Episode 29 - Blind Bomber


Clarence Peddicord was born on September 18, 1917 in Fort Bayard, New Mexico. When he was two years old, his family moved from New Mexico to Vancouver, Washington. Clarence attended Vancouver High School, but dropped out during his sophomore year. When he was 19, Clarence was working on a broken refrigerator unit. A coil in the refrigerator burst open and covered Clarence in sulfur dioxide. A doctor was called, but the doctor said that all Clarence needed was to get outside to get some sunshine and fresh air. Clarence was in a ton of pain, so he decided to just call an ambulance himself. As he was riding in the ambulance to the hospital, his vision began to dissolve and he was completely blind by the time he got to the hospital. Despite receiving the diagnosis that he would be blind for the rest of his life, Clarence refused to let it hold him back. He was only 19 years old and he was determined to still live a full life. Clarence was given a seeing eye dog named Duke. With Duke leading the way, Clarence and Duke climbed to the top of Beacon Rock in the Columbia River Gorge in Washington in 1938. A newspaper article written about Clarence and Duke’s adventure had the headline “Dog Leads Master Up Beacon Rock” and included the line “Peddicord said the dog guided him so expertly he did not even rub against the safety-cables placed along dangerous portions of the trail.” Clarence started looking for a job and he heard that an execution in Sing Sing Prison in New York had gotten sick and the prison was looking for his replacement. Clarence applied for the job and newspapers across America wrote about a blind guy possibly becoming an executioner, however, Clarence was eventually turned down for the job. Clarence told a journalist “I hate to think what I would do if I got the job, but I’ve tried everything else in my search for work.” A charity organization who heard about Clarence helped him set up a candy machine vending business that serviced Vancouver. Soon after that, Clarence married his high school sweetheart Lucy Dillabaugh. They had a baby, but they got divorced around their one year anniversary. A couple years later in 1941, Clarence was single and his candy vending machine business was taking off. He realized that he would need to hire a full-time driver, so he posted the position. A young woman named Dorothy May McCourtney applied and Clarence was smitten with her. He hired her and they soon began dating and then got married. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States officially entered World War II. When this happened, the federal government set up a rationing system in the country which limited the amount of certain goods a person could purchase that included gas, butter, canned milk, and sugar. Many saw rationing as doing their patriotic duty to help with the war effort. With sugar being rationed, Clarence’s candy business went under quickly. Clarence decided that he would move his family to Portland and open a lunch stand near a shipyard there. His lunch stand made enough money that Clarence and Dorothy could live a decent life. One day, one of Clarence’s employees poisoned Duke. Clarence was devastated and closed the lunch stand. Dorothy later said that Clarence “got in his mind that if he could see again, he could get a job in a war plant and make some money.” Clarence thought that if he could just raise enough money, he could pay for a surgery that would restore his sight. So Clarence and Dorothy went to California, where they rented out the same house several times to different people and then ran off back to Vancouver with all of the security deposits. Authorities caught up with them and took them back to California, but let them go after they both pled guilty. Clarence then

tried going into selling popcorn, but that didn’t last very long, so then he tried selling a battery restorative fluid and then battery companies ended up forcing Clarence to close down. With all of these failing businesses, Clarence decided to try something different. His plan was that he would hitchhike from Portland to New York City and use his story to raise money. It worked and newspapers all over the country wrote about the blind guy walking across America. When Clarence got to Detroit, he was asked by a Chicago radio program called “We The People” to be on their show. He agreed and when a businessman from Saratoga Springs heard about Clarence’s story, he offered to pay for both Clarence’s train ticket to New York City and for his cornea operation. Clarence went to Dr. Raymon Castroviejo, who was a leader in the are of corneal transplants. Dr. Castroviejo performed cornea transplant on one of Clarence’s eyes. When they took off the bandages, Clarence could see out the eye. Clarence said “It was wonderful for a minute. The doctor took the bandages off. I opened my eyes. The miracle I had been waiting twelve long years for had happened. I could see. Sunlight was streaming across the ceiling. But before I could adjust myself, I suddenly saw the points of scissors coming right at my eye. The doctor was only going to cut the stitches, but I didn’t know that and I jerked my head back. That jarred my eye. It began bleeding inside and I was blind again.” Clarence’s new eye had been damaged. Dr. Castroviejo said he would be willing to try another transplant in six months, but Clarence didn’t have the money to pay for another surgery. Clarence returned to Portland a defeated man. Clarence needed to support his family (by this time Clarence and Dorothy had five kids). So he started Metro Chemical Laboratories. The company sold a product that was supposed to extend the life of batteries. This is when Clarence taught himself how to use a typewriter, despite being blind. However, Metro Chemical Laboratories ended up receiving between 80 and 100 complaints with the Portland Better Business Bureau, who ended up shutting the business down. Clarence got a job selling pencils and received disability aid, but he still wasn’t making enough to give his wife and children the life they deserved. On April 15, 1955, Aaron Frank, the owner and president of Frank and Meier, the largest department store in Portland, Oregon, go to his office and started going through his mail. He then opened up an envelope that had the word “important” in capital letters written on it. There was a two-page letter in the envelope that read: “About the time you receive this, a bomb will explode in your store. This is only a warning. A second and more powerful charge of explosives has been hidden and set by an accurate timing device to explode some time in the 12 hours ending at noon, April 16.” That’s when a huge explosion went off on in the men’s bathroom on the third floor. Bricks and glass went flying out into the street. Luckily, there were only two injuries from the explosion, the janitor who had been opening the bathroom door when the bomb went off and a woman who had been walking up the steps to the nearby post office. The Portland Police Chief Jim Purcell and Captain of Detectives Bill Browne immediately began their investigation of the bombing and started by reading the letter that had been delivered to Aaron Frank. Besides warning of the explosion, the letter also listed the bombers demands :$50,000 in $5, $10, and $20 bills that would need to be delivered by a store representative carrying it in a light-colored suitcase. The representative would take the suitcase to the Imperial Hotel between 6:30 and 7:30 pm and stand in front of the hotel for 5 to 10 minutes and would need to wear a white carnation in the lapel of his suit so that the bomber could identify him. The representative would then need to go to a telephone booth that was

located two blocks north of the hotel where he would get a call with further instructions. The representative could not be a police officer. If all of these stipulations were met, then the bomber would give Aaron Frank instructions on where the next bomb was hidden and how to dismantle it. The department store was 12 stories high and a whole city block wide, so looking for the bomb could take a long time. The store also made more than $50,000 a day, so Aaron Frank quickly agreed to just pay off the bomber and a light-colored suitcase was filled with cash within a couple of hours. A rookie policeman named Paul Leines was selected to be the representative that would carry the cash. While they were getting the suitcase ready to go, the Police department’s bomb squad started investigating the bathroom for any clues as to who the bomber could be. They couldn’t find any clock pieces or bomb parts, so they concluded that the explosion had been caused by just a few sticks of dynamite taped together and lit by a slow-burning fuse. So there was a chance that the second bomb was a lie, but they weren’t going to take any chances. Leines put on a business suit and placed a white carnation in the lapel and left with the suitcase for the Imperial Hotel. After waiting outside of the hotel for five minutes, he walked to the telephone booth and at 7:08 p.m., the phone started to ring. When Leines answered the phone, he head a man with a “nervous, medium-high and rather soft voice” that told him to go back to the Imperial Hotel and look under the seat of the third phone booth in the hotel’s lobby. Leines then wrote down where he was going on a piece of paper, crumpled it up, and dropped it on the ground so that other police officers knew where he was going. Leines made it back to the Imperial Hotel, looked under the third phone booth seat, and found an envelope that had a key and a note inside. The note read: “Go to the Union Station. There, go to baggage locker 1037. In the locker find a brown manila envelope. Inside is another envelope with a note for further instructions.” Leines wrote another note for detectives, crumpled it up, and left it outside of the phone booth before making his way towards Union Station. When he got to locker 1037 and opened it, he found another note that told him to hire a taxi, but that the taxi couldn’t have a two-way radio. He then would need to have the taxi take him across the Willamette River and then take Highway 99E towards Eugene, Oregon. While on the road to Eugene (which is around 125 miles away) the taxi could not drive over 25 miles per hour. A car would then pull up behind the taxi and flash it’s lights three time to signal to the taxi to “pull to the side of the road.” The right rear door would then open and the suitcase would be set down without anybody exiting the taxi. The door would then close and the taxi would need to drive for another five miles down the highway where they would then turn around and go back to Portland. If there was no contact between Portland and Eugene, the taxi would need to turn around at Eugene city limits and go back to Portland, driving under 25 miles per hour, and wait for the signal again. Once Leines finally got a taxi that did not have a two-way radio, he paid the taxi driver up front for the long drive and they started the trip towards Eugene. Unmarked police cars trailed the taxi at a distance. Driving at 25 miles per hour, it took them 5 hours to get to Eugene and they made it all the way to the city limits without being flashed by another car. So they turned around, and started driving slowly back towards Portland. They made it all the way back to Portland and weren’t flashed on that drive either. The detectives didn’t know if they had scared off the bomber or what, so they decided to just go full man-power on trying to find a second bomb in the eleven acres of shopping space in the department store. The day after the first bomb came and went. They never found a second bomb and a second explosion never went off.

So the detectives tried to look for clues and started interrogating any body they thought was connected to the bombing. Aaron Frank offered $25,000 as a reward for any information that led to the arrest of the bomber and five Portland banks added another $3,000 to the reward. They tried looking for fingerprints at the phone booths, but none were found. The only evidence they had was the residue from the explosion and the typewritten notes. The detectives decided to look more into the notes. Since every single type writer has it’s own indentifiable marks, they were considered just as good as fingerprints for identifying individuals and police departments kept typewriter records just like fingerprint records. They discovered that the notes had been typed up on a Royal Standard typewriter. There were 3 million of these typewriters in circulation and thousands of them being used in Portland alone. So the police department assigned different groups of officers to start checking out every single Royal Standard typewriter in the city. The detected then decided to check with the Portland Better Business Bureau to see if they could compare the extortion note to any typewritten notes the bureau had from con artists in the Portland area. If any similarities were found, the matches would be sent to the FBI laboratory in Washington DC. In October, typed letters by a Portland business man named Clarence Peddicord matched the irregularities in the typed-up extortion letter. Samples were then sent to the FBI for verification. But then detectives became disheartened when they found out that their one suspect was blind. The FBI came back and said that extortion letter type irregularities were a 100% match with Clarence’s letters to the Portland BBB. So the Portland police department went to go arrest Clarence Peddicord. Captain Browne said it was the most heartbreaking arrest of his career. He said when he went to go arrest the blind, down on his luck Clarence, Clarence knew that he was caught and all he did was tell his family goodbye. Captain Browne just knew that the blind Clarence had to have had an accomplice and when he asked, Clarence quickly replied that his accomplice was his sister-in-law Joyce Keller. Joyce Keller was arrested the next day, but she denied she had anything to do with the bombing, but later that morning a clerk from the department store positively identified her as part of a woman and man couple that had gone into the third-floor stairwell with a shopping bag on the day of the bombing. During his confession, Clarence said “I did not mean to hurt anyone. I would not have planted a second bomb.” When they asked why he wanted the taxi to only go 25 miles per hour on a busy highway, he said “Joyce isn’t a very good driver. I was afraid she might get into an accident if she had to follow a car that was going faster.” Clarence and Joyce were charged with “causing injury to persons and property by unlawfully, purposefully and maliciously setting off a bomb.” Dorothy was so upset with her husband bombing the store and getting arrested, she checked herself into a mental hospital and their five kids were made wards of the state. At his plea hearing, Clarence pleaded guilty and asked to be sentenced immediately. The judge refused to accept Clarence’s guilty plea and said he would only accept an innocent-by-insanity plea. Despite that, Clarence eventually was able to submit a guilty plea. He hoped that by pleading guilty he would receive a lighter sentence, but he was ultimately sentenced to twenty years in prison. On May 14, 1956, Clarence was found unconscious in his cell while hanging from a rope that he had smuggled into his cell that day before he was supposed to testify against Joyce. He was able to be revived and was taken to the county hospital where he recovered. When Clarence made it to court to testify against Joyce, he said that he never had an accomplice and he had acted alone. Without Clarence’s testimony, there was no hard evidence that Joyce had taken part in the bombing and she was released. Dorothy divorced Clarence and actually testified against him when a mail-fraud charge was brought against him for his Metro Chemical Laboratory business.

Clarence was released on parole in April of 1966 after serving half of his twenty year sentence. He died on March 25, 1978 from a heart attack in Los Angeles at 59 years old. Sources: “Famous Crimes The World Forgot: Volume I” by Jason Lucky Morrow “The Meier & Frank Bombing, 1955” by the Oregon Historical Society “Bizarre 1955 Bombing and Extortion Plot Amplify Meier & Frank Building’s Rich History” by Douglas Perry “Cruel Fate Pushes ‘Blind Bomber’ To Attack Oregon Department Store in 1955” by Mara Bovsun

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