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Bungled robbery-murder solved with “CSI: Southern Oregon”

College professor's forensic investigation fingered the DeAutremont Brothers in the brutal robbery; after a years-long manhunt, and more than 2 million “wanted” posters, they were caught. But we still don't know the full story.

One of the millions of “wanted” posters printed and sent out all over the country during the four years in which the DeAutremont Brothers were on the lam. (Image: Smithsonian Institution)
EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is a rewriting and thorough re-researching of a much shorter column first published in April 2009, which you’ll find here.

It's Part 2 of a 2-part series telling the story of the DeAutremont Brothers' train robbery in 1923. Part 1 told the story of the robbery itself; Part 2 tells of the manhunt that followed.

University of California Professor Edward O. Heinrich had helped the Southern Pacific out with a few minor robbery investigations before. Now, in late autumn of 1923, SP had a big one on its hands. Four of its employees had been murdered, at least two of them in cold blood, in a train robbery gone bad at the mouth of Tunnel 13.

Posses had formed and were busily combing the countryside, bolstered by Oregon National Guard soldiers and law-enforcement officers from all around. On clear days, aviators flew airplanes low over the mountains in grid patterns looking for signs of the robbers, possibly the first time in history that a manhunt was conducted from the air.

After a week or two of this, authorities had assembled an impressive collection of physical evidence. But they had not even glimpsed the fugitives, and they’d made no progress even in figuring out who the murderers were.

That would change after they brought the 42-year-old Professor Heinrich into the case.

The railroad and the police laid out all the evidence, like a client briefing Sherlock Holmes: Left behind at the scene, and scattered at various campsites found in the manhunt, had been a discarded .45 automatic with the serial numbers filed off; a pair of Pay Day brand bib overalls; a scorched jacket; and an assortment of other stuff — a plunger-type detonator, some blasting caps, a union suit, camp garbage, and so forth.

From the bib overalls, Heinrich learned much. The pockets on the left showed more wear than on the right, and there was pitch on the right, as would be the case if a left-handed lumberjack was leaning against a tree to swing his ax. From some neatly trimmed fingernail clippings found in the pocket, he gathered that when in city clothes, the wearer was a meticulous dresser, and had small hands. And from some hairs found here and there, he learned that his man had brown hair and eyebrows.

But the real big score was wadded up in the bottom of the narrow pencil pocket of the overalls, which no one else had probed. It was a receipt for registered mail. And it led him directly to a name: Roy DeAutremont.

This photo spread ran in the Portland Sunday Oregonian three days after the robbery, on Oct. 14, 1923. TOP: A posse of citizens gathers at the entrance of Tunnel 13, where the robbery happened, preparatory to going forth to search. LEFT: The ruins of the mail car. RIGHT: A bundle of property left by the robbers at the scene, including shoes soaked in creosote to fool any bloodhounds.  (Image: Oregon State University Libraries)

With that in hand, Heinrich was able to secure a sample of Roy’s handwriting — and that’s when the DeAutremont Brothers’ doom was truly sealed. Because Heinrich was able to restore the serial number on the automatic and trace it back to its initial purchaser, who had signed his name “William Elliot” — in Roy’s handwriting.

From there, it was as good as all over. Had they merely robbed a train, the brothers could probably have managed to disappear somewhere; but they had murdered four men — two of them in cold blood — and the entire country was outraged by their crime. The manhunt now went nationwide and even international. “WANTED” posters were printed and distributed everywhere, prominently displaying the DeAutremonts’ faces; more than 2.25 million of them would be printed and distributed over the following several years while they were on the lam. There was nowhere the brothers could go where their faces would not be recognized.

Roy and Ray fled to Detroit and tried to change their hair color and personal appearance as best they could. Hugh joined the Army and was deployed to the Philippines. But all around them, pictures of themselves were staring out from those ubiquitous posters on the walls of post offices and police stations.

Eventually, one of Hugh’s fellow soldiers was reassigned to Alcatraz and saw one of those posters, and the jig was up. The brothers were all arrested and extradited to Jackson County, where they were sentenced to life in prison.

Hugh was paroled in 1958, but diagnosed with stomach cancer a few months later; he died the following year.

Roy was diagnosed with schitzophrenia in 1949, and the prescribed cure — lobotomy — left him unable to care for himself. He died in a nursing home in Salem in 1983.

Ray was paroled in 1961 and moved to Eugene, where he worked for some years as a janitor in the Erb Memorial Union at the University of Oregon. He died in Eugene in 1984.

 

Now, most accounts of the DeAutremont robbery, over the years, have been drawn almost entirely from police statements and newspaper articles. But several years ago, Edgard Espinoza and Pepper Trail, two forensic scientists from the National Fish and Wildlife forensic lab in Ashland, decided to dig a little deeper into the records. They found some very interesting details.

For one thing, they found that the timeline of the robbery placed the robbers at the scene, with everyone dead and the mail car torn open and burning, for a whole hour. What would they have been doing during that time? Could they have found something in there after all? Or was this merely a flaw in the record-keeping? (Remember, the train, still behind them in the tunnel, was full of passengers, and on the face of it it seems unlikely that the brothers would risk such a delay.)

The more intriguing discovery, though, is a description of a small, dark-featured man who, three hours after the robbery, knocked at the door of a remote camping cabin in the woods nearby. He asked the man who was staying in the cabin if he could retrieve some property he’d stashed in the loft — walnuts, he said, left there to dry and forgotten when he’d camped there several months before. The man had retrieved an oblong object wrapped tightly in a mackinaw coat, which did not look like walnuts, and left.

The mackinaw, or one like it, was found a few months after that in a nearby creek bed within a few hundred feet of Highway 99, near a spot where a pick and shovel had been stashed. It had knife cuts in it, as if whoever was wearing it had been stabbed in the back with a sharp knife. And there was no sign of the oblong object.

So: did the DeAutremont brothers have an accomplice? Did they actually recover something from the hold-up? (Southern Pacific always refused to disclose what was in the mail car that day, if anything.) Was there a double-cross, and a fifth murder done, and a secret kept by all three brothers and taken with them to their graves?

Or is there some other explanation — perhaps the mackinaw and shovel were evidence of some other crime, or maybe there’s a completely innocent explanation?

It’s almost certain that we’ll never really know.

(Sources: Trail, Pepper & al. “Tunnel 13: How Forensic Science Helped Solve America’s Last Great Train Robbery,” Jefferson Public Radio, http://ijpr.org; Joers, Lawrence E.C. “The Siskiyou Train Robbery,” Great Moments in Oregon History. Portland: New Oregon Publishers, 1987; http://tunnel13.com)