Dick Kitchel isn’t forgotten.
In 1967, the 17-year-old boy was found dead in the Willamette River in Corvallis. He had been strangled and beaten in the face, and his knuckles were bruised like he’d been in a fight. No one was ever charged for his murder.
Three years ago, one of Kitchel’s high school peers, Rebecca Morris, met with some of her classmates of the Corvallis High School class of 1968. Some were still angry about the unsolved murder of their friend during the fall of their senior year. Some felt no one had ever been charged because Kitchel came from a working-class family.
Morris, a best-selling true crime author, set out to find answers and her book, “A Murder in My Hometown,” debuted in May.
Now, more than 50 years after his death, Kitchel’s classmates are gathering in Corvallis for a reunion and to remember the boy who didn't get to grow up. Morris will give several talks about her book (see A4 info box for dates and times).
“Some of his friends, even now, still call him Dickie,” Morris said during a phone interview last month. “That was his nickname from grade school. They describe him as very sweet, very likable.”
Kitchel had friends from all social groups. He was referred to as the Mayor of Seaton’s, a popular Corvallis hamburger restaurant in the 1960s, because he spent so much time there, Morris said. Kitchel had three prized possessions: his Acme cowboy boots, his Pacific Trail tan suede jacket and his baby blue 1955 Chevy, according to Morris. He was wearing the boots, jeans and a gray Oregon State University T-shirt when two boys found his body while fishing on the Willamette River.
One of Kitchel’s friends, who Morris interviewed for her book, described the boy as “always striving to be better than where he came from.” Kitchel was an only child and his parents were divorced. His mother had moved to Washington. His father, Ralph, had remarried and owned a shoe store in downtown Corvallis. The father and son did not get along and police had responded multiple times to the Kitchel house for fist fights, Morris said.
So the high school boy often went to parties and drank to escape his home life. On the night of his disappearance, Kitchel had gone to the home of an older couple in Corvallis who often bought beer for teenagers. He got into a couple arguments with people at the party. Kitchel was small — only 5-foot-2 and 125 pounds — but he was known to be a fighter. A 23-year-old man at the party offered to take Kitchel home.
The driver, Doug Hamblin, dropped off two other boys first. He would later tell police that he and Kitchel argued in the car because Kitchel wouldn’t tell him where he lived. He said he eventually kicked Kitchel out of his car at Fourth and B streets. That was the last time anyone saw him alive.
Morris always assumed Kitchel’s father had killed him. That the boy had made it home from the party and the two got into another fistfight that got out of hand. It was only after Morris started working on her book that she learned Hamblin was a suspect.
The author pieced together details of the case through old police reports, as well as interviews with the lead detectives and prosecutor on the case in 1967. Those men are convinced Hamblin was responsible for the murder, Morris writes. Hamblin had taken three polygraph tests, two of which came back inconclusive. In the third, the polygraph expert determined Hamblin was “probably responsible” for the murder, according to Morris.
But, police had little evidence. Kitchel’s body had been found in the river 10 days after he died. There was no known crime scene. Hamblin’s car turned up nothing.
“I think what we’ve forgotten in the 21st century is that to investigate a crime in 1967-68 was a whole other thing,” Morris said. “There was no DNA.”
She told the former law enforcement officers about Kitchel’s friends' concerns. How they felt that maybe the crime would have been solved if Kitchel’s father was a university professor or some other prominent person in the community. They assured her they wanted to solve the case, but there just wasn't enough evidence for an arrest.
“They kept coming back during that year and talking to people and working on it and putting pressure on Doug Hamblin until he got an attorney, and they were ordered to leave him alone or charge him,” Morris said. “I think they did do everything they could.”
Former Corvallis Police Detective Tyson Poole took another look at the case in 2008, Morris writes. Poole felt that law enforcement in the late 1960s hadn’t done all they could to solve Kitchel’s murder. Poole felt Hamblin’s car should have been more thoroughly analyzed. He found loose ends that hadn’t been pursued. With some work, the detective felt he may be able to get the case to a grand jury.
Poole interviewed Hamblin’s ex-wife, Morris writes. The ex-wife said Hamblin had never admitted to killing Kitchel but she felt he was a pathological liar and capable of murder. But Poole was never able to talk to Hamblin himself. His ex-wife informed the detective that Hamblin had died of a heart attack, and the case was closed.
Morris said she doesn’t believe in closure. She has written about many tragedies, including the suspected first murder by serial killer Ted Bundy, a murder in an Amish community in Ohio, and the disappearance of Susan Powell in Utah.
“I’ve been reporting on people who do terrible things to each other for a very long time,” Morris said. “(The families) don’t find closure. I think they find a way to live with what happened.”
She hopes her book provides some answers about what happened to Kitchel.
“The thing is, there’s nobody left except Dick’s friends,” Morris said. “I think his friends will know now what happened.”
Interested readers can find Morris’s book at Grass Roots bookstore in Corvallis, as well as on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble. Copies will be for sale during Morris’s speaking events.