Wednesday, November 05, 2014
Dear Loyal readers,
Here is he eagerly awaited conclusion to Theresa Kennedy Dupay’s study of the 1941 Johnson-Chase shootings. Theresa is a very thorough researcher and I am always glad to have her help here at the Slabtown Chronicle. This story is put into its historical context in my new book Portland on the Take now available from the History Press. -- JD Chandler
Captain H.A. Lewis, who investigated the shooting at the East Precinct, detailed the various times Lt. Johnson had cause to suspend Blaine Chase, but chose to do nothing. It seems apparent that Johnson was avoiding some kind of possible confrontation that he knew would explode if he did exercise his authority and power over Patrolman Chase, his onetime partner of the 1920's. Ultimately, Johnson's avoidance of Chase's blatant disregard for protocol forced Captain Lewis to order Johnson to suspend Chase. Johnson was instructed to suspend Chase because Johnson was Chase's immediate superior and any form of discipline would have to come from him. Captain Lewis also ordered Johnson to inform Chase that the suspension had really come from him, and not Johnson, as if that admission might ameliorate the sting of the suspension. Tragically, it was still Johnson who had to approach Chase the week before the crimes, to inform him of the suspension that would take place, knowing as he would that Chase would explode in a fury. It seems inexplicable why anyone in the bureau would have forced these two men to work together, given their past history, which most of the older rank and file had to have been aware of.
Captain Lewis, a native of England, had signed on with PPB in 1911. The bureau was much smaller then, Lewis had to have been more than cognizant of the betrayal Chase had suffered at the hands of Johnson back in 1922. And yet in the following excerpt from his written report to Chief Jenkins, Lewis ignores the real issue regarding the true motive for Chase’s attack on Johnson and offers a superficial reason as to Chase's longstanding bitterness and resentment.
“During the past nine or ten months his continued absence without leave has grown to the point that I instructed Lieutenant Johnson to take some action. When he spoke to Chase about it, Chase flew into a rage and accused the Lieutenant of picking on him. This was about the middle of March. I told Lieutenant Johnson to tell Chase it was my order that the next time he was A. W. O. L. he would be suspended for three days and that if he was not satisfied I would file charges against him. Upon receiving this information he again flew into a rage at Lieutenant Johnson and accused him of discriminating against him, although he knew this was my doing. However, the Lieutenant saw fit to overlook the matter again and let it ride until Chase deliberately absented himself for three days without so much as a phone call. I instructed the Lieutenant to suspend him for three more days. When this was done he flew into a rage and bawled the Lieutenant out with the result that I did file charges against Chase and told him that I would personally appear against him with the hope that the Disciplinary Board would teach him a lesson. He appeared to have no resentment toward me particularly but evidently blamed the Lieutenant for all his trouble and worked himself into the frame of mind which ended in the shooting. I have no doubt that Chase's general physical condition, and the fact that he was always surly and bull-headed under any restriction or discipline, contributed largely to the breaking down of a mind which, in my opinion, was never restricted by any self-discipline and was never exceptionally strong. This is my conclusion and my reason for same and I am inclined to think that this is the only motive there was behind the shooting. (Official Police Report, 1941).
The Lewis report seems surprisingly obtuse and overly simplistic. Chase resented Johnson merely because Johnson was obeying orders from Captain Lewis to suspend him and for no other reason? Unlikely. Johnson went out of his way to avoid causing trouble for Chase, despite his repeated absenteeism and tardiness. And yet, Chase did not resent Captain Lewis, who was the individual in power who was actually behind the suspensions. Why would Chase blame Johnson or direct so much resentment to him, if he were only angry because of professional differences, such as a disciplinary action of suspension due to absenteeism?
Lt. Johnson’s affair with Chase’s young wife was at the heart of the conflict. It appears that this kind of infidelity was not uncommon at PPB, as during the same general time period, there was another affair that ended up becoming well known. Though this controversy was apparently short lived and nothing came of it, it was a cause for concern. In Frank Springer's 2008 memoirs, he makes mention of an officer that was getting death threats from another officer due to an affair, which took place in the early 1940's. Officer A had had an affair with officer B's wife and there was a lot of threatening and worry over the husband who wanted to kill the offending officer. This situation was handled correctly. The two men working the same relief were transferred to different precincts and eventually the bad feeling between the two died down.
The reality is, if a patrolman could so easily discover the truth of what had transpired between Chase and Johnson during the 1920's, in the way that Patrolman Frank Springer had, why would Captain Lewis not know those very titillating and scandalous details of the 1922 affair himself? The written report by Captain H. A. Lewis seems like a blatant whitewash, designed as a personal attack on Chase's character and on his intelligence. It’s clear that Chase was burnt-out with police work, in poor health and may have been frustrated with certain aspects of the command structure but there is no evidence that he was a bumbling idiot either. The personnel file indicates Chase was skilled as an “excellent hunter,” a fisherman, farmer and overall outdoorsman. He had worked as an Express Messenger and was described by one man who had been involved in a motor vehicle altercation with him as “a clever driver.” To be proficient in all of these things one must possess and maintain a certain level of intelligence and savvy. No, there was far more than just a resentment of authority or discipline at the core of Chase's grudge against Phillip Johnson. Far more.
Frank Springer recalled the aftermath of that day in May 1941, “Chase then got into his car and he drove about 25 miles out to a little farm where he grew up. Then he shot himself. It was a murder-suicide. It was written up in the True Detective Magazine, and they titled the article, “The Mad Mutiny of the Kill-Crazy Cop.” Nothing could have been more wrong than that. All the stories about the both of them were wrong. I've told the truth of it,” (Springer, 2008).
After Blaine Chase shot Lt. Phillip Johnson, leaving him to die less than 10 minutes later, and fled in his black coupe, he drove to Clackamas near Barton and Logan, Oregon, where he'd been born and raised. Just beyond the Barton Bridge, chase sat in his car, alongside the Clackamas River. Who knows what he did there? Did he rage to himself? Did he replay the killing in his mind? Did he remember his young bride Venola, during their short-lived happiness? Did he recall the day they were married and exchanged their wedding vows? He would have been 37-years-old then, Venola only 18.
It is possible and even likely that he wept, bitterly recalling all the various losses he'd experienced in his life, and wondering in dismay, what it all meant, if anything. The detectives suspected he'd be heading to Logan. Word must have gotten around that he still had family there and that it meant something to him, as he'd been raised there and went there regularly to fish and hunt with family members and friends. Blaine Chase would go to the one place he'd been the happiest in life, before he had headed off to the big city, to try his luck so many years before.
Less than 300 feet from the ramshackle homestead he'd been raised in, and five hours after he'd murdered Phillip Johnson, Chase ended his life, shooting himself just behind the right ear with his Smith and Wesson .38 service revolver. The bullet exited his skull and became lodged in the top portion of the car. The detectives Nelson and Abbot had been looking for him in the Clackamas area for hours, since 6:00 am, along with a Lt Pat Moloney. Was it possible Chase knew they were in the area, searching for him? Was it possible he heard the distant wail of their sirens as they combed through the Logan/Barton areas? Chase locked himself in his car, locking both doors and forcing the police to break into it later, to gain access to his deceased body. He would not make it easy for anyone. He would rebel up until the very last. When they finally did break into the car, they found his service revolver still gripped tightly in his right hand, his body slumped over in the front seat.
What can we learn from the story of Patrolman Arthur “Blaine” Chase and Lt. Phillip Raymond Johnson? Is there a lesson to be learned in this story somewhere? At a time when police officer's did not have a union or a pension, (or any form of emotional or psychological support to help them process the burn-out and inevitable heartache associated with long-term careers in police work) the necessity and habit was for officers to continue working well past retirement age and physical ability. This had to have led to feelings of frustration, helplessness and depression among the older rank and file. Johnson had been a man pushing 70-years-old and was still working the graveyard shift to support himself and his wife, Sarah. Chase was a thrice married, 57-year-old, burnt-out policeman in poor health with no other marketable job skills and no way to support himself other than police work. Both men were loved by others though, and considered valuable human beings with numerous friends and relatives who cared deeply about them. Both men were also imperfect, infallible and highly flawed.
Perhaps the best lesson to be learned from the story of Blaine Chase and Phillip Johnson is that sometimes it’s best to steer clear of other men's wives. Sometimes it's best to consider that a young couple needs the time and the space to grow together, unencumbered by the desires and intentions of others who may choose to callously interfere. Along that vein of thought, what would history have to record had Phillip Johnson never pursued young Venola? Would she and Chase have developed a strong marriage? Would Venola have matured into a responsible and loyal young wife and would the 19-year age difference between her and Chase, have ultimately made any kind of difference? Would they have had children? Would they have been happy? These are questions that can never be answered.
Epilogue: After fired police officer, Arthur “Blaine” Chase killed Lt. Phillip Raymond Johnson, May 9th, 1941, he fled Precinct # 1 and drove to Logan Oregon. “This being a wooded country and the birthplace of Chase.” There, he quickly visited his “nephew” Arthur Wood, who was actually seven years older than Chase, and of whom Chase was extremely fond. Arthur was the son of either his older sister Edna or a much older half-brother and had been a source of friendship for Chase for many years. Chase pounded on the front door of the house, at about 4:00 am, and ended up waking his nephew and wife out of a sound sleep.
Chase had emptied out his Apartment and a storage unit less than a week before and had given all his possession's to his nephew Arthur and his wife. This included an “outboard motor boat” and all his other possessions, including furniture, clothing and other odds and ends.
That morning, he informed his nephew that $2,000 in “insurance” money would be given to a Mrs. Mary Robinson of Portland, Oregon, at $100 per month. He explained that if anything happened to her, then the remainder of the money would go to Arthur Wood and his wife. Mrs. Mary Robinson was a “friend” and providing for her once Chase was gone must have been extremely important to him.
When asked by his nephew Arthur, why Chase was leaving his billfold and ID cards, he told his nephew that he was “detailed on a job that he couldn't have any identification on him,” but that he would keep in touch. He also told his nephew Arthur that his doctor had diagnosed him with “heart trouble” and that he had told him he was “liable to die at any time” because of it. Because of this new condition, Chase explained that he had left Arthur and his wife $500 each, which they would inherit at the time of his death through the family attorney. He explained to them, (and had the week previous) that this was the reason he was giving them all of his possession's, guns, furniture, money and his boat. That he wanted to prepare for his eventual death and give them all of his worldly possessions. It is noted in the police report filled out by Lt. Pat Moloney that...“Mrs. Arthur Wood is the Ex-wife of Arthur Chase.” Venola.
Chase left his nephew's home around 4:30 am, leaving behind the colt .45 automatic weapon he'd used to kill Johnson and several other guns. He kept in his possession his Smith and Wesson .38 special, policeman's service revolver. This was the same gun he'd carried for the twenty three years he'd been a street cop with the Portland Police Bureau, working the dangerous, mean streets of Portland. After changing into a set of clean clothes, Chase walked out to his black Buick Coupe, in front of the house. It is reported that Chase sat in his car, unmoving, for about ten minutes before finally heading east, driving to that ridge, overlooking the Clackamas River. After reaching his final destination, and less than 300 feet from the home he'd grown up in, about a half a mile from his nephew's home, Chase sat in his car with the .38 in his hand. After the sun came up, in the morning, between 8:00 and 9:00 am, Blaine Chase put the gun to his head...
Johnson lay dying for several minutes on the floor of that back office in Precinct # 1 on SE Alder Street. He was in pain and “groaning” as Officer Cook placed a white pillow beneath his head, called for the ambulance and attempted to comfort him, all while Johnson slowly bled out. When Johnson could still speak, before he became unconscious, he remained silent and said nothing. Even when officer's Cook and Turley gently questioned him, he looked at them with lucid eyes and refused to speak. What was he thinking, as he lay there, knowing he was going to die? Johnson must have learned that Venola had married another man in 1934, after carrying Chase's surname for thirteen years, as a single woman living alone. And he must have learned that that man was indeed Chase's own nephew, Arthur Wood.
What had happened in those long thirteen years before Venola remarried? Had Blaine and Venola continued to see each other, secretly perhaps? Had they attempted to reconcile, only to fail? Johnson must have learned through the incestuously close police grapevine that Venola had married her ex-husband's nephew, Arthur Wood. How could that kind of information remain unknown to him?
Did Johnson blame Chase for his final course of action? Did he understand his hatred? Did he indeed forgive Chase? Or did he regard the final attack as nothing more than belated justice? Perhaps a simple accounting of something familiar, that he felt deserving of in some way? Something unexplainable that he could never fully sidestep or avoid.
One thing is clear. Blaine Chase was capable of forgiveness and of love. He was able to forgive his former wife Venola and not only wish her well with his nephew in their new married life, but also to provide for her too. It is likely that Chase had maintained contact with Venola for years in fact, after they had separated. And he cared enough for her and for his nephew to give them all he had acquired in his life; which included furniture, a valuable boat, cash and his very last stitch of clothing.
But what existed in Chase's secret heart is what finally motivated him to kill Johnson. Love for Venola and despair over her loss. Johnson had destroyed his initial happiness in life. He had stolen away from him and sullied his new, young wife which led to a scandal that Venola apparently struggled for years to overcome.
Mrs. Venola Katheryn Woods lived for another 39 years, after the murder/suicide of 1941. She died in 1980 in Puyallup Washington at the age of 77. She had worked as a telephone operator, beginning her career with Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company in 1922 and retiring in 1965 from Pacific Northwest Bell Telephone after 43 years employment. She was a member of the Telephone Pioneers of America and the Order of the The Eastern Star, a Freemasonry organization. There is no record that Venola ever had children. She was survived by only two sisters at the time of her death.
Like her former lover, Phillip Raymond Johnson and her former husband Blaine Chase, Venola died in early May, leaving behind unexplained secrets and questions, only she would ever fully understand.
Acknowledgments: I would like to thank Ms. Mary Hanson and Mr. Brian Johnson of the Portland Archives and Records Center of Portland Oregon for their generous help in locating and copying complete personnel records and other documents that helped in the writing of this profile. Most particularly, I would like to thank M. Emily Jane Dawson, from the Multnomah County Public Library for her generous and supportive assistance in helping me with important research. Being able to obtain accurate information, dates and documents has made the writing of this profile much more interesting, historically relevant and factual. To these people, I offer my sincere gratitude. -- Theresa Kennedy Dupay.