Grisly 1924 Lava Lake murders still “unsolved”
By Jim Crowell
Of all of the unsolved murders in Central Oregon history, the slaying of three Bend fur trappers at Little Lava Lake in 1924 ranks as not only the largest multiple murder in the county’s history but also the county’s longest standing unsolved capital crime…in theory.
What follows is largely a summary of the crime and investigation, as told nine years later by Claude L. McCauley, Deschutes County Sheriff.
The three trappers, Ed Nichols, 50, Roy Wilson, 35, and Dewey Morris, 24, had decided the previous year to trap together during the winter and make their headquarters in a log cabin, owned by Ed Logan, near Little Lava Lake. Logan was a prominent logging contractor in Bend.
Nichols had mushed his way into Bend at Christmas time with a pack of furs on his back and announced that the trapping was good. No word about or from the trappers, however, had been received since Christmas.
Innis, Owen Morris, a brother of Dewey Morris, and Pearl Lynnes, superintendent of the Tumalo Fish Hatchery, had suspected that something was wrong in the upper Deschutes. They had noticed that the mink traps set by the three trappers had not been cared for and the trappers were well known for being conscientious about their traps.
When the searchers arrived at the cabin, they immediately became even more suspicious. Pots were on the stove, filled with burned food. Dishes were still on the table, set for a meal but unused. The heavy sled used by the trappers to transport large loads of food and equipment was missing.
According to McCauley’s recollection, “Out in back of the trappers’ cabin one hundred feet was a fox pen, enclosing five very valuable foxes owned by Ed Logan. The trappers, in return for the use of the cabin during the winter, were feeding the foxes and looking after them. ”
When the three searchers arrived at the pen, the foxes were gone. In the corner of the pen, Innis found a blood-stained hammer. A search of the trappers’ trap lines was conducted and the frozen remains of 12 marten, four foxes, and one skunk were found in the unattended traps. When they returned to the Little Lava Lake cabin, they found Clarence A. Adams, deputy Deschutes County sheriff and game warden, had arrived to help in the search.
“The next day, the investigators made a thorough examination of the heavy sled, which had been discovered in a snowdrift on the shore of Big Lava Lake, some quarter of a mile from Little Lava Lake site. A stain was found on one of the boards in the sled which the searches took to be blood. The board was ripped off and turned over to Dr. George Vandervert, Bend physician, for examination. He reported that the stain was caused by human blood. ”
In following the depressed trail in the snow, the searchers came to where the sled had apparently been pushed on to the frozen Big Lava Lake and a depression where a hole had been cut in the ice earlier in the winter. The hole had frozen over and drifted snow had filled it but to their experienced eyes, there was no doubt that a hole had been chopped in the ice.
The searchers returned to the Logan cabin, feeling sure that the bodies of their relatives and friends were under the ice. A few minutes later, one of the searchers who was going down to the river for water stumbled across a patch of blood on the snow, now melted down several inches. A human front tooth, some hair, and dried blood were found mixed up in the slush.
That evening, Innis and Adams went back to Big Lava Lake to catch a couple of fish for dinner. When they arrived, they were surprised to see that half of the lake’s ice was gone. Ed Logan soon joined them and after locating a row boat buried in the snow, launched it. Soon they neared the spot where the hole in the ice had been. A few feet apart were three bodies floating on the surface, fully dressed but slightly decomposed.
The sheriff’s narrative continues: “Hastily trying ropes to the corpses, the grim procession headed for shore. Here the bodies were fastened to the shelf ice for the night. Adams donned his snowshoes and made for town on the run. ”
News of the murders produced large headlines throughout Oregon, especially in Bend. A group of expert woodsmen was assembled and started off for the crime scene. Included in the group was Adams, Jerome Ward, Ray Ward, three brothers of the murdered Dewey Morris (Owen, Ben, and Don), Robert W. Sawyer, editor of the Bend Bulletin, Myron Symons, official photographer; C. P. Niswonger, Deschutes County Coroner, and Paul Hosmer.
The scene at Big Lava Lake was described in gory detail in Sheriff’s McCauley’s report. The report stated, “Even though the weather was perfect, the clear air was impregnated with the odor of death and decomposition and it was with an undefinable spirit of awe and consternation that the little party of hardy outdoorsmen laid aside their packs, kicked off their snowshoes, and prepared to tackle a grim job which was little to their liking. ”
All three bodies displayed multiple wounds made by a shotgun, pistol, and a blunt instrument, probably a hammer. The hunt for the killer or killers commenced immediately and it was the owner of the Little Lava lake cabin, Ed Logan, who came up with the clue that eventually led to the suspected killer.
Logan recalled that a year before the murder of the trappers, a man by the name of Lee Collins had trapped with Nichols and that Nichols and Collins had quarreled over a wallet that Nichols had accused Collins of stealing. Nichols had told Logan that Collins had threatened to come back and kill him some day and Logan also recalled that Collins was sometimes known by the name of “Charles Kimzey. ”
The name of “Charles Kimzey” was familiar to local law enforcement officers because in 1923 he was arrested on a charge of robbery and attempted murder. He had allegedly hired W. O. Harrison, driver of a rented car, to take him to Idaho. On the way, Kimzey stopped the car, slugged Harrison and bound him with baling wire. He then threw Harrison down an abandoned well. Luckily, Harrison was able to extricate himself and made his way to the Last Chance Ranch while Kimzey continued his journey in the stolen car.
Another lead came from the Portland area when a traffic officer identified a photo of Kimzey, saying that about January 24, a man resembling Kimzey approached him while the officer was directing traffic at a Portland intersection. Kimzey was carrying a gunnysack over his shoulder and asked the traffic officer the location of a reliable fur dealer. He was directed to the Schumacher Fur Company on SW Third Street where he sold the furs.
Kimzey had a long police record, having been arrested several times for a variety of crimes, for which he had served time in the Idaho state prison before escaping. He had been employed by the government as a trapper and was known to be an expert shot with both rifle and revolver. A reward of $1,500 was offered for his arrest and conviction in connection with the murder of the trappers.
According to McCauley, “For the next four years the hunt for Kimzey went on unceasingly…Every report was investigated and sometimes Kimzey was reported seen in a half a dozen places at once. Gradually, the Lava Lake murder mystery was more or less forgotten by everyone except the officers of the law and friends of the murdered men. ”
On February 17, 1933, nine years after the triple murder, the case suddenly broke wide open…after more than one false start with suspects who appeared to be the killer but later were found to have perfect alibies.
A jailer in Kalispell, Montana was walking down the street when he immediately recognized Kimzey walking past him. The jailer hurried back to the courthouse and notified an officer who rushed downtown and arrested Kimzey without a struggle.
“I haven’t heard the name ‘Kimzey’ for years,” he told the officers. “They think I killed those trappers in Oregon but I didn’t.” The Kalispell officers had been careful not to mention the Lava Lake murders to Kimzey and because he was so quick to bring up the subject himself the incident was considered suspicious.
McCauley later reported, “With Sergeant Arthur Tuck of the Oregon State Police, I left immediately for Kalispell to bring the prisoner to Bend. We thought we might get him to talk on the trip home and Sergeant Tuck, who was shackled to him in the back seat, led the subject around to the Lava Lake case time after time.
“You can ask all the questions you want about that Lava Lake case he said, but I won’t answer a damn one of them!’”
Despite a wealth of circumstantial evidence regarding the selling of the furs from Ed Nichols’s cabin, the case against Kimzey fell apart when the Portland fur dealer could not provide a positive identification.
According to McCauley, “Schumacher…stated that he would hesitate to identify the man positively after a lapse of nine years, especially when Kimzey’s life might depend on his testimony. He thought he might be the same man but inasmuch as Kimzey had aged considerably since he last saw him and had grown quite bald, he did not care to swear he was the right man.
McCauley continued, “Baffled and disappointed, I placed the subject in the Portland jail and returned to Bend. Personally, I was satisfied we had the Lava Lake murderer in our hands but our case was ruined when our two most important witnesses blew up. Utah wanted Kimzey for murder and Idaho wanted him back on an escape charge but I decided he’d be safer in Oregon. We still had the attempted murder charge hanging over him and I accordingly sent for W. O. Harrison, the stage driver who had been slugged and thrown down the well by Kimzey the year before the Lava Lake murders. Kimzey was brought back from Portland and charged with assault and robbery while armed with a dangerous weapon. He pleaded not guilty.
“Harrison easily identified Kimzey as the man who had so nearly murdered him. The jury found Kimzey guilty as charged after three hours of deliberations. Two days later Circuit Judge T. E. Duffy sentenced Kimzey to life imprisonment in the Oregon State Penitentiary and the next day Sergeant Tuck and I left for Salem with the prisoner.”