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O'Brien, Detective James J.

End of Watch: 
Friday, January 21, 1921
County: 
King
Agency: 
Seattle P.D.

On January 21, 1921 around 8:45 p.m., two Seattle police officers were walking their beat on Broadway Ave. N. Officer William Angle, 26, and his partner, Officer Neil McMillan, 29, were experiencing a routine and uneventful shift. Neil McMillan had been commissioned as an officer just 17 days earlier, and it was his first night on the beat. Angle had just used a call box to “ring in”, something beat officers did hourly when they checked in with their precinct’s patrol clerk.

The officers were walking on the west side of Broadway and south of Mercer St. when Angle spotted John Smith. Something about Smith seemed suspicious to Angle who told his partner he was going to “shake” the guy. The officers didn’t know that Smith was a career criminal who had robbed a Spokane Bank two days earlier. As Angle approached Smith, McMillan was checking some business doors to make sure they were locked. Angle walked up to Smith and asked him where he was going. Smith pulled a Remington .380 semi-automatic pistol from his pocket and shot Angle twice. Angle went down immediately, but was able to fire two shots at Smith. McMillan had his back to his partner. When he heard the shots, he turned around and was immediately shot twice by Smith. McMillan managed to fire two shots at Smith before he went down. Smith ran across the street and into a vacant lot. There were many people walking and driving in the area who witnessed the shooting. Mr. A. Biemsals put Officer Angle in his car and drove him to City Hospital while Mr. L. C. Buchman put Officer McMillan in his car and drove him to Minor Hospital. Both officers underwent surgery.

Every available police officer in the city joined in the search for John Smith. Witnesses had provided a good description of him and his red mackinaw coat. After hearing of the shootings, about 100 irate citizens joined officers searching for Smith in the Broadway area.

Officers in downtown Seattle were searching for Smith as well. Around 10:00 p.m., Detective James O’Brien, 38, and his partner, Detective T. G Montgomery, had been walking 2nd Avenue. They stopped near the entrance to the Hoge Building at 705 2nd Avenue to talk to an acquaintance named Dean Carman. Detective O’Brien spotted a man walking towards them from the north with his hands in his pockets. He matched the description of the shooter. It was John Smith. O’Brien stepped out and stopped Smith who immediately pulled his .380 Remington from his pocket and shot Detective O’Brien who fired at least two shots at Smith before falling to the pavement. Detective Montgomery drew his revolver and fired at Smith who was hit and went down with wounds to his leg and ankle. In the exchange of gunfire, Dean Carman was shot in the leg. It was later discovered that one of Smith’s bullets had pierced the material on the side of Montgomery’s coat. Montgomery ran to aid O’Brien who said he had been hit, but he didn’t think it was bad. Montgomery then saw Smith roll over on the sidewalk. He jumped on top of Smith, and had to hit him to subdue him. Montgomery stopped a passing car, and Detective O’Brien was put in the car to be driven to the hospital. He died from his wounds. One of Smith’s bullets had hit his heart. A second pistol and 75 rounds of ammunition were found on Smith after his arrest. Detective O’Brien was survived by his widow, Mary, and four children; John, Wilford, James, and two- month old Mary.

Officer William Angle died at City Hospital at 11:45 p.m. on January 22, 1921. He was survived by his pregnant widow, Lula. Officer Neil McMillan died at Minor Hospital on January 24, 1921. He was unmarried. The Seattle Police Department had lost four officers in the span of ten days. Officer Volney L. Stevens had been shot and killed in the line of duty on January 14, 1921.

The citizens of Seattle have always treated the slaying of one of their police officers as a unique and tragic event. As they have always done, on January 25, 1921, they turned out by the thousands for the funeral procession of the three fallen officers. Downtown Seattle businesses closed so that owners and employees could pay their respects. The procession started at the County/City Building, travelled down Yesler Way and then north on 2nd Ave. It made its way to Times Square and then to 7th Ave. and Olive Way where it ended. Prior to the procession, Detective O’Brien’s funeral service was held at St. Edward’s Church. Officer Angle’s funeral service was held at the Eagles Hall after the procession.

John Smith, whose real name was Schmitt, pled guilty to murder on January 27, 1921. He stated he wanted the death penalty. A jury granted his wish. Before being transferred to Walla Walla to await execution, he admitted to another murder in Olympia. He shot and killed a man while making his escape from an armed robbery. Smith was hanged at the state penitentiary on April 1, 1921.

James John O’Brien was born in Glenlough, Bantry Bay, County Cork, Ireland on February 22, 1882. He arrived in New York on March 30, 1904, and travelled to Iowa where two of his brothers lived. He worked in the coal business for a few years before heading west to Seattle. James became a naturalized citizen in Seattle on October 18, 1909, and he was commissioned as a Seattle police officer on June 12, 1910. James married Mary Manning on February 21, 1911 at St. Edwards Church in Seattle. Detective James “Jimmy” O’Brien was well known and a highly respected member of the Seattle Police Department. One of his sons, John L. O’Brien, became an icon in the Washington State Legislature. A building on the legislative campus bears his name. Another son, Wilford, went on to become a Sergeant with the Seattle Police Department. Detective James O’Brien is buried in Calvary Cemetery.