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The Lava Lake Murders: One of Oregon’s Oldest Unsolved Crimes

How did the bodies of three fur trappers end up in a frozen lake?

lava lake murders
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  • Photo Credit: Deschutes Pioneers' Gazette

“Even though the weather was perfect,” Sheriff Claude McCauley wrote in an official police report, “the clear air was impregnated with the odor of death and decomposition and it was with an undefinable spirit of awe and consternation that the little party of hardy outdoorsmen laid aside their packs, kicked off their snowshoes, and prepared to tackle a grim job which was little to their liking.”

It was April of 1924, and the “grim job” in question involved hauling three bodies from the frigid waters of Big Lava Lake, a picturesque body of water located in Oregon’s Deschutes County, near the foot of Mount Bachelor. The human remains belonged to Dewey Morris, Edward Nickols, and Roy Wilson, fur trappers who had overwintered at a cabin not far from the lake.

By all accounts, trapping had been going well. Witnesses in the nearby town of Bend reported Nickols coming into town the week before Christmas with a sled full of furs in a “jovial” mood, while Allen Wilcoxen, a resort owner traveling by snowshoe to Elk Lake, stopped in to visit the three men after Christmas and reported that they were all in good spirits. Aside from their killer or killers, he was the last person to see them alive.

When a search team arrived at the cabin in April, after no word from the men since January, they found the place cold and abandoned. The table had been set for a meal, and burnt food was on the stove, but there was no sign of the men—at least, not at first. Closer inspection uncovered disquieting details. A fox pen outside the cabin that should have held five valuable foxes stood empty, and in one corner the searchers found a claw hammer stained with blood.

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From there, the search party fanned out, checking the traps the men had left behind in the surrounding woods. In them, they found the frozen bodies of foxes, martens, and a skunk, suggesting that the men had been neglecting the traps for some time. Of Wilson, Nickols, and Morris, however, there was still no sign.

The first indication of their whereabouts came the following day, after Deschutes County Sheriff Clarence Adams arrived to begin an investigation. Searchers turned up the men’s sled on the shores of Big Lava Lake—and it was stained with blood. Pools of blood were found in the thawing snow around the lake, along with clumps of hair and even a human tooth.

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  • From left to right: Dewey Morris, Roy Wilson, and Edward Nickols pose for a photo outside of their cabin.

    Photo Credit: Offbeat Oregon History

By then, authorities were pretty sure where they would find the men, and a depression in the ice of the lake seemed to confirm their suspicions. It took some time for the ice to thaw enough for the searchers to venture out by boat, but when they finally did, sure enough, they found three bodies floating on the surface. As near as the authorities could piece together, the men’s bodies had been pushed into the lake through a hole cut in the ice that had subsequently frozen over, accounting for the depression in the ice surface.

It seemed that the men might have been killed months earlier, when the ice on the lake was still thick. Autopsies would later corroborate this, suggesting that the three men had been killed not long after Allen Willcoxen left their cabin shortly after Christmas. The autopsies also revealed shocking violence perpetrated on the three men, all of them hardy outdoor types, one of them a former U.S. Marine.

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Both Wilson and Nickols had been shot in the head, though not before a shotgun blast shattered Nickols’ jawbone and destroyed much of his chest. Morris had a bullet wound in his forearm and appeared to have been beaten to death, probably with the bloodstained claw hammer that the searchers had found back at the cabin. The authorities believed that all three men had been killed at or near the cabin, their bodies then brought to the lake for disposal.

They also suspected that it might have been the work of more than one perpetrator. Though two unrelated individuals were under heavy suspicion, nobody was ever charged in the case, which remains officially unsolved to this day.

The first man they brought in was a local woodsman and moonshiner who went by the name of Indian Erickson, who was released after providing authorities with an alibi. More promising was a fellow trapper by the name of Lee Collins, who had worked with Nickols the previous winter. Some accounts claim that the two men had a falling out over a missing wallet, after which Collins threatened to kill Nickols.

As it turned out, Lee Collins wasn’t who he said he was; he was actually a fugitive named Charles Kimzey. Kimzey had broken out of prison in Idaho in the midst of serving a 15-year stint for burglary, but that wasn’t the only charge he was wanted for. Around the time he had been working with Nickols, Kimzey had also hired a stagecoach driver to take him to Idaho, only to stop halfway for a “call of nature,” knock the driver out, bind his hands, and dump him down a nearby well. 

What Kimzey didn’t know was that the driver had survived, and was ready to testify against him when he was finally captured some nine years later, in Kalispell, Montana. Kimzey had been a suspect since the beginning of the investigation, but it wasn’t until 1933 that he was finally captured and brought in for questioning.

Charles Kimzey
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  • Charles Kimzey. 

    Photo Credit: That Oregon Life

Authorities were very sure that Kimzey had killed the three trappers—and they were equally sure that he hadn’t overpowered all three men alone. But Kimzey claimed otherwise, saying that he’d been in Colorado at the time. Their case against him was too circumstantial for prosecutors to have much confidence in getting a conviction. The attempted murder charge for the driver he threw down the well, however, was on much more solid ground, and with that they believed they could put him away for many years.

They were right on that front, with the jury reaching a guilty verdict after just three hours of deliberation. Kimzey was sentenced to life in prison, though he managed to get paroled after just 25 years, when he was in his 70s. He went back to Idaho, where he lived out the rest of his days. If he knew any more about the triple homicide near Lava Lake, he never went public with it.

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Hence, the Lava Lake murders remain one of the oldest unsolved homicide cases in Oregon’s long history. Even for those who are firmly convinced that Kimzey did the deed, the mystery of who his accomplice was still hangs over the whole affair.

That’s not to say that people don’t have their suspicions. In a 2013 book called The Trapper Murders, author Melany Tupper argues that Kimzey’s accomplice was a man from Sweet Home, Oregon named Ray Jackson Van Buren. It’s impossible to ever really know for sure, though, as Van Buren committed suicide in 1938, just a few years after Kimzey was captured in Montana. A guilty conscience or a simple coincidence? We may never know.

Sources: Tillamook Headlight Herald

Featured photo courtesy of: Deschutes Pioneers' Gazette