Monday, July 31, 2006

An Odd One

I’ve just started the research for my next big post looking into a famous unsolved murder from the 1930s. For seventy years people have believed that it went unsolved. I will remind us of the forgotten story of the people who committed the crime and what happened to them. But I’m not ready to tell that story yet.

The world seems a little too desperate and depressed for me to finish the story on Ray DeFord and the Oakwood Park fire, but I will tell the end of that story soon. Nothing in current crimes is catching my attention. So I am going to tell a little story that I came across while researching something else.

It’s not bloody, but it does involve a crime. It’s just an odd little bit of Portland’s history that I am willing to bet no one has thought of in more than seventy years. I found it in an Oregonian article from December 16, 1930 with the headline Mystery Shrouds Loss and Recovery of Strange Idol.

It was right before Christmas in one of the hardest winters to hit Portland. It was cold, but that wasn’t what was so hard. This was the depth of the depression, things would get worse, but they’d never been this bad before, not even in 1893.

Hundreds suffered from hunger and cold in Portland. The lumber industry was in decline a mill worker was lucky to get two days work a week. Try feeding a family on that. The part time job could keep you from getting relief, too.

Some people were lucky to be working on the St. Johns Bridge that was being built. But it was dangerous work, and cold.

Archie Moore was lucky to be working at the Boyd Tea Co. store on NW 5th. His job wasn’t dangerous and he made nearly $2 a day, a good wage. He even had time to take a walk on his lunch break.

On Saturday, December 13, 1930 Archie was taking his walk along NW Couch St. As he neared the corner of NW 4th he nearly ran into a dark skinned man running down the street with a heavy burden wrapped in a burlap sack. The man unwrapped the object just enough so Moore could see that it was shiny black and seemed to be encrusted with jewels.

“Two dollars,” said the dark man. Archie bought the object, which weighed nearly 40 pounds, and lugged it back to the Tea Shop where he worked. Removing the burlap bag, Moore realized that he had an idol from some Asian cult.

It was a seated figure with four arms its mouth was filled with cruel teeth of inlaid ivory. It was made from a shiny black glass that was very hard. For eyes it had large zircons and parts of the figure were encrusted with rubies.

“I thought it must be an idol from some cult,” Moore told the Oregonian, “It was not a Buddha, I knew. It was valuable to someone and I felt it was stolen because the man who sold it to me was in such haste and it was evidently worth a lot more than I had paid for it.”

On Sunday Archie Moore ran the following ad in the Oregonian classifieds: “Stolen idol of secret cult in my possession. Will return on proper identification.” That same day a Hindu gentleman appeared at Moore’s home and identified the idol, although he would not identify himself or the cult to which the idol belonged.

Moore asked if they knew who had stolen the idol. The other man said, “We think we know.” He then paid Moore $2 plus the cost of the ad, took the idol and departed.


Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Carnival of the True Crime Blogs XXXIV

I am proud to be hosting the Carnival of the True Crime Blogs for the first time. I love to read true crime and I look forward to the carnival each week to let me know what is interesting. So here goes.

Harding from T.O. Crime brings us tales of true crime from the true north. I like a geographic focus to my crime and Harding provides just that, focusing on crime in Toronto, Ont. This week Harding fills us in on a spate of night club shootings in Toronto.
Harding presents Clubland T.O. posted at T.O. Crime.

From the true north we go true south for Greg’s blog Rhymes with Right. The title tells you what you need to know about Greg’s politics and his blog doesn’t focus just on crime, but he brings us news of a terrible problem in Houston, TX. Greg presents Serial Killer In Houston posted at Rhymes With Right.

ShortSighted is one of the original founders of Southern Sass on Criminal Activity. Now she brings us a new blog that is devoted to the WTF stories we see every day. This week she calls our attention to the shocking conditions in the Federal Minimum Security Prison Camps. Short, haven’t you seen Good Fellas?
ShortSighted presents All Prisoners Safe in their Beds posted at Sharing the Shame.

Trench of the Trenchcoat Chronicle amazes me. Not only does he maintain three separate blogs, but he is an organizer of the True Crime Blogroll and the Carnvial of the True Crime Blogs and now he is pioneering the True Crime podcast with his Trenchcast. Trench, when do you sleep? This week he writes about the love letters of Dylan Klebold.
Trench presents Love Letter from Hell posted at Trenchcoat Chronicle.

Home Sweet Home is a blog about domestic crimes. In the murder mystery genre these stories are often called “cozies”. This week Home Sweet Home gives us a not-so-cozy tale of domestic violence and revenge.
Home Sweet Home presents They had a history of domestic violence posted at Home Sweet Home.

MagZ of Southern Sass on Crime Activity Today brings us a horrifying story about the death of a 17-month old boy. I personally don’t agree with her conclusion, but read it and judge for yourself.
MagZ presents Jaydon Hoberg (Hilleary) at Southern Sass on Criminal Activity Today.

Here at the slabtown chronicle I focus on crime from the present and past in my hometown, Portland, Oregon. This week I got a little personal and wrote about how a crime from nearly 30 years ago effects me today.
jd chandler presents Michele Gates Haunts My Dreams posted at slabtown chronicle.

That’s it for the official entries for this week’s carnival, but since I like to consider myself a criminal historian I’m not above a little theft from time to time, so here are my picks for this week’s carnival:

Laura James at CLEWS is one of my favorite crime writers. She focuses on historical crimes and she seems to love old-fashioned journalism as much as I do. This week she brings us the 1924 tale of the Bobbed Hair Bandit.
Laura James presents Jesse James in a Flapper Dress posted at CLEWS.

The mysterious and beautiful ShadoWraiths brings us an in-depth look at Satanic Ritual Abuse and Murder in Sins of Our Fathers. There is always something interesting to read at this site and I think it looks great.
ShadoWraiths presents Sins of Our Fathers at ShadoWraiths.

Stephen McCaskill at the Crime Scene Blog consistently gives us well written pieces about interesting crimes. This week he gives us a a chilling look into the mind of David Crespi who stabbed his twin daughters to death. Read it if you dare.
Stephen McCaskill presents Crime and Confession at Crime Scene Blog.

Last, but not least, I would like to remind you that our friends at the 1947 Project have finished their day-by-day chronicle of Los Angeles in 1947, but they continue their work with the year 1907. This week Larry contributes a tale of a burglary gone wrong.
Larry presents Belated Tribute to Heroic Officer posted at 1947 Project.

Well, that’s it for this week’s carnival. Keep coming back.

Submit a story for an upcoming Carnival of the True Crime Blogs with the submission form.

Past posts and future hosts may be found at the Blog Carnival Index.

[NOTE: Blogspot still seems to be having serious problems with image hosting and they just will not do javascript. Can anyone recommend a good free blog host?]

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Thursday, July 20, 2006

Michele Gates Haunts My Dreams

Several years ago I came across a front page article in the Oregonian about a 13-year-old girl who had drowned her 4 year-old neighbor. The story scared me and I must admit, thrilled me a little. The idea of a cold blooded killer who is also a 13 year-old girl was hard to believe. There is no doubt she was cold-blooded. While talking with police she admitted killing her 3 year-old cousin nearly two years before. She is said to have bragged of the killings to other inmates at the children’s home she spent far too little time in.

Michele Gates was good at covering her trail, fighting to expunge her juvenile record and then changing her name to Shorthouse. Even the changing spelling of her first name – originally she was referred to as Michelle, later it was Michele. The obsession never seemed to go away, though.

Volunteering as a swim instructor for children at the YMCA pool, how scary is that? Even the murder plot she was finally convicted of had children involved. She was trying to get custody of her boyfriend’s five-year-old son, by killing the boy’s mother.

I wrote We All Scream For Ice Cream six years ago. I like to use it as a writing example, because I am proud of it as a story. And it scares the hell out of me. In essence that’s what all crime writers do. They scare the hell out of us. We’re worse than horror writers that way.

Since 2000 I have dreaded the day that Michele Gates Shorthouse would be released from prison. I had no luck in finding information about her in the prison system, (thanks to Steve Huff and Imahologram for teaching me more about these arcane arts) but I could count. I knew that someday soon she would be free.

Imagine how I felt last April when I got an email from a stranger asking me about We All Scream…. He said he was interested in my story and that he had recently met a woman. She had recently been released from prison… Could she be….

Well, yes. Could be and she is. My email friend said “…in all honesty, you would never think this woman is capable of any of the things that she has been found guilty of… I am also curious about your opinion on whether someone who commits such heinous crimes can ever be truly rehabilitated?”

It took me a while to respond to that email. Just to be that close to being in touch with Michele Gates scared me. He told her he found out about her on the internet. A Google search on her name brought up my blog first. She would definitely know that I have written about her.

Then there’s the question of rehabilitation. My basic belief is that people can change. It’s almost an article of faith for me, if people can’t change then there is really no hope for any of us. Yet my experience tells me that killers who get away with it tend to kill again. You see it over and over. Whether the motive is money or sex or power, if they get away with it, they’ll do it again.

I believe that in the wrong circumstance every one of us is capable of killing. I believe that in the case of Michele Gates, there but for the grace of God go I and you, everyone. I believe that through God’s grace even Michele Gates can be saved and transformed.

But would I trust her with children? Absolutely not. Would I trust her in any way? Probably not. This woman has been presenting us with a terrible challenge for nearly 30 years, what do you do with children who kill?

The Gates case changed the law here in Oregon. No longer can juvenile records be expunged when they involve violence or sex crimes. Under Measure 11, children who kill go to jail. But still Michele Gates Shorthouse is out there. Is she still drawn to children and water?

I hope we never know the answer. I hope we never hear of Michele Gates Shorthouse again.

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Sunday, July 16, 2006

Playing With Fire Part Two


When Raymond Martin DeFord was one and a half years old, his father hit him over the head with a clipboard because he would not stop crying. Doctors later testified that this injury caused the brain damage that caused DeFord’s learning disabilities and agravated his behavioral problems. Ray’s problems started with his father Tom Martin aka DeFord.

Tom Martin was a self-proclaimed “drifter” and drug user with a needle and spoon tattooed on his arm. In 1969 he was arrested for robbery in New Mexico. Martin blamed the crime, stealing a car from someone who stopped to pick up a hitchhiker, on a friend. He claimed he was only riding in the car and didn’t know about the crime. New Mexico didn’t believe him and sentenced him to ten years for robbery. Two years later Martin escaped from the New Mexico State Penitentiary.

A Texas native, Martin said he was “tired of the desert” so he made his way to Oregon where it was green. Martin worked as a short order cook. He worked under several different names and used at least three different birthdates to hide his identity. In 1980 a bloody riot at the New Mexico Penitentiary destroyed the records of Martin’s crimes, further covering his trail. Eventually Martin married Carolyn DeFord, a mentally retarded woman and on February 13, 1985 Ray was born.

Abuse started early for Ray. Tom Martin was partially paralyzed by a stroke and collected disability for himself and Carolyn. No longer able to drive a car, Martin tooled around the neighborhood on a three-wheeled bicycle collecting cans and bottles for recycling. In his spare time Martin liked to watch pornography and smoke pot with his son and older teenage boys from the neighborhood. When he got bored or angry Martin would shoot Ray’s legs with a BB gun. Witnesses saw Martin shoot Ray with BBs when the boy was as young as 6.

“Look at his parents, and you'll get the whole story,” said Jed Dairy, a teenage neighbor at Oakwood Park. “He needed better love and care; I don't think they know what he needed.” The DeFords were not well-liked at Oakwood Park, where they moved in 1991. That year Carolyn DeFord was convicted of harrassing a neighbor. It is possible that Carolyn’s conviction prompted the move to Oakwood Park.

At 11 Ray DeFord was known as a bully. He owned a python named Satan and regularly chased and beat up kids as young as 5. He carried a knife “for protection” and often threatened children with a BB gun. Ray had learned to blame others for his problems from his father. His parents were always there for him when he got in trouble, too.

“One time he punched my son badly,” said Rafaela Contreras Vargas, whose children were 5 and 9. “I complained to his mother. She wouldn't say anything. She laughed.” Tom Martin taught his son important lessons, like how to make cyanide gas from bleach, detergent and Coca-Cola.

Teachers and other adults that came into contact with Ray away from home found him to be a caring boy eager to please. Lisa Mentesana, a reading coordinator at Barnes Elementary School who worked durign the third grade with Ray and the Aguilar twins, who died in the fire, said, “I never saw the child that they are saying that he is. I never saw anything that would make me say this child is mean. I think he was a little boy who needed lots of hugs and support. I just feel so sad. ”

Carol Pullen, the owner of Pet Circus, a pet store on Tualatin Valley Highway, said that DeFord was an “exuberant little kid” who seemed to have a great interest in animals and who cared about them very much. She said that when Ray was shown respect he gave respect and was very eager to please.

Ray was ostracized at school because he was a slow learner who dressed in raggedy, dirty clothes. Kids would run from him yelling “Ray germs” when he approached. Academically and socially Ray, 11, functioned on the level of a 7 year old.

Fire was a problem. Ray set fires on the counter in the kitchen of his home. His parents didn’t punish him or even make him stop. At least five times Ray set fires that could have got as badly out of control as his fatal fire.

In 1994 Ray set a fire in the recycling bin at Oakwood Park. His neighbor Raliegh Houk said that his son came running into their apartment yelling “Fire.” Houk used a fire extinguisher to put out the flames. Thinking that his son set the fire the boy was punished. Houk said that DeFord admitted to setting the fire.

Houk told the police about this incident right away, but he was not a credible witness. By the time DeFord went on trial Houk was in prison for kidnapping. He had a previous record for burglary and possession of a controlled substance. Nice neighborhood Ray grew up in.

After the fatal fire at Oakwood Park on June 28, 1996 Tom Martin(DeFord) and Carolyn DeFord were interviewed on TV and they talked about how their son “the hero” rescued them from the flames. Police investigating the fire soon heard rumors that Martin had been overheard bragging that he had escaped from a prison in the southwest. Soon “the hero” Ray was the main suspect.

Ray said he thought the fire had been set by three kids from the neighborhood that were trying to pressure him into joining their gang. When Ray was arrested for arson and murder, Martin said, “What we need now is Perry Mason to find out who's done this thing.”

It didn’t take Perry Mason, just Detective Michael O’Connell of the Washington County Sheriff’s Department. Ray confessed to setting the fire to O’Connell. The detective said that Ray was “pretty flat” emotionally while talking about the fire. He seemed to be able to understand that eight people had died, but he didn’t seem to understand what it meant.

Tom and Carolyn DeFord claimed that O’Connell had coerced their son into his confession. Carolyn believed it until she died of cancer at 51 in 2000. About nine months after the fire, Michael O’Connell had the duty of arresting Tom Martin and sending him back to New Mexico. Martin served a little over two years and was released in 1999. He returned to Oregon and now lives in the Hillsboro area.

Ray DeFord faced trial for murder and arson, the youngest person ever charged with murder in Oregon. Ray was so young that he caused all kinds of problems for the system. Oregon’s juvenile justice system was set up for children 12 and over. DeFord’s parents had to waive Ray’s right to a verdict and sentence in 56 days so that he could be tried as a juvenile after his 12th birthday.

Coming Soon: Part three: Aftermath
Part one: Oakwood Park Apartments

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Sunday, July 09, 2006

Playing With Fire Part One

Oakwood Park Apartments

Washington County is the home of Beaverton, one of the largest cities in Oregon. It is also one of the largest agricultural counties in the state. Many Mexican immigrants settle in Washington County, because of the agricultural jobs that are available. Natives of the Mexican state Michoacan are particularly attracted to Oregon. Michoacanos stick together and often cluster together in neighborhoods and apartment complexes.

One such apartment building was the Oakwood Park Apartments; many of the tenants were Mexican immigrants from Michoacan. Oakwood Park was the type of building that catered to working (or unemployed) families and immigrants. In June, 1996 at the height of the agricultural season, many of the apartments in Oakwood Park were overcrowded with visiting friends and family members.

On the night of June 28, 1996 the residents of Oakwood Park were awakened by cries of “Fire! Fuego!” Crystal Hopper, 22, had just gone to sleep and was awakened because her room was so hot shortly after 1 a.m. “My boyfriend looked out the window and said, ‘Who the hell is barbecuing at one in the morning?’” Hopper said. “Then he screamed, ‘Fire! Fire!’”

The building had no sprinkler system, although building codes in Aloha, where it was located required that multifamily dwellings of three or more stories had to have a fire sprinkler installed. Many builders got around this law, like they did with Oakwood Park. The three-story apartment building had an earthen berm erected around the first floor, which was renamed the basement. The building was then described as a two story building and was not required to have a spriknkler system.

Fire investigators found that only one of the 12 apartments in the building had working smoke alarms. The hand-pull fire alarms, located in the stairwell, were impossible for tenants to reach, because the fire was started in the stairwell. Afterward investigators found that nothing happened when the alarms were pulled. Vinicio Luna, 25, found out about the fire alarms the hard way. Running from the third floor apartment of his friends, the Aguilars, he pulled the fire alarm. Nothing happened.

A dozen people were injured with burns and broken bones from jumping out of windows and off of balconies. The fire started on the second floor and engulfed the stairwell in flames in seconds. “Leaving the apartments on that upper level would have been like going down a chimney, like opening the door on the side of a chimney and trying to go in,” said Tim Birr, spokesman for Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue.

Patricio Aquilar, who lived in apartment 36, on the third floor, awoke to a smoke filled bedroom. His 16-year-old wife, Francisca, clutched their 3 month-old baby and ran in panicked circles, screaming, “We’re going to die.” Aguilar ran to his front door, but when he opened it flames threatened his apartment. He slammed the door and ran back to the bedroom.

Araceli and Nicolas Chavez, friends staying with Aguilar jumped from the bedroom window. Both were injured and their 3 month old daughter, Selena died from her injuries. Patricio took his little girl from his wife and stood at the window, trying to decide what to do. Patricio’s childhood friend, Alberto Gaona, who had just escaped from his own apartment stood below the window and yelled that he would catch the child.

Patricio looked behind him, but could not see his wife in the smoke filled room. With a prayer he threw his daughter from the window. His friend, also with a prayer, caught the infant who survived. Patricio went back for his wife, but was unable to find her before jumping from the third floor with third degree burns on his hands and arms. Francisca Aguilar died in the blaze. Later in the hospital, Patricio Aguilar said, “I don't feel any physical pain. I just want to die.”

Next door in apartment 34, Jeremais Aguilar, 37, and his wife Virginia, 26, did not awaken in time. Although three guests were able to escape from this apartment, Jeremais, Virginia and their four children, Jacqueline, 8, Karen, 8, Augustin, 7, and Patricia, 5, were killed in the fire.

Firefighters from Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue(TVFR), the largest fire district in the state, described a hellish scene. Doug Snader, a firefighter who arrived on the scene with the first two firetrucks, said, “You couldn’t stand up because the heat was so intense.” He said that he had to keep moving as the fire burned through his shoes and the sleeves of his coat. When the protective mask he wore began to warp from the heat he was forced back.

The neighborhood was low income working class. It had suffered damage in February 1996 during flooding as the ice from a winter storm melted. The fire hydrants had not been inspected since 1991. One hydrant burst as firefighters tried to connect hoses to it. Spokesmen for TVFR said that lack of water was never a problem so the burst fire hydrant was irrelevant.

The burst fire hydrant, intense flames and people jumping from the building made the fire extremely traumatic, especially for the children who lived in the building. The death of four elementary school age children increased the traumatic impact.

Fire investigators said that the fire was arson, they found accelerant at one spot in the stairwell. They also said it was the worst possible kind of arson, because it was positioned perfectly to turn the stairwell into a firestorm and the timing was sure to catch people asleep in the building. They offered a $5,000 reward for information on the arsonist.

Rumors swirled around the community. Some said that a man was seen fleeing the scene in tears right before the fire broke out. They speculated that he was getting revenge for some slight and the fire had gotten out of control. Sometimes tenants, evicted from the building, had slashed tires or sprayed graffitti. It was not unthinkable that someone like that might have set a fire. Some of the young mothers in the building said that the dryer in the laundry room on the first floor had been smoking for days and may have caught fire.

Michael Eastlick, the manager of the Oakwood Park Apartments, was too overcome with emotion to talk about the fire. He said that the Aguilars were good people. Jeremais was the building’s mechanic. Anyone with car problems went to Jeremais, he would help. Virginia ran a day care center in her apartment and was the substitute mother for most of the children who lived there.

Eastlick didn’t think of it right away, but soon he would remember that there had been problems with fire in the building. In the last year an 11 year old boy, Ray DeFord, who lived with his mother and father in apartment 25, had been caught setting fires at least four times. None of these incidents was ever reported to the police.

Ray DeFord had a reputation as a bully and an outcast at Oakwood Park. His parents, Tom Martin, 46, and Carolyn DeFord, 49, were disabled and eaked out their social security checks by collecting cans and bottles from the garbage. They were looked down on by other tenants in the building and Ray was thought to be a trouble-maker.

DeFord, considered a hero by his family because he woke them and guided them out of their bedroom window during the fire, soon called attention to himself. First he bragged to the police that he knew about the fire. Then he pulled the fire alarm in the hallway of the Ramada Inn where survivors of the fire were staying.

On July 2, 1996 Ray Martin DeFord, 11, confessed to starting the fire. He said he was “experimenting” with matches and alcohol in the stairwell, when he accidentally set some newspapers on fire. When he lost control of the flames he woke his parents and guided them to safety. Ray DeFord would be charged with negligent homicide. He would become Oregon’s youngest convicted murderer.

Coming Soon: Playing with Fire part two: Ray