Martin family disappearance
Clockwise from top left: Kenneth, Barbara, Barbie, Virginia, and Susan Martin
|Date||December 7, 1958|
|Duration||Missing for 61 years, 2 months and 7 days|
|Location||Hood River County, Oregon, U.S.|
|Type||Disappearance; unexplained death|
The Martin family of Portland, Oregon, U.S. disappeared on December 7, 1958 in the Columbia River Gorge during a day trip to gather greenery for Christmas decorations. Among the missing were Kenneth Martin, 54; his wife, Barbara Martin, 48; and their three daughters: Barbara "Barbie", 14; Virginia, 13; and Susan, 11. The family's eldest son, Donald, was in the United States Navy and stationed in New York during the time they vanished. Several months after their disappearance, the bodies of Susan and Virginia were discovered downstream on the shores of the Columbia River, roughly 30 miles (48 km) apart from each other.
Police initially speculated the family's car may have crashed into the river, though the circumstances surrounding the event could not be fully explained. Further complicating the case was the discovery of a stolen handgun and the arrest of two ex-convicts in the area the day after the family's disappearance; investigators were unable to determine if the incidents were in any way connected.
The whereabouts of Kenneth, Barbara, and Barbie remain unknown, and their vehicle has never been recovered. The family's disappearance has been described as one of the "most baffling" mysteries in Oregon history, and sparked the greatest manhunt the state had undertaken at the time.
On the evening of December 6, 1958, Kenneth and Barbara Martin of Portland, Oregon, attended a Christmas party before returning to their home at 1715 N.E. 56th Avenue in the Roseway neighborhood of northeast Portland. The couple had made plans for a day trip into the country for the following day.
In the late morning of December 7, Kenneth and Barbara left their home with their three daughters: Barbie, Susan, and Virginia, in their 1954 cream and red-colored Ford Country Squire station wagon. Barbie, the eldest daughter, was a freshman at Grant High School. The family's eldest son, Donald, then aged 28, was in the United States Navy and stationed in New York at the time.
The family headed east for a drive into the Columbia River Gorge, where they intended to gather greenery to make Christmas wreaths and decorations. The knowledge of where the Martins were specifically throughout the day is sparse. Dean Baxter, gas station proprietor, reported that he encountered the family when they purchased 5 US gallons (19 l) of gasoline from his store in Cascade Locks around 4 p.m., approximately 40 miles (64 km) from their home in Portland. According to Baxter, he recalled their car continuing east after they had purchased gasoline. The family was seen again shortly after at the Paradise Snack Bar in Hood River, approximately 20 miles (32 km) east of Cascade Locks, where a waitress named Clara York stated she served the family. Other reports from passing motorists indicated that the family was seen in an unspecified location on the north bank of the Columbia River, in Washington state, at dusk.
According to eyewitnesses who saw the family that day, Kenneth was reportedly wearing a tan zip-up jacket and dark slacks, while Barbara wore a navy blue coat, a plaid jacket, and a black print dress. Barbie was reportedly dressed in jeans with rolled cuffs and a beige coat.
Initial search and reported sightings
On December 9, Kenneth failed to report to his job at Eccles Electric Home Service Company, while Barbie was noted absent from her morning classes at Grant High School. Both Susan and Virginia were also reported absent by their teachers at Rose City School. The family was officially reported missing that evening by Kenneth's boss, Taylor Eccles. Police investigated their residence at approximately 11:00 p.m., searching for any signs of foul play. The house had been left undisturbed; a load of laundry was still in the washing machine, and dishes from the previous day were left on a drying rack in the kitchen; there was also a substantial amount of money in the Martins' bank accounts.
Searches were undertaken by both Multnomah County and Hood River County police, but neither were able to produce substantial leads. A stolen white Chevrolet registered in Venice, Los Angeles, California was found in Cascade Locks the day of the Martins' disappearance, but was quickly dismissed by police as it did not match the Martins' vehicle. Also found near the site of the abandoned Chevrolet was a .38 Colt Commander handgun, which had been disposed of in the bushes, and was covered in dried blood. The handgun was turned over to law enforcement but never processed for evidence. The gun's serial number was traced to a Meier and Frank department store, and it was subsequently discovered that the gun had been among several sporting good items that Donald had been accused of stealing while working at a Meier and Frank two years prior.
On December 8, Roy Light and another unnamed man— both ex-convicts— were arrested for car theft in Hood River County in connection with the abandoned Chevrolet, which raised suspicion in relation to the Martins' disappearance. A waiter at the Hood River restaurant where the Martins were last seen told law enforcement he saw Light (who was an acquaintance) and the other ex-convict in the restaurant at the same time; he also stated that the two men left at the same time the Martins did.
Various other tips were submitted to law enforcement in the weeks and months following the family's disappearance, including over 200 letters and hundreds of phone calls. Among them were a report from an orchard owner east of Portland who claimed to have witnessed a man and woman on December 7, gathering greenery in a canyon where a Native American burial ground was located. He added that the following week, he noticed a flock of buzzards flying in this direction. The canyon was searched, but nothing was found. On December 28, 1958, a women's glove was discovered near the site of the abandoned Chevrolet, which family stated was "similar" to a glove Barbara "would wear"; however, it could not positively be identified as belonging to her. Two days later, on December 31, a man called police reporting he had seen a vehicle matching the Martins' speeding on the Baldock Freeway. Police were alerted along the freeway, but the car could not be located. A letter was also received from a witness who claimed to have seen a family resembling the Martins in Burlington, Iowa on Christmas Eve. One of the last reported sightings of the Martins' vehicle came on January 7, 1959, from a truck driver who stated he had seen a car matching the Martins' description parked in Billings, Montana, with Oregon license plates.
By February 1959, investigators had undertaken searches of various locations, including the greater Portland metropolitan region, as well as searches on Mount Hood. During this time, a volunteer searcher found tire tracks leading off of a cliff near The Dalles, which reportedly matched the tires on the Martins' Ford. Paint chips recovered at this location were sent to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for analysis, and it was determined that the paint was the same paint used on the make and model of the Martins' vehicle. Based on the possibility that the Martins' vehicle may have plunged into the river, the United States Army Corps of Engineers lowered the level of the river by 5 feet (1.5 m) in the lake behind Bonneville Dam, which was searched with sonar technology but yielded no results.
Recovery of Susan and Virginia
On May 1, 1959, three months after the tire tracks were reported, a river drilling rig near The Dalles reportedly hooked something of substantial weight to its anchor; however, it became dislodged before it could be pulled to the surface. In the early morning hours of May 2, a fisherman and his wife reported seeing what appeared to be two bodies floating downstream near Cascade Locks; they later encountered them near Bonneville Dam. On the afternoon of May 3, the body of Susan was discovered on the north bank of the Columbia River, near Camas, Washington, roughly 70 miles (110 km) west of The Dalles. Her identity was positively confirmed via dental records. The following morning, May 4, the body of Virginia was discovered near Bonneville Dam, roughly 46 miles (74 km) west of The Dalles, also confirmed via dental records.
Susan's body was taken to the Clark County medical examiner's office before being transferred to Multnomah County in Portland for autopsies on both bodies to be performed. One of the technicians who had taken fingerprints prior to the autopsies indicated to the medical examiner what they believed to be bullet holes in the heads of each of the girls' bodies; however, according to the medical examiner's report, no such injuries were found, and the cause of death for both of the girls was officially declared as drowning. Traces of metal, including aluminum, was recovered from Susan's clothing.
Rupert Gillmouthe, the sheriff of Hood River County at the time, suspected that the drilling rig had overturned the Martins' car at the bottom of the river, and dislodged one of the doors, allowing the bodies of Susan and Virginia to escape and surface downstream. Further searches of the water were undertaken by both sonar and helicopter, but were unfruitful. The search for Kenneth, Barbara, and Barbie was subsequently suspended after a search diver nearly drowned.
Subsequent developments and theories
Police theorized that the family may have died as a result of Kenneth crashing their vehicle into the river, while another theory held that the family had been abducted and forced off of a cliffside into the river. In 1961, three years after the family's disappearance, a resident of Camas wrote a letter to The Oregon Journal stating that they were parked with a companion in Cascade Locks on December 7, 1958, and had witnessed a vehicle proceeding under the railroad tracks leading toward the locks. Moments later, they heard screaming, but upon investigating, found nothing.
Multnomah County police consistently suspected foul play in the Martins' disappearance, based on the evidence of the tire tracks that indicated the family's vehicle was deliberately pushed from the cliff. Also troubling were the reported sightings of the family at dusk on the north bank of the river in Washington state, while the tire tracks placed them on the south side of the river in Oregon; this would suggest that their car would have fallen over the cliff after nightfall. The arrest of the two ex-convicts in the Hood River area the day after the family's disappearance, for car theft, was also noted, though police were unable to determine if the incidents were related. Walter Graven, a Portland detective who died in 1988, ardently felt the family had met with foul play, and that their murders would be solved once their car was discovered.
The remains of Kenneth, Barbara, and Barbie remain undiscovered, and their vehicle has never been found.
- Fisher 2019, p. 181.
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