The Matter of the Halloween Skeletal Remains – Readers and Writers Book Club

The Matter of the Halloween Skeletal Remains

Captain Noonan, the “Bearded Holmes” of the Sandersonville Police Department, was not pleased.

Very much not pleased.

Even more than ‘very much’ not pleased. But there was nothing he could do about it. Not because his wife had instructed him to do something he did not want to do but because the Sandersonville Commissioner of Homeland Security had made the assignment. But it was not an ‘assignment;’ it was a requirement. And what was the odious task to which he was manacled? To coordinate, host, oversee and manage the soon-to-be Annual Sandersonville Historical Halloween Gala commemorating the founding of the city. When Noonan had stated – politically politely and with deference for the occupational position of his supervisor (the man who signed his paycheck) – there had never been an annual Sandersonville Historical Halloween Gala commemorating the founding of the city, said Commissioner replied, “Now there is.”

Noonan was pouring over the details of the festival-to-be when his administrative assistant, Harriet, sauntered into his office wearing a pig mask.

“Is that supposed to be funny?” snapped Noonan.

“Hope so,” she replied. “It’s to put you in the mood.”

“Mood for what?” Noonan snapped again.

Harriet tipped up the mask and then pointed at the phone on Noonan’s desk. “The Washington State Trooper on Line Three. Seems someone stole 300 pounds of plastic Halloween bones and he wants to know why.”

* * *

            “Yeah,” replied Washington State Trooper Greta Goto when Noonan asked about the bones. “That’s correct. We’ve had a theft of 300 pounds of plastic bones.”

“OK,” Noonan said, drawing out the two-letter sounds of the word, “is there anything unusual about the theft. I mean, plastic bones are unusual, but is there a reason this theft is odd?”

“As a matter of fact, yes. That’s why I’m calling. If it were just the theft of the bones, well, that would be the end of it. The theft would have been a write-up in the local paper and that would be it. But there’s more.”

“Do tell,” Noonan had opened his notebook to a blank page.

“A little bit of history is necessary here, Captain.”

“Heinz. Until I’m on the scene of a crime, I’m Heinz.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Same with ‘sir.’ I’m Heinz.”

“OK, Heinz. Then I’m Greta. Now, for the history, the State of Washington has a long history with the Native people and it has not been pleasant. The history of the American West is filled with Native people not being treated well. Now it gets complicated.”

“The history of the State of Washington?”

“No. Where I am calling from. I’m on a cellphone calling from a city that does not exist. At least not yet.”

“Ooookkkk.”

“This is not a crank call,” Goto said quickly. “It just takes some explaining. Native people in Washington are legally allowed to have casinos on their land. We have more than 30 casinos in the state. The key here are the words ‘Native’ and ‘land.’ Native land is within Washington but not subject to many State of Washington laws.”

“That’s not unusual. Where exactly are you?”

“Mount Coffin. And this takes a bit of history.”

“Go on.”

“Mount Coffin, the actual mountain the city-to-be is named after, no longer exists. The original mountain was located on the Columbia River in what is now the city of Longview in Cowlitz County. The mountain was discovered, so to speak, in the 1790s and put on the map as Mount Coffin for the bones that were already there.”

“Thus the name. Why were there bones there?”

“Because the local Indians did not bury their dead. They wrapped the corpses in blankets with their personal property, put them in canoes and raised them on pilings. These were above ground burials, a linguistic oxymoron.”

“Is the mountain still there?”

“No. It was dynamited to gravel which was used to build the city of Longview.”

“I see the connection between the bone theft and the name of the city. But the new city of Mount Coffin cannot be on the site of the original Mount Coffin.”

“Correct. It is a ways down the Ocean Beach Highway. The Ocean Beach Highway runs along the Columbia River in Southern Washington from US 101 to the ocean. About 65 miles. With three small towns. It’s rural.”

“Let me guess, there’s a connection between the theft of the plastic bones and a mountain where the local Natives used to bury their dead above ground.”

“That’s what we think and that’s why I’m calling you. Native issues are red hot in Washington and the last thing anyone wants is a small theft to become a political hot potato.”

“That’s fair,” Noonan said. “I can see how that would happen. Now, the theft of the bones.”

“The thefts, plural. But we are keeping them silent. The bones were supposedly part of Halloween regales for the local area. They were shipped to Sam’s Clubs in Southern Washington, but, as you know, Sam’s went out of business.”

“Why were the bones shipped to a company everyone knows is out of business?”

“They were shipped before the company went out of business. It was three special orders and paid in advance so there was no question as to the legitimacy of the order. The bones were shipped to the Sam’s in Longview, Rosburg and Cathlamet. All are very small towns by North Carolina measures. You are in North Carolina, right?”

“Yes. So there were three thefts?”

“Three. All the same. Out of Sam’s Clubs. Orders were placed but when the final inventory was taken as the stores were going out of business, all bones were gone. Poof.”

“Well,” Noonan said as he leaned back in his desk chair. “A lot of stuff, so to speak, probably got lost in the shuffle when Sam’s Club went belly-up. Why concentrate on the bones?”

“Exactly what we asked when it was brought to our attention,” Goto said. “The answer raised our eyebrows. When Sam’s Club was operational, it bought merchandise in large quantities. But the three orders for bones – all from the same buyer but for three stores – were for 100 pounds apiece. For Sam’s Club this was incredibly small. All from the same buyer added to the mystery.”

“Who was the buyer?”

“Again, unknown. The three orders were all paid from three Sam’s Club accounts but there is no paperwork beyond that. This could be because the company went out of business abruptly and the paperwork got lost.”

“You don’t believe that. Otherwise you would not be calling me.”

“True, Heinz. We don’t believe it. We have three mysterious orders for the same item in incredibly small numbers from three used-to-be massive Sam’s Clubs all in Southwestern Washington all along a 65-mile stretch of highway following the Columbia River. This neck of the woods has small towns and everyone knows everything about everyone else. But no one knows anything about the bones. Odd.”

“Odd, yes. But the world has many odd occurrences. There had to be something else to tip you off.”

“You are correct but I had to get to this point to drop what we felt was the Big Kahuna.”

“Big Kahuna? You don’t have a local expression to use?”

“We all dream of retiring to Hawaii,” Goto said with a chuckle. “Usually in November, December, January and February. Local lingo.”

“Go on.”

“Right now, there are about 30 Indian casinos in Washington and they are all very profitable. So profitable the local Natives are trying to set up one more in what is now the proverbial ‘middle of nowhere.’”

“Coffin Mountain.”

“Coffin Mountain. Correct. The problem is the proposed city and casino is not on Indian land. It’s on federal land.”

“So how can the Indians set up a casino on federal land?”

“They cannot. They can only establish the casino on Indian land. The local Indians, a mixture of a lot of local indigenous Indians are pushing the federal government to recognize them as a tribe. A landless tribe. Once they are recognized as a tribe, the federal government will approve them for federal land.”

“Where you are now, in the city that does yet exist.”

“Yes. What I am presenting is the simplified version. The tribe making the application is not a tribe of a single ethnic persuasion. It’s a motley collection of individuals from many tribes, not all of them from the Pacific Northwest, whose members are intermarried with each other and the local population is as ethnically diverse as the rest of the state’s population. They are unique because they are all domiciled in the land around where they hope the Coffin Mountain Reservation will be.”

Noonan shook his head. “Let me guess. Because the proposed casino is going to be on land that may very well go to the Indians on lands already named Coffin Mountain, you suspect the bones will make an appearance as part of a publicity stunt to speed the giving of federal and to the Indians.”

“Not really. We do not see that as a workable plan. As soon as the bones are determined to be plastic, the publicity stunt will fall flat. Yes, it may focus public attention on the proposed city of Coffin Mountain but that will only be for a split second. Then Coffin Mountain will become a laughingstock. I know many of the individuals involved in the effort to make Coffin Mountain an Indian reservation. They are not stupid. This is way out of character for them. Casino costs are hundreds of millions of dollars. The people I know are not going to jeopardize that kind of money for a stunt.”

“But someone still stole the bones and you want to know why.”

“I am like every other cop in the world,” Goto said seriously. “I feel these bones are involved in something bigger than a publicity stunt. Those bones were ordered a year ago, long before the Coffin Mountain proposal became serious. Someone has plans for those bones and I don’t think it had anything to do with the proposed casino.”

“So you are calling me.”

“You got it.”

Noonan began jotting notes madly. “OK, Greta, I’m not a local so I will need some on-the-ground facts. Just off the top of my head, here are some questions I have. How many tribes are there in Southern Washington and do they all have casinos and how successful are they, is there only one throughway in Southern Washington, how big is the Columbia River, are there tour or fishing companies operating on the river, are there bush plane operations along the Columbia River, have there been demonstrations by any groups about land use along the Columbia River, are there any game refuges along the Columbia River, are there any endangered species along the Columbia River, are there any marijuana growers along the Columbia River and, that’s, that’s all I can think of right now.”

“You want some of those answers now?”

“No. All at once. In the meantime,” Noonan looked at a massive sheet of paper on his desk with the logo of the soon-to-be Annual Sandersonville Historical Halloween Gala commemorating the founding of the city, and said, “I’ll be working on another angle.”

* * *

            As soon as Noonan hung up the phone he pushed aside the massive sheet of paper on his desk with the logo of the soon-to-be Annual Sandersonville Historical Halloween Gala commemorating the founding of the city, and began his traditional search for data. First was a history of the area. Then it was the local newspapers.

“Blessed be the Internet,” he muttered to himself as he punched up Southern Washington the keyboard.

As Goto had told him, there were not a lot of people in Southern Washington. In fact, the population centers were so small they could not be called towns but villages. State Route 4, officially the Ocean Beach Highway, was a little more than 62 miles long and ran through three counties; Pacific, Wahkiakum and Cowlitz. The naming of the counties after local Indian tribes told him the Native population in these areas was very high.

Most impressive was the Cowlitz Tribe. It had a massive casino that had been constructed in 2016. Looking at the history of the Cowlitz, Noonan saw the process Goto had been talking about. There had been no Cowlitz Native land before 2016. It had been landless until the federal government recognized the tribe and gave them 152 acres in 2010. Interestingly, the Cowlitz tribe land was in Clark county, not Cowlitz County and Clark County did not border the Ocean Beach Highway.

One of the communities along the highway was Cathlamet and it was small: 530 people. It was also listed as the largest village which was a clue to the population of the region. It was the home of Kathlamet people – with a ‘K,’ not a ‘C’ – and was ‘discovered’ in 1792 by an Lt. W. R. Broughton. At that time it had about 400 residents living in cedar homes. The first permanent white resident was a former Hudson Bay Company trapper, James Birnie, who set up a trading post in 1846 and then modestly named the area after himself: “Birnie’s Retreat.” Five years later it became Cathlamet. It secured a permanence in 1938 when the Julia Butler Hansen Bridge was built across the Columbia River.

Another village along the Columbia River was Ilwaco with a booming population of under 1,000. It had been founded as a logging and timber rafting city. Logs from the area were floated to Ilwaco where they were loaded onto the Ilwaco Railway and Navigation Company flat cars. Noonan was surprised to learn the village had historically had a large Finnish population and was a large cranberry producer though he did not see a connection between the two tidbits of data.

The largest city in the area was Longview with almost 40,000 residents and was located at the confluence of the Cowlitz and Columbia Rivers. It had originated with two settlers, Harry and Rebecca Jane Huntington who named the area Monticello after Thomas Jefferson’s home. As more people settled in the area, Congress was petitioned for statehood. The name proffered was “Columbia.” Congress said yes to statehood but no to “Columbia” because of the possible confusion with the “District of Columbia.” Noonan found it amusing Congress said nothing about the possible confusion with Washington as a state and the city of Washington in the District of Columbia, a confusion which lasts to the present day.

The area saw a massive influx of resident in 1918 when the Long-Bell Lumber Company bought a massive tract of land and brought in 14,000 workers to run the lumber camp and mill. They have a modern city erupt from the earth, the Lumber company’s founder, Robert A Long, hired George Kessler, a city planner to build the city. He did and as the city went up, Coffin Mountain transubstantiated to gravel for cement, streets and building foundations.

Noonan had never been to Washington – the state, not the city – and was surprised at the history of the Columbia River. The largest in the Pacific Northwest, it had a length of more than 1,200 miles and originated in British Columbia, clearly the source of the name of that province. It had been the source of transportation and a food source for thousands of years and later as a conduit for trappers, loggers and more recently, fishing guides and cruise ships.

Noonan was also surprised by the size of the river. It had a flow of 265,000 cubic feet per second which even Noonan, from the Outer Banks where ‘rivers’ were called ‘creeks,’ knew was massive. The enumerations of the waterflow by location were beyond his comprehension but there was one tidbit which caught his attention. The Columbia River had tides, some of them significant. If there was one thing a resident of the Outer Banks knew, it was tide: when they arrived, when they left, how high they were and when to fish. The highest known tide on the Columbia River was 4.17 feet. Tides in Sandersonville topped out at 3.5 feet so Noonan knew what a 4.17-foot tide would mean.

A distant gong went off in the convolutions of Noonan’s brain.

Noonan’s second tried-and-true research source of information was local newspapers. In this case, the local papers were few and napkin thin. But pairing stories in the papers with Wikipedia, he was able to get a clear picture of the origin of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and the formation of the casino.

The origin of the casino, named the Ilani Casino Resort, had been quite stormy, It had actually been built near the village of La Center which already had four casinos. The idea of the fifth casino did not set well with the established four casinos and they complained, in unison. There was quite a bit of legal wrangling which ended with the Cowlitz Indian Tribe being legally recognized and the casino being built on a 152-acre reservation near La Center.

The casino was massive. It was a $500 million project which included $32 million freeway interchange to make access to the casino easy by traffic from both directions. The casino hosted a 368,000-square-foot facility which included a 30,000 square foot entertainment center. It boasted 2,500 slot machines, and 75 table games along with more than a handful of bars, restaurants and stores. In spite of the fact its web page was riddled with typographical errors, the bill of fare, both entertainment and edibles, were more than impressive. And lucrative. There had been more than 4.5 million visitors over the past year and the casino brought in a cool $200 million over the same period. That kind of money, Noonan mused, would attract a lot of unsavory people.

As Noonan was finishing his Internet meanderings, Goto was back on the line.

“I have your answers but I don’t know what good they will do.”

Noonan was not surprised. “Well, you never know what tidbit is going to break the case wide open.”

“Here goes,” Goto told him. “In the order you asked. As to how many tribes there are, the ‘tribe’ is not accurate if you meant like Indians in the American Midwest and East. Here, and probably along the coast into Alaska, there is a mixing of ethnics. There are people who call themselves Native Americans but they are ¾ white or black or Asian. And there are people who are Natives but Alaskan Natives because they married a serviceman or servicewoman and moved here. The best answer is several with the Cowlitz being the most visible primarily because they have a casino in La Center.”

“Go on.”

“There are three other casinos in the area and they are all successful. The Columbia River is massive by your standards. It is about a mile wide in this area and is 1,200 feet deep in some areas, 400 feet deep in other areas. There are about two dozen fishing, hunting and tour operators on the river in this area, most are small. The large cruise ships are out of Portland. There are a handful of endangered species along the river and some marijuana growers but they are well back from the highway. Any of that helpful?”

“Maybe. Just one more question, is there a lot of Native pride in the area?”

“Oh, yeah. Particularly after the Cowlitz casino went in. Management there went well out of it way to hire kith and kin, if you know what I mean.”

Noonan looked up from his notebook. “Do you mean the Cowlitz hired their own first?”

“And foremost,” Goto said. “A lot of Native pride.”

This time the gong in Noonan’s brain was psychologically deafening.

* * *

            Noonan was silently cursing the soon-to-be Annual Sandersonville Historical Halloween Gala commemorating the founding of the city, when Harriet came into his office with a box. This time she had a SCREAM mask on.

Noonan was not impressed. “That,” he said as he pointed at the mask, “is not funny. At least not today. Save it for Halloween.” He shuffled the paperwork for the soon-to-be Annual Sandersonville Historical Halloween Gala commemorating the founding of the city.

“I bring a message from beyond the grave,” she said and poured the contents of the box onto his desk. It was a pile of plastic skeleton hands.

“Let me guess,” Noonan said drying. “From the Washington State Troopers.”

Javowl, mein heir,” she said channeling Sgt. Shultz of Hogan’s Heroes. “Now tell me what’s what.”

Noonan put down the paperwork for the soon-to-be Annual Sandersonville Historical Halloween Gala commemorating the founding of the city. “I helped the troopers solve a crime. The disappearance of 300 pounds of plastic skeleton parts,” he said as he pointed to the pile of skeleton hands.

“Who stole them?”

“Don’t know. They were part of an elaborate scheme to rob a casino. The skeleton bones were ordered for Sam’s Club.”

“But Sam’s Club is gone, defunct, dead and a doornail,” she said as he pointed to the pile of hands. “Just bones now.”

“True. I don’t know if the perps knew Sam’s was going out of business or they just got lucky. There was an order for 100 pounds of plastic bones from three Sam’s Clubs. Probably someone in the distribution center in Portland. The bones went to three Sam’s Club outlets and disappeared.”

“As in stolen?”

“That’s a good verb to use. Yes. The missing bones set off some kind of an alarm and the missing bones were reported to the troopers. They called me. They, like me, have a nose for trouble.”

“And what a nose it is,” Harriet tapped his nose with the eraser end of a pencil. “What happened?”

“It’s not what did happen. It’s what didn’t happen.”

“I’ll bite.”

“The key to the robbery was to get the usual personnel away from the secure areas where the money is stored at a Native casino. It was an elaborate plot. A collection of Natives began the rumblings of a new casino on Indian lands that did not exist.”

“What do you mean by ‘not exist?’”

“You must have Native lands to have a Native casino. That’s the only way to have a casino in the state of Washington. So a group of daring individuals salted the concept of a new casino in a town they were going to create on Indian land that had yet to be recognized. It was a clever plot. The reservation was to be called Coffin Mountain. The original Coffin Mountain was a burial island for the local Indians. It was reduced to gravel for the city of Longview.”

“So?”

“So, by naming the new village Coffin Mountain, the perps were inflaming local Native passions. Native pride and all. A lot of publicity for the Indian burials.”

“OK, then what?”

“The key to the whole robbery was to get the Natives in the Native casino to leave at a specific time so the vault could be emptied. The troopers are not sure who was going to be doing the robbing, just when.”

“Really?”

“I guessed the wholesale leaving of the Natives in the casino was going to happen when 300 pounds of plastic bones,” he pointed to the skeletal remains that never were, “showed up on the banks of the Columbia River.”

“So someone just dumped the bones and then spread the word there were bones on the shore. No one was going to believe that! 100-year-old bones on the banks of a river people have been walking for, well, 100 years.”

“Good point. But they were more clever than that. They waited until there was an event like an earthquake or heavy rain. In this case, a heavy rain. They dumped the bones on the shore near where Coffin Mountain was to be and spread the word the tide had unearthed the bones.”

“Tide? Rivers don’t have tides.”

“The Columbia River does. That’s what would have made the story believable. Everyone along the river knows it.  So, when the news of bones onshore spread, everyone would assume that some underwater event burped up bones.”

“So when the word that bones were washed up on shore, a lot of Natives went down to get their ancestors bones?”

“Yup. That was the plan. It would have been a mass exodus from the Native casino to get the bones. That’s when the perps would have hit the casino.”

“When the security on the vault was low.”

“Two people who, as a matter of fact, are in custody right now.”

“So it almost worked?”

“No, it didn’t work at all. Once the troopers figured out what was going to happen . . .”

“You mean, after you told them what was going to happen.”

“I just gave them my best guess. It turned out to be correct. The troopers got the two inside people and then the bones and then the rest of the gang.”

“So the entire casino idea was just a plot to steal money?”

“I don’t think so. I’m betting the casino organizers weren’t in on the plot. There’s too much money in casinos to lose it over a piddly idea like this one.  It was a freelance operation. Nothing more than that.  It ended as it should have.”

“So, all’s well that ends well, eh?”

Noonan smiled. “Better early than late. Nipped the crime in the bud.” He pointed to the pile of plastic skeleton bones on his desk. “I happened to be right.”

Harriet smiled. She picked up a hand. “I’ve got to hand it to you . . .”

“You,” Noonan said quickly, “are so humerus.”

Steven C. Levi is a sixty-something freelance historian and commercial writer who lives in Anchorage, Alaska, his home for past 40 years. He has a BA in European History and MA in American history from the University of California Davis and San Jose State. He has more than 80 books in print or on Kindle. 

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