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.

Los Angeles Times
August 12, 2004
By Alex Tizon

PORT ANGELES, Washington – 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.
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.

Frank and Charles waited years for their parents to return, rushing to the front door of wherever they were staying when there was a knock, relatives said. For a time, they moved in with Blanche’s mother in Montana, living in an old chicken coop. Eventually they would be separated, passed to different family members. Frank grew up to have a lot of anger, relatives said. He would express it in his swagger, drinking and boisterous behavior. At 57, Frank died of acute alcoholism. Charles “was hurt all his life” by his parents’ disappearance, said Louise Allen, 88, a cousin who grew up with him.

“For years, he would talk to me about it,” Allen said. “He’d ask me what I thought happened. Of course I didn’t have an answer. Then at one point Charles just stopped talking. He bottled it all up. But sometimes I’d look in his face and I’d see the hurt still there.”

At 47, Charles, a fisherman, was lost at sea off the coast of Northern California. The remains of his boat (police believe it had been rammed) were located but his body was never found.

*

It was 1954 when Bob Caso, an avid diver, first got the notion that he wanted to find a sunken Spanish galleon. “I thought,” Caso said, “wouldn’t it be great to have a cannon from one of those ships?” Caso, now 80, sat on the floor of his Port Angeles apartment, recalling the story.

He went to the library and was disappointed to learn that Spanish galleons never came this way. But he continued to search newspapers for shipwrecks in the region. One day, he came across an item on the Warrens’ disappearance.

The story intrigued him, especially the part about the search at Lake Crescent. He went back to the library day after day, taking notes from newspaper articles. He researched the police investigation and the geology of the lake. By the end, he had his ring binder full of notes.

The following year, he and two dive buddies spent the summer exploring the lake for any sign of the Warren car. They found nothing and gave up. Caso put his notes away.

The binder stayed with him through a marriage and divorce, three children, two moves, a quintuple bypass surgery and retirement from 42 years as a longshoreman. The most life-altering event in those years was the death of his 23-year-old daughter, Robin, in May 1973. She was killed by a drunken driver. Caso, a small, wiry man with glasses that magnify his already wide blue eyes, cried when he talked about her.

A portrait of Robin on an oversized easel in the middle of his living room showed a woman who looked like a young Sally Field sitting on a blanket in the grass. Other snapshots of her were displayed on walls. And there was the binder of photographs that for years sat on a bookshelf in his bedroom next to the Warren binder.

He can’t remember the exact moment when he pulled down the Warren binder. It was spring 2001. He remembered taking another trip to the library, photocopying the newspaper articles from 1929 and adding them to the notebook. He recalled walking down the street to the main office of Olympic National Park a few blocks from his apartment and meeting park ranger Dan Pontbriand. He recalled the ranger’s quizzical look. The binder made a heavy thud on Pontbriand’s desk.

*

Pontbriand knew nothing of the Warren case. He leafed through the binder, scanning the notes and articles. Intrigued, he took it home and found himself late at night reading every word of every page. “Here was a puzzle that had all these pieces, but nobody had the picture,” said Pontbriand, a ranger for 25 years.

Lake Crescent fell under his patrol district. According to Caso’s notes, Sheriff Pike retired from law enforcement believing the Warrens were in the lake. Pontbriand decided to see for himself. Over many months, mostly on weekends, Pontbriand assembled a group of volunteers to conduct the search. As many as 20 divers took part at different times, scouring most of the west end of the lake.

The Madrona Point identified by Pike in 1929 no longer existed on modern maps, and no one could remember the exact location. It wasn’t until an old map from the park archives surfaced that Pontbriand narrowed the search to one spot. That area, roughly four miles from the west end of the lake, today is commonly called Ambulance Point for its treacherous curves.

The road, now Highway 101, still skirts the lakeshore. Just past the guardrail, the bank of the lake drops off like a cliff. “Into the abyss,” said diver Bill Walker. Ten feet from shore, the water changes from an aqua blue to a dark blue, and a little farther out, to black.

Pontbriand contacted Warren family members. Frank and Charles had eight children between them, but only a few stayed in Washington. Charles’ son Rollie and his wife, Geneil, often accompanied the divers to the lake, waiting on shore for word.

Pontbriand estimated the group made 125 dives. In December 2001, divers found a small glass vase in 55 feet of water. It was the type of vase that came attached to the doors of a 1927 Chevrolet sedan, the car driven by the Warrens. Later that month, in 85 feet of water, searchers found a Norge brand washing machine lid, manufactured in the 1920s.

Nearly five months would pass before divers found the car itself — on its side, lying against the slope at a depth of 171 feet. It was definitely the Warrens’ car, but the couple were not inside. Without the bodies, the couple’s fate was still a mystery.

In earlier searches, members of Pontbriand’s group discovered two other old cars at the lake bottom. The ranger learned that those cars, Fords, had been stolen, stripped and dumped into the lake by a theft ring in the 1930s.

Could the Warrens have somehow been separated from their vehicle? On May 29 of this year, the group found the answer. Diver John Rawlings, a postal worker from Seattle, had gone as deep as 200 feet and was headed back up when he spotted a fallen cedar, its roots splayed out like the tentacles of an octopus. Rawlings swam over it, awed by its size and shape.

Then something stopped him. There in the silt, on the other side of the trunk, was a long, pale bone, nearly 2 feet across. A femur. At that length, it was most likely a man’s. Nearby, rising out of the ground like an overturned bowl, was the top of a skull. Rawlings could barely contain himself. He noted the coordinates and headed straight to the surface, where he signaled Pontbriand. As the ranger approached in a small boat, Rawlings, gasping for air, shouted the only words he could think of:

“I found him!” he recalled yelling. “I found Russell!”

His words rang out over the lake. The search party stood dumbfounded in wetsuits.

Based on measurements of the bones, and their proximity to the car, a little more than 30 yards away, Pontbriand said he was all but certain the remains belonged to Russell Warren. DNA tests are planned. Searchers think Blanche’s remains are nearby. The area was closed off as the search continued. But the debris trail, the damage to the car and the location of Warren’s body told the story of what happened to the couple. The cause of so much anguish and wondering for so many family members was a simple accident: Russell and Blanche Warren fell into a hole in the Earth.

As the couple’s car approached Madrona Point heading west on the highway, Russell Warren may have fallen asleep at the wheel, Pontbriand said. Russell was often tired and had told friends that he had drifted off before on the trip to Port Angeles.

This time, the car veered off the road, hit the cedar log and flipped onto its top in the water. The washing machine, which was in the back of the car, shot forward, probably injuring or killing one or both of the Warrens and ejecting them. The car floated on the surface before sinking to the bottom, where currents brought it to rest about 200 feet from shore.

Pontbriand returned the Warren binder to Caso. It sits on a coffee table a few feet from the photo of Robin in the grass. Caso barely paused to appreciate his contribution to solving the case.

“It’s great what’s happened,” he said simply, over and over.

The Warren family has been stunned by the discoveries.

“I grew up not knowing. I just accepted that we would never know,” said grandson Rollie Warren, 63. “It’ll be different for our grandson. He’ll have a story to tell.”

Louise Allen, the cousin, said: “It’s hard to explain, but it makes a difference knowing what happened. Now we know where they are. It’s a beautiful lake. We can think of that lake being Russell and Blanche’s home forever, and that makes me real happy.”