Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Children die in house fire, father disappears

Three young children died in an early-morning blaze in January 1956 in the tiny town of Rieth, just outside Pendleton. The children’s father disappeared shortly after the fire, setting off a nation-wide search.

The fire broke out at 5:30 a.m. on Jan. 30, 1956, just minutes after Chester O’Neal left with sons Chester Jr., 13, and Stanley, 10, to deliver their newspaper route. A neighbor living directly across the street from the O’Neal family rousted Raymond Long out of bed shortly after 6 a.m., pounding on his door and shouting that the O’Neal home was in flames. Long was unable to enter the front door of the house because it was not in use and had been blocked with a piece of heavy furniture. “I kicked in the front window in the bedroom and the inside seemed to explode,” Long said.

George Powers, the O’Neal children’s grandfather, arrived five minutes later and attempted to enter the house through the back door. The heat was so intense that he burned off the hair from his forehead to his crown.

Neighbors strung garden hoses to the burning house in an attempt to battle the flames. Rieth did not have firefighting equipment or a volunteer fire department, and Pendleton fire crews were unable to respond because Rieth was outside their jurisdiction. The home burned completely; only the steel bed frames, stoves, utensils and the brick chimney were left.

Three of the O’Neals’ 10 children, Phyllis Jean, 8, Carol Jane, 7, and Richard Dennis, 6, died in the fire. O’Neal had wanted the children to accompany him on the paper route, but they wanted to stay home in bed. He banked the fire in a wood-burning heater before leaving with the two older boys. The cause of the fire was undetermined.

O’Neal’s wife Ethylene was in St. Anthony Hospital in Pendleton, having just given birth to their 10th child. Their one-year-old son David also was in the hospital recovering from pneumonia. The three other O’Neal children, Peggy, 4, Connie, 3, and LeRoy, 2, were staying with an aunt in Adams.

Chester Sr. returned home while the fire was still blazing and, learning that his children had died in the fire, left immediately for the hospital to inform his wife. He was there for about an hour, then left the older boys with relatives in Rieth and took to the highway, disappearing for four days.

While police across the United States were searching for Chester, the Red Cross and the local community banded together to provide for the remaining family. An apartment at Pend-Air was furnished with everything the family would need, including furniture, clothing, utensils, dishes and more. A fund was set up to pay the rent and provide food.

Rumors flew around the community about Chester O’Neal’s disappearance. George Powers reported to state police that Raymond Long had heard a radio broadcast that claimed O’Neal had crashed his car, leaving a note that “life is not worth living,” but none of the local radio stations could verify the report.

On Feb. 2, Chester O’Neal walked in to the Red Cross office in Stillwater, Okla., saying he “hadn’t known what he was doing” when he left Pendleton and didn’t realize police were searching for him. He had returned to a farm he owned in Siloam Springs, Ark., where he has family, and spoke to his wife about having the bodies of the children shipped to Arkansas to be buried next to another of their children, a daughter who died nine years previously. Ethylene originally agreed to his request, then changed her mind and had the children buried at Olney Cemetery in Pendleton.

Her husband, Ethylene said, wanted the family to return to Siloam Springs. She moved into their new home at Pend-Air on Feb. 4 with her seven remaining children, saying she and the children planned to remain in Pendleton.

But when O’Neal returned a week later, the family prepared to pack up for a cross-country move. Loan regulations on the farm he was making payments on, he explained, required his presence on the property. “I appreciate everything the folks here did for my wife and family,” O’Neal said, “and I feel sorry we’ve got to leave again. But I would have left here about the first of May if the fire hadn’t happened.”

The tragedy jolted Rieth into action, and plans were soon underway to fund and equip the volunteer firefighting team that had been organized. A committee hoped to secure a $10 pledge from each resident of the tiny town, to be used to buy a second-hand fire engine or a down payment on a new one.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Photo folly leads to murder charge

A group of Umatilla County men on an elk hunting trip near Starkey in the Blue Mountains ended up in the courtroom in January 1935 when one of the party was shot following a photo fracas the previous November.

Dan Bowman, a merchant from Mission on the Umatilla Indian Reservation near Pendleton, joined a hunting party Nov. 10, 1934, on the Tony Vey ranch near the border between Umatilla and Union counties near Starkey. Two groups of Umatilla County men, Vey’s friends and a group including Finis and Chester Kirkpatrick, had been hunting on the property since Nov. 5, the beginning of elk season, and on the day in question the only person present at Vey’s cabin when Bowman arrived was Joe Cunha, who invited Bowman into the cabin for drinks. The hunting parties returned to the camp at around 11:30 a.m.

Bowman called to Fred Lampkin, business manager and co-owner of the East Oregonian and a longtime friend, to join him at the cabin. A few minutes later Bowman and Cunha went to the Kirkpatrick camp and were offered more alcohol, which they accepted. When Bowman and Cunha went to return to Vey’s cabin, Cunha vaulted a fence between the two camps. Bowman attempted to repeat the feat but fell, injuring his leg.

Fred Lampkin
 Finis Kirkpatrick went over to help, but also wanted to have some fun at Bowman’s expense. He motioned to his brother to get his camera and take photos of Bowman being helped up; Chester then followed the men to Vey’s porch and took another picture of Cunha rubbing Bowman’s injured leg. Bowman was not pleased with the joke. Planning on leaving Vey’s property anyway, Bowman angrily returned to his car, parked just outside the fence.

The group of men inside the cabin were making lunch, and Lampkin took a sandwich Bowman at his car. Bowman complained about the photos to Lampkin, who tried to soothe his friend’s ruffled feathers, but an argument ensued. Charles Goodyear, who was planning to ride with Bowman upon his departure from the camp, joined the pair at the car but was getting nervous about the argument. He attempted to intervene but was sent away by Bowman, who then grabbed his rifle from the passenger seat of his car and tried to either load or unload it (witness statements varied). Lampkin came around the car and grabbed the gun, which was pointed upward through the open car door, to help the injured Bowman get out. The rifle discharged, and Lampkin fell to the ground dead.

Several of the hunters rushed to the car at the sound of the shot, and though Bowman pleaded with them to leave the scene untouched, Lampkin’s body was moved and then covered with a blanket. The rifle was picked up and set against the fence. Bowman then grabbed his camera and took many photos of the scene in an attempt to capture as much evidence as possible for law enforcement, as it was getting dark.

State police officers William Roach and Frank Perry happened by around 4 p.m. and were waved down by the hunting party. The officers interviewed Bowman and the witnesses, turning the scene over to Deputy Sheriff Hugo Clinghammer and the Union County coroner when they arrived. Roach transported Bowman to the hospital in La Grande, where he was treated for his injured leg.

The prosecutors in the case attempted to show that Bowman shot Lampkin deliberately, citing witnesses who heard the pair arguing. The defense contended that Bowman and Lampkin were the best of friends, and the shooting was unintentional. It was shown during the trial that Bowman had sprained his right ankle in the failed attempt at vaulting the fence, but also had broken his shin bone, which no one at the camp realized. On the stand, still hobbling on crutches, Bowman said his broken leg collapsed when he tried to exit his car, and the gun fired accidentally.

Bowman also testified that someone had once taken a photo of his brother in a state of undress and then shown it to a crowd of people, causing great embarrassment, and he thought the Kirkpatricks might be planning something similar. Usually a light drinker, Bowman was concerned the Kirkpatrick brothers intended to use the photos to spread tales of drunken behavior to discredit him.

After seven days of hearing testimony, the jury took less than three hours to deliver a not guilty verdict, with 10 of 12 jurors voting for acquittal.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Wind storm flattens Northeast Oregon

A storm blew through Northeast Oregon on January 7-8, 1990, with winds approaching 80 miles per hour that toppled thousands of trees, blew the roofs off structures and closed businesses, schools and roads.

The wind storm began the evening of Jan. 7, tumbling trees and downing power lines across the region. At the height of the storm the entire Umatilla Electric Cooperative’s customer service area, from Meacham to Boardman, was without power, some areas for two or three days as crews from local and outside agencies struggled to repair power lines, poles and transformers. Even two-way radios weren’t working for part of the day, hampering cleanup efforts.

Eighteen roads were closed in the area due to downed trees and blowing weeds including Highway 204 near Tollgate, where winds estimated at 100 mph blew down the equivalent of 10 million board feet of lumber during the storm. Crews with chain saws began clearing the “timber carnage” of an estimated 750 to 1,000 evergreens from the highway Jan. 8, one working east from Umatilla County while another forged west from Elgin.

At Spout Springs ski resort near Tollgate, trees fell all around the buildings, but none were hit. The high winds did cause some damage, however, when seven trees were blown onto the “Happy” chairlift, derailing the lift off of six towers.

Umatilla County Sheriff Jim Carey reported at least one accident in which a vehicle slammed into a downed tree, and said an irrigation pipe blew across Highway 395 and wrapped around a power pole near Skyview Cemetery between Pendleton and Pilot Rock. Tribal Police Officer Shawn Bird said a man reported an unknown explosion, “a bright flash and an arc across the sky” at 4 a.m. near the repeater station at Poverty Flats on Cabbage Hill, where wind speeds topped 80 mph.

Structural damage around the area included a neighbor’s storage shed blowing into a house and breaking windows in Stanfield; a metal shed across from city hall blowing over a cyclone fence into a residential back yard in Echo; a wooden sign at the Forest Service office in Ukiah blown into pieces; the entire roof of Brown’s Auto and Truck Stop Tire Center, measuring 24 by 72 feet, blown onto Highway 730 in Irrigon; and the Umatilla Marina’s floating club house breaking away from its mooring and slamming into another dock several hundred feet away.

An irrigon couple was sleeping at their home on Washington Avenue when a tree, more than 2 feet in diameter at the base, “cut through the bedroom wing like a cleaver,” chopping it in two. Lloyd and Mildred Franke were trapped in their bed briefly but escaped without a scratch. One Hermiston man’s shed vanished without a trace, and another found his metal shed more than a block away. And at the Pendleton airport, wind damage looked like a plane coming in from the west had crashed into the top of the hangars. “Sheet metal was spread over a quarter mile,” one observer said.

The following day, Jan. 9, Pendleton enjoyed mild winds and basked in record-high temperatures of 69 degrees downtown and 67 degrees at the airport.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Stolen auto recovered Round-Up style

Not all rodeo champs wear chaps and spurs. A car thief in December 1917 found out the hard way that there’s more than one way for an irate owner to recover a stolen vehicle.

Si Reetz, a well-known Pendleton barber, was not a cowboy. But Reetz used some of the best Round-Up moves he could muster after his car was stolen from the First Christian Church Dec. 30, 1917, the second time it had gone missing. Reetz was quite upset as he walked downtown, and there met up with Gus Byers, to whom he related his tale of woe. Byers invited him to climb into his vehicle to search for the missing car.

Just east of Pendleton on Wildhorse Road, they passed a car that turned out to be the stolen Saxon. Byers turned his car around and they chased the thief into Pendleton. The two cars raced down East Court Street, and when the driver of Reetz’s car realized he was being chased, he “stepped on her.” The Byers car shattered local speed records in the race.

Reetz jumped to the running board as Byers pulled alongside the Saxon. As soon as the cars were running even, Reetz jumped to the running board of his stolen car and threw both arms around the driver’s neck in a classic bulldogging move. The thief, a well-known 17-year-old Pendleton youth, immediately stopped the car and surrendered.

Reetz shoved the boy over to the passenger side of the Saxon and then drove him around town, lecturing the young fellow on the impropriety of taking a car without the owner’s consent. But Reetz promised to bring no charges against the boy as long as he held to his word to “be good.”

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Ghost of Christmas Past brings holiday cheer to Weston

The ghost of a longtime Weston resident returned to his hometown in December 1978 to bring Christmas cheer to local school children.

Charles Elliott, a former storekeeper in the small Eastern Oregon town, started a Christmas celebration during his life to bring Christmas to local boys who may have gone without. Elliott, who had no children of his own, started by inviting a few local boys to have dinner and open gifts at his home. But each year he found more kids whose families were struggling to provide a happy holiday. The annual event eventually outgrew Elliott’s home, and he continued the party at the local Catholic Church.

Shortly after Elliott’s death in 1963, the community learned he had left money in a trust fund to be used each year for the dinner — enough money that the party was expanded to include students from neighboring communities whose names were suggested by their schools. The chosen were bused to Weston, and no expense was spared.

“Spend all the money,” the administrator of Elliott’s estate told Lena Blomgren when he called to arrange the 1978 party. She rose to the challenge with a cadre of other local volunteers.

Nearly 115 children from Milton-Freewater, Athena and Weston were greeted on their arrival on Dec. 18 and shepherded into the Weston Community Center for games. Dinner was served in the basement, consisting of two turkeys, three hams, mashed potatoes and gravy, and kid-friendly veggies like corn and carrot and celery sticks. The highlight of the meal: three gallons of olives. “We used to fix dressing and salads,” said Mrs. Bob Johnson, a volunteer, “but the kids never ate them.” Dessert was ice cream and homemade, decorated cookies.

Following dinner, each child received a gift with their name on it. Hints had been provided by teachers, and volunteers wore a steady path to local merchants to fill all the requests. Popular with the girls were dolls, of course; boys tossed Nerf balls and plastic footballs, and basketballs dribbled along the floor. Teenagers sporting new scarves and games helped the younger kids figure out their toys. And little ones had a chance to whisper their Christmas lists into Santa’s ear.

By 7:30 p.m., the children were heading home and volunteers, including the youth group from Brethren Church, were setting things to rights again. But no one was complaining.

“We go home feeling good,” said Blomgren.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Muddy kneeprint leads to killer’s capture

Persistent police work and a corduroy kneeprint in a muddy river bank led to the arrest of a teenage Pendleton boy in a shocking murder case in October 1943.

June Reiman, a 16-year-old resident of the McKay Creek district five miles south of Pendleton, left her home Oct. 3, 1943, armed with a .22 rifle. She told her family she was going to hunt along the creek, but when she hadn’t returned by sunset a search party was formed. Her partially nude body was found just 150 feet from the family home in a grassy, brushy area at about 8 p.m. that evening. A blow to the head and asphyxia from blood in her lungs were determined to be the cause of death. There were no signs of a struggle, and the rifle was not found with her body.

A manhunt was begun, but clues were scarce. Local, county and state investigators joined the search, and the .22 rifle June had been carrying was found the next evening in a pool of water about 150 feet away from where June’s body was discovered. The gun’s stock was partly broken, indicating that it was likely the weapon used to strike her head. A medical examiner’s inquest into June’s death revealed that, although an attempt had been made to attack her, no sexual assault had been committed. A 60-year-old man found walking along the highway near the murder scene was held by police for questioning, but he was not charged with a crime and was eventually released.

June’s funeral was held Oct. 6 with schoolmates from Pendleton High School serving as pallbearers and singers.

Almost a week later, Pendleton police arrested a 14-year-old boy and charged him with June’s murder. Ronald Elder, a ninth grader and neighbor of June’s on McKay Creek, was identified as a suspect after a confidential tip that he had come home the night of the murder with wet feet. After his arrest, Elder was taken to the riverbank where the impression of corduroy trousers had been found in the mud. Elder immediately confessed to the killing in front of three police officers. Elder said he had come across June the afternoon of her death and they had walked along the creek bank together, planning to shoot fish in the deeper pools in the creek. She had allowed him to carry her rifle. He was walking behind her, he said, when suddenly an uncontrollable urge to kill her came over him. He pointed the rifle at the back of her head and fired.

After June fell to the ground, Elder turned her onto her back and started to undress her, but a noise in the bushes startled him and he ran, crossing the creek and tossing the rifle into a nearby pool — but he slipped, and went down on one knee on the bank. He returned to the highway where he had left his bicycle and returned home. He later joined the search party, coming near her body twice during the evening.

Elder denied having clubbed June with the rifle, and eventually led officers to the recovery of a single .22 shell casing near the crime scene. But the autopsy revealed no trace of a bullet. Despite the discrepancy, Elder was charged with second-degree murder.

Ronald Elder pleaded guilty to the murder of June Reiman on Nov. 16, 1943, and was sentenced to a mandatory life prison sentence. Instead of serving his sentence in the Oregon State Prison, Elder was held in the state prison hospital due to his age. State penitentiary warden George Alexander said he had not made plans for Elder’s education, but thought maybe they could make a dentist out of him in perhaps five or six years. He would be eligible for parole after serving seven years of his sentence.

Elder eventually was freed from prison, married and had a family. He died Oct. 29, 2004, at the age of 75 as the result of injuries from a car accident.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Poor aim saves three lives in shooting fracas

The week running up to Christmas 1910 was an exciting one when a man ran amok in downtown La Grande with a gun. But not a single person was injured.

It was business as usual in the downtown La Grande shopping district on Dec. 23, 1910, when Earl West, a wood cutter, arrived on North Fir Street in front of the Dutley Bakery and across from the Julius Fisher saloon. He was carrying a 45-60 short-barreled Winchester and, according to the La Grande Observer, was “intoxicated and mean and probably crazed by drink.”

West first aimed at a passing buggy just a few feet away carrying two women, firing off two shots in rapid succession. Passers-by gasped in horror, but somehow both bullets went wild, probably burying themselves somewhere in the nearby railroad yard.

Incensed by his failure, West then whirled around and set his sights on Ray Baun, who had frozen in his tracks when the first cannonade went off. Baun was just a few feet away when West jacked another shell into the chamber and pulled the trigger.

But nothing happened. The third shell stuck in the breech.

While West frantically tried to return his weapon to working order, saloon owner Julius Fisher and a hastily formed posse overpowered him. West was taken to the city jail to sleep off his drunken rampage.