That same day, Keith’s putrefying body was found. A hiker called in a tip to the sheriff's office and the sheriff and a deputy drove to the place indicated, just off a fire road. They tramped a short distance from the car, scanning the ground. Suddenly, Deputy Dewey gagged.
“God, what a stink!” Sheriff Patterson joined him and they stepped over a log and around a large bush next to a large tree. “Look at that!” the deputy said. Flies buzzed thickly around the corpse. He prodded the body, flipping it over with the toe of his boot. The last of the disemboweled body's intestines slid out on the ground with the movement. “Oh, JEEZ!!” Dewey gagged and made for a nearby bush, not quite making it before he deposited the full contents of his stomach, breakfast and all, on the ground.
“How many times do I have to tell you, 'don't move the body!'”, Patterson said, shaking his head as his deputy continued retching. 'God, I hate training new guys.' he thought to himself. He was a largish man, with an overhanging gut and thick, sausage-like fingers and a tar stained salt and pepper cookie duster mustache. He fished a large handkerchief out of his pocket and silently handed it over. “You think you'll get used to it, but sometimes it just creeps up on you. But ya gotta remember not to move the body.” The skinny deputy, naturally pale of skin but now more so than ever, nodded dumbly as he carefully mopped his face and lips.
'At least he didn't puke all over it.' The sheriff shook that thought from his mind.
“What do you think happened?” the deputy asked.
The sheriff scratched his nose and peered back at the deputy. “Well, how about you tell me what you think happened.”
Dewey took a step back from the corpse and took a breath and nearly gagged again.
“Breathe through your mouth, it helps.” The sheriff remembered his first violent death. 'At least I hadn't just eaten breakfast,' he thought to himself while he waited for the deputy to collect his wits.
Gulping air in through his mouth, the deputy looked again at the ground and noticed large prints in the dirt. “It looks like some big animal did this, a bear maybe. No gunshot does that kind of damage to a man. He’s not a hunter, so maybe someone out walking? Surprised the animal...”
“Those ARE bear tracks,” Patterson said, “so let's call it a bear.”
“OK, this guy surprises the bear. The bear feels threatened and attacks. Guy's unarmed, doesn’t have a chance to fight or run before he gets torn open, falls on that jagged stump… end of story.” He looked at the ground again. “Looks like the guy came from down that way and the bear went off that way.” pointing in two opposite directions.
“I think you're right; probably a case of the poor guy being in the wrong place at the wrong time.” The sheriff thought for a bit. There hadn't been any bear sightings recently or any this close to town for some time now. Still, this was national forest land and there were occasional reports of bear sightings further to the north, so maybe...
“Go back to the cruiser and call Fish and Game, let them know about this. Then call the coroner to come pick up the body.” Sheriff Patterson looked back down at the body. “Poor guy.” He was about to walk back to the cruiser when he spotted a broken cell phone at the base of the tree trunk. He knelt down and picked up the phone, using a plastic evidence bag like a glove, and deposited it inside the second bag from the small evidence kit. “Hmmm... that doesn't really fit. Why stop to make a call instead of running away? Unless he made a call first and that disturbed the bear.... hmmmm...” He got up and continued searching the area but found nothing further of interest. He did think he caught a whiff of something different, something like oil, but in all the stench of decay he figured it was just a mistake. He headed back to the cruiser, pulled a fat cigar from his shirt pocket, clipped the end and lit it. It was thankfully now up to the lab boys to finish up but he still had to wait for the coroner's van before he could head back to the station.
The next day, the sheriff was sitting at his desk, eying the broken cell phone in its evidence bag. Something still didn't set right about it. The prints on the phone matched the prints from the body. No surprise, really, but good to have confirmation. His deputy had just brought in the coroner’s preliminary report. The victim's name was Keith Randal, not local, the driver's license listing an address in Eugene. A check showed an outstanding warrant, and a rap sheet with several convictions for minor crimes and one for armed robbery; with time served for all of them. No cash on the body, keys seemed to be to a car, possibly a Kia, and most likely to a house or apartment, along with a small box of matches, half empty, and small pen knife. The Eugene police were checking the address out now. No emergency contact of any kind. The most interesting thing was in the last paragraphs of the report.
“Toxicology screen showed minor traces of cannabis as well as a quantity of alcohol consistent with approximately two shots of distilled liquor. Examination of the decedent's clothing was also undertaken. There were significant traces of gasoline on both the pant legs as well as the left sleeve of the decedent's shirt. Two perimortem burns were found on the back of the decedent's right hand, along with a similar burn on the right index finger and right thumb, also perimortem. These do not appear to be connected to the other injuries sustained by the decedent.
Conclusion: Decedent fell after disembowelment, striking the splintered remains of a tree stump. Cause of death was penetration of a large wood splinter through the left eye orbit into the brain. Proximate cause of death was therefore not due to exsanguination through evisceration, though this would have been fatal in itself, given the damage done to the abdomen absent other injuries. Although there was some disruption of the body position and the position of the internal organs, it is readily apparent that an eviscerating blow or blows were delivered by five-clawed object, possibly an animal's paw, most likely a bear’s.
Position and measurements of the initial penetration points and the spacing and width of the shreds of skin remaining would indicate a large object or animal, with a width between outer tines or claws of 10.5 inches.
It is my considered opinion that the decedent surprised a large bear that then attacked him, eviscerating him. Traces of bear fur found in the wounds on the body substantiate this conclusion. The decedent then, due to shock or sudden blood loss, lost consciousness and fell over. Decedent’s head impacted the splintered stump driving a sharp fragment of wood, nine inches in length, through the left eye and into the cerebrum, causing almost instant death. No foul play is suspected.”
'WHY can't these guys write in plain English?' Patterson thought to himself. He tapped his pencil on his teeth for a bit, and then reached for his phone. He dialed and waited for the deputy district attorney to pick up. “Frank, how are ya? Yeah. How's the family? Ah, that's good. Listen... yeah, I got a favor to ask. You know that body we recovered, the one on National Forest land? Yeah, we got an ID. Eugene, not local. Thing is, I found a broken cell phone at the scene. No, not weathered. Looked fresh. Yeah, by the body. You think you could get phone records, see what calls were made? No, I don't. Yeah, the prints match. It WAS right there, but why make a phone call if you are being attacked by a bear? Unless the bears are using cell phones now. Yeah, OK, I won't quit my day job. I'll send it over to ya, OK? Well, thanks, and let me know what you got? Great, thanks. My best to Doreen and the kids.”
The following afternoon, an excited assistant DA called the sheriff back. “Bobby, I got a warrant for your phone. Three calls only, but all to the same number. It's a burner phone, so not much else in the way of info for you.”
“What's the number?”
The Assistant DA chuckled. “I wondered when you were going to ask that. The number belongs to that slime-ball lawyer who makes his home in your lovely town... Valmer. Clyde Valmer.”
Events had moved quickly after that. The Eugene Police department turned up receipts for two gas cans and a credit card slip for gas in Randal's apartment, all dated two days before the fire, along with a deposit for $5,000 to Randal's checking account. The Wolverton police called in the arson squad from Albany and they developed solid evidence of arson in the ruins of the shelter, with gasoline as the accelerant. They also discovered that several of the fire extinguishers in the area of the building where the fire had started were absent. The extinguishers belonging to the shelter were found together in a clump of bushes not far from the scene. They had apparently been moved outside prior to the fire, and it was suspected that the arsonist had managed to gain access to the building and remove them so as to prevent their use. The arsonist’s finger prints, or partials, were lifted from all of the canisters. This was regarded as particularly heinous, given the deaths that occurred due to the fire. With that evidence and the phone logs in hand, the Sheriff applied for a warrant to search Clyde Valmer's office, home, and safe deposit box.
“The contents of some of the office files and the safe deposit box make very interesting reading,” the DA and his assistant said over drinks with the sheriff two weeks later. “Apparently, our friend Clyde was really anxious to get his grubby hands on the land the shelter sat on; and I've never seen such a bizarre land deed before. The original owner stipulated that he or his assignee had to show up every ten years at Valmer's law firm to renew the deed's provisions. That seems to have been done until this year. That triggered another provision that the property would belong to the current tenants if they occupied the land for a year and a day after the laps of the first provision.” He paused and took a sip of his scotch. “But, if there were no tenants, then the property devolved to the senior member of the law firm. So that meant that if he could get the tenants out and it remained empty for a year and a day, the land would be his.”
“But why the interest in the land?” The sheriff toyed with the ice in his glass.
“Yeah... good question and one that's answered by other papers in the office. It seems that there are mineral rights attached to the land...”
“You mean oil?” Patterson asked.
“Well, it could be that, but it seems not. Natural gas, a lot of it, potentially. Fracking, possibly; but it appears that a goodly portion might be accessible by just drilling. There was a USGS survey report in one of his files, it showed a good sized pocket of natural gas under a shale formation, with suspected oil. The conclusion stated that it wouldn't be economically feasible at the time to exploit. It was dated 1982.”
“A lot's changed since then.” the sheriff said.
“You got that right; the new natural gas pipeline, cheaper methods of extraction, steam and chemical fracking, all of it. And you know that Valmer had been quietly buying up land in the area...”
Bobby interrupted, finishing the DA's thought. “And that explains his hostility to the shelter. He wanted the land. Getting their permit revoked or them run out of town some way would leave the property empty and he could claim it as senior partner in the firm.” He sipped the remains of his drink. “Bastard.”
“But wait, there's more!” the Assistant DA said, “We found earlier notes in another file about how he would promise to build senior or low-cost housing on the land if he had to buy the property. It's got 'ha ha ha!' written in the margins, with smiley faces.”
“Never intended to do that, did he?”
“Nope, it never would have happened. With most of the city council in his back pocket, he would have gotten whatever permits he needed for whatever he wanted to do. He would have made a whopping profit too and we found evidence of bribes to at least one county commissioner.” The DA grinned over the rim of his glass. “Bobby, your next election around here is gonna be interesting!”
“Will you be able to make the murder charges stick against Valmer?” Patterson asked, hopefully.
“Pretty sure, what with the last body that was found at the site; the death toll was six and could have been a lot worse if the fire trucks hadn’t arrived as soon as they did. The arsonist is dead, of course; but we've got the payment in his account traced solidly back to Valmer and with the rest of the evidence we found in the office, well.... yeah, I'm sure it will stick like tar to a roof. You know, the State boys are interested in seeing this, too. Fraud, at least. Bribery. Election laws. Oh, there's a host of things besides any murder charges. And where the State goes, the Feds are sure to follow.”
“Well, I sure owe you guys for your help with this. You want another?” Bobby indicated their now-empty glasses.
“Sure! Why not?”