Friday, April 11, 2014

Pussy Willows: The Murder of Kermit Smith

     Well, publishing two books not only takes a lot of work and energy, but it also brings great opportunities. It has also brought some interesting new friends, like JB Fisher. (Gotta love the first name.) This young man asked for my help in a project involving an infamous case from the 1950s. Slowly but surely he let me in on the fact that he had uncovered the notebooks and detective files of Walter Graven, a Multnomah County Sheriff's Deputy in the 1950s and 1960s. The files have been a motherlode of information on crime in Portland and I am proud to unveil the first fruits of Mr. Fisher's labor.  It is the tale of a brutal domestic murder in 1955 and the pictures come from Graven's own files. This treasure trove will soon produce a book in collaboration between JD Chandler and JB Fisher, and probably many more from Mr. Fisher in the future. I hope you enjoy his writing as much as I do.

Oliver Kermit Smith's car was blown to pieces when he tried to start it in the parking lot of the Columbia Edgewater Country Club. Picture from the files of Det. Walter Graven

The news earlier this week that former Aspen socialite Pamela Philips has been found guilty of arranging the 1996 car bombing that killed her ex-husband Gary Triano invites us to consider some eerie parallels to a nearly forgotten 1955 Portland murder. On April 21st of that year, as he was returning to his car after a game of Gin Rummy with friends at the Columbia Edgewater Country Club, 35-year-old lawyer Oliver Kermit Smith was blown up by a car bomb. 
It had been just seven days since a bomb exploded in a third-floor restroom of the downtown Meier & Frank Co. building and the city had been abuzz with at least half a dozen telephoned bomb threats since. But as police detectives were quick to discover, this car bombing was not related. After following several false leads, they set their sights on Victor Lawrence Wolf, 45. The name had been mentioned about six weeks prior, when Smith summoned police after being beaten up in front of his home by a shadowy figure who subsequently escaped into the night. When asked by police if the victim could think of anyone who might have done this to him, he stated simply, “Wolf.” It turned out that the silver-haired Victor Wolf rented a room in a house owned by Smith’s 34-year-old wife and he did odd jobs as an electrician and handyman at the Smith residence.
Oliver Kermit Smith was the victim of a plot between his ex-wife and her tenant. Photo from the files of Det. Walter Graven

 In talking to Wolf, police learned that he had in fact been at the Smith home the day before the car bombing, helping Mrs. Smith install a swing set for the Smiths’ young daughter Susie while Kermit was at work. When asked whether his fingerprints might have been on Smith’s 1952 Buick sedan still sitting in ruins in the country club parking lot, Wolf was quick to answer, “Oh, I might have been alongside it. I could have touched it” although he denied ever being in the car. Closer inspection of Smith’s car revealed yellow and red wires attached to the vehicle’s starter solenoid and joined with friction tape to a lamp cord. A subsequent check of Wolf’s brown Mercury sedan parked in front of his Tillamook Street home yielded yellow and red wires hidden in a left side air vent. Wolf showed startled amazement, wondering “How did that get in there?” Next, black tape was found in the basement and in the garage. Wolf was whisked away to the county sheriff’s office for further questioning.
Also brought in for questioning was Marjorie Smith, widow of the late attorney. She told the investigators that she had been married three times, and that she had divorced Kermit for about three years before recently reconciling and remarrying him in February 1955. Sounding like a stereotypical 1950s housewife, she reassured the policemen that married life was now happy even though he had been abusive in the past: “Everything was working out fine. Oh, we still had fights once in a while, but who doesn’t? I get over my mads easy, but his would drag on. All I had to do, though, was bake an apple pie and everything would be all right again.” She went on to reveal that she had dated Victor Wolf several times while divorced from Kermit, explaining that she felt sorry for Wolf because his wife had run away with another man.

Detective Leitheiser (right) was bad cop; Det. Walter Graven (left) was good cop. Electrician Victor Wolf (seated) was on the spot. Photo from the files of Det. Walter Graven.

Meanwhile, Wolf was facing scrutiny from criminal detectives Leitheiser and Graven who were pressuring him to confess. Within a short time, he surprised them by asking, “Could I get off with maybe second degree murder? Would I have to go to the gas chamber?” They told him that the jury would decide those questions and then he muttered, “I don’t want to drag her into it, blacken her reputation.” He asked Leitheiser to leave the room—he had been playing bad cop and Wolf felt intimidated. After that, he proceeded to tell Detective Graven the story.
It had started when he rented the room in Mrs. Smith’s house on Tillamook Street. She was divorced at the time and they talked about homesteading in Alaska. They knew it would be expensive and her idea was that she would remarry Kermit and then collect his $20-30,000 life insurance policy. So they remarried and then she asked Wolf to help knock off her husband. There was the idea to shoot him in their house, which Wolf couldn’t carry out (he tried back in March, he said, but the plan was botched). He asked why she couldn’t just divorce her husband and she told him that Kermit said he would take their young daughter if she tried again. So they cooked up the bomb plot. Wolf got a lot of dynamite and he used his electrician skills to rig up the wiring in the Smiths’ garage while Mrs. Smith drank coffee with the neighbor lady who would have been suspicious. They had made a trip together to Ridgefield, Washington to get some of the dynamite a few days before the murder. They had a picnic alongside the road, and Wolf clipped some wild pussy willows for Marjorie. On the day of the bombing, Wolf pulled into the country club lot around 7:00 pm and finished the wiring job. Then he drove off.

Victor Wolf claimed that he had been a sex-slave to Marjorie Smith. The case drew a great deal of attention, including this layout in Sept. 1955 issue of True Police Cases magazine. From the files of Det. Walter Graven.

              When the detectives told Marjorie Smith what Victor Wolf had confessed, she was indignant and amazed. She said it was impossible and that she had nothing to do with “that repulsive old man!” Police went on to find the gun that Wolf claimed Marjorie had given him (it had belonged to Kermit’s father, a police officer). They found a set of keys to the Smith house in Wolf’s possession. They even found the pussy willows in a vase in the Smiths’ basement. Returning to the roadside spot in Rigdefield, they discovered that the cut branches matched the cut ends of the bushes in the field. Nearby, spent dynamite caps lay scattered on the ground. Still Marjorie Smith denied it all. 
Not long after being booked for first-degree murder, Marjorie Smith was exonerated by a jury in Yamhill County. Victor Lawrence Wolf was sentenced to life in prison for his crime. In 1957, a California court found Marjorie Evans Smith “unfit to maintain custody” of her daughter Susan, who had been cared for by Kermit Smith’s sister Ellen Hightower in Santa Clara County, CA since the time that her mother was initially arraigned.  
--J. B. Fisher