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  Current Issue: Summer 2003

Cold Case

A quiet alumnus solves a murder, explains how he does what he deftly does, and makes you awfully glad that he is out there protecting us and our kids. A note on detective Jon Harrington '95.

By Brian Doyle

One morning a while ago I was having coffee with Jon Harrington when he suddenly rose to his feet and said very quietly I have to go and he osmosed out of the coffee shop without a soul noticing his departure. This was remarkable, for Jon is a tall and prepossessing young man, but I swear that no one saw him slide through the door like a shadow and vanish the second he hit the street.

I sat there agog.

Later I asked him what that was all about, and he said I saw a guy who I needed to know more about, and so began a conversation about his intricate and crucial craft.

He started as a police officer in Lake Oswego. For four years he was on street patrol, responding to calls, dealing with traffic infractions, driving around paying exquisite attention. I made it a point to be involved and stay involved in calls for service, he says. Crows, boats, cars, fistfights, drunks, disturbances, accidents, anything, everything. Then I applied to be a detective. This was a whole new order of trouble. Homicide, robbery, counterfeiting, sex abuse, arson, rape, extortion, kidnapping, embezzlement, suspicious death, assault and battery, officer-involved shootings. I worked with the FBI, ATF, DEA, ICE, and other acronyms I can’t talk about, mostly on a regional narcotics task force. City, county, state, Homeland Security. A lot of drug cases. You can spend fourteen hours a day easy on a drug case, blending into the lives of the suspects. Sometimes there would be ten agents working in concert. You learn shadowing, trailing car maneuvers. You sharpen your peripheral vision. You learn how to follow someone from the front as well as behind. You learn to always move but never hurry. You learn how to dress neutral. You don’t need a disguise. You learn to blend in. You learn that dopers are paranoid and they have certain convictions that are…interesting. They think, for example, that detectives always drive Chevys and Fords and Dodges with tinted windows. They think that there are no fat or short detectives. They are not the brightest bulbs in the universe. There’s a reason most of them get caught. There were some fights, yes. Mostly with methamphetamine heads — cranksters. But there’s not as much fighting as you think. A lot of violence comes from the way you talk to people. You learn to sense imminent violence and then introduce surprise. You defuse the situation by throwing the other person off guard. The unexpected remark is usually an excellent idea. It’s the really nervous people who are dangerous. Nervous people threw things at me. Rocks, sticks, coffee mugs, shoes, one time a small boy. That guy threw his son at me. The boy was three years old. Two other officers went for the man and I caught the boy. Your goal in a fight is to not fight fair. You want to win immediately. You want to taser or spray the guy as fast as possible. I carried two guns, a taser, pepper spray, and a baton. I’ve pulled my gun but never had to use it. We learned judo, defending against attackers with knives, how to handle all sorts of guns, and ground-fighting. All fistfights ultimately end up on the ground, and you are most vulnerable on the ground, so that’s where we had the most training...

*

One Saturday evening in July, nearly thirty years ago, in a small home on the corner of Fifth Street and B Avenue in Lake Oswego, someone murdered an elderly couple named Casper and Otilia Volk. The murderer or murderers, having stabbed the Volks to death, then ransacked the house, apparently for money, and dragged the bodies from the dining room to the living room (Casper) and bedroom (Otilia) before fleeing. Casper’s wallet, in which he habitually carried between two hundred and six hundred dollars, was empty. Investigators found bloody footprints from shoes that did not match any in the Volks’ home, and bloodstains, notably on a towel, that were not from the Volks, but those were the only shreds of evidence. Investigators from three cities, the county, and the state of Oregon pursued the case for the next two years. One suspect in particular riveted their attention: a man who had been married to the Volks’ granddaughter, had passed the Volks’ house on the bus at about the time the murders were committed, and had a fresh cut on his hand deep enough to require stitches. In the months before the murders this man had been fired from his job for theft, been divorced by his wife because of drug addiction, been arrested for trying to run over his new girlfriend with a car, and was, by his own admission to a detective, involved in illegal drug deals. Over the next two years this man failed a polygraph test, offered various alibis for his whereabouts that night, immediately lost a pair of athletic shoes with the same sole print as the print found at the murder scene, offered various excuses for the cut on his hand, blamed the murder on drug lords, claimed that people had given him money with blood on it, and drew a stunningly accurate diagram of the interior of the Volks’ home although he had never been in it before the evening he claimed to have discovered the bodies. The last of his stories about where he was the night of the murders was that he stopped by the Volks’ house “to check on their well-being,” found them murdered, moved the bodies, stepped in a pool of blood, wiped off any fingerprints he might have made, and went home. He had not called the police to report the murders, he said, because he thought he would be framed for the crimes.

Despite an ocean of suspicion and a sea of circumstantial evidence, the investigators, after two years, were unable to mount an unassailable case against this man, or any other suspect, and in 1982, with enormous reluctance, they closed the investigation and filed all reports and evidence away in boxes. Eventually the boxes went to a secure installation called the special investigations unit, and there they sat, in the bottom drawer of a large cabinet in a silent room, for more than twenty years. But then one morning a quiet young man entered the unit and opened the boxes and the story woke up again.

*

Last summer, after thirteen years as a police officer and detective for the City of Lake Oswego, Jon Harrington joined the Oregon State Police. He had pondered joining the FBI, but was leery not only of the agency’s famously rapid transfers — by now he and his wife had two small children — but of the agency’s shift in priorities in recent years from major crimes to fighting terrorism. I’m all for fighting terrorism, he says, but I know what I’m good at and what I like to do, and that’s working on major crimes, which I think is the pinnacle of police work, the work that has the most potential beneficial effect. Investigating and prosecuting major crime gets the most resources because solving major crime has an immense effect on society. And to be honest I find this sort of work the most rewarding work I can do. Solving a murder, and putting a murderer in jail, is so much better, to me, than my fortieth identification theft bust, or my fiftieth meth bust. In a real sense I feel like I am up against evil. The worst is sex abuse cases. That’s the most insidious evil crime I have faced. They just tear families apart, tear apart communities and society. Those are the worst of all. A lot of guys hate handling those cases, but I didn’t, because there’s nothing more rewarding than defending kids. Nothing. But that’s been the single hardest thing I have had to do in my career. There was one case where as part of the investigation I had to go through hundreds and hundreds of photographs and videos. I sat there haunted. That was the one time it was real hard for me to let it go when I got home. Real hard.

After three months of training at the State Police academy, Harrington was assigned to the road. State Police rookies usually spend several years on the road before promotion. Harrington spent two weeks. He was then made a detective in the major crimes section of the state’s criminal investigative division, and now he drives around in a long quiet not-new-not-old car you wouldn’t notice, in which he carries two pistols, cameras, search forms, sexual exam kits, criminal code books, two phones, a police radio scanner, a computer, a global positioning unit, a recorder, his own vast personal list of police and court phone numbers, lots of wire and rope, lots of water bottles, a bulletproof vest, a raid helmet, shooting goggles, a fingerprinting and DNA kit, a hundred evidence scene markers, a tyvex suit and breathing apparatus in case of chemical attack, some other things he is reluctant to explain in detail, and a cute box of kleenex with tiny purple flowers on it.

In my field, he says, this is the best job in the state. It’s all serious stuff. Right now I have seven cases, mostly murders, all in the northwest quadrant of Oregon. This afternoon I’ll be in Saint Helens to present an attempted murder case to the district attorney. A tight case. My case. I’m responsible, top to bottom. That’s a good feeling. It’s good work. I’m proud of the work. But you learn to not get cocky, not get too confident. You want to be confident but not very. You have to be wary of expecting pattern. Leery of yourself. The more cases I had the less black and white I became. Cases have similarities, yes, and that’s where experience is very useful, but every case is different. You develop attentiveness. You learn to notice things. You get to be a serious student of faces and body language and intonation. You get very good at hearing lies. You develop an excellent bullshit filter. But you can’t get cynical or bitter, even though much of what you are doing is seeing and working with some of the worst human beings there are. They are the bottom one percent of us. You see the dark side real clear. But then you see the courage and creativity of the men and women you work with, their devotion, their commitment, their guts. Do I get weary? Yes. But there are a lot more days when I am not weary, when I have the best job in the state. I don’t lose sleep over seeing the guilty get away. I lose sleep over the possibility of convicting the innocent. That’s why you work so hard.

*

Detective Jon Harrington of the Lake Oswego Police Department read every report on the murder of Casper and Otilia Volk he could find. He pored over the evidence, the bloody towel, the bloody sheets and pillowcases, the photographs of the bloody footprint, the lie detector test results, the various alibis and accounts and testimonies. He tracked down every investigator who had worked on the case, some of them long resident in other states. Reports are only the bones of a case, he says, and you have to listen to stories to get a feel for what else is going on. He noticed that some of the evidence was missing from special investigations unit, notably the startlingly accurate diagram of the house that the prime suspect had drawn, and he tracked that down to the State Police archives — interestingly, in the same building where he would eventually work himself as a State Police detective. He got to talking to a colleague who mentioned that DNA testing in the 21st century was light years more advanced than it was in the 20th century. He remembered that two pieces of evidence had irregular blood transfer patterns, as he says carefully. Over the next two months he and his colleagues tried surreptitiously, as he says, to obtain a DNA sample from the former prime suspect, now living in southeast Portland. You know, coffee cups, cigarettes, gum, that sort of thing, says Harrington, but no dice. On March 29, 2006, Harrington asked the county court for a search warrant so that he could obtain four oral swabs from the inside cheek and gums of Larry Anthony, also known as Ryan O’Shawnessey, also known as Ryan Anthony. His request was granted. Harrington served the warrant himself, accompanied by two colleagues.

I knocked on the door and he opened it and as soon as he saw us he took a step back, says Harrington. I never saw a more frightened face in my life. He looked like he wanted to escape his body. He made as if to slam the door and I stepped forward slightly and he paused. I tried to talk him down, calm him slightly, but he was belligerent and tried to slam the door again. This time my foot got in the way. I read the warrant aloud. We did not record anything because in Oregon you have to alert a suspect that you are recording and as soon as you alert them they shut down. I swabbed his mouth and we rushed the swabs to the lab but usually it takes a week, so we sat on that house, we had surveillance on it almost non-stop. Four days later we get the news: it’s a match. That night we lose the suspect, and we are freaking out, but it turns out he spent the night at a friend’s house. Next day, April 4, 2006, we make the arrest.

At about 8.32 that morning, Larry Anthony walked his daughter from their house to her kindergarten. She was five years old. He then headed home. Before he got there Jon Harrington stepped out of his car and walked toward Anthony. Both men stopped. A detective and a lieutenant walked up behind Larry Anthony and they also stopped.

Mr. Anthony.

Yes.

You are under arrest for murder.

Okay.

The men behind Larry Anthony handcuffed him and read him his Miranda rights. Harrington searched Anthony and counted $126 on his person. Harrington gave Anthony’s keys, wallet, cash, and other personal property to Anthony’s wife, who was in their house. She asked to see her husband briefly, which I allowed, says Jon Harrington. We took him to the police station to be booked. I told him he would be charged with two counts of murder, one count of robbery, and one count of burglary. He said okay. Then he said that someone would have gotten hurt if he decided to fight while being arrested, that he would have taken a least a couple of us with him, and I told him that oh yes, someone would have definitely gotten hurt if he had tried to fight. Then we took him to the county jail.

But the arrest, continues Jon Harrington, is only when everything begins. Over the next year I interviewed more than sixty people in various states — relatives, colleagues, prisoners in state and federal prisons. I had to build an airtight case, and disprove every one of Anthony’s alibis and statements, of which there were many, some conflicting. I testified before two grand juries, bail hearings, motion hearings. Finally the county district attorney felt we had an airtight unassailable case, and a coherent narrative, a story that made clear sense, and the prosecutors agreed, and we went to trial. The trial took three weeks.

On the day of the verdict I was working on a burglary in Lake Oswego. I get a phone call from a friend — the jury’s done deliberating! get here fast! I get there fast, to the courthouse in Oregon City. The place is packed, and because there was a lot of publicity, it’s all secured, the courtroom door is shut tight and guarded, but they know me, and they let me peer through the glass in the door. I can’t hear anything, it’s soundproof, but I see the judge is talking, and a friend of mine inside sees me at the door, and he gives me a thumbs-up. I step back into the corridor and just stand there. Then the doors open and everyone floods out. A lot of people shake my hand. I find out later that Anthony’s son is hanging around behind me, maybe thinking he’s going to get me. Then I walk outside and get in my car, but before I go anywhere I call my wife and tell her it’s over. Then I went back to work.

Brian Doyle is the editor of this magazine and the author most recently of Thirsty for the Joy: Australian & American Voices, available through the University’s bookstore.