COOS COUNTY — The last time Frank Jay Pettingill was seen, he was promising his wife he would to return home with a TV guide.
He was headed to Curtis Mathes, an appliance store that used to sit where the Prefontaine mural now stands in Coos Bay.
It’s unclear if he ever made it there.
That was on Saturday, Sept. 2, 1991, on Labor Day.
Mushroom pickers found his body on Blue Ridge in Coos Bay the next morning. They led a a Coos County Sheriff’s deputy there, who walked as close as he could to the body, looked around and could tell there had been homicidal violence.
Detective Dan Looney, now the criminal division captain for the Sheriff’s Department, arrived at the scene and activated the Major Crime Team. At the time, the team was still young, having come together after the murder and continued cold case of Jeremy Bright four years prior.
“We had members from Coos Bay Police, North Bend, Myrtle Point, Coquille, the (sheriff's) department, State Police, all responded and began an investigation,” said Capt. Kelley Andrews with the Sheriff’s Office.
Even Andrews was on the case as a reserve deputy. He vividly remembered seeing detectives from the Coos Bay Police Department in on a holiday “which never happened unless something bad was going on.”
To make it worse, Pettingill’s murder was one in a string of murders seen around the county that year. There had been a homicide in July where a woman was shot over a reported drug deal in Barview, a homicide in August where a man was stabbed in the Bellvey Tavern, which is now O’Brady’s in Empire, and then Pettingill’s homicide in September which would be followed by another murder in October when a woman was shot by her son while she was making cookies. Then in December, a Hispanic male was stabbed to death behind the Red Lion, also in Coos Bay.
“It was a very active year for us,” Andrews told The World while he looked through three binders containing Pettingill’s cold case. “This is the only one that remains unsolved from that year.”
Labor Day Weekend
According to Andrews, Pettingill lived in the county. Between where he lived with his wife and the convenience store in Coos Bay, there was no reason he would have to drive near Blue Ridge. In fact, Blue Ridge was nearly 20 minutes out of his way.
Andrews said they have no idea why he was there, but they also don’t believe it was a dumping site. Rather, they think he was killed there and left on the side of the road.
“On Sunday, when his body was found and the investigation began, his wife was calling him in as a missing person,” Andrews said. “It was almost simultaneous that afternoon.”
On Monday, Sep. 3, his 1974 Chevy GMC was found at Bastendorf Beach mired down in the sand.
Witness interviews led authorities to a woman seen at the truck and pulling items out of it. She is still considered a person of interest, though has never been identified.
“That weekend was busy,” Andrews said. “We had this unknown female and started asking around about her when we learned she was later seen in Coos Bay talking with guys from two motorcycle clubs.”
In 1991, Coos Bay was home to the international headquarters of the Gypsy Jokers. The motorcycle “club” is known throughout the United States, Europe and Australia.
“During that weekend, they call it their Coos Bay Labor Day Run and were going to a few locations,” Andrews said. “With them was the Outsider Club. They were all over town, which wasn’t unusual then. We would see motorcycle clubs all over town back in those days.”
The main suspect in Pettingill’s murder, the unidentified woman, was spotted by witnesses asking where she could find members of these clubs.
“Because of that, we thought there was a connection,” Andrews said. “We went through extensive investigations and sent detectives to other clubs in the state and even into Washington, but we couldn’t make a connection with them to this homicide.”
One of the interesting aspects of the case was when authorities questioned members from the Gypsy Jokers and Outsiders about the woman.
“Whether they are being tight-lipped, we don’t know,” Andrews said. “Women can’t be members in those clubs, but are more like property, so if she wasn’t a ‘member’ then I’m not sure why they wouldn’t give her up. She may have just been trying to connect with them for a dream of hers and they may not be connected at all.”
The mystery woman was also seen using a pay phone at the Blue Moon, where a lot of the motorcycle club members were hanging out.
“We had a lot of personnel on the ground with this homicide,” Andrews explained. “Back then we had a crime lab with the Oregon State Police here, which was shut down in 2003. Personally I sat on the crime scene as a reserve all night long. Our sheriff now was a detective sergeant at the time, so this case has been one that I know we really look back on and wish we could have solved.
“Not that there is no hope. We are pursuing leads, but most leads have petered out.”
At the crime scene, DNA belonging to an unidentified female was found.
“We have made efforts through science that may help us in the future,” Andrews said. “Some evidence was left at the scene, so there is DNA being run through the system every month.”
Because that DNA hasn’t had a hit after nearly 20 years, some of the investigators believe the woman is either dead or is on the straight and narrow and staying out of trouble.
Andrews pointed out that Pettingill’s wife was quickly ruled out as a suspect. As for whether or not Pettingill was having an affair, that’s unknown.
“Even though leads are minimal, we are keeping some things back, including how he was killed,” Andrews said.
With cold cases, information often surfaces decades later when relationships change. Through giving this interview with The World, Andrews hopes someone who knows something about this case is now free to speak.
“She may have had a boyfriend she told stuff to and ended the relationship,” he said. “We find people who come forward who know suspects and are no longer friends and they come to us, saying they heard a story from them. That’s often how we solve cases like these.”
From witness accounts over that Labor Day weekend, a sketch artist created a rendering of what she looked like. The Sheriff’s Department is releasing that composite sketch again with hopes that someone recognizes her.
“This is what she would have looked like in 1991,” Andrews said. “No one has ever been able to identify her. If she is still alive, she would be in her 50s.”
For Andrews and others still in the department, they are attached to the Pettingill homicide.
“We worked on it and we continue to get tips on this, though it’s been a few years since our last tip, but I think it’s solvable,” he said. “The key is going to be finding her.”
To report new information, call the Sheriff's Office at 541-396-7800.