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Lost Creek Books Consultant Marie Peterson: Your A Homeless Man’s Burden novel really brings to life the Alice Lee murder.
Why did you write it?
Wesley Murphey: I can’t say exactly. It was my first novel published, but the 4th novel I wrote, after To Kill a Mother in Law, Trouble at Puma Creek and Girl Too Popular. One day early in 2010 I wrote down a few thoughts about the Alice Lee case and before I knew it I became obsessed with writing this novel. I guess my having carried around for a lifetime what I knew about her murder, the emotions I felt about it, my having picked beans for many summers in the field where it happened and then my personal connection to her family made a fertile seedbed for my writer’s mind.
Peterson: Where did the homeless man idea come from?
Murphey: Believe it or not there really was a homeless man living under the I-105 bridge over the canal near Weyerhaeuser ‘s (now International Paper) Springfield paper plant during one of the winters I trapped that stretch of the McKenzie River. I never actually talked to him, but when I began writing the Alice Lee novel that homeless man came to my mind and made an excellent prop.
Peterson: I loved that he knew your dad and how you built your entire novel around him. I know your dad was the local mail carrier in real life too, but I’m curious how much of the background and circumstances in the novel is fact and how much is fiction?
Murphey: A lot of the background and circumstances is fact. Of course how the case proceeded and was solved was all fiction since the real case has never been solved. It’s really too bad that material evidence from the actual case was not preserved properly or it’s possible DNA evidence could have been used to go back to certain original suspects and compare DNAs for a possible incriminating match. But who knew in 1960 that 15-to-25 years later DNA would be figured out and used to solve many criminal cases.
Peterson: Your dad was Alice Lee’s school bus driver for her first grade year and she was murdered the following summer. That must have been tough on him especially since his oldest daughter—your sister—was Alice’s age.
Murphey: I’m sure it was, but since I was only three when it happened I don’t remember how it affected him or my mom. I know that over the years after that the subject of Alice’s death would sometimes come up in our home, especially during the summer bean-picking months. I’ll tell you this, me and my siblings, and our friends were afraid to go anywhere alone knowing Alice’s killer was still out there. Her murder stole so much innocence from our community’s rural country life in the 60s. That stuff is all too common nowadays, but it was relatively unheard of then.
Peterson: I loved the way your character Hodge Gilbert clearly expresses his pent up anger toward Alice’s killer when he finally catches him. It is as if he’s the scared little boy from his childhood in the bean field. Does Hodge represent an actual childhood friend who picked beans with you?
Murphey: Yes, he does. But his background and character traits are really a combination of two friends blended into one person to make a more interesting character. The short-fused tough guy is actually opposite of the friend in the bean field that I used as the Hodge Gilbert character. But I needed those qualities in Hodge in addition to things that really were him.
Peterson: I know your character Shane Coleman is you. How closely does he represent you?
Murphey: With the exception of his permanent marriage to one woman pretty much everything else about him is me in every respect, so in a real sense the story is autobiographical.
Peterson: You worked with Alice’s father—tell me about that.
Murphey: That’s right. I worked with him for over six months beginning when I was fifteen. Ernest Lee and his wife were paper carriers for the Eugene Register Guard for years in the Dexter-Lost Creek and surrounding areas. In 1973, when Mr. Lee was getting up in years (I believe over 60) he wanted to quit doing the newspaper. My dad still delivered U.S. mail 6 days a week in the mornings, so he took over Mr. Lee’s paper route with the condition that Mr. Lee would keep delivering papers on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Monday to Friday papers were still done in the afternoons back then. Mr. Lee agreed to keep weekends if one of Dad’s twin boys rode along with Mr. Lee and punched paper boxes. I got the job. Later, when Mr. Lee couldn’t continue, my twin brother Rob joined me in doing the weekend route. By then we both had our driver’s licenses.
Peterson: Working with Mr. Lee must have felt a bit weird for you.
Murphey: It sure was. I couldn’t imagine how much his little girl’s murder had hurt him. He was a nice old guy. We talked about various topics, but of course, I never brought up Alice’s murder. I will say that one time I saw him get angry with one old guy on the paper route; he was literally shaking. I wondered if some of that anger was pent up pain over his daughter.
Peterson: In the novel, Shane Coleman says that his dad—the mail carrier and murdered girl’s school bus driver—believed he knew who her killer was. In real life did your dad know?
Murphey: Everything in the story is true in regard to my dad.
Peterson: Did your dad tell you the name of the real killer?
Murphey: Dad never actually told me that he was certain who killed Alice, but my oldest brother Bill said Dad did know. Dad told me it was one of the older teenage boys that picked in the bean field and that the guy still lived in the Dexter-Lost Creek area. Dad said the murderer had always lived a normal life, hurting no one since then. In fact he was a patron on Dad’s mail route clear up until Dad retired the route in 1973. But Dad told me there was no point in giving me the suspect’s name. As late as the mid-1990s Dad said the killer still lived in the area.
Peterson: I bet your dad would have enjoyed this novel.
Murphey: I don’t know about that. No doubt he would’ve been proud of my writing accomplishment in doing a novel. But he might have felt that my writing about Alice Lee’s murder was treading in murky water that would be better left undisturbed.
Peterson: Were you affected emotionally when writing the novel?
Murphey: Absolutely. I was moved to tears in numerous places because as the writer I felt the same emotions my characters felt, maybe more. Even though I deliberately changed Alice’s name, age, and the date she died, for me Ellen Brock was always Alice Lee.
Anne Martin (in Feb. 2022)- Wesley, there is a new book out whose authors claim to have solved the Alice Lee murder. Have you read it and do you agree with the two authors?
Murphey: Yes I have read it. Several folks who had previously read my Alice Lee novel asked me the same thing after they read the other book. Since ordering and reading the book myself, I have conversed extensively with one of these readers who has also emailed back and forth with the lead author of that book. I will keep my comments here somewhat brief.
The Eugene Register Guard will not even do a review or article on that book because, as the lead author of the book told my source, "the book contains fiction." Well the Register Guard did a review of the first edition of my Homeless book in 2011. My book contains facts, but it is clearly a fiction novel intended to bring the cold-case to life, and I have never tried to promote it as non-fiction. Within the other book and in their promotions, its authors attempt to pass their book off as factual, even though it is up to 90 percent pure fiction.
The authors have used both real people (including detective Wolfe) and fictional people in fictional scenarios and conversations extensively. For example, the 8th chapter in their book, the only one that absolutely implicates the person they name as Alice Lee’s killer by way of a 3rd party confession, is almost completely fiction. The lead author admitted to my source that Detective Al Wolfe would not divulge the supposed 3rd-party confession to her. So the authors made the entire thing up. Don’t get me wrong, the writing is good, although it is heavy with the authors’ religious beliefs, (which I share) and in some places, like chapter 10, reads like gossip.
In two or three chapters the authors say they are including records from law enforcement and the Oregon State Hospital related to the person they claim killed Alice Lee. But there are no footnotes or biography annotating specifics that prove this.
Based on reader reviews that I have seen, readers seem to have no idea that much of what they are reading is made up. Based on the scant concrete evidence, if any, the book provides, the entire case would be tossed out by a judge. In America, a person is presumed innocent until PROVEN guilty.
I would not be willing to open myself up to possible legal liability by writing things up the way these authors have. My guess is the Register Guard felt the same way and may even have taken offense at how the authors fictionalized so much about the case and their suspect and then presented it, and are promoting, it as if it were fact.
I will not say anymore here about that book. If a reader who has read my book wants to email me and ask for more detail regarding the many problems I have with the other book I would be happy to answer him or her. I believe it is wrong to name a real person as a killer, regardless of whatever other sins or crimes they have committed, when there simply is not enough evidence for law enforcement to conclude the same thing, let alone take the case to court.
Other interviews will be added as we get the time to put them up.