I’VE BEEN THINKING about serial killers a lot lately. Or maybe I should say I’ve been thinking about Oregon’s serial killers. It all started a few months ago when I was watching my favorite serial killer television series, Most Evil. (Hey, if other people can have a favorite reality show, I can have a favorite serial killer show.) The episode recounted the story of Jerome Brudos, who killed four women in Oregon in the late 1960s. Among many other horrifying acts of violence, he was fond of cutting off his victims’ feet and using them to model his collection of women’s shoes. Back when I was a kid growing up in Salem in the late 1970s and early ’80s, he was known simply as “Brudos,” and even though he’d been locked up since 1969, my brothers often threatened to sic Brudos on me if I didn’t do their bidding. My parents, in turn, somewhat casually invoked Brudos’s name to get us to do our chores.
One could argue that my family’s rather unorthodox preoccupation with the macabre had more to do with geography than psychology. After all, we lived in Oregon. Much has been made of our dank, gray climate and its ability to nurture humanity’s dark side. This might explain why we’ve seen more than our fair share of serial killers pop up or pass through over the years. Between 1980 and 1981, there was Randall Woodfield, better known as the notorious I-5 Killer, who is supected of murdering 13 women. Dayton Leroy Rogers killed at least six Portland women in 1987. Ted Bundy was said to have cruised the streets of Corvallis for his victims. And, of course, Brudos came before all of them.
During my childhood, this seemingly constant stream of real-life bogeymen caused a general sense of panic among the adults in my life. I can clearly remember my mother having hushed phone conversations with other moms or shooing me out of the room during the evening news. Out of the blue, she’d insist on walking me to school and picking me up afterward, even though we lived only three blocks away. Growing up in an atmosphere of perpetual dread was bound to shape my identity somehow. But instead of making me cautious, it had the opposite effect—and never more so than when I was with my best friend, Terri.
Terri and I lived just a few blocks apart in a quiet Salem subdivision called Jan Ree Gardens—a place where Harvest Gold refrigerators went to die. Whenever our parents freaked out about the latest killer stalking the area—making us wear whistles and suggesting we carry mace in our school bags—we ate it up. At 16 years old, we were caught in that bewildering twilight between childhood and adulthood. We desperately wanted to bust out of the confines of our protective, worried families so we could experience the world, but we didn’t have enough actual experience to understand that what was going on in that world was scary and dangerous. It was this blend of fearlessness and naïveté that on more than one occasion put Terri and me ridiculously close to some of the more brutal scenes in Oregon’s serial-killer past.
For instance, on a frosty March night in 1984, we ended up in the middle of nowhere with our friend Raymond, a blond, teenage Indiana Jones who spent his days cruising Salem’s back roads in a beat-up Jeep, looking for abandoned houses to explore after dark. On this particular evening, Raymond took us to an old farmhouse on the banks of the Little Pudding River. The house stood tall and dark in the moonlight, with nothing but blackness beyond its broken windows. We all got as far as the front porch and then chickened out, running away as fast as our Cherokee wedge sandals would carry us.
This, as it turns out, was a very good thing. The next morning’s paper was all about a girl named Becky Darling, whose body had been found during the night alongside the Little Pudding River. According to Raymond, the crime scene was directly behind the old house.
We didn’t know the dead girl, but staring at her picture in the paper, we could see that she was just like us, with her fashionably feathered hair and colorful mall clothes. Now she was dead, and we’d been having fun within a few feet of her inglorious resting place. And because we had been there that night, we began to feel a connection to Becky, like we had a stake in solving her murder.