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Thursday, February 29, 2024
Feb. 29, 2024

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Witnesses in Warren Forrest trial recount finding victim’s body

Men were hunting when they discovered remains of Martha Morrison

By , Columbian Local News Editor
Published:

It was the early morning of Oct. 12, 1974, when three men set out to hunt in Dole Valley in eastern Clark County.

Robert Matthews, then 19, worked his way through thick brush with his stepfather, Don. As the elder Matthews surveilled the area for game, they came upon a log in an elevated position, not far into the woods.

The young man jumped off the log, he said, “and my dad looked down and said, ‘Come out of there.’ ”

His dad sounded alarmed, Robert Matthews said, so he scrambled back up. When he looked down to see if he was in harm’s way, he distinctly remembers seeing red hair, he told a Clark County Superior Court jury.

“My dad got me out of there pretty quickly,” he added.

What they didn’t know then was they had stumbled upon the remains of 17-year-old Martha Morrison of Portland. Her remains wouldn’t officially be identified until July 2015, thanks to advances in DNA testing.

Robert Matthews and a second man, Steven Bair, testified about the discovery Thursday in suspected serial killer Warren Forrest’s 1974 cold-case murder trial. Forrest is accused in Morrison’s slaying.

Bair testified he had stayed near the men’s parked vehicles. Daylight just broke. Everything was quiet.

That’s when he heard Don Matthews holler, wondering if anyone could hear him. Bair and another couple hunting in the area responded. Don Matthews said he found a body. He asked for a roll of toilet paper to create a trail to lead authorities back there, Bair testified.

John Howard, a Clark County sheriff’s deputy at the time, was among the responding law enforcement officers. He testified they walked around the roughly 100-by-100-foot area of scattered bones, eventually dropping to their hands and knees to uncover those obstructed by brush.

Prosecutors showed photos and diagrams of the scene, which noted the skeletal remains found — ribs, teeth, skull, backbone. The distance from the parking area to the scene was about 200 feet.

Howard said after the remains were bagged as evidence, they were delivered to a state university for examination to try to make an identification.

Klickitat County Sheriff Bob Songer — then a Clark County sheriff’s detective — took the stand next. He, too, responded to the scene for the report of skeletal remains. As the prosecution showed more photos, a closeup of Morrison’s skull was presented on a large TV screen.

Morrison’s half brother, Michael, 77, who’s been observing the trial since his early testimony, covered his face and began to cry.

“She didn’t deserve to die,” Michael Morrison said outside the courtroom as the trial recessed for lunch. He carries a photo of his sister.

He said he lost his composure in court when he saw the eye sockets of his sister’s skull.

“It wasn’t exactly the last vision I had of her,” he said.

Gruesome discovery

Michael O’Donnell and a friend wandered through the woods at Tukes Mountain, foraging for flowers to press and mushrooms. It was one of O’Donnell’s favorite places to explore, he testified Thursday.

But on July 7, 1976, the men made a gruesome discovery.

Something caught O’Donnell’s attention — a “fairy ring,” a naturally occurring ring of mushrooms. He could see the large mushroom caps from the main trail, he said. When he approached for a closer look, he noticed a boot in the middle of the ring. He initially believed someone had tossed it. He noted he couldn’t see the top line of the boot, and there were animal scratch marks on it. Then, he noticed a second boot underneath.

O’Donnell said he called his friend over and voiced concerns that there could be a body there. He was reluctant to investigate further and wanted to contact the authorities.

“I didn’t want to see anything worse,” he testified.

But his friend insisted O’Donnell was overreacting and grabbed for the boot.

“He pulled it up and out came a leg bone,” O’Donnell testified.

The remains were later identified as belonging to 20-year-old Krista Blake, who was last seen July 11, 1974, climbing into Forrest’s light blue Ford Econoline cargo van near downtown Vancouver. Forrest has been serving a life sentence for Blake’s killing since 1979, though his conviction left open the possibility of parole. He first became eligible for parole in 2014, but he was denied then and has been since.

On Thursday, James Davidson, a homicide detective in 1976, testified a deputy led him up a path about 100 feet from the Tukes Mountain parks department lot and west 60 feet off the path.

Davidson said investigators did a perimeter search as they waited for the coroner and a botanist from WSU Extension to arrive. They then excavated Blake’s body from the site, keeping it in a soil shell and moving items to a plastic sheet to air dry.

He noted Blake’s body was nearly folded in half and bound by twine. A lighter was found at the scene with her name on it, he testified.

DNA breakthrough

Nikki Costa, operations manager for the Clark County Medical Examiner’s Office, took the stand Thursday afternoon to testify how Martha Morrison’s remains were officially identified July 13, 2015.

In early 2012, Costa had sent the skull of the then-unidentified remains to a laboratory in Virginia to develop a full DNA profile. She also sent information to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System database maintained by the University of North Texas. A full profile was developed, Costa testified, and in April 2013, they got an association and went about gathering more family reference samples. It took a couple more years, but Morrison was officially identified.

Another breakthrough in the case came when blood found on an air pistol Forrest used to torture a 20-year-old Camas woman in October 1974 was identified as Morrison’s.

That weapon was discussed Thursday, as having been seized from Forrest’s van.

Hoping for closure

Michael Morrison’s wife, Mollie, never got a chance to meet her would-be sister-in-law. Martha Morrison disappeared around the time the couple got together, she said. But her disappearance greatly affected her.

Mollie Morrison, 66, joined a local search and rescue team in Alaska, where the couple lives. It was through that work she learned about DNA databases. Michael Morrison subsequently submitted a sample of his DNA in hopes of someday finding his sister.

Mollie Morrison said she’s glad the trial is happening now, nearly 50 years later, because the lack of DNA evidence and testing in the 1970s meant authorities wouldn’t have identified a suspect.

“It would have been unsatisfying,” she told The Columbian outside the courtroom.

“It gives hope to other people missing a long time, you can find out something,” she said of advances in DNA testing.

Michael Morrison hopes for closure.

“I want to say justice, but you know, there isn’t justice because she’s dead, and he’s already in prison,” he said. “Other than the fact, if he’s convicted of this, he will never get out and everyone can put all of this stuff back in their box and their brain and not think about it again.”

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