Monday, August 21, 2006

Confessions of a Crime Blogger

I have been writing about crime for years, but never have I had a larger or more immediate audience. Recently I have found myself in a couple of situations where I have been introduced as a “Crime Blogger” and treated as an expert on murder. Of course my ego loves it, but my experience has taught me that anyone is an expert if they know a little more than you do about something. But then murder is my hobby and I love to be able to talk with people about it.

This is my real confession; I like to talk about murder. This makes a lot of people uncomfortable and rightfully so. Over the years I have learned to keep quiet and not let everyone know who got killed in the building we are passing and when. But I still want to and I am glad to have the opportunity.

Anyone who writes about crime knows the discrimination it can engender. Some people think that crime is not a serious subject and not worthy of a “true” writer. These people don’t bother me. They remind me of a woman who attended one of my poetry readings in the early 90s. I asked for questions from the audience and she rose, saying, “Are those real poems, or did you just make those up?” I just make all of my stuff up, sometimes after careful research and I do not claim to be a “true” writer.

The others are the ones that get to me. These are the ones who say, “Why do you want to concentrate on such horrible things?” This gets to me, because I am a positive person and I believe in concentrating on the positive in any given situation. I know that we attract the things we think about into our lives and I want to attract love and happiness into my life, not violence and death.

Yet the violence and death is compelling. I am compelled to witness the darkest things that the human soul has to offer. I believe that these horrible things grow in the dark and when no one is looking. A wise man once said, “He who has eyes, let him see.” I have eyes. I have a voice. As long as I am here someone will be looking and witnessing and telling anyone who wants to read.

Hatchet Job Part Two

The Port Investigation

1933 was a watershed year. Nationally the Republican Party, which had dominated government for more than a decade, was being replaced in power by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. In Oregon the Republican Party did not intend to give up power so easily.

For most of its history Oregon has been known as a “Rock-Ribbed” Republican state. This was never truer than in the 1920s. With strong support from the Ku Klux Klan, which was enjoying wide popularity throughout the country, a group of unscrupulous Republicans had kept a hammerlock on the state for years. The election of 1932 started the process of their collapse.

Oregon has always had a liking for progressive Republicanism embodied by such figures as Senator Mark Hatfield. In 1930 the progressive wing of the Republican Party got ahead of the New Deal band wagon by advocating publicly owned hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River. George W. Joseph, a prominent Portland attorney was nominated for Governor.

Shortly after his nomination Joseph died and the conservative wing, which controlled the Republican State Central Committee, passed over the primary candidates and nominated Phil Metschan Jr.

Metschan was the son of a Canyon City merchant, from the gold country of Eastern Oregon, who served as Oregon State Treasurer in the 1890s. He was brother in law of Representative K.K. Kubli, who relied on the KKK for his politics as well as his initials, and he was against publicly owned power. Metschan was also a long time Portland Port Commissioner.

Julius Meier, son of the founder of Portland’s most famous department store Meier and Frank and the law partner of George Joseph, took up the mantel of his fallen friend and offered himself as an independent candidate for Governor. Meier was elected by a landslide.

Julius Meier was an energetic and somewhat ruthless leader. His personality seems to have fit the rough and tumble world of the 1930s. He made it a priority of his administration to clean up corruption in government, wherever he found it, as long as it was being practiced by his political enemies.

Portland had plenty of corruption. Portland’s city government has usually been dominated by business owners, but never more than during the 1920s. The national economic policy was laissez faire and in Portland that was taken to extremes. The Port of Portland Commission was a perfect example of the cozy relationship that can develop between business and a government body managing publically owned property. It is also a good example of the casual corruption that can ensue.

Portland is a transportation city. The Columbia River drains one of the richest mining regions in the country. The Willamette waters one of the most fertile agricultural valleys in the world. The products of these two areas are poured through Portland as if through a funnel. By the time of World War I, Portland geographically dominated shipping on these two rivers, but there was no locally owned shipping company.

A group of business men and Portland boosters, led by John C. Ainsworth, the founder of U.S. Bank, organized to promote locally owned shipping. When the war ended in 1918, the Liberty Fleet of quickly made transport ships was the largest merchant fleet on earth. The U.S. government decided to sell these ships off to private owners.

Ainsworth and his partners first leased and then purchased these ships as the States Steamship Company. Soon Portland was once-again a bustling Port giving strong competition to both San Francisco and Seattle. Management of the docks and dry-docks, as well as dredging of the river channels became a pressing need.

The Port Commission of Portland was created to fill this need. The State was responsible for dredging the river channels, so the governor made appointments to the Commission. These positions were usually reserved for members of prominent Portland families and executives of the shipping companies that used the Port facilities. In 1925, the Legislature took over the appointments.

Frank Warren, president of the Port Commission, Phil Metschan and James Polhemus, the manager of the Port saw it as their duty to provide special treatment for their “preferred” customers, especially the States Steamship Company. Kenneth Dawson, Vice President of States, actually served as a Port Commissioner for several years.

States was given special rates on dock usage. States also managed to pull off several purchases of newly purchased dredging equipment at sharply depreciated prices. Coincidentally States then often leased the equipment back to the Port at inflated prices.

The Depression hit Portland hard, but the States Steamship Company came through in good shape and kept business going as much as possible. The Port, on the other hand found itself deeply in debt and heading for serious financial problems. In 1932 the Commission charter was changed to allow Commissioners to be publicly elected. Governor Meier saw his chance to take on the Port.

Bert Haney, a Portland attorney and long time Portland Port booster, ran for president of the Port Commission. Strongly backed by Governor Meier, Haney ran a “Clean up the Port” campaign. Haney won handily and created a subcommittee, consisting of himself, Frank Warren and newly elected Commissioner Paul Bates, to investigate charges of mismanagement.

Frank Akin, an accountant who specialized in auditing, was appointed by Meier to investigate the committee and present his findings to Haney’s subcommittee. Akin had been handed the hottest potato in town and many believed that his real mission was to do a “hatchet job” on the Port. Akin began to receive death threats before he even started investigating.

In March 1933 Akin was assaulted in his southwest Portland apartment. Akin was nothing if not a fighter; he knocked his attacker to the ground and chased him from the room. He would have pressed charges, but he was not able to identify the right man. After the assault, Aiken began to carry a loaded revolver in his pocket. He also kept at least two other handguns and two rifles in his apartment.

Akin’s wife, Imo E. Akin a teacher at Shattuck School, was not surprised to hear of her husband’s death. When told of his murder on November 20, 1933 she said, “Oh Frank, why did you let them do it?” She was convinced from the start that it was her husband’s political enemies that had killed him.

Coming Soon: My new book:
Murder and Scandal in Prohibition Portland

Part One: Akin's Murder Was Never Solved

Labels: , ,

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Don't Do It

They got away with murder, almost. In December, 1999 the death of Edward C. Gregory, 62, was believed to be natural. Gregory’s health had been bad and when he was found dead in the home he shared with Norman E. Schlunt and Angela Soon He Kim, his relatives assumed he had died naturally and had his body cremated. The police never investigated Gregory’s death because they had no reason to suspect foul play.

Schlunt and Kim, not only housemates but business partners of Gregory, attended his funeral and were among the most prominent mourners. Schlunt and Kim collected $150,000 from Gregory’s life insurance. They used the proceeds to pay off their credit card bills and to start a courier business, Mercury PDX. They moved to Woodland, WA and put the past behind them. They might have got away with it completely if they hadn’t had a falling out of their own.

In March, 2006 during an argument at their home, Schlunt threatened to throw Kim out. She went to a friend, Wendy Murray and said she was afraid of her husband. She said she knew what Schlunt was capable of because he had killed his former business partner.

Murray, frightened, went to the police with the story, but she was missing some important details, like who had been killed and when. Detective Paul Weatheroy, of Portland’s newly created Cold Case Squad, got Murray to agree to talk with Kim on the phone and allow the police to record the calls. Over several phone calls Kim revealed details of the murder including the name of the victim.

The next day Weatheroy arrested Kim. Because she was still married to Schlunt, Police could not use Kim’s evidence against him. Murray agreed to set up a meeting at the Kenton Station Pub in North Portland.

Murray wore a wire. She told Schlunt that she knew everything, but she wanted to know details. Schlunt played dumb for a while, but soon opened up.

“I’ve done a lot of things in my life that I am not proud of,” he said.

“Is this one of them?” Murray asked.

“Of course it is, you know that.”

Police got enough from the Kenton Station conversation that they arrested Schlunt at the scene. Later after being confronted with the recordings of Kim’s phone calls, Schlunt confessed in detail to the crime.

Weatheroy asked Schlunt: “You did know that Edward had an insurance policy for $150,000?”

“Yes,” Schlunt replied. “I tell you without a doubt, I would not have done it without the money. We were running out of options.”

Kim and Schlunt were both charged with aggravated murder. Recently during a court hearing on these charges details of the crime from their confessions were released.

Edward Gregory had a reputation as a cheerful and friendly man. After a long career as an accountant and business owner in California, Gregory returned to his home state of Oregon. While working part-time as a document courier, Gregory befriended Schlunt in 1994. Gregory provided the down payment on the home that Schlunt and Kim bought in south east Portland and was allowed to live with the couple rent free.

Gregory and Schlunt had more than one business deal together including buying investment property and starting an Internet Service provider, Ethergate. Because of their business partnership Gregory and Schlunt took out life insurance policies for $150,000, each naming the other as beneficiary.

Schlunt and Kim lived far beyond their means, each running up large credit card bills. The Ethergate enterprise turned out to be not as successful as planned. It is possible that Schlunt was going through a divorce from his previous wife in Michigan during this time and that may have added to his money worries.

Finally Schlunt, feeling he had “no option” came up with the plan to kill Gregory and collect his insurance. Kim said she went along with the plan “like a stupid wife.” Together they planned Gregory’s death. Schlunt ordered 100 Ativan tablets on the internet. Ativan is an anti-anxiety drug that is also used to ease insomnia.

Schlunt and Kim experimented with Tylenol to find the best way to hide the powder and the bitter taste. They finally decided that chili was the best medium to deliver the drug, because it could be strongly spiced so the flavor could be hidden.

On December 1, 1999 Kim ground up 25 Ativan tablets in a bowl and filled the bowl with chili, then she served it to Gregory. Schlunt sat with an increasingly sleepy Gregory, telling him how much he and Kim liked Gregory. He told him how much he meant to the two of them and that they appreciated all the help he had been.

Gregory became nauseated, but was too weak to throw up. Schlunt and Kim put him to bed. Shortly after midnight the couple entered Gregory’s room. The man was sleeping heavily. Kim sat on his legs and Schlunt straddled the man’s chest, holding his arms down, but being careful not to leave bruises.

Schlunt placed a plastic bag over Gregory’s head and tied it off around his neck. Schlunt said that as he was tying off the plastic bag, Gregory awoke and said, “Don’t do it.” Schlunt held the bag in place for about five minutes and Gregory finally expired.

Schlunt and Kim face aggravated murder charges, but first they have a nasty divorce to finish. They have a dissolution hearing on August 25.

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Carnival of the True Crime Blogs XXXVI

This week the ladies at Southern Sass on Criminal Activity Today are the carnival hosts. You can go there by clicking here.


Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Underground Portland

Funny after Harding’s mention of my going underground, I actually did just that this weekend. My new friend David Schargel invited me to come down and join him on the Underground Portland Tour one of several Portland walking tours that can be found at Sunday was a beautiful day for a walk and one of my favorite hobbies is walking to historical Portland addresses.

We started near the oldest building in Portland, on the corner of SW Naito and Oak, built in 1857. It’s now covered in stucco, but the Dielschneider Building next door, has exposed brickwork and was built only two years later.

From there we walked along the waterfront, through the Memorial to the Japanese Internment. One thing I really appreciated was that our tour guide, David, did a great job of bringing details in to enhance our understanding and appreciation of the sites we visited.

I have been to the Memorial twice before and it is always moving, but the research David had done on the Japanese Community in Portland, what was known as Little Tokyo in 1940, brought home the magnitude of what was done to them. From the Memorial we walked up through what had been Little Tokyo and is now Chinatown.

For a couple of hours we walked through Old Town/Chinatown seeing old buildings and talking about such things as: the only state-sponsored and organized Rock Festival in history (Vortex I); firemen fighting over a burning building, back when Portland’s fire companies competed for business; men “crimped” into service on the clippers to China; and Portland’s Three Sirens Liverpool Liz, Nancy Boggs and Mary Cook.

We ended up in the basement at Old Town Pizza in what some say are Portland’s Shanghai Tunnels. This is a fun little argument that people have been quarreling over for years. Rumors of the Shanghai Tunnels go back a lot further than anyone can remember. The oldest that I know about, I just found out, goes back to the Fifties.

I don’t care how the argument comes out, but we know there are tunnels in the Old Town area. Some of those tunnels were used for loading goods onto ships. In fact anyone who grew up in Portland will tell you, most stores do their loading through tunnels in the sidewalks. Portland has very few alleys. We also know that people were impressed against their will into service on ships in Portland’s harbor.

Did they ever get “Shanghaied” through tunnels? Probably. Does it really matter? Who cares? It’s fun to poke around in the basements of old buildings and out under the sidewalks. At one point we turned off our flashlights and heard Stewart Holbrook’s wonderful story of “Bunco” Kelly crimping the dead guys. This is history as legend and history as fun.

David also carried a magic portfolio emblazoned “Keep Portland Weird” that contained photographs and historical documents of all kinds to back up the “legends”. The thing that intrigues me is that there are 12 tour guides and each does their own tour, based on their own interests. I’m thinking I might need to do this tour a few times. In fact I hear that at least one tour guide has an interest in Portland crime and has found stories on this blog helpful. All I can say to that is, “Thanks for reading and helping to keep these stories alive.”

My ideas for improvement: If I managed the Old Town Pizza where the tour ended I would have a bucket of iced beers, sodas and waters available at the end. I would have gladly paid for a cold drink after the hot basement. Make a deal with the Oyster Bar, it’s a great old building and a good stop on the tour, but it would have been nice to get a discount there like at Old Town Pizza. My partner and I went to the Oyster Bar after the tour and it was very nice.

For Halloween, how about a Murder Tour around dusk? If you need a guest “scare”-guide, let me know.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Carnival of the True Crime Blogs XXXV

This week Harding is the host at T.O. Crime.


Hatchet Job Part One

Akin’s Murder Was Never Solved

The last year of Mayor Baker's reign became chaotic as rival factions began to vie for power.  By the time Mayor Carson took office in 1933 there were open power struggles in both the Portland Police Bureau and in Organized Crime. Photographer unknown.  Portland City Archive.
On November 20, 1933 W. Frank Akin, special investigator for Governor Julius Meier appointed to expose corruption in Portland’s Port Commission, was shot to death in his apartment in southwest Portland. His murder occurred a day before he was supposed to present his report on the Port Commission to the State Legislature. This is probably the most famous case of murder in Portland’s history. But the story somehow has been lost in the retelling.

Jewel Lansing, in her otherwise brilliant Portland: People, Power and Politics 1851-2001 gives the story one short inset, ending with this claim: Akin’s murder was never solved. It’s probably not fair to blame Jewel too much, because she relied very heavily on the work of Portland’s “official” historian E. Kimbark MacColl.

MacColl, in Growth of a City goes into great detail on the Port scandal and the politics that lay behind the murder, but gives Akin’s death itself only a passing wink:

“The timing and mysteriousness of the murder, which was never solved, generated numerous conspiracy theories to which the local press gave maximum coverage…. In February, 1936, two unknown and unlikely characters were indicted by the grand jury, but they escaped conviction. The evidence was strictly circumstantial.”
Leo Hall was executed for six murders he committed at Erland's Point on the Olympic Peninsula.  He was the also the hired gunman who shot Frank Akin.  Photographer unknown. Washington State Archive.
Investigation of the local press of that time shows that MacColl was not exactly right. Although the crime was sensational and generated a lot of interest the press coverage was, for the most part, straight forward. Rumors were reported, especially about Akin’s alleged philandering, but very little in the way of conspiracy theory can be found, except possible on the part of Kimbark MacColl.

The two “unlikely characters” that were charged with murder in Akin’s death turn out to be Leo Hall and Jack Bernard Justice. Hall was later hung by the state of Washington for another crime. Justice was convicted of hiring Hall to murder Akin for the benefit of “parties unknown.” Justice would serve nearly 9 years of a life sentence for 1st degree murder.
The Willamette River has always been a working river.  Frank Akin had just finished investigating illegal activity at the Port of Portland and was just about to look into the corrupt Portland Water Bureau when he was killed.
In one sense this crime hasn’t been solved, we still don’t know who Justice was working for, but we do know who pulled the trigger and why. Kimbark MacColl says that Governor Meier had ordered Akin to do a “hatchet job” on the Port Commission. I believe him, but I want to see if we can repair this “hatchet job” on history.

I have a pile of documents still to work through, but over the next few days I will share what I find with you. Together maybe we can finish putting the pieces of this puzzle together. Maybe we can start to make a guess about who was really responsible for this death.
Hatchet Job part two: The Port Investigation

More details will be revealed in my upcoming book with Theresa Griffin Kennedy
Murder and Scandal in Prohibition Portland: Vice, Sex and Misdeeds during Mayor Baker's Reign.
Coming in February 2016 from The History Press.

Labels: , ,