JD Chandler is probably Portland's most obsessive criminal historian. He's catalogued approximately 2,300 Portland-area homicides in a gigantic document that he calls his Slabtown Chronology, writes about history on his blog, Slabtown Chronicle, and is the author of Murder & Mayhem in Portland, Oregon and Hidden History of Portland, Oregon.
MERCURY: How did you get interested in murder and violent crime?
JD CHANDLER: In 1992 I attended the murder trial of the guy who killed my best friend up in Seattle. He was shot to death while driving his taxi one night. I've always had kind of a fascination with murder and crime. I read Helter Skelter and In Cold Blood when I was a kid. I used to drive by Cielo Drive where the Sharon Tate murders happened when I was a kid in LA. We'd go and hang out at the Pioneer Chicken stand on Western Boulevard where the Hillside Strangler would eat before he killed his victims. Stuff like that. But it really kind of peaked at my friend's murder trial.
How do you go about researching the crimes that you write about?
I started with the newspaper, but you realize when you're researching the newspaper that you're not always getting the straight story [or] the whole story. Sometimes you're getting the wrong story. My expanding on that started with contacts that I made on my blog... I published [a story] using information from the Oregonian, and the victim's mother contacted me and said, "You don't really have the whole story here, I'd like to talk with you about it." She sat down with me and corrected my mistakes.
I've learned a lot from contacts. Often people will contact me, usually with a comment on my blog, but sometimes I'll just get an email out of the blue. I've also [found] information at the city archives, the states archives, and a lot of archives that are available online now. Plus, I started volunteering downtown at the Portland Police Museum. Retired cops like to talk to me... they are a fount of information.
What can you tell me about what happened right here at SE 14th and Morrison?
One night, I think it was 1983, a taxi picked up its last fare [at a nearby tavern] and the two guys who picked him up shot him to death on Sandy Boulevard. Right here on the corner, about a year and a half ago, a young woman who was working at a homeless shelter invited a guy to come stay in her apartment. He killed her, stole her car and her dog, and drove to Washington. A guy at the bowling alley got shot to death last year. That was on my birthday. They found a little boy in a dumpster two blocks away on Belmont in 1987. Those were all just right here.
What are some of your favorite Portland murder mysteries?
My favorite Portland mystery is Sammy Fong. 1940s. Twelve years old. Chinese American newsboy delivering the Oregon Journal after school. One day when he was on his paper route, he disappeared. He was last seen in the company of a white man with a pickup truck. There were headlines every day about what happened to Sammy Fong. They found him in the Willamette after five days. They've never found anything after that.
Sally Brown died very mysteriously. She was an adopted teenager, 18 or 19, and was found naked and dead on the floor next to her bed—no determined cause of death. She had a dozen forged checks in her possession. She had passed maybe a half-dozen of them downtown at various businesses. So she was involved in some illegal check kiting scheme, dead mysteriously. The last thing I found on her was that about a week after her death, the toxicology report came back negative. Never another word about her.
What's important about remembering such dark history?
There are times when I'm working, late at night, on a gruesome murder where I'm like, "Why did I choose this as my subject?" I think I do this because of the victims. I think it's very important for us to remember who has been killed by this stuff. That was the biggest lesson I learned from my friend's death. Murder not only affects the person who was killed, but it also completely changes the life of the killer, and it completely changes the life of anyone who knew the killer or the victim. As long as we remember the people who've been killed, it's worth it.