The mountains and high plains of extreme northeastern Oregon are so far from well-traveled freeways that even most Oregonians have never been to this wilderness area where the sky seems close enough to touch. These are the "Oregon Alps." Serious outdoorsmen and those with family ties to Wallowa County follow the thin red lines on the map that promise at most only "paved highways," up and up through the mountains from Pendleton or La Grande. The summits are more than five thousand feet high, and then the roads descend through tiny villages whose buildings are mostly gray shadows of their former incarnations, tumbled with old-fashioned perennials and weeds, fading storefronts and little churches with peeling paint: Adams, Athena, Elgin, Minam, Wallowa, Lostine. Near the end of the road is Enterprise -- the county seat -- and finally the hamlet called Joseph, named for the great chief of the Nez Percé tribe. All these towns, so far-flung from city lives, have a presence and a feeling of serenity that comes only with long history and time without urgency.
Enterprise and Joseph blossom in the summer as tourists who have discovered Wallowa County arrive. Sheltered between the Wallowa Mountains to the west and the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area to the east, Enterprise, population 1,900, is a wonderful place to live, but only if one is self-employed, working for the county or the city, or serving the needs of the residents. It is too distant from the larger Oregon cities along the coast or in the center of the state to make commuting feasible. The only industry of any sort is up the road eight miles, in Joseph. Perched on the shore of Wallowa Lake, Joseph has embraced sculpture and bronze foundries as a very successful economic lifeline; every street corner has a statue that seems to burst with life frozen in mid-movement -- maidens and cowboys and eagles in flight -- each statue large enough to require a truck to pack it out.
In the summer, Wallowa Lake is a burning hollow in the mountains, with its azure water reflecting the sun and the sky. The water there is cold, but not cold enough to deter boaters and water-skiers, who seem somehow out of place on the waters where Native Americans once fished. The mountains and the soaring trees have always been there and will always be there; the humans playing on the lake seem, in contrast, quite temporary.
Deer wander at will in Joseph, strolling along the narrow roads, peering into windows, and mingling with tourists at food stands and riding stables. A lift carries tourists who aren't afraid of heights far up the Wallowa Range. Flowers of every variety burst forth in the short summer season, boldly defiant against winter for their precious few months in the sun.
The center of Wallowa County government is in Enterprise, where a courthouse built in 1909 sits in the center of parklike grounds. Ninety-four years' worth of feet have worn away the interior stairways as generations of citizens went about their business with public records and the laws of Wallowa County. Bright greenswards and paths crisscross the courthouse square, and baskets of trailing geraniums, ivy, and sweet alyssum make it resemble a set for The Music Man. There are concerts in the bandstand on the court-house lawn, and the melodies floating on a summer's night are nostalgic enough to sting the eye with tears.
In 2000, Dan Ousley was the district attorney of Wallowa County. He was a familiar presence before judges and juries in the courthouse in Enterprise. But he was well into his second term in office before he ever had to deal with a murder that wasn't an open-and-shut case. And when he did have to prosecute a baffling homicide, it was a case that would have challenged prosecutors in Portland or Seattle or San Francisco, a crime that defied all reason, one that could be viewed straight on or through a microscope, and even then failed to reveal all its incredible variables.
Was the victim ultimately answerable for the bloody crime? Or was the accused capable of a meticulously choreographed execution? And perhaps even more important, who was the person who had held the weapon? There seemed to be a dozen different answers, and no way of telling if the personality shown to the world was truly the one almost everyone had perceived. Or was it all a clever masquerade, hiding evil?
* * *
It isn't easy to get to the camping sites on the Lostine River near the Maxwell Campgrounds trailhead that leads mountain hikers into the Eagle Cap Wilderness. To reach the campgrounds, one has to turn off Route 82 and head south from the town of Lostine. The first six or seven miles are partially paved, but that soon gives way to a gravel road. Even a four-wheel-drive vehicle skitters along the washboard road that carves a path through the trees, the road so high-centered that it is a challenge for even the most competent drivers. It isn't a Sunday sightseeing drive; one misjudged stomp on the brakes and a car or truck can slide and roll over and over.
Twelve miles or so from Lostine, fir forests cluster thickly along the road. On the right, there are a few cabins that were once occupied by the late United States Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas when he craved the solace of deep wilderness. They are spartan and overgrown now with brush. On the same side of the road, there is a forest ranger station -- usually the last outpost where a phone of any kind will work. Beyond that, the Wallowas rise up and up, shutting off radio and cell phone transmission. In this tunnel of trees, it is impossible not to think of the danger of forest fires and wonder how quickly this road could be closed off by flames.
Almost twenty miles in, just before the trailhead, thin rutted paths begin to appear, wide enough apart for tires to traverse. They lead to campgrounds, maintained by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, that are situated so each camping party has privacy. Much sought after in the warm months, the riverside campgrounds are empty in winter, buried beneath snowdrifts, next to a river as cold and clear as ice.
On a weekday morning in the autumn of 2000, most outdoorsmen who enjoyed hiking had gone back to civilization. More so than in many other places, October brought the empty sense that comes with a season's ending. It would be only a matter of weeks before the road in -- or out -- would be choked with snow.
If anyone was camping in early October, their vehicles parked close to the river campsites were nearly invisible from the road. Campers could drive at least seventy-five feet off the main road before they reached the horizontal tree trunk barriers that delineated parking spots. Trees and shadows hid their rigs, and from there, they had only to walk down an easy slope to the sandy shores of the Lostine River.
The Lostine itself is narrow, not more than forty feet or so across, shallow and crystalline with little ladders of rapids frothed with white. It is an icy cold river, stemming from alpine lakes high in the mountains. A storm runoff from the mountains has occasionally turned the Lostine dangerous, but in October it is usually a tranquil upstart of a river two or three feet deep at the most, surrounded by sentry rows of fir trees standing perfectly straight, their feathered tops piercing the sky hundreds of feet above.
* * *
It was early Monday afternoon, October 9, 2000, and the Shady Campground -- one of the closest to the trailhead -- appeared to be unoccupied. There were no sounds at all, save for the wind high in the trees and the occasional cry of a bird. For the moment, it was totally silent in the deserted camping area next to the winding Lostine River.
Rich Stein was the undersheriff of Wallowa County. He had been involved in law enforcement for eighteen years, and he had worked in the Wallowa County Sheriff's Office for fourteen and a half of those years. He was hoping to become sheriff the next month through a flourishing write-in campaign. Sheriff Ron Jett didn't plan to run again.
Stein halfway believed that he was on a wild-goose chase as he drove slowly along the gravel road close to the trailhead. He wasn't quite sure what he was looking for, a lost camper or someone who was injured. Sheriff Jett had sent him up to the campgrounds after Jett received a couple of phone calls from outside the county.
"I want you to go on up to the trailhead -- maybe check things out along the river, see if anybody is there," Jett had said. "I'm not sure what you might find...."
Stein wasn't really familiar with the campgrounds. His primary job was to oversee the deputies and run the patrol, but in Wallowa County, even the undersheriff had to pull shifts and work patrol. Sheriff Jett had told him to check out all of the overnight campgrounds. Stein thought there were about a dozen of them nestled down by the river. The one he thought was the last campsite was the Williamson Campground, and he drove in, parked, and walked down to the sandy beach but found no one there.
Stein estimated that the area he was searching was about eighteen miles from the town of Lostine. He couldn't raise anyone on his sheriff's radio, so he drove back along the forest road until he came to a high spot where his radio worked. He thought that maybe if he could get a little better idea of what he was looking for, he could be more effective. He called the Sheriff's Office, and Jett said that the latest information indicated that it was probably the Shady Campground he should check out. "It's the last one down the line."
This time, Jett's voice was more serious. It was possible that Stein was looking for a person who was critically wounded. He passed a campground and saw a lone car parked there. He checked that and found nobody in or near it. Now he could see there was another campsite. He glanced toward the sign marking it as shady campground and saw a newer model white Chevy Suburban parked against the log barrier.
Stein pulled his pickup close to that vehicle. Like a lot of cops who have ridden patrol cars for years, he had a bad back, and he winced a little as he eased out of his truck and crossed the uneven ground to look into the Suburban. He could see that the locks were pushed down. Inside, there was camping gear and other items, the usual stuff that people brought up to the wilderness -- but there was no sign of a driver.
The Forest Service's picnic table just beyond the Suburban had camping equipment on it, too. It looked as though a family had enjoyed a picnic. "I walked over there and called out -- announcing that I was a deputy sheriff," Stein recalled. "And I was shouting, 'Is there anyone around?' But there was no response."
There was a tent pitched nearby, but there was no movement inside, and no answer to his calls.
Two trails led down to the river, one shorter and steeper than the other, although neither demanded that a hiker be in good condition. Stein took the shorter trail that went straight down. Even though he knew there was probably a simple explanation for his feeling of dread, he acknowledged the eerie sensation. He shook it off; the people who had come here in the Suburban were probably just taking a short hike from the trailhead. An empty vehicle wasn't unusual.
And then he glanced to the south and caught a glimpse of bright blue fabric spread out down by the river. It was a sleeping bag.
"I yelled again," Stein recalled. "No response."
Gingerly, Stein walked down toward the river, his boots sinking and skidding a little in the sand.
The sun was high in the sky and it cut through the mist in the treetops, casting a glow over the sleeping bag. It was bright enough to awaken even the heaviest sleeper. The mummy-style bag lay at right angles to the river, with the "head" part almost touching a log the Forest Service had placed there just where the sandy beach began. The shallow edges of the Lostine lapped softly against its shoreline. Otherwise, it was completely quiet.
Stein called out again, more softly now, "Anybody here? Sheriff's office..."
Nobody answered. As he got closer, Stein could tell that there was somebody in the sleeping bag. "I approached it very cautiously," he said. He wasn't afraid. And it wasn't as if he hadn't investigated reports of a possible body before; it was more that this was one of the loneliest places he had ever been.
The form zipped into the sleeping bag was as motionless as the scattered boulders on the shore. Stein saw tufts of hair just above the one ear that showed. Either it was reddish blond naturally or something had stained it pale mahogany. He thought it was probably blood or some other dark liquid, although the sleeping bag wasn't stained as far as Stein could see.
At this altitude, in October even the glaring sun wouldn't warm the air in the shadows enough to make a sleeper perspire and peel down the confining layers. But maybe the person who lay there was no longer able to unzip the sleeping bag and crawl out. Maybe the person had fallen and sustained a head injury. Or maybe someone had struck the still form on the head while the camper was sleeping -- or passed out.
Had someone abandoned the sleeper and the camp in the scenic wilderness deliberately? Or had the camper come alone to this small cleared area high in the mountains to get away from the problems of the world, possibly never intending to go back? Was it an accident -- or a homicide? It was so isolated in the Shady Campground that it would have been a long time before hunters chanced on the scene and discovered whatever had happened here. And if a sudden early blizzard came -- as it often did in Wallowa County -- it might have been spring before anyone came in.
Except for the blond hair stiff with blood, and a folding chair tilted at an odd angle in the river, the campsite had an almost benign air.
Stein slipped his hand carefully into the sleeping bag, still hoping that he'd discovered only a drunk sleeping it off. He touched skin and found it cold as marble. He pressed against the flesh just below the ear, searching for the reassuring beat of blood pulsing through the carotid artery.
But there was none.
Stein chose the gently sloping trail back to the picnic area and returned to his pickup truck. He couldn't take the steep route back because he didn't want to walk through the death scene again. It was only when he slid into the driver's seat that he realized he didn't know if it was a man or a woman who lay dead in the sleeping bag.
The undersheriff hadn't touched anything beyond the cold flesh of the neck, and he wasn't going to, not until the sheriff had a complete crew on the scene. Assuming that his radio wouldn't work, Stein drove a mile south to the trailhead. There was an open spot there where he thought he might be able to get through to the Sheriff's Office, but his radio wouldn't work there either. Once more he drove two miles north past the Shady Campground and tried again.
This time he got through.
"Sheriff," Stein said hurriedly, "I need you up here. We do have a body. We need the medical examiner and a lot of help up here."
* * *
The calls that had originally sent Rich Stein up to the Shady Campground had come in to Sheriff Ron Jett from two law enforcement officers who were some distance away from Wallowa County -- one in Washington State and another in Umatilla, Oregon, on the Oregon-Washington state line. The details were blurry, but the callers said they had been in contact with a woman who suggested that someone should check the Maxwell Campgrounds. Either the woman had been there or she knew something about what had happened there.
At the moment, she was far away, at least a four-hour drive from the shore of the Lostine River. She was in the little town of Dayton, Washington, thirty miles north of Walla Walla, the site of Washington's oldest penitentiary. Barely holding herself together, she had told a number of people about how she had driven through the night, fleeing desperately to save the life of her three-year-old son.
Her story was still coming out in staccato bursts and vague ramblings. Clearly, the woman was upset, although she wasn't hysterical. The drive north from the Lostine River would have been perilous from the beginning. Just getting down to the town of Lostine in the middle of the night without spinning out was a feat. After that, there was no way out of the Oregon Alps without crossing mountain passes where the air was thin and the roads pitch-dark and lonely. For a woman afraid and in shock, it would have been a nightmare. If she had gone by way of Pendleton, she would have had to cross "Dead Man's Pass," with an altitude of 4,200 feet. But it was likely that she had taken a more direct route on 204 near Weston and Milton-Freewater, and then crossed the state line into Washington and up to Walla Walla.
State Route 204 was more than a mile high at the summit, an unbelievably beautiful vista in daylight in October. But the woman had fled in the middle of the night. She would have seen nothing alongside the road, only a black void that, depending on where she was, could be either a forest or a deadly precipice.
It was all the more treacherous because she had had her small son with her as she hurtled through the night. Her damp clothing -- or perhaps something else -- must have made her shiver. Her young son was safe, but she told Washington lawmen that she had been determined to get to her other son, who was nine years old, to be sure he was safe, too. If she had allowed herself to think about the horror she had left behind, she wouldn't have been able to keep her SUV on the road.
If any woman could have managed it, she could. She was a slender woman with strong muscles and a body as sleek as any model's, an athlete who worked out and practiced yoga. She was very determined and unafraid of anything when it came to her boys. She would have died for them without even considering any threat to herself. Her friends, scattered from Hawaii to Oregon to the East Coast, considered her a kind of superwoman -- perfect mother, exceptional athlete, talented writer, and a friend they could always count on. But now it was she who would have to depend on her friends.
Her name was Liysa Ann DeWitt Moran* Mattson* Northon. Thirty-eight years old, she had already lived an adventurous and remarkable life.
* * *
The people Liysa trusted the most lived in Washington State, and it wasn't surprising she had run to them. Sometime in the early hours of Monday, October 9, 2000, she had headed north, crossed over the Oregon-Washington border between 6:30 and 7:00 A.M., and driven to her brother's house in Walla Walla.
Dr. Jon Keith "Tor" DeWitt was a chiropractor, specializing in sports medicine. Short and stocky, he was a bodybuilder, probably more fit than most of the athletes he worked on. He was Liysa's only sibling, a few years younger than she was. Divorced and living with his children in a house that was three blocks off the main route to Dayton through Walla Walla, DeWitt was a man of careful habits. He usually got up at 6:00 A.M., and he was in the kitchen, just beginning to swallow his morning regimen of vitamins, when he was surprised to hear the unlocked sliding door open. He turned, startled, and saw that his sister, Liysa, had come into the dark kitchen.
"We talked for a few minutes before I saw her face," he recalled. It appeared to him that she had been "beat up." Looking at Liysa closely, he saw a cut on one finger and a bruise on her "third thoracic vertebra." She was wearing sweatpants and a shirt, and they were damp. Her hair was wet, too.
DeWitt urged his sister to go to the emergency room at St. Mary's Hospital, but she declined, saying she would rather have Dr. Ben Clark,* the husband of Marni Clark* -- one of her best friends -- examine her. For some reason, her brother didn't think it was a good idea to involve the Clarks. "Just go to St. Mary's," he suggested again.
Liysa didn't seem to be that badly hurt, and DeWitt had to get to work. He had seen her with bruises before and heard through a third party that her husband, Chris, had put them there. But when he said he wanted to confront Chris about it, Liysa had begged him not to. Now he assumed that Chris was the one who had hit her. She had told him another time that Chris was sometimes violent with her.
Almost offhandedly, Liysa murmured something about "taking a shot" at Chris.
"Did you hit him?" DeWitt asked, alarmed.
"I don't know," she said vaguely.
Liysa told her brother that she had to hurry to pick up Papako* -- her nine-year-old son -- from Ellen Duveaux's* house. "Bjorn's* sleeping in my Explorer," she said. "I have to get to Ellen's."
Somewhat bemused, DeWitt said good-bye to his sister, but urged her to call him and let him know how she was. She had been with him for only a few minutes, and he wondered if she hadn't been exaggerating when she said she'd taken a shot at Chris. He left for work, concerned, but not really anxious. Liysa could wax very dramatic about things that wouldn't disturb most people.
It was so early in the morning; the sun had barely risen when Liysa had pulled up at his place. It wasn't seven o'clock yet and now she was gone, headed for the Duveaux farm in Dayton.
Ellen Duveaux and Liysa had been friends in Walla Walla since Liysa DeWitt was only sixteen and still in high school. Ellen was eleven years older than Liysa, but they'd always gotten along well. Much of Walla Walla County was fertile farmland, known worldwide for its "Walla Walla Sweets," gourmet onions, but also a major source of other crops and fine wine. Liysa and Ellen had spent summers bringing in the mature produce, mostly peas. Liysa had driven the swather, wrestling the heavy vehicle as easily as any man, while Ellen drove the pea combine.
Ellen was married to Francois-Louis Duveaux,* whose name sounded like a romantic French actor's, but who was a really down-to-earth man who loved the verdant soil of Walla Walla County. They had a wheat ranch and a good life in the tiny town of Dayton, Washington, even though it wasn't the most exciting spot on earth.
Liysa had wanted another life after she left Walla Walla High School. She planned to be a world traveler and adventuress, but she had deferred to her father's wish that she go to college first.
Ellen loved Liysa and sometimes felt protective toward her; Liysa longed for so much that she seemed to take terrible chances with her heart. The twenty-three years they'd known each other had gone by swiftly, but the two women had remained friends. Even though years might pass when they were out of touch, they always picked up right where they'd left off.
After a long time apart, they'd gotten back together in the early nineties and saw each other once a year or so. Liysa always had some amazing story to tell. Sometimes it was about a doomed romance or a close escape she had had, but more often it was about various wonderful new plans she'd made.
Ellen often lost track of Liysa, but she knew that she'd hear from her eventually. She didn't know all the details of her past. She wasn't really sure just how many times Liysa had been married.
But she had always found Liysa to be tough and strong yet very warm and caring at the same time. Petite as she was, Liysa could compete with any man in what was considered "man's work." Ellen was an artist, using stained glass as her medium, and she was very good, working in her home studio and teaching talented students. Liysa was a constant traveler, and to Ellen, she seemed remarkably brave -- no matter what life handed her. Ellen wasn't aware of everything Liysa had done while they were apart but she suspected she didn't know half of her accomplishments.
It was about 7:30 on that smoky-bright Monday October morning in Dayton, and Francois-Louis Duveaux was about to leave for work when he called to Ellen that Liysa had just parked her SUV and it was blocking his car. Ellen had expected her -- but not this early.
At Liysa's request, Papako Mattson, who was Liysa's son by an earlier marriage, had spent Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday with the Duveauxs. Liysa had called Ellen to tell her that she and her present husband, Chris Northon, and their three-year-old son, Bjorn, would be camping on the Lostine River down in Oregon that weekend. But Papako loved working with Ellen. Very talented artistically, he had chosen to come to Dayton to have some glass lessons from Ellen rather than go on the camping trip. Ellen agreed at once; Papako, nine, was a delightful child, and he was welcome at the Duveaux house anytime.
Liysa had driven all the way from Bend, Oregon, where she and Chris had a home, to deliver Papako to Ellen on Friday night. It was a very long drive, more than three hundred miles one way. She had spent the night, and then she and Bjorn left on Saturday morning to join Chris at the campsite on the Lostine River. She said she would be back on Monday to get Papako.
Now it was Monday and Liysa had returned. She moved her Ford Explorer and then walked slowly up to the back entrance of the house. Ellen was horrified when she saw her standing there, "wet and beaten up."
When Ellen sensed that Liysa was in deep distress, she rushed to help her. As she would recall later, Liysa's hair looked as though she'd just toweled it dry after a shower, but her clothes were so wet that when Ellen hugged her, she got wet, too. "She was pretty messed up, vacant, glazed eyes, spacey -- in shock," Ellen recalled.
"Why are you all wet?" she asked, but she didn't really get an answer. It seemed to her that Liysa's arm was hanging at a funny angle.
"I need help getting Bjorn out of the Explorer," Liysa pleaded. "My shoulder's injured and I can't seem to lift him out."
Ellen hurried behind Liysa to the SUV and lifted the sleeping toddler easily out of his car seat. Liysa looked as though she was hypothermic, and her teeth were chattering. That wasn't unusual for her; Liysa was always cold, even in Hawaii, where she lived half the time. She had Raynaud's disease, too, and her fingers turned bluish purple with the least drop in temperature.
Ellen's eyes searched Liysa's face. Her friend seemed so distraught, so injured. She had a swollen cheek, a slight bruise near her eye, and an arm or shoulder that appeared to be broken.
"Chris tried to kill me," Liysa burst out. "Chris tried to kill me...."
Copyright © 2003 by Ann Rule