Central Oregon’s own
“Angel of Death”?
“Professor” Ray V.B. Jackson just happened to be on hand, playing the role of helpful witness, at almost every high-profile murder scene in Lake and Harney counties. What were the odds?
Editor's Note: This column is Part 2 of a 2-part series on Jackson. To read Part 1, click here.
The prison mugshot of Ray V.B. Jackson, taken when Jackson was
admitted to the Oregon State Penitentiary on forgery charges in 1896.
(Photo: Central Oregon Books) [Larger image: 1200 x 1538 px]
By Finn J.D. John — September 12, 2012
Thomas B. Sawyer, the lead teleplay writer for “Murder, She Wrote,” says the writers for the classic CBS TV show used to affectionately refer to the lead character as “the Angel of Death.”
Week after week, the kindly and inquisitive Jessica Fletcher (played, of course, by Angela Lansbury) just happened to be on hand when someone was murdered, and week after week she played a key and sometimes heroic role in the investigation. By the end of the series, she had just happened to be in the right place at the right time to help out with a whopping 264 episodes' worth of deadly skulduggery.
Central Oregon had its own version of the Angel of Death in the form of “Professor” Ray Van Buren Jackson. His record wasn't as good as Jessica's; he played a starring role in only three oddly-similar homicides, and had bit parts in three more. His record is worse in another way, too: None of the murders of which he helped in the investigation were ever really solved.
Lake County historian and journalist Melany Tupper is the scholar who identified this pattern during seven years of research through back issues of local newspapers and courthouse records, along with interviews with locals; the whole story is in her book, “The Sandy Knoll Murder.”
Here, as briefly as I can make it, is a synopsis of Jackson's record as Central Oregon's Angel of Death:
R.I.P.: J. Creed Conn, March 4, 1904.
Prominent Silver Lake merchant John Creed Conn. This photograph was
made not long before Conn was murdered in 1904. (Photo: Central
Oregon Books) [Larger image:
1200 x 1364 px]
John Creed Conn, a prominent Silver Lake merchant and owner of a mule-team freight line, disappeared on a frosty morning while going to fetch the mail for his store. Seven weeks later, after an extensive manhunt, his well-preserved body was found staged on a little hillock (the “sandy knoll) on a nearby cattle ranch — put there in an apparent attempt to suggest one of the ranch's cowboys had done it. Before planting the body, the killer beat the face to unrecognizability and shot it a second time using an old Colt .38 he'd stolen from Conn's store.
The coroner's jury, apparently concerned to protect the cattle ranch from bad publicity, ruled it suicide — something very few people bought, given how difficult it is to shoot oneself twice with a single-action revolver and then beat one's own face to a bloody pulp. Other circumstances were also suspicious: Conn at the time of death was trying to figure out what had happened to the proceeds of a $3,000 loan missing from his bank account; this missing money was never found, and Conn's brother had to pay the loan off with the proceeds of his liquidated estate.
Jackson ate breakfast with Conn on the morning of his murder and was the last person to have spoken with him. As an important witness to Conn's last activities, he provided key testimony to law enforcement on what he said and where he went after breakfast, and gave detailed information for newspaper stories.
Jackson also knew about the $3,000 loan which Conn had taken out. And Jackson was a convicted forger. Could it be he forged a promissory note to steal the $3,000? Conn would have asked the bank to send him the note back, and upon receiving it he would have instantly seen what happened. Could Jackson have asked him to meet with him privately so he could give back the money, and then given him something else instead?
Well, we'll never know for sure. But it sure holds together as a story. And get this: Jackson bought about $3,000 worth of cattle right after Conn disappeared. He sure didn't finance that purchase on a schoolteacher's salary.
R.I.P.: Zelma “Ethel” Martin, April 1, 1904.
Just a few weeks after Creed Conn vanished, Ethel Martin, an 11-year-old schoolgirl, stayed late at the schoolhouse where Jackson was the teacher. A half-hour after arriving home that afternoon, she died of apparent poisoning. Her death was ruled accidental; there was some strychnine nearby, and it was believed she'd eaten some.
But strychnine is very bitter, and no 11-year-old would eat it on purpose; moreover, it kills in hours, not minutes. Tupper argues she more likely ate something laced with a more subtle poison such as arsenic at the schoolhouse, possibly after discovering something relating to Conn's body, which — if Jackson was the killer — would probably have been stored there.
R.I.P.: Julius Wallende, Dec. 27, 1907.
Julius Wallende was a young homesteader, just getting started, new to Silver Lake. There is no clear connection to Jackson except for some spooky similarities to the Conn murder. Wallende was shot to death, then the killer warehoused the body for 11 weeks before beating the face to unrecognizability and planting the body in the creek near where Conn was found, artistically arranging it so it would freeze into the ice face-up. The killer then communicated prolifically to the press, writing an anonymous letter to the Portland Oregonian to help guide searchers to the body and, after a suspect was (wrongly) identified, another anonymous letter giving details of how to find him.
R.I.P.: Emma Dobkins, March 2, 1910
Officially, Emma Dobkins died of “angina pectoris” in Lane County. However, Lake County residents said she committed suicide after a “tainted relationship” with Jackson, who was a great pal of her brother Frank. She may very well have died naturally in childbirth while trying to deliver a baby conceived with Jackson, but “angina pectoris” (chest pain) is a strange thing to list as a cause of death, especially for a woman under 30.
But well-meaning people tried to protect her reputation afterward by being vague on the documentation, so it's hard to know for sure how she died or what (if any) role Jackson might have played in her death, beyond having apparently gotten her pregnant.
R.I.P.: Harold Bradley, Dec. 29, 1925
Bradley was a hired hand on Lincoln “Link” Hutton's large and successful ranch. He was shot twice with a .30-30 while going with Hutton to work on a car. Link Hutton's wife, Leona, testified that after the first shot she heard him yell, “Link, you've shot me.” Jackson, a neighbor, testified in the subsequent murder trial that Link came to his place and confessed to him. (Link was acquitted, so apparently the jury didn't believe it.)
There is some evidence Jackson and Leona Hutton were having an affair at the time; could Jackson have planned to shoot Hutton and frame Bradley, then move in with the widow? Hutton and Bradley were built similarly and there wasn't much light; perhaps that bullet was meant for Hutton.
By the way, Bradley's wounds were survivable, but he did not survive them. Perhaps this is explained by the fact that he was left alone with Jackson for an hour after the shooting.
R.I.P.: Ira Bradley, May 1, 1930.
Ira Bradley was Harold Bradley's father. He was found beaten to death with the butt of a revolver at his ranch, a mile and a half from the Harney County line. His face, too, was beaten to unrecognizability. The killer planted evidence at a neighbor's house, but the neighbor had an alibi — he was in town buying a new Ford when it happened.
Luckily, another neighbor was on hand. This neighbor helpfully called the Harney County authorities — forgetting, apparently, which county he lived in. Harney County officers came, checked out the crime scene, loaded up the body and took it to Burns — then discovered it was Lake County's case. In the ensuing confusion much footprint evidence was lost, and the killer was never identified.
And yes … by now you know exactly who that helpful neighbor was.
R.I.P.: “Professor” Ray Van Buren Jackson, Feb. 1, 1938.
Jackson was found dead in an upstairs room of his house, having apparently shot himself with a .30-30. Oddly enough, he chose to shoot himself in the chest, not the head, using a stove poker to actuate the trigger. He was 68 years old.
A pattern of deadly helpfulness
One particularly odd thing about Jackson's record of helpfulness is that this list covers a significant slice of all the murder and suspicious-death cases in Lake County from 1899 to 1930. There were others, but this list hits the high points and then some. Each time, there was some connection to Ray V.B. Jackson — indeed, in in most of them, Jackson was a central player. What are the odds?
In her book, Tupper makes the case that Jackson was a sociopath and serial killer in an age that didn't really know what either of those things was. She's probably right; he displayed some of the characteristics we associate with sociopaths — glibness, absolute lack of social fear, impulse toward grandiosity, promiscuity (one of his nicknames was “Tomcat Jackson”), etc.
But you don't have to buy her argument about that to see that there was something funny, and deadly, about this particular man. He was an easy liar, a great actor, an accomplished forger and a serial embezzler — among other things. He was entrusted with the entire community's school children for a decade, and at least one of them died under suspicious circumstances right after coming home from school. And nearly every time there was a brutal suspicious homicide somewhere in Oregon's third-largest county, he just happened to be on hand, helping out, giving advice, talking excitedly to the cops and to the press.
The pattern is hard to miss, isn't it?
Tupper, by the way, recently (that is, in late 2013) published a follow-up book titled The Trapper Murders: A True Central Oregon Mystery. In it, she lays out a compelling case for several more victims of Ray Van Buren Jackson.
(Sources: Tupper, Melany. The Sandy Knoll Murder: Legacy of the Sheepshooters. Christmas Valley, Ore.: Central Oregon Books, 2010)
TAGS: #CRIMES: #murder #unsolved #swindling #larceny #crackpotSchemes #fatal :: #PEOPLE: #horriblePeople #schemers #conArtists #bullshitters #charismatic #crooks :: # #irony #mystery :: LOC: #lake :: #145 #146