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Police ID man responsible for Klamath County double murder unsolved for 43 years

A photo copy of the 1973 homicide bulletin.Staff photo by Arden Barnes / Report for America

On Nov. 17, 1978, a person cutting firewood near Lake of the Woods came across two dead bodies — a young man and woman. Both had been shot to death.

Carl Burkhart — then a detective with the Klamath County Sheriff’s Office — arrived at the scene soon after. The future Klamath County Sheriff gathered with fellow deputies near what was then known as Dead Indian Road.

Investigators soon identified the first body as Kirk Leonard Wiseman, 19. The second was identified as Cynthia Lynn Frayer, 17. An autopsy indicated Frayer had been sexually assaulted. Both victims had been shot in the head several times with a .22 caliber firearm. Neither had a connection to the Klamath area.

Former Klamath Falls Chief of Police Dan Tofell was also a deputy dispatched to the scene. More than 43 years later, he still can’t forget it.

“It was a very gruesome scene,” Tofell said on Thursday. “It’s not everyday you find two young people killed in the way they were ... I still remember it vividly. I can still picture it.”

Tofell said that Nov. 17, 1978, was a cold day that led into a colder night. Law enforcement at the scene tried to figure out how such a heinous crime — which appeared to be an abduction and murder by a stranger — could occur in Klamath County.

“You could tell that whoever did it didn’t have much respect for human life, the way the bodies were disposed,” he said. “It seemed like it was a very callous murder.”

Making the case

Burkhart was determined to find out who killed those two kids. He worked the case from the moment he laid eyes on the victim’s bodies until he retired as sheriff in 2001.

Deputies determined that Wiseman and Frayer had been hitchhiking through the area. One of the few items recovered from the scene was a sign that read “K-Falls.” Police determined the teens had stayed a night at a motel in Roseburg, and had been picked up by a person who claimed to have dropped them off at a Grants Pass restaurant. They found a letter written by Frayer, addressed to her mother, which mentioned the fun they had in Washington state.

That was all the information police had. Over those decades, the case remained unsolved — and without many leads. The original evidence bags from 1978 remained locked away in storage, with Burkhart returning to them from time to time, hoping to notice some a clue he hadn’t seen before. But what Burkhart and the other investigators on the case couldn’t have know is how important that evidence — bagged and preserved — would prove to be nearly four decades later.

By 2011, the case had been turned over to detective Nick Kennedy. Kennedy rolled up his sleeves and started going through it with fresh eyes, looking for anything that could potentially be analyzed for DNA. DNA was a tool that didn’t exist for law enforcement back in 1978, and the technology was becoming better every decade.

Where Kennedy left off, Detective Geneva Lewis pushed forward. She sent a few items of Cynthia’s clothing to the Oregon State Police Crime Lab in Bend for analysis. From 2011 through 2018, little DNA was found on the items, by then more than 30 years old.

In 2019, the puzzling case landed on detective Dan Towery’s desk. That spring, Towery got a call from Devin Mast in the crime lab.

“We got something,” Mast told Towery.

The cold case was suddenly hot.

‘Unknown male #1’

Mast had sent samples to another lab in Portland to check their authenticity. Both had confirmed the presence of DNA from an “unknown male #1.” It wasn’t much of a break though, but it was the first one police had in decades.

The DNA sample was then entered into the Combined DNA Index System, a nationwide database of DNA samples. There were no hits. But Towery had earned himself the nickname among his peers of “hound dog,” a nod to his persistence as an investigator. He kept on the trail.

Towery knew of an expensive, private facility in Virginia called Parabon NanoLabs that might be able to help identify “unknown male #1.” Towery needed funds to tackle the work, so he sent an email to Klamath County Sheriff Chris Kaber.

Kaber said he wasn’t confident about using an expensive private lab to possibly get information on a case that had been so cold for so long. But Towery was persistent and eventually swayed Kaber to give the green light. The testing cost around $8,000, which Towery and Kaber said was a small price to pay if it would bring peace to the families of the victims.

The lab, which helped solve the Golden State Killer case from the same era, would lend a hand.

According to the lab, it uses genetic genealogy “to predict the unknown person’s ancestry ... then produce a composite sketch and/or perform kinship analysis to advance the investigation.”

The lab used the DNA sample, and the genealogical information from it, to identify “unknown male #1.” In the summer of 2021, Parabon told Klamath County detectives they had a viable suspect: Ray Whitson, Jr.

Ray Whitson, Jr.

Parabon said that, because of Whitson Jr.’s DNA found on Frayer’s body, he almost assuredly killed both Wiseman and Frayer.

Police then tried to locate Whitson, but they quickly learned that the man, who had worked at a Klamath-area lumber mill in the 1970s, had died in Texas in 1996. He had no criminal history.

Towery was, however, able to confirm Parabon’s conclusion. He met with and retrieved DNA samples from two of Whitson’s living children. His investigation also started checking off all boxes related to the facts of the case. For example: Whitson’s family members were able to confirm he carried a .22 caliber pistol with him, the same caliber used in the double murder. The area where the murders took place was also known to be frequented by Whitson.

Once confident with the findings, a report was submitted to Klamath County District Attorney Eve Costello for review. Costello said she determined the evidence would be strong enough to prosecute Whitson, if he were alive today.

“At that point, based on our suspect Mr. Whitson being deceased, we have suspended the case at this time ... based on his DNA being on the female victim’s body,” Towery said Thursday.

For law enforcement’s perspective, the county’s longest unsolved murder case has been closed.

“If we had been just 10, 15 years earlier ... we would have been able to hold that individual accountable in a way that we now cannot do,” said Costello, tears welling in her eyes. “What we have been able to do is bring closure for a family ... because when somebody dies and you don’t know really what happened, you just know they left this universe in really awful way it leaves with you a really huge, hollow feeling. This work has allowed that family to have some degree of peace.”

Towery remembered the letter written by Frayer, which was recovered and kept in evidence all these years. It was addressed to the victim’s parents, and it recounted the couple’s adventures in Washington, and expressed their hopes and dreams. It, along with a pair of Frayer’s earrings, will be returned to the victim’s mother and aunt as a symbol of closure.

Towery said closing this case brings him peace and closure, too.

“I would love to say this is just another case,” Towery said, with emotion in his voice. “But it’s not.”