The Crater Lake murders and the 9-fingered man
July 21, 2002
By DANI DODGE
Was it a mob hit? A robbery? The mystery, 50 years old today, is far from forgotten
On July 21, 1952, a trail crew discovered the bodies of two General Motors executives murdered in the woods of Crater Lake National Park. The men had been shot in the head execution style. Their mouths were gagged with their own neckties. Their shoes had been removed from their feet, and one pair had been stolen.
Fifty years later, FBI agents still haven’t identified the killer. One man insists, though, that if the FBI had taken him seriously then — or even if his story came out today — the crime could be solved.
A 24-year-old truck driver for the Crater Lake Lodge at the time, Lincoln Linse believes FBI investigators discounted his eyewitness account after branding him a smart aleck.
“I feel for these two guys that lost their lives, and I also feel the follow-up of the murder case should have transpired a lot different,” said Linse, now a retired accountant living in Portland. “I don’t feel like they got justice, and that hits me right between the eyes.”
Linse says he was driving canned goods to the lodge July 19, 1952, when he saw two men in work clothes taking two “white-collar types” into the woods where the executives’ bodies were later found. As he continued driving slowly to the lodge, he heard two bangs that sounded like firecrackers.
Later that day and the next, Linse was followed and harassed by two scruffy-looking men. He’s come to believe those two men were the killers.
The older one was the most distinctive. He wore a beaded belt that appeared to spell out “Ralph.” He had a tattoo of a bikini-clad female on his right forearm. He was missing a finger.
Linse, coincidentally, also is missing a finger.
Asked if he murdered the businessmen, Linse replied Friday — the 50th anniversary of the actual shooting — “Absolutely not. But I’d sure like to find out who did.”
He’s offering a $1,000 reward to anyone who identifies the nine-fingered killer.
On July 19, 1952, two out-of-town executives from United Motor Service, a General Motors subsidiary, decided to do a little sightseeing at Crater Lake.
Charles Patrick Culhane, 53, of Detroit was the national sales manager for the company. Albert Marston Jones, 56, was the manager of the San Francisco zone office. The two men were touring Jones’ sales area, but it was Saturday, and they didn’t have another meeting until Monday. They left Klamath Falls at 11:30 a.m. It was 71 degrees and the sky was clear.
The men expected to meet up with business associates Frank Eberlein and John Vaughn, operators of a Klamath Falls auto parts firm, later in the day at Union Creek, a popular fishing spot.
Vaughn, Eberlein and Eberlein’s 13-year-old son, Alan, left for Union Creek after closing the shop at noon.
The locals passed the old south park entrance at 2:45 p.m. A few miles on, they saw Culhane and Jones’ green ’51 Pontiac sedan sitting by the side of the Highway 62 at the Annie Creek Canyon viewpoint. The right front door was open. The keys were in the ignition. The luggage and Baby Brownie camera were still in the car.
“I reached my hand in the grill and put it on the radiator,” Alan Eberlein said this week. “It was hot enough so I yanked my hand off it. The car hadn’t been there too long.”
Eberlein, now a Klamath Falls property manager, said the trio figured the men had just wandered off for a few minutes.
“We just hung around,” he said.
After about an hour, though, the older men went to report the missing executives. Eberlein waited in the ’51 Pontiac.
“One car came through crunching gravel, then took off really fast,” Eberlein recalls. “I didn’t think much about it at the time, but now I wonder if that was them, and they were coming back to the car and saw someone inside it, and ‘Adios, let’s get out of here.’ ”
Rangers began their search by dropping into the steep Annie Creek Canyon.
Two days later, a man who gave his name as J.D. Harney of 536 Plum St., Medford, placed a long-distance call from a pay phone at the Southern Pacific Railroad depot in Medford. At 1:15 p.m., he asked operator Phyllis Haas to put the call through to a garage — “the only one” in Fort Klamath, a small community near Crater Lake.
Haas told FBI officers at the time that the man sounded like “he would like to take my head off” because she wasn’t able to put the call through to the Wimer Garage until 1:45 p.m.
When he got through, the man told Myrtle Wimer, whose husband owned the garage, that a friend of his named Jones was in the hospital. He asked her to pick up his car at the south end of Annie Creek Canyon and store it in their garage until Jones got better. He said the keys were in the ignition.
Wimer immediately called authorities, and Medford police descended on the depot. But Harney was gone. The name and address were fictitious. A baggage man described the caller as slender, 5-foot-7, sandy-haired, wearing a bright red and yellow short-sleeved sports shirt. The man was never found and the fingerprints lifted from the phone, and the change inside, never identified.
Retired Medford officer Bob Allen said the FBI— which had jurisdiction on the murder because it occurred in a national park — swooped in and took over. Medford officers “just didn’t have a lot to do about it except to sit around and speculate for a long time.”
“We always figured it was some mob deal from back East,” said Allen, 79, of Medford. “It just didn’t sound like anyone from around here. The guys we dealt with in those days were safe burglars and (bad) check- writers.”
As authorities searched for the man in the loud sports shirt, a trail crew combed the woods for the missing men. One searcher was 17-year-old Rex Ash, a farm boy from Missouri who considered his summers at Crater Lake a holiday.
“We were working west from the highway, all spread out about 20 feet apart,” recalls Ash, now a retired heavy equipment dealer in Klamath Falls. “I thought, ‘Oh Lordy, there they are.’
“It was really hot and they had started to bloat. I’d never seen a dead body like that.”
Ash yelled and two dozen searchers ran to the grisly crime scene.
“It was a bunch of kids and everyone was gathering around to see what was happening,” Ash recalled. “We might have destroyed some of the evidence. We didn’t touch anything, but tore up the terrain quite a bit.”
John C. Owings, who was 22 at the time, remembers one member of the trail crew taking out his camera.
“He stepped over (Jones and Culhane) and around them and got in their faces practically,” said Owings, a retired Klamath Falls logger. “He was going to sell them to a crime magazine and make a fortune, but the FBI took them away.”
Ash and Owings stayed with the bodies until the coroner arrived at dusk.
“We were sitting there scared to death, wondering which one of us was going to get shot next,” Owings said.
Both Ash and Owings went back to Missouri at the end of the summer.
“I was back in time for fall football practice,” Ash said.
Oregon State Police Pvt. L.W. Harroun and an FBI agent got to the bodies at 3:27 p.m. Monday, July 21, 1952.
They were about a quarter-mile south of Highway 62 in a wooded area, according to OSP reports. Culhane was lying on his back, legs outstretched with his right arm across his chest. Jones was about five feet away — his stocking feet pointing at Culhane’s torso. He also was face up, legs outstretched and arms at his side.
Both men’s dentures were in their front shirt pockets. The socks on their shoeless feet were clean. Their cash and watches were missing.
In addition to a single bullet wound each, they had bruised groin areas, and Jones’ skull was fractured.
Harroun, who died 12 years ago, was fascinated by the case, according to his wife, Ruth Harroun, 77, of Klamath Falls.
“He talked about it and looked into it for a couple of years,” Harroun said.
The officer suspected the killers were John Wesley Cole and Kenneth Moore, both of Chiloquin. Moore had been convicted of binding and robbing two trappers. Also a woman informed OSP troopers that Moore had confessed the murders to her late husband, according to OSP reports.
In 1962, Moore and Cole were found frozen to death 4.4 miles east of Highway 97 in Klamath County.
“He suspected them from the beginning because they were outlaws and around at that time,” Harroun said.
She added her husband was at peace, even though the case was never officially solved because “they ended up dead anyway.”
In the days following the murder, FBI agents interviewed more than 200 park employees — including Linse. But Linse said the FBI dismissed his story.
“If they had come back to me, I could have shown them even where the (killer’s) car had been parked and beer cans that were there that might have had their fingerprints,” Linse said.
And details kept coming back to him after the initial interview, he said. So, after the lodge closed in the fall and Linse was back at the University of Oregon, he tried to contact agents several more times. They didn’t return his calls, possibly because it’s hard to understand how he could have seen the murderers going into the woods and still heard the fatal shots even though the bodies were found a quarter-mile from the road.
Then-Mail Tribune reporter George Bell had complete access to the FBI files in 1962 while writing an article about the crime. He recalls no mention of Linse’s name or story. Bell, now retired from a career that included a stint as assistant director of the Oregon Department of Transportation, said agents were baffled by the case.
“It was just one of those damnable mysteries that couldn’t be solved,” he said.
After reading an article on unsolved murders in 1969, Linse called Oregon State Police.
“He was wondering if the FBI had handled his information as that of a ‘kook,’ ” OSP Cpl. George Winterfeld wrote in his report. “He felt there were some things possibly he did not report to the FBI and things he felt the state police should know about.”
Linse described the men who had harassed him and the car they were driving — a 1935 or 1936 black Pontiac sedan that also “had been parked some distance away from the area where the victims’ bodies were found.”
A few weeks later, he saw a similar car in Gold Hill.
Winterfeld, now 72 and retired, forwarded his report to the FBI, but never heard back.
“They kept it close to their vest, and still do as you can tell from 9/11,” he said.
Documents show FBI agents aggressively pursued the Crater Lake murders for years. They tested 167 guns in a vain attempt to find the murder weapon, according to FBI files. They tracked down reports of pawned gold watches across the nation. They interviewed several men who had tried to sell brown oxfords.
Agent Terry Larson, who is stationed in Medford, talked with Linse last year. He declined to discuss the investigation but said if Linse’s tale was credible it would have been taken into account back in 1952 and 1969.
“You don’t ignore major pieces of the puzzle,” Larson said. There’s no statute of limitations on murder.
In 1994, Alice Simms found two letters her late mother had written about the murder of Jones, her mother’s father. But Virginia Cota never mailed them.
In the letters, one written to the Mail Tribune, Cota referred to a letter she had gotten from her father before his death, which had included this cryptic passage: “Things are so bad now they could not get worse.”
In 1990, when Cota wrote her letters, she believed she finally understood what he meant.
“Forty years late, I remembered what my father had said in his letter,” she wrote. “I know who was responsible for my father’s murder. I don’t know the murderer’s name, but I know the organization that arranged for my father’s death. … I did call the local FBI, but they said the case was too old to do anything about it.”
Since seeing that letter, Simms, a 51-year-old state clerical supervisor living in Santa Maria, Calif., has contacted hundreds of people and spent thousands of hours researching the murders. She’s convinced that the notorious Santo gang did in her grandfather.
“I think they just saw the fancy car and it was a case of robbery, even though people say there was more to it than that, I just don’t think so,” Simms said. “I think it was Jack Santo, Emmett Perkins and Barbara Graham and their gang. And their motive was always robbery.”
The trio was executed for other murders in 1955.
FBI reports show that on the day of the murders, Santo paid bills and ate at the Chat and Chew Cafe near Auburn, Calif., more than 300 miles from Crater Lake. But Simms said she’s seen too many other clues pointing at the Santo gang to discount them. And she’s heard from relatives of investigators that Santo’s gang — likely holed up in Oregon at the time — were the most likely culprits.
Simms continues to welcome other possible scenarios. She contacted Linse several years ago after reading his name in a police report. She says she didn’t fervently pursue his story, though, because Linse seemed “peculiar.”
“But, anything that could jog someone’s memory from that day is good,” Simms said. “All I want to do is find out who killed my grandfather.”
Last spring, Cheryl Ousey, 47, was taking a class at Rogue Community College when she heard about the Crater Lake murders. She spent three months obsessively investigating the crime for a research paper. Her extensive report is now part of the files at the Southern Oregon Historical Society.
“Culhane was a big mucky-muck with the company, and there were problems with the union then,” Ousey said. “It was a hit.”
She gave a presentation on the murders Thursday at the Klamath County Museum. About 40 seniors showed up. The last to walk in was a “suspicious-looking” man in a long-sleeved shirt, she said. Ousey’s friend noticed the man because of the way he studied the names in the guest book so intensely.
He was missing a finger.
Reach reporter Dani Dodge at 776-4471, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org