Tunnel 13: How Forensic Science Helped Solve America's Last Great Train Robbery
Every fall, the maples and dogwoods color the foothills of southern Oregon with yellow and orange highlights, flaring vibrant among the dark green pines. Through these Siskiyou Mountains, the railroad line once known as the “Road of a Thousand Wonders” snakes its way toward California, crossing moss-covered ravines on rickety trestles and piercing the mountain ridges with long dark tunnels. This segment of the Southern Pacific railroad line is all but abandoned today, and walking among the decaying railroad ties and rusting steel tracks, it is hard to imagine that exploding dynamite once filled the air with black smoke, and bloody bodies were left to die on these tracks. But on a distant October morning in 1923, this was the site of the West’s last great train robbery, committed by three deranged criminals: the DeAutremont brothers.
This cowardly and murderous event outraged America, leading to an intense manhunt. The crime itself is a story that has been told many times, but much less has been written about the pioneering use of forensic science in the investigation that followed. Few people realize that the remote mountain wilderness of southern Oregon was the location of many law enforcement firsts in the United States.
On October 11, 1923, the Southern Pacific train #13, called the Oregon–California Express, was slowly laboring up the Siskiyou grade, on its way to San Francisco. Normal safety procedures called for slowing the train at the top of the Siskiyou Pass to test its brakes before the steep descent into California. At that moment three men, who had been hiding next to the then well-known Dollarhide toll road, climbed aboard just as the train entered Tunnel 13. These men were later determined to be the three DeAutremont brothers: twins Roy and Ray, and their younger brother Hugh.
Once on board, the DeAutremonts leveled their sawed-off shotguns at engineer Sydney Bates, and forced him to stop the train inside the tunnel. They focused their attention on the mail car, which they apparently believed was carrying cash or other valuables. Seeing the armed robbers approaching, Postal Clerk Elvyn Daugherty locked himself in the secure mail car. However, this quick action was not enough to save the young clerk. The DeAutremonts had come prepared with a large charge of dynamite, which they attached to the door of the mail car and detonated, blowing Elvyn Daugherty to pieces. A brakeman named Charles Orin Johnson who emerged into the smoked-filled tunnel to investigate the cause of the explosions was gunned down and killed. The DeAutremonts then ordered engineer Sydney Bates to move the engine forward and fireman Marvin Seng to uncouple the mail car. However, their dynamite explosion had caused such damage that the railroad cars couldn’t be separated, and the mail car was so filled with smoke that they couldn’t find the money they had planned to steal. Faced with the complete failure of their robbery, and determined to leave no witnesses, the DeAutremont brothers murdered engineer Sydney Bates and fireman Marvin Seng in cold blood, shooting them as they held their hands in the air (the coroner later determined that the bullets went through the raised arms of the victims before striking their temples). The DeAutremonts then fled, leaving death, destruction, widows and fatherless children behind.
The Crime Scene and the Evidence
Crime scene investigations in 1923 were based on good old-fashioned logic by street-smart law enforcement officers. As soon as responding personnel realized that engineer Sydney Bates and fireman Marvin Seng had been shot, posses formed to look for the murderers. The largest man hunt ever assembled included Southern Pacific railroad investigators, local citizens, members of the Oregon National Guard, personnel from Sheriff’s office from California and Oregon, and local police officers. All these individuals collected evidence they deemed important. A novel idea was to use airplanes to fly low over the mountains looking for suspects, a law enforcement first.
About 2 miles south of Tunnel 13, a cabin was found which showed evidence of recent habitation and was thought to have been used while planning the holdup. This became a second focus of the investigation. Several other campsites were discovered that appeared to have been used during the escape. Examination of case records in the sheriff’s office of Jackson County, Oregon, reveals the following partial list of the evidence collected from the tunnel:
- One colt automatic pistol 45 caliber
- One pair of “Pay Day” brand bibbed overalls
- Detonating machine
- Fuse wire and cap
- Several 45 caliber shells
- 12 gauge shot gun shells
- Some of the evidence collected from the cabin and campsites included:
- One towel from cabin near tunnel
- One union suit from cabin near tunnel
- Three brown canvas blanket bags
- One scorched coat
- One valise
- Two cans
- One pair of gloves, leather
- One pair socks, from cabin near tunnel
- Three pieces of wire and bone from cabin fireplace
- Two gun wipers cloth
- The beginning of Forensic Science in the US
Once the evidence had been collected, cataloged and compiled, the State and Federal law enforcement authorities knew precisely how the crime was committed, but had no clues as to who the criminals were. Therefore, they decided to send the evidence to a 42 year old chemistry professor at the University of California at Berkeley who had had some success in helping Southern Pacific railroads with minor train robberies. His name was Edward Oscar Heinrich.
In the early 1920s, crime labs existed only in Europe. The world-famous FBI crime lab was not founded until 1932. Therefore it must have been a bold move for law enforcement personnel to submit evidence to a university professor in 1923. Professor Heinrich used meticulous scientific processes to examine the evidence and his analyses yielded surprising results. Until recently, the only available information about Professor Heinrich’s conclusions were the sketchy news reports of the day. However, new discoveries in the archives of the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley — reported here for the first time — give us the first detailed documentation of Heinrich’s pioneering forensic work. For example the results of the analysis of the “One pair of ‘Pay Day’ brand bibbed overalls” reads:
“In the pencil pocket at the left side of the bib watch pocket on the left front bib of the overalls I found a receipt for a registered letter, postmarked “Eugene, Oregon, September 14, 1923 Registered.” This receipt is numbered 2361 and is initialed for the postmaster per “B”.
From a microscopic examination of the dust, hair, and fibers collected from the pockets, chemical analysis of the stains on the garment, and a study of the set of his garment induced by wear, I am of the opinion that the wearer and owner was a lumber jack employed in a fir or spruce logging camp. I computed him, subject to revision with further data which might be found, to be a white man not over five feet ten inches tall, probably shorter; weight not over 165 pounds, probably less. Age between 21 and 25. When in city clothes he is a careful dresser, neat in appearance, has medium light brown hair, complexion fair; has light brown eyebrows; well developed and small hand and feet.
I found the suspenders of the overalls were handled exclusively from the left side, also the pockets on the left side to be those most frequently used. The left suspender I also found to set ¾ inches higher over the left shoulder that the right.”
From a forensic point of view, these inferences from a pair of overalls are amazing — better than TV scripts for popular CSI shows. The registered receipt that had escaped everyone’s notice was a crumpled piece of paper found deep in the narrow pencil pocket. This receipt focused the investigation on the DeAutremont brothers, ultimately confirming many of the details inferred by Professor Heinrich.
In the analysis associated with the Siskiyou train robbery Professor Heinrich conducted handwriting comparisons, examined latent fingerprints, bullets, cartridges, fibers, hairs, stains, blood, etc., and conducted serial number restoration on the recovered handgun. Thus, he used most of the techniques that are still used today to deduce how and who committed the crime.
Heinrich was able to link a .45 caliber gun found at the crime scene with Ray through serial number restoration. Hair recovered from the “Pay Day” bibbed overalls place Roy at the crime scene and it was established that Hugh was at the planning cabin by analyzing the handwriting on sale receipts for supplies. After the media publicized Heinrich’s deductions, he was often referred to as the “Wizard of Berkeley” or the “Edison of crime detection”.
The DeAutremont case validated the power of forensic science and crime scene investigation, and in late 1923 Los Angeles established the first police department crime laboratory in the United States. Its director was August Vollmer, a student of Professor Heinrich who had been Chief of the Berkeley Police Department.
Even with Professor Heinrich’s work, it took four long years for the fugitive DeAutremont brothers to be apprehended. At the time this was the most extensive and expensive manhunt in the U.S. More than 2 million wanted posters of the brothers were ultimately printed in Spanish, French, Portuguese, German and Dutch. All in all, over $500,000 ($6.5 million dollars in today’s economy) was spent in the search for the DeAutremont brothers, who were finally arrested in 1927. The youngest, Hugh DeAutremont had joined the US Army and was stationed in the Philippines. He was recognized by a fellow soldier who saw the DeAutremonts’ wanted posters when he was transferred from the Philippines back to California. Hugh was convicted of first degree murder by a jury of his peers in the Federal Court house in Jacksonville, Oregon. The two other brothers were also recognized from posters and were arrested in Ohio by FBI agents in June 1927. After their extradition to Oregon, Roy and Ray DeAutremont pled guilty to first degree murder. All three of the DeAutremont brothers were sentenced to life in prison and were transferred to the Oregon state prison in Salem, Oregon.
At the time, there was much controversy that the DeAutremonts had escaped the death penalty, as indicated by the following editorial in the San Francisco News Letter following the verdict:
The Railroad Murders
There has been much dissatisfaction over the fact that the de Autremont brothers should have escaped the death penalty for their crime in the robbery and murders attendant upon their criminal attack on a Southern Pacific train. It was one of the most dastardly and contemptible crimes in recent history and involved the killing of three workingmen, whose deaths were not even necessary to the carrying out of the robbery.
We are of the opinion that the so-called confession of Hugh de Autremont bears on its face a certain unreal swagger and insincerity which should cause it to be regarded with great suspicion…
The question presented by this case is not very easy of solution. For many reasons it would seem better that the crime should have been proved against them by the State, if only for the purpose of showing the criminally inclined that in the long run a crime career is not a paying career. It is very important that this lesson should be impressed upon wavering youth and it does not seem to us that the method taken of ending the de Autremont case was the best method. Somehow the punishment does not seem to fit the crime. San Francisco News Letter (July-Dec. 1927)
By today’s standards the twin DeAutremont brothers would probably have been diagnosed with mental illness. Roy was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1949, and given a frontal lobotomy that left him unable to care for himself. He was paroled in 1983, and died soon afterward. Ray was paroled in 1961, after expressing repentance for his crimes. He lived in Eugene until his death in 1983. Hugh had been paroled in 1958 and died of cancer less than a year later.
Legend has it that for decades after the crime, railroad engineers who traveled close to the Oregon State prison blew their horns in contempt for the DeAutremont criminals. Sadly, today we know more about the murderers than of the families of Postal Clerk Elvyn Daugherty, brakeman Charles Orin Johnson, engineer Sydney Bates, and fireman Marvin Seng, who perished at a time when there was only meager compensation for dying on the job.
Post-Postscript: Unsolved Mysteries
In their quest to find the lost original report of Edward Oscar Heinrich, the authors have studied multiple first sources that had not been examined for over 80 years. This research has produced a number of fascinating discoveries.
The timeline at the crime scene indicates that the DeAutremonts had perhaps as much as an hour to search the blown-up mail car, but it is commonly accepted that the murderers got away with nothing. Therefore it was an astonishing surprise to find at the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office witness statements that imply the DeAutremonts had something to hide.
First there is a witness statement by an Ashland resident called L. Zundel who describes two individuals in the company of a suspicious person described as follows:
“…one unknown party was at the summit of the Siskiyou Mountains just opposite the tunnel at the little hotel on the hill on the sixth day of December 1923, 9 am. The lady that runs the hotel states they came up about 5:30 or 6 am, made arrangement for breakfast, and then went some place. On their return they ate breakfast…(they) gave the following description of the small man: age 22 or 23, dark complexion, wore dark cap, blue waiste (sp) overalls, height 5.6, weight about 140 pounds, small features, small dark eyes, wore dark vest coat”
A few hours later on the same morning the above described man called at a little cabin near the foot of the Siskiyou, occupied by a wood cutter, and asked him if he had been in the loft of the cabin recently, and he replied that he had; ask him if he had found any package, stating that he had left some walnuts there the year before, and the wood cutter stated he did not believe there was any there but replied he would look and see. (He) unlocked the cabin and the wood cutter boosted him into the loft. He reached under the two floors and brought out a mackinaw coat which was all rolled up seeming to contain something light, in weight, probably would weigh 30 or 40 pounds, very well done up. He then left with the package toward the highway, north.
The second witness statement comes from the T.B. Gosnell from Ashland and is the wood cutter described above. He states:
“I am a wood cutter and have a cabin in the foot of the Siskiyou Mountains, on Wall creek, near tunnel 16 in the Siskiyous. About December 6, 1923, a man about 5 foot 6 inches, perhaps 25 or 30 years of age, small eyes, dark, came to my cabin quite early in the morning got a mackinaw coat from the loft of the cabin. He said this coat contained walnuts that he had left there early the fall. I assisted him into the loft and helped him down with this bundle. It weighed perhaps 20 pounds and it did not appear to me that it contained walnuts. The coat was tied up so as to afford a wrapper for something. As near as I can recall it was a plaid mackinaw coat, dark in color and dirty.
Frank Stullenberger found a mackinaw coat in a creek bank near a stump of a tree about 300 yards from this cabin.
I found a grub hoe, pick and shovel under some brush about a quarter of a mile north of this cabin, and about a hundred yards from the Pacific Highway about March 1924”
The third witness statment comes from Frank Stullenberger from Ashland. His statment is:
About March 10, 1924, I found a red and black checked mackinaw coat … in the bed of a creek about 350 yards from my cabin in the Siskiyou Mountains, near the S.P. Ry. Track. In the pocket of this coat was part of an El Paso, Texas, newspaper, dated February 24, 1924. (El Paso Times). This paper was in a breast pocket, under the overplaing flap of a loggers jacket. … The coat had two or more cuts in it, one in the back, perhaps an inch and a half wide, appeared to have been cut with a sharp knife blade….
There is a little cabin in an out of the way place on the Nellie Russell place which apparently has not been occupied for several years. “DeAutremont Bros.” is written on the back door of this cabin with lead pencil. I saw this in January, 1924.”
Given these statements is it feasible to construct the following scenario: The DeAutremonts may have had logistical support and accomplices (e.g., the small dark man). After the train robbery they escaped with something valuable and hid it in the loft of T.B. Gosnell’s remote cabin. Twenty-five days later the accomplices recovered the loot. The Southern Pacific Railroad, which kept meticulous shipping records, may have had its own reasons for never revealing the nature of their losses in this last great western train robbery.
It is tempting to speculate that the DeAutremonts had help. Otherwise how can one explain their incompetence during the crime but their resourcefulness at avoiding capture in the face of organized searches by so many competent law enforcement agencies? Clearly these speculations cannot be proven since all parties have undoubtedly passed away. But the common portrayal of the DeAutremont brothers as dim-witted and misguided youths who eventually repented of their crimes may be more of a romantic notion than reality.
Perhaps the best epilogue to this story was stated by Frank Stullenberger in 1924:
“I have lived in the woods for about eight years and do not believe walnuts could be left unmolested in any open cabin for any length of time. The rats, squirrels or chip monks would be very apt to carry them away the first night…..It appears to me that some foul play has been commited in that vicinity…”
We are left with unanswerable questions, with the distant imagined echo of that explosion, the gunshots, and the cries of the innocent victims. Even the best detective can never untangle all the mysteries, and the never-ending consequences, of the DeAutremonts’ dark crime on that bright October day so long ago.
The authors gratefully acknowledge the Sheriff’s Department of Jackson County, Oregon, and the Bancroft Library of the University of California at Berkeley for providing access to historical materials used in researching this article.
Edgard Espinoza and Pepper Trail are forensic scientists at the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Oregon.