I told you up front that this story is being posted “off the cuff” as I write it, and it will definitely need to be edited and re-arranged, once it’s all down on … well, electrons. So, don’t be surprised if I jump around a little, and if things feel a little disorganized. It will end up being a multi-pass process to get everything the way I want it, and you’re only seeing the first pass.
So far, we’ve seen the intitial events from the point of view of the police and a few memories of family members. But how did things appear to the general public? All they had access to was the rumor mill (and, oh my, was it working overtime!) and the newspapers (remember, in those days there were no big TV stations with remote satellite-feed trucks). Since the murder occurred near 11:00 Thursday night, and morning editions of newspapers were usually “put to bed” not too long after that, it was too late to make it into the newspapers the next morning. Silverton had a weekly paper, the Silverton Appeal-Tribune, so the story didn’t appear there until a week later on Friday, February 25th. Portland’s Oregonian newspaper was a morning paper, as was Salem’s Statesman-Journal. The story first ‘broke’ in Salem’s afternoon paper, the Capital Journal, on Friday afternoon, February 18th. The story took up half of the front page:
Mystery Shrouds Murder of Silverton Farmer by Rifle Fire
Ervin O. Kaser Shot at Garage On Hop Ranch
By MIKE FORBES
SILVERTON—An unkonwn assassin Thursday night followed Ervin O. Kaser, 49, to his home in the Evergreen district three miles south of Silverton and killed him with a high power rifle.
The burst of rifle fire was heard by Mr. and Mrs. E. Kellerhals, Jr., who lived directly across the road. They told Sheriff Denver Young and State Police Officer Robert Dunn that they heard Kaser turn into his driveway and stop his car. At the same time, they said, they heard another car stop across the street 50 feet north of Kaser’s driveway, and then came the first shot.
Rushing to the window, the Kellerhals saw three more muzzle blasts from the rifle. Then the driver put his car in gear and drove off to the south.
No empty cartridge casings were found at the scene of the shooting causing officers to believe that the slayers purposely fired from inside his car and not left as a clue.
The Kellerhals immediately notified the sheriff’s office and Deputy Sheriff R. C. Boehringer who was in the Mount Angel area was dispatched to the scene. He was joined soon by Sheriff Young, District Attorney Kenneth Brown, Dr. Homer Harris of the State Police crime laboratory, and others.
Efforts were made immediately to trace Kaser’s movements the evening before the shooting, but this stage of the investigation remained indefinite. Several persons were questioned in an effort to establish a motive and to trace Kaser’s movements. No suspect was under arrest, although it was established that several threats had been made against the man’s life.
One witness advanced the theory that the killer circled to the west on a country road south of the scene and returned to Silverton over Paradise alley that connects with Silverton road, west of the city. A car was seen leaving Paradise alley and heading towards Silverton 15 minutes after the shooting. It was driven slowly, but was noticed because the driver failed to make a boulevard stop. A full description of the car was given police.
Kaser, according to investigators, was living apart from his wife, who separated from him some time ago.
The victim is survived by his mother, wife of the late Fred Kaser; three brothers, Orville, of Tillamook; and Harvey and Melvin of Evergreen district; a sister, Mrs. Venita McMorris, Buena Vista; his wife, Mary, and a stepdaughter, Phyllis.
The body was taken to the Ekman Funeral Home pending an inquest.
Hopefully you’re wise enough to know that there’s no “absolute truth,” all truth depends upon its context, who’s telling it, and who’s listenting to it. Whether it’s something you’ve seen with your own eyes, something reported by reliable and trustworthy sources, or something you’ve read in the newspaper, keep a healthy supply of salt grains at hand.
We have several things working against the newspaper’s account: the writer was rushing to meet deadline, his official sources (the police) weren’t telling him everything they knew and the things the police knew weren’t necessarily even close to the truth, and his unofficial sources (family members, neighbors, and random people wandering by) were prone to the usual rumor-mongering and wild speculation, all presented as the God’s-honest-truth.
For example, the Kellerhals didn’t notify the Sheriff’s Office, they called Melvin Kaser, neighbor and brother to Ervin. They didn’t even know that Ervin had been shot, and it was Melvin who went over, saw his dead brother, and then called the Silverton Police, who sent out officers, and then they called the Sheriff’s Office. Finally Deputy Boehringer was dispatched to the scene. The big theory from “one witness” that the killer had circled back to Silverton via Paradise Alley was a case of pure speculation, and the car that was supposedly seen leaving Paradise Alley without coming to a full stop was never mentioned in any of the police reports. The list of survivors included three brothers, but missed entirely my father, Calvin Kaser, Ervin’s youngest brother, and they misspelled Orval’s and Veneta’s names. But you knew better than to trust newspapers, right?
The next day, Saturday, February 19, 1955, the morning paper, The Statesman-Journal, ran these two articles:
Police Seek Slayer of Silverton Hop Grower
Rifleman Kills Ervin Kaser in Front of Home
Statesman News Service
SILVERTON—Police Friday were searching for the killer of 49-year-old Ervin Kaser, who was shot to death Thursday night at his hop farm located on the Silverton-Stayton Highway, two miles south of here.
Police questioned a 43-year-old Silverton man until early Friday and released him for lack of evidence. A ballistics test showed Friday that the murder weapon was a .30 calibre rifle.
Followed Victim Home
The murderer, said police, evidently followed Kaser home, parked 50 yards away across the highway and fired four quick blasts after the Kaser car rolled to a stop. One bullet only struck Kaser in the left shoulder and lodged near the heart. He died almost instantly, said District Attorney Kenneth E. Brown.
The other bullets, said state police, all tore through the car only a few inches apart. Three, including the death bullet, went through the left door post. One of these and a fourth went through the windshield.
None of the other bullets was located, police said, although an adjoining field was searched.
When police arrived soon after the slaying, headlights of the death car were still burning as was the inside dome light, which Kaser had evidently turned on as he was reaching for the grocery bag in the back seat.
Neighbors directly across the road from the Kaser place, Mr. and Mrs. Emanuel Kellerhals Jr., said they first heard Kaser arrive, then heard a car door slam and one shot. It was 10:55 p.m.
Arising from bed, Kellerhals said he saw three flashes from successive shots and saw the killer’s car, parked a few feet from his driveway, start off toward Stayton.
He said the car looked and sounded like a Ford and was dark in color. From the sequences of sounds, Kellerhalls said there was a possibility that Kaser had emerged from his car and stared to his doorstep, then, becoming alarmed, re-entered his car where he was found on the seat on the side away from the steering wheel. Police late Friday had not located the murder weapon.
Kaser, according to Kellerhals, had been living alone for about six months, his wife having instituted divorce proceedings against him.
The wife, Mary Kaser, lives at 2045 N. Capitol St., Salem.
Kellerhals, after establishing that something was amiss, summoned Silverton Constable Harley DePeal, who was the first law official on the scene. Later, the Marion County sheriff’s office was notified and state police.
Kaser was known as a good neighbor, said Kellerhals. He seldom had visitors and the few who called were usually men he worked with and they came at night, Kellerhals added.
(Additional details on page 2, sect. 1.)
[page 2, sect. 1.]
Robbery Said Not Motive in Farm Slaying
Statesman News Service
(Story also on page one.)
SILVERTON—Object of a wide search in this area Friday was the killer of Ervin Kaser, hop grower on the Silverton Stayton highway two miles south of here.
Kaser was shot Thursday night in his car as it rolled to a stop in the driveway of his home. The killer fired from another car parked 50 yards away across the highway.
Police said it was apparent that robbery was not a motive. The man’s house had not been entered and nothing was missing from his person.
A post mortem performed on the body Friday showed that the death bullet, which had “mushroomed” badly after crashing through the door post, cut off the flow of blood to the heart. Dr. Homer H. Harris, director of the state crime detection laboratory, made the examination.
Kaser was born Nov. 16, 1905 at Silverton, the son of Mr. and Mrs. Fred Kaser. The father is now dead, but the mother, 74, still lives on a farm located near the scene of the tragedy.
Other survivors beside the estranged wife are four brothers, Orval, Bay City; Harvey, Melvin and Calvin, all of Silverton, and a sister, Mrs. Venita McMorris.
The body is at the Ekman Funeral Home here. Funeral services will be held Monday at 2 p.m. At Ekmans.
Mannie Kellerhal’s theory that Ervin had started for the house is certainly wrong, as Ervin wouldn’t have left the lights on in the car or the groceries in the back seat. More likely Ervin had opened his door to get out and get the groceries from the back seat, but saw the killer’s car and maybe even the rifle, as the nearly full moon was lighting the night. His hand still on the car door, he probably moved back into the car, slamming the car door, as that would have been his nearest and only protection. But before he could move across the seat to get out the far side, the first shot pierced the door post, mushrooming the bullet, which then slammed into his back and sliced his aorta, killing him.
The second article gets the list of survivors right and even the correct spelling of Orval’s name, although they still misspelled Veneta’s name.
Here’s a third sample, the Capital Journal from Saturday afternoon, February 19, 1955:
Search Reveals New Clews To Solve Silverton Murder
Sheriff Active But Silent on Developments
By MIKE FORBES
SILVERTON—Sheriff Denver Young and State Police today moved a step closer to the rifle slayer of Ervin Oren Kaser, 45-year-old Silverton farmer, as they uncovered some of the victim’s movements Thursday night shortly before he was shot to death in the driveway of his home in the Evergreen district.
The sheriff said that investigators have found the place where Kaser spent most of the evening before he was killed, but declined to elaborate on the statement. He hinted strongly, however, that this information has provided officers with a strong clue.
Numerous witnesses also were questioned as part of the investigation. Kaser’s estranged wife, Mary Louisa, was scheduled to be questioned, the sheriff said, but merely as a matter of routine.
The investigation also included perusal of Mrs. Kaser’s divorce action which is pending in circuit court and was scheduled for trial March 17.
The divorce complaint charges cruel and inhuman treatment and accused Kaser of staying out all night occasionally, sometimes remaining away from home for several days without explanation; of failure to support her; refusing to buy food or clothing for her; refusal to associate with her friends; of locking her and her daughter out of their home; of associating with other women (who are not named); of refusing to speak to her; of refusal to share with her any information about family finances; of striking and beating her.
Mrs. Kaser’s action asks for an undivided half interest in his property or a cash settlement of $15,000.
In his answer to the suit Kaser denied all of his wife’s charges and in counter charges accused her of cruel and inhuman treatment in their home life in that she:
- Accused him falsely of associating with other women.
- Cursed and berated him privately and publicly.
- Refused to prepare meals and perform other duties of a housewife.
- Concealed from him her inability to bear children.
- Assaulted and struck him.
- Urged him to obtain a divorce.
- Frequently expressed lack of affection or regard for him.
- Counseled her daughter by a former marriage to disrespect him.
- Removed most of the furniture from his home without his approval or consent.
These charges are denied by Mrs. Kaser in her answer.
Attorneys for Mrs. Kaser are Rhoten, Rhoten and Speerstra.
Kaser was shot to death by an unknown slayer who followed him from Silverton and opened fire as Kaser drove into the driveway of his home and stopped.
Funeral services will be held in Memorial Chapel, Ekman’s Funeral Home, at 2 p.m. Monday. Burial will be in Belcrest Memorial Park, Salem.’
Obviously, the ‘clews’ in the headline indicates that the writer had spelling problems or else was a sailor, but typos and misspellings in the newspaper are rarely the largest grievances. But other than Ervin’s age (he was 49, not 45), this article seems to be reasonably factual within the limits of the facts that they had available to them at the time of writing.
The newspapers kept running articles daily for weeks, covering the developing investigation as best they could within the limits of the information released by the Sheriff’s Office, and they provide a complimentary counterpoint to the police reports, but the police reports definitely contain much more information about the day-to-day investigation, so I’ll return to them for a while.