This year, the retired officers who made up the Deschutes County Sheriff’s cold case team called it quits after 13 years without solving any of the dozens of unsolved murders and missing person cases in Central Oregon.
Solving cold cases, it turns out, is hard. Leads dry up, evidence deteriorates, potential witnesses move away, or die.
In a case in Bend, the family of Mary Jo Templeton is left with Tim Underwood, a local voice-over artist, small businessman and one-man investigative unit. Underwood has spent his free time for the past seven months engrossed in the 1979 murder and dismemberment of Templeton.
It’s all for a self-produced podcast series he plans to release next spring, a project that’s taken him around the state and to the doorways of people grieving. It’s brought him closer than he thought he’d ever get to the 47-year-old waitress who was renting a room in the El-Rancho Motel in Redmond when she went missing in April 1979. And he’s gotten closer to cracking the case than recent cold-case investigators.
“This thing fell into my lap — I didn’t go looking for this,” Underwood said last week in his studio. “I really believe that she found me. From beyond, man. I can’t explain it any other way.”
Underwood’s version of how Templeton entered his life starts with a game of Yahtzee with his wife and daughter. That night, War’s 1975 hit song “Lowrider” came on the sound system. This summoned in the former disc jockey thoughts of War’s saxophonist Charles Miller, who wasn’t the band’s usual singer, but whose deep voice is heard singing the song’s distinctive chorus.
He Googled Miller and read he’d been murdered decades ago in Los Angeles and his killing remains unsolved.
The itch in Underwood’s brain led him to an online map of unsolved murders in the U.S., and, of course, his eyes were drawn to his hometown. He noticed a peg practically on top of his office in the old Post Office Plaza in downtown Bend. He clicked and learned about Templeton, whose body parts, precisely cut with a heavy knife, started showing up in Mirror Pond in 1979.
To this day, not much is known about what happened to her.
At 8:20 a.m. April 30, 1979, a Pacific Power & Light worker named Bob Gilbert was raking the intake grates at the Newport Avenue Dam, according to Bulletin archives. He pulled a white object onto the dock. He realized what it was, put the human thigh back in the water and called police.
The other thigh washed up in Mirror Pond, then an arm, then the feet. The body had been cut apart with precision, indicating to some that the killer had familiarity working with bodies — a surgeon, perhaps, or a butcher, or an experienced hunter.
Drawn by grisly details, print and television reporters flocked from Portland and Eugene. Pretty soon, police exhausted every lead, and people started forgetting about Mary Jo Templeton, Underwood said.
She was middle-aged, a heavy drinker who’d been married four times and worked as a server and hostess. Articles at the time portrayed her as a barfly with questionable taste in men.
To Underwood’s eyes, only one journalist from the time saw beyond the macabre details and sought to humanize Templeton. That was a 20-something Oregonian reporter named Leslie Zaitz.
Underwood reached out to Zaitz, now a newspaper publisher, for his podcast. Zaitz reportedly told him he had no memory of the case.
Born in 1931, Mary Jo Templeton was orphaned as a young child and adopted by a couple that believed they couldn’t conceive. When it turned out they could, the arrival of a biological child led to Templeton feeling pushed aside and cast off, Underwood said. Her loved ones say she suffered depression and struggled with trust issues. She frequently sought the approval of men.
This is what Underwood calls “the real story.” He thinks back to the night he first read about Templeton’s case and the photograph of her that ran alongside Zaitz’s article.
Templeton is smiling easily, her chin slightly raised.
“That’s a fighter,” Underwood said. “That’s what drew me to her, and that’s what I hope people take away from this. This was somebody’s mom; this was somebody’s grandmother.”
Underwood was apprehensive knocking on the first few doors. He wasn’t a reporter on assignment, and he had no reason for being there other than his curiosity.
He suspects this is why those closest to Templeton sat for interviews.
He spoke extensively with Templeton’s sons, and with Redmond resident Penny Wilcox, a friend of Templeton’s who was in her 20s when she wrote a scathing letter to The Redmond Spokesman critical of what she called its salacious coverage of the murder. That letter was how Underwood tracked her down all these years later.
Forty years is a long time, and memory is faulty. Underwood set up one interview with a friend of Templeton’s, now in her 80s, and was disheartened when he later called and she didn’t remember him. Alzheimer’s, he surmised — he couldn’t quote her. After more digging, he tracked down the woman’s daughter, who did offer aid to Underwood’s amateur investigation.
For all the luck he’s had so far, Underwood said he’s faced difficulties talking with Bend Police.
He’s read every article available from Oregon newspapers and watched all the footage he could find. He’s spoken to Templeton’s family and friends and experts in solving cold cases. He’s gathered first-person accounts from a police diver who worked the case, as well as a firefighter, three former detectives and the two workers who discovered Templeton’s body parts.
He spoke with one of Templeton’s ex-husbands, who said he was never interviewed by police.
Underwood said most of Templeton’s inner circle was never interviewed, and they included her four husbands, all alive at the time of her death.
This hasn’t impressed local police, he said. A Bend Police spokesman said an officer is assigned to the case and declined to name the officer.
“I don’t know if it’s because I’m not accredited, or if it’s because I’m just some a--hole doing a podcast,” Underwood said.
Underwood, 53, was a broadcaster for National Public Radio and commercial stations in the 1980s and 90s. He’s run his own studio, Audio Tango, since 1999, recording radio commercials and on-hold messaging for clients. With a wall full of sound effect discs, he could easily find a bucolic park setting to play the role of Drake Park in his podcast. He’s insisted on recording it all live and on scene.
“I want it true,” he said.
He’s trying to keep each episode to 23 minutes, which he says is the average commute time in the U.S. The middle two will be a two-part episode. And it will be expansive — Underwood traveled to Eastern Oregon to chase down several leads.
One is a prime suspect in the case, who left Bend 10 weeks after Templeton’s death. He ended up dying six months later after taking his neighbor hostage. He was mad at how the neighbor was caring for his horse. After holing up for two hours, he came out, drew on police, and was shot dead.
The other main suspect was James Miles. Two years after Templeton’s death, he was shot dead running from a jilted lover after taking up with a married woman in Montana.
The podcast medium allows for intimate narrative journalism. Underwood said his subject matter has forced him inside his own script, which he’s still cobbling together, sometimes for hours a day. One evening, he took his laptop into the mausoleum at Deschutes Memorial Gardens, so he could write as close to Templeton’s remains as possible.
“She’s kind of forced my hand at exposing some of my own feelings about the afterlife and what it means to die. Is there a god? Is there no god?” he said. “Yeah, I’m trying to find her killer. By the time this is done, maybe I will, maybe I won’t. But it’s also kind of a personal journey.”
Underwood is hoping all his work leads to someone remembering something. It’s impossible there would be no clues pointing toward a killer.
There could be blood under a rug in a house near Drake Park.
Someone could remember an offhand comment from their dad.
Someone with a guilty conscience could finally come forward.
“I’m a firm believer that someone here knows something,” he said. “I hope this is enough to rattle loose a secret.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0325, firstname.lastname@example.org