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Time Out for Murder
Sheriff E.T. Mass knew it would not be an easy case to solve. The death of Ethel McCurdy in a devastating house fire on July 8, 1927, at first appeared to be accidental. Her charred body had been recovered from the tiny bungalow she shared with her husband Alvin in the Canemah community, just south of Oregon city.
Neighbors who first arrived on the scene the night of the fire found Alvin McCurdy laying motionless on the lawn outside the burning house, his arms and legs severely burned. Most figured he was dead, but McCurdy had managed to escape. His wife wasn't so lucky.
But there was something suspicious about Ethel McCurdy's death. The deep
trying to escape from a buming house. And Ethel McCurdy was laying on her back in bed when authorities found her badly burned body. If beams or roofing material had fallen on her during the fire, they would have struck her in the face-not the back of her skull.
Mass' worst fears were answered when an autopsy revealed Ethel McCurdy died of blunt force blows to the back of her head, possibly caused by a hammer.
Her husband, Alvin, suffering from shock and smoke inhalation, was rushed to the local hospital. Mass knew the 55 year-old millworker was in no shape to tell authorities what had happened.
With few leads to work with, Mass and his men began questioning neighbors and got all the wrong answers: Ethel McCurdy was a wonderful lady, they said. Everyone liked her. She had no enemies.
But Mass and his men kept searching. They finally found someone who recalled that a neighbor's boy had been caught by Ethel McCurdy coming out of the bungalow one day. She gave him a verbal tongue lashing, they said. He went off muttering something about getting even with her. But more significantly, one neighbor recalled, the youth had done some carpentry work for the McCurdys, and he had a hammer.
With this information, Mass and his deputies hurried off to the boy's house. They didn't find him there; his mother said he had left early that morning to go to a friend's house -- about the time when the fire was first discovered. At Mass' request, she went down in the basement to get the boy's hammer, but found it missing. That corresponded with Mass' theory that whoever crushed Ethel McCurdy's skull had buried the murder weapon.
Mass and his men got the name and address of the friend's house. They found the suspect youth there, working on a jalopy with his friend. But their spirits sagged somewhat when the boy immediately produced his hammer. He said he brought it with him from home to work on the car. To Mass' chagrin, the hammer did not appear to have any bloodstains on it. A lab test later confirmed that the hammer contained no particles of blood.
Authorities later learned Alvin McCurdy had regained enough strength to talk to deputies. He told them they had gone to bed about the same time, 10 p.m. the previous night. They had separate bedrooms, he explained, because he had suffered a heart attack some time ago and his doctor prescribed maximum, uninterrupted bed rest. The last time he saw his wife, Alvin McCurdy said, was when she left his medicine on the nightstand next to his bed.
He went on to say that he was awakened by a cloud of smoke pouring into his bedroom. He said he tried to make it to his wife's bedroom, but was overcome by the smoke and heat, and was forced to flee from the burning dwelling. He said his heart apparently gave out when he reached the front lawn, and he fainted.
Alvin McCurdy said he had not noticed anyone poking around their Canemah residence in recent days. He also said he doubted anyone wanted to burglarize their home or rob them because they didn't have much money or many material possessions.
In the days that followed, Mass and his deputies talked again to neighbors and friends of the couple, as well as several transients who had been lingering around the area. But they were unable to turn up any good leads.
Frustrated by their lack of progress, Mass and Oregon City Police Officer Clinton A. Blodgett decided to return to the fire-murder scene to sift through the burned debris. Mass was convinced the killer had made one mistake, left one incriminating piece of evidence behind.
He was right. While sifting through the debris, they found a man's wrist watch. Engraved on the back they found the name Alvin McCurdy.
At first, Mass and Blodgett were perplexed. Alvin McCurdy said he could not make his way into his wife's bedroom because of the intense smoke and heat, but he had apparently dropped it. But how could he, they asked themselves. McCurdy said he had been confined to his bed for several days because of his heart condition.
The investigators decided to hone in on Alvin McCurdy's shaky alibi. They
contacted several local stores to see if McCurdy had purchased a hammer recently, and found one storekeeper who recalled selling one to McCurdy two weeks earlier.
With that piece of information, Mass ordered a more thorough search of property surrounding the McCurdy's fire-gutted bungalow. One officer uncovered a blood-stained claw hammer buried in the ground less than 100 yards from the McCurdy house.
Confronted with this new information, McCurdy broke down and confessed to killing his wife. He said they had an argument and that she threatened to leave him. Rather than face the heartbreak of losing her, Alvin McCurdy said he killed his wife with the hammer, set the house aftre, singed his arms and legs in the process and faked the fainting spell to throw suspicion off of himself.
On July 25, 1927 -- less than three weeks after the fatal fire -- Alvin McCurdy' s murder trial began. But rather than face the possibility of a first-degree murder conviction and certain death in the gas chamber, the elderly millworker asked if he could change his plea to guilty ; of second-degree murder.
Circuit Court Judge James U. Campbell granted his wish and sentenced McCurdy to life imprisonment. But McCurdy was released on parole in 1939 after the Governor commuted his sentence from life to 35 years. McCurdy died four years later of natural causes.
The murder of local school Superintendent Robert Henagin on Oct. 28, 1946, sent a shock wave through the small, bedroom community of West Linn.
Henagin was well known as a dynamic school leader -- as a high school principal in the tiny community of Coburg and as Superintendent of Schools in Rainier before leaving that position two years earlier to accept the high post in West Linn.
He was also well liked by students and parents alike, or at least, that's what Clackamas County authorities heard from almost everyone they first interviewed following Henagin's untimely death that cool, crisp fall evening.
But Henagin obviously had at least one enemy, veteran Clackamas County Sheriff Fred Reaksecker concluded when first informed of the shooting. The victim had been shot twice in the back, at close range, with a .22-caliber pistol.
In spite of his near-fatal wounds, Henagin managed to drive himself to a West Linn lounge and honk his car horn several times to get the attention of lounge customers. One of the customers drove the wounded superintendent to Hutchinson General Hospital in neighboring Oregon City. Henagin remained in critical condition several days before he died.
The fact that a well-respected community leader and family man had been killed was a mystery in itself, but the motive was even tougher for Reaksecker and his men to figure. Henagin had left his wife and two children earlier that evening to attend a Parent-Teacher Association meeting in the Willamette community south of West Linn. It was one of those routine meetings all school leaders attend from time to time.
Reaksecker sent Chief Deputy Sheriff Joe Shobe to Willamette to talk to those who attended the PTA meeting with Henagin. The Sheriff paid a call to Pic-anini Inn in West Linn, where Henagin drove his car, to see if any employees or patrons could remember which direction Henagin was traveling when he arrived the night of the shooting. Unfortunately for Reaksecker, no one could recall.
But Shobe provided the Sheriff with a helpful tip. He learned that Henagin had been complaining recently about someone letting air out of his car tires.
And the only words Henagin mumbled at the hospital were "flat tires" and "don't shoot."
Could the superintendent have caught some school kids or young delinquents in the process and threatened to mm them into the police? And could they have killed Henagin in the process? Reaksecker and his men didn't have much to go on, so they jumped at anything they could get.
Two young locals looked like good suspects. Both were school dropouts and both had juvenile arrest records for malicious mischief, burglary and auto theft. But the Deputies pursuing the pair wound up at a dead end: On the night of the shooting, the pair had gone to a movie theater -- and promptly fell asleep in their chair during the first feature. A girl who sold them their tickets and the boy usher who woke them up verified their stories.
Next, Reaksecker and his men explored robbery as a motive. Although Henagin still had money and his wristwatch when he was rushed to the hospital, Reaksecker was not ready to rule out robbery. Maybe Henagin resisted a robber's demands, the robber panicked and shot the superintendent and fled empty handed.
Deputies found a hitchhiker walking along Highway 41, between West Linn and Lake Oswego the same night of the shooting, with blood on his jacket. The man claimed he was in a bar fight earlier in the evening, that he stepped in to protect a woman who was being hassled by another man. The two gents duked it out, the man said, and some blood spilled.
Again, Reaksecker' s hopes went down the drain. The man' s story checked out in interviews with the tavern' s patrons, and he was released from custody.
By now, Reaksecker figured it was time to take a closer inspection of Henagin's past. This time, he struck it rich. A call to Rainier police turned up new information indicating the school chief made numerous female friends in the northwestern Oregon community. Recksecker was prepared to take off for Rainier himself when he decided at the last minute to pay another call on Henagin's wife -- to see if she could throw any light on her husband' s previous, extra-curricular activities.
It was only a ploy by the cagey lawman, however. The preponderance of evidence -- the mud which had been tracked into her husband's car, the .22caliber revolver missing from its hiding place in the glove box, the small button found in the backseat floor of his car
all seemed to point to a suspect who was very close to Robert Henagin. Someone all too familiar with his lifestyle and habits -- the one who kept the light burning at home the night he went off to his PTA meeting in Willamette.
Confronted with Reaksecker's suspicions and unable to lie any longer, Luella Henagin admitted the fatal shooting. She admitted she was jealous of other women and suspicious of her husband's latenight school meetings. They had an argument when he returned home that night, she walked out, he followed her in his car and picked her up not far from home.
He wanted to end their marriage, she said. Fearing he would shoot her, Luella Henagin grabbed the gun out of the glove box and climbed over the back seat to protect herself. He reached for the gun, there was a brief struggle and the gun fired three times. She panicked and ran home through the rain, gathering telltale mud on her shoes.
On Dec. 8, 1946, a Clackamas County jury found her guilty of second-degree murder. She spent seven years in prison for the crime.
©1998 Roxann Gess Smith
All Rights Reserved
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