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Leon Forncrook’s life-changing mistake

When Leon Forncrook arrived in Medford on the Fourth of July in 1921, his family was amazed at what the Rogue Valley seemed to offer — especially fruit.

They came from a small town in the northeast corner of Montana — “A prairie country where sheep were raised,” said Verna, his daughter. “This place, Oregon, was so different — so many fruit trees — the land of plenty.”

In 1903, not long after graduation, Leon left his hometown in Wisconsin for Montana. He had arranged a telegrapher job with the Great Northern Railroad. There he met Bertha Hruska, and they married in August 1909.

By 1913, he had worked two years as a bookkeeper for the county treasurer, before being chosen as deputy sheriff. It was this eight years of law enforcement experience and his familiarity with cataloging and analyzing fingerprints that made him the perfect candidate for the vacant Jackson County deputy’s position.

The drive from Montana to Oregon over dirt roads took two weeks. There were dozens of stops to repair inner tube punctures, and even though it was early summer, their Overland touring car struggled to push through the heavy mud and wade through sudden rain squalls.

Deputy Forncrook quickly gained a “highly efficient” reputation as an expert fingerprint man and talented crime fighter. However, it was his poor decision — his mistake — in fall 1925 that would haunt him for the rest of his life.

At the end of September, the grand jury heard enough evidence to indict a 16-year-old boy on a charge of rape of a 16-year-old girl. A warrant for the boy’s arrest was issued and given to Deputy Forncrook to serve.

Walter Williams, the accused boy, lived with his parents in Gold Hill. Leon went to the house late in the afternoon and explained to Williams’ parents that he had an arrest warrant and was required to take their son to jail.

Of course, the parents objected and, after a long discussion and a promise they would bring their son to the county jail themselves early the next morning, Leon agreed and left for his home without the boy.

The next morning neither the parents nor their son appeared in Jacksonville. Leon discovered the boy had fled. His parents said he had left during the night and they didn’t know where he was. They were held under a $500 bond to appear as witnesses in the case.

Their son was apprehended the next day.

Now, the grand jury indicted Deputy Forncrook on two misdemeanors — malfeasance and neglect in office — and receiving and delaying the service of a warrant of arrest. A felony charge of obstructing justice was added later.

Although left on his own recognizance until trial, Leon immediately announced that whatever the result of trial, he would resign his position at the end of the month.

Friends said Leon was being charged because of politics and bad feelings between the sheriff’s office and county prosecuting attorneys. They defended Leon’s decision, believing he had agreed with the parents because he did not want to put the boy in the crowded county jail among hardened criminals.

At trial, Leon pleaded guilty to failure to serve a warrant. The felony obstruction charge was dropped. He was fined $50, suspended from duty and not given jail time.

Months later, Walter Williams was convicted of rape, lost his appeal and was sent to prison.

Leon Forncrook’s nearly 15-year law enforcement career was over for good. He accepted a job as bookkeeper for the California Oregon Power Company (COPCO) and died in 1946 at age 62.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “To Live and Die a WASP, 38 Women Pilots Who Died in WWII.” Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.