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.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Novel weapon used in Pendleton holdup

An East Oregonian employee walking through Pendleton in December of 1898 was accosted by three “holdup” men employing a very different kind of weapon.

W.L. Shiverick, the secretary and treasurer of the Pendleton newspaper, was walking down Webb Street (Southeast Emigrant Avenue) toward the newspaper office, then located on the corner of Webb and Main streets, around 7 p.m. on Dec. 8, 1898. At a point halfway between the Pendleton Woolen Mills and the Robert Forster planing mill and sash factory, Shiverick noticed three burly men in a farm wagon “pulled by two fleet footed plow horses ... dashing up Webb street at a rate not less than four miles an hour.”

As the wagon pulled alongside Shiverick, one of the “highwaymen” fell out of the wagon, grasping at his pistol pocket as he hit the ground. He advanced on his nervous target and uttered a blood-curdling challenge: “Who (hic) goes there?”

Shiverick recognized the man as someone who was behind on his newspaper subscription payment, and blustered, “I’ve a bill against you, sir, for $4.80 for the weekly.”

His challenge silenced the man for a time, but then, recovering his courage, the would-be holdup man continued his attack. “Zhat don’t make (hic) any (hic) differensh. You got (hic) to take a drink.” Drawing the pistol from his pocket, he shoved it into Shiverick’s face with a command to drink. The pistol was loaded to the muzzle with cream whiskey.

To save his skin, Shiverick complied with the demand, and the “highwaymen” continued on their way. The EO employee then hunted up a policeman and related his harrowing tale.

Law enforcement immediately began a search for the trio, having no clues to their identities except their full names, addresses, physical and mental condition at the time of the attack, and their current whereabouts.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Body found in Columbia defies identification

Two Eastern Oregon men stopping at the Columbia River near Wallula in November 1923 to refill the radiator of their car discovered a skeleton with a fractured skull in the river, weighted down with rocks.

Clarence A. Gibbs and John Fehlen found the skeleton Nov. 4, 1923, in a back eddy about 15 miles east of Umatilla, between a rock and an old log that was partially buried in the sand. Rocks were piled on the body, and the action of the water had worn away most of the flesh. Even the clothing was mostly gone. A fracture on the left side of the skull, a broken jaw and several missing teeth pointed to death by violent means.
Umatilla County Sheriff Zoeth Houser and county coroner J.T. Brown recovered the remains and what was left of the clothing. The body had been dressed in men’s outer clothing, including a mackinaw, blue vest and overalls, but the undergarments found led them to believe the deceased was a woman. The coroner determined the body had been in the water at least six months, and possibly as many as 10.

The Umatilla County district attorney received information that a man and a woman appeared in May 1923 at a house near where the body was found and asked for food. A hobo camp had existed a short distance up the river from the crime scene at the time the couple was seen in the area.

A Baker-area couple, Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Rogers, heard about the discovery and thought maybe it was their daughter, Edna Pitman, whom they had not heard from in months. Edna and her husband, Elgin Pitman, had lived near Echo for a time before disappearing. The Rogerses gave the coroner some identifying characteristics to look for on the skeleton, including curved finger and toe bones, a nicked tooth and a scar on the shin bone from an accident with an axe, all of which were confirmed by the coroner upon examination of the skeletal remains.

Edna’s parents said they did not like their son-in-law, and rumors were that he bragged about reuniting with her after a short separation so that he could kill her. Law enforcement immediately began a search for Elgin Pitman.

Meanwhile, on Nov. 19, the sheriff’s office received information about another possible identity for the body: Josephine Covak, who had gone missing April 6 from her home in Portland. An O.-W. R & N. railroad employee identified Covak from a photo as the woman he saw in the company of a man along the railroad tracks near the crime scene in April or May of that year. The man was later seen alone along the same stretch of tracks, and was warned off by railroad employees.

On December 10, Umatilla County deputy sheriff T.B. Buffington received information that Edna Pitman had been found alive and well in Los Angeles. Photos of Edna and Elgin Pitman were sent to the sheriff’s office, and former neighbors of the Pitmans in Echo positively identified the couple. The Pitmans had moved from Echo to Burley, Idaho, and from there to Flagstaff, Arizona, before settling in Los Angeles, and were the parents of a baby girl.

The photos of the Pitmans were mailed to Edna’s parents as proof their daughter was still alive. The remains, still unidentified, were ordered interred by the coroner.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Civic-minded tot gathers cache of trash

Not everyone bemoaning the litter befouling the streets of Pendleton is a taxpaying grown-up. In 1969 an enterprising young man took the initiative to clean up one of Pendleton’s biggest tourist attractions — to the surprise of his father, who didn’t even know the boy was gone.

Blair Ranslam, a 3 1/2-year-old Pendleton boy, was spending Nov. 20, 1969, with his father Bob Ranslam, the manager of Pendleton Grain Growers’ feed and seed store on Southwest Dorion Avenue. Ducking his father’s watchful eye, Blair crossed busy Dorion and Court avenues and entered the Pendleton Round-Up Grounds, where he found a large plastic bag and filled it with trash.

Young sanitation tech Blair Ranslam shows off his hard work after collecting trash at the Pendleton Round-Up Grounds Nov. 20, 1969 (EO file photo).
Meanwhile, his father had finally noticed the boy was missing from the store, and Blair’s frantic parents began a search, then called the police. The boy was eventually found with his bag of litter and returned to PGG.

“The policeman came and said my daddy was looking for me,” Blair said, also remarking about the big bullets the officer carried.

“Lot of junk over there,” he said later.

When asked what he planned to do with the garbage he had collected, Blair said he planned to put it in a fireplace, but wasn’t sure where, since his family didn’t have one.

And where did the litter come from? “Some people came over there and throw it down. They should throw it in a garbage.”

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Self-inflicted gunshots just part of the job

On Nov. 20, 1929, Jim Letts borrowed a .41 caliber revolver from a deputy in the Umatilla County sheriff’s office in Pendleton and, in front of four women, the deputy and a reporter, shot himself in the side. Those in attendance laughed when Letts pulled the trigger.

After shooting himself, Letts coolly passed the gun back to the deputy, then took out his pocket knife and pried the bullet free. But there was no parlor trick involved — Letts, you see, was only giving his sales pitch. Shooting himself, sometimes multiple times a day, was how he made his living selling bullet-proof vests.

“I’ve shot myself more than 4,000 times in the past five years,” he bragged.”

The vest he wore for his demonstrations was made from laminated steel plates, and would stop everything from BBs to a .45 caliber bullet. Letts traveled throughout the country marketing his wares to law enforcement, and though heavy-caliber bullets dented the protective steel plates slightly, the vest could withstand multiple shots in the same spot.

“Of course the police and sheriff’s departments are my customers, so I always go to them to demonstrate,” Letts said.

Shooting himself caused a slight stinging sensation, he said, and there was the chance that an impact in the right spot could crack a rib, but in general he was fearless in demonstrating the stopping power of vest for all types of pistols.

Letts also carried gas bombs and other weaponry, “The proper equipment,” he said, “for a good lively defensive war.”

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Practical joke creates mad stampede

A vaudeville actor played a practical joke on a group of musicians in November of 1917 and created such a stir that the theater where he was performing was cleared in a matter of minutes.

Gerald McCormick, a member of a vaudeville team playing the Alta theater in Pendleton on Nov. 14, 1917, was a handsome Irishman with the ability to alter his features to the extreme, a useful skill for a man in his line of work. During that afternoon McCormick inserted false tusks in his mouth, ruffled up his hair, hunched his shoulders and distorted his facial features, then walked into Alta manager C.G. “Guy” Matlock’s private office, demanding whisky in a husky voice. Matlock was so frightened that he was a nervous wreck for the remainder of the day.

McCormick was so pleased he decided to continue his prank, with Matlock in on the joke. Early in the evening a stagehand heard a hoarse voice crying “I want whisky,” and turned to see the most horrible face he could imagine. He fled and told the other stagehands and members of the orchestra, who were in the restroom under the stage, about the wild man he had seen. Matlock, who was present in the company of McCormick, also related his experience. Members of the orchestra began to feel uneasy, while McCormick slipped out of the room.

Suddenly, a great shaggy head thrust itself through the door of the orchestra pit and said, in a guttural voice, “I want whisky.” The piano player shrieked and made for the door to the orchestra pit, but the male musicians were faster. Out through the orchestra pit they ran, and members of the audience, seeing the terror on their faces but not knowing the cause, joined the stampede out of the building.

Matlock, knowing the joke had gone too far, jumped to the stage in an attempt to allay the panic, but only the people in the first few rows heard him. Men, women and children joined the race for the exits, though strangely enough no one thought the building was on fire. Someone suggested perhaps an armed German spy was hiding backstage. The Alta was emptied in a matter of minutes.

Outside on the sidewalk, people began to feel a bit sheepish and questioned the cause of the stampede. No one knew, and many didn’t want to know. About half of the crowd returned to the safety of their homes to hide their agitation, while the rest braved the theater again to watch the show.