Sunday, October 19, 2014

I Should Have Killed Him Then Part Two

Theresa Kennedy Dupay, the Slabtown Chronicle’s newest guest blogger, has a flair for historical research and dramatic storytelling. Here is the second part of her study of the murder of Police Lieutenant Phillip Johnson. This case is also featured in my new book with JB Fisher Portland on the Take. I hope you like it. – JD Chandler


Well-known and beloved, retired Lt. Frank Springer was hired in 1938 by the Portland Police Bureau. In 2008, retired Springer sat down and in a 4 hour taped interview, revealed many surprising elements about his 35-year-career with PPB. As a young patrolman Blaine Chase was one of Springer's early trainers. With twenty years’ experience in police work, Chase showed Springer the ropes of how police work was really done; how to be safe, what to do and what not to do. Frank Springer was known as a perceptive and observant young patrolman in those early days and it’s not surprising that Springer would easily discover certain details about Chase and his earlier history at PPB that other officers would apparently fail to unearth. Springer described Chase as a “good trainer” but as a man whose career had passed him by. According to Springer, Chase was a man who was troubled with “severe depression” and “bitter resentment” over an old grudge that he could not seemingly part with. Springer also claims that the atmosphere at Precinct # 1 was generally quite “tense” as the two ex-partners were assigned to work the same shift, and “... neither man would speak to the other.” (JD Chandler, 2014).
Frank Springer was a rookie when he met Blaine Chase. The two men remained friends until Chase’s suicide in 1941. Courtesy of Portland Police Historical Society.
Springer goes on to recall the incident, “Sometimes you get a sixth sense, policemen will talk about that. This is an instance where I had it. My partner and I had gone into the station to get some gas for the car and then left and had only gone ten blocks, when we get a call to return to the station (East Precinct, 7th and Alder Street) because there had been a shooting. I turned to my partner and said, “I bet Chase has shot the Lieutenant!”And where in the world that came from, I have no idea at all. It just came as a flash. So, we went back there and we were the first car there, because it was our district.”(Springer, 2008).
Three days before the shooting, Springer remembers that Blaine Chase called on him and his wife Jerri at their family home for an unexpected visit. After some small talk, Chase offered Frank Springer a valuable rifle that he claimed he no longer wanted to keep. Springer was surprised and flattered by the gesture but refused to accept the rifle, probably because he could see it was expensive and that it would be inappropriate and opportunistic to accept it.“Incidentally, I told you that I worked with Chase a couple of nights. He was a lot older than I of course, but he was a good trainer. About three nights before the shooting, he came over to the house, first time he'd been there and he visited with Jerri and I [sic]. He went out to his car and got a rifle and a fishing pole and brought them in and he said, “Here, I want you to have this.” And I couldn't imagine what in the world he was giving that to me for, because he hardly knew me. But I argued with him and said, “I can't take a rifle like that, I don't know anything about rifles.” And he said, “Well, I thought you might like it” and I said, “I'm sorry but it’s not for me.” And I said, “I'm not a fisherman either but my wife likes to fish.” and he gave the fishing rod to her. It was a nice salmon rod; I still have it up in the attic. Looking back, he must have planned the murder-suicide, or else he wouldn't be giving away his possessions like that.” (Springer, 2008).
Only hours after the shooting, an all-points bulletin went out to local police stations. This information was broadcast and rebroadcast to all the state police stations. “5:25 AM. WANTED FOR THE MURDER OF LT. JOHNSON, EX-OFFICER ARTHUR B. CHASE, 57 YRS, 5 FEET 9, 200 POUNDS. BLUE EYES-LT COMPLECTION. PARTLY BALD, GREY AROUND THE TEMPLES. WALKS WITH A SLIGHT LIMP. WEARING WHEN LAST SEEN, A DARK GREY SUIT, RED TIE WITH SMALL FIGURES, WHITE SHIRT, REDDISH BROWN OXFORD SHOES. DRIVING A 1939 BUICK COUPE, BLACK COLOR. HE IS WELL ARMED, HAD WITH HIM A .45 AUTOMATIC, A .32-20, A .38, A .25, A SHOTGUN AND A RIFLE.”
Blaine Chase was the subject of an intense manhunt in the hours after he shot Lt. Johnson. He was a rogue cop and he knew he wouldn’t survive long if he was caught. Courtesy of Portland City Archive.
All major roads in the city were blocked and every available officer was out and looking for Arthur “Blaine” Chase at various checkpoints throughout the city. Police went from car to car as people tried to go about their daily business within and without the city limits. In the teletype, Chase was described as an “Ex-Officer.” He was the enemy. He was wanted for murder. As a seasoned street cop, Chase must have known that were he to be captured, he would likely be shot and certainly at the very least beaten severely for having killed, in cold blood, someone as well-regarded as Lt. Phillip Johnson.
Chase had to have understood that aspect of police culture. He also had to have known his life was essentially over and there was no place to hide. As all police in the city were searching for Chase, the first place they chose to look was his most recent apartment, in a string of various apartments and hotels across the city where he lived. In his apartment, detectives found that he had cleaned out all of his personal effects,” with not much left behind. They found only an “old, dirty Mallory hat,” an empty quart bottle of whiskey, a pair of women’s black leather gloves and a discarded crime novel by writer Ellery Queen. The novel found in Chase's room may have been the 1941 classic, “Ellery Queen and the Perfect Crime,” as it was very popular that year.
The detectives spoke to the manager and discovered that Chase had hired a moving truck to remove the contents of a storage locker in the basement less than a week before. They also wondered what happened to his expensive boat and whether it had been moved out to one of the local rivers. The manager was unaware that Chase had for all intents and purposes moved out of his apartment. While detectives searched the Chase apartment, they discovered through the manager that Chase had three women friends with whom he associated. Eleanor Sallard, Vivian Morris, who called on him weekly, and his favorite of the three, Mrs. Mary Robinson. The police couldn’t make contact with any of the women and no further mention is made of their attempting to contact or question them at a later date.
Perhaps most revealing is the testimony of one Special Officer, Frank J. Parker, a close friend and regular associate of Chase. In Parker's sworn statement, recorded May 9, 1941, the day of the killing, he admited that he and Chase were “good friends” who “associate in our spare time, as well as during working hours.” Parker went on to explain that two days before the killing he and Chase drove around together, as they both worked the same special officer beat. “He rode around with me for a while and during the conversation he told me that he thought [the Lieutenant would not press any charges against him] because of some trouble he and Johnson had had some time back. With reference to this trouble he stated that he should have shot Johnson at that time. I asked what he meant by that and he just passed if off with a shrug.” (Official Officers Report, 1941).
Lt. Phillip Johnson had a long relationship with Blaine Chase. It was reported that Chase regretted not killing Johnson years before. Courtesy of Portland City Archive.
What could Chase have been referring to? Why would he feel he had something over on Johnson that would prevent him from ever being disciplined for his chronic lateness and absenteeism? Was Chase really that angry at a superior officer for suspending him for being late from oversleeping due to drunkenness? And did Chase really feel that death would be a worthy or equal punishment for such a misdemeanor? Or was it something else that fueled Chase's hatred of Johnson? Something more personal perhaps?
At one point, toward the end of his 2008 interview, Frank Springer, finally revealed the long forgotten truth about Arthur “Blaine” Chase and what fueled the hatred he felt for Lt. Phillip Johnson. On September 15, 1921 Blaine Chase, a respected policeman with 3 years on the job, age 37, married Venola Katheryn Pierce, a telephone operator from Boise, Idaho in Vancouver. In Chase's personnel file, Pierce is listed as 19-years-old at the time of their wedding, but according to US Census records, she was only 18, having been born June 20, 1903. Chase had already been married and divorced twice before. His first wife was Maud Godbey, whom he married December 30th, 1904, at the age of twenty. He is reported to have left her after four days and that “They were divorced in Judge McBride's Court at Oregon City, April 20th, 1908.” He then married Helen Fanno Britton in October, 1913 with no divorce date given in the PPB personnel file.
Considering his desultory history with his prior wives, who were both around his own age, it is very possible that Venola was a pretty young girl with whom Chase was very much in love. Something changed that status though; something from an unexpected source. Chase and his new wife were married about a year, when 48-year-old Phillip Raymond Johnson, Chase's then partner, began to secretly pursue Venola, beginning an affair with herShe fell hopelessly in love with Johnson and left her husband soon after the affair began. As soon as Venola left Chase, Johnson promptly dumped her, abruptly ending the relationship. Apparently, Johnson was interested in the illicit sex an affair would provide him, but not interested in dealing with the inconvenience or embarrassment of a very young, adoring wife.
Blaine Chase’s ill-fated 1921 marriage to Venola Pierce was at the heart of the fatal dispute he had with his ex-partner, Lt. Phillip Johnson. Courtesy of Portland City Archive.
“The story actually starts way back, 20 years before, when the Lieutenant, Phil Johnson and Chase the patrolman, were partners. Johnson got to fooling around with Chase's wife and Chase's wife fell in love with Johnson and so she divorced Chase to marry Johnson. When the divorce was final, Johnson says, “No way, I never meant it to go like this!” Now Chase could live with the divorce but he was still in love with his wife and he couldn't live with her being dumped like that. So, the bitterness started. Years went by and by some stupidity in the chief's office, they put those two on the same relief. I had worked with Chase a couple of nights and Johnson was our Lieutenant and they never spoke. The friction grew and Chase came to work late one night and Johnson suspended him. For a suspension to take place, you had to have a hearing, so the morning that the hearing was set, (May 9, 1941) Chase came into work about 3:00 am and he had two guns [sic]. He came into the station and he started shooting at the Lieutenant. Johnson went into the back room where the desk Sergeant was and he dropped to the floor and got behind a desk. Chase followed him in there and killed him. There were bullet holes all over the station. Incidentally, it’s a photography shop now and the bullet holes are still there.” (Springer, 2008).
Springer claims that Chase still loved his wife and was furious with the insult of Johnson dumping her. But why would Chase be so angry at the idea of an insult like that? Perhaps it is because the insult of Johnson not marrying Venola and essentially abandoning her would contribute to a loss of reputation and community respect that Venola could never recover from. This was after all 1922, during prohibition and other forms of social and cultural repression were the accepted norm. The scandal that Venola had allowed or even encouraged to happen to her marriage might have ruined any future prospects for her. Perhaps Chase understood this and perhaps that is why he was so angry when Johnson eventually threw her away. Venola and Chase ultimately did not reconcile, though it was well known how much he continued to pine for her, grieving her loss. Even if he'd wanted to, taking Venola back would have made him a laughing stock with his buddies on the police force and his pride would likely not have allowed that.
Other Oregon state records indicate Venola married again, after her divorce from Chase was final. In 1934, vital statistics records show that Venola Katheryn Chase married Arthur Wood on June 22, 1934, in Multnomah County. Not only did Chase lose his young wife to duplicity and infidelity, to a man he may have considered a friend and his partner on the job, but he lost her forever when she remarried another man. This was something that clearly festered within Chase's mind and contributed to a huge level of rage and sorrow as the years passed and he was unable to create any other manner of personal happiness for himself.
It’s likely also that Chase felt inferior to Johnson in other ways too. Johnson was a charming, well-mannered Southern gentleman. He was college educated and a healer, having completed a degree as a licensed Chiropractor. And unlike Chase, Johnson was able to advance through the ranks. As Chase attempted to go on with his life, becoming an “excellent hunter” and “fisherman” who often went out on fishing and boating excursions, he was not able to recreate the kind of happiness he'd once had with young Venola. He never married after this third marriage failed and though he did associate with women in intimate relationships, he kept them at a distance, continuing to live alone for the remainder of his life.
As time went on, Chase must have realized he'd never be promoted the way Johnson was. His resentment and envy for Johnson must have become all consuming. It would have been easy for Chase to blame Johnson for all his troubles, heartache and bad luck. And that obviously, is indeed what happened. Chase became increasingly more disillusioned with police work, and more hardened to the job. He became chronically ill, often calling in sick and simply not showing up for work for two and sometimes three days at a stretch, without calling in his absences, which was of course, the expected protocol.
The absenteeism could have been due to his well-known problem with alcohol, but also must have been a form of rebellion. To go A.W.O.L without so much as a telephone call to his supervisor's had to have been a blatant act of aggression on his part. He was testing his luck, and seeing exactly how much he could get away with. Also recorded in the Chase personnel file is that in June 1937, Chase broke one of his legs, which left him in a constant state of pain for several months. This probably made the drinking even more necessary, if only to alleviate the pain that contributed to a mild limp in his gait. By 1939, the leg was reported to have healed, though Chase still walked with a discernible limp. There is currently no record of the cause of the injury in his personnel file, which probably means he broke his leg in his off hours, and not while on duty.
Experts in criminal causation generally claim that the taking of a life usually occurs after a person has experienced one or more forms of traumatic and bewildering loss. And Chase certainly had, in a multitude of ways. According to Oregon Census records, in about one year, Chase's despised mother Clara (the one who had married at least four men) passed away July 23, 1940, while in her late 80's and living in California. There is no indication that Chase took any time off to attend her funeral. Then his father, Edward Chase died sometime in early 1941. In one year, Chase lost both parents and was then fired from a long and demanding career as a beat cop. When comparing his life to Johnson's, it must have seemed that Johnson had it all. He had college degrees, was a high ranking official in the police bureau, was well-liked and had been happily married for several years with a loving wife named Sarah, waiting at home every night. Their marriage date in 1928 is listed as July 5th, Johnson's very birth date.
What did Chase have? Nothing apparently. He'd lost it all. He'd lost his reputation, his job and most of all he'd lost the young girl named Venola, not only to an affair but also to another marriage. Venola would always be the young, pretty wife he had loved and lost. She would never age in his mind, she would always be that pretty girl; the one who got away. There was no way Chase could go back in time and change things. All he could do was change the future. And he would. He would make certain of that. The seed of revenge must have begun germinating in Chase's mind years before he actually began preparing to act on it. The desire to even the score must have started out slowly and then as he became more desperate, more ill, and more lonely and disenfranchised, must have become an all-consuming, full-time fantasy life that he courted.
An official report by Captain H.A. Lewis, submitted to Police Chief Harry Niles on May 10, 1941, gave an extremely negative appraisal of Arthur “Blaine” Chase. The report was critical of Chase’s professionalism, ability and overall character. In addition it presented a motive for Johnson’s killing. In the report, Lewis stated, “In regard to the recent tragedy in which Officer A. B. Chase shot and killed his immediate commander, Lieut. P. R. Johnson, I have given this matter considerable consideration and have investigated it from all angles as far back as when these men came to this precinct. In this way, I have come to the conclusion that A. B. Chase had grown so resentful toward any authority, or discipline, or criticism of himself or his actions that he allowed it to prey on his mind to the extent that it became, in a way, a sort of mania. In the belief that the Lieutenant was unfairly riding him he made up his mind to “get even” and took this way of doing it.” (Official Police Report, 1941).
Lewis went on to detail the fact that Chase’s behavior had become more and more intolerable since the injury to his leg in 1937. “He seemed to think that no one had any right to tell him anything and resented any criticism or orders from any one. At that time he was in rather a bad way. His leg was in a cast and he complained of more or less pain at all times.”(Official Police Report, 1941).
Theresa Kennedy Dupay has thoroughly investigated this case and will present her final conclusions in Part Three of I Should Have Killed Him Then, coming soon at the Slabtown Chronicle.

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