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Car chase at Crater Lake ended like a scene in a Tom Clancy novel

A German man, running from the law in a stolen Volvo full of guns and fake IDs, apparently dropped the hand grenade he was preparing to throw at the pursuing officer and was unable to retrieve it in time.

Wintertime view of Crater Lake, as seen from Rim Village (Image: WolfmanSF/ Wikimedia)

Race Williams, the most popular fictional private detective in the pages of Black Mask Magazine throughout the late 1920s, had a personal motto: “Anything is possible today.”

Having presumably never visited Crater Lake National Park, Williams may not have known how right he was.

Crater Lake is an odd spot. Strange things just seem to happen there — often enough to be noticed, and more often than is the case at other national parks. Supernatural explanations have been suggested from time to time — a curse of the Native American spirits of the place, perhaps. Others say it’s a combination of random chance and a variety of unfriendly characteristics of the park — its remoteness, its winter weather, its attractiveness to people seeking seclusion, and so on.

Whatever the reason, the place seems to come in for more than its fair share of strange events.

Quite possibly the strangest of all these events happened on a sunny summer morning of Aug. 29, 1982.

On that day, around 7 a.m., Patrol Ranger Alice Siebecker was on her way back to the lodge on Oregon Highway 62 when a brand-new Volvo sedan raced past her, doing about 65 miles per hour, going in the opposite direction.

Siebecker turned quickly around and gave chase. The highway in that spot was a 45-mph zone. Rangers in national parks such as Crater Lake are law-enforcement officers, charged with making sure park visitors don’t break the rules and empowered to ticket them when they do.

But when Siebecker pulled in behind the Volvo, its speed increased. It wasn’t a high-speed chase, not yet at least — but clearly the other driver wasn’t pulling over.

They drove on, a little less than a mile. Then the car lurched and swerved sharply. And then —

Crater Lake as seen from the air, from which vantage point it’s easily identified as a great mountain with the top blown off. (Image: Semionk/Wikimedia)

A big explosion lit up the interior of the Volvo, blowing the glass out of all the windows. Out of control, it flew off the road and into a gully, went airborne, traveled about 500 feet and crashed to a stop on a pumice embankment.

Then the car lay there. The driver never moved. But, considering the size of the explosion Siebecker had seen, she likely didn’t expect him to. The shock of the blast had actually bellied out the sheet metal of the car’s roof.

Siebecker, of course, called for backup immediately, and soon other rangers were on the scene. Worried that the car might have more bombs in it, they stayed well away from it while they waited for the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department and FBI bomb squads to arrive.

The Volvo’s driver, they learned, had been instantly killed by the explosion. And the cause of the explosion? A hand grenade. The driver had pulled the pin out of the grenade, possibly intending to throw it at the pursuing ranger’s vehicle; but he apparently dropped it beside the seat and was unable to retrieve it in time. Or, maybe he intended to blow himself up with it; investigators couldn’t exactly ask him what his intentions had been.

Inside the car, investigators found a knife; an automatic pistol tucked in an easily accessible spot in the door pocket; two rifles; three fake IDs, each with a different name and address on it; and two sets of California license plates. The car was traced to a rental agency in San Diego, and it had been reported stolen.

 

It took the FBI some time to figure out who the man was; the grenade had blown his left hand clean off and had rendered his face unrecognizable. Eventually, though, they identified him as a German national named Amdris Merzejuskis, who was wanted on a Texas warrant for drug smuggling.

But possibly the strangest part of the Merzejuskis story was how completely it seemed to vanish. Coverage of the incident in the Portland Oregonian — the content of which is searchable through the libraries at OSU — was limited to a small and carefully worded item on the cover of the Northwest section. “Mark Miller of the FBI’s Medford office said a hand grenade pin was found in the car and the grenade apparently was activated by the driver,” it reads.  

Similar stories, or versions of the same story, ran in several other daily papers as well. But then ... nothing.

So, what was the real story? Why was Merzejuskis so desperate to avoid contact with a park ranger — so much so that he was prepared to either kill her or himself to avoid it? Or was there something in the car, some evidence, that he destroyed with the grenade? And most of all, why didn’t the newspapers follow up on the story?

The truth may be out there, or perhaps we’ll never know; but it will probably take filing a Freedom of Information Act request with the federal government to find out for sure.

 

As for Ranger Alice Siebecker, well, she seems to have concluded that the job of patrol ranger at Crater Lake was more than she wanted to take on. She left the park soon after the incident to devote her attention full-time to her other job — that of a violin maker. Later she rejoined the National Park Service — but at Yellowstone this time. One imagines she’d had enough of Crater Lake.

(Sources: Crater Lake Institute, craterlakeinstitute.com; UPI archives, “High speed chase ended by hand grenade,” upi.com/Archives, 29 Aug 1982; archives of Portland Oregonian, Salem Statesman-Journal, and Corvallis Gazette-Times, 30 Aug 1982)