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A case of teen hitchhikers shot in the head has fallen since 1994; now, Oregon police have known the killer

A case of teen hitchhikers shot in the head has fallen since 1994; now, Oregon police have known the killer

Two people were killed when a person cutting firewood near Lake of the Woods on November 17, 1978.

Carl Burkhart then a detective with the Klamath County Sheriffs Office arrived at the scene shortly after.

Kirk Leonard Wiseman, 19, and Cynthia Lynn Frayer, 17, had been identified as both victims, but neither had any connection to the Klamath area.

Dan Tofell, a former Chief of Police in Klamath Falls, was the deputy to the scene, and he cannot forget it more than 43 years later.

On Thursday, Tofell said, it was a very gruesome scene.... Its not everyday you find two young people killed in the way they were. I still remember it vividly.

According to Tofell, the 17th of November 1978 was a cold day that spawned a colder night. Law enforcement at the scene tried to determine how such a gruesome crime which seemed to be an abduction and murder by a stranger could occur in Klamath County.

You may say that whoever did it didnt have much respect for human life, the way the bodies were disposed, he said. It seemed like it was a very callous murder.

Make the case.

Burkhart was determined to find out who killed those two kids. He worked the case from the moment he laid eyes on the victim's bodies until he retired as a sheriff in 2001.

Police found a letter written by Frayer about the fun they had in Washington state.

The original evidence bags from 1978 were stored in storage, with Burkhart returning to them from time to time, hoping to identify his clues he had previously known. But what Burkhart and the other investigators on the case couldnt have known is how important that evidence bagged and preserved would prove to be nearly four decades later.

Detective Nick Kennedy had been assigned the case in 2011 to his head. Kennedy began going through it with fresh eyes, looking for information that could be obtained for DNA.

Detection Geneva Lewis pushed the needle forward when Kennedy left off. Several items of Cynthia's clothing were sent to the Oregon State Police Crime Lab in Bend, Oregon, for analysis.

In 2019, the disturbing crime landed on Detective Dan Towery's desk. That spring, Towery received a call from Devin Mast in the crime laboratory.

Mast has told Towery that we received something.

The cold case was suddenly cold.

'Unknown male #1'

Mast had sent samples to another lab in Portland to determine their authenticity. Both had confirmed the presence of DNA from an unknown male #1. It wasnt much of a breakthrough, but it was the first one police had in decades.

The DNA sample was then entered into the Combined DNA Index System, a nationwide database of DNA samples. There were no hits. But Towery had earned himself the nickname among his peers of "hound dog," a nod to his persistence as an investigator.

Parabon NanoLabs, a business in Virginia that might help identify unknown male #1, is a complex, but Towery needed more personnel to handle the work, so he sent a request to Sheriff Chris Kaber.

Towery was able to make assumptions about the situation as a result of the testing.

The lab, which helped solve the Golden State Killer case from the same time, would lend a hand.

According to the lab, it uses genetic genealogy to "predict the unknown person's ancestry," then creates a composite sketch and/or a kinship analysis to advance the investigation.

Parabon informed Klamath County detectives in the summer of 2021 that Ray Whitson, Jr., was the potential suspect.

Whitson Jr.'s DNA found on Frayer's body has impacted Wiseman and Frayer, according to Parabon.

The police were able to locate Whitson, but they quickly discovered that the man, who had worked at a lumber facility in the Klamath area in the 1970s, had died in Texas in 1996.

Towery was able to confirm Parabon's conclusion, but he met with and retrieved DNA samples from Whitson's living children. His investigation also began checking off all boxes related to the facts of the case.

If Whitson was alive today, she offered a report to attorneys in Klamath County.

At the time of that point, based on our suspicion Mr. Whitson being deceased, we have suspended the case at this time,... based on his DNA being on the female victims body, Towery said.

The longest unsolved murder case in the county has been closed for law enforcement.

Costello said: If we had been just 10, 15 years earlier, we would have been able to hold that individual accountable in a way that we now cannot do.

Towery remembers the letter written by Frayer, which was recovered and kept in evidence all these years. It was sent to the victim's parents, and it affirmed their desire and ambitions. It will be returned to the victim's mother and aunt as a symbol of closure.

Towery said that closing this case brings him peace and closure.

Towery said he would love to say this is just another event, but it's not.

Joe Siess | Herald and News

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