Saturday, December 3, 2022

A Married Woman, Alone in Eureka, Last Seen with a Logger, Turns Up Dead in a Ravine —An Unsettling 69-Year-Old Humboldt County Cold Case 

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Vera Weitzel [Photograph from the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office Cold Case website]

Cold cases grow cold because their stories stop being told. Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office published an interactive map and timeline last year over sixty missing and murdered people whose cases remain unsolved. We have taken on the task of writing about each and every one of those cases, to keep their stories alive and hopefully find justice for the victims and families. Remember, as Jean Racine, the French playwright once said, “There are no secrets that time does not reveal.”

Sometimes stories fit into predictable boxes. The creepy man that drives a van and offers candy to kids— the peeping Tom caught in the act when the bedroom lamp illuminates the whites of his eyes— the shadowy silhouette in your periphery that you swear is not there. Terrifying, yet predictable. But, those stories that fall out of line, that cannot be pinned down, those are the stories that rattle you.

A 35-year-old woman by the name of Vera Weitzel was married, yet alone. Her husband Ray was a Navy man out at sea and she lived in various lodgings around Eureka. On a late October day in 1958, she disappeared. One day later her vehicle was found abandoned six miles west of Willow Creek.

Within two weeks of her going missing, law enforcement was considering the possibility she had been murdered. Their theory became reality when her bones were found at the bottom of a ravine eight miles east of Blue Lake two and a half months later. 

Law enforcement told the press of at least four men they had interrogated about the crime–even arresting one who had been seen with her the night she disappeared. None of these suspects were ever tried for her death. 

Weitzel’s murder is the second oldest Humboldt County case listed by the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office. 69 years after her murder, the many questions presented by her lifestyle seem to be mirrored in the many questions of who took her life.

The Eureka Humboldt Standard, an early periodical out of Eureka (1875-1967), provided the reporting that informed this review of this long-standing cold case. Their coverage of between November 1958-January 1959 began with a simple missing person’s notice leading to the discovery of her bones, the identification of a suspect, and then, without explanation, the coverage went dark.

The earliest record of Weitzel being sought by law enforcement was an article in the Eureka Humboldt Standard on November 12, 1958. The Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office had reportedly issued an “all-points bulletin seeking information to the whereabouts of Mrs. Vera Weitzel, 35, of Eureka.” 

Weitzel was said to have been last seen in the Hoopa area “where she was visiting”, approximately two weeks before the publication of the article. Weitzel’s vehicle was later found abandoned “six miles west of Willow Creek headed in that direction.” 

Physically, Weitzel was described as being “five feet, three inches in height, 135 pounds with hazel eyes and dyed blonde hair.” 

Weitzel had been living in Eureka for four months and had a “temporary address” in Eureka at a boarding house called the Sunset Room at 312 D Street. The article reported that she “visited here off and on for the past 10 years.”

Ray Weitzel, Vera’s husband, was a Navy sailor who was “presently on sea duty” when the article was published.

Two days later, law enforcement announced that investigators had determined that foul play was involved in Weitzel’s disappearance and her fate “may be murder”. After bloodhounds failed to “raise a scent” in the Hoopa-Willow Creek area where she was last seen, Humboldt County authorities informed nearby Shasta and Trinity counties to be on the lookout for the missing woman. 

Weitzel was reportedly last seen “near Hoopa in the company of a logger with whom she is reported to have left Eureka” several days before her vehicle was found abandoned. A suitcase belonging to Weitzel was located eleven miles from the abandoned vehicle reportedly rifled through containing her purse and the keys to the abandoned vehicle. When asked if all evidence was pointing towards foul play, HCSO Chief Criminal Deputy said, “We’re definitely working along those lines.”

Deputy Harvey Larsen, in charge of the field investigation, reportedly said, “There’s a lot of brush up there” when asked if law enforcement would continue searching the area where Weitzel was last seen. Sacramento’s Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation was providing investigators with a lie detector test and potentially a “special state agent” to assist in the case.

Deputy Pedersen said investigators were combing Weitzel’s room at 312 D Street for fingerprints that could “be used in eventual identification—dead or alive— of the missing woman.” 

The image of Vera Weitzel was published on November 14, 1958, in the Eureka Humboldt Standard

Multiple friends of Weitzel’s had been interrogated by law enforcement and investigators said some of them “may be called back for the lie detector test.” 

As the gravity of the situation became clear to investigators, Weitzel’s mother and step-father arrived from Eugene, Oregon. Her mother told police she had last seen her daughter in Eugene on October 11 but “had not heard from her since.” 

Weitzel was reportedly known to frequent local taverns, rooming houses, and motels leading to an extensive search and inquiry by law enforcement. Investigators looked into reports of Weitzel seeking treatment at area hospitals to no avail. 

Investigators chased down a lead that Weitzel had actually been seen near the Sunset Room just two days ago, but found no indication that was true. 

The sheriff’s office had compiled reports that indicated Weitzel lived with “several different acquaintances” and law enforcement implied these individuals “may be given the lie detector test.” 

An interesting description of Weitzel’s physical appearance emerged describing her as looking “10 years older than her age.”

Six days after Vera Weitzel’s disappearance was first announced to the public, law enforcement was actively investigating the crime as a murder spawned by jealousy of a lover. 

The November 18, 1958 issue of the Eureka Humboldt Standard described the arrival of Special Agency Howard Cooper and Polygraph Specialist J.F. McVarish, two special officers from the Bureau of Criminal Investigation, State Department of Justice in Sacramento. The agents, accompanied by HCSO Deputy Harvey Larsen, were combing the area where the woman’s car was found “between Berry Summit and Willow Creek”. The trio was also investigating the “spot 11 miles further on where her purse, containing the car keys, and her suitcase was found.” The investigators were working to get a sense of the environment and geography before heading back to Eureka to an interrogation they would be conducting that evening.

Chief Criminal Deputy William Pedersen told the Eureka Humboldt Standard that morning that one person was in custody, “not necessarily” under arrest, “and that another, with possibly a third, will also be brought in for re-questioning.”

One of these men reportedly “had called on the missing woman at her apartment” on Eureka’s D Street and “had found the other man there.” The man police had in custody was “the last one to be seen with her the day she disappeared in the Hoopa area October 29.” 

Both Eureka Police and HCSO did not believe Weitzel would be found alive, “but they still decline[d] to make an official statement to that effect. All evidence in the case would be handed over to the visiting special agent “for study prior to their conducting the lie detector tests.” 

When HCSO Deputy Larsen was asked if the two men were regarded as suspects, he said, “not exactly yes and not exactly no.”

One day later on November 19, 2021, HCSO told the Eureka Humboldt Standard the special agents from Sacramento would likely take two or three days before they were “fully informed and oriented on all aspects of the case.”

For a second time, these special agents traveled to specific areas in the Berry Summit-Redwood Creek area where Weitzel’s car and other effects were found. 

Investigators noted that a mileage check from the car’s last lubrication date indicated the car had somehow traveled “some 30 unaccounted for miles” between the time Weitzel was last seen in Hoopa on October 29 and the following day when it was discovered. Investigators were sure the car had not returned to Eureka and were actively checking out a spot near Berry Summit where a car had hit an embankment. Clay similar to the area of this embankment had been found on Weitzel’s vehicle which investigators said “comparison of the two may indicate the direction of travel during the unaccounted for mileage.”

The Eureka Humboldt Standard revealed on November 21, 1958, the three suspects law enforcement had identified were “tentatively cleared” of suspicion after passing a lie detector test. Chief Criminal Deputy William Pederson said these findings “are not yet final.” 

The two special agents from Sacramento, accompanied by Deputy Sheriff Harvey Larson, had traveled to Redding that morning to “question a fourth man” who had been seen in the area where Weitzel was last seen around the time she disappeared.” This man was being held by authorities in Redding on misdemeanor charges. 

Approximately three weeks after Weitzel had gone missing, her husband Ray Weitzel was “en route to the United States.” He was reported to be 1500 miles at sea when he was contacted.

Vera Weitzel as seen in a photograph published on November 12, 1958 in the Eureka Humboldt Standard.

On November 22, 1958, 35-60 volunteers from the Preston State Honor Camp on Lord Ellis Summit, the Humboldt County Prison Farm in McKinleyville, and volunteers from the Sheriff’s Marine Posse gathered to search “the entire route from Blue Lake to Hoopa.” 

That day Deputy Gene Cox was chasing down a lead that proved false after a friend of Weitzel’s reported she was in Klamath Falls, Oregon in the county jail. 

The logger Weitzel had been seen with after leaving Eureka on October 29, 1958, had been “tentatively cleared.”

On November 25, 1958, The Eureka Humboldt Standard got word HCSO was considering employing skin divers in their search for Weitzel after an anonymous tip encouraged deputies to check “a certain area” of the Trinity River for the missing woman.

The location on the river was described as a “deep eddy at the Blue Slide on the Hoopa Indian Reservation.” The water in the area was described as “swift, icy-cold, and extremely hazardous for divers” and Deputy Charles Firnekas and President of the Sheriff’s Marine Posse Leonard Lamoreaux took a boat with an outboard motor to the spot to assess the area’s conditions. 

That day, Humboldt County Sheriff Albert A. Nickols made it clear Weitzel’s fate was still unknown saying “If we haven’t got a body, we haven’t got a murder.”

 While investigators explored the lead on the Trinity River, Deputy Sheriff Harvey Larsen and Eureka Police Sergeant Gordon Busey were returning to Humboldt County after “aiding agents and specialists of the Bureau of Criminal Identification in assembling and analyzing evidence to date.”

A brief article published November 27, 1958, titled “Hunt for Vera Weitzel Slows” said that the collaboration with Sacramento’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation had not shed any further light on Weitzel’s fate. 

Just one day later, Weitzel’s husband Ray arrived in Humboldt Count after departing his role as a petty officer on the USS Princeton and was being briefed on his wife’s circumstances. Investigators questioned him a length hoping to understand where his wife might have gone and with whom. 

Investigators also learned from their work in Sacramento that stains located in the back of Weitzels’ car were “definitely from human blood”, but not clear if they belonged to Weitzel. 

Despite this piece of physical evidence, Sheriff Nikols told the Eureka Humboldt Standard the case was a “blind alley” hoping for “a break.”

On December 7, 1958, another extensive ground search by a posse of more than sixty people searched the area between Blue Lake and Willow Creek without results. National Guardsman, sheriff’s officers, and other volunteers searched the rugged terrain in what was considered “the last major hunt unless new leads develop.”

On January 12, 1959, Sheriff Albert A. Nickols announced Weitzel was murdered after two hunters found her skeletal remains in a deep ravine “eight miles east of Blue Lake.” The bones were at the bottom of a “12-foot straight drop at the end of a 40-foot incline, hidden by rocks and logs a few feet away from a dirty road leading onto Highway 299.” Authorities believed that her body had been rolled into that ravine from the main highway.

An analysis by three physicians identified the remains as those of Weitzel’s using a silver pin known to be in her left ankle bone. With “little flesh remain[ing] on the skeleton”, analysis of the bones indicated “there were several head wounds, one on either side above the ear, and one in the back.” 

On January 14, 1959, the Eureka Humboldt Standard reported the Sheriff’s Office had “imposed an almost total censorship on the developments in the Cera Weitzel murder case.” This included orders that deputies could not be quoted and the deputies assigned to the case would remain unnamed.

Instead, Sheriff Nickols said he would provide a daily news release and that morning’s release contained a “cryptic 15-word note” describing a conference with the District Attorney and the development of two new leads in the case. Eureka Humboldt Standard later learned that law enforcement and personnel from the district attorney “discussed two persons not previously identified with the case.”

On January 15, 1959, just one day after the Sheriff’s newly established wall of silence, deputies took Carl August Soderlund into custody, a 48-year-old Hoopa man who was the reported logger last seen with the murdered women. Soderlund had told detectives that Weitzel had driven away from Hoopa around midnight of October 29. 

Another aspect of the case was revealed: Weitzel’s clothing was not found near where she was found. Law enforcement thought the location of those missing clothes could provide more information about a possible suspect.

On January 17, 1958, Soderlund was transported to a Willow Creek courtroom to stand trial for a previous drunk driving charge. He was actively being held in the county jail on a vagrancy charge, not formally charged with murder.

A small but separate article from that same issue said three different branches of law enforcement were working to put together the “jigsaw puzzle pieces” of Weitzel’s murder which at that point was two and a half months old. 

Special agent Ray Stonehouse of the Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation in Sacramento was working with local officers in what he called “a mighty tough case.” Deputy Sheriff Harvey Larsen and Eureka Police Sergeant Gordon Busey were working hard to weed out facts from false reports. Larsen said, “We haven’t run out of leads in the case yet.”

Two important clues that could go towards solving Weitzel’s murder were announced on January 22, 1959. The Sheriff’s Office said, “two blankets stenciled with the name of the murdered Vera Weitzel’s husband may be linked to her slayer.” The blankets were believed to have been in Weitzel’s vehicle when she disappeared. One was described as a white Navy blanket stenciled with her husband’s name, Ray Weitzel, and his serial number 714-5587 on all four corners. The other blanket was a Marine blanket with a “U.S.” in the center, a stencil of “Weitzel” and one corner clearly chewed by a dog.

Equally important, the sheriff’s office said, was locating the clothing Weitzel was wearing at the time of her disappearance. The clothes Weitzel was thought to be wearing before disappearing were described as “grey slacks, red underpants, a grey jacket, yellow or pink sweater, and a pair of black sandals. 

An electric toaster, an electric frying pan, and a dutch oven were thought to be in her car when she disappeared and all were unaccounted for. 

Investigators were also looking to locate the “safety glass missing from the left front door.” There were only “two or three inches of the bottom” remaining in the vehicle and investigators thought “the location of the glass may lead to the exact murder scene.” 

The Coroner W. Loyd Wallace said Weitzel’s buddy “may have been transported to the area where the skeletal remains were found.” If she had not been transported, Wallace said it was likely “that the remains would have been scattered.” 

Investigators also had learned that Weitzel was in a fight with another woman at 312 D Street in Eureka three days before she disappeared. The fight led to her being struck in the head with a wine bottle. The coroner made it clear the severe head wounds indicated by the condition of Weitzel’s skull could not be a result of this wine bottle.

This is the last article from the Eureka Humboldt Standard located in the newspaper databases that mentions Weitzel’s murder.

​​Almost a year-and-a-half after the Eureka Humboldt Standard’s coverage of Weitzel’s death stopped, the Humboldt Times provided an update on the case on June 3, 1960, announcing a 35-year-old mill worker was under arrest for passing bad checks and was a  “possible suspect” in her murder named William Claud Turk. 

Deputy Harvey Nelson told the Humboldt Times that deputies had spent the day before “running down bits of information that will either clear him or point the finger of suspicion.”

Deputy Gene Cox and Deputy Larsen had driven to Chico to pick Turk up after he had been arrested on the bad check warrant while he was swimming at a Butte County public swimming pool. 

Deputy Larsen said that Turk “is only a possible suspect. We’ve checked out dozens of leads like this one before. It’s just a routine investigation as far as we’re concerned.”

In contrast, District Attorney Leonard M. Conry said Turk “is definitely a suspect”  and the DA had notified HCSO he would be entering the case. 

Authorities in Chico had actually located a clue in Turk’s car long sought by investigators, a blanket. Humboldt County investigators analyzed the blanket and found it was “not one of those stolen from the dead woman’s vehicle.”

Investigators also located smudge of green paint on Turk’s vehicle resembling the color of Weitzel’s vehicle.

This article unabashedly characterized Weitzel as a “habitue of Second street bars,” a depiction only hinted at in the Eureka Humboldt Standard’s coverage of the case. 

All the suspects in Weitzel’s case had been cleared after the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office interrogated them and a team from the Bureau of Criminal Investigation tested them.

Turk, a possible suspect or “definitely a suspect” depending on whether you asked the Sheriff’s Office or the DA, had reportedly told officers in Chico “he had reported his car stolen on the night of Mrs. Weitzel’s disappearance but the sheriff’s office had no such record, it was indicated.” 

Reports in the Eureka Humboldt Standard had referred to “severe wounds” on Weitzel’s skull, but this article from the Humboldt Times revealed for the first time the brutal nature of the wounds: “The woman’s skeleton, with a hole fitting the peen end of a ballpeen hammer, was found in a ravine off Highway 2999 north of Blue Lake several months after she vanished.”

The article also provided information about the state of Weitzel’s vehicle that differed slightly from earlier reporting, describing it’s windshield on the driver’s side as scattered” and Weitzel’s suitcase and purse were reportedly found a mile apart.

The following day the Humboldt Times reported that work was underway to give Turk a lie detector test which would either “clear him or hang him.” Still in jail in Humboldt County, deputies had yet to question him because they were busy “checking out various aspects of the case which may or may not involve him.” HCSO’s Deputy Harvey Larson had flown to Sacramento the day before with a sampling of green paint from a car formerly owned by Turk to have the Bureau of Criminal Investigation compare it to paint found on Weitzel’s car. 

The article made vague mention of a second person also “believed involved” who was “expected to be questioned separately.” 

Around the time Weitzel vanished, Turk was living near Bull Creek in Southern Humboldt but had specifically been away from that area from Friday-Saturday, around the same time Weitzel was slain Deputy, Gene Cox explained

It was reported that when Turk returned to Bull Creek, his vehicle’s windshield and both the driver and passenger windows were “smashed from the inside out…as though a terrific struggle had taken place.” Once again vague, Deputy Cox reportedly said that several other incidents appeared to link Turk to the slaying but described these leads as “thin.”

Once again, references to Weitzel’s case go cold. Beyond this last update in the Humboldt Times we could not locate any references of her death until the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office released their list of cold cases last year. 

It has been 64 years since Vera Weitzel, the wife of a Navy man, left her boarding house in Eureka and disappeared. Several months later she was found bludgeoned to death at the bottom of a ravine east of Blue Lake. Despite law enforcement’s identification of multiple suspects, Weitzel’s murderer was never brought to justice.

HCSO asks that if anyone has information to share about unsolved crimes to contact the “Crime Tip Line at 707-268-2539, submit information using our Online Crime Tip Form, or email hsotipline@co.humboldt.ca.us. Please reference the case number associated with the case when reporting information.” Vera Weitzel’s case number is 195806326.

Humboldt’s Cold Case Coverage

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Matt LaFever
Matt LaFeverhttps://mendofever.com/
I like to think of myself as a journalist for the everyman. Journalism has become a craft practiced largely by the urban elite. It’s time to take it back. I have been an Emerald Triangle resident since 2006 and this is year ten in Mendocino County. Please, email me at matthewplafever@gmail.com if you know a story that needs to be told.

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