Persistent police work and a corduroy kneeprint in a muddy river bank led to the arrest of a teenage Pendleton boy in a shocking murder case in October 1943.
June Reiman, a 16-year-old resident of the McKay Creek district five miles south of Pendleton, left her home Oct. 3, 1943, armed with a .22 rifle. She told her family she was going to hunt along the creek, but when she hadn’t returned by sunset a search party was formed. Her partially nude body was found just 150 feet from the family home in a grassy, brushy area at about 8 p.m. that evening. A blow to the head and asphyxia from blood in her lungs were determined to be the cause of death. There were no signs of a struggle, and the rifle was not found with her body.
A manhunt was formed, but clues were scarce. Local, county and state investigators joined the search, and the .22 rifle June had been carrying was found the next evening in a pool of water about 150 feet away from where June’s body was discovered. The gun’s stock was partly broken, indicating that it was likely the weapon used to strike her head. A medical examiner’s inquest into June’s death revealed that, although an attempt had been made to attack her, no sexual assault had been committed. A 60-year-old man found walking along the highway near the murder scene was held by police for questioning, but he was not charged with a crime and was eventually released.
June’s funeral was held Oct. 6 with schoolmates from Pendleton High School serving as pallbearers and singers.
Almost a week later, Pendleton police arrested a 14-year-old boy and charged him with June’s murder. Ronald Elder, a ninth grader and neighbor of June’s on McKay Creek, was identified as a suspect after a confidential tip that he had come home the night of the murder with wet feet. After his arrest, Elder was taken to the riverbank where the impression of corduroy trousers had been found in the mud. Elder immediately confessed to the killing in front of three police officers. Elder said he had come across June the afternoon of her death and they had walked along the creek bank together, planning to shoot fish in the deeper pools in the creek. She had allowed him to carry her rifle. He was walking behind her, he said, when suddenly an uncontrollable urge to kill her came over him. He pointed the rifle at the back of her head and fired.
After June fell to the ground, Elder turned her onto her back and started to undress her, but a noise in the bushes startled him and he ran, crossing the creek and tossing the rifle into a nearby pool — but he slipped, and went down on one knee on the bank. He returned to the highway where he had left his bicycle and returned home. He later joined the search party, coming near her body twice during the evening.
Elder denied having clubbed June with the rifle, and eventually led officers to the recovery of a single .22 shell casing near the crime scene. But the autopsy revealed no trace of a bullet. Despite the discrepancy, Elder was charged with second-degree murder.
Ronald Elder pleaded guilty to the murder of June Reiman on Nov. 16, 1943, and was sentenced to a mandatory life prison sentence. Instead of serving his sentence in the Oregon State Prison, Elder was held in the state prison hospital due to his age. State penitentiary warden George Alexander said he had not made plans for Elder’s education, but thought maybe they could make a dentist out of him in perhaps five or six years. He would be eligible for parole after serving seven years of his sentence.
Elder eventually was freed from prison, married and had a family. He died Oct. 29, 2004, at the age of 75 as the result of injuries from a car accident.
Renee Struthers is the Community Records Editor for the East Oregonian. See the complete collection of Out of the Vault columns at eovault.blogspot.com