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The small-town police chief who turned out to be a murderer

At the pay the city of Sandy was offering, Otto Austin Loel was the only man willing to take the job. He didn't turn out to be much of a bargain ... but it wouldn't be until years later that the town learned how much worse he could have been.

This headline, on Page 9 of the Portland Oregonian on Jan. 18, 1955, must have caused some embarrassment among residents of Sandy. Fugitive knife murderer Otto Loel had, just seven years earlier, been the city’s top law-enforcement officer. (Image: Portland Oregonian)

Back in 1948, the small Oregon town of Sandy had a problem. Its police chief, W.C. Stoneman, had resigned due to illness. And after a search, the city administrators had started to realize Stoneman had been underpaid.

Put simply, they could not find a law-enforcement professional who would take on the job of Sandy Chief of Police for the $150 monthly salary they were offering.

They did find one candidate for the job, though. He was a local fellow by the name of Otto Austin Loel, a relatively recent arrival who had made a number of friends since coming to town. His only criminal record was a drunken-driving conviction from back east — at that time drunken driving was widely considered to be a minor infraction, like a speeding ticket.

Best of all, outgoing chief Stoneman recommended him. Stoneman had worked with him when the two of them were night merchants’ policemen (essentially, security guards) before Stoneman became chief. Stoneman said Loel was a rough-and-ready character and a good fellow, if a little overly fond of an alcoholic beverage or two of an evening.

That was good enough for the city council, the members of which were as loath to part with money as anyone might be. And so, although Loel didn’t seem to cut the proper figure of a police chief, the job became his.

Regrets started trickling in soon afterward. The new top cop turned out to be a bit unpredictable. Other Sandy residents later recalled that he was cheerful and talkative one minute, and surly and snarling the next. He didn’t bother with a uniform, but he often could be found drinking beer in a city tavern sporting a leather motorcycle jacket, with a pair of six-shooters slung cowboy-style on his hips and a pair of handcuffs dangling from his suspenders.

The city judge offered the most frank and disdainful analysis of Chief Loel. Loel, he recalled, was “a shifty-eyed, half-shaven roughneck who boasted, bragged and lied.”

Three newspaper-clipping mugshots of former Sandy Police Chief Otto Austin Loel, published while the FBI was looking for him to charge him with murder. (Image: FBI)

He was a day-drinker, so he spent a lot of time in the tavern, regaling anyone who would listen with stories of his service in the U.S. Navy during the Second World War and slaking an obviously prodigious thirst with glass after glass of cheap suds.

It wasn’t the kind of situation that could last very long, and it didn’t. Shortly after Chief Loel was hired, a new mayor was elected, a resident named John Mills. And several months after that, Mills, never much of a Chief Loel fan to start with, happened to be in a tavern with the chief when, nicely liquored up, Chief Loel launched into a spirited denunciation of the personal character of several city council members. Furious, Mayor Mills walked up to him, stripped him of his gun and badge, and fired him on the spot.

Not surprisingly, Loel left Sandy soon afterward. And the town got busy trying to forget about the whole thing.

That wouldn’t be so easy, though. Not with the kind of headlines that started popping up in the Portland Oregonian just a few years later.

It seems that after leaving Sandy, Loel had ended up in Compton, Calif. There, one January day in 1954, he was drinking in a local tavern and talking about an upcoming road trip to Syracuse, N.Y., when one of the other bar patrons, 31-year-old Elizabeth Jeanne Henderson, asked him if he’d be willing to take her with him as far as Newark, Ohio, so she could visit her relatives there.

Elizabeth and her husband, both regulars in the tavern, both considered Loel a friend. Soon an expense-sharing deal was struck, and the two of them were on the highway in Loel’s snazzy 1947 Buick, headed east.

When they got to Oklahoma City, Loel and Henderson stopped and got a hotel room for the night. By the next morning, Loel had driven on alone. And the maid coming to make up the room got a nasty shock. The room was spattered with blood, and Elizabeth Henderson’s body, partially undressed, was wedged under the bed. She’d been beaten, burned with cigarettes and stabbed 19 times.

The view in autumn from Jonsrud Viewpoint on the edge of the town of Sandy, looking out across the Sandy River at Mount Hood. (Image: Sandy Historical Society)

Loel, of course, promptly vanished. Authorities tracked him as far as Shreveport, La., where he’d pawned some of his stuff. Then he disappeared from view.

A year went by. The heinousness of the murder caught the attention of the FBI, which put him on its Ten Most Wanted list.

But although the Most Wanted list was generally very effective in catching wanted crooks, Loel wasn’t caught that way. Instead, it was his thirst for alcohol that did him in. On Jan. 9, 1955, the cops in Sanford, Fla., arrested a man who called himself Jack McCoy for public drunkenness. McCoy’s fingerprints turned out to be a match for Loel’s. And how was it that the cops had Loel’s fingerprints on file? Because they’d been taken when he was arrested for drunken driving, many years before.

Loel was promptly extradited to Oklahoma and put on trial for the murder of Elizabeth Henderson. His attorney had a tough job trying to represent him, though, because he kept insisting that he’d killed her in self-defense, trying to fend off her sexual advances. Had the situation not been so serious, the jurors would probably have met this claim with scornful snickers. Did this guy seriously expect them to believe that Elizabeth Henderson was so hot for him that he’d been forced to defend himself from her raging nymphomania — by burning her with cigarettes?

It seemed he did. Consequently, the jury took very little time to come back with a unanimous guilty verdict.

And so it was that, following a short series of appeals and requests for clemency (all of which were sabotaged by Loel’s remarkably unrepentant attitude), the former Chief of Police for the city of Sandy, Oregon, found himself strapped into an oak chair in the Oklahoma State Prison, a few minutes after midnight, a black hood over his head and electrodes on his head and legs, waiting for his 2,300 volts.

By 12:07 a.m., it was done.

By that time, Sandy had learned its lesson. After Loel’s firing, the city had promptly raised the city police chief’s salary to competitive levels, and the town has enjoyed competent, murderer-free police services ever since.

(Sources: Hunter, Wally. “Who’s Who in Crime,” Portland Oregonian, 1/30/1955; Wilson, R. Michael. Legal Executions in Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma. New York: McFarland, 2012; Portland Oregonian, 5/22/1954, 1/18/1955 and 1/11/1957)