Otho Caldera was elected Sheriff of Wheeler County in November 1972 but was told he couldn't take office because he did not meet the new state requirements that a candidate needed two years of college or two years of experience to be elected to the position. So, a month later, he took the office by appointment.
Caldera is the only county law enforcement official in sparsely populated Wheeler County, which has 1,400 people in a county that covers a little more than 1,700 square miles. His annual budget is $69,000.
Caldera was born on Feb. 10, 1936 in Heppner in neighboring Morrow County. He grew up in the Fossil area of Wheeler County. Fossil, with a population of 400, is the county seat of Wheeler County. The Sheriff attended Spray High School in Spray, another tiny town in Wheeler County with a population of 195, but he did not graduate.
Before getting into law enforcement in 1972, Caldera was a distributor for Standard Oil for six years and earlier, worked in a sawmill. He spent three years -- 1955 to 1958 -- in France when he served in the military.
Over the years, Caldera has run for the office of Sheriff in four different elections. The first time, he faced four opponents and he ran against his Deputy in another election.
In the 20 years that Caldera has been Sheriff, he has had a Deputy only six of those years. Now he works with Reserve Deputies. Wheeler County does not have a corrections facility, so the county contracts for jail space with nearby Umatilla County and Goldendale, Wash.
Since Caldera has been Sheriff, there have been no murders committed in Wheeler County.
Shortly after Wheeler County was established on Feb. 17, 1899, Perry Lewis "Lew" Keeton was appointed to serve as the county's first Sheriff. There have been only seven Sheriffs in the sparsely populated county, which lists a population of some 1,400 residents.
Wheeler County was carved by the State Legislature from parts of three other counties -- Grant, Gilliam and Crook. The county was named for Henry Wheeler, who operated the first stage line through the area. It was in 1863 when the first permanent settlers arrived in the area that later became Wheeler County.
The area is best known as one of the more outstanding depositories of prehistoric fossils on the North American continent. Geologic discoveries began more than a century ago when Thomas Condon uncovered plant and animal fossils dating back to a time more than 30 million years ago when the arid hills were covered with subtropical forests.
The topography of Wheeler County varies from sagebrush, juniper and rimrock to thick stands of pine and fir. Portions of two national forests lie within the boundaries of the northeastern Oregon county. Private and federal forest lands cover nearly one-third of the 1,713 square miles that make up Wheeler County. Under a multiple-use concept, most forest lands also are used for grazing. More than 94 percent of the remaining land in the county is used as range land while only six percent is tilled or highly improved.
More than 90 percent of the agricultural income in the county comes from livestock and its related products. Timber also is a principal industry in Wheeler County.
The major points of interest in the county include John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, Shelton State Park and the John Day River.
The Sheriffs of Wheeler County over the years have all held lengthy terms, except for the first two. Perry Lewis "Lew" Keeton, a Texan who was appointed shortly after the county was established in February 1899, was Sheriff until 1904, when George M. Ray was elected. Keeton came to Oregon in 1864 from California, where he took up ranching. He attended the Oregon Agriculture College in Corvallis from 1869 to 1870 and later moved to Wheeler County.
Ray, the uncle of Grant County Sheriff Tom Negus, was elected to two, two-year terms, serving as Sheriff of Wheeler County from 1904 to 1908.
Oscar Garfield Kelsay was elected to the position in 1908 and served until August 1921, when he resigned. His son, Edgar James Kelsay, later was elected to the position. Oscar Kelsay was born on Dec. 22, 1881 in Pendleton and was a sheep rancher. He attended high school in The Dalles and some college classes in Portland before settling in Wheeler County.
When Oscar Kelsay resigned after 13 years as Sheriff of Wheeler County, Charles A. Johnson was appointed to take his place. He served as Sheriff for 14 years, when Edgar Kelsay was elected to the position in 1935. A native of Fossil, the county seat of Wheeler, Edgar Kelsay graduated from Wheeler County High School and dabbled in real estate and logging. He was Sheriff during the Spanish Gulch Murders in the 1940s. (See story below.)
When Ed Kelsay resigned in March 1943 after eight years as head of Wheeler County law enforcement, Malcom Keys was appointed Sheriff. He later would run for the office, spending nearly 30 years as Sheriff until he resigned in December 1972 and Otho Caldera was appointed to the position. Keys was born in Richmond, Ore. on June 22, 1901. He attended Wheeler Elementary School, Wheeler County High School and Oregon State College. When he wasn't busy with county law enforcement, Keys was a farmer.
The Gold Miner Murders
Few prospectors ever struck it rich mining for gold in Oregon. But one Wheeler County miner discovered a way of lining his pockets with the "blood money" of fellow prospectors -- until the law caught up with him.
One hot May afternoon in 1940, an old prospector was making his way home through the Spanish Gulch region of Wheeler County when his horse stumbled into a freshly-dug grave.
Gene Spray didn't even know it was a grave until curiosity got the best of him and he began digging into the soft, sandy earth. Minutes later, his shovel struck something solid. Spray continued digging and, to his horror, he discovered a body.
The spooked miner dropped his shovel, jumped on his horse and galloped off to report his grisly find to the sheriff' s office. Early the next morning, Sheriff Ed Kelsay, Oregon State Police Trooper W. R. Moseley and two of their men followed Spray to the grave site.
Within a few minutes, the lawmen were able to remove the entire corpse -what was left of it. The victim, a man in his mid 30s, had been shot to death, his head almost completely torn off by what appeared to have been a close-range shotgun blast.
There was no identification or personal belongings found on the victim. Spray, however, suggested a longtime area resident, Everett Waterman, might know the victim. Waterman, a 63-year-old prospector himself who seemed to know everyone in the Spanish Gulch, did not recognize the victim when he saw the body.
But Waterman did recognize something. He told Kelsay that the victim was wearing the same type clothing as the young man who had recently come to Wheeler County from Ohio to meet prospector Claude Cline. The man's name, according to Waterman, was George Chetty.
Yet, Waterman insisted it could not have been Chetty; he had gone to Portland with another miner named Fletcher to get supplies for a gold-mining trip to Alaska which he and Cline had been planning. At least, that's what Cline had told him, Waterman said. The old prospector said Cline informed him he planned to stay behind, to get ready for their Alaska trip.
But when Kelsay and his men confronted Fletcher, the prospector said he had not taken Chetty to Portland or that he even knew a young Ohio miner named Chetty.
Frustrated and confused by conflicting stories, Kelsay decided to do a little more investigating on his own. He drove to Portland to meet with an old friend, Holger Christoffersen, Chief Criminal Deputy for the Multnomah County Sheriffs Office. Kelsay told him he needed help locating Cline, if, indeed, he had come to Portland.
The two began checking local beer parlors, one by one, until they located a proprietor who knew Cline. In fact, the proprietor told the lawmen, he had just got a postcard from Cline in Seattle that very morning, asking for money to help him out of a tight squeeze.
The proprietor went on to say that Cline had tried to cash a traveler' s check carrying George Chetty' s name. Cline told him that Chetty had a drinking problem and that he wanted Cline to cash one of his checks so he could buy more whiskey.
The proprietor wisely declined and told Cline that Chetty would have to sign the check himself. But the proprietor said Cline had asked him to sell his rifle and send him the money, via the post office, in Seattle.
The rifle Cline had left behind, unfortunately, was not the murder weapon. Kelsay and Christoffersen decided to go to Seattle and stake out the post office for Cline. Before they left, they wired the King County Sheriff's Office to take Cline into custody if he arrived at the post office before they did.
The two lawmen arrived at the main post office in Seattle moments after a King County Sheriff's detective took Cline into custody.
At first, Cline denied any part in the murder. But when Kelsay informed him his office and Oregon State Police had compiled enough evidence to convict him, particularly his possession of the dead man's traveler' s checks, Cline broke down and confessed to the murder of George Chetty.
Cline said he decided to kill Chetty because the two of them did not have enough money for both of them to go to Alaska. He said he took Chetty' s traveler' s checks and about $60 in cash, then began telling people Chetty had gone to Portland.
He waived extradition to Oregon and the following day was returned to Fossil, the county seat of Wheeler County. A first-degree murder complaint was immediately filed by the Wheeler County District Attorney's office.
Before Cline's case even came to trial, Everett Waterman told sheriff's deputies he recalled another one of Cline's prospecting partners, a young man named Eugene Rosenstiel, who, like Chetty, had mysteriously disappeared in August of 1939. Confronted with this new information, Cline confessed to the earlier murder and led authorities to Rosenstiel's grave site, about two miles from where Chetty was buried.
Cline said he only got about $40 killing Rosenstiel, but bragged that he made good use out of the victim's truck and personal belongings.
In spite of his confessions, Cline pleaded innocent to first-degree murder in the death of George Chetty. The trial, which lasted only four days, resulted in a murder conviction. On June 17, Wheeler County Circuit Judge Carl Hendricks sentenced Cline to be executed in the lethal gas chamber at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem. Claude Cline was executed July 26, 1940 -- the second convict in Oregon to die in the then-new gas chamber.
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