Suspect in Elgin triple homicide confesses on camera
by Richard Cockle, The Oregonian Tuesday August 04, 2009, 8:39 AM
A man confessed to a television camera crew after his arrest that he had killed three people whose remains were found in recent days near Elgin in northeast Oregon. But some residents say an expanding drug subculture should share the blame.
The scourge of illicit drugs is worsening in this town of 1,700, said Barbara Eckstein, 25, a bartender at Sig's Saloon in Elgin.
"I think a triple homicide is evidence it is becoming a bigger problem."
Police arrested Gregory Alvin Cook, 42, also known as Gregory Alvin Mitts, near Rainier, Wash. -- about 16 miles southeast of Olympia -- hours after Union County District Attorney Tim Thompson revealed that two more bodies had been discovered in the case.
"I did it," Cook said on camera to a King (5) news crew from Seattle while being led to the Thurston County jail in handcuffs, "and I apologize highly to all the families and everyone affected."
Cook blamed methamphetamines. "It changes who you are as an individual when you're under the influence of that stuff for days and weeks at a time," he said.
Local law enforcement officers said they couldn't remember a previous triple homicide in the area.
Thompson said police used dogs and a search and rescue crew Saturday to recover the bodies of Frank M. Scaramuzzi, 50, and Jeremiah H. Johnston, 28, in a densely wooded area along Darr Road, north of Elgin.
On July 24, children playing at a pond south of Elgin city limits along Pumpkin Ridge Road found a human hand, which led investigators to the remains of Shannon M. McKillop, 51.
The discovery of McKillop's body, followed by rumors that more had been found, left many Elgin residents frightened.
Eckstein, a childhood playmate of Johnston's, expressed relief that the killings "were just drug-related." She feels it's once again safe to walk around town, she said.
Cook, an unemployed house painter, and the victims -- all of Elgin, all unemployed and all with criminal histories -- were believed to be friends, Thompson said. Residents said the victims shared a house, and driver's license records list the same 15th Street address for Scaramuzzi and McKillop. Residents said all four are part of a longtime subculture of drug users centered in the Elgin area.
The four had been seen together in mid-July. Authorities believe the victims were killed within 24 hours of each other shortly after that, Thompson said.
On Saturday, police used chain saws to clear underbrush and trees from the area where Scaramuzzi's and Johnston's remains were found. The bodies "were relatively intact," and autopsies will be performed by the state medical examiner in Portland, Thompson said.
"They are being transported in as complete a condition as we can get them," he said. He declined to say how the three were killed or whether police think they were killed elsewhere and moved. He also declined to speculate on a motive.
Union County Undersheriff Craig Ward said the victims' alleged drug use made no difference to police in their investigation.
"We think we've got three people brutally murdered," he said at a news conference in La Grande on Monday morning. "The rest of society can draw conclusions if they want. That's not our job."
The killings underscore unwelcome changes that have come to the logging and sawmill town in recent decades.
"This was a rough little town, loggers and sawmillers," said John Braughton, 73. "Most of the Saturday night fun was bending noses." But people didn't kill each other, he said.
Not long ago, everybody knew everybody else, said Vickie Hosains, 47. "Now there are so many strangers in town, it's unreal."
Given the level of drug use, a triple homicide "doesn't surprise me at all," said professional horseshoer Richard Porter, 65, of nearby Union, who stopped in Elgin on Monday afternoon. "It is kind of one of the things that was going to happen."
Gloria Shafer, 47, said she sleeps with a 9 mm handgun under her pillow because of all the drug problems. "There's a lot of drugs in Union County, and they are not all in Elgin," said Shafer, who operates an excavation business with her husband, Dick.
Cook faces charges of murder in the death of McKillop and two counts of aggravated murder in the deaths of Scaramuzzi and Johnston. A conviction of aggravated murder could bring the death penalty.
-- Richard Cockle, firstname.lastname@example.org