How a Botched Oregon Heist Led to the Birth of FBI Forensics

Back in 1923, three brothers staged a not-so-great train robbery.

By Michelle Harris December 21, 2018 Published in the January 2019 issue of Portland Monthly

Image: Matteo Berton

On October 11, 1923, at around 12:30 p.m., the Southern Pacific Train no. 13 approached Oregon’s remote Tunnel 13 near Siskiyou Summit, en route to San Francisco. Nicknamed the “Number 13 Gold Special Train,” it was rumored to carry gold and cash payrolls—possibly millions. As the train slowed for a routine brake test, two men who’d been lurking around the tunnel, brothers Hugh and Roy DeAutremont, prepared for the jump. A third brother, Ray, waited to climb aboard at the far end of the tunnel. They all disguised themselves as track workers, smearing their faces with grease paint. Hugh climbed aboard first and extended his leg. As Roy grabbed Hugh’s foot and clumsily pulled himself aboard, Roy’s pistol slid out of his belt. It banged loudly on the ground, bouncing along the tracks.

“Stop your train with the engine cab just clear of the tunnel!” Hugh ordered the engineer at gunpoint. The plan was simple: shoot the mail car open and take the loot. Instead, the bumbling brothers’ attempted train robbery ended in charred metal, four deaths, and, eventually, an investigation that helped launch the modern crime lab.

Oregon has a storied history of Old West desperados. The McCarty family, a gang of brothers and brothers-in-law, built a veritable bank robbery empire in Eastern Oregon. Northwest gunfighter Harry Tracy, eventually captured in Oregon, was an accomplice of Butch Cassidy. And Umatilla County horse thief Hank Vaughan was one of the most successful rustlers in the Wild West. But none of these villains match the surprisingly long-ranging influence the DeAutremonts, who had spent some years in Albany and Salem.

“It really wasn’t until the DeAutremont case [that investigators] looked at science as a support for law enforcement,” explains Ed Espinoza, deputy director of the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, about 12 miles away from the scene of the crime.

What exactly happened that fateful day on the tracks? Well, Hugh ordered the engineer and fireman off the train. The postal clerk, taking fire from Ray, locked the mail car door and sealed himself inside. So, the brothers used an entire case of dynamite to blow the door open ... blowing the car, the mail clerk, and any supposed valuables inside to pieces. Smoke consumed the tunnel. In a panic, they fatally shot the brakeman, who had walked down to the charred car to see what had happened. Then they shot the engineer and fireman before fleeing emptyhanded in the dense smoke.

Despite the large, messy crime scene, evidence pinning the crime to any specific persons was slim. An investigative team led by Chief Special Agent Dan O’Connell and Chief Postal Inspector Northwest Charles Riddiford found the pistol Roy dropped, the detonator, and a pair of overalls, among other items. A hasty examination of the materials yielded no leads, so O’Connell and Riddiford sent the overalls to Professor Edward Oscar Heinrich at University of California, Berkeley. The chemist previously had some success in helping authorities solve investigations. Though crime labs existed in Europe, Heinrich was something of a pioneer in the US.

Heinrich reported that a “microscopic examination of dust, hair, and fibers collected from the pockets” of the overalls helped him determine that “the wearer and owner was a lumberjack ... not over five feet 10 inches tall, probably shorter; weight not over 165 pounds, probably less. Age between 21 and 25 ... medium light brown hair, complexion fair; has light brown eyebrows.” After digging into the pencil pocket, Heinrich then discovered a crumpled postal receipt sent to Roy DeAutremont. (Apparently the Oregon investigators failed to search every pocket.) After a hair found on a sweater at their father’s house was matched with that found on the overalls, the DeAutremont brothers became prime suspects.

“Heinrich showed that if you apply good, inferential thinking methods, you can find solutions to things that seem unsolvable,” says Espinoza.

The manhunt continued almost four years before the brothers were caught and sentenced to prison. But more important, the case helped justify the use of scientific analysis in police work. It even influenced LAPD Chief of Police August Vollmer, a former student of Heinrich, to establish the LA crime lab in 1923. The LA lab laid the groundwork for the founding of the FBI forensics lab in Quantico, Virginia, in 1932. (The federal system includes specialized labs like the one in Ashland, which helps investigate violations of wildlife protection laws.) 

As for the DeAutremonts, they went down in history as some of the most inept criminals ever.

Filed under
Show Comments