Officer Edwin J. Fisher Receives Headstone After 62 YearsPosted on October 11, 2017 by Pat Evans
Shortly after 12:30 p.m. on June 1, 1955, Utah State Prison Correctional Officer H.B. Smart received a phone call. When the prison cannery supervisor, picked up the receiver, an anonymous voice said, “Fisher’s been hurt in the boiler room.”
Smart dashed to the boiler room where he found Officer Edwin J. Fisher crumpled on the bloody floor of his small office. The 58-year-old boiler room supervisor had been stabbed in the arm, back and once in the upper right side of his chest. Smart ran next door to the laundry room for help.
Meanwhile, Deputy Warden John Turner and Captain M.F. Jensen were talking in Jensen’s office located in the same building where the murder had just occurred. A lanky prisoner came in and said that he needed to talk to Turner. Jensen noticed the blade of a knife protruding from the bottom of the prisoner’s front pocket.
“Wait a minute,” Jensen ordered. “What have you got there?”
“I just stabbed Fisher,” said the prisoner. He handed over the knife without incident.
Thirty minutes later, prison physician Dr. J.O. Jones pronounced Fisher dead, stating that the officer died of internal hemorrhage and shock from the knife wounds. In addition to the chest wound, Jones found a small cut on Fisher’s hand, a clear indication that the officer saw the assault coming and tried to defend him self. Furthermore, Fisher’s blood was discovered on a crumpled newspaper in his office, evidence that the killer calmly wiped off the knife blade following the assault.
The murder seemed out of character for the prisoner. William Walter, 21, of Stockton, California, was serving a one-to-twenty-year prison sentence for a 1953 burglary in Sanpete County, and scheduled for parole in 1957. Although not a model prisoner, Walter was not a known troublemaker. He worked in the prison mattress factory, located in the same building as the boiler room.
In addition to his own investigation, Warden Marcell Graham called in detectives from the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Department and the office of the county attorney.
With the murder of Warden Burgher in 1876 long forgotten, officials believed that Fisher’s death represented a singular occurrence in the history of the Utah State Prison. Despite frequent assaults on guards, and the occasional riot, no corrections officer had been killed in the line of duty. Officials claimed that Fisher’s murder represented a new level of violence at the prison.
Investigators set about reconstructing the murder. Walter said he didn’t know why he killed Fisher. He remembered going into the boiler room and seeing the officer behind the desk, but that he subsequently “blacked out” and could not remember anything until he saw Fisher on the floor. Walter admitted that he stole the murder weapon, an eight-inch boning knife, from the prison butcher shop several months before. The knife was worn out and scheduled for replacement when he took it and hid it in a mattress.
Witnesses said that Fisher left the officers’ dining room about 12:30 p.m. and walked to the boiler room. Officers speculated that Fisher was alone in his office for just a few minutes before the assault occurred.
A widower and childless Fisher had worked at the prison as a boiler engineer since 1952. Born in Covington, Kentucky, Fisher came to Utah after serving in the U.S. Navy. He had no immediate family in the area, and lived alone in Murray. His body was eventually returned to Kentucky for burial in Frankfort.
On June 3, the County Attorney formally charged Walter with first-degree murder. Walter appeared in court and was ordered to face a preliminary hearing the following month. Following the hearing, he was bound over to Third District Court where, on July 23, he entered a plea of innocent.
Walter’s trial began November 2 in the courtroom of Third District Judge Ray Van Cott, Jr. Prison guards and inmates filled the seats outside the courtroom as they waited to testify. Inmate Robert L. Bingham testified how he found Fisher bleeding and leaning against his desk in the boiler room. Fisher was still breathing when Bingham lowered him to the floor and ran to call for help. Investigators related elements of the investigation, including Walter’s confession.
Walter took the stand that afternoon. Rather than sticking with his original story of blacking out, he claimed to have stabbed Fisher in self-defense. Walter said that Fisher caught him with the boning knife eight months before the murder, but agreed not to turn him in if Walter would become his errand boy.
“Fisher told me that if I did things for him he would not tell anybody that I had a knife,” Walter testified.
Walter claimed Fisher “blackmailed” him into furnishing the officer with cigarettes and coffee, an arrangement that Walter soon came to resent. On June 1, Walter said Fisher ordered him to bring some coffee into the boiler room.
“I told him I would get it,” Walter said. “When I brought him the coffee I told Fisher he could take the knife and turn me in.”
Walter said Fisher became enraged, jumped up and slugged him. During the scuffle, Walter said he stabbed the officer to protect himself, and then fled because he got scared.
On November 4, after deliberating for eight hours, the eleven-man and one woman jury found Walter guilty of second-degree murder. Ten days later, Walter returned to prison with a life sentence.
Walter was part of the prisoner grievance committee during the 1957 prison riot. On August 17, 1971, he escaped from medium security by hiding under a load of lumber and trash in the back of a truck bound for the dump. A guard later saw him at the dump but Walter got away by fleeing along the Jordan River.
Two days later, a Layton City police officer found Walter walking along Highway 106 and arrested him without incident. Returned to prison, Walter served time until the termination of his Utah sentence in 1979, at which point he was turned over to federal authorities. Walter remained incarcerated in a federal corrections facility in Victorville, California, until his death at the age of 80 on October 25, 2013.
For 62 years, Fisher rested in an unmarked grave in the Frankfort City Cemetery. On October 11, 2017, a uniformed detail from the Utah Department of Corrections traveled to Kentucky and placed a headstone on commemorating his loss in the line of duty.
Article provided by Utah Law Enforcement Memorial Executive Board Vice President Robert Kirby.