Link to Owner Dr. Robert B. Pamplin Jr.



>   Growing up in Madras in the '60s and '70s, you heard about it often, visions impaling your imagination most every time you sat in a car that crossed that skinny Crooked River Gorge bridge.
   This year is the 50th anniversary of the most shocking, heinous, infamous murder in Jefferson County history -- the killing of two children by Jeannace Freeman and their mother, Gertrude May (Nunez) Jackson. The women, thinking the children were interfering with their sexual relationship, tossed the kids into the Crooked River Gorge.
   A Madras resident, Dotha Patterson, recently emailed information to me that I didn't know: that the two victims are buried in Madras, beneath small, hard-to-spot grave markers in the northwest side of Mount Jefferson Memorial Park.
   That point, to share that information -- and to invite readers to ponder how that case must have affected our county a half century ago -- has inspired this recounting.
   It was Friday, May 12, when the incident began to unravel. The nude, broken bodies of the children were spotted on the floor of the Crooked River Gorge, about 360 feet below. Local authorities initially had no clue as to who they were; no local children had been reporting missing.
   Sheriff S.E. Summerfield's first break in the case came when a Culver man, Clyde Witcraft, reported to him a hunch that the kids might be those of his stepdaughter's friend. His stepdaughter, Jeannace Freeman, just 19, and her friend, Gertrude May (Nunez) Jackson, 33, had stopped at his place early Thursday, May 11. They told him they were on their way to Oakland, Calif. They'd mentioned that Jackson's kids were in a foster home.
   Mr. Witcraft knew that Freeman and Jackson lived in Eugene. That was all the sheriff had, but he took the lead, sent photos of the bodies to Eugene authorities, who began to search for someone who might know them, targeting neighbors of Jackson. A Phyllis Round, Jackson's neighbor of about four months, was pretty sure the kids were Jackson's. She, and three others, were brought to Madras, where they positively identified the children.
   The children, and their mother and Freeman, were last spotted together in Klamath Falls, on Wednesday, May 10. When Gertrude Jackson and Freeman rolled into Freeman's stepfather's home Thursday, they were alone.
   Following the confirmation of the victimss bodies, an all-points warrant was issued for Jackson and Freeman. They were arrested a few hours later, near San Francisco. Early reports indicated that they admitted -- separately and with conflicting stories -- to tossing the children from the bridge.
   On Sept. 5, the trial would begin in Madras, in the newly built courthouse. A jury of eight men and four woman heard the case, prosecuted by Jefferson County District Attorney Warren Albright. The judge restricted any child under age 12 from attending.
   In late August, just prior to the trial, Jackson turned state's evidence. Represented by local attorney Sumner C. Rodriguez, Jackson testified that, while at the gorge wayside, Freeman had told her to leave the vehicle for a moment, and when she returned, Larry was naked and unconscious. Later testimony would indicate he'd been beaten by a tire iron.
   Jackson testified that she, herself, then took her daughter from the car, pulled the girl's blouse off, then tossed her into the canyon. She said the girl was alive at the time she was thrown.
   Freeman's trial ended on Sept. 15, when the jury deliberated for a short time. Jury foreman Amos Fine gave their decision at 7 p.m. that Friday. Guilty. She'd be the first woman in Oregon to be sentenced to death.
   By testifying against Freeman, Jackson received a life sentence for killing her daughter. But she was released after seven years.
   Following her incarceration and death sentence, Freeman began a series of appeals which bought her more time. In 1964, Oregon abolished the death penalty and her sentence was commuted to life.
   Freeman was released from prison in 1983, changed her name to Wilma Lin Rhule, and had difficulty staying completely free of post-release legal troubles. She eventually landed back in jail after pulling a knife on some acquaintances because she wanted them to drive her to a store. She died in 2003.
   The big expanse bridge build just over a decade ago seems to quiet the haunt, somewhat, but it's still there, something those raised here can't fully extinguish, a stain attached to our history.
   For the two innocent victims? Two tiny markers, now nearly overcome by grass, in a cemetery in a town they may never had seen. But the community in which they rest, it weeps for them, still cringes at the crime that brutally stole their lives -- still, 50 years later.
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