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.

Two months later, the police found another girl. Her name was Katie Redmond, and her empty Datsun had been found idling at a rural intersection. Police believed the killer had rear-ended her and attacked her when she got out to check the damage—a strikingly similar scenario to what police believed had happened to a Salem girl named Sherry Eyerly in 1982. Eyerly was supposed to have been delivering pizzas to an address out in the country, but her car was found by a passerby with the motor running and the door open. She was never seen again.

With these new developments, Terri and I became obsessed with the cases. We scoured the papers and bird-dogged the local television stations for any new information, but there wasn’t much to be found. Back then, there were no 24-hour news channels screaming for justice, no Wikipedic sources of specious information. So every night we discussed it over the phone, with a fervency and passion only teenagers can achieve, eventually coming to two conclusions: First, whoever killed Becky Darling and Katie Redmond must have been the same person who killed Sherry Eyerly; and second, we needed to do something about it—because we weren’t willing to leave it up to the fearful adults surrounding us to avenge their deaths.

So, armed with the supplies we felt were necessary for the apprehension of a violent criminal—two baseball bats, a can of Aqua Net, and a pack of clove cigarettes—Terri and I snuck out one night and drove to the same intersection where Katie Redmond’s car had been found, hoping to bait the killer into making a move. Sipping bright pink wildberry wine coolers and listening to a Loverboy casette tape, we talked about what must have been going through Katie’s mind the night she was killed. We speculated about the killer, wondering why he hated girls like us.

But as the fruity alcohol began to work its magic, we forgot that we were sitting in a serial killer’s known stomping grounds, forgot about Katie and Sherry and Becky, and reverted back to the silly teenagers we were, gossiping about our classmate Blake Wheeler’s bad taste in prom dates and hatching a plan to get our parents to let us go to the next Journey concert. After two hours, we drove home—drunk, yes; stupid, yes—but at least very much alive. It turned out we were still just kids after all, lured by the abstract idea of the dark side, sure, but not quite ready to focus on it for more than the 15 minutes our teenage attention spans would allow.

A few weeks later, on April 25, 1984, William Scott Smith was charged with the rapes and murders of Becky Darling and Katie Redmond. As the end of the school year neared, and the summer found us, once again, tanned and carefree, we forgot about the case almost completely.
Almost. Last December, Terri sent me an e-mail with a link to a story that had run in Salem’s Statesman Journal: Smith, already serving two consecutive life sentences in the Oregon State Penitentiary, had finally confessed to murdering Sherry Eyerly. Above the link, Terri had written just one word: Remember?

I did. I thought I’d forgotten all those people—Sherry, Becky, and Katie; Jerome Brudos; and the other Oregon killers who had come before and after him. But as I stared back at Terri’s e-mail, they reached out to me from the past, reminding me of my teenage self, when my hair was perfectly feathered and berry wine coolers actually tasted good. When I was still young enough to be sheltered from an ugly reality, but old enough to search it out on my own—and naïve enough to think I could do something about it.