George A Thacher.

Why some men kill; or, Murder mysteries revealed online

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am at a man named W. P. Dean digging potatoes. I will have
two months' work there and from there I will go to Mr. Nitchman
and stay over winter. I have tried to save up a little money
and buy me a new watch. I broke mine all to pieces. I got in
a fight with a couple of drunkards and got my clothes all torn
up and besides my face beaten in and all fixed up in good shape
for awhile. I had to buy me some new clothes again and also
medicine to heal myself up. I am all right now though I have
an awful headache about them damned fools that broke my
watch up for me, but I will get even on them yet. I will shoot
their damned heads off if I ever get a hold of them and I don't
care if they put me in the place where Pender is. I don't care
a bit for that. I have to have my money to buy a new watch
again. I could not be without one. I will try with all my might
so that I get something out of them if I can. Well I must close
for this time. I remain Your son,

John G. H. Sierks.
R. F. D. No. 1 box 43 in care of L. Nitchman, write soon."

This letter the father preserved also, and when he came to
Salem after John had confessed to the murder about the first
of January, 1915, he brought this letter with the previous one
to prove that John was innocent and that he merely imagined
that he had killed Mrs. Wehrman. This letter is very significant
because it explains elaborately the scratches and broken watch
which the Sierks family, the Hunt family and the Nitchman
family all knew about as early as September 4.

There is no escape from the conclusion that John and his
father were trying to establish an alibi for John by means of
these letters in case John should be accused of the murder.

G. H. Sierks has persistently to this day denied that John was
at home at the time of the murder or even soon after, and the
truth has come out only through Lena Sierks leaving home in
1916, where she was 'so unkindly treated that the neighbors com-
plained and had her removed from her father's control. The
sworn statements of the Hunt family and the Nitchmans also
confirm Lena's statements that John was at home just before
Mrs. Wehrman's dead body was discovered.

These late discovered facts explain why Mrs. Sierks and Lena
did not tell their neighbors or the authorities as soon as they



64 Why Some Men Kill

discovered that Mrs. Wehrman had been murdered. They evi-
dently hoped that somebody else would discover the murder.
These facts indicate how John Pender, whom G. H. Sierks hated
and had threatened to kill, came to be accused of the crime.
John Sierks was to be saved from the disgrace of a murder and
Sierks' hatred of Pender was to be gratified. Sheriff Thompson
and Detective Levings accepted the theory and worked with
great industry and expense to convict Pender and finally suc-
ceeded though the jury at the first trial refused to convict. There
was a doubt of Penders' guilt that hung the first jury but after
many months public opinion became crystalized.



Chapter X
CONFIRMATION OF JOHN SIERKS' CONFESSION OF THE

MURDER

It has taken five years for the true story of this murder to
be discovered, and the two years that have passed since the
facts came out have not altered the situation. John Sierks was
at home when the inurder was committed, and the Wehrmans
and the Sierks were near neighbors. John's letters to his father,
which Mr. Sierks, Sr., was so careful to keep for several years
and then produce after John confessed, were written on John's
return to Louie Schmidt's in Washington County to establish an
alibi evidently. These letters were possibly suggested by some
friend of John's though that will probably never be known. We
only know that there must have been some motive in these letters
because John was actually at home according to his sister Lena,
and the letters pretend that he was away. The only possible
motive was to set up an alibi and throw suspicion on Mr. Pender.

The reconstructed story as related in the previous chapters
is all proven by independent testimony except the act of murder
by John Sierks in the Wehrman cabin. For that there was no
witness.

REPUDIATION OF THE CONFESSION

Some sixty hours after John Sierks had made this confession j
and after receiving a letter from his father, G. H. Sierks of Scap-
poose, saying that he had disgraced the family and that theyj



The Wehrnuin Murder 65

would pack up their goods and leave the country and never
see him again, John of his own motion wrote the following let-
ter and without consulting anyone. In fact, no one knew of it
until it came into Dr. Steiner's hands. Dr. Steiner is Superin-
tendent of the Salem Hospital.

"Salem, Oregon, Hospital Station,
"My dear Father:

January 5, 1915.

I received your letter and also the presents that my uncle and
aunts and cousins sent to me. I thank j'^ou very much for sending
them to me, I feel awful sorry that you have given me up. My
dear Father, but there is no one else to blame but myself. I
would rather be in the penitentiary than to stay all my life long
in the asylum where I cannot have my liberty. If I am at the
penitentiary I would have my liberty no matter how bad I am.
I know that when I was a boy of 14 years old what a little Devil
I was and the older I got the worse I got until I finally had to
be sent to a place where I have to behave whether I want to or
not. But I am going to make my life pretty some day when I
get a chance for I am tired of living any longer. I would rather
be dead than alive for I am convicted of murder in the first
degree. I am the murderer of Mrs. Daisy Wehrman and her
little son. I am the man that done the dirty trick and lied on
Pender. I may be in St. Helens in a few days or so on my trial
and I may see you and mother and sister and brother. Otto, for
the last time and no more.

Well, I will close for this time. With love and best regards
to you all, I remain, Your loving son,

John Sierks."

If John Sierks had not killed Mrs. Wehrman and her boy,
Mrs. Sierks and Lena would not have concealed the murder for
24 hours as they admit doing (and probably 48 hours) on the
pretense that they believed Mrs. Wehrman to be asleep lying
across the bed with her bare legs hanging over the side and her
feet on the floor, and when the door to the cabin was padlocked
on the outside and blood was on the ground which had dripped
from the cabin. If they had not been reasonably certain that
John did the deed they would have raised a hue and cry at once
when they visited her cabin.

If John Sierks had not killed Mrs. Wehrman and her boy
Mr. Sierks and his family would not have denied that John was



66 Why Some Men Kill

at home when the murder was committed, nor would these two
partly cunning and partly simple letters have been written by
John to his father and then carefully preserved by G. H. Sierks
to prove an alibi for John when the time came that John was
suspected.

If Lena Sierks had not been taken away from her father's
control the fact that John was at home at the time of the murder
would never, probably, have been established.

If John Sierks had not killed Mrs. Wehrman and her boy
he would not have gone back to work scratched up so that the
Hunt family and the Nitchman family noticed it, and John's
various explanations of it would not have been made, beginning
Labor Day and finally culminating in an elaborate letter to his
father on September 24, which was written after he had been at
home on or about September 17.

If John Sierks had not been guilty he would not have had to
inquire of the Persingers within two weeks after the murder if
his hair would grow in where it had been pulled out.

If John Sierks had not killed Mrs. Wehrman and her boy
he would not voluntarily and without suggestion said to Mr.
MacLaren that his family put him in the hospital because they
thought he killed Mrs. Wehrman.

If John Sierks had not killed Mrs. Wehrman and her boy
he would not have confessed to the crime to ease his unhappy
soul.

If John Sierks had not killed Mrs. Wehrman and her boy
he could not have told the details of the murder with the accu-
racy he showed. He did not refer to the fact that a .32 caliber bul-
let was found in the wall at the head of the bed. He only said that
Mrs. Wehrman fired her revolver at him and that the bullet
went to his right. The fact that Mrs. Wehrman had a .32 caliber
revolver was brought out at the trial and also that a .32 bullet
was dug out of the wall at the head of the bed. The fact that
the head of the bed was against the wall to the right of the door
as you enter the cabin was not brought out directly at all, but
the fact was disclosed at the time of the murder by drawings
reproduced in the newspapers and by the testimony of witnesses.
John in his story of the murder told how he took Mrs. Wehrman's
drawers off and for what purpose and where he placed them.
In repudiating his confession he said he saw that detail in a
newspaper, which is absurd.

If John Sierks had nqt killed Mrs. Wehrman and her boy the



The Wehrman Murder 67

people of Columbia County would not have been imposed upon
by a clever scheme to saddle a terrible crime on John Pender
who was hated by Sierks.

The detectives employed by the State and also the detectives
employed by the Pender family showed a complete ignorance of
the nature of the murder and the kind of man who must have
committed it, and accepted as final the statements of the Sierks
family that John was not at home at the time of the crime. If
they had been moved by a desire for scientific accuracy they
would have travelled some 15 miles and looked up John Sierks,
and then the whole thing would have come out. This would
have saved the taxpayers of Columbia County some six thousand
dollars, and would have saved them the tragedy of convicting an
innocent man.



Chapter XI
CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE

It is claimed to be a rule of law and evidence that an accused
person must be regarded innocent until he has been proven
guilty. This is the theory, but as a matter of fact we all know
that when a man is suspected of murder, arrested and accused,
we all begin to wonder how he is going to clear himself of the
charge. As a matter of fact no man can clear himself unless he
can prove an alibi — that he was somewhere else at the time — or
unless it is clearly shown that someone else committed the crime.

Circumstantial evidence from its very name obviously con-
sists of inferences from proved facts. In criminal trials, like that
of Arthur Pender, where there is nothing but circumstantial evi-
dence, it means that there is no testimony from any person as to
any overt act by the accused which tends to show that he com-
mitted the crime. It is all a question of circumstances, and those
circumstances must be such that the ordinary, every day experi-
ences of mankind justify the inferences that the conduct of the
accused person in view of the circumstances was criminal, or
else the accusation of crime falls to the ground. We frequently
hear of a "Scotch verdict," which describes the verdict "Not
Proven" in Scotland when the jury thinks there is some founda-
tion for the charge but where the evidence does not warrant a
verdict of guilty. This peculiar form of verdict does honor to
perhaps the most intellectually acute people of the modern world
for the words "not proven" may actually describe the conclusions
of intelligent men who weigh evidence and who cannot consci-
entiously convict or acquit the accused on the inferences to be
drawn from the facts or circumstances.

There are three risks in accepting circumstantial evidence as
proving or disproving an accusation of crime. The first is that
the chain of circumstances may not be complete and that the
inferences in consequence may be false. The second is that the
circumstances may not be fully or absolutely estabhshed. This
is the greatest danger of all, for it is the most common faihng of
men and women to assume offhand that a certain circumstance
is absolutely a fact when it may not be so at all. Of course an
inference from a false assumption is bound to be false. In the
every day affairs of life this is perhaps the most common cause
of failure. Men often do not get their facts absolutely, but guess



Circumstantial Evidence 69

at them in part and so frequently fail in their undertakings. In
the case of a jury trying a man for murder the careless readiness
to assume that certain circumstances arc proved when they are
really hased on an inference or a "maybe" or "might be" has
been responsible for many a miscarriage of justice. This is the
most vicious defect in the administration of the criminal law in
the United States. The trial judges leave it to the juries because
the juries are judges of the facts, and superior courts as a rule
affirm all convictions where the trial has been formally correct.
The third danger from the acceptance of the inferences from
the circumstances is that the accused person may have been
actuated by some motive known only to himself and not obvi-
ously apparent. That motive may have its roots in some per-
sonal peculiarity or even aberration which leads the accused to
act in a different way from the mass of men. For instance the
crime of murder involves wilful malice. In 1917 a man was con-
victed of murder in Multnomah County and sentenced to the
penitentiary for life. The killing was proved and the inference
from the proved circumstances was that the murder was done
with malice aforethought. However it developed wuthin 90 days
that this so-called wilful murderer was a paranoiac and had
"delusions of persecution" which rendered him entirely irrespon-
sible. The disease developed so fast after he was confined in
the penitentiary that he had to be removed to the criminal insane
ward of the state hospital. In this case the man needed to be
confined and the only injustice was the destroying of the repu-
tation of an unfortunate and wholly irresponsible person.

ARTHUR Pender's trial

In Arthur Pender's trial there was no circumstance of any
kind which necessarily connected him with the crime. In addi-
tion there was no circumstance which stood by itself as firmly
established. Even on the theory of District Attorney Tongue and
Mr. Lcvings, the detective, the validity of the circumstances all
depended upon each other. That is to say, the inference drawn
from a disputed fact was needed to help bolster up another fact
also of uncertain standing This is not only bad logic but it is
condemned in law. Its basing one inference upon another which
is forbidden. An inference based upon a fact is legitimate but a
double inference is not allowed.

THE SCRATCHED BULLETS

On Wednesday, September 6, the Sierks family informed the



70 Why Some Men Kill

sheriff that Mrs. Wehrman had been killed. It was assumed by
the sheriff from indications that the murder was committed on
Sunday, the 3rd. Then Monday, September 4, was fixed as the
day, and as the detective's theory came to be developed the time
was set sometime Monday night after 6 P. M. There was no evi-
dence to support this idea but the theory offered was that a
Colts revolver had been stolen by Pender from Riley and Has-
sen's cabin, as Pender had no Colts revolver, and that the killing
was done with this gun. The evidence that this gun was used
consisted in the fact that the bullets were scratched by a gas pit
in the barrel and that this particular gun had a gas pit which did
scratch the bullets fired out of it in a similar manner. Mr. Lev-
ings was the expert witness for the prosecution and his testimony
was absolutely contradicted by Detective Craddock, a revolver
expert on the Portland police force.

It cannot be claimed Mr. Levings expert testimony to sustain
his own theory proved the fact that a gas pit in a revolver barrel
would scratch a bullet in face of the opposing testimony of
Detective Craddock, a recognized revolver expert of years of
experience. It was simply a case of "maybe." Even if Mr. Lev-
ings was right it did not prove that this particular Colts revolver
was the only one with a gas pit in the barrel.

Then the theory that the revolver was stolen made it neces-
sary to claim that the murder was done sometime Monday night
because Riley and Hassen were at home all day Sunday and all
day Monday until nearly 6 P. M., when they left for Portland. So
the time of the murder was made to depend upon the scratch on
the bullets from which the inference was drawn that they were
fired from the revolver in Riley's cabin, but that could not have
been stolen before Monday night at 6 P. M. because the owner
was at home up to that time. In addition there was no direct
proof that the revolver had ever been stolen by anybody. That,
too, depended on the inference that the bullets could not have
been scratched by being fired from any other revolver. If the
revolver was stolen it was returned, as admitted by the prosecu-
tion. Here was another "maybe." Riley and Hassen's testimony
as to whether their cabin was entered depended on the appear-
ance of a window blind and the condition of the trunk. The time
when it was entered was also disputed by the very owners of the
cabin at the different trials. They came home on September 10
and on September 17 . If they did not discover the signs of en-
trance on September 10 (the murder occurred a week before)



Circumstantial Evidence 71

then the whole theory that this particuhir revolver was used fails.
Here is another "niaybe" for the testimony of the prosecution's
witnesses was contradictory. There was also a complete uncer-
tainty as to whether the revolver was loaded when placed in the
trunk and when found afterwards or whether it was placed in
the trunk unloaded and later found loaded. Here is still another
"maybe."

The accusation of murder against Mr. Pender depends on the
theory that he stole the revolver Monday night, used it to kill
Mrs. Wehrman and returned it loaded, and that theory rests
entirely on the fact that the bullets were scratched. That is to
say '*maybe" the bullets were scratched by Riley's revolver and
"maybe" not. "Maybe" Riley's cabin was entered before the
murder and "maybe" not. "Maybe" the revolver was taken from
the trunk and "maybe" not. "Maybe" the revolver was loaded
when placed in the trunk and "maybe" not. "Maybe" Mrs. Wehr-
man and her child were murdered Monday night and "maybe"
not. "Maybe" Mrs. Wehrman and her child were killed with
Riley's revolver and "maybe" not. It all depends upon the
scratches on the bullets found in the Wehrman cabin. There was
nothing but "maybes" offered by the prosecution in addition to
the bullets.

WHERE WAS MR. PENDER?

The theory of the use of the revolver just referred to depends
upon Mr. Pender's stealing it sometime in the evening of Septem-
ber 4 and then going to the Wehrman cabin. Mr. Pender said he
was in his tent house near Riley's (which was a mile from Wehr-
man's cabin) the evening of September 4 and that he had a lan-
tern lit inside. A neighbor who passed testified that he did not
see the light from the lantern shining through the tent fly. It was
not claimed that anybody saw Pender. The witness did not see
the light in the tent so the inference was offered to the jury that
Mr. Pender had stolen the revolver and gone to the Wehrman
cabin — "maybe."

Mr. Pender used to get the mail at Scappoose and put it in a
box near his tent house for his neighbors to help themselves. An
Iowa paper and a small package were found unopened in the
Wehrman cabin, and to support the theory that Mr. Pender took
them there was the testimony of a very contradictory nature that
Mr. Pender asked for the Wehrman mail on Monday. "Maybe"
he did. The Supreme Court of Oregon in its opinion on the
Pender case uses the following words : "He (Pender) may have



72 Why Some Men Kill

taken the Bates package and have kept it until he obtained the
Iowa paper the next day, and he may have taken the package
and the paper to the Wehrman cabin on Monday night as an
excuse for making a call on Mrs. Wehrman, and the murder
may have been committed immediately thereafter." The highest
court in Oregon thus tells how "maybe" the whole thing hap-
pened. The Supreme Court did not know that Mr. Wehrman
testified at the preliminary hearing a few^ weeks after the mur-
der that the "package" was at his cabin on Sunday before he left
for Portland. This eliminates the package, but it's pure guess
work as to the paper, as the Supreme Court admits in saying that
Pender may have taken the paper to the Wehrman cabin.

SCRATCHES ON MR. PENDER's FACE

Foreign matter was found under Mrs. Wehrman's finger nails
and some witnesses testified that Pender's face was scratched.
Other witnesses as well qualified apparently as the first did not
see any scratches. The inference that Mrs. Wehrman scratched
Pender's face from the fact that there was foreign matter under
the finger nails of Mrs. Wehrman's hands was not sustained by
testimony. It's another case of "maybe." This is a doubtful
"maybe" because Mrs. Wehrman in her struggles had pulled out
some brown hair from someone's head and the hair was found
in her dead hands. The hair was brown and Pender's hair is
black.

In the Pender trial there were no circumstances established
in connection with the murder of Mrs. Wehrman and her child
from which any legitimate inferences could be drawn connecting
Mr. Pender with the murder. The only facts were that the bullets
found in the Wehrman cabin were slightly scratched and that
there was foreign matter under the finger nails of Mrs. Wehr-
man's hands and some brown hairs in her fingers. It was not a
fair inference nor a safe inference that Riley and Hassen's Colts
revolver locked in a trunk in a locked house a mile away was the
only revolver from which these bullets could have been fired.
Neither was it a fair inference nor a safe inference that Mrs.
Wehrman scratched Mr. Pender's face. The fact that the hair
in her fingers was brown while Mr. Pender's hair is black goes
directly against the inference that Mr. Pender was assaulting her
and that she fought and scratched him.

The whole theory of the prosecution of Mr. Pender rested on
the bullets and foreign matter under Mrs. Wehrman's finger



Circnmstantiiil Evidence 73

nails and the brown hairs. The stolen revolver, the mail, Pen-
der's presence at the scene of the murder are all inferences or
"maybes," and each of these inferences had to depend upon the
others for mutual support.

However the jury convicted Mr. Pender of murder and the
court sentenced him to be hung. This sort of thing was accepted
as circumstantial evidence under the laws of Oregon and ap-
proved by trial judge and accepted by the Supreme Court of
the state in this fashion. Mr. Pender "may" have taken the pack-
age, he "may" have kept it till he got the Iowa paper, he "may"
have taken the paper and package to the Wehrman cabin as an
excuse and the murder "may" have been committed immediately
thereafter.

The distressing thing in the Pender trial as well as in the
Branson trial where inferences were based on inferences and
they in turn on other inferences in order to justify the convic-
tions which were obtained in the trial courts, and w^hich were
tacitly approved by the Supreme Court of Oregon, is the undeni-
able fact that in Sections 783, 784, 785 of Bellingers and Cotton's
Code, and Sections 794, 795, 796 of Lord's Oregon Laws, it is ex-
plicitly stated as the law of Oregon that "an inference must be
founded on a fact legally proved." These laws were adopted in
Oregon as long ago as 1862 and there is more than one decision
of the Supreme Court resting entirely on this state law concern-
ing indirect evidence.

The most noteworthy case was the Hembree murder trial
where a conviction was reversed by the Supreme Court on this
particular point. The case is to be found in the 54th Oregon
Beports.

A. J. Hembree lived on a farm in Tillamook County with his
wife and daughter, Ora, and two boys. Ora was 18 years old.
On December 26, 1905, the two boys went aw^ay from home to
visit some relatives. On December 28 at 2:45 A. M., Mr. Hembree
appeared at the home of Mr. Hoyt, a neighbor, and inquired if
his wife and daughter had arrived. On receiving a negative
answer he said his house had burned down and that his wife and
daughter were out in the cold. Mr. Hembree had arrived at the
Hoyt's onl}^ partly clad and was suffering acutely from hernia, as
he had left his truss off on going to bed, and so he asked that
James Thompson, a brother-in-law of Mr. Hoyt's go and look


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Online LibraryGeorge A ThacherWhy some men kill; or, Murder mysteries revealed → online text (page 7 of 13)