Old case, new technology: Will the killer be found?
- Janine Robben
- Portland Tribune - News
Police couldn't solve student's death in 1980, but times have changed
If Louise Tucker were alive, she'd still be asking, 'How could this have happened?'
Tucker's desperate search for answers began when her 19-year-old daughter, Barbara, was bludgeoned to death.
It intensified when she learned that witnesses actually had seen a young man grab Barbara off a busy Gresham street and drag her into the bushes Ñ witnesses who had not stopped to help her.
It continued when a former boyfriend of Barbara, whom Louise Tucker considered to be the No. 1 suspect and whom police called 'uncooperative,' successfully and legally avoided providing physical evidence that could have been used against him.
And it persisted to the end of her life, as she tried to keep the Gresham Police Department and the Multnomah County district attorney's office from letting the case slip through the cracks.
Louise Tucker, who died in 1995, kept an informal, handwritten record of her attempts to get justice for her daughter.
'If it takes 10 years, I don't care,' she said several months after Barbara's half-naked body was found on the campus of Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham. 'I just can't let it rest.'
It has taken 23 years, and the case still is unsolved.
According to Gresham police, more than a dozen men in Barbara's circle were 'cleared' in her Jan. 15, 1980, slaying before investigators apparently moved on to the theory that she had been killed by a stranger.
By 1989, police were calling the case 'open' but inactive. 'There's nothing else we can do,' Gresham officer Gerald Johnson told the media.
Four years later, Multnomah County Chief Deputy District Attorney Norm Frink, who had been assigned to the case, told reporters: 'We have certainly looked into, and continue to look into, every aspect. The prospects are not good.'
Barbara's father, Albert Tucker, who died in 1989, never could bring himself to discuss his daughter's death. 'He always leaves the room when I talk about her,' Louise Tucker said in 1981.
She and Barbara's four sisters concluded that the former boyfriend had been cleared by police. It's easy to understand why: They knew he had been a suspect; the police had reported that all 14 suspects had been cleared; and they believed he'd been called before a grand jury that did not indict him.
But they were wrong.
Early this month, a Tribune reporter observed to Frink that police did not appear to have worked on the case since the advent of new forensics technology in 1998. Such technology would allow investigators to rule the ex-boyfriend in or out, even without his cooperation.
At the time of Barbara's killing, it was not possible to determine, beyond a broad range of probabilities, whether physical evidence found at a crime scene Ñ such as blood, seminal fluid or hair Ñ matched a sample of the same material obtained from a potential suspect. Investigators also largely were limited to obtaining such samples from potential suspects voluntarily, unless they had enough evidence to get a court order, or warrant, requiring the suspect to provide the sample.
But since 1998, new forensics testing of DNA has made it possible to determine Ñ with virtual certainty Ñ whether crime scene and suspect samples match. It also now is possible to compare even minuscule and degraded samples of DNA, including those deposited on something a suspect might unwittingly leave within law enforcement's grasp, such as a beverage container or a cigarette butt.
During the Tribune reporter's meeting with Frink, it was pointed out to him that a person's garbage would be an excellent source of such material.
The next day, a garbage collector made a special stop at the ex-boyfriend's curb. A week later, he made another.
Both Frink and the Gresham Police Department declined this week to comment on the specifics of the Barbara Tucker case or its investigation.
The former boyfriend, 42, was contacted by the Tribune on Feb. 10 and declined to be interviewed. The Tribune is not using his name because police have never formally identified him as a supect in the case.
Baby of the family
Louise Tucker was 42 when she gave birth to Barbara, the youngest of her seven children by two husbands. Barbara's father, Albert Tucker, was 57.
But Louise, who, like other family members always called her daughter 'Barby,' wasn't ready to let go of motherhood. 'Louise always coddled Barb,' says Maria Adrian, Barbara's best friend and a neighbor of the Tuckers in Southeast Portland's Westmoreland neighborhood. 'From Barb's point of view, she was stifled.'
Barbara's sister, Linda Tucker West, who was 13 years older and who died in 1997, told a newspaper after Barbara's death that she often found her little sister in bed, 'crying because she was so big, so clumsy, so out of place.'
But Barbara, who grew up to be 5-foot-11, developed into a young woman who was, Adrian says, 'a free spirit; strong-willed; spiritual but not religious; very hardworking, very dedicated.'
Barbara played basketball at Cleveland High School, where, as a sophomore, she was much taller than her teammates and even her coach. She was very involved with the Distributive Education Clubs of America, DECA, which were geared toward students who Ñ like her Ñ planned careers in retail or business. And she met, through mutual friends, a fellow sophomore from a well-to-do family who became her boyfriend and her first sexual partner.
'He and Barb were each other's first,' says a Portland man who describes himself and the boyfriend as best friends from age 10 until they graduated from high school. 'They were very sexually involved. I think everybody thought they were going to be together forever. That's what she thought.'
It didn't work out that way. The friend, whom the Tribune is not naming to protect the identity of Barbara's boyfriend, says Barbara and her boyfriend, stopped seeing each other early in their senior year. She told her family and friends that she had initiated the breakup, in part because he had a temper.
'She told my husband a few times that (the boyfriend) had been physically abusive with her,' says one of her sisters, Alice Juan of Portland. 'He'd grabbed her.'
But the childhood friend says the breakup actually happened the other way around: '(The boyfriend) broke up with her by just cutting her off. He never told her they were through. He just stopped calling her, and he stopped returning her phone calls. She was asking me, 'What happened? What was wrong? What did I do?' '
Barbara's calls were distressing, the friend says, because he didn't know what to tell her. 'I've been thinking about Barb quite a bit,' he said recently. 'She was a sweet kid. If you met Barb, you loved her.'
In 1978, Barbara graduated from Cleveland High and enrolled at Mt. Hood. In fall 1979, after commuting from home during her freshman year, she moved to an apartment complex almost directly across from campus.
'Mom was depressed when Barby moved out,' says Barbara's sister Susan Pater of Portland. 'But Barby wanted her independence, and to be closer to school.'
Shortly before Barbara's death, her sister Alice Juan observed a change in her. 'Barby just shined,' she says. 'I teased her about whether she had a new boyfriend. She said, 'Well, maybe.' '
It snowed on Jan. 8 and 9, 1980, and while the snow was mostly gone by the 15th, it had been raining for several days. It would rain a half-inch that day; the overnight low dipped to 35 degrees.
Barbara and a friend from her apartment complex, Lori Thomas Stomps, played hooky that afternoon and went to a Gresham gym, then back to Barbara's apartment. Barbara drove.
'She had an old beater,' Stomps says. 'She always drove. I don't recall her walking.' That was an observation that Tucker's family would make repeatedly in the coming weeks and years: She never walked, especially to night classes; she always drove.
Stomps, who says no one called or came by Barbara's apartment while she was there, left sometime after it got dark. The weather, she recalls, was 'still clear, but just really cold. Windy, really nasty.'
Barbara also talked to her mother by telephone late that day, telling her that she was going to stop by Stomps' apartment for ice cream if her 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. class got out early.
But Barbara neither showed up for class nor visited Stomps.
While listening to the radio the next day, Louise Tucker heard about the slaying of a Mt. Hood student. She called her now-deceased sister, Ruth Klohk, to fret. 'There are thousands of girls at Mt. Hood. Don't be worried,' Klohk told her.
Just then, two men came to the Tuckers' door and rang the bell. Albert Tucker talked to them briefly and walked into the kitchen. The look on his face, Louise Tucker said later, was all she needed to see. 'Ruth!' she screamed. 'Ruth, it's my Barby!' She hung up the phone.
Barbara's body had been found by a fellow student at 7 o'clock that morning in a snow-fringed grove of trees adjacent to Northeast Kane Drive, which forms the college's western boundary. Her books and purse were scattered around her. Her car was found at her apartment.
Although police thought she had been attacked while walking to class, Louise Tucker always suspected that she got a ride with someone she knew. 'It was terribly cold Ñ it was a horrible night,' she told a reporter years later.
According to the medical examiner's office, Barbara 'definitely appeared to have been sexually assaulted' and had died of head injuries. Juan, who knew Dr. William Brady, the county's medical examiner at the time, recalls his telling her that the head wounds could have been caused by something like a tire iron.
Juan says Brady also told her that Barbara had defensive wounds, incurred in her attempt to fight off her attacker, and had some of his skin under her fingernails. She had, Brady said, 'fought like hell.'
Louise Tucker wasn't the only one to hear of the murder through the media. A woman quickly came forward to say that she had been traveling on Kane Drive shortly before 7 p.m. Jan 15 and had seen both Barbara and a young man close to where Barbara's body was found some 12 hours later.
The name of this woman, and those of other witnesses who apparently also saw Barbara and/or the young man, are being withheld by Gresham police. But Louise Tucker told reporters that she understood that the female witness saw Barbara trying to flag down cars on the heavily traveled thoroughfare; several cars had to brake to keep from hitting her, and one car nearly hit her.
The driver of that car Ñ apparently the female witness Ñ later described seeing blood and mud on Barbara's face and a man grab one of her arms and pull her off the road. Another witness saw a man, looking 'wide-eyed and apparently shocked,' emerge from the bushes in the same area of Kane Drive, according to a statement made by Gresham police in 1990.
Nobody stopped to help Barbara. The female witness, who came to Barbara's funeral, told the victim's family that until she heard about the murder, she thought she had been observing a college prank or students dodging traffic.
Louise Tucker was haunted that there were witnesses who had not stopped.
'It's unreal that people care so little about another human being,' she said in 1981.
She also puzzled over the meaning of what the witnesses had seen.
'I think he (Barbara's killer) was someone she knew and could identify,' she said, reasoning that only fear of being identified would have motivated her killer to chase her out into heavy traffic and the presence of witnesses.
According to newspaper reports, one or more of the witnesses described the young man as in his early 20s, about 6 feet tall, with a muscular build, broad shoulders and a square neck. He was 'expensively dressed' in a light beige, knitted ski cap, navy-blue ski parka and blue or gray pants, and he walked with a 'distinctive swagger,' a 'bold, arrogant strut.'
He also Ñ unlike Barbara's ex-boyfriend Ñ had black or dark hair and eyebrows, dark eyes and an olive complexion.
The day after Barbara's body was found, and again for several days thereafter, the ex-boyfriend showed up at the Tuckers' house. His visits, her family said, stood out because they had not seen him since he and Barbara had broken up more than two years earlier; he had an alibi for the night of Barbara's death even though no one had asked him where he had been; and he often wore long-sleeved shirts and jackets, even inside the house.
'(He) kept repeating and repeating, 'I'm so sorry,' and how he thinks of her (Barbara) every day,' Louise Tucker wrote in one of her undated, personal notes. 'Why did he start coming around after two and a half years?'
Barbara's friend Adrian, who saw the boyfriend from across the street the day after Barbara's body was found also thought his clothing unusual.
'He was famous for wearing a dark blue, down vest with a long-sleeved shirt in winter,' says Adrian, who knew him personally. '(But) he didn't have his down vest on then.'
Mother offers alibi
Shortly after Barbara's death, several other things happened to arouse Louise Tucker's suspicions of the ex-boyfriend. The young man's mother, whom Tucker did not know personally, called her.
'Why did his mother call me and stress the fact that (he) was home that night (of the murder)?' Tucker puzzled in her notes.
Tucker told her sister, Klohk, about the conversation and invited her along to meet with a Portland lawyer, Charles Elliott, who had called and said he wanted to help the Tucker family.
Elliott was friendly, showed them around his office and talked about his plans to have his daughter take over his practice.
'He really impressed us,' Klohk later told Barbara's sister Susan Pater. But then he started talking about 'spots' on the bedsheets in Barbara's apartment.
According to Louise Tucker's notes, Elliott also said Barbara was a 'very promiscuous girl' Ñ something her sisters adamantly deny Ñ and said that her promiscuity could be brought out in court if her mother continued to pursue who killed her.
'His (the attorney's) sole purpose was to say terrible things about Barby and that I'd be better off to just forget about finding out who killed her,' Louise Tucker wrote about the meeting in her notes. 'All he succeeded in doing was making my sister and me really angry.'
Later, Tucker said, she found out that Elliott had been hired by the former boyfriend's parents.
Elliott's daughter, Amy, who eventually took over her father's practice, says he worked as an attorney until his death in 1983. Although she says she doesn't have his business records for the years before his death, she notes that in 1980, 'he was about 75 years old and dying of heart disease.'
The ex-boyfriend's friend, who heard about the attorney incident from Louise Tucker, says he wasn't surprised.
'I'm sure (the ex-boyfriend's) dad would be involved at this time and calling the shots,' he says. 'His mom was a really good person. But his parents Ñ both of them Ñ would do anything to protect their kids.'
The ex-boyfriend was well aware that the Gresham police considered him, among others, as a suspect in the killing, according to Barbara's sisters and the ex-boyfriend's friend. He did not, Louise Tucker believed, cooperate with the investigation.
'How come if he loved Barby so much, he refused to cooperate with the police!' she fumed in her notes.
Meanwhile, the investigation's progress, or lack thereof, was reported by the media.
In June 1980, Gresham officer James Gruetzke told the Gresham Outlook that police had looked at 14 possible suspects and all had been 'positively cleared.' Another article that ran in the now-defunct Oregon Journal, quoting an unnamed Gresham officer, reported that 14 possible suspects had been 'developed or studied intensely before being rejected.' Thirteen of them had taken polygraphs, the officer reported.
The Gresham Outlook story also said investigators now theorized that Barbara had been killed by a transient or by someone with whom she had had only limited contact, not by someone she knew personally.
In May 1981, Gresham officer Larry Ward told the Journal that police had obtained blood and skin scrapings from some suspects. He strongly implied that investigators had compared, or were comparing them, with physical evidence from the crime scene to eliminate some suspects.
Barbara's death, Ward said, was now being treated as a stranger-to-stranger killing. 'It's a real thorn in our side, being unable to solve this,' he said. 'The problem is, this kind of murder is extremely hard to solve.'
On Dec. 6, 1983, Louise Tucker wrote that she was contacted by another Gresham police officer who told her that everyone had been cleared except one suspect, the ex-boyfriend. '(His) attorney still refuses to bring him in to be cleared,' she wrote.
According to Louise Tucker, the officer told her that police had 'lost track' of the ex-boyfriend and wanted to know if she had his current address.
The next day, she wrote, she heard that a Multnomah County deputy district attorney was reviewing her daughter's case and was 'very angry and upset' that no one had stopped and helped Barbara the night she died.
The deputy district attorney was Norm Frink, now one of two chief deputies in the Multnomah County district attorney's office.
Barbara's sister Pater recalls that she later met with Frink and gave him a report prepared by a private detective who had been hired by her parents to investigate the case. According to Pater, Frink told her that a grand jury had been called to hear evidence concerning Barbara's death.
'I'm pretty sure that Norm Frink told us (the ex-boyfriend) was called before the grand jury and 'cleared,' ' Pater says. 'I remember leaving the meeting discouraged. I felt the underlying message we were given was that they didn't have any leads, and this was hopeless. I think that by this time, Frink was tired of hearing from my mother.'
In April 1984, Frink told the Gresham Outlook that a grand jury had been called to review one witness in Barbara's case but that the person was not a suspect.
'We have certainly looked into, and continue to look into, every aspect (of this case),' Frink was quoted as saying. 'The prospects are not good. But something could turn up. We would love to solve this one.'
Somebody knows something
The years wore on. Louise Tucker wrote a letter to the media, railing about the investigators and the DA's office. In handwritten notes on the bottom of her copy of the letter, she wrote: 'Perhaps this letter is too strongly worded for anyone to print or do anything about. I don't know. I only know I will never stop trying to find this person who killed my Barby.
'I have found out several things,' Louise Tucker added in a handwritten note on her copy of this letter, 'É but I can't discuss them publicly.'
While what she had 'found out' remains unknown, the ex-boyfriend's friend told the Tribune that he does know Ñ and never told Barbara Ñ the real reason for the breakup. Her boyfriend had met and started a relationship with another woman who attended Mt. Hood and lived in an apartment close to campus.
'He was out there (at the college) all the time,' the friend says. 'He was very familiar with that campus.'
Sherry Jorgensen, a Portland resident and one of Barbara's sisters, says their mother's depression over the killing and the tension it created within the family was never completely resolved.
'I am sitting here right now, with tears welling up in my eyes. Mom had lost her daughter but didn't seem to remember that she still had us,' she said recently. 'I think it is important for people to know that every member of a murder victim's family becomes a victim.'
'Our main interest is in finding a way to bring this horrible killer to justice,' Pater says. 'Never give up hope, because we haven't. We can't believe that somebody out there doesn't know something.'