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Bootlegger’s liquor buy ended in dramatic murder

Russell Hecker borrowed a friend’s car to make a quick liquor run. He brought it back 12 hours late and covered with blood — and there was no sign of the man he’d gone on the run with the previous night.

News coverage in the April 18, 1922, issue of the Portland Morning Oregonian included this photo spread, showing (clockwise from top) the murder car; Detective Mallett of the Portland Police Bureau with murder suspect Russell Hecker; and victim Frank Bowker. (Image: UO Libraries)

It was well after 8 p.m. on the night of April 16, 1922, around 82nd and Division in Portland, and Albert Bowker was getting nervous.

His 49-year-old brother, Frank, had left downtown Portland at 7 p.m. in a touring car with a slim, charismatic 24-year-old man named Russell Hecker. Hecker had a contact, known to him only as “Bob,” who had dozens and dozens of cases of Johnny Walker Black Label for sale at $85 a pop. So Frank had scrounged up all the money he had, borrowed another $600 from his housekeeper, tucked his .38 Special into his pocket, and gone with Hecker to go get it from the backcountry barn where it was all stashed.

They’d all planned to meet up an hour later, after Bob had his money and Frank had his whisky, at 82nd and Division. But now, as the night dragged on past 9 p.m., Albert was starting to worry that things might have gone sour.

They had.

 

The next morning, about the same time Frank Bowker's brother was finally realizing he would have to go to the police, Russell Hecker’s brother’s business partner was probably thinking the same thing. Hecker had borrowed the car from him the night before for a quick run out to the outskirts of East Portland, and had never returned.

But at 9 a.m., young Russell himself poked his head in in the door, looking freshly scrubbed if not very well rested, apologizing for keeping the car late. The car, he said, was parked a couple blocks away, near Second and Pine.

Relieved, the car’s owner sent one of his salesmen to retrieve the car and take it to a tire shop. Upon arrival, the salesman couldn’t help noticing the seat cushions looked a little funny, as if they’d been replaced with brand-new ones. The rubber floor mats looked new, too, and that was particularly noticeable because the rest of the car was — well, drenched with blood. The interior, the running boards, even the undercarriage.

 

Hecker was soon in custody, and the police had many pointed questions to pose to him; but he’d spent the morning getting advice from his father and his attorney, and both had told him to keep his mouth shut, so he did.

However, Police Chief Leon Jenkins did manage to learn, from Hecker’s father, the location of the body. Hecker had dumped the body, wrapped in a hop sack and weighted with rocks, over the rail of the bridge across the Calapooia River at the end of what’s now Queen Avenue, in Albany.

The investigation revealed the apparent rendezvous point for the whisky buy: a lonely stretch of road between Gladstone and Oregon City. Witnesses said a touring car had come there around 7:30 and parked just off the highway, tucked back into some trees. Some time thereafter, neighbors heard a shot. The blood trail started a few hundred feet south, apparently dripping from the chassis of the car.

Farther south, the attendant at a service station in St. Paul remembered the car coming in for gasoline. The attendant had seen blood between the driver’s fingers when he removed his gas cap, and he was shaking so badly he’d dropped the cap. It had rolled under the car, and when the attendant ducked down to retrieve it, he’d noticed more blood dripping off the running boards. Perhaps understandably, the attendant hadn’t asked any questions — or dared to peek into the floorboards of the back seat where the lumpy, crimson-stained hop sack lay — but he remembered the visitor well.

At the Albany Hotel, they remembered him, too, but by the time he was signing the guest register there, the body was gone and he’d cleaned the blood off his hands. He checked in around 2 a.m., took a bath, wrote a letter to his father, bought some cigarettes, and left for Portland before dawn the next day.

 

In court, Hecker finally told his full story: On the drive to Baker’s Bridge, Hecker testified, Frank Bowker had been awful company, waving his .38 around and talking like a big-shot gangster. On the way, he’d suggested they simply play the liquor buy like a stick-up — rob “Bob,” keep the money and the booze too. “It means $1,200 or $1,400 to you,” he added, “and he can’t do anything with this gun in his face.” But Hecker had told him no, a deal was a deal.

Then, Hecker claimed, when they arrived at the rendezvous point and he tried to signal “Bob” with the car’s spotlight, Bowker had freaked. “Are you double-crossing me?” he yelled, and out came the .38 again, and from three feet away, in the dark closed interior of a touring car on a chilly April night, Bowker fired, sending a bullet whistling past Hecker’s ear and off into the night. Hecker, luckily, had borrowed a .45 automatic from his former employer, so he whipped that out now and returned fire. One shot, to the head. And then there was blood everywhere.

Hecker had brought a hop sack to put the cases of liquor in. Now he stuffed the body into it and laid it somewhere out of sight, probably on the floorboards of the car. He was, of course, freaking out; he couldn’t go back to Portland, possibly ever; Bowker’s brother would be gunning for him now. So he drove south, making for his home town of Albany.

“I needed gasoline,” he told the jury. “I thought I could get it some place where they wouldn’t know me. I saw a filling station at what they call Horseshoe Park (St. Paul). I drove in and got the gas and tried to act natural so they wouldn’t suspicion me. The man didn’t say anything … he just looked hard at me.”

He then drove, in confusion and dismay and panic, around Albany until he came upon the old bridge over the Calapooia, where he stopped and got the hop sack — still dripping blood — and heaved it over the rail. Then he cleaned himself up as best he could in the field, checked into the hotel to clean himself up more thoroughly, and drove back to Portland. Somewhere along the way he stopped to clean up the car some, too.

 

It was a pretty good story. But there were several reasons why it was hard to buy. First, as the prosecutor was not slow to point out, the only witness to Frank Bowker’s boorish behavior and plans to rob “Bob” was the man who had killed him. Also, Hecker had gone through Bowker’s pockets after killing him. Why would he do that, unless intending to rob him of the liquor-buying money?

But most damningly, there was no evidence that more than one shot had been fired. Witnesses near the bridge testified to only having heard one. So, what about that .38 shot, with which Bowker allegedly tried to kill Hecker, making it self-defense? With his eyes full of the muzzle flash of that .38 going off in his face, how likely was it that Hecker would be able to see (and shoot) Bowker’s head? And how did Hecker account for the shot having entered the back of Bowker’s head rather than the front?

On the other hand, had Hecker set out to murder Bowker, he would hardly have used a borrowed car and gun, or driven half the night with a body in the car to within blocks of his parents’ house only to stay in a hotel — would he?

Maybe not. But when sent into its chambers to ponder these things on July 1, the jury took only an hour or so to come to a decision: Guilty of first-degree murder.

Four days later, he was sentenced to be hanged. It never happened, though. A combination of good timing, excellent counsel, a phenomenally lucky break and the intervention of a naïve newly-elected governor resulted in Hecker’s sentence being commuted; in fact, fifteen years after his death sentence was handed down, he was a free man.

The full story of the Bowker murder can be found in Cory Frye’s book, Murder in Linn County, Oregon. It’s presented there as a sort of side dish to the main course, which is the Plainview killings — a tragic episode in the tiny Linn County hamlet of Plainview that happened two months later, in which the county sheriff and a local pastor on what you might call a “law-enforcement ride-along” were gunned down by a bootlegging farmer whom they had come to arrest.

(Sources: Frye, Cory. Murder in Linn County, Oregon: The True Story of the Legendary Plainview Killings. Charleston, S.C.: The History Press, 2016; Portland Morning Oregonian archives, 4-19-1922 to 4-25-1922)