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Murder at Crater Lake

When Albert Jones and Charles Culhane failed to show up at Union Creek on July 19, 1952, their friends thought they were lost. The two representatives of United Motor Service, in the area on business, had planned to join the friends that afternoon for a fishing trip.

When their bodies were found two days later a quarter-mile from Crater Lake Highway, gags in their mouths and bullet holes through their heads, it sparked one of the largest interagency murder investigations in state history. Investigators from the FBI, Oregon State Police, the Klamath County Sheriff's Office and the National Park Service worked on the case. But more than 63 years later, no arrests have been made or official suspects publicly named.

"It was a nationwide manhunt for those individuals (responsible)," says Jones' granddaughter Alice Simms. "I was told it was the most sensational murder of the time."

Simms, 64, of Santa Maria, Calif., hasn't let the case get far from her mind since she picked up the story in 1994. "Over the years, as a young girl, my mother had talked about her father and how he was killed," she says. After Simms' father gave her copies of two unmailed letters her mother had written to newspaper editors about the case, Simms decided she'd waited long enough to pick up the trail herself.

"I didn't have a computer in those days," Simms says, explaining that she's since spent countless hours filing public records requests and calling retired investigators. "I found (county) sheriffs, I found George Bell," she says, referring to a former Mail Tribune reporter who had followed the story. "I found Frank Eberlein."

Frank Eberlein, owner of an auto parts supply company in Klamath Falls, was the man who'd invited Jones and Culhane to go fishing with him, his sales manager, Jack Vaughn, and Eberlein's son, Alan, then 13. Both Jones and Culhane worked for General Motors' United Motor Service, an auto parts manufacturer known today as ACDelco.

"Al Jones was the territory manager for this area," says Alan Eberlein, now 76. Culhane, he says, had been recently appointed United Motor's national sales manager. "(The murders were) really hard on my dad, because he and Jones had grown close over the years."

After finishing up business at Specialized Service Co., Eberlein's auto parts business in Klamath Falls, Jones and Culhane left at about 11 a.m. to check out of their hotel. It would be the last time Vaughn or Eberlein ever saw the victims. 

Jones and Culhane headed to Union Creek via Highway 62, cutting through the southern portion of Crater Lake National Park. Park records show the victims' car was registered at a check station around 1:05 p.m.

After the Eberleins and Vaughn found the men's 1951 Pontiac sedan almost two hours later, seemingly abandoned at the Annie Creek overlook off Highway 62 near the park's southern entrance, its keys still in the ignition, they waited for about 45 minutes, Eberlein wrote in a 2011 account that's now part of the National Park Service's historical file on the case. When the men still didn't turn up, Alan Eberlein says, his father fetched Chief Ranger Lou Hallock.

Hallock's report shows he began to suspect foul play within the first 24 hours, after an exhaustive search of Annie Creek Canyon failed to turn up any sign of the men. "At this point, all concerned felt that the possibility of serious injury, accidental death or becoming lost in the forest was becoming a very remote possibility," he wrote.

Steve Mark, the Park Service historian at Crater Lake, says it's easy to tell in government circles whether someone is held in high esteem by their peers. "I've never heard anybody say a bad thing about Lou Hallock," he says, explaining that Hallock later went on to become superintendent at Lassen Volcanic National Park in California. But in those days, the investigation of major persons crimes wasn't part of a park ranger's duties.

"The commissioning (as sworn law enforcement officers) didn't start until the '70s, after the shooting of a ranger at Point Reyes (National Seashore)," Mark says, referring to the seaside preserve in Marin County, Calif. Within two hours of the discovery of the bodies on July 21, the FBI assumed control of the investigation.

"The crime scene, according to my father, was not well preserved," Eberlein says, explaining that the trail crew that discovered the bodies had found Jones in an upright position near a tree, while the OSP and FBI accounts of the case say both bodies were discovered lying face up. An autopsy determined each man had been shot once — Culhane in the face, Jones in the back of the head. A fingerprint analysis of the car didn't turn up any viable prints, but police found two spent cartridge casings from a .32-caliber pistol near the bodies. Culhane's size 9½ dress shoes were missing from his feet.

Both men's wallets had been emptied of cash. Jones and Culhane are believed to have been carrying at least $300, equivalent to roughly $2,700 today.

Less than an hour after the bodies were found, a garage in Fort Klamath took a call from a man at the Southern Oregon Pacific Railroad depot in Medford. The caller identified himself as "J.D. Harvey" of 536 Plum St., Medford, and asked whether somebody could pick up his friend's car, which had been left at an overlook at the park. The caller said his friend, Jones, was in the hospital in Medford and asked whether the garage could store the car until he was released. The woman who answered the phone immediately called Medford police after hanging up, but officers responding to the train depot found the mysterious caller long gone.

Over the next three years, the FBI combed the country tracking down leads with little apparent success. Several weeks after the murders, two young men were caught with a .32-caliber pistol in a traffic stop in Milbrae, Calif., but were apparently discounted as suspects. George Dunkin, a prospector who murdered OSP Trooper Phil Lowd near Elk Creek five days after the Crater Lake killings, was also considered a suspect, but witness accounts put him far from the scene on July 19.

The most popular theory held that members of the so-called "Mountain Murder Gang" were behind the men's robbery and murder. Led by Jack Santo and Emmet Perkins, who gained notoriety for the brutal 1952 murder of a grocer and his three children in Chester, Calif., the gang was believed to be responsible for a string of murders and robberies throughout the western United States. Santo, investigators determined, also had links to Oregon, including as a suspect in a number of burglaries in the Medford area with which he apparently was never charged.

Santo and Perkins were ultimately sentenced to death for the 1952 murder of 63-year Mabel Monohan, a Burbank, Calif., widow they had planned to rob of gambling winnings they believed were hidden in her home.

The FBI's case file, obtained by Simms via the Freedom of Information Act, shows investigators considered Santo and Perkins as suspects right up until their execution. Two days before the men entered the gas chamber at San Quentin State Prison, agents made one last attempt to get them to divulge information about the Crater Lake murders. But Santo and Perkins refused to talk. They were executed along with their accomplice, Barbara Graham, on June 3, 1955.

Simms says she's convinced Santo's associates were involved in the crime, even if witness accounts put Santo himself in California at the time. "Over the years, other people, including my mother, have thought it was a hitman — the mafia," she says. But Simms says she doesn't think the murders fit the profile of a mob hit, considering the bodies were hidden from public view and their wallets stripped of cash. Mark also thinks the Santo theory is the most plausible and that investigators likely didn't feel the need to continue to press the issue with Santo and Perkins, since the criminals already were scheduled to die for Monohan's murder.

But Alan Eberlein, perhaps the last surviving witness to the events of July 19, 1952, has his own thoughts on the matter.

"I go by what my father went by, which is the George Brown theory," Eberlein says. George Brown was a local mechanic who had worked on a construction project near Prospect. According to Eberlein, the contractor's son also had been on the payroll, but Eberlein says the son was "always spending money faster than he could make it."

The morning of July 21, before the bodies were found, the contractor's son turned up to draw his pay, already unusually flush with cash. "All of a sudden, he shows up with money and a new wristwatch," Eberlein says. Brown reportedly never saw the man again, and his findings were apparently ignored by the county sheriff.

With the murders more than six decades past, the chances of solving them appear to diminish with each passing year. "It's so far into history, I assume that everybody who was party to it is gone," Eberlein says.

Simms says she worries interest in the case may pass with her and Eberlein. "One of the things for me is I'm going to be 65 in December, and Alan and I are pretty much the only people left who have information about the case," she says.

But Mark, the historian, says it's likely the ever-intriguing nature of cold cases such as this will keep people digging back into the past.

"Once the case is solved, there's no story," Mark says. "That's what keeps people going on it."

Reach reporter Thomas Moriarty at 541-776-4471, or by email at tmoriarty@mailtribune.com. Follow him at @ThomasDMoriarty.

Murder at Crater Lake