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Universally frustrating for police officers, family members and the community are Southern Oregon's ... UNSOLVED MURDERS


Blanche Campbell was 80 years old, but she still hauled firewood with her John Deere tractor.

From time to time, friends tried to convince Campbell to leave her isolated residence in Butte Falls. But she wouldn't budge from the home her husband had built on 40 acres off Obenchain Road.

Two years ago, that home burned to the ground. Campbell was found inside ' murdered. No one has been arrested for the crime.

I just don't think they had much to go on, said her son, Rick Campbell. There was nothing left.

Campbell's death is? the most recent of several unresolved homicides in Jackson County. Some ' such as a 1952 double-murder of Charles Patrick Culhane and Albert Marston Jones, two out-of-town businessmen sightseeing at Crater Lake (feaured in a story on July 21, 2002) ' still puzzles police. In ?others, investigators point to killers who never paid for their crimes. This story focuses on four unsolved homicide cases: Campbell's, and those of Nicole H?tu in 1995, Dorothy Kesterson, 1989; and the Cowden family, 1974. The accompanying story below looks at the unsolved homicides of Vida Mae Hirschy in 1984, and Ashland's Ed Kraehl, 1993.

The glow from Blanche Campbell's burning house lit up the sky as Jake Hamann headed off for work the morning of May 8, 2001. Realizing Campbell's home was in flames, Hamann rushed to the scene.

With the help of another neighbor, he broke out several windows in an effort to rescue Campbell. But scorching heat and smoke repelled them. the time firefighters arrived several minutes later, the house was a ball of flames threatening nearby trees.

Roused by a telephone call from Hamann's mother around 5 a.m., Betty Henson arrived at Campbell's home expecting to see her friend of 40 years standing outside wrapped in a blanket. Neighbors' bowed heads and stricken looks explained Campbell's absence. She didn't escape the blaze.

Henson watched the house burn to the ground. She waited throughout the morning and afternoon while detectives sifted through 2 feet of ashes. Twelve hours after the fire, police removed Campbell's badly burned body from the rubble of her living room.

At first, Henson and others believed that Campbell had succumbed to the smoke. A week later, police said she was murdered. The killer set the house ablaze to cover up the crime.

To be prepared to set fire to the house ' that's always been a mystery, Henson said. It's like it was premeditated.

Even before the autopsy, the state of Campbell's body showed she was slain, Bedell said, but she refused to elaborate. Although flames obliterated much of the crime scene, investigators still have enough evidence to convict Campbell's killer, Bedell added.

I think the person that did this spent a lot of time in her home. He wasn't just in and out in a few minutes, Bedell said.

Henson and Bedell both doubt the crime was committed randomly by a person Campbell didn't know.

Why would somebody contact this lady who lives in a remote location? Bedell asked.

There's just things that don't add up, Henson said.

From all accounts, Campbell had no enemies. She was like a surrogate grandmother to many in her close-knit community, friends said. And as detectives continue talking with Butte Falls residents and ruling out rumors, the case is taking shape, Bedell said. Who would want this unsolved crime at their back door?

Nicole H?tu was a Jane Doe when road workers on Highway 140 discovered her frost-bitten hand protruding from a pile of rocks in March 1995.

The young woman had no identification, and her deteriorated fingers would produce no prints. Investigators feared her name would remain a mystery, but a stroke of luck identified the victim. Tireless police work would identify a suspect in her murder, but investigators have never arrested him.

Friends last saw the 23-year-old victim from Montreal hitchhiking across the Washington-Canada border in August 1994 on her way to a counter-culture festival in Arizona. When her mother stopped receiving H?tu's phone calls, she reported her missing.

After the melting snow revealed H?tu's unidentified body, Oregon State Police gathered thousands of missing person reports from around the West ' and one from Canada. H?tu's was the second report investigators checked, and it matched.

With this, it was literally a stab in the dark, said OSP Lt. Kurt Barthel, then a detective.

Knowing H?tu had planned to hitchhike through the states, OSP blanketed Interstate 5 truck stops with fliers. The tips started trickling in.

H?tu's fanny pack ' containing her passport ' was found in a Corning, Calif., truck stop. A homeless man who worked a truck stop in Wilsonville said he saw H?tu talking to the driver of a powder-blue Werner truck. Using satellite locators, the company's security division was able to trace one truck's route between the two cities ' with a detour over Highway 140 on the day H?tu disappeared.

This one was perfect for Wilsonville, it was perfect for California, and it deviated to her death scene, said OSP Detective Greg Wright.

Adding three hours to his trip to Sacramento, the truck's driver said he took Highway 140 into California because there was a hazardous materials spill on I-5's Siskiyou Summit south of Ashland. There was a spill, but it was cleared in about 20 minutes, Wright said.

This guy went way out of his way to do that, Wright said.

Werner sent the suspect's truck back through Oregon a year after H?tu's disappearance. Investigators tore the truck's interior apart but found no evidence that H?tu had ever been inside, Wright said.

Detectives traveled last year to the suspect's home on the East Coast, but he refused to talk. Doubtful they'll get an arrest without a confession, investigators still keep the case open.

Medford investigators believe they have solved the 1989 murder of Dorothy Kesterson. But the suspect died less than a month after the victim.

They say 'what goes around comes around.' This one came around, said Medford police Lt. Tim George, a detective at the time of the murder.

Kesterson's daughter found her mother dead in the bathtub of her east Medford home on Aug. 28, 1989. Her body was curled into a fetal position, face down in the blood-tinged water.

Investigators initially thought the 77-year-old woman had died of natural causes. No one had broken into the house, which was tidy. Kesterson's purple polyester housecoat was draped over the end of her bed, which had been made. It looked like she decided to take a bath and died in the tub. But an autopsy later showed that Kesterson had been strangled and drowned.

The purple housecoat and the bedspread revealed faint smears of blood. Kesterson's gray Ford Tempo had been pulled out of her garage and parked around the block. Two small safes later were found missing from Kesterson's bedroom closet. They contained as much as &

36;10,000 in cash, which Kesterson used to buy food and pay her housekeeper and gardener, George said.

Kesterson's housekeeper, Ann Stine-Conklin, had borrowed money from her employer over the years. Several days before Kesterson's murder, the victim loaned &

36;2,000 to Ann's husband, 77-year-old Frank Conklin. A few weeks later, Conklin started paying off thousands of dollars in credit card debt ' far more than Kesterson's loan.

Just circumstantial evidence alone here, you'd think 'Why is this guy doing this?' George said.

The week before Kesterson was slain, Conklin rented several cars similar to her Ford Tempo and drove them around Medford before returning them, George said. He lived on Pioneer Road, but Conklin rented a room at Motel 6 on Barnett Road on Aug. 27, 1989. Kesterson was last seen alive at her home around 5 p.m. that night. Conklin left his home at 7.

Investigators said they believe Conklin strangled Kesterson, cleaned up the crime scene and loaded the two safes into her car. He pulled the car out of the garage and around the block where he transferred the safes to another vehicle. George said. Detectives found impressions from the heavy safes in the trunk of Kesterson's car.

Evidence inside the house didn't link Conklin's fingerprints or DNA to the crime, but large footprints from a man's shoes were embedded in the carpet, George said.

Police questioned Conklin two days after the murder, but before they could talk to him again, he drove to San Francisco. There, he rented a Ford Mustang and traveled to Reno, Nev., where he paid &

36;2,000 on a Sears credit card. He plunked down another &

36;2,000 on a Master Card account when he returned to Medford a week later. He told police that he won the money gambling in Reno.

Maybe Frank Conklin knew that he didn't have too many days left on this earth, George said.

An ambulance took Conklin to Providence Medford Medical Center on Sept. 18, 1989. He died there two days later from an apparent stroke, less than a month after Kesterson's murder. Any lead in Kesterson's case died with him. However, Medford police still check recovered safes in case Kesterson's two safes ever surface.

Conklin's wife refused to talk to police and moved from the area. Kesterson's daughter, Carol Baker of Central Point, didn't want to discuss the murder, saying only that the family has known the killer's identity for some time. Baker didn't name that person.

Although frustrated by its dead end, Lt. George said he most likely will move to close the case when he retires based on the evidence against Conklin.

I will probably carry a copy of this one with me out the door, though.

Dick Davis didn't carry a copy of the county's most infamous murder case out the door. But the retired OSP detective is still troubled by the Cowden family's death in the Applegate nearly 30 years ago.

The disappearance of the four-member family captivated all of North America; their murder was horrifying. Davis firmly believes that the suspect is already behind bars, but that's not enough.

I'm embarrassed, Davis said. The Cowden family was cheated, and they were cheated for all the wrong reasons.

The investigation was botched from the beginning, and time eroded the case, Davis said. The main suspect, Dwain Lee Little, was overlooked for too long, he said. Little is now in the Oregon State Penitentiary. But at the time of the Cowdens' disappearance, Little had been living in the Applegate, paroled on a 1966 conviction for raping a 16-year-old Springfield girl and murdering her.

Richard Cowden, his wife Belinda, and their two children, 5-year-old David and 5-month-old Melissa, disappeared from their campsite on Carberry Creek over Labor Day weekend 1974. The spot was about a mile from the Copper store, where Belinda's mother, Ruth, was living with the store's owner.

Richard and David were last seen at the Copper store buying a quart of milk around 9 a.m. on Sept. 1, 1974. The Cowdens' campsite and the general store are now covered by Applegate Lake.

At the time of the Cowdens' disappearance, Davis, a junior detective, immediately asked where Little had been. But OSP didn't focus on Little because there were so many possible suspects, Davis' superiors said. A motorcycle gang had camped several miles away. A black man in overalls was seen walking along the highway.

They had all these wild conspiracy theories and crap that just wasted time, Davis said.

Investigators later learned that Little had driven to Crescent City, Calif., and dropped off a truckload of metal the day before the Cowdens' disappearance. He said he slept in his car that night, which was never confirmed. Little was seen gassing up his truck in Ruch around 2:30 p.m. the day the Cowdens went missing.

Seven months after the Cowdens disappeared, Belinda's body and those of her children were found wedged in an outcropping on a steep slope about seven miles from their campsite. They had been shot in the head with a .22-caliber rifle. Richard's remains were about 50 yards away.

Little was the only suspect investigators had not eliminated by the time the bodies were found, Davis said. The investigation turned toward the paroled murderer.

An elderly couple had seen Little's pickup truck on the day of the Cowdens' disappearance near Steamboat cemetery ' about halfway between the Cowdens' campsite and their death scene. The truck's cab was filled with people, and a Basset hound was running behind the vehicle, they said. The Cowdens' hound, Droopy, was found wandering the day after the family disappeared.

Davis heard that Little owned a pistol and a .22-caliber hunting rifle. Police never found the guns, but Davis still arrested Little for being a felon in possession of a concealable firearm. The charges would be dropped if Little took a lie-detector test about the family's murder. Little pleaded guilty to the weapon charge and served five years in the Oregon Penitentiary.

Little was paroled on that charge in 1977 and moved to the Portland area. He was convicted three years later for the rape and attempted murder of a Tigard woman.

It bothers me because of our ineptitude .... that the man was allowed to be free to do those things, Davis said.

Little's cell mate, Floyd Forsberg, later told investigators that Little had confessed to the Cowden killings while in prison. With Forsberg's signed statement, Jackson County prosecutors prepared to seek grand jury indictments against Little in 1980.

However, police determined that Forsberg was lying once they talked with him about the case. His story didn't match known facts about the investigation, Davis said, adding that other inmates knew Little would never talk about any of his crimes.

Little's parole has been revoked, and he likely will never leave the state prison. But the Cowden case remains open until Little confesses, OSP officials said.

Blanche Campbell?s killer may have thought burning her Butte Falls home would hide the truth of her death two years ago, but police say they have enough evidence to convict her murderer ? if they can find a suspect. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell - Mail Tribune Bob Pennell