Q: Who’s the first Palm Beach County police officer killed in the line of duty?
A: For years, it was believed to be Frederick Baker, a sheriff’s deputy shot during a raid on the Ashley gang, which terrorized South Florida in the 1910s and 1920s. In February 1924, a posse led by Palm Beach County Sheriff Bob Baker opened up on the Ashley camp in western Martin County. Joe Ashley, John’s father, was shot as he tied his shoes. John, seeing his father hit, killed deputy Fred Baker. The gang fled; angry townspeople burned the Ashleys’ camp and homes. Nine months later, Ashley and three partners were shot dead on a bridge north of Fort Pierce. A judge accepted deputies’ statements that the gangsters were trying to escape, but decades later, one of those deputies admitted the criminals had been handcuffed when they were shot.
Fred Baker’s status was unchanged until 1996, when Florida International University Professor William Wilbanks unearthed the story of George Clem Douglas, killed Aug. 17, 1921, while trying to arrest a thief in Bare Beach, near Belle Glade.
Later in 1996, in a public ceremony 75 years after the fact, authorities added Douglas’ name to the county’s Fallen Deputy Memorial in West Palm Beach and submitted it for the National Law Enforcement Memorial in Washington. Douglas became one of nine county deputies believed killed in the line of duty since the county and its sheriff’s office were formed in 1909.
Douglas, a farmer, was talked into taking the job by town councils in the settlements of Bare Beach and Ritta, now ghost towns along the big lake. He held it for only five weeks before being shot, allegedly by Sam Wells, a 50-year-old laborer on a crew building the Miami Lake, where the Miami Canal meets the lake. Wells had been accused of cheating another man out of his paycheck during a card game. Wells was never arrested in the slaying.
Read More: Forgotten Heroes: Police Officers Killed in Early Florida, by William Wilbanks.
Historical Society of Palm Beach County: 832-4164.
Tags: Ashley Gang