Note: This is a chapter from my upcoming book, Unsolved: Cold-Case Homicides of Law Enforcement Officers (policehistorybyjamesbultema.com.)
Officer Frank Hardy
Seattle (Washington) Police Department
End of Watch: Friday, March 12, 1954
In police work, few radio calls raise the hair on the back of your neck and get the adrenaline pounding through your veins more than an “All units, a robbery in progress” or a silent robbery alarm at a bank. Law enforcement officers train endlessly for just such an event. There is diagonal deployment to consider, concealment and cover, what additional weapons to take and above all, communication with responding units . Patrolman Frank Hardy responded to just such a call. Regrettably, it would be his last.
What would become known as one of the most spectacular bank robberies in Seattle
history began on Friday, March 12, 1954, at 10:40 a.m., when three middle-aged men entered the lobby of the Seattle First National Bank at 404 N. 85th St. wearing disguises. When they saw the large fake noses with black-rimmed glasses, many of the 20 customers thought it was some sort of prank. The snickering stopped when they saw the men were armed with guns. (Much of the following information was reported by the Behind the Badge Foundation which provides comprehensive support to Washington state’s law enforcement agencies, families and communities after an officer has died or suffered serious injury in the line of duty.)
Once in the bank, Suspect No. 1 pointed a gun at the bank manager and ordered him to open the vault. Suspect No. 2 stood in the lobby as the lookout and kept an eye on the two entrances. Suspect No. 3 entered the tellers’ cage area and starting loading money into brown paper bags he had taken with him. A bank employee lying on the ground, bravely used his foot to activate a hidden silent alarm. The call of the silent robbery alarm at the bank went out at 10:45. The closest unit to the bank was Sgt. Howard Slessman in Car 252. Officer Vernon Chase in Car 223 and Officer Frank Hardy in Car 213 arrived right behind Sgt. Slessman. Unfortunately for the officers, the glass in the bank’s windows was all one-way, which made it nearly impossible for them to see inside while providing the criminals with a clear view of what was occurring outside.
Armed with a shotgun, Sgt. Slessman parked at the south side of North 85th and moved toward the main entrance. Officer Chase approached from the east side, also armed with a shotgun. Sgt. Slessman told Chase to take the east entrance. Slessman continued to the main entrance. Inside, the three suspects saw both officers approaching. The sergeant glanced inside the bank and saw several people in the lobby, none of whom appeared alarmed. He would later state it appeared like business as usual, and he thought this was probably just another false alarm. Slessman entered through the first set of doors. As he did, he saw a man moving toward him who he thought was the bank manager coming to explain the error in setting off the silent alarm. Suspects No. 2 stopped eight feet from the inner door, quickly raised his .45-caliber simiautomatic pistol and fired through the
glass door. The bullet hit Slessman in the shoulder and entered his upper torso. The shot paralyzed his right arm. The sergeant went down. Suspect No. 2 walked over to the wounded man, leveled his gun directly at Slessman’s head and instead of executing him, calmly told him to stay where he was. He then strolled back into the bank.
Suspect No. 1 and No. 2 started to walk through the lobby toward the east door. As Slessman lay on the floor, he saw Officer Hardy moving from the sidewalk east of the bank toward the east entrance. Suspect No. 2 peering through the one-way glass, fired a shot through the quarter-inch plate-glass window, striking Officer Hardy in the head. Quickly, Officer Chase went to aid Hardy. Suspect No. 1 and No. 2 walked out the east door into the parking lot. Suspect No. 2 took aim and shot Chase in the abdomen. Chase went down. Not one shot had been fired by the three officers, and all were on the ground, bleeding. Suspect No. 3, the only remaining robber in the bank, used his pistol to smash out a window on the west side of the bank. He jumped out with a bag containing $6,900 ($63,000 in today’s money) and left behind another bag, this one containing $90,800 ($831,000).
Suspects No. 1 and No. 2 sprinted to their stolen getaway car parked at the northeast corner of the bank parking lot. The late-model green Oldsmobile had Washington plates that had been lifted from a Studebaker in an auto wrecking yard. The two suspects drove north on Phinney Street as responding units pulled up. As Office G.D. Boyer arrived, a woman was yelling that a man had run behind a house on Phinney. Officer Boyer looked in that direction and saw Suspect No. 3 just getting into the getaway car. He chased the suspects on foot north on Phinney until he lost sight of the car.
At the bank, officers and citizens, along with several doctors and nurses from a nearby clinic, arrived to give aid to the three wounded men. The officers were loaded into three different ambulances and transported to nearby hospitals. Officer Hardy died while en route. Ninety minutes later, the getaway car was found abandoned in a parking lot. As the car was being recovered, one of the most intense manhunt in the history of the Pacific Northwest was underway.
Following the robbery and murder of Officer Hardy, a joint task force of the Seattle Police Department and the FBI, logged 10,000 hours in just two weeks of investigative work while following up on more than 700 leads. On the day of the shooting, a police bulletin detailing the robbery was sent to outlying agencies. After hearing of the Seattle robbery, Vancouver detectives who had been investigating a series of bank robberies were quick to note the similarities between the two. The MO (modus operandi) fit perfectly. A Canadian police superintendent promptly phoned the Seattle investigators.
Consequently, four months after the shooting, detectives had two of the three suspects identified: Clifford Dawley and John Wasylenchuk, both convicted criminals with lengthy rap sheets. Of the three suspects, Dawley, the apparent triggerman (Suspect No. 2), stood out as the leader. Despite the quick identification of the suspects, it would take nearly a decade for a grand jury indict the two men for the murder of Officer Hardy and the bank robbery.
Authorities attempted to extradite Dawley, who was serving his first year of a nine-year prison sentence in Canada—but were turned down. Canadian law prohibited extradition until the full term of a sentence is served. Investigators were stunned. Nevertheless, Wasylenchuk, who was not in prison, was put on trial in a Seattle federal court in 1964.
Prosecutors had a strong case and were going after the death penalty. But to everyone’s disbelief, Wasylenchuk was provided an alibi by a retired sergeant of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who stated that Wasylenchuk was at his home the day of the shooting. This same Mountie had also been a defense witness in a previous bank robbery case in which Wasylenchuk was convicted. Through different informers, U.S. investigators learned that several Canadian officers had assisted criminals in setting up bank robberies in western Canada and, for a price, provided them with false alibis. With the alibi, Wasylenchuk went free. And with that acquittal, the second suspect, Dawley, was never brought to trial.
Postscript. Wasylenchuk had a heart attack and died in 1968. Dawley, who police always believed shot all three officers (Suspect No. 2), died in a boat fire in 1974. The RCMP sergeant died of natural causes four months after the trial. The third suspect was never officially identified.
Sgt. Slessman and Officer Chase both returned to work in July 1954. Chase never fully recovered from his wounds. After 19 surgeries and hospitalization for over three months, Chase retired on a disability pension in 1963. He died in 2002. Slessman was later promoted to captain and became head of internal investigation in 1977. His son, Mike, became a Seattle police captain. Howard Slessman died in 1981.
Frank Wallace Hardy was born in 1923 in Minnesota but lived most of his life in Seattle. He served in the United States Marine Corps from 1943 to 1946. He joined the SPD in 1951. Before his death, Hardy was remodeling the family home into their “dream house.” Following his murder, fellow officers, including the chief of police, along with tradesmen from throughout the area did a complete remodel of the Hardy home. It became known as “Project Hardy.” His wife Rolene, their newborn son, and his daughter, Antoinette, moved into the completed dream house Frank had always wanted for them.
• Seattle PI. http://blog.seattlepi.com/seattle911/2013/03/06/the-1954-seattle-bank-heist-that-exposed-a-political-scandal/#photo-211913 and
• The Seattle Times: http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=19931128&slug=1734219
• A book was written on the shooting and robbery in 1994 entitled: Cops, Crooks and Politicians by Neil W. Moloney, the former chief of the Washington State Patrol and a former Seattle police officer.