My co-author of
Portland on the Take, JB Fisher, has been re-evaluating the 1946 Torso Case for a new project we are doing with KOIN TV.
Slabtown Chronicle is proud to present his findings here.
|Although the 1946 Torso Murder victim was never identified, the investigation turned up the disappearances of several women in the Portland area.|
their 2016 book, Murder and Scandal in Prohibition Portland, JD Chandler
and Theresa Griffin Kennedy make
a compelling case for the idea that the unidentified torso victim that washed
up on the banks of the Willamette River in April 1946 was Portland’s own AnnaSchrader. Schrader’s history with the Portland Police Bureau including her
knowledge of the department’s inner workings as a private investigator and her
tumultuous affair with PPB Lt. Bill Breuning would help explain both why she
disappeared and why the torso case was left unsolved.
the Anna Schrader hypothesis is intriguing and highly plausible, it is
interesting to acknowledge other leads that the investigators were following in
the late 1940s and early 1950s. The Oregon State Police files shed light on a
number of other missing persons who potentially matched the torso victim. While
most of these were ruled out decisively (either because the missing persons
were located or some identifying mark, feature, or condition determined them
incompatible), several other subjects remained highly compelling potential
matches to the torso victim.
|Although not officially involved in the Torso Murder investigation, Police Chief Leon V. Jenkins did handle some of the leads and may have had a motive to keep the case from being solved.|
April, 16, 1946, less than a week after the torso discovery, a hand-written
letter was received by Acting Chief L. V. Jenkins at the Portland Police Bureau
from Mrs. J. L. Wilson of Los Angeles. Numerous such letters were received in
the days and weeks after the torso turned up, but most were quickly ruled out
and the concerned parties notified. This one was different.
Wilson explained that she was worried about her sister, Bessie Carol Nevens who
had left Los Angeles July 10th, 1943 and had not been heard from since. At that
time, a man had called at Nevens' home saying he was a cousin and that he was
taking her up to Oregon to work on a ranch. Prior to this, a friend of Nevens'
husband had contacted Mrs. Wilson requesting her sister's address. He explained
that the husband was interested in sending an allotment to her. Nevens' husband
was serving in the Navy as a pharmacist's mate and had never paid his wife a
cent since breaking from her in 1937.
learning that her sister had left with a stranger headed to Oregon, Mrs. Wilson
contacted the party that had requested Nevens' address just days before she was
taken to Oregon. In response, "all I got was that her husband is in the
South Pacific and was not the one who called. I know that, but it could have
been someone he knew."
Wilson confirmed in the letter that her sister was in her early fifties, thus
matching the age of the torso victim. She also described her sister's hair as
gray, which would eventually prove a match when the head was discovered that
October. She pointed out to investigators that the family had no cousins in Oregon
and that she was uncertain as to the identity of her abductor.
Jenkins' reply back to Mrs. Wilson was standard. He encouraged her to contact
local authorities in Los Angeles to initiate a missing persons search. He
reassured Mrs. Wilson that the letter would be passed along to the State Police
since the crime happened outside the jurisdiction of Portland. While Captain
Vayne Gurdayne of the OSP wrote back a few days later, no further follow up
reports or letters exist in the file which suggests that Bessie Carol Nevens
was never ruled out as the torso victim.
should also be pointed out that in the mid-twentieth century, a number of
ranches in central and eastern Oregon were owned by vice racketeers and corrupt
cops the likes of Jim Elkins, Al Winter, Portland chief "Diamond Jim"
Purcell and Earl Bush. The association of these ranches with gambling, money
laundering, prostitution, and other vice is widely established. If Bessie Carol
Nevens was abducted to Oregon for criminal purposes, it would be likely that
law enforcement would cover the tracks since there were strong ties between
racketeers and local police agencies involved in pay offs and protection.
there is nothing more to determine whether Bessie Carol Nevens was in fact the
|During WWII the Portland shipyards employed thousands of women. At least one of them was investigated as a potential victim in the Wisdom Light Murder.|
World War Two, Eva Linder worked in the Portland shipyards building the Liberty
ships that would help ensure the Allies' victory in the war. There she met
fellow ship worker Tony Panko and the two were married January 29, 1944. The
couple then moved to a small farm near Oregon City that Tony had acquired
before the war.
quickly, the marriage deteriorated. Genevieve Baldwin, a friend of Eva's, would
later tell the Oregon State Police that she "heard Tony threaten to kill
Eva, that he was very jealous and hot tempered."
ten months, the marriage was over and a divorce was filed October 17, 1944. Eva
then purchased a house in Southeast Portland with another shipyard worker,
Herbert Troy Dennis.
on November 21, 1944 the house burned down and Eva Linder Panko disappeared.
She was described as in her 50s, grey hair originally brown, 5' 3" and 140
pounds with false teeth and a glass eye.
to track down Eva proved futile but investigators did locate Herbert Troy
Dennis living in Seneca, Illinois. They learned that he had a brother in St.
Louis and that both Dennis brothers were ex-cons with a record of forgery and
burglary. It was also determined that the house fire in southeast Portland had
been intentionally started for insurance purposes although no claim was ever
April 1945, Herbert Troy Dennis disappeared after violating parole and Eva
Linder Panko was never found, Dr. Richardson who had performed the autopsy on
the torso victim and the head ruled out Panko as the victim simply because he
was confident that the torso victim had had both of her eyes at the time of
death (although the head was eyeless when it was discovered).
or not Eva Linder Panko could be ruled out confidently as the torso victim, she
most certainly met with foul play and her ice-cold case would be long forgotten
if not for the files of the torso murder.
Coffey was fond of hanging out at taverns and bars with various men, despite
the fact that she was married to Alton Coffey, "an insanely jealous
man" who had several times tried to kill her. One of the places that
Marian had frequented was the Tillicum Tavern on the Beaverton-Bertha Highway
(now known as the Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway). On April 16, 1946 Alton Coffey
came to the Tillicum Tavern and showed the tavern's owner Claude Clark a
newspaper article about the torso discovery. "Have you seen the
latest?" he asked Clark. "I think this is Marian."
an Oregon State Police report dated April 26, 1946, Vayne Gurdayne had this to
say about Alton Coffey:
Coffey came to the Milwaukie office [of the Oregon State Police] to look at the
clothing found with the torso…and stated from the description appearing in the
papers he believed this subject likely to be his wife; that she disappeared on
March 18, 1946; that he left for work and on his return that evening she was
missing and no word had been received from her since that time. He stated they
had been married at Newark, N. J. five years ago; that they came from Newark to
Portland about two years ago…He stated since their marriage his wife has disappeared
at least ten times; that she associated with other men and frequented beer
parlors, and that he had reported her missing a number of times to the Portland
Police, and at one time had located her at the Tillicum Tavern…
described his wife as 50 years old, 5 feet 41/2 inches, 140 pounds, very dark brown
hair almost black, brown eyes, dark complexion, wore glasses, false teeth. He
states she had been suffering with a tumor of the womb and that part of her
uterus had been removed and at one time she had had a Caesarian operation. That
while employed at the Tillicum Tavern she had associated with a party by the
name of Willis Baker who…lived near Oregon City; that he had checked near
Oregon City trying to locate this subject without success…
denied ever having abused his wife or having struck her but did state several
times she had returned home badly bruised, etc.”
the end of the report, Captain Gurdayne has this to say about Alton Coffey:
was very nervous while talking to the writer and I was not too much impressed
with his appearance and actions so assigned Sergeant Genn to check further as
to whether or not Mrs. Coffey bore the surgical scars, etc.”
follow-up reports survive in the OSP file regarding Marian Coffey. Much like
Bessie Carol Nevens and Eva Linder Panko, there is no evidence to suggest that
Marian Coffey was ever decisively ruled out as the torso victim, nor is it
clear whether her whereabouts were ever determined.
|The investigation of the Torso Murder case sheds a great deal of light on the lives of women in the 1940s and the prevelance of domestic violence at that time.|
March 2, 1950, nearly four years after the torso discovery, George Alvin Diffin
reported to authorities in Hood River, OR that he had important information
pertaining to the case. His wife Marie Diffin had been missing since September
1944 when she left him and their four children in Springfield, OR. According to
Diffin, he had heard rumors that she was in Portland and emphasized that
"she was a great man chaser and hung around bars in order to get free
fact that her parents in Klamath Falls had not heard from her made Diffin
convinced that she had met at some point with an unfortunate end.
explained that in the early 1940s the couple began to have marital problems and
his wife left periodically with several different men including Carl Schultz
and George Hart. Although Diffin offered few specifics, he suggested that both
Schultz and Hart had been involved in robberies in various parts of Oregon and
that both had spent time in the State Penitentiary.
George Diffin was asked by investigators why he had waited so long to come to
authorities concerning his wife’s disappearance, he simply explained that he
had visited with his daughter recently and she stated that she was going to
report it if he didn’t. Even then, he waited an additional two months before
reporting the situation to police in Hood River.
closing the report, Oregon State Police private Robert Wampler offers the
following remarks on George Diffin:
is apparent that George Diffin is not telling the whole story concerning the
disappearance of his wife. Therefore, it is respectfully requested that the
relatives and friends listed in this report be contacted for any information
they might have concerning the above Marie Diffin and other subjects reportedly
involved. It is possible that Marie Diffin is alive and her parents know of her
the event it is learned that Marie is definitely missing, it could be easily
possible that George Diffin himself could be implicated. However, it is merely
investigators followed up with Marie Diffin’s family members, they learned that
she was indeed missing. Daughter Coleen Mae Downend (19) said that she strongly
suspected that her mother was dead, “stating that the mother thought an awful
lot of the younger child who was at the time the mother left three years of age
and if not dead or forcible [sic] detained would have gotten some word to them
for the boy’s sake.”
daughter also explained that in addition to an operation for “female trouble”
back in 1942, her mother had “a large bump on the upper right shoulder in which
[she] had been advised that it might be cancerous unless attended to.”
they spoke to George Diffin’s sister Mrs. Robert Jenkins in Hood River,
investigators learned that “she was positive Marie Diffin was dead but had no
idea what had happened to her or how it had come about. That the last time she
had seen her in the latter part of 1943 she had had a growth on her shoulder
which looked cancerous and that there was a good chance that that killed her.”
Jenkins went on to describe her brother as “a liar and very mean,” saying that
“he had a terrible temper and at one time in years gone by had threatened her,
his own sister.”
Diffin’s parents similarly confided to investigators that George Diffin was
mean and violent and that on several occasions he told Marie that if she left
he would kill her. They also confirmed
that she had left with George Hart and Carl Schultz back in 1944.
Carl Schulz was not located, the Oregon State Police spoke with George Hart who
explained that he last saw Carl Schulz and Marie Diffin in late September 1944
when the two told him that they were “going so far that no one would find
them…she suggested that they might go to Mexico.”
is no follow-up report on the Marie Diffin case after March 30, 1950 when
investigators spoke with George Hart. Unlike the other possible victims
discussed above, there is no clear evidence that Marie Diffin fit the profile
of the torso. She was (as of 1944) 35 years old, 5’2” and 140 pounds, dark
brown hair, “very large rump…” However, once again, the case was never
conclusively pursued and the victim is most likely missing to this day.
|One connection that was never investigated by the Torso Murder detectives was the possibility that the murder was connected to the nefarious actions of the Portland Police Bureau.|
Wisdom Light Killer
most mentions of the 1946 discovery of a middle-age female body in the
Willamette River refer to this as “the Torso murder,” Oregon State Police
reports and other references in the late 1940s call the case “the Wisdom Light
murder.” This is likely referring to the place where the torso was discovered—a
small moorage on the Willamette River below Oregon City known at the time as
Wisdom Island Moorage. Perhaps there was a light on the moorage so that the
name would more closely specify the location of that grisly discovery.
of the cases discussed above yielded any suspects in the torso murder. George
Diffin, Herbert Troy Dennis, Alton Coffey, Willis Baker, Tony Panko—none of
these were pursued far enough to become suspects. Other names did come up in
the investigation as potential suspects: Donald A. Benson, Richard Purnell,
Russell Frederick Purnell, Carl Christian Roth alias Carl James Parnell, James
no one was ever apprehended as an actual suspect in the case and the Wisdom
Light killer has faded into the darkness of the long forgotten and elusive
past. But if the torso was indeed Anna Schrader, then we know who killed her
and why those individuals were never pursued. -- JB Fisher.
While it is not possible to say with certainty that Anna Schrader was the victim of the Torso Murder, there is compelling circumstantial evidence to support that conclusion. The evidence is laid out in my 2016 book Murder and Scandal in Prohibition Portland. We will be exploring that evidence and the case in a special KOIN TV event on Facebook on March 1st at 7pm. Please join us.