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SHERIFF DETERMINED TO SOLVE '35 KILLING OF POLICE OFFICER

A sheriff's unpublished book about the men who preceded him has a little bit of everything: gruesome murders, love triangles and other lurid crimes of passion.

But it is the unsolved 1935 shooting death of Newport Town Marshal George Conniff that has most consumed Sheriff Tony Bamonte and led to an accusation that a retired police detective killed Conniff.A rusted pistol reclaimed from a river is the only piece of evidence Bamonte has in the 54-year-old case.

"If the only thing I've done is bring the sunshine into this crime, then justice is starting to be served," said Bamonte about his book, which is to be published next summer. Bamonte, sheriff in northwestern Washington's Pend Oreille County for the past 10 years, would not say who is publishing his work.

Conniff was shot four times and killed after apparently confronting two men during the burglary of a creamery Sept. 15, 1935. The original investigation was closed and the slaying went unsolved.

That investigation and a witness' pleas for another probe in the 1950s also produced no arrests because, Bamonte contends, police officers involved in the inquiry covered up the crime.

With the help of the Spokane Police Department, Bamonte this year reopened the investigation after his research convinced him that Conniff was slain by a fellow policeman involved in Depression-era black market thefts of dairy products.

He is certain the killer is a 90-year-old former Spokane detective. The man has not been charged and has refused to talk to authorities.

Bamonte said NBC-TV's "Unsolved Mysteries" is scheduled to broadcast a segment on Conniff's slaying in January. He said he hopes it will offer evidence he needs to bring charges.

"If one person is alive that he has bragged to about the killing, then as far as I'm concerned, that's enough to ask for charges," Bamonte said last week. "He's 90 years old now and some people might look at him with sympathy. But I've got to look past that.

"There's also an ethical question: Because time lapses, does that forgive a crime like this? That's why society has put murder beyond the statute of limitations," he said.

Because many of the potential witnesses are dead and there is little physical evidence, chances of bringing Conniff's killer to trial are slim, Bamonte admits.

But he will still try.

"A decent police officer was gunned down, then shot once more when he was down," Bamonte said. "Justice shouldn't escape something like this. I'm obligated to do what I'm doing."

The key piece of evidence, a corroded .32-caliber pistol found in August under a downtown Spokane River bridge, is probably the murder weapon, Bamonte said.

The former detective whom Bamonte suspects reported that his .32-caliber off-duty revolver had been stolen shortly after Conniff's slaying.

Bamonte has taped statements from two former Spokane police officers that a superior told them another officer was in trouble and instructed to throw a package off a bridge. One of the men recently died.

Bamonte believes the package contained the pistol he found below the bridge after a utility company stopped the Spokane River's flow over a nearby dam in August.

The county prosecutor's office has been given regular reports on Bamonte's investigation but has not decided to reopen the case.