Murders of Aloha teens remain unsolved for 40 years

Peter Zito and Donald Bartron were killed 4 decades ago

Peter Zito and Donald Bartron were found shot to death on October 3, 1974 in Washington County, Oregon. (WCSO)
Peter Zito and Donald Bartron were found shot to death on October 3, 1974 in Washington County, Oregon. (WCSO)

ALOHA, Ore. (KOIN) — It has been 4 decades since 2 Aloha High School students were murdered and their killer may still be out there.

When 18-year-old Peter Zito and 16-year-old Donald Bartron were killed on October 3, 1974, detectives thought they caught the murderer right away.

Washington County Sheriff’s Office arrested then 18-year-old Joseph Wilson, who had a criminal gun record. Wilson, Peter and Bartron had been at the Oak Hills Recreation Center the night before when Wilson got into a fight with another teenager. Wilson was known as “Crazy Joe.”

Aloha High School yearbook photos of Donald Bartron (left) and Peter Zito, who were murdered in October 1974. (Courtesy photo)
Aloha High School yearbook photos of Donald Bartron (left) and Peter Zito, who were murdered in October 1974. (Courtesy photo)

He told investigators he spent the night in a field near the crime scene, before walking to the nearby Arco gas station and calling for a taxi from a pay phone at about 2 a.m. Wilson passed a lie detector test and was set free on what was supposed to be the first day of his double murder trial.

The crime was big news at the time, but Stephanie Zito still remembers the moments before the headlines, when only police, her family and the killer knew about her brother’s death. Her parents pulled her out of class at Lewis and Clark College to tell her the horrible news. She remembers her mom, Faith Zito, trying to stay strong.

“He was my mother’s baby blue eyed boy,” Zito said. “She was absolutely devastated.”

The family went to the morgue and she saw a look of fear in her brother’s otherwise lifeless eyes.

“My father has always been a happy guy, always joking and making everybody laugh, and it was the first time I ever saw him cry,” Zito said. “He broke down and said ‘who would do something like this?'”

Those older than 18, click here to watch 1974 footage of crime scene

Peter was shot in the front of the head, his body found next to his 1956 Oldsmobile. His friend, Donald Bartron was slumped inside the engine compartment where he had been trying to fix the car under a street light in the parking lot of the rec center. He was shot in the back of the head.

Peter Zito and Donald Bartron were found shot to death on October 3, 1974 in Washington County, Oregon. (WCSO)
Peter Zito and Donald Bartron were found shot to death on October 3, 1974 in Washington County, Oregon. (WCSO)

The case went cold for years until it was recently assigned to Washington County Detective Robert Rookhuÿzen, who found film of the crime scene in the box of evidence.

“The fact that 2 teenagers were shot in the head there, just blew everyone away,” Rookhuÿzen said.

Rookhuÿzen said some people believed the victims had been selling marijuana at the school or that they were bullying someone who got tired of it.

“There’s a bunch of different theories going on,” he said. “In fact, there’s another theory that these 2 hosted a party where a kid got drunk and was killed in a crash. That’s another theory that maybe the father of the kid came to look for them.”

An undated booking photo of Joseph Wilson, who was arrested for the murders of Donald Barton and Peter Zito on October 3, 1974 in Aloha, Oregon. (Courtesy of WCSO)An undated booking photo of Joseph Wilson, who was arrested for the murders of Donald Barton and Peter Zito on October 3, 1974 in Aloha, Oregon. (Courtesy of WCSO)
An undated booking photo of Joseph Wilson, who was arrested for the murders of Donald Bartron and Peter Zito on October 3, 1974 in Aloha, Oregon. (Courtesy of WCSO)

Rookhuÿzen has a theory the shooter snuck up on Bartron and shot him in the head. The detective thinks Peter was sitting in the driver seat eating animal cookies, and got out when he heard the gun fire and then was shot himself. It’s only a theory and Rookhuÿzen said the original detectives on the case were still convinced Wilson was responsible for the crime.

“I found that out in interviews this year, that people were ‘I knew he got arrested, we thought it was done.’ They have no idea the case went cold, so I strongly believe there are people from Aloha High School class of 1973, 1974 and 75 at Aloha High School who have knowledge about who did this,” Rookhuÿzen said.

Twenty years after the murders, Zito said Wilson called her mother.

“He was very, very angry,” Zito said.

“He’s yelling and screaming about why was he accused, and why he was arrested, 20 years after this happened,” Rookhuÿzen said.

Rookhuÿzen hopes to find Bartron’s family for his investigation but all he knows is that the boy was buried near the Idaho border in Nyssa, Oregon.

Wilson died in 2000 and Faith Zito died in August 2017, still not knowing who did this to her family.

“My mother has gone to heaven and I know she’s happy to be with Peter, I know that, and I’m thankful that now she’s not suffering,” Zito said.