SOMEONE GETS IN trouble with the law. Rather than face the music, they move far away and change their name. This has all the makings of a movie plot line, but like a tiger, the lead character cannot change his stripes. He cannot change his essential nature. Such is the story of David Fred Hagler.
The story starts with a man named David Lee Douglas, who moved the Olympic Peninsula around 1967. He set up house in Gardiner and established a new life, taking over a restaurant in Port Ludlow.
Douglas was charming and charismatic. In 1969, he married Donna Erickson. Their marriage didn’t survive. In 1971, they divorced due to “Personal Indignities.”
Then, Douglas moved to Port Angeles and lived on West 15th Street, meeting Leif Erik Ellington when he hired Douglas to do some work.
In early 1975, Ellington showed Douglas a newspaper article on the benefits of churches. In simple terms, Ellington did not like paying taxes, and the fact that churches did not pay taxes piqued their interest. Together, they hatched a scheme to become a church and place Ellington’s money and property into the church.
Douglas purchased a mail-order ordination and the Science of Life Church of Joyce was incorporated in summer 1975. It was estimated that Ellington put $50,000 of assets in the church.
The church’s only purpose was to provide a variety of tax benefits. Ellington, Douglas and other like-minded people could donate assets to the church and receive a tax deduction. In the mix was a shingle mill and timber operation. Of course, the pastor and board of directors could receive a salary for their work. When he was asked what work he was doing, Douglas replied, “It is hard work to think. When I read the Bible and impress something on my mind, that is work.”
They thought they had a way to beat the system. What could go wrong? Tragedy struck in the late afternoon of Jan. 8, 1976. Ellington was found shot to death in his trailer house on Valley Street. He had been shot three times.
A .32 caliber pistol was in Ellington’s hand when he was found. Was it suicide? No. Ellington’s wounds came from .38 caliber bullets. Authorities thought the scene may have been staged, and a murder investigation began.
When the police examined Ellington’s close associates, they found something interesting. The man known as David Lee Douglas was really David Fred Hagler. You cannot hide from fingerprints, and Hagler became the focus the investigation.
Soon, the Clallam County Sheriff’s Office had probable cause to arrest Hagler on a charge of second-degree murder. His bail was set at $750,000, which was high for 1976.Who was David Fred Hagler? Like a noir movie, this is the point where we fade into the backstory.
Hagler was born in 1917 in Fort Worth, Texas. He attended university and served in the Army in World War II. After the war, he became a salesman.
As it turned out, David Fred Hagler had quite the past. Before he was 20, Hagler and two friends were accused of stealing an adding machine from a car. And for the next 40 years, Hagler was accused of numerous crimes.
Hagler gained notoriety in 1954 when he was murdered. Or so police thought. A car with a body in it was set ablaze and pushed over an embankment. Foul play was suspected. The man’s identity was assumed to be Hagler. Even though the body was burned beyond recognition, the dental work was not Hagler’s. Hagler was accused of killing the unidentified man in a fraud scheme to collect his own life insurance.
Later in 1954, a key witness named Frank St. Claire admitted the two of them had plotted such an insurance scam. Strangely, St. Claire committed suicide before he could testify, but was it really a suicide? A jury acquitted Hagler of murder.
Hagler could tell a convincing story.
Hagler also was skilled at manipulating women. Another case involved an $800 diamond ring in the possession of Hagler’s fiancée. While free on bond, Hagler and his fiancée married, and Texas law did not allow a wife to testify against her husband.
In 1956, in his only conviction to date, he was sentenced to six months in prison for lying to get a federal loan.
The best way to describe Hagler is a wannabe mobster. He was identified in a federal report as an associate of Jack Ruby. He was also associated with the mobsters of Jacksboro Highway.
Hagler tried the same insurance scam March 11, 1964. This time, he used a small airplane that he had rented. He set the Cessna 210 down in Matagorda Bay, Texas. Hagler and a woman passenger escaped from the plane as it began to sink. They just happened to have an inflatable raft with them.
The woman told police that Hagler clung to the wings before sinking into the water. She later changed her story and admitted they both made it to shore.
On Oct. 14, 1964, Hagler and a partner robbed a rare coin store of $14,160 worth of coins. The store owner identified Hagler as one of the robbers. He fled to Hawaii and then to Australia.
In fall 1965, Australia was where Hagler was found and extradited back to Hawaii. While out on $100 bond, he vanished, likely to the Olympic Peninsula.
Like that noir movie, we return to the Ellington murder case where Hagler’s luck would run out.
Hagler had formulated a way to provide himself an alibi. Around 5 p.m. on Jan. 8, he shot Ellington three times. He then drove to Joyce to meet with church friends. He asked them to tell police he arrived at 3 p.m. When Hagler crossed the one-way Elwha River Bridge, he tossed the gun into the river.
In a twist of fate, the gun was found by two skindivers salvaging fishing lures. An FBI expert testified it was the gun used to kill Ellington, but Hagler claimed he had lost the gun years before.
The jury did not believe Hagler’s smooth talk and convicted him of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison.
In 1982, Hagler was released from prison. In 1985, he married for the seventh time and died June 4, 1986. It would require several books to chronicle Hagler’s infamous life.
John McNutt is a descendant of Clallam County pioneers and treasurer of the North Olympic History Center Board of Directors. He can be reached at [email protected].
John’s Clallam history column appears the first Sunday of every month.