Murder at Lava Lake: The Unsolved Crime That Still Haunts Central Oregon
Life was tough for the loggers of central Oregon in the 1920s, and many needed a second trade to get by. That was the case for Ed Nickols, Roy Wilson, and Dewey Morris, three men who spent the fall and winter of 1923-4 in the Lava Lake area of the Cascade mountains, hunting marten and fox.
By most accounts, the men began the fall in good spirits. But when they failed to reappear in their hometown of Bend the following spring, friends and family became suspicious and sent a search party. What the group found beneath the ice of Lava Lake remains one of Oregon’s most brutal murders—one that remains unsolved.
AN ABANDONED CABIN IN THE WOODS
Morris and Wilson, loggers who worked together for the Brooks-Scanlon Lumber Company, were staying in a cabin by Lava Lake along with their friend Nickols. The cabin belonged to Ed Logan, a logging contractor from Bend; in exchange for the lodging, the three men looked after Logan’s foxes, which he was raising for fur, while also trapping in the area. According to rumor, they also made moonshine on the side.
Around Christmas time, Wilson and Nickols snowshoed back to Bend to visit friends and family and to sell their initial take of fur. The trapping, they reported, was good, and Wilson told his mother he would be home in February. Around January 15, a man named Allen Willcoxen, owner of an Elk Lake resort, stopped by the cabin and spent the night en route to Lava Lake. He later said that the men were "in high spirits and good health."
He was the last person to see them alive.
By April, with no further word from any of the three, people in town grew worried. Terrified that something had gone wrong, Owen Morris (Dewey's brother), family friend Hervey D. Innis, and Pearl Lynes—superintendent of the Tumalo Fish Hatchery and a person who knew the area well—went to investigate.
They found the cabin abandoned. “Innis and Morris at the cabin Sunday, found every indication that the men had not been there for about two months,” reported the Central Oregon Press. “Their last meal judging from the dishes left on the table, was breakfast, and molded cooking utensils showed that food had been left simmering on the stove. Rifles, traps, and heavy clothing were found in the cabin. No signs of preparation for a trip were evident.”
The Oregonian wrote that “refuse had been thrown on the floor, magazines and papers scattered about, and the skin racks and dryers were in a neglected condition.” A cat was also discovered—emaciated, but still alive. The animal's condition seemed to confirm the timeline: Whatever happened had occurred months before.
Combing over the rest of Logan’s property, the search party found food in the fox pens but no foxes in sight. They also found their first terrible clue: a bloodstained hammer in a storage shed. It seemed possible that the three men had just sat down for breakfast when they were lured outside to their deaths. But why?
Logan joined the search the following day, as did Deputy Sheriff Clarence Adams, a former district game warden. Melany Tupper, author of The Trapper Murders: A True Central Oregon Mystery, writes that Adams “was very familiar with the area around the lakes, knew where cabins were located, and even knew the general layout of the trap lines of the missing men.” If anyone was the perfect person to find the missing men, it was Adams.
The team first set off for Big Lava Lake, situated approximately a quarter mile from the cabin. There they saw a sled, half-submerged in snow. There was a dark stain on one of the boards—human blood. Following a “dim trail” to the middle of the frozen-over lake, they noticed a hole that had “been cut in the ice and had refrozen,” along with a brown human hair, according to an account in local paper the Bulletin.
Beneath a tree, searchers also found the carcasses of several foxes. They had either been shot or clubbed, and all were skinned—expertly. Adams, whose first assignment had been to determine the fate of the foxes, now had his answer. An even more brutal clue turned up soon after, in an unthawed patch of snow: human blood, more human hair, and a front tooth.
The following day, after the ice was broken up, the group confirmed the worst: The bodies of all three men floated to the surface, wrapped in canvas. Roy Wilson had been shot in the right shoulder and behind his ear, while Morris had been shot in the left arm and hit with a hammer. Nickols had been shot in his side, and his jaw was shattered—probably by a shotgun blast. Ominously, his watch had stopped at 9:10.
By the next day, the scene was overrun with Bend’s finest. A team of a dozen or so people had been assembled, including yet more brothers of the slain men, an editor of the Bulletin, and a county coroner. Everyone agreed on one thing: Whoever did this was an expert woodsman, well-acquainted with the region. Suspicion immediately fell on one-time Elk Lake Lodge employee Lee Collins, who had previously fought with both Nickols and Logan. According to The San Bernardino Sun, Collins “was employed at the lakes last summer and was charged with the theft of property from Nichols” around the same time. Logan had also had a run-in with Collins: Collins had stolen one of Logan’s expensive fur coats, and reportedly made several threats against him.
Deschutes County Sheriff Samuel Roberts knew the suspect all too well—Collins was an alias. The man who had fought with Nickols and Logan was Charles Kimzey, an escaped convict with a long history of brutal crime. Just the previous year, Kimzey had hired a driver named W.E. Harrison to take him to Idaho, only to attack him, bind him, feed him a fatal dose of poison, and drop him into an abandoned well. Unbelievably, Harrison vomited up the poison and survived. He was then able to crawl out of the well and seek aid at a nearby ranch.
Kimzey was “a person so despicable that no crime was beyond him, not even a triple murder,” claimed the Bulletin. Roberts thought it quite possible that Kimzey had navigated to the cabin, murdered the three men, hauled their bodies to the waterfront with the sled, and stuffed them through a hole he chopped in the ice. After this gruesome work, he then made his escape through the forest.
As news of the vicious crime traveled the region, people came forward with additional information. According to The Oregonian, “Kimzey had sworn to have revenge on the men at the lake” after their earlier altercations. A Portland traffic policeman named W.C. Bender reported that several months earlier a man—whom he identified as Kimzey—had asked him where he might find a reliable fur dealer. Bender had pointed him to the Schumacher Fur Company, where he then sold several furs to owner Carl Schumacher for $110 cash. After being approached by police, Schumacher looked through his records and found the transaction, with the seller noted as “Ed Nichols.” It had been on January 22, just a week after Willcoxen had seen the trappers alive. Whoever sold those furs had used Nickols’s trapper’s license, and was “the man responsible for the triple killing,” The Oregonian concluded.
Despite significant efforts, however, Kimzey could not be found. Claude McCauley, who succeeded Roberts as Deschutes County Sheriff in 1929, said that “the hunt for Kimzey went on unceasingly” for the next four years, with Kimzey sometimes “reported seen in half a dozen places at once.” However, according to McCauley, in the ensuing years the Lava Lake murder mystery “was more or less forgotten by everyone except the officers of the law and friends of the murdered men.”
That is, until 1933, when the case broke open.
Following several false starts—such as the arrest of a hermit named Bob Bales, who authorities claimed was Kimzey in disguise—Kimzey was arrested in Kalispell, Montana on March 10. He denied the crime and produced an alibi, claiming he had spent the winter of 1923-4 in Colorado working on the Moffat tunnel. He even ate his Christmas dinner there, he said—right inside the tunnel. When Kimzey’s employment with Moffat was confirmed, McCauley and his staff scrambled to round up other evidence, still utterly convinced they had their suspect.
But things fell apart even further when material witnesses couldn’t positively identify Kimzey, even though W.C. Bender had previously claimed he would “never forget that face.” It had been too long ago, he now said, and Kimzey had aged considerably and grown bald. Carl Schumacher, the man who claimed to have bought the furs, also refused to definitely identify Kimzey, stating that a man’s life was too great a thing to place in jeopardy if he wasn't absolutely certain.
Sheriff McCauley was devastated. “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,” he later said in a summary of the case. To keep Kimzey under lock and key, McCauley initiated proceedings against him for the 1923 assault and armed robbery of Harrison, who Kimzey had assumed dead. When Harrison showed up in court and easily identified his attacker, Kimzey was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment in the Oregon state penitentiary.
Though Kimzey was never charged with the Lava Lake murders, many rest easy in their belief that the killer was brought to some kind of justice. Yet Tupper is not so certain. She thinks Kimzey didn’t act alone—instead, he was aided by Ray Van Buren Jackson, a schoolteacher involved with at least six suspicious deaths in the area surrounding Lava Lake during the early 1900s. Jackson had family ties to Kimzey, as well as mutual friends, and Tupper writes that “the possibility that Jackson was Kimzey’s accomplice in the Lava Lakes triple murder cannot be ignored.”
Though her case is compelling, we may never know for sure—Jackson committed suicide in 1938, permanently closing his chapter of the story. It seems that whatever really happened at Lava Lake in January 1924 will remain a mystery.