On December 7, 1958, the Martin family set out from their home in Portland, Oregon, toward the Columbia River Gorge to collect decorative greenery for the approaching Christmas festivities. Back in the house, dishes were left piled up in the sink, and clothes were left in the washing machine, suggesting the family had planned to return pretty quickly. But the sad fact is the Martins would never return. The family vanished that day, and nobody knows what happened to them. There’s no shortage of theories, though, and one of them is especially disturbing.
Barbara Cable married Kenneth Martin on November 28, 1929. They quickly got to work on starting a family, bringing son Donald into the world first, followed by Barbara — better known as “Barbie” — Virginia, and Susan.
By 1958 the kids had reached the ages of 28, 14, 13, and 11, respectively. Donald, by far the oldest of the bunch, was actually living in New York by this point, having been posted there by the Navy.
The Martin clan were a popular bunch, big on involvement with their local community. They were always keeping busy, whether it was organizing local talent competitions, setting up Kool-Aid stands, or even by putting on parades.
Christmas was an especially beloved time for the group, with family patriarch Ken playing Santa each year and gifting local kids with candy canes.
The afternoon the Martins went missing, some relatives had invited them to dinner at their place. Ken had declined, telling them that he and his family had already made plans to go to the Columbia River Gorge that day.
They were going to collect some plants out there, which they’d then fashion into Christmas decorations.
The exact time the Martins left their home is disputed. A neighbor named Ella Chinn claimed she’d seen them depart at around 2:00 p.m.
But Frank Womack, who was apparently outside giving his car a wash at the time, felt differently. He asserted the time had been closer to 1:30 p.m. But regardless of whatever the precise time was, Ken, Barbara, 14-year-old Barbie, 13-year-old Virginia, and 11-year-old Sue all, at some point, hopped inside their cream-and-red car and set out.
It appears the family stopped off at a couple of places after they left the house. The first was the Paradise Snack Bar in Hood River, where a waitress named Clara York claimed to have served them between 4:00 p.m.
and 4:30 p.m. York later modified her story slightly, saying they’d actually shown up at 2:00 p.m. Her original timeline seems more plausible, as she remembered switching on the parking-lot floodlights soon after the family had set off again: the reason for her later change of heart isn’t entirely clear. The second place the family stopped at was the Cascade Locks service station.
Two people named Kelsey and Doris Knutson later reported seeing the family’s vehicle parked beneath a bridge in Cascade Locks. A pair of unknown men were also seen conversing with those inside the car.
Who knows what was being said? We likely will never find out, as this was the last reported sighting of the Martins.
The following morning, Ken didn’t arrive at work as normal, nor did his daughters turn up at school. Something wasn’t right here, and the family’s loved ones knew it.
In the end, Ken’s supervisor at work was the one who got in touch with the authorities to tell them the Martins had vanished. Before long, the search was on.
The authorities spent the following weeks speaking to people and looking for clues. Searching parties scouted the region, with the Columbia River representing an especially grim focus of their attention.
There hadn’t been any specific signs to suggest the family’s car had entered the river, but many started to believe that’s what had happened.
A fortnight after the Martins had vanished, a small lead emerged for authorities to pore over. A letter showed up at the family home, which contained a receipt.
It was from the gas station, and it confirmed that Ken had filled up five gallons the day the family went missing. No other transactions were recorded in their bank account after that point.
The receipt proved the family had been in Cascade Locks, but it did little else. What might initially have seemed like a promising lead soon faded to nothing.
The trail went cold, though plenty of alleged sightings were claimed all over the United States. None of them proved especially useful to the investigation.
A couple of months had passed since the family’s disappearance when a new lead emerged. In February 1959 tire tracks in the ground were found at the top of a cliff towering above the Columbia River — and they seemed to match the Martin family’s vehicle.
Worse, they appeared to lead right off the edge into the waters below.
Initial searches of the river came to nothing, at first, but in May a grim discovery was finally made. On the second day of the month, two people spotted human remains in the water.
The worst had finally been confirmed: these were the bodies of Susan and Virginia, the family’s 11- and 13-year-old girls.
Official records stated that the girls had both drowned, but more sinister rumors also emerged. One person claimed to have seen a wound on each child’s head, which he felt had been caused by a bullet.
The medical examiner, though, never confirmed this idea, nor did the police.
What the examiner did manage to confirm, though, was that the girls had consumed burgers and fries shortly before they died, backing up what waitress Clara York had testified. But that’s not all: traces of aluminum and other metals were noted on Susan’s clothes.
Was this relevant? Investigators had to consider everything.
Not long after the girls’ remains were recovered from the river, the medical examiner started to receive anonymous phone calls. This was according to the examiner himself, who said these calls were not of a friendly nature.
On the contrary, he was reportedly threatened by what sounded like a young guy on the other end of the line. This person, if the examiner is to be believed, didn’t want any more Martins to be identified, should any more bodies show up.
Another odd part of this story is what happened to the girls’ remains. They were cremated, but for the following ten years nobody ever claimed them.
Someone finally did in 1969, but we don’t know who. This seems pretty weird, especially when we know the girls had living family members. Their brother Donald, after all, had been in New York when they disappeared: he was still alive.
Another odd thing about Donald is that he never even returned from New York to aid in the search for his family. He later claimed his aunt had told him not to come, but this aunt then denied that was the case.
In fact, she said she couldn’t wrap her head around why he hadn’t come.
Donald didn’t even show up to a service in memory of sisters. His reason wasn’t exactly convincing: he said he got the dates wrong.
It’s fair to suggest his behavior looked off. The KOIN 6 TV network reported that he’d told the authorities, “I know of no one who would murder my folks or no reason for it, but I don’t see how it could have been an accident.”
If we’re looking for motives, though, there’s always money to consider. And after the Martins were gone, their only living member was set to inherit a lot.
All told, the figure Donald stood to make was about $36,000. That might sound modest, but remember this was a long time ago. In today’s terms, that’s closer to $370,000.
The authorities started looking at Donald with a great deal of suspicion; that only intensified when they learned more about him. He’d had some issues over the last number of years, and they didn’t exactly sit right with investigators.
He’d lost a job in a department store about four years before the disappearance: he’d been caught stealing thousands of dollars’-worth of products.
Donald had apparently admitted to his crimes, claiming he’d been experiencing a tough time. That might have been in reference to his strained relationship with his mom and dad, which had gotten bad since he’d come out as gay.
Things had got nasty at times, with insults being thrown around.
Even in New York, away from his family, Donald’s troubles had continued. Accusations that he had been stealing emerged there, too, but he was also visiting a psychiatrist to help him deal with his issues.
It’s difficult to know what to make of all this. Maybe his troubled relationship with his family explained why he’d waited so long to return to Oregon, which he’d finally done in May? That was many months after they’d vanished.
The wider investigation into what happened to the Martins never really went anywhere. Some strange occurrences complicated matters.
For one thing, it emerged that a black cab had shown up at the Martin home in the days after they had gone missing. It stayed there for an hour before taking off again. What was going on there?
Here’s another odd thing. The receipt from the gas station that Ken had signed: well, investigators took a close look at that.
And what they concluded about it was that it had been forged! Who had done that? Had the family even been to that gas station at all? This development obviously posed an awful lot of questions.
During the search for the family, a gun had been discovered. It had blood on it, and one spent cartridge had been found with it.
For some reason the gun wasn’t properly processed. Investigators did trace its serial number, though, which led to a wild revelation. This gun appeared to be one of the items Donald had allegedly stolen in 1954.
A detective by the name of Walter Graven was called upon to get to the bottom of all this. He felt very strongly that the Martins had been murdered, but he just couldn’t prove it.
He wasn’t exactly helped by the fact his colleagues in the local police force hadn’t taken his ideas very seriously. They reportedly actively hampered his attempts to get to the bottom of it.
Despite the difficulties he faced, Graven did make some progress. His investigation led him to two former prison inmates named Roy Light and Lester Kenneth Price.
A little more digging brought the revelation that Roy Light was actually a pseudonym for Richard Hunt. Basically, Graven discovered that Hunt and Price had been in the same snack bar as the Martins on the day they had disappeared.
Hunt and Price had also supposedly left the place when the Martins had made their exit. After that, they left the area and showed up at Dallesport, Washington.
They spent days at a bordello here, which was owned by a guy named Clifford “Slim” Bennett. As per website The Crime Wire, this Bennett apparently had financial ties to police in the area.
Another twist in Donald’s part in the tale then occurred. He’d initially admitted to stealing stuff from his workplace in 1954; as noted, the gun that had been discovered was a part of that haul.
Well, now he changed his story. He reportedly told Graven, “New York police told me about that gun being found. I have no knowledge of it. Wayne had a buddy who worked in sporting goods. Wayne liked guns. I didn’t.”
Now, obviously this led to some obvious questions: who on Earth was Wayne and what did he have to do with any of this? Well, it seems he had been a friend and roommate of Donald’s from college.
He’s a generally mysterious figure, though, as we don’t even know his surname. All the same, Graven’s notes on the case mention him several times.
Weirdly, despite the mystery surrounding Wayne, extracts of an interview he allegedly gave have actually appeared in reports. In this, he spoke about Donald’s circumstances with his parents.
He’d reportedly explained, “Donald had set up a situation with another gay person at home after Ken and Barbara were gone and the parents came back and caught Don in the act, so to speak... I think he wanted to expose — he wanted to open up the story of his life and didn’t know how to do it.”
We don’t know the identity of this guy with whom Donald was said to have been. But what does seem clear is that Donald soon ended up in the Navy after all this supposedly went down.
This Wayne had been apparently close to the rest of the family, too, and Ken and Barbara had reportedly approached him to ask why he hadn’t revealed to them that their son was gay. He’d claimed he didn’t think he had the right to tell them.
Looking at Graven’s notes on the investigation, it becomes clear he’d eventually started to believe Donald had nothing to do with the disappearance. He’d initially been very suspicious, but for some reason he’d moved on from that.
For reasons that aren’t entirely clear to us today, it seems he’d started to suspect one of Donald’s friends may have been behind the crime.
Graven had another theory. He thought it was possible that 14-year-old Barbie had been pregnant at the time of the disappearance.
If that was the case, could it be relevant to the case? Maybe Ken and Barbara had found out who the father was and were planning to confront him? We just don’t know.
Donald didn’t exactly do himself any favors in 1969. Even as Graven’s suspicions had begun to shift away from him, the surviving Martin family member did something bizarre.
He sent the detective a card for Christmas and he made it look like a ransom note. It included the words “Et ils sont descendu des collines et ils n’ont plus eu peur.” For those of us who don’t speak French, that means, “And they came down from the hills and they were no longer afraid.”
There was also a sketch, which presumably had been drawn by Donald himself. It depicted a man and three kids standing near a cliff.
Two sheep were there, plus one of the kids held a lamb. What on Earth had possessed Donald to send this? Nobody really knows, but it clearly wasn’t a very good look.
In spite of all this, Donald eventually went on to live what seemed like a normal life. He started a family and moved to Hawaii, where he remained until the end of his life in 2004.
It’s said he rarely spoke about his dark past, even to his own family.
As for Hunt and Price, they soon faded into obscurity. Hunt ended up in jail in 1959 where he was meant to serve a life sentence for a range of crimes.
For reasons that aren’t clear, his sentence was commuted and he was freed early in 1968. What happened to him after that isn’t known.
All in all, this is a case that remains a riddle to this day. We have far more questions than answers, and we’ll likely never know what really went down on the day the Martins vanished.
It’s one of those tragic cases that just doesn’t have a satisfactory ending.