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New OPB "Oregon Experience" Documentary Chronicles the State’s Most Infamous Train Heist in Southern Oregon


“Murder on the Southern Pacific” airs May 4; advance public screening in Portland April 28

OPB will premiere a new Oregon Experience documentary “Murder on the Southern Pacific,” that chronicles Oregon’s most infamous train holdup and examines the myths and mysteries still associated with the case. The half-hour program airs Monday, May 4 at 9 p.m. on OPB TV.

On October 11, 1923, three brothers tried to rob a Southern Pacific train as it made its way over the Siskiyou Summit of Southern Oregon. Before it was all over, four men would be dead and three men on the run. The incident would be the basis of movies, songs, comic books and even trading cards.

Twins Ray and Roy DeAutremont, along with their younger brother Hugh, wanted to be like Jesse James and other famous outlaws they had read about. They planned to rob a train, rumored to carry tens of thousands of dollars. The DeAutremonts did everything wrong, though. They managed to stop the train at gunpoint, but when they tried to break into the U.S. Postal railway car, they used too much dynamite, killing the mail clerk. The mail car, and everything in it, was destroyed. Not wanting to leave any witnesses, the brothers then shot and killed the train engineer, the brakeman, and fireman before escaping into the mountains.

The bandits left behind plenty of evidence but police were at a loss. Authorities sent the material to the so-called a forensics expert at the University of Berkley known as the “American Sherlock Holmes.” Within days he had an amazingly accurate description of the outlaws, and even a name. His work on the case became famous, and prompted the establishment of the nation’s first crime lab just a few months later.

By most accounts, the robbery was a failure, with no money taken and four men senselessly killed. But some questions still remain. Could the brothers have gotten away with anything? And what made events go so wrong?

“Murder on the Southern Pacific” features rare images, historic film of the brothers, and expert interviews with:

  • Jeff LaLande, historian
  • Larry Mullaly, railroad historian
  • Scott Mangold, author
  • Tony Johnson, archive historian, Southern Oregon Historical Railway Society
  • Finn J.D. John, Author
  • Ed Espinoza, forensics criminologist
  • Noreen McGraw, attorney

The program was written and produced by Kami Horton and edited by Lisa Suinn Kallem. It airs Monday, May 4 at 9 p.m. on OPB TV.

In advance of the TV premiere, OPB is hosting a free, public screening of “Murder on the Southern Pacific” on Tuesday, April 28 at McMenamins Kennedy School in Portland. Doors open at 6 p.m. and the screening begins at 7 p.m. For more information, visit opb.is/southernpacific.

 

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