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Roy Olmstead: A Seattle Police Officer Who Became The King Of The Bootleggers

1998.31.1.126, Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma (Wash.)
Roy Olmstead, a Seattle police officer, knew there was an opportunity to make a lot of money selling alcohol during prohibition. During the height of his business he was making $200,000 a month.


This story originally aired on September 27, 2017.

Back in the 1920’s a Seattle police officer spotted a lucrative opportunity, and hustled fast to make it happen. His name was Roy Olmstead and for a time, he became a very rich man by running a highly illegal activity.


During prohibition, Olmstead supplied a dry Northwest with alcohol. Lots of alcohol. The good stuff too. Not moonshine.


No one is really certain how Olmstead went from being an enforcer of the law to a lawbreaker, but it’s believed he had a lot of help.


“There were people in high places who encouraged him to do this,” said University of Washington History Professor, William Rorabaugh. According to Rorabaugh, Olmstead’s customers included Seattle’s elite families and elected officials.


In this story, learn about Olmstead’s sophisticated operation. Coded messages were embedded in children’s stories read over the radio, deliveries were made in the middle of the night on empty beaches and no one who worked for Olmstead was allowed to carry a gun.


Olmstead’s story may be almost a century old, but his downfall ended up affecting how some of our civil liberties are interpreted today.


Jennifer Wing is a former KNKX reporter and producer who worked on the show Sound Effect and Transmission podcast.