LA GRANDE — Law enforcement officers in the United States have never faced greater scrutiny nationwide than they have the past four weeks following the death of George Floyd in Minnesota.
The intense spotlight is drawing attention not only to officers’ actions but to their history of sacrifice.
It is a history that includes 31 Oregon State Police officers who have died in the line of duty since the agency began operating Aug. 1, 1931, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page, www.odmp.org. The list includes the name of a trooper with a tragic link to La Grande and OSP history, Amos “Spud’’ Helms.
Helms, 30, became the first Oregon State Police officer to be killed in the line of duty after he was shot Oct. 18, 1931, in La Grande during a gunfight involving two Missouri men wanted for a robbery in Idaho Falls, Idaho, according to the Oct. 19, 1931, edition of The Observer. The shootout was at the old Playle Oil gas station at Adams Avenue and Greenwood Street.
Helms, who lived in Baker City at the time, died Dec. 29, 1931, from a bullet wound to his abdomen. He had previously lived in La Grande, where he was an auto salesman.
The two men charged with the fatal shooting were apprehended almost two days later after a manhunt involving at least 50 people and an airplane.
They were caught at 11 a.m. Oct. 20, 1931, 7 miles from Meacham, according to that day’s Observer, then named the La Grande Evening Observer.
On Oct. 19, 1931, the two men involved in the shooting, Keith Crosswhite, 19, and John Owen, 28, were with two girls, and had just watched a movie in a La Grande theater, The Observer reported.
They were at the Playle Oil Station getting gas and were preparing to leave when Helms and another law enforcement officer, Lee H. Noe, signaled for the party to stay put. One of the men took out a gun and told the police officers to put up their hands. When Helms reached for his gun, the two criminals fired at him and Noe and then drove off, leaving Helms wounded and Noe unharmed.
Crosswhite and Owen, who signed full confessions within two days of being arrested, were later convicted of murder and each given life sentences. Crosswhite was pardoned in 1942, and Owen was paroled in 1950.
An editorial in the Baker City Herald called Helms a hero.
“If Helms does not recover he will die for his country just as surely as any soldier who fell on the battlefields of France during the war (World War I),” wrote the Herald, then named the Baker Democrat-Herald.
The editorial noted there was a great outpouring of support for Helms and this was encouraging to see.
“Public feeling has not always been so. Too often a large element has secretly if not openly helped for the triumph of outlawry over the law of the land,” the editorial stated.
Society had paid a price for this attitude, the Baker City newspaper stated.
“Had it (the anti-police sentiment) not been so, we would not today have organized crime leaning in our faces from so many vantage points.”
The Observer described Helms, a native of Harrison, Idaho, as one of the most popular OSP troopers in the region. He had lived in La Grande for eight years before moving to Baker on Aug. 1, 1931. Helms was a talented baseball player known for his speed, according to The Observer.
A shortstop, he played for the Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast League in 1924 and later was a semi-pro player in La Grande.
He had married Echo Hollen six years earlier in Condon, according to the Oregon State Police Memorial website. The couple had no children.
Amos “Spud’’ Helms is buried in La Grande at Hillcrest Cemetery.