In the fall of 1920, Prohibition was in full swing and Grays Harbor authorities were doing their part hunting bootleggers. That summer they had begun a crack down on soft drink parlors and raided a number of them for illegal booze sales but it was growing more difficult as their plainclothes agents were becoming known. To that end, Aberdeen’s Chief of Police Frank O’Brien, with the blessing of Mayor Roy Sargent, turned to the Seattle-based Revelare Detective Agency. Assigned to Aberdeen was Nicholas Koleski a 22-year old Russian-Pole who, despite his young age, had a few years under his belt working undercover for various police agencies.
Koleski’s first case was to find evidence of liquor sales at The Blue Front, a soda parlor operated by Russians Harry Kargin (or Karginoff) and Adam Sirhoff, located at 307 S. G Street. He began visiting the shop and was soon drawn into the confidence of bartender Peter Ambaloff (or Kostoff). Confident that they would get the evidence, the raid was set for September 5th. As planned, Koleski entered The Blue Front with two friends and ordered whiskey. When the liquor was set down on the table, Koleski whistled a signal and Chief O’Brien and Officer Henry Fournier rushed in to find Kargin with his arms around Koleski’s neck in an effort to retrieve the glass of moonshine constituting the evidence at the time. To beat him off, Fournier struck him with the butt of this gun. Kargin and Sirhoff were charged with violating the Volstead Act and arraigned in police court four days later. A continuance was filed and the case was set to be tried on the 15th. Following the raid, Kargin was heard saying about Koleski, “That fellow destroyed my business. I’m going to get him. I cannot see him go around the street and hang around me.”
On Monday, September 14, Koleski went to O’Brien’s City Hall office to file a report and inform the chief that the following day Koleski would be going to Cosmopolis to search for Kargin and Sirhoff’s moonshine still. It would be the last time O’Brien would see the young agent alive. On Wednesday morning, finding Koleski missing, officers formed a posse and took up the search for the plainclothesman. They had few leads to go on until they spoke with Harry and Lottie Dugas, who operated a dairy on Cemetery Hill (now part of Makarenko Park). Harry Dugas described how he encountered two ”rough looking” men early on Tuesday afternoon who asked the way to Alder Creek. The men were armed. Lottie Dugas related the excitement of her dog the previous day which, she presumed, heralded the return of the children from school. She glanced at the clock and it was 2:30. She then heard shots and the voice of a man ”crying for aid as if in mortal pain”. Two of the officers went to the area of the purported struggle, fired their revolvers and shouted. Mrs. Dugas heard this which established the fact that the place was within earshot of her home. They also found some fresh blood but it was written off as being from a deer killed by hunters,
With this promising information in hand, a search was launched in a heavily-wooded area near the dairy. Two abandoned stills were uncovered which officers judged had not been in operation for several months. No active still was discovered. News of Koleski’s disappearance was suppressed, while suspects were quietly kept under surveillance. Efforts were carried on throughout the week to locate him in the dense woods but found nothing indicating the fate of the missing agent. They followed an old skid-road that ran to the creek but found only a pile of cedar boughs, grass and skunk cabbage with two planks resting on it. Officer Fournier, taking a break, sat on the planks to contemplate the search party’s next move.
Shortly before noon on September 26th, a group of boys were playing in the search area. They followed the old skid-road and came upon the pile of debris next to the creek. A 14-year old South Aberdeen boy named Arthur Berg moved one of the planks and found himself staring at the blindfolded, badly decomposed body of Nicholas Koleski .
The body was taken to the Whiteside undertaking parlor in Aberdeen, and Grays Harbor County Coroner G.E. Chamberlain was called to perform an autopsy. Chamberlain found Koleski had been shot in the head three times. ”One bullet entered left parietal region one inch above ear, lodged in the right mastoid. One entered left cheek, came out right side of neck three inches below ear. One entered center of chin, exit back of neck. One through arm transverse upper part of arm, exit two inches from point of entrance.”
Police brought in Kargin, Sirhoff, and Ambaloff for the heinous crime. After hours of grilling by former Aberdeen Police Chief George Dean, Sheriff-elect Elmer Gibson, and L.R. May of the Revelare Detective Agency, Ambaloff broke down and confessed to the crime. In retribution for Koleski’s part in the raid on The Blue Front, Ambaloff stated he’d wormed his way into the confidence of Koleski, and lured him into the woods under the pretext of disclosing the location of moonshine stills. Koleski allowed himself to be blindfolded – Ambaloff had taken him blindfolded into the woods at least once before the actual murder, so the agent’s suspicions were not aroused.
There they were met by Sirhoff who took aim and fired the first shot, piercing Koleski’s head an inch above the left ear, killing him instantly. As he lay on the ground, four more shots were fired at close range into Koleski’s head and torso, and his badge was torn off, bent double and thrown away. Only one bullet from the five shots was recovered, a steel jacket ball of .32 caliber, fired, officers conclude, from an automatic revolver. Police learned that a.32-caliber Savage automatic revolver had gone missing from a tailor shop a block from The Blue Front shortly after the Sept. 5th raid. The weapon was found on Christmas Day under a shelf in a hallway in the tailor’s shop.
Between Ambaloff’s confession and the murder weapon, the prosecution was confident they had an airtight case. As the trial kicked off on May 25, 1921 in Judge W.A. Reynolds’ courtroom, the prosecution presented a number of witnesses but two days in, their case began to lose air. The tailor testified that he wasn’t sure if it was his weapon, “I would not swear to it but to the best of my judgment, this is the gun.” A ballistics expert testified the bullets came from a .32-calibre revolver but as couldn’t say if they came from this specific weapon. This was a blow to the prosecution, but they still had Ambaloff’s confession. On May 31st, the state called it’s star witness.
Peter Ambaloff took the stand and immediately recanted his confession, telling the court that his previous statements as to his knowledge of the killing were false and that he was coerced under questioning and feared for his life. The next day, the defense called for dismissal, arguing that since the prosecution had definitely established that the time of the crime was 2:30 pm on September 15, Sirhoff and Kargin could not have been involved as they were in police court in Aberdeen at that hour. Judge Reynolds considered the evidence before ordering the case dismissed citing insufficient evidence and released the defendants.
The Russian population of the Harbor rejoiced, and Sirhoff remarked: “They sure try to hang me. I sweat for a while but I do not kill him. None of us do. I have good lawyers. I go to work on railroad in Oregon next week. No more pool hall.” Kargin swore softly in Russian and grinned his acquiescence.
Roy Vataja is the son of Finnish immigrants and feels that even though Nicholas Koleski was on the APD payroll for only two weeks, he was a dedicated officer and deserved better than to be gunned down like a dog by party or parties unknown.