April 26, 1951, Benjamin Marshall was murdered by two escaping inmates at the Monroe prison.
April 25, 2014, the prison finally gave him a formal funeral.
When Correctional Officer Myndy Svoboda tripped on the story of Ben Marshall while working on an update of the prison’s emergency response curriculum, she immediately knew something must have gone wrong all those years ago. Ben Marshall, a prison steam plant operator, was murdered by two inmates in 1951. And yet Svoboda had never heard his name.
No one, it turned out, knows why the man was never honored for his death in the line of duty.
But Friday, 63 years almost to the day after his death, the prison finally held a full military funeral for the man and established a memorial for him, so that his name will be remembered by all future prison workers, the way the prison staff says it always should have been.
Death in the Line of Duty
Robert Johnson and Luther Moore were each facing more than a decade behind bars in 1951. The two inmates decided to try to shorten that sentence. So they spent three days planning an escape in which they would overpower a prison worker and use a makeshift ladder to go over the 30-foot-high wall.
The night of April 26, they put their plan into action.
At 9 p.m., prison power plant engineer Benjamin Marshall was supervising some trustees, inmates who have earned positions of greater freedom due to good behavior, as they overhauled a pump in an engine room at the power plant.
Ordinarily he wouldn’t have been working so late.
But two of the trustees had claimed that a particular pump needed extra work, and they offered to work after hours.
Those two trustees, Johnson and Moore, actually wanted to stay late so they could escape under cover of darkness. As they bent over the engine, they surreptitiously fashioned weapons out of steam hoses filled with bolts. They also cobbled together several lengths of ladder out of lengths of steel pipe, and hid them behind a tool box.
Then the two inmates asked Marshall to come and inspect their work. When he came over, they attacked him, bludgeoned him with the saps made of hose, tied his hands and feet with wire, gagged him and stole his wallet and watch.
Moments later, they assembled the pieces of ladder, threw it against the west wall of the prison between two unmanned guard posts, and started climbing.
Johnson got to the top. Moore didn’t. He was just three feet from the edge of the wall when the ladder broke under his weight and he fell back into the compound.
They’d agreed ahead of time that if they got separated, they’d reunite at the prison water tank.
Fifteen minutes after Marshall was attacked, another trustee who was working as a fireman found Marshall bound and bleeding, and alerted the prison staff.
One of the officers had just seen Moore slipping into the power plant half-dressed, and went and caught him in the shower.
Johnson, meanwhile, was headed for the water tower when he heard the prison whistle that announced a prison escape. So he changed his plans and ran into deep brush, then got lost.
As he cowered in the brush, more than 150 law enforcement personnel set up roadblocks on every road out of town and launched a massive search.
At the prison hospital, attendants managed to stabilize Marshall and get him in an ambulance to Valley General Hospital. But 45 minutes later, Marshall died of the injury to his head.
Right around dawn, Johnson, shirtless and barefoot, emerged from the brush with his hands raised and surrendered.
Although Moore claimed he’d had nothing to do with it, saying that he’d merely surprised Johnson in the act of attacking Marshall, Johnson told officers that the two had planned it, and that they hadn’t want to kill Marshall, only to knock him out.
The prosecution sought the death penalty anyway, but although a jury convicted them of premeditated murder, they decided that the two should both face life imprisonment instead.
After Marshall’s death, the prison offered his widow, Hazel, a job as a clerk in order that she might support herself, and she took it.
But other than that, Myndy Svoboda was unable to find any evidence that the prison had formally honored Marshall for his sacrifice.
“I had never seen his name on a plaque,” said Svoboda.
She took the story to prison official Greg Miller.
“We don’t know why he was never honored as a staff member killed in the line of duty,” said Greg Miller, a prison official who learned of Marshall from Svoboda.
Svoboda and Miller got the ball rolling on a long-overdue ceremony honoring him.
Last year, a woman in Chelan got a very unexpected phone call.
Sandi Gruenberg was still months from being born when her grandfather Benjamin Marshall was killed.
But all her life, her grandfather was a family legend.
“Every time I drove by the prison, I thought, ‘That’s where my grandpa was killed,’” she said.
Marshall had been well liked by his family, who described him as a mild-mannered man, and his widow, Hazel, lived another 22 years, until 1973.
But Marshall had never seemed real to Gruenberg until the prison staff contacted her and invited her and Marshall’s other grandchildren to come to a ceremony in his honor, and to accept the folded flag that is customarily presented to the families of those killed in the line of duty.
“It was really kind,” she said.
As the family historian, her relatives agreed that it should be she who held the memorabilia from the day, and she will preserve the memory of Benjamin Marshall for his many great- and great-great-grandchildren.
Friday, Gruenberg and two other of Marshall’s grandchildren sat in the front row of a canopied gallery as prison staff carried out a solemn ceremony that included a formal salute. They presented Gruenberg and her family with a folded flag in a triangular case, along with other memorabilia, including a certificate honoring Hazel’s years of service after her husband’s death.
Trumpet player Debbie Dawson of the Everett Police Department played Taps; Brian Johnston of the Monroe Police Department played Amazing Grace on bagpipes and an honor guard carried in the flags; whereupon a ribbon bearing Marshall’s name was affixed to the Flag of Remembrance that already carries ribbons bearing the names of other staff members who have died while they were employees of the prison, including the only other staff person ever killed in the line of duty in Monroe, Jayme Biendl, who was killed in 2011.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, Chaplain Linda Haptonstall said, “We close today as a family, and most of us have to go back inside, we who remember our stories, and share our stories and we added a new story today of Benjamin Marshall.”