Edwin Pratt, executive director of the Seattle Urban League, was killed  outside of his Shoreline, Wash., home on Jan. 26, 1969; 35 years later, the case remains unsolved. (AP/ file)

Tuesday marks anniversary of Edwin Pratt homicide

January 26, 2010

Tuesday marks the 41st anniversary of the homicide of Edwin Pratt, a well-known Seattle civil-rights leader who helped desegregate neighborhoods and schools.

He was shot in the face at his Shoreline home, killed by a shotgun blast. He was 38.

The case, covered by the King County Sheriff's Office, has never officially been solved. The closest thing came in 1994 when former Seattle P-I reporter Dan Raley interviewed one of the accomplices involved, and he named Tommy Kirk as the triggerman.

Two years ago, Raley recalled the process of writing that story. Here's what he had to say:

I was simply asked to write something noting that 25 years had gone past and Edwin Pratt's killer had never been found.

After the supposed throwaway story came out, my phone started ringing like crazy. First it was an ex-convict offering me a name, Tommy Kirk. Next it was detectives asking me if I had received any tips, which totally surprised me. From there, I started digging through police reports, prison documents and old P-I stories and trying to find out everything I could about Tommy Kirk.

I started finding and calling names. I can't remember how I located the alleged driver, only that I walked in on him and another man in a Tacoma hotel, shooting heroin, before we talked. I just knew he was the driver the way he smirked a little, knowing there was no proof.

That actually was one of two heroin houses I visited on this story, the other in Northgate, with the guys politely putting the needles under the coffee table.

Everything sort of fell together on this thing. I remember calling Tommy Kirk's mother and getting invited to dinner. I told her to wait and read the story first, and if she still wanted to feed me, fine. She never called me.

After the fact, I saw a photo of a long-haired, angry looking Tommy Kirk holding a rifle, wearing bullet belts, looking like something out of the Symbionese Liberation Army, with me wishing we had obtained it and published it rather than his cleancut high school annual shot.

As for the man who paid for the Pratt hit, I heard a name that came with a preposterous twist -- that he was a black contractor who didn't like Pratt. If he was, he went to his grave a free man.

Posted by Casey McNerthney at January 26, 2010 5:54 p.m.



Full Story:

... In 1994, free-lance journalist David Newman took an interest in the Pratt case and requested that the police files be released under the Public Disclosure Act. Newman was not alone in his request: Former investigators, Pratt’s daughter Miriam, and Metropolitan County Councilmen Larry Gosset, Larry Phillips, and Ron Sims were also petitioning the King County Police Department to release the files, in the hope that the case might finally be solved with the public’s help. Claiming exemption from the Act for police investigative files, King County only granted a partial release of the file. Several key documents, including interviews with suspects, were withheld. Captain Dan Richmond, homicide Commander, explained:

“The only reason for not opening it up is the chance that someone might confess. It’s one or two items the perpetrator might know. It’s not much. It’s nothing that would solve the case, but it’s something that would keep the wrong person from admitting to it” (Seattle P-I, November 10, 1994).

Newman subsequently filed a lawsuit against the County. A Superior Court judge agreed to release the files to Newman, but only once they had been vetted for any material pertinent in an active investigation. However, King County Police immediately appealed the decision and in November 1997, the Washington Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that so long as the Police Department deemed it necessary, the Pratt files should remain closed, as opening them to outside scrutiny would be counter to effective law enforcement.

Newman’s investigation into Pratt’s murder led him to question how well the police handled the case. One officer reportedly told Newman “I was unprepared for handling the homicide of a prominent person. In fact, this was my first homicide” (The Stranger). This officer was one of the first to arrive at the scene. Apparently, the crime scene was very poorly and improperly secured. So much so that Kevin O’Shaughnessy, a retired King County Police Officer, said that it is “used as a training scenario about potential mistakes in controlling a crime scene by the Sheriff’s Department” (The Stranger). On the night of the murder, a hundred or so police, firemen, neighbors and other curious and concerned citizens wandered freely around the Pratt property, right through the middle of the crime scene.

Chief Detective Nault recalled other difficulties with the initial investigation. He said, “We tried to do a moulage from the snow where the suspects’ vehicle was parked, but the snow kept melting and we couldn’t even get a partial print” (The Stranger). They were unable to get any clues from the shell casing found at the scene, since it was of a common brand. Finally, the fatal bullet had no particular markings, so it was of no help either. Nault also commented to Newman on the FBI’s involvement in the case, saying that it seemed to be more hindering than helpful, because of lack of communication and cooperation between the agencies.

The closest police have come to solving the Pratt murder was a theory presented in a 1994 Seattle Post-Intelligencer article. The theory was reminiscent of a Police statement in July 1970, which mentioned that the Department had a possible suspect in the Pratt killing, but the suspect had been murdered shortly thereafter. In 1970, Sergeant Hartshorn said: “We could be way off in left field. But one name keeps popping up and that man is dead” (Seattle P-I, July 23, 1970). In addition, Harstshorn indicated that Pratt’s murder was possibly a contract hit. Although the police had some leads on the identity of the possible conspirators and accomplices, there was insufficient evidence to make any arrests.

In 1994, it came to light that the suspect’s name was Tommy Kirk, a 21-year-old drug user, dealer, and “small-time hoodlum” (Seattle P-I, December 13, 1994). In May 1969, Kirk was found in a car at a Capitol Hill intersection, shot four times in the side. He was murdered by an acquaintance, Texas Barton Gray, who confessed to police that he shot Kirk in self-defense, because Kirk was about to kill him over a debt.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer received information on the Pratt murder from a man named Steve Butler, a former convict, recovering heroin addict, and acquaintance of Kirk’s. Butler said that Kirk, Gray, and a third man had been hired by construction contractors to kill Pratt. Supposedly, the contractors were angry at Pratt’s efforts to integrate blacks into the workforce. Allegedly, Kirk fired the rifle, Gray accompanied him and the other man drove the getaway car. In an effort to reduce his sentence in Kirk’s murder, Gray told Seattle detectives in 1969 that Kirk had killed Pratt, but did not implicate himself in the crime.

When the P-I story was published in 1994, Gray was unable to defend himself against Butler’s accusations, since he died in 1991 of a heart attack. The man Butler named as the driver said in an interview with the P-I that he had heard Kirk was Pratt’s killer and understood how he could have been implicated in the crime: “I had a Buick GSX; it was yellow and black. That kind of car was seen in the neighborhood when this happened” (Seattle P-I, December 13, 1994). He said that police had examined his car, but apparently found nothing.

King County detective Rick Gies, who was investigating the case in 1994, said that he’d received a couple of calls from people naming Kirk as Pratt’s killer, but they differed from each other and from Butler as to the names of the accomplices and the amount paid for the hit. Kirk’s name had also surfaced in the Pratt investigation in 1974, when a man told detectives that on the night Pratt was murdered, Kirk showed up at his house with a shotgun and admitted to killing Pratt. The man, who passed a polygraph test, said that the gun was hidden in a Queen Anne storage locker. When police searched the locker, no gun was found (Seattle P-I, December 13, 1994).

Captain Dan Richmond said: “It’s obvious he (Kirk) is the most promising name we have” (Seattle P-I, December 13, 1994). But he and Gies were quick to point out that (just as in 1969 through to 1974 and later) all they had was hearsay, not physical evidence, which is crucial to conclusively solving a murder investigation.

Consequently, the 1969 murder of civil rights leader Edwin Pratt officially remains unsolved.

Sources: “Pratt, Urban League Director, Shot, Killed,” The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 27, 1969, p. 1; “Pratt’s Death Shocks Civic Leaders, Friends,” Ibid, January 27, 1969, p. 3; Larry McCarten, “Rewards Offered in Pratt Slaying,” Ibid, January 28, 1969, p. 1; “They’ve Got a Rifle’: A Warning -- Too Late,” Ibid, January 28, 1969, p. B; Larry McCarten, “FBI Presses Search in Pratt Slaying,” Ibid, January 29, 1969, p. 1; “A Day of Mourning for Pratt,” Ibid, January 30, 1969, p. 1; Larry McCarten, “Pratt Reward now $11,000,” Ibid, February 28, 1969, p. 1; “Police Baffled by the Murder of Edwin Pratt,” Ibid, May 8, 1969, p. 2; “Reward Withdrawn,” Ibid, January 13, 1970, p. 3; “Pratt Killer May Also Have Met the Same Fate,” Ibid, July 23, 1970, p. 3; Dan Raley, “A Call to Reopen the Pratt Case,” Ibid, November 10, 1994, p. A-1; Dan Raley, “New Clues in 1969 Murder,” Ibid, December 13, 1994, p. A-1; Erik Lacitis, “Will We Ever Know Who Killed Ed Pratt?” The Seattle Times, January 19, 1978, p. A-15; “County Should Open File on the Edwin Pratt Case,” Ibid, December 26, 1997, p. B-4; Michelle Malkin, “Foes of Public Disclosure Want to Turn Out the Lights,” Ibid, February 24, 1998, p. B-4; “Remember Edwin Pratt?” Ibid, January 7, 1999, p. B-4; David Newman, “The Death of Edwin Pratt: Seattle’s Unsolved Assassination,” The Stranger, p .5.