Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Two-year search for missing boy ends in mystery

A family outing in July 1906 turned to tragedy when a four-year-old boy went missing in the Blue Mountains east of Weston, Oregon. Cecil Brittain, son of R.L. Brittain of Walla Walla, disappeared after he wandered away from his family near Tollgate on Weston Mountain July 15, 1906.

Local authorities from Milton requisitioned a set of bloodhounds from the Walla Walla penitentiary, who traced the child to Looking Glass Creek, near the store at Tollgate where Cecil had bought candy before wandering off. Local residents were concerned that wild animals might carry the boy away, and a crowd of men combed the woods looking for him, to no avail.

The boy’s father left no stone unturned in his search. In September, a clairvoyant dreamed that Cecil was hidden in the Bowman Hotel in Pendleton, and Pendleton police searched the premises. While they did find several people who were not listed on the hotel register, they did not find the boy. Major Lee Moorhouse investigated a tip from a Touchet, Wash., man in October who said an Indian on the reservation near Adams might have some information on Cecil’s whereabouts. Mr. Brittain traveled to New Mexico in November to investigate a snapshot sent to him, but the boy in the photo was not his son.

A search of East Oregonian archives showed no progress on the case through 1907. But in March of 1908 the Brittains raised the reward for their son’s return to $2,500 and, on March 27, a man came forward saying he had knowledge about the boy’s disappearance — but only if he was paid for the information. James Breen had been arrested for check fraud and forgery perpetrated in Spokane, and while jailed in Pendleton claimed he knew about Cecil Brittain’s whereabouts. His claims were weakened by the fact that he was a known felon who had spent time in prison for cattle rustling and other crimes. Breen claimed he was living in the Blue Mountains in the Tollgate area at the time the boy disappeared, and demanded payment for his information, saying “he was merely thinking of the future of his wife; that if he got this money it would be used to care for her.”

Mrs. Brittain, in the meantime, traveled to Spokane to investigate a boy found near Marshall, Wash., who was said to be very like her son. While the boy looked very much like Cecil, and seemed to be familiar with the area where the Brittain boy disappeared, his identity could not be confirmed. When confronted with the idea that he was Cecil Brittain, the boy became frightened and hid in the bushes, leading the Brittains to the conclusion that he may have been coached to deny any association with them. The EO reported that, regardless, the Brittains had decided to bring the lad home with them to Walla Walla.

James Breen, however, did not give up in his quest to claim the reward. He convinced the Brittains that he knew where the boy was, and promised on Aug. 19  he would meet them at a camp outside of Walla Walla to hand Cecil over to them. It was unclear whether any money changed hands. Breen didn’t make the rendezvous as planned, and the Brittains went home empty-handed. Breen quietly slipped back into town the following evening and was arrested by Walla Walla police at the East End Saloon while reading about his own escapades in the newspaper. He claimed the Brittains had left the camp too early, and that he had left the child with a friend (who he refused to name) near Fletcher Mill before returning to town. The Brittains were heartbroken.

A search of EO archives did not turn up any further information about the fate of Cecil Brittain.

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