Dead Air

An Oregon Reporter’s Obsession with a 30-Year-Old Murder Is Your Next Podcast Binge

Murder in Oregon asks who really killed the state’s former corrections department chief.

By Zach Dundas February 25, 2020 Published in the March 2020 issue of Portland Monthly

In January 1989, someone murdered Michael Francke, Oregon’s corrections department director, outside his Salem office. His killing scars Oregon’s political culture; for a few, its murky circumstances ignited an obsession.

Thanks to Murder in Oregon, a podcast by longtime local journalist Phil Stanford and producer Lauren Bright Pacheco, many more now share that fixation. The show has been downloaded some 5 million times since its October launch.

“I knew we had a hell of a story,” notes Stanford, ex-columnist for the Oregonian and the Portland Tribune, and author of several Portland crime books.

Murder in Oregon plumbs a sinister ’80s demimonde—criminals and power brokers, mingling amid drugs, violence, and rampant child abuse—to argue that Francke’s murder was tied to corruption in the state prison system. A striking ensemble tells the tale: Stanford, gravel-voiced and wry; Francke’s unvarnished brothers, Kevin and Pat; and Bright Pacheco, the well-modulated audio pro. (Of Kevin Francke, Bright Pacheco says: “He swears the way some artists use clay.”)

Production coincided with a dramatic turn in the case last spring, as a judge ordered that Frank Gable, a former drug dealer serving life without parole since his 1991 conviction in Francke’s murder, be released or retried. Stanford had devoted many column inches to arguing the state railroaded Gable and ignored (or suppressed) evidence of a conspiracy, dogged coverage that may have fueled his 1994 departure from the Oregonian.

The ruling, which the state is appealing, left Stanford feeling “relieved and vindicated,” he says. The success of the podcast is icing on the cake: “It’s a real rush, for sure.”

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