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COLUMN ONE

Curiosity Never Vanished

Russell and Blanche Warren disappeared in 1929, leaving two sons and a mystery. The answer would be found in Bob Caso's binder.

August 12, 2004|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

PORT ANGELES, Wash. — Bob Caso had kept the ring binder for nearly 50 years, squeezed among boxes and files. Even the dust on it had been untouched for decades.

Inside were his handwritten notes of an old police case that he had stumbled upon. It was about a local couple, Russell and Blanche Warren, who vanished July 3, 1929, leaving behind two young sons. The case was never solved.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday August 14, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Missing couple -- An article in Thursday's Section A about a couple who vanished 75 years ago misspelled the surname of actor Sally Field as Fields.

The Warrens were ordinary people: He was a logger, she was a homemaker. Their disappearance was barely noted outside of this port town on the upper Olympic Peninsula.

In 1955, Caso, then 30, a longshoreman by trade and a chronically curious guy by nature, was so moved by the story of the orphaned sons that he spent a summer trying to solve the case on his own but turned up nothing.

Without intending to, he became one of a succession of men, spanning three generations, who kept the case alive. Each man was captivated by the story in his own way and built on the others' work.

"Can you imagine not knowing what happened to your mother and father?" Caso said. "They drive off one day and never come home. Can you imagine the void?"

Caso lost a daughter in a car accident. He kept photos of her in a ring binder. For years, that binder sat close to the one on the Warren case, two stories of loss, side by side.

Then in 2001, as he approached the age of 77, Caso, feeling the need to begin wrapping up his affairs, "to close my books," as it were, again thought about the boys.

He pulled down the Warren binder, dusted it off and marched into the nearest government office. There he found an unsuspecting park ranger.

"I have something you should look into," Caso recalled saying.

It was a fateful handoff.

*

The Warren tale began in the mid-1920s, when Russell, a tall, ruggedly built man who lived off the land, moved his family from his native Wisconsin to the remote western edge of the Olympic Peninsula. They lived in a small rented cabin along the Bogachiel River, just west of Forks. He cut pulp wood on contract.

The few relatives who remember him said work was all Russell did.

In 1929, he was 37. Blanche was 33. She had dark hair, dark eyes and a shy, winsome smile. Relatives said she was a devoted mother and a favorite among kids. That summer, she fell ill and landed in the hospital at Port Angeles, 50 miles east on the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

On July 3, Russell drove to Port Angeles to pick up his wife, who had promised their sons -- Frank, 13, and Charles, 11 -- she would be home to celebrate the Fourth of July. Blanche was discharged at 3:30 in the afternoon. Sometime that day, the couple bought a washing machine and some groceries, which they loaded in the back of the car.

Neither the Warrens nor their car were seen again.

Almost two weeks passed before the local newspaper noted their disappearance. Frank and Charles were taken in by nearby tavern owners. Relatives described the sons as "frantic with grief." Other kids teased the boys, saying their parents had abandoned them.

It was a theory Clallam County Sheriff Jack Pike had to consider. According to news clippings, Pike devoted much of the next two months looking for the Warrens, sorting fact from fiction. He eventually ruled out the theory that the couple ran away.

"A man who paid the hospital bill, paid $100 on a grocery bill, made two months payment on his automobile and bought a washing machine for his wife certainly wasn't contemplating running away," Pike told the Port Angeles Evening News in August 1929.

Other rumors swirled: They were killed by drunks. They were carrying moonshine and killed by a local gang. Pike even investigated what one woman reported to be a fresh grave near the Warrens' cabin. Police dug up a dead cow.

Six weeks after the disappearance, a local man reported what he thought to be "signs of a disturbance" on the west end of Lake Crescent. He found tire tracks, some broken glass and a fallen tree shorn of some branches.

The lake, west of Port Angeles, is about 8 1/2 miles long, shaped roughly like a crescent with the points facing north. Carved by glaciers thousands of years ago, the lake is bordered by jagged, snow-capped peaks.

The Olympic Highway, which opened seven years earlier, ran along the lake's southern boundary. It was a rocky, winding road with no shoulders or guardrails. The Warrens would have driven along this stretch on their way home.

Pike sent divers into the lake, descending as far as 78 feet. At that depth, the divers could not see the bottom. According to Indian legend, the lake was bottomless: What fell into Lake Crescent, it was said, was lost forever.

The spot, called Madrona Point at the time, is now known to plunge close to 400 feet. In the middle, the lake goes down beyond 600 feet, and some divers claim there are isolated pockets that descend to 1,000 feet. Given the technology of the day, Lake Crescent might as well have been a black hole.

In September 1929, according to news clippings, Pike closed the investigation.

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