Cherry City Confidential: 12 Murder Cases that Rocked Oregon's Capital City (Courtesy of Jan McComb)

Jan McComb was walking through Minto-Brown Island Park and listening to a true crime audiobook when she decided to read up on the most infamous murders in Salem’s history.

“I thought, Salem is a different town,” she said. “It’s got all these institutions, I bet it’s had some pretty interesting crimes.”

So, McComb went to the Salem Public Library and started reading old newspapers. 

Four years later her first book, “Cherry City Confidential: 12 Murder Cases that Rocked Oregon’s Capital City,” was published October 2020.

The murders span from 1902 to 1989, with a dozen killers and 74 victims.

McComb, a lifelong Salem resident and retired legislative coordinator at the state Department of Education, said she grew up driving past the Oregon State Penitentiary and hearing about some of the murderers she later wrote about in the book.

Growing up, McComb said she was always interested in true crime and psychology. 

“In all of my stories, I tried to kind of look behind the crime and see the motivation,” she said. “In some cases it's pretty obvious, and in others it's still kind of elusive.”

McComb said she tried to pick stories of murders that could’ve only happened in Salem.

She recalled working as a judiciary office manager at the Oregon Legislature in 1989 when Michael Francke, then director of the Oregon Department of Corrections, was scheduled to appear before a judiciary committee the next day. 

“We all heard that he wasn't coming because he was murdered the night before,” she said.

Frank Gable, of Salem, was convicted of murder in 1991 for stabbing Francke to death. Prosecutors said Gable stabbed Francke after Francke caught him prowling around his car outsidethe Corrections Department’s Dome Building office.

McComb said she followed the case carefully because a legislative committee she staffed was looking into the murder after corrections staff approached then state senator Jim Hill and with allegations of widespread corruption within the department, which the legislature oversaw. Conspiracy theories have surrounded Francke’s death since his body was found, the most prominent being that he was uncovering the corruption and planned to discuss it that next day, she said, and he was murdered to stop his work.

In light of new evidence, a federal magistrate, John Acosta, determined in 2019 that no jury would have convicted Gable of murdering Francke. Acosta explained in a 94-page ruling how witnesses who provided incriminating testimony against Gable later recanted, and he said Gable was improperly blocked from introducing evidence that another man was guilty of the murder. He also noted in the ruling that an expert in polygraph examinations found multiple flaws in how they were used in the Francke investigation.

Acosta ordered Gable’s release from the Lansing Correctional Facility, a  Kansas state prison, June 2019, saying he had to report immediately to a U.S probation office and was not allowed to travel outside Kansas or Missouri without permission from U.S. Pretrial Services, according to federal court records. A 2007 appeal that federal public defenders filed in federal court led to the order.

“I think it's still a bit up in the air,” McComb said of the case.

She said the Salem murder case she has always found most horrifying was that of Jerome Brudos, a serial killer who killed four women in Oregon.

While writing research papers for the state legislature and education department, she decided to dive into the story and learned from newspaper accounts that Brudos was arrested and convicted much sooner than she thought.

“For me as a little kid, it seemed like it went on forever and that everybody was scared of this guy who was murdering women,” she said. 

The case she said kept the Salem community in suspense the longest was the murder of 21-year-old Terri Cox Monroe, who went to the Oregon Museum Tavern – formerly at the corner of Front Northeast and Hickory Street Northeast - in 1981 for the first time to have a beer, went outside for fresh air and was never seen again. In 2012, William Scott Smith pleaded guilty in Marion County Circuit Court to her murder and was sentenced to life in prison, according to court records.

McComb said she struggled to get records from old cases from the Marion County Sheriff’s Office and relied mostly on newspaper articles. She has no immediate plans to write another book but said if she did, she would want to get access to police and court records so the book could focus on just one case.

She said true crime has always drawn the public’s interest.

“I know for me, whenever there was a prison escape and you didn't know whether there's going to be a killer hiding behind the bushes, whether you were going to be next,” she said. “And if you learned all about what happened, maybe you would learn what not to do. Maybe you don't accept that ride home from a stranger.”

Cherry City Confidential: 12 Murder Cases that Rocked Oregon’s Capital City is available on Amazon in paperback, as an audiobook and for Kindle. 

 Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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