In the lower level of the Legislative Building 55 years ago this week, a theft was discovered that made front-page newspaper headlines, resulted in no arrests, and shocked political leaders.
The Great Petition Robbery, a heist of thousands of signature sheets bearing petition signatures for an anti-gambling ballot initiative, didn’t stop the initiative but did hasten the end of the long political career of Secretary of State Vic Meyers, a bandleader and former five-term lieutenant governor.
The story unfolded over a quiet Capitol weekend in June 1963.
Three months earlier, the Legislature had passed a bill to legalize various forms of games — bingo, card games, pinball, and others — under local licensing. Gov. Albert D. Rossellini vetoed part of it, then let the rest become law without his signature. In two separate veto messages (see page 354), Rossellini emphasized the measure “does not legalize gambling;” the Associated Press differed, labeling the measure “a new tolerance gambling law.”
A Tacoma physician and former city councilman, Dr. Homer W. Humiston — who was known to play an occasional hand of poker — filed a referendum challenging the law. He needed 48,630 to put the issue before voters on the November 1964 ballot. In June 1963, he turned 82,955 into the Secretary of State’s office, according to an informal count. The signature sheets were bound and put into the Secretary of State’s office vault to be verified the week of June 25th.
The Daily Olympian would call what happened next a “caper with a comic opera twist, first of its kind in state history.”
On June 21st, a Friday evening, two men asked cleaning lady Ethyl Burkhart to let them into a Legislative Building office to work late. A bit later, she saw the two men through a window, “carrying white sacks and a cardboard carton as they scurried across the courtyard,” The Daily Olympian reported.
The following Monday, Burkhart told state Elections Supervisor Kenneth Gilbert about the odd encounter. Gilbert then discovered that the anti-gambling petitions were gone.
Cracking the safe had evidently required no great skill, investigators said; the door hadn’t even been damaged. There were suspicions that it was left unlocked. A sketch circulated around Olympia of the two men the cleaning woman saw. Journalists nicknamed the pair”Shorty” and “Fiddle Face.”
Whoever they were, they were never caught.
The petitions likewise disappeared forever. Secretary of State Meyers and Attorney General John J. O’Connell each conjectured that the thieves had burned the evidence.
Though the heist went off successfully, its apparent goal wasn’t achieved. Even without the signed petitions on hand to verify, Meyers agreed with Gov. Rossellini’s request to put the referendum to voters in 1964. The Washington Supreme Court agreed.
In that election, 55 percent of voters cast their ballots to strike the gambling bill down.
Meyers, who had won seven of his eight prior statewide races, took just 46 percent of the vote in his bid for a third term in the Secretary’s office.
He would never again win elective office.