homes without a trace. Says a local newspaperman: “All of a sudden people are making the assumption that we have another crazy up there.” Mace containers are being dusted off and checked for pressure, and purses bulge oddly. A few weeks ago a staff order went out to the nurses of Deaconess Hospital on the South Hill, reminding them that weapons can be dangerous in hospital wards and emergency rooms. Please, the memo requested, stop bringing your guns to work.
(Olsen, a former TIME correspondent, is the author of 21 books, many of them on crime and criminals. His latest novel is Missing Persons. He has lived in Washington State for 10 years.)