By JENNIFER K. BAUERASOTIN — A stone memorial in downtown Asotin stands almost exactly on the spot where Sheriff John Wormell was shot in August of 1931. Across the street in the basement of the Asotin County Museum is a photo of his killer, a barefoot child in overalls whose trial drew the world’s attention.
“He was pictured as a poor little kid,” says longtime Lewiston-Clarkston Valley resident Earl Cooper who played with Herbert Niccolls Jr. that summer. “He was as sharp as a tack.”
The overalls Niccolls wore in the photograph are his hand-me-downs, Cooper says.
“I was about 9 and he was 12, but we were the same size.”
The boys were introduced by family friend and Deputy Sheriff Wayne Bezona after Niccolls, nicknamed Junior, moved nearby with his grandmother. The boys liked to play cowboys and Indians. That’s how Niccolls came to have a gun, says Cooper, a World War I souvenir stolen from friends who let Cooper play war in their basement.
Cooper remembers walking downtown the day the town learned the sheriff was murdered.
“Everybody was talking. Everybody was on the street. That’s when I heard about it. It was a shock,” he says.
His parents cut off the friendship. He was not allowed to attend the funeral or trial where his mother was a character witness for Niccolls.
“He never came to play without knocking on the door first to tell her he was here. He was a real nice young man as far as she was concerned,” Cooper says.
He never saw Niccolls again, but has often thought about that day.
In the 1990s, Seattle Times reporter Nancy Bartley was researching a story about capital punishment and the youngest person in Washington to face the death penalty when she discovered Niccolls’ story. She spent a decade piecing together the boy’s life — from his disturbing childhood, to his coming-of-age in prison, to a career in Hollywood. Her book, “The Boy Who Shot the Sheriff,” was published this year by University of Washington Press.
“To me it felt like such a compelling story. I just started feeling like I had to write it. I felt like this young boy had been done an injustice,” says Bartley, 62.
It was after midnight when Wormell, 73, responded to a report of noise at Peter Klaus’ People’s Supply Store. Niccolls shot him from behind a vinegar barrel. Bezona found the boy with $2.82, a pack of Lucky Strikes and Adams gum.
Asotin has a history of lynchings, and Niccolls was quickly incarcerated in Pomeroy for his safety. He faced life in prison, the death penalty, or life in an insane asylum.
“The state was totally unprepared to have a 12-year-old murderer,” says Bartley, a reporter at the Times for 25 years. The law at the time was designed to handle juvenile offenses like property crimes, not violence, she says. The state penitentiary was not allowed to take anyone younger than 16.
“There really wasn’t anywhere to put Herbert.”
For a decade, Bartley spent all her vacations in cemeteries, at the prison in Walla Walla and in archives researching the story. The detailed facts and conversations in her book come directly from transcripts, letters and interviews.
Niccolls came from a background of neglect and extreme poverty in Idaho. His father was in an insane asylum. Struggling to feed him and his eight siblings, his mother put him in foster care. Before coming to Asotin to live with his grandmother he’d stolen cars, broken into homes and been sentenced to reform school. Spinal fluid and blood were drawn from Niccolls before the trial in an attempt to find physical clues to back the state’s belief that the boy had an innate criminal nature.
There were many violations of his civil rights, Bartley says.
Reporters from around the world called about the case. Strangers came to town in hopes of catching a glimpse of “the barefoot boy murderer.” Members of the First Methodist Episcopal Church in Asotin sold fried chicken to trial spectators. The jury sentenced him to life in the state penitentiary at Walla Walla where he was segregated from the general prison population because of his age.
Bartley says she knew she had a book when she wrote to Boys Town and asked their archivist if there were any records on the Niccolls case. Six months later she got a box in the mail full of correspondence from Father Edward Flanagan. As the founder of the country’s most famous refuge for troubled youth Flanagan believed: “There are no bad boys. There is only bad environment, bad training, bad example, bad thinking.” After reading about Niccolls’ case in the Denver Post he lobbied long and hard for Niccolls to be sent to Boys Town. Bartley delved into the records of Washington state’s governors to find a reaction and uncovered a bitter dispute.
Niccolls was educated in prison where he remained segregated until he was 20, when his release was proposed. In Asotin the town council passed a resolution in opposition, citing trial witness comments that he had a strain of criminality psychiatrists warned would stay with him through life. The Asotin Chamber of Commerce also passed a resolution protesting his parole.
Bartley believes that going to prison turned Niccolls’ life around. It was truly a case of one life lost, another gained, she says. “He became quite successful.”
However, for the rest of his life he kept his past a secret.
Niccolls moved to California where he became a studio executive at 20th Century Fox and kept an eye out for young people in trouble. He died in 1983. Bartley discovered his wife and son in Los Angeles. When she asked his son about his father’s past in Washington the man was bewildered and said his father had never lived in Washington.
Bartley is now turning her book into a screenplay. When people read Niccolls’ story, she says she hopes it makes them rethink their opinions about children who commit crimes.
“Yes, children can do really horrible things but that doesn’t mean they’re going to be horrible forever,” she says. “There is still so much of their life ahead and with the right intervention there can still be a worthwhile life in that individual.”
Bartley will be in Clarkston Saturday for book signings and a 7 p.m. presentation at the Asotin County Library. She is interested in meeting descendants of people connected to the case.
if you go
WHO: Nancy Bartley, author of “The Boy Who Shot the Sheriff”
WHEN: Signing 2-4 p.m. Saturday, And Books Too, 918 Sixth St., Clarkston; Presentation 7 p.m. Saturday, Asotin County Library, 417 Sycamore St., Clarkston