As she walked through the pre-dawn she might have been thinking of the strange lights that had flashed across the sky earlier in the week. Some people said it was a meteor, but there were others who said they were “flying saucers” from another planet. The northwest had been abuzz over UFO sightings for nearly two years since the sightings at Mount Rainier. Maybe she glanced at the sky from time to time as she walked toward her friend Janet’s house on N. Tayler.
At 5 a.m. a truck would pick up Janet and Thelma and several other kids from her class and carry them to the green bean fields near Hillsboro where they worked summer jobs picking beans. She carried her lunch in a green metal lunch box with a thermos inside.
Maybe she thought of the upcoming weekend. Tomorrow was Saturday and she probably enjoyed going to the movies or out for a soda with friends. Did she swoon over the latest Frank Sinatra record or did she prefer the mellower sound of Bing Crosby? We may never know, but these were the burning questions of teens at the end of the forties. According to her mother, Thelma had not shown any interest in boys yet, but maybe she was starting to have her first ideas in this direction.
It was 4:15 when the strange car pulled to the curb. The door swung open and the driver offered Thelma a ride. She didn’t need a ride, it was only a few blocks more and she had plenty of time, but the driver was kind of cute. He looked a little like the actor John Ireland. For whatever reason, Thelma got into the car.
He seemed nice and he had dreamy dark eyes. He had that dark brooding look that Thelma thought of as wild and dangerous. Wild and dangerous seemed interesting and exciting to the young, sheltered girl. She had never known real danger, but soon she would.
You could just make out the lightening of the sky before the sun’s rising on another beautiful Portland summer day as the car carrying Thelma Taylor passed her turn. Did she start to be afraid?
“That’s my turn, Mr.”
“Call me Morris.” His smile seemed sincere.
“That was my turn, Morris. Two blocks back now.”
“I want to show you something first.”
Morris stepped on the gas and the car, a post-War sedan picked up speed.
“But I’ve got to meet the truck. I can’t be late for work.”
“Don’t worry. You won’t be late.”
The car was approaching the entrance to the St Johns Bridge.
“No. Let me out. I’m not crossing the bridge with you.”
Thelma was angry, her voice wasn’t showing any fear, yet.
Where did it come from? Before she knew it Morris had a seven inch knife in his hand. Its blade was pressing into the denim of her jeans over her thigh.
“I think you’ll go wherever I want you to. What do you think of that?”
“Yes, sir.” Now her voice showed fear. Now she really knew what fear was.
The man driving the car was Leland Morris, 22, recently released from the Rocky Butte jail. He had slept the night in the stolen car and decided to take a drive before the sun came up. He was on the prowl for what he could get and he had got himself a young girl.
Morris had a criminal record that went back to the age of 13 for car theft, burglary, assaulting and robbing women and a few men. At the age of 16 he raped a 29-year old woman in Pier Park, then he stole a car and abducted her, holding her prisoner all day and raping her several times. That wasn’t his first rape either.
The police in Portland knew Morris. In 1945 he led them on a wild car chase that ended with his car in a Victory garden. When police pulled him from the wreck they found he was carrying a seven-inch hunting knife, just like the one that was now pressing into the thigh of 15-year old Thelma Taylor.
Since his release from the Rocky Butte jail two weeks before, Morris had been living in the bushes along the river and prowling unlocked cars in the surrounding neighborhoods. Now he crossed to the east side of the St Johns Bridge looking for a secluded spot he knew by the river.
Thelma’s heart was pounding as the car pulled to the side of the road. She measured her chances for running. She was afraid to even be on this side of the river. Her mother had told her never to go near the railroad tracks and there they were. The sun was starting to rise now and she could hear the birds waking up, but still there was no one around to call for help and she saw nowhere to run.
Morris opened the door on her side and pointed the knife right at her face.
“Get out of the car and walk into the bushes right there.” He pointed with the knife and she allowed herself to breath. “If you make any noise or try to run I will cut your throat. I won’t even mind doing it.”
She walked into the bushes and he was right behind. He guided her to a clearing right on the bank of the river. The railroad track was just up the hill and the other side of the river was Cathedral Park.
He made her sit on a fallen tree. She clutched her green lunch box. She looked at her captor with eyes full of fear.
“What are you going to do with me?”
“Whatever I want.” Now Thelma knew what was really dangerous.
Somehow her innocence touched him. Suddenly he didn’t want to rape her. Having her in his power was enough. Now he didn’t know what to do.
They sat like that for hours. He hardly said anything. Eventually she couldn’t help talking. It helped with the anxiety she felt, so she chattered about anything and nothing.
She thought maybe if she could get through to him he would take her home and not hurt her. Every once in a while she would say something that made him smile and then he seemed nice again, but it didn’t last. Mostly he brooded.
After a while it started to get warm as the sun reflected off the river. She had Kool-Aid in her Thermos and she asked if it would be all right if she had a drink. He just waved the knife at her and didn’t say anything.
It took courage to open the lunch box, but he didn’t do anything about it. She decided she should eat her lunch. She offered to share the food with him, but again he just waved the knife at her.
They sat like that all day. She couldn’t believe how bored she felt; even though she knew her life was in danger. If he would only let her get up and move around.
Morris suddenly moved to the girl and put his hands on her, touching her body. Thelma tried to scream loud enough for her mother to hear on the other side of the river. The noise seemed to panic Morris. He dropped the knife and slapped his hand over her mouth. He held her. Tight.
Thelma went limp and Morris realized that she wasn’t able to breath. He took his hand off her mouth. Air rattled into her throat. She wasn’t screaming any more.
“Please, don’t touch me, Morris,” she pleaded, trying to get him to see that she was a real person, “Don’t hurt me.”
He punched her in the face. A red cloud obscured his vision. There was nothing for him but the hitting. He wasn’t sure how many times he hit her, but when the red cleared she was unconscious. Shadows were deepening all around them. He didn’t want her anymore, but he didn’t know what to do with her.
It was dark by the time she woke up. Morris regarded Thelma with cold eyes. There was a little blood crusted around her nostrils and she had a black eye, but she was quiet.
He knelt beside the shivering girl and put his hand on her breast. Her body jerked away from his touch as if it were red hot. When he began to unbutton her shirt she started to cry, quietly. Tears rolled down her cheeks. As his hard fingers reached her bare flesh, Thelma felt her skin crawl.
Morris was disgusted with the crying. He felt as if the girl in his arms had suddenly turned into a corpse and pushed her away.
“I don’t want you anyway. Nobody wants you.”
That wasn’t quite true, because it was probably around this time that her parents began their frantic search for Thelma. When she didn’t return from the bean fields with the other kids they got worried. By nightfall, when Thelma was nowhere to be found, they were desperate.
On the dusty bare ground by the side of the Willamette, Thelma Taylor cried for the normal world she was afraid she would never see again. After a while she fell asleep.
Leland Morris sat in the dark watching her. He felt himself split, part of him wanted to rape the girl, to feel her scream in pain and fear. Another part of him knew it was wrong. That second part felt scared and puny against the beast that raged inside.
How long did he wrestle with himself there beside the river and the sleeping girl? Eventually his eyes grew heavy and he fell into sleep.
When he next opened his eyes the sun was up and the girl was gone. He grabbed his knife and started back toward the road. He couldn’t believe his luck when he caught up with her. She hadn’t got very far yet.
“Come back here.” The girl jumped at the sound of his voice and started to run, Morris was taller and faster on his feet. Soon she felt the knife against her throat and his arm around her shoulders. A whimper escaped her lips as he pushed her back into the bushes, back toward the river.
She could smell blackberries in the air as they struggled through the overgrown bushes. It would be fun to go berry picking, she thought. Her whimper turned to a giggle as she thought how silly it was to think of berry picking now. Maybe she was getting delirious.
She stumbled over a piece of iron rebar on the ground. The area where they were staying was littered with odd and ends that Morris had picked up in his wandering. If she could only get her hands on that bar…
Morris pushed her hard in the middle of her back and she stumbled forward. She felt a sharp pain in her wrist as she kept herself from falling on her face. Morris picked up the piece of rebar and spanked her hard across the butt.
“Get up. I want you to sit back down on that tree and don’t move. I’ve got to make up my mind.”
Hysteria rose inside Thelma like the dark water that would rise in the Willamette only a few weeks later. The Willamette destroyed the town of Vanport, the hysteria destroyed Thelma’s sanity. She felt as if her body was being jabbed with pins and needles everywhere. It took every ounce of self control she could muster to sit still.
Leland Morris looked at her with frozen eyes. He saw nothing but a problem that had to be solved. The 15-year old girl sitting on a fallen tree trying desperately to stay sane had become a job of unpleasant work that had to be done. The girl had to die.
A screech of metal wheels on steel rails announced that a switch engine was coming down the railroad tracks. The screech startled Thelma and a scream escaped her lips. The sound of her own voice and the freeing rush of air through her throat cleared the girl’s mind. She realized there might be someone close enough to hear. She screamed again, louder.
The sound that cleared Thelma’s mind had an opposite effect on Morris. He felt a tearing sensation through his brain. Thelma’s shrieks tore into his ears. He had to stop the sound. He couldn’t get caught again. Before he knew what he was doing he was swinging the rebar and hitting the small girl in the face. He hit her again.
She fell backwards into a sitting position on the ground, but she was still screaming and now she was trying to get up. He raised the bar above his head and brought it down with full force on her forehead. That stopped the screaming.
Morris was in control of the situation. Everything was all right, now he just had to stay cool. The metal bar felt heavy. He looked at it and it was thick with blood and other things. He threw it toward the river as if he would throw it all the way to the other side. It landed just a few feet out in about three feet of water.
He fell to his knees beside Thelma’s body. She seemed very small and helpless, he had never had anyone so thoroughly in his power and he liked it. He felt an erection growing in his pants. His hand found his hunting knife on the ground nearby. There was a sexual thrill as he slid the blade into the flesh of her stomach and pushed it deep inside.
Again and again he plunged the knife into her body, feeling the sexual thrill he got from possessing a woman with each thrust. He rolled her onto her back and tore at the button of her jeans. He wanted her now, more than ever.
The cold touch of her skin brought Morris back to reality. The girl was dead. He was disgusted with himself and was disgusted with what he was about to do. A deep shame washed over the killer’s soul. He knew what he was and he knew that he could not let himself get caught.
He half lifted and half rolled the surprisingly heavy dead girl over a log which partially hid the body from view. He scanned the river bank for something to cover her with.
The sun was blazing on the Willamette nearby. It was another startlingly beautiful day. Morris picked up the knife that he had dropped and shuddered a bit at the sticky feel of the blood on its handle. He gagged at the thought of what he had done with the knife. He flung it toward the water and it landed near the rebar.
Someone had cut some branches from a tree nearby and then sawed them into logs, only a little longer than convenient fire logs. Some of the logs still had leafy branches that had turned brown in the heat. He dragged a few of these logs over and laid them over Thelma Taylor’s body.
Did Leland Morris feel remorse for what he had done? He said he did. He said his conscience was bothering him for days after the crime.
On Thursday, nearly a week later, he was driving another stolen car when he was stopped by police. How surprised would a veteran cop be to find Leland Morris at the wheel of a stolen car? Not very, but what he said next was a surprise.
“I want to talk to a homicide detective.”
“A murder I did.”
Leland Morris was executed in the gas chamber at the Oregon State Prison in Salem on January 9, 1953.