Car in lake may solve 72-year-old mystery

Search for clues in couple's disappearance finally yields payoff

Monday, April 15, 2002


LAKE CRESCENT -- The mysterious Lake Crescent gave up one of its secrets Saturday, apparently ending the 72-year-old case of a missing couple.

Volunteer divers and a National Park Service search team believe a car they spotted 166 feet below the surface is the 1927 Chevrolet driven by Russell and Blanch Warren when they disappeared July 3, 1929.

Blanch and Russell Warren vanished on their way home from Port Angeles in 1929 with a new washing machine. Yesterday, divers hoped to take video images of the car to match the make and model, but high winds, choppy waves and slushy snowflakes kept them out of the water.

They say the car is remarkably intact, resting on its left side and tilting downward on a steep slope. It is only 60 feet from the shore near Ambulance Point on U.S. Route 101, about four miles from the west end of the 10 mile-long lake.

There's a slim possibility that the searchers have found a different car, as they had twice last fall, but all clues point to this being the Warrens' car.

Investigators believe the Warrens missed a curve before their car hurtled off the narrow dirt road. Then the westbound car apparently hit a diagonal shelf in the water, causing it to spin clockwise before it stopped and pointed back to the east.

It is near mile marker 223. The highway now is elevated and has guardrails, unlike in the Warrens' time.

No human remains or traces were found in or around the car, but its location is consistent with a debris trail that divers have found over the past five months.

The discovery brings some peace and closure to the family of Russell and Blanch Warren, who lived at a logging camp on the Bogachiel River west of Forks. Their two sons, then 12 and 14, were devastated by their disappearance and faced painful rumors that their parents had abandoned them.

"I'd like to thank everyone for doing this," Kristine Coachman, 32, great-granddaughter of the Warrens, said to the search team.

"You're most welcome," replied Dan Pontbriand, the district ranger who oversees 144,000 acres including Lake Crescent, and the man who headed up the effort. "It's been a labor of love."

Rollie Warren, of Whidbey Island, always felt that the grandparents he'd never met or knew much about, were in the lake.

"I definitely think they should be left there," said Warren, 61, whose blue eyes watered with unspoken emotion. "I think it's a fitting place for them."

His wife, Geneil Warren, agreed. "What a beautiful resting place," she said.

The family said if any remains are found they might like to have a DNA sample tested for positive identification.

And they said they'll likely hold a private memorial sometime for Russell and Blanch Warren.

The Saturday find is the culmination of an 11-month investigation overseen by Pontbriand, 46. He became interested after a local man, Bob Caso, came to him with the story and a file of newspaper clippings. A retired diver and amateur sleuth, Caso, 77, had known of the case for years and always felt sympathy for the two boys orphaned by their parents' disappearance.

Both boys died in tragic circumstances as well. Charles Warren, father of Rollie Warren, died at the age of 47 when his fishing boat went missing off the coast of Northern California in 1964. His older brother, Frank Warren, died in the Maple Valley area in 1972 at the age of 57 of pulmonary congestion and edema from acute alcoholism.

Divers in December found several items that narrowed their search to an area 1000 feet long, 400 feet wide and up to 400 feet deep. They found a black flower vase, a tire pump, a rusted car step and a round lid presumed to be the top of a washing machine.

But no car.

Last month, they brought up part of a wooden grocery box and some Mason jars, with the tops rusted away. A glass bottle of Ace shoe polish still contained some of the white cleaner.

On Saturday, they were searching not for the car itself, but for what they believed was a washing machine that Russell Warren had purchased in Port Angeles. Russell Warren, believed to be 35, picked up Blanch, 33, who was at a Port Angeles hospital for an unknown reason, and left for home. They had promised to spend the 4th of July with their sons.

The searchers were aided by Gene Ralston, a Boise environmental consultant who brought an expensive, high-tech tool called side scan sonar in exchange for $50 in gas money.

Ralston uses a "towfish," a 6-foot long metal probe that resembles a missile. Dragged behind a boat, it emits sound waves from two windows on either side.

Objects that reflect the sounds cast distinct shadows and can then be pinpointed for further exploration.

Ralston, who recently aided the Tuolomne County, Calif., sheriff's office and the FBI in finding four bodies of suspected Russian mafia killings near Yosemite, saw a semi-circular shape casting a shadow. Figuring it was probably the washing machine, he plotted the location and dropped a line to it.

Specialized volunteer deep divers descended to the spot in the 44-degree water. They saw a shadowy object and swam closer.

"We found it. We got the car," shouted John Rawlings, of Mill Creek, when he surfaced with diving partner Jerome Ryan of Lynnwood.

"There are chrome parts that are just as shiny as the day they were made," Rawlings said in wonder.

"That's right where it's supposed to be. It lines up with all the other clues," said Bill Walker, an avid diver who reviews building proposals for King County. "It's right on that debris trail."

Walker and his son, Joe, volunteered many weekends diving on the Warren case and tracking down other clues.

Pontbriand, waiting on a boat for the divers, was thrilled, though it was clear he would have loved to be in the water for the moment of discovery. "Excellent work," he shouted back.

"I was elated," Pontbriand said later of the team effort. "For me, it's not closure like it is for the family. For me it's the culmination of an 11-month investigation and a lot of digging on personal time."

"It's been a big day on Lake Crescent," he said.

A lake's secrets may solve 72-year-old mystery
Thursday, December 20, 2001


LAKE CRESCENT -- Russell and Blanch Warren were young and handsome. They were hard-working, ordinary people, and the day they vanished 72 years ago was an ordinary day, a sunny Wednesday.

They left behind two sons who always wondered how and why they'd disappeared.

Blanch and Russell Warren

Did their car careen off the dirt and gravel road into the depths of azure Lake Crescent, a cold, clear grave entombing them? Was it a simple accident on a curve taken too fast, or a drowsy driver at the helm, as most thought?

Or had something more sinister happened -- a spat between spouses grappling over the steering wheel? A murder? A deliberate disappearance?

On July 3, 1929, newspapers reported that Charles Lindbergh, fresh from his record-setting trans-Atlantic solo flight, had arrived in Oklahoma; the Kitsap County sheriff was arrested for using prisoners to build a private home; Helen Wills was playing in her first Wimbledon; round-trip boat tickets from Seattle to Victoria were $2, and two dozen oranges cost 27 cents at the local Piggly Wiggly.

That same day, Russell Warren left $35 with his 12- and 14-year-old sons. He drove from the family's modest logging camp on the Bogachiel River west of Forks to pick up his wife, Blanch, from a Port Angeles hospital. He promised to be back by the next day, the Fourth of July, so the family could celebrate at Sol Duc Hot Springs.

The 35-year-old man also settled up a $100 grocery tab, made car payments in Port Angeles and bought a washing machine, possibly to spare his wife's delicate health.

Their car reportedly was last seen heading west, a few miles before Lake Crescent, with the washing machine in the back.

The Port Angeles Evening News reported their disappearance on July 16, nearly two weeks after they'd last been seen.

During a two-month investigation, the local sheriff had Lake Crescent dredged for the car and sent divers down. He offered a $250 reward, a princely sum of money in 1929, after an eyewitness said he'd seen a car go into the lake. But that sighting occurred at least a week after the Warrens vanished.

No one knows why 33-year-old Blanch Warren went to the hospital or how long she'd been there. But she'd written her boys saying she'd be home for the Fourth of July.

Her disappearance was eerie, given that her father, John Francis "Frank" Rhone, had vanished in the summer of 1905 at the age of 34. His family never saw or heard from him again.

The Warrens' boys, Frank, then 14, and Charles, 12, heard hurtful rumors that their parents had run off. They told people they wanted the case cleared, "So folks won't think Daddy and Mother left us."

A local couple who ran a tavern took the boys in, but every time a door opened, they'd rush to it in the hope that their parents had come back. A few weeks later, they went to live with a relative in Montana.

There was never peace for the boys. They grew up sad and quiet about their parents' fate, and both died in tragic circumstances themselves.

The boys believed that their mom and dad had drowned, but they always wondered what exactly happened to the strict man and the loving, devoted woman.

Now, investigators have picked up the threads of the old mystery and are trying to bring that closure from the cold deep for the children of the boys who were left behind.

A trail gone cold

Dan Pontbriand holds a washing machine lid found in Lake Crescent. Russell Warren bought a washing machine just before the disappearance. Gilbert W. Arias / Seattle Post-Intelligencer

This past July, Dan Pontbriand found a car, a very old car, in Lake Crescent.

It was a rusted hulk with no upholstery, steering wheel, engine or transmission. Lodged on a steep underwater embankment about 60 feet off a point called The Rock Wall, the two-door sedan lay 45 feet beneath the surface.

Pontbriand was excited. He thought this could be the one, Russell and Blanch Warren's missing 1927 Chevrolet, though he wasn't sure if he was looking for a sedan or a flatbed truck.

As the district ranger at Lake Crescent in Olympic National Park, Pontbriand oversees 144,000 acres, protecting natural resources and the visiting public.

An affable man from Maine, Pontbriand has curling brown hair, a bushy mustache and a healthy fear of cities. He prefers the woods, places where the trees are plentiful, and traffic, noise and crowds are not.

He was intrigued by the Warren mystery, a chance to pick up a trail gone cold since Herbert Hoover was president and the stock market crash was about to send America into the depths of the Depression.

Pontbriand started looking for the car because a mystery buff named Bob Caso kept hounding him.

Caso, 77, was 5 years old when the Warrens disappeared. A former diver, he keeps files and faded newspaper clippings on old cases. The retired longshoreman approached Pontbriand with the tale of the missing couple because it had gotten under his skin.

"People can be so damn mean, and the boys heard that their parents had dumped them and just ran and left them," said Caso, a former Navy man with a gift for gab and an undiminished New Jersey accent. "I thought it would be nice to put that to rest."

Before they started searching, Caso predicted that the Park Service team would find other cars in the lake.

He was right.

Denim and towheads

Documents say Russell Collins Warren, the last of the Warren clan, was born in June 1894 and grew up in Warren, Wis., a small town named for his father. Family records say he may have been born a few years earlier.

Thelma Alida Blanch Rhone grew up in Clark Fork, Idaho. Her marriage certificate records her middle name as "Blanche," but the family today believes she spelled it without the "e."

He was 22, she was 19, when they married in January 1915 in Wisconsin. In their wedding picture, they are seated, she in a plain white dress, he in a black suit with a bow tie. At a time when public affection was rare and restrained, she leans on him, her forearm draped lightly on his hand, like a caress.

Life on their rented land on the Bogachiel River, with its small orchard and a potato field, was probably not easy. Russell Warren had a contract to cut down trees for a pulp mill.

Photos taken sometime before their disappearance show each in denim overalls, their crewcut, towheaded sons standing nearby.

It's anyone's guess how often Russell Warren drove past Lake Crescent, when U.S. Route 101, which hugs the shore, was barely wide enough in spots for two cars to pass and its path lay much closer to the water's surface than it does today.

He once told a neighbor that he'd fallen asleep at the wheel while driving along the lake. When he came to, he stopped the car and bathed his hands and face in the cool waters before going on.

Could bodies survive?

Lake Crescent is a voracious tomb. She does not give up her dead easily.

There's a spot on the southwestern shore that locals call Ambulance Point, where an ambulance plowed into the lake from an icy road in the '60s. The attendants made it out, but the injured logger with a broken leg was strapped to a gurney and died there.

In the '80s, a woman driving with her two children got out safely when their car slipped off the icy road into the lake, but her children later died at a hospital.

No one knows how many lives have ended there, how many bodies are suspended in that crystal liquid.

One notable time the waters returned a body was the case called the "Lady of the Lake." In 1940, an Ivory-soap-white body floated to the surface. It had been saponified, literally turned to a soaplike consistency by the lake's chemistry and cold temperatures.

It was the body of Hallie Illingworth, a waitress at a nearby tavern, who had been murdered in 1937 by her estranged third husband and dumped into the lake.

Dan Pontbriand wondered whether a car that went over the edge and rested in those waters for 72 years would contain bodies. Or skeletons? Or no remains at all?

With adrenaline pumping under clouds of air bubbles, Pontbriand and a team of divers swam around the old rusted shell of the car he had found, taking digital video images, hoping they had solved the mystery.

They sent the images to car experts. They collected pictures of 1927 Chevrolets.

To their surprise, the car didn't match. It was a Ford Model A.

Water claims a son

Charles Venning Warren, a handsome man with brown hair and blue eyes, set out to troll for salmon along the Northern California coast in the 35-foot Mildred G, named for his wife of 24 years. It was June 14, 1964 -- a foggy Saturday.

He had taken up fishing the previous year. After a lifetime of logging, he felt the timber industry held too many dangers.

That same day, his wife and two daughters left for Raymond, Wash., to visit family.

After his parents disappeared in 1929, Charles, the younger son of Russell and Blanch Warren, lived for a while in Clark Fork, Idaho, where his mother had been raised. As a young adult, he hopped a freight train west and ended up felling logs in Forks. He married a woman from Aberdeen and worked as a carpenter at the Grays Harbor shipyard during World War II. He lived in the area until 1954.

Charles Warren rarely talked about his parents' disappearance, his son, Rollie, says. An appliance technician for Sears who lives in Freeland on Whidbey Island, Rollie Warren says his father wasn't close to brother Frank. He doesn't recall ever meeting his uncle.

As Charles Warren worked his boat that July night, another fisherman heard a loud collision in the fog. The next day, the transom from the vessel's stern was found floating in the water.

Timber bearing Japanese characters was found next to the wreck, and the prevailing theory was that Charles Warren's boat was hit by a Japanese freighter.

His body was never found.

Like his parents, Charles Warren disappeared. He was 47. He was never declared dead.

Mystery of the cars

Bill Walker, a Seattle diving enthusiast, has explored Lake Crescent about 1,500 times.

Divers Bill Walker, foreground, and his son, Joe, search Lake Crescent for the 1927 Chevrolet that the Warrens were driving on July 3, 1929, the day they disappeared. Gilbert W. Arias / Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Through a connection, Dan Pontbriand had been given his name, and Walker had something to tell. In 1987, he'd seen an old, old car when he was diving near Pirate's Cove at the lake's east end.

He thought little of it at the time. He'd seen plenty in the lake over the years: an old steam crane that loaded logs onto railroad cars; cast-iron stoves; thousands of diamond-shaped coal briquettes.

Walker, who examines building plans for King County, joined Pontbriand's search along with his 19-year-old son, Joe Walker.

Last month, they used underwater battery-powered scooters to quickly find the car Bill Walker had seen 14 years earlier. It had slid down a below-surface embankment thick with dead trees and stumps and was resting upside down. It had no tires, transmission or engine. And no sign of people.

"The floorboards have rotted away, the gravel had come in and completely filled the innards of the car," Walker said.

He took video of the ghostly frame and brought it back.

Once again, Pontbriand was surprised and puzzled at the finding. The car was another Ford Model A.

That car and the first Model A they'd found raised new questions. Where had the cars come from and why were they in the lake? Had others perished in accidents?

Pontbriand was puzzled until an e-mail arrived from a local old-timer. He said a gang had been arrested in the early '30s for stripping cars and dumping them in Lake Crescent.

Almost like drowning

Charles Warren's older brother, Frank, did not drown mysteriously, yet his daughter sees their deaths as similar.

Six weeks after their parents vanished, the boys' maternal grandmother took them to her home in Montana. Francis Merrill Warren, the short and stocky brother, called her "the old battle-ax," and she apparently was mean enough that he ran away a few months later, preferring to make his own way in the world at the age of 14. Charles joined Frank after a while, but they apparently quarreled and split up.

Frank fought for the Army in the South Pacific during World War II and was married twice. His first wife left with their son. After he remarried, an 8-month-old daughter died in the hospital after a botched operation. Frank had another daughter and two sons.

Frank and Charles didn't speak to each other for years. But sometime in the '50s, Frank looked Charles up and they made their peace.

That same decade, Frank moved to the Maple Valley area on the Green River. He worked for Morrison Knudtsen Construction Co. and helped build the Libby Dam in Montana and the Cascade Locks.

A man who liked fine things, he died alone in 1972 at the age of 57, largely out of touch with his children. His death certificate says he died of "pulmonary congestion and edema," a result of "acute and chronic alcoholism."

Frank was a long-time alcoholic, a father who enjoyed taking his bonneted baby daughter to the bar in her pram.

He loved the water much as his brother did, and he'd long feared drowning, since that's how he had lost his parents and brother, said Sandra Smith, his daughter, who lives in Sagle, Idaho, near Sand Point.

In a way, she noted sadly, Frank was right. He'd drowned his liver and lungs in liquor.

An evergreen clue

Pontbriand wasn't getting discouraged, but the two Model As and other fruitless leads were slowing down his six-month investigation of the old case.

Then he got a break.

In 1929, a man's cap had been found at Madrona Point on the lake and little Frank identified it as his father's. Over a five-week period, a car sun visor, broken glass and a flower vase were found in the same area. Investigators thought the car had gone off that point, rolling out into the lake, coming to rest about 350 feet down. Dredging had done nothing but pull up a 200-foot log.

In 1929, divers in big, brass-helmeted suits with air hoses only made it down to 78 feet. As many as 100 spectators watched them from the shore of the lake and on boats near Madrona Point. But no one in modern times could find a Madrona Point on maps or in memories.

Then one day, Pontbriand looked up at the cliffside near "Meldrim Point" from a boat. Among the conifers, there was one curvaceous, rust-barked madrona tree, listing to port.

He redirected search efforts to that area.

'I wasn't had'

Sandra Smith says that her father, Frank, didn't talk of his parents' disappearance often, but it deeply affected him all of his life.

"I'd say, 'Well, where's your mom and dad?'" Smith, 55, recalled. "And he'd say, 'I was found. I wasn't had.'"

He was a proud man who was kind but not demonstrative. Smith remembers seeing her father kiss her mother only once. They were divorced when she was 10.

He was raised Catholic but never went to church. "He once said, 'God turned his back on me. Why should I go?'" Smith said.

"He had all these doubts in his mind: 'Did they really die? Did they abandon us?'" Smith said. "My dad once said, 'I would love to forget it, but it keeps coming back in my mind. Not knowing really bothers me.'"

Smith wishes she had had the chance to know her grandparents, and she, too, would like an answer to their disappearance.

"It's been a mystery," she said. "I would like to know if there was a murder or a plain and simple going over the cliff. I think it would put everybody at rest to know."

A telltale lid

Near the Madrona tree, to the west of mile marker 223, there is a curve in the road, no more severe than most around the 10-mile lake.

Underwater, Pontbriand began to find an intriguing debris trail.

Below the surface, the slope ranges from silty beds to craggy cliffs that drop off like the tiers of a wedding cake. In the layers are shoots, nooks and crannies that are still unexplored.

A few weeks ago, while diving there, Pontbriand's searchers found a black chalice-shaped vase, common in the 1920s and 1930s for putting flowers in a car.

About 75 feet deep they found a circular metal lid, 2 feet in diameter. Was it just the top of a 55-gallon drum, or, as he suspected, the top of an old washing machine like the one that Russell Warren bought in Port Angeles just before he disappeared?

Russell's grandson, Rollie, 60, was there when they pulled that metal disk out of the water.

"It gave me a feeling that they definitely were there, that they definitely were people," said Rollie Warren on his first visit to Lake Crescent. "It brought them alive, because they were just names before."

Rollie got interested in his grandparents in the mid-1980s. He and his wife, Geneil, wrote to relatives and collected newspaper clippings that they keep in a folder, along with a handful of pictures of Russell and Blanch.

Last weekend, as gunmetal sheets of rain swept the lake, Bill and Joe Walker, who volunteer to dive without pay, swept the silty bottom of the 48-degree lake with a metal detector. They brought up a rusted tire pump of an old design.

Pontbriand, who dives on his day off, found a rusting, metal step from the running board of an old car. But until there is a car, no one can prove that these objects belonged to the Warrens and their 1927 Chevrolet.

If bodies are located, Rollie thinks they should be left to rest where they've been for 72 years. But he'd like to hold a memorial service for his grandparents at the lake.

Pontbriand is headed to California for several weeks to guard a hydroelectric dam as part of the federal government's post-9/11 security plan. He and his team will resume the search in the spring. They think deeper dives and a magnetometer, which pinpoints metal objects, will solve this case for good.

This mystery has bound together independent men in search of an answer. And they believe this is it, that they've found the location of the car after months of tantalizing clues and false leads.

And it has given hope to a family.

"Now we really want to know," Rollie Warren said. "With the technology they have today, I think they'll find it."

Only the spring will tell.

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