Unsolved: The Case of the 1946 Willamette River torso

A torso, thighs, arms and a head were found along the river

Clothing belonging to the woman whose body parts were found in the Willamette River in 1946. Her identity and murderer have never been found. (Courtesy photo)
Clothing belonging to the woman whose body parts were found in the Willamette River in 1946. Her identity and murderer have never been found. (Courtesy photo)

CLACKAMAS COUNTY, Ore. (KOIN) — The Willamette River has been holding on to a grim secret for decades after a woman’s body parts were found in its waters more than 70 years ago.Body parts of a woman in her 50s were found in the Willamette River in 1946. Her identity and murderer have never been found. (Courtesy photo)

On April 12, 1946 near Oak Grove, a burlap wrapped package was found floating in the Willamette River. No one was prepared for the horror found inside.

The package contained a dismembered woman’s torso along with the victim’s clothes, fire and sash weights. That was only the beginning of the nightmare.

The following day, the woman’s right thigh and arms were found up the river, floating in a similar package above the Willamette Falls locks. In July, the other thigh was found near the McLaughlin Bridge, and in October, a package containing the woman’s head was found not far from where the torso turned up months earlier.

“When you have a body with no identity, you’re really stumped with where you are going to start,” cold case detective John Krummenacker said.

Krummenacker has been digging into the case and is haunted by the torso murder.

“It was, without a doubt, one of the most brutal, gory things that happened in that time,” Krummenacker said. “The public’s attention was grasped by it.”

Stories about the torso murder appeared in the Oregonian for months, detailing the dead ends investigators hit.

Case files show how detectives examined the clothes, looking for clues. The weights used to hold down the packages were checked along with the burlap feed sacks and the wires wrapped around them. A jaw bone and set of dentures were looked at too, but the leads went nowhere.

Warning: Some viewers may find these images disturbing. 

Many people also wrote letters wondering if the victim could be their loved one.

“It’s heart wrenching to realize there were so many people that were missing their loved ones,” Krummenacker said. “This is really pre-television, so it’s going to be radio and print… it hit the news wires and they thought ‘oh is that my sister? Is that my mother? My cousin?'”

Each missing person was investigated. Detectives even checked other similar dismemberment cases outside Oregon.

“There was a case in Indiana, another case in California and they reached out to the police in those agencies and said ‘what are the possibilities that these are connected?’ and they wrung leads out to find out there was no connection,” Krummenacker said.

Body parts of a woman in her 50s were found in the Willamette River in 1946. Her identity and murderer have never been found. (Courtesy photo)
Body parts of a woman in her 50s were found in the Willamette River in 1946. Her identity and murderer have never been found. (Courtesy photo)

Weeks turned into months, months into years, years into decades and there was only one thing detectives knew for certain — they didn’t know who this woman was.

In 1946 there was no DNA matching, no modern forensic technology and testing the evidence now is impossible — it’s gone.

“It’s unknown what’s happened to the victim’s clothing, the sash weights that weighed the body down, or what happened to her remains,” Krummenacker said.

Krummenacker has looked for everything in the state and county archives but wasn’t able to find answers.

“The end result is this — there’s a middle-aged woman that was brutally murdered with a blunt force trauma blow to her head,” Krummenacker said. “Then [she] was sawn up, cut up, dismembered and thrown in this river like a piece of garbage.”

More than 70 years after that torso was found, the identity of the woman is still a mystery — or is it?

Part 2: Local crime authors have theory on torso identity