When Jeannance Freeman met Gertrude Jackson, their lesbian relationship would prove to be a volatile cocktail for child murder. From the get-go a strange rumour followed Jeannance during her childhood years. A stepfather of hers, aptly named Clyde (Red) Whitcraft (should have been Witchcraft) raped Jeannance and her sister Phyllis on multiple occasions, beginning when Jeannance was only 3. As is typical in abusive families Whitcraft`s wife knew about the abuse and did nothing to prevent it. Certainly such a traumatic beginning in her life set the stage for Jeannance`s future crimes. When she reached her teens in the 1950s the rebellious Jeannance was sent to a reform school in the 1950s. The school didn’t have a lot of luck in reforming the dark-haired, attractive Jeannance.
“Aunt Jennie” became quite close to Phyllis and from time to time babysat her many children without incident. Lucky kids. They had no idea how close they might have come to danger themselves. In 1961, Jennie now a waitress lived with Jackson in an apartment complex. The two women decided Jackon`s children were an obstacle to their lersbian relationship. Naturally, the kids had to go. The women murdered the children in a park (the boy was beaten to death with a tire iron), then threw their bodies off Crooked River Canyon Bridge. Jeannance’s choice of a tire iron for bludgeoning the boy must have proven an extremely painful, slow death for the child. Dear Aunt Jennie. Such a caring aunt. In court, Jackson admitted her daughter was still alive when she was thrown over the cliff. Neither woman revealed exactly how the two children interfered with their twisted relationship.
Local authorities initially had no clue as to who the dead children were; no local children had been reporting missing. Sheriff S.E. Summerfield’s first break in the case came when a Culver man Whitcraft, of all people reported to him that the kids might be those of his stepdaughter’s friend, Jackson. His stepdaughter Jeannace Freeman just 19 and her friend Gertrude May (Nunez) Jackson, 33 stopped at his place early on Thursday, May 11. They told him they were on their way to Oakland, Calif. They’d mentioned that Jackson’s kids were in a foster home.
Mr. Whitcraft knew that Freeman and Jackson lived in Eugene. That was all the sheriff had but he took the lead and sent photos of the bodies to Eugene authorities who began to search for someone who might know them beginning with Jeannance`s sister Phyllis Round. Phyllis was pretty sure the kids were Jackson’s. She was brought to Madras where she positively identified the children. Jeannance’s sister, the very one whose children she once babysat, and also identified the bodies of the children. Following the confirmation of the victims’ bodies an all-points warrant was issued for Jackson and Freeman. They were arrested a few hours later near San Francisco. Early reports indicated that they admitted separately and with conflicting stories to tossing the children from the bridge. On Sept. 5, the trial began in Madras in the newly built courthouse. A jury of eight men and four women heard the case prosecuted by Jefferson County District Attorney Warren Albright. The judge restricted any child under age 12 from attending.
In late August, just prior to the trial Jackson turned state’s evidence. Represented by local attorney Sumner C. Rodriguez, Jackson testified that, while at the gorge wayside Jeannance told her to leave their vehicle for a moment and when she returned Larry was naked and unconscious. Later testimony would indicate he’d been beaten by a tire iron. Jackson testified that she herself took her daughter from the car, pulled the girl’s blouse off then tossed her into the canyon. She said the girl was alive at the time she was thrown into the river. Jeannance’s trial ended on Sept. 15, when the jury deliberated for a short time. Jury foreman Amos Fine gave their decision at 7 p.m. that Friday. Guilty. She’d be the first woman in Oregon to be sentenced to death, however by testifying against Jeannance Jackson received a life sentence for killing her daughter. Inexplicably, she was released after seven years. Sounds like an obstacle to justice to me,
In 1964, Jennie was condemned to death but had her sentence commuted to life when an initiative passed in Oregon to eliminate the death penalty. A few years later ,Jeannance’s sentence was commuted to life in prison. She served 20 years and was released on parole. She visited with relatives from time to time, inc;luding the children (now young adults) she once babysat. Her affect was very glum and the family felt she regretted her crime. Having said that wouldn’t you know that naughty Jeannance couldn’t stay out of trouble? She met and began a relationship with a woman named Darla. One day Jeannance threatened Darla with a knife because she refused to go to the store to buy cigarettes. Jeannance was definitely a touchy one. After violating her parole Jeannance was returned to prison where she remained until her death in 2003. It’s reasonable to suggest that no one mourned her death.
A surviving nephew of Jeannance’s related this story about her:
Why the murder occurred has always been conjecture Jennie got most of the blame. She got the death penalty and the mom got life. Using the Crooked River Gorge (360 foot drop) was her idea as we all lived near there at one time. Her background in Jefferson County Oregon and her appearance (very butch) caused a lot of negative feelings by locals. Mom had a feeling about what happened because the lesbian couple and the kids had left a day or two earlier without any notice and since the kids were found in an area well-known to our family. Tom Gaddis (author of Bird Man of Alcatraz) was always intrigued about the murder and visited Jennie several times. Truman Capote had interest also and called mother once. I never discussed the murders with Jennie and she never talked about it. Jennie was very quiet and serious. She loved animals and that was the only time I ever saw her lighten up when she was around animals. (Presumably the animals were nowhere near the Crooked Canyon bridge). No nothing ever got published about Jennie except Crime Magazine articles. The story is that Capote got busy with some other projects. I don’t know why Gaddis didn’t publish anything. I only heard Moms side of the discussions.
Ann Rule was interested in writing about the story but the family preferred to keep the story as private as possible.