Crooked River Reflects Crooked, Crazed Minds

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.

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19 Responses to Crooked River Reflects Crooked, Crazed Minds

  1. Greetings, I read your blog about the crimes and aftermath committed by my Great Aunt Jeannace June Freeman in Oregon in 1961. One correction, you mention Phyllis Round as a neighbor and her sister who identified the body as two different people when in fact they are one in the same, In fact, my paternal Grandfather Art Ellsworth was the Chief Of Police in Eugene at the time, and he led the motorcade that took Phyllis to identify the bodies, so this case strangely enough brought my paternal and maternal families together 18 years before I was born. Phyllis was my maternal Grandmother. I remember when I was a kid she would have nightmares (presumably about identifying the bodies) and would mention the nightmares but couldn’t mention the subject referring only to “something terrible that had happened in the family” long before I was born.

    Being that my Grandma Phyllis was one of the most forgiving people I’ve ever know, “Aunt Jen” gravitated to and orbited around her for the rest of her life upon her release in 1983. I remember going to my Great Grandma Marjorie’s home as a 4 year old and wondering who this rough looking lady with a flattop, missing teeth, tattoos, and pit hair in a cut off Oakland Raiders shirt was.

    I spent many holidays, camp outs, etc. with Aunt Jen, and she was clearly a product of her environment and her actions. Always solemn and quiet but obviously the walking wounded and quite mournful about what she’d done. I think she saw me as a proxy for her victims as she always showered me with gifts whenever she visited. The only time I saw her really let loose was when she was watching football or pro wrestling, where she would really let loose and hoot and holler. I drifted away from Aunt Jen as I grew into my later teenage years and I realized the grim ramifications of her crimes. After she was arrested on the kidnapping charge in the early 2000s, my parents adopted her malamute, Tasha. Aunt Jen died of lung cancer harbored by a lifelong chain smoking habit. I can’t recall anyone ever bringing up her crimes in her presence. Ann Rule wanted to write a book about her but my great Uncle expressed his desire to keep the case and it’s ties to our family submerged in the dark corners of time.

    If you have any further resources or research materials regarding this case I would love to know of them.

    • And yes, Clive Whitcraft, better known as “Red” is the abusive step-father. My Grandmother told me that he would come into their rooms and night and do terrible things to them, and my Great-Grandmother was complicit in her silence.

      • gothrules says:

        I believe every word about the sexual abuse. Most psychopaths have a terrible family history. He should have been put in jail along with Jeannace.I found it especially disturbing that your great-grandmother did nothing to stop it. Did she admit this to you?

    • gothrules says:

      Thank you. This is great information to do a blog on Killers. Yes I have further resources. I bought them from you on eBay – newspaper clippings and a photograph. Nice chatting with you again.

      • This is the first I’ve corresponded with you, not sure who the other family member was who you communicated with. I would like to see your other resources if possible. I would also be interested in working on a book with you on the case at some point. I was 10 when Grandma J (my great grandma passed) so no she never admitted it to me but my Grandma always held family in high esteem so for her to mention this too me must’ve meant that the trauma she felt was pretty severe.

      • gothrules says:

        I’m sorry. I figured you had to be the lady I spoke with before. I actually don’t remember her name but she said Jeannance was her aunt. She sent me a few articles and a picture. working on a book together sounds very interesting but why would you be interested in working on a book with me? You mention that Ann Rule was interested in writing about it? Do you intend to contact her again? I can mail you a copy of the articles and photograph if you would like email me your address. lisalahey@yyahoo.com

  2. tom says:

    i would love to see a mystery book about this! like how this connects to all the suicides that have happened there afterwards. its a hot spot for death! would make a good read.

  3. Trish says:

    My grandfather was a jailer in Bend when Jeannance was being held there. My grandmother was the cook. When we went to visit them they would let us kids put the meals for each prisoner through the slots in the doors. I gave Jeannace her dinner. I barely got a glimpse of her, she wouldn’t look at me. I was about 8 at the time. I’m 60 now, but remember that like it was yesterday.

  4. Steve says:

    I now own the jail where these two were held during the trial. Looking for any info. or photos of the trial to add to the history

    • Hey Steve,

      I am planning a trip to Madras this Summer to do more research for the project I am doing on my aunt, Jeannace Freeman. Would be glad to bring you copies of the materials I’ve gathered in return for a tour of the jail.

  5. Hey Lisa,

    Sent you an email a while back re:pictures and articles pertaining to the case, but received no response. Are you still willing to send me the copies?

  6. James Jeffrey Paul says:

    I have long wanted to write an account of these murders and was hoping sometime soon to obtain the trial transcript and medical records of this case. If any of you have these documents or other primary source materials or “inside information,” please contact me.

  7. motheroffour says:

    has no one else noticed that the child (obviously a girl) in the photo is fully clothed and as the mother stated, she tore off the girl’s blouse?? before tossing her alive in the canyon?? I am also appalled that all comments here are about the sick monsters that killed and nothing about the loss of the 2 innocent children. May they rest in peace. I recently made a visit to the area where those poor kids were killed and was told what happened. Call it curiosity as to why I am even reading this as to what would compel 2 women to scheme and act upon this horrible act.. I have no sympathy for them. What mother in her right mind could look in her child’s face and do this! SICK

    • helthnut says:

      I don’t believe the mother was in her right mind.

    • xaviermertz says:

      I wouldn’t draw any conclusions from that particular picture (war porn–Iraq), Whatever its relevance, it certainly is not a post-mortem photo of EITHER of the two murdered children.

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