There is something so atmospheric about older mysteries. Once you show black and white shots of old newspapers or informal family shots featuring people in full suits and ties you only have to add one thing to get me reading more. Just mention unsolved in the title and I am hooked. Here we have the very sad, unsolved mystery of the Martin family.
On 7th December 1958 the group of mum, dad and three girls went for a drive. They left their home in Portland with the declared intention of a trip to gather material for Christmas decorations. So Kenneth and his wife Barbara loaded the family into a 1954 Ford Country Squire station wagon ( estate car to us Brits). The registration number was 1G-7156, this is a big nine seater vehicle in red and cream. Hardly inconspicuous. The only member of the family that was missing was their son, Donald. He was much older than his sisters and was in the navy and was stationed in New York.
They drove out of the town and along the side of the Columbia river heading east. It was late morning. At about 4pm they were reported as having been at Cascade Locks where they bought gas. They then went further east. They stopped at a diner in Hood River. A waitress says she is sure she served them. Given that the first witness in Cascade Locks was right about the time then a further 20 miles would have taken them about 30 minutes.
The Martin girls were Barbara aged 14, Virginia aged 13 and Susan aged 11 so they were a young bunch of siblings. Kenneth and Barbara were older than average for that age of family at 54 and 48 years.
According to a quick look at the sunset times it would have been getting dark when the family stopped in Hood River. I can picture them being happy and excited and hungry. School would loom for the next day and Kenneth and his wife had work to go to in the morning. I am guessing the logical action after grabbing food would have been to head home given that the light was failing. On the Charley Project entry about the Martins it says they were intent on heading back to Portland.
Other sightings have the family on the north bank of the Columbia River at dusk, maybe eating what they had picked up in Hood River? We used to do that as a family. In our case it was fish and chips with the smell of curry sauce filling the air and the River Mersey rolling by in the near distance. As the lights from across the river started to dominate we would start the drive home. They didn’t do that.
Average temperatures even at the high end are far from warm in Oregon in December. I find it doubtful the family would have done much outdoors gathering in the dark. The three descriptions I have seen of the way the family were dressed do not suggest they were wrapped up well. Also I have seen it said by one of the detectives that Kenneth did not like driving in the dark. So why range all that way ( 60 miles or so ) and be out as dusk fell?
On Monday 8th Kenneth did not attend work. Barbara snr did not go to her work nor did the girls turn up for school. By the evening Kenneth’s boss reported the family missing. When the police checked the house it was undisturbed and set as if the family had made full plans to return. Their bank accounts and possessions were all as they should have been.
The Number of Family Murders in North America is Shocking
I will say there are way too many ‘whole family homicides’ in North America. One is too many but I am struck by the volume all the same. It is a particularly peculiar crime when viewed by a Brit like me. Generally our country is too small for many such incidents to take place without lots of witnesses. Also I suggest you need a gun to control a group and we have a lot less guns. If I was going on a road trip in The States or Canada with my kids I would be tempted to be armed and suspicious.
I did have an issue when driving with my wife and her kids in rural New Jersey in 2015. We pulled in on a bright August day. It was about 4pm. There were other people about but not many. The Americans do their pull in places well. They are neat and have toilets etc.
We were just stretching our legs and I was having a smoke and two guys in their late 20s pulled up. They got out and headed across a green area and into the trees. As I said the toilets were there so I thought they were picking up a drug drop or similar. There was another explanation of course but whatever it put me on my guard. I shouted the kids and as kids do I was just about to get in the car when one of them said they wanted the toilet.
Ever since a crime in my native Liverpool that involved an assault on a child in a public toilet I would never let them go alone. I went in with him. I did not want to use the toilet myself. I had seen these two guys coming back across the grass as we entered the building. I stood with my back to the far wall facing the door as the kid did what he had to. We were the only ones there. Next thing in come these two guys. They seemed to hesitate when they saw me there and watching the room rather than with my head facing the wall at a urinal. Was I too suspicious?
Well what sealed the deal as suspicious for me was that one of the guys went to use the toilet while the other turned around and walked out. I am not naïve, nor am I insensitive to other people’s lifestyles but I think the intention was robbery. I am a big guy and I was obviously aware of dangers hence the position I had taken. They had not heard me speak so I could have been armed. I look like a cop I have been told which fits as I was one. In that moment they did not get the situation they were expecting. Without being dramatic who knows where that all could have gone.
The Martins and Leads and Dead Ends
The reason I thought of the above situation is that one of the theories goes that the Martins fell foul of two bad guys. A couple of ex cons were seen in the Paradise Snack Bar in Hood River where the family stopped. They were said to have left as the family did. A stolen Chevy had been abandoned near Cascade Locks on the day the Martins had driven through. A glove of the type Barbara Martin had been known to wear was found near the car. The two ex cons were arrested in connection with it later.
Also near Cascade Locks a .38 Colt automatic was found. The gun is reported to have been covered in blood as if it had been used as a blunt force weapon. The serial number was traced to a theft two years before from a store in Portland.
One interesting issue is that the recovered gun came from a store called Meier and Frank. It was part of property that Donald Martin had been accused of stealing while working there. Yes the same Donald as in son of Kenneth and Barbara Martin. The same Donald who apparently did not get on well with his parents and who did not show up to take part in the later search for his family.
The gun had been found by a citizen and handed in but before the connection was made it was returned to him. The cops had no interest in it at the time. The citizen cleaned it and repaired it. It is still with his family today.
Time went on and a widespread search was conducted for the family. The cops were called to a spot on the banks of the Columbia where a volunteer searcher had found tire tracks leading into the river. This was near The Dalles which is on a bend in the river about seven miles east of Hood River. The tracks matched the type on the missing car and paint scrapings also matched the vehicle type. This is a rocky area with a steep fall off into the water. Having seen film of it it is not a place you drive your car unless you have ceased to care about the damage you would cause to it.
Three months later a vessel working the Columbia anchored near The Dalles. As they hauled anchor it snagged something heavy. A crew member using a gaff said he had hit metal as he reached down. The object then freed from the anchor before anyone could see it.
Within a few days the bodies of Virginia and Susan were found in the water. The theory followed that the anchor had upset the vehicle and the two girls had been freed from the wrecked car. The post mortem gave the cause of death as drowning though there is a record of holes being noted in their skulls. I stress though this is from a source other than the post mortem report.
Searches were made of the water by electronic means and helicopter but no further trace of the family was found. From what I could gather the water there is really treacherous for divers.
All in all no line of enquiry came to anything. Not as far as arrest and conviction goes at any rate. The two girls were cremated and their ashes stayed at the funeral home unclaimed for years. Donald did not attend the services. He inherited the family estate after probate had been dealt with so presumably no will was left behind.
Finally, an unnamed person collected the ashes the day after Kenneth’s mother died. It is possible that Donald collected them and the funeral home was asked to keep it to themselves which I guess would be normal if they were asked for privacy. It had been a high profile case after all and Donald had been under suspicion. Maybe he wanted to bury the ashes with the grandmother, but was aware that the media interest would go into overdrive if he was seen to be involved.
This case was a huge deal back then in Oregon and by all accounts the search for this family was a serious one. It was not a case easily forgotten either. One of the main detectives kept files into his retirement and he seems to have been just waiting for that family car to turn up before completing his work. He died in 1988, Donald died in 2003.
In an interview with documentary makers Donald’s children said their father had not talked much about the tragedy. You might like to have a look at the documentary yourself. It is below.
My Take on the Disappearance of this Family
It depends for me on the recovered gun. I have seen it repeated that this weapon was found near Cascade Lock. It was covered in blood and crucially it was one that was traced to a missing batch of goods stolen from Meier and Frank. Donald was only accused of stealing. As far as I can see he was never charged. So if it was a gun taken then and if Donald took it then the fact it was found there is interesting.
However, Donald was not near Oregon on that day. I have seen no connection listed between him and the two ex cons who were arrested in connection to the stolen car abandoned near Cascade Locks. That stolen Chevy was not taken from New York by the way. It was stolen from California.
The family left the diner in Hood River and the ex cons left about the same time. So let us place any two or more criminals in the stolen car for a minute. Not necessarily them but ‘ bad guys’. Then let us place that car at that diner. They either accost the Martins there or get them to pull over shortly afterwards. It was a big car as I noted, plenty of spare room.
One of them gets in it and controls the family with the .38 Colt and the other follows as they drive to a place near The Dalles. There things unfold as unfortunately they often do in those circumstances. The car and family end up in the water.
The Chevy then hits the highway with the two or more bad guys. They are possibly with members of the Martin family but probably not. They might have been in possession of Martin property in any case. Something goes wrong near Cascade Lock with the car or they had got close to home. They ditch the car and the gun.
I don’t think from what I have read that the Martins went further east voluntarily to the point where it looks like the car went into the water. Evidence is indicated ( the tire marks, paint scrapping and the later snagging on an anchor) that their car went in to the Columbia near The Dalles.
That would put them about 67 miles from home with school in the morning and a driver who did not like driving in the dark.
The stalwart detective was called Walter Graven. He had an entry in his note book that said ‘ only xxxxx had the motive.’ The name had been over inked. On the face of it (monetary wise) only one person did have a motive. Only one person had a motive that could have come from resentment etc.
That said there is another motive I can think of and it is one that has led to the death of families before. One that has had families singled out by bad people…The female members of the family. I give the case of David Shearing as an example.
The poor Martin girls that were recovered from the river had been in the water a long time so accurate recording of injuries would have been impossible. Barbara snr and junior were never found. Then again when it comes to bad guys, a few dollars could be enough of a motive.
Turning back to the gun, however, if it was in the possession of Donald Martin once upon a theft then that would turn this into a potential hit for hire sort of thing. Unless of course you accept the possibility of a coincidence where he steals a gun and it just happens to be found near a stolen car, near a glove of Barbara Martin’s preferred type. Hey it is possible, I’m just saying it is a hell of a string of coincidences.
Otherwise did Kenneth intend to kill his family and himself? Of course that is possible but there is no evidence of that. The car ended in the water in all probability and if it went in where the paint was found it was not an accident. So if not an accident and there is no evidence to support a suicide we have to favour bad guys. At least that is how I see it. What about you?