True crime

A Reno cop was killed in the line of duty. While the murderer was caught, a mystery remained.


“Calling all cars! Calling all cars! Be on the lookout for two robbery suspects from Susanville, believed to be headed toward Reno …”

As words such as those crackled over the police radio, Washoe County sheriff’s deputies Earl Griffith Sr. and Tom Lambert were making their rounds in their patrol car. It was around 9 o’clock on the evening of Tuesday, April 29, 1947, as they steered north on U.S. 395, hoping to spot the bandits.

“The suspects are wanted for armed robbery. They are two young males driving a brown Buick with Arizona plates …”

Northern Nevada was experiencing delightful spring weather that week. The temperature dropped from around 60 into the 50s as the lawmen climbed into the foothills, driving the lonely, two-lane highway, then known as Purdy Road, toward Bordertown, looking for a brown Buick carrying two punks with a gun.

They had seen nothing out of the ordinary as they crossed the state line into California. Stopping at the agriculture checkpoint, the deputies asked the inspector on duty whether he might have spotted a car fitting the description of the one that had been seen racing away from the two service stations that had been robbed up in Susanville.

The inspector told the deputies he wasn’t sure of the make of the car, but that two kids had driven south past his station a short time earlier. Griffith and Lambert turned their patrol car around and within moments spotted a car parked along a dirt track east of the highway, its interior dome light casting a glow across the dark desert.

Deputy Earl Griffith Sr., shortly before his fatal encounter in the line of duty.

As they approached, Griffith and Lambert figured this was probably a false alarm. The car wasn’t the brown Buick the dispatcher had described; it was a red Studebaker. But, as the deputies approached on foot, their senses were heightened, first by the Arizona license plate on the rear bumper and then by the sight of two young men sitting in the front seat. They were counting a wad of money.

Lambert stood on the passenger’s side as Griffith moved to the other side and ordered the driver to step out. At first, Louis “Snuffy” Smith did as he was told: He got out. Next, Earl Griffith ordered Smith to give him the gun that had been used in the Susanville robberies.

At age 21, Smith, alias Gene Garland, was already an ex-con, having been paroled after serving three years for burglary in Washington. Appearing to be cooperative, Smith pulled out the revolver. But instead of handing it to Griffith, he began firing.

In all, five rounds ripped into Griffith, two more into Lambert, who managed to get off a single shot. It grazed Smith’s left arm as he and Griffith fell into the sagebrush, struggling. Fearful of hitting his partner by firing again, Lambert used the butt of his revolver to repeatedly bash Smith’s skull, eventually knocking him unconscious.

Griffith managed to stand up, but, gravely wounded, he took only a wobbly step or two before stumbling into a ditch and collapsing. In the pitch blackness, Lambert crawled back to the patrol car to radio for help. All the lawmen down in Reno could hear over the shortwave was the chilling sound of someone gasping for air.

Although bleeding badly from a gunshot to his belly, the Lambert summoned enough strength to drive back to the agriculture checkpoint. The inspector there “called by telephone and said that one deputy had come in, bad shot, and one was laying out on the road shot,” Sgt. Eugene Cowen would later recall. Cowen, a detective with the Reno Police Department, was among the first officers to reach the so-called ‘bug station.’

Cowen and three other lawmen unwittingly drove past the crime scene at about the same time as Louis Smith regained consciousness. Returning to the Studebaker he’d stolen the previous week in Phoenix, he found his accomplice, a 17-year-old named Larry Yaney, still sitting in the front seat, terrified. As police cars and two ambulances raced north on 395, their sirens screaming, Smith and Yaney drove south.

In this photo of the Washoe County sheriff’s force, Earl Griffith Sr. is standing in plain clothes at left in the center row.

It took Cowen and his men several passes along the darkened highway to find Earl Griffith. “I took the spotlight,” the detective would later testify. “Then I saw his shoes. He had on black shoes, shining in the brush. The light reflected from them. That’s all of the body that was showing, just his shoes. He was down in the brush. When I found his body, he was lying flat on his face with his arms out flung, in a pool of blood.” Lying about a foot from the body was the murder weapon: an Iver-Johnson .22 revolver. The nine chambers were empty; all the cartridges had been fired. The deputy’s service revolver and ammo belt were missing.

The headline in Wednesday morning’s edition of the Nevada State Journal was, literally, a call to arms. After reading of the “gun battle with two bandits” that had left one deputy dead and another fighting for his life, scores of men armed with every conceivable type of firearm converged on the sheriff’s office, volunteering to join the manhunt.

There was only one man to hunt for. After riding with Smith to the Reno Army Air Base (later known as Stead), Larry Yaney, the still-terrified teenager, walked to the base and surrendered. Fearing the red Studebaker would give him away, Louis Smith ditched the car and headed west into the hills on foot.

The posse was led by a father-and-son team of Native American trackers from Fallon. Albert and Edward Hicks followed Smith’s trail over Peavine Mountain and into Dog Valley. Two boys fishing in the Truckee River near Verdi told members of the search party that someone—presumably the desperado—had stolen their sandwiches. A short time later, a Sparks man who had driven up the mountain to go fishing called to say that his car, a 1935 black Ford coupe, had been stolen.

The following Sunday, May 4, two CHP patrolmen found a ‘35 Ford with Nevada plates broken down near Bakersfield. Witnesses said that the car’s driver had hitched a ride with a southbound trucker. The officers stopped the rig near Newhall, about 35 miles out of Los Angeles. Smith offered no resistance as he was arrested. He told the patrolmen that he had not thought the truck driver was simply being stopped for speeding, he would have come out blasting. Griffith’s gun was found under the seat.

The Sierra County Sheriff, W.D. Johnson, drove from Downieville to Los Angeles to interview the prisoner. Johnson said that while at the Hall of Justice, Smith confessed to shooting both Griffith and Lambert. “He admitted having the gun in his hand and the gun going off,” Johnson told a coroner’s inquest. “He said it sounded like a bunch of firecrackers.”

Smith was returned to Sierra County to await trial. Both he and Yaney were convicted of murder and given life sentences. Cops in both California and Nevada were outraged; they had hoped Smith would get the death penalty.

The grave of Earl Griffith Sr., who was shot and killed while attempting to apprehend two armed robbery suspects in 1947.

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The son of a police chief, it was no surprise when in 1979, Doug Gist decided to join the Washoe County Sheriff’s Department. In his 25 years with the department, Gist—who shared his father’s passion for law enforcement history—served as the Department’s unofficial historian, researching and documenting the various crimes the agency had handled since its creation in 1861.

Gist discovered that Earl Griffith Sr. was the first Washoe deputy to die in the line of duty, and the only one to be murdered. The case fascinated him. He poured over old newspapers, scoured legal documents and interviewed those familiar with the case in his quest to piece together an accurate record of what had happened on that remote stretch of highway on a warm spring night back in 1947. Most of the pieces of the puzzle fit easily into place. For years, though, one key piece was missing. Try as he did, using all of his investigative skills, Gist could not find any living relatives of the slain deputy.

Griffith had fathered three sons. But, by the time Gist began his search, only one, Earl Junior, was still alive, and he had left Nevada for Arkansas during the 1970s. As Gist explains, “We didn’t have the internet back in those days. … I was looking for a needle in a haystack. Only one of the three needles was left, and I didn’t know where to look.” The hunt for survivors of the slain deputy was at a dead-end.

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At the time his father was gunned down, Earl Griffith Jr. was a teenager. Upon learning of his dad’s slaying, he was both shocked and angry. “I wanted to join the posse,” he remembers. “But they wouldn’t let me.”

Earl Jr. says a number of Washoe deputies—"most of the department"—traveled to Roseville, Calif., for the funeral. There was, however, no procession of squad cars, their lights flashing. There was no presentation of a flag, a plaque, or anything else to the grieving family. “I don’t even remember them giving us his badge,” Earl Jr. says. “That’s the way things were done back in those days.” With quiet understatement, he adds, “They do things a little differently now.”

Earl Griffith Jr., and his daughter Linda Williams as she pins the survivor’s Silver Cross on him.

As the years passed, Earl Jr. made occasional trips back to Nevada to visit his daughter, Linda Williams, and his grandchildren. During his stays, Williams says the subject of her grandfather’s slaying wasn’t taboo, but it wasn’t exactly a conversation-starter, either. Earl Jr. had buried many of his emotions with his father’s body in May of ‘47, and that was that—until a couple of years ago.

In 2005, Earl flew west to help his daughter move into her new home in Sparks. One afternoon, unexpectedly, the past came flooding back.

“We were just kind of touring the town, since he grew up here,” Linda explains. “And so I said, ‘You know, you want to go see the new sheriff’s station up on Parr Boulevard?’ So we decided to drive up there.”

It was the weekend, but the front door was unlocked, so Earl and Linda stepped inside. Just beyond the door, they were greeted by a display case with a tribute to the four deputies who had died while on duty. Prominent in the display was a black-and-white photo of Earl Griffith Sr. in his khaki uniform and cap. “Deputy Griffith was shot and killed while attempting to apprehend two armed robbery suspects,” read the adjoining description.

Earl Jr. walked over to the reception desk to identify himself as the son of the fallen deputy. He remembers writing down his address. But, unaware of the long search for relatives, the officer on duty apparently never passed on the piece of paper.

By now a retired captain, Gist was none the wiser until earlier this year, when Sheriff Michael Haley’s secretary called to inform him that Earl Griffith Sr.'s granddaughter was living in Sparks. One Sunday morning, Linda Williams had shared that nugget with a deputy who attends the same church. Gist’s long-and-heretofore-futile search was over.

Doug and Linda met a few days later. “I explained to him that I would really like to see some kind of honor to my father, on behalf of my grandfather,” she says. “And since he was getting up in years, I felt that time was of the essence. He said, ‘Now just leave it up to me.'”

On Friday, June 29, as a jury downtown was deliberating its verdict in the Chaz Higgs murder trial and firefighters struggled to contain the disastrous wildfire near South Lake Tahoe, Earl Griffith Jr., his daughter, Linda, and other family members gathered in Sheriff Haley’s office, where he presented them with the department’s Silver Cross, given to the survivors of deputies who have made the ultimate sacrifice. The accompanying Certificate of Commendation reads, “He died protecting the citizens of Washoe County.”

“It was very emotional. It really was,” Williams says of the ceremony and her father’s reaction. “This had been something he didn’t want to dwell on all those years. (But) it truly touched him.”

“Oh, man, I was really thrilled,” Earl says. “I really, really appreciated that. It meant a lot to me. It meant a lot to the whole family.”

For years, Earl has displayed some photos of his dad in a bookcase in the den of his Arkansas home. For 60 years, they were all he had by which to remember him. Now, he proudly displays the Silver Cross alongside the photographs in that bookcase. “I was 19 at the time (of the murder), and I’ll be 80 this year, so it took awhile,” he says with a muted laugh. “But I’m glad it finally came about.”

Both of the young men who had robbed the gas stations in Susanville before their fateful rendezvous with Deputies Griffith and Lambert ended up incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison, where they both met violent ends. Larry Yaney was stabbed to death by a fellow inmate. The menacing Louis Smith killed again in 1949, using a hatchet to murder a prison barber. For his second slaying, Smith was given the death penalty. In 1957, 10 years after the death of Deputy Earl Griffith, his fellow peace officers finally got their wish: Smith was executed in San Quentin’s gas chamber.