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OUT OF THE VAULT: Body found in Columbia defies identification

Published on November 25, 2017 3:00AM

Two Eastern Oregon men stopping at the Columbia River near Wallula in November 1923 to refill the radiator of their car discovered a skeleton with a fractured skull in the river, weighted down with rocks.

Clarence A. Gibbs and John Fehlen found the skeleton Nov. 4, 1923, in a back eddy about 15 miles east of Umatilla, between a rock and an old log that was partially buried in the sand. Rocks were piled on the body, and the action of the water had worn away most of the flesh. Even the clothing was mostly gone. A fracture on the left side of the skull, a broken jaw and several missing teeth pointed to death by violent means.

Umatilla County Sheriff Zoeth Houser and county coroner J.T. Brown recovered the remains and what was left of the clothing. The body had been dressed in men’s outer clothing, including a mackinaw, blue vest and overalls, but the undergarments found led them to believe the deceased was a woman. The coroner determined the body had been in the water at least six months, and possibly as many as 10.

The Umatilla County district attorney received information that a man and a woman appeared in May 1923 at a house near where the body was found and asked for food. A hobo camp had existed a short distance up the river from the crime scene at the time the couple was seen in the area.

A Baker-area couple, Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Rogers, heard about the discovery and thought maybe it was their daughter, Edna Pitman, whom they had not heard from in months. Edna and her husband, Elgin Pitman, had lived near Echo for a time before disappearing. The Rogerses gave the coroner some identifying characteristics to look for on the skeleton, including curved finger and toe bones, a nicked tooth and a scar on the shin bone from an accident with an axe, all of which were confirmed by the coroner upon examination of the skeletal remains.

Edna’s parents said they did not like their son-in-law, and rumors were that he bragged about reuniting with her after a short separation so that he could kill her. Law enforcement immediately began a search for Elgin Pitman.

Meanwhile, on Nov. 19, the sheriff’s office received information about another possible identity for the body: Josephine Covak, who had gone missing April 6 from her home in Portland. An O.-W. R & N. railroad employee identified Covak from a photo as the woman he saw in the company of a man along the railroad tracks near the crime scene in April or May of that year. The man was later seen alone along the same stretch of tracks, and was warned off by railroad employees.

On December 10, Umatilla County deputy sheriff T.B. Buffington received information that Edna Pitman had been found alive and well in Los Angeles. Photos of Edna and Elgin Pitman were sent to the sheriff’s office, and former neighbors of the Pitmans in Echo positively identified the couple. The Pitmans had moved from Echo to Burley, Idaho, and from there to Flagstaff, Arizona, before settling in Los Angeles, and were the parents of a baby girl.

The photos of the Pitmans were mailed to Edna’s parents as proof their daughter was still alive. The remains, still unidentified, were ordered interred by the coroner.


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