The Freshwater Murders were an act of family annihilation believed to be perpetrated by Clark Freshwater. The crime is sometimes called "The Freshwater Slaughter" by true crime buffs and others, usually in a darkly humorous sense.
On February 14, 2009, Dorothy Freshwater and her children Jared, Emile, and Tabitha were fatally shot in the family home, Freshwater Knoll, in Samuelton, Oregon. Only Dorothy’s youngest daughter, Towhee, survived. The prime suspect was Dorothy’s husband Clark Freshwater. In the aftermath of the slayings, Clark disappeared and remained at-large for more than ten years.
In 2018, Clark’s body was discovered in a shallow grave in the cemetery at the long-abandoned Hensley Asylum for Infirm Ladies and Needful Girls outside Crestview, Oregon.
Clark’s body had suffered significant decomposition, indicating he had been dead for many years. Cause of death was attributed to a gunshot wound in the chest which pierced the sternum and likely the heart, then damaged the spine. Physical evidence recovered from the grave suggested he’d been alive until at least November 2009, roughly seven months after the murders of his wife and children.
It was further learned that Emile also survived despite being shot in the head. However, he suffered a significant brain injury which left him with serious cognitive impairments that required permanent institutionalization. His legal guardian, Virginia Newland (also Towhee’s foster mother), decided to keep this information from Towhee. She believed because Emile could never interact with or even recognize his little sister, knowing he was still alive would be too painful for Towhee.
- Memory Garden (Work on this novel is on indefinite hold.)
- Dorothy Freshwater
- Jared Freshwater
- Emile Freshwater
- Tabitha Freshwater
- Towhee Freshwater (survivor)
Other Relevant Characters
Online Description of the Freshwater Murders
What follows is an overview of the murders published at a popular true crime website. It is based on published reports and official accounts released by investigating authorities, and does not reflect revelations which came out during June/July 2018.
Clark Freshwater, Perpetrator of the Freshwater Murders (AKA The Freshwater Slaughter)
Classification: Mass Murderer
Number of victims: 4
Date of murders: February 14, 2009
Date of arrest: Remains at-large
Date of birth: December 25, 1966
Victims profile: His wife, Dorothy, 39; his children: Jared, 15; Emile, 15; and Tabitha, 11 (one survivor: Odelia, 8)
Method of murder: Shooting
Location: Samuelton, Oregon, USA
Status: Remains at-large
The Freshwater Murders are a “family annihilation” mass murder in which Clark Evan Freshwater is alleged to have killed his wife and three of his four children on the morning of Saturday, February 14, 2009. After the murders, Clark fled the scene and remains at-large.
The only survivor, Odelia Freshwater, was eight years old at the time of the killings. Of the victims, fraternal twins Jared and Emile were fifteen. Tabitha was eleven. Their mother, Dorothy Freshwater née Moores, was 39.
Prior to the birth of his children, Clark Freshwater was the last member of a large and extensive family which had lived Barlow County, Oregon since the days of the Oregon Trail. Over the years, the once wealthy clan had gone bankrupt and all but died out. After attending college in the East, Clark had returned to Samuelton, Oregon in the early 1990s with the goal of restoring the faded luster of his family name. With him came his new wife Dorothy.
Clark went to work at Rolling Sage Bank, where he would in time rise to Vice President of Business Development. Dorothy was was a stay-at-home mom, though a busy one. She not only volunteered as a parent aide at her children’s schools, but served on the organizing committee for the Barlow County Fair and worked on various charitable events sponsored by the Bear Lodge where Clark was a member.
The boys played football and ran track in the spring. Of the two, Jared was bigger and more physically intimidating—known as something of a bully at school. Emile was quieter, smaller, the better runner. He was less likely to get into trouble, but was quick to defend his brother. You didn’t want to get on the wrong side of the Freshwater Twins. They were a force to be reckoned with at Barlow Consolidated High School. Tabitha was reportedly her own girl. A little more than three years younger than the twins, she stayed out of their orbit. Like them, she was athletic, with a keen love of soccer. But she was also an advanced student and known as a mechanical whiz, particularly with electronics and motors. She was the only girl in the robotics club at her school. Little Odelia, just eight at the time, was a mostly solitary child who spent most of her time—when she wasn't at school—with her mother.
They all had things going on, busy schedules, and often didn’t cross paths until dinner time each night—if then. Practices and clubs kept the kids out, and work kept Clark out—when he wasn’t volunteering for some committee of his own. It wasn’t uncommon for Dorothy and Odelia to be the only members of the Freshwater family sharing a meal in the big kitchen of the old family domicile, Freshwater Knoll.
By all appearances, the Freshwaters were a typical family. But things changed on on that fateful Saturday in February. Clark didn't normally work on Saturday, but he told Dorothy he had a few things to take care of that morning. She didn't mind, as she had things to do herself that day. He did go to the bank, but he was out the door with a smile and a wave before most of the staff had even arrived for work. Clark was always free with a smile.
No one would ever see him again.
On his way to the office, shortly after 7:00 am, he’d dropped Jared and Emile at the high school stadium for track. It was a voluntary conditioning day, since formal practice didn’t start for a couple of weeks. They planned make their own way home after the workout.
Tabitha had spent Friday night with a friend. That left Odelia and Dorothy alone at Freshwater Knoll. Dorothy had a planning meaning for the County Fair at 10:00 am, but if Tabitha or the boys weren’t back, Odelia could come with her.
Clark Freshwater left Rolling Sage Bank at 8:23 am, a fact established by a security card swipe. The drive home would have taken only a few minutes. No witnesses saw his Jeep Grand Cherokee drive up the hill from town, but it was a cold, blustery day and police established that only one nearby neighborhood was even outside during the relevant period, and he was in the backyard. Though there are homes on the lower reaches of Samuelton’s College Ridge, Freshwater Knoll is the only house on its cul de sac. It would be easy to miss a vehicle driving up that way if one weren’t paying attention.
It is unknown exactly where Odelia was when Clark entered the house, but he seems to have found Dorothy in the kitchen. Ceramic shards and a puddle of spilt coffee on the kitchen floor suggest that either the husband and wife had a physical altercation, or Dorothy simply dropped her cup and ran. Fingerprints on the broken mug indicate she was the last to hold it.
Dorothy seems to have run through the dining room. A bullet was recovered from the wall just to the left of the doorway leading from the dining room to the front hall, indicating a likely shot as she fled. But she wasn’t fast enough. Clark caught up with her in the entry passage leading from the front hall to the living room. Based on blood spatter patterns and powder burns, he shot her at close range in the back of the head. Blood loss indicates she took approximately one minute to die.
Clark dragged her body into the living room—an unused space that was unfurnished and in need of renovation. Some of Dorothy’s blood leaked from the wound at the back of her head and pooled on the marble floor. (Investigators would later find Odelia’s handprint in the blood, indicating she’d gone to her mother’s body after it was moved.) Clark crossed Dorothy’s hands over her chest and slashed an X across her face. The medical examiner would later confirm the slashes were postmortem.
Evidence indicates Clark then set out to clean up the blood in the front hall, though he seems to have been interrupted when Tabitha returned home from her overnight. Her friend’s house was halfway down the hill on Day Place, about two blocks away. It was common for the friends to walk back and forth between houses without supervision, and it was later reported to investigators that Tabitha left for home about 8:40 and likely made the short walk in under ten minutes. Typically the family came and went through the side door which opened into the house’s daylight basement. From there, a stairway led up to a small hall between Emile’s and Jared’s bedrooms and on into the kitchen. It appears Clark shot Tabitha in the chest when she reached the top of the stairs. Death must have been quick, as there was minimal blood loss. Powder stippling on the body indicates the shot was fired at close range.
As with Dorothy’s body, Clark dragged the dead Tabitha into the living room. Unlike Dorothy, he did not disfigure his daughter’s remains—leaving her only with her arms folded in the same manner as her mother’s.
At that point, it is unknown whether he searched for Odelia or simply lay in wait for Jared and Emile. He had to have assumed his youngest daughter was in the house. Either way, he wouldn’t have had long, as the boys had left the stadium at 8:35 am for what would have been a half hour walk home—shorter if they chose to run. As with Tabitha, Clark shot the unsuspecting Jared as he climbed the stairs from the side door. Based on a bullet recovered from the stairway wall, it is believed he shot at Emile as well, but missed. Emile seems to have run. Clark pursued, and fired again as Emile attempted to escape through the side door. The bullet struck the boy in the head.
This is when Clark most likely fled, taking the murder weapon with him. He did not move the bodies of his two sons, except to drag Emile inside the side door. He locked the house and disappeared.
The Discovery of the Bodies and Initial Investigation
The first indication something was amiss was when Dorothy failed to appear at the fair committee meeting at the Bear Lodge at 10:00am. She also failed to answer her cell when another committee member called. But no one was too worried. She wasn’t one to go AWOL, and people were happy to cut her some slack. “Something probably came up and she wasn’t able to let us know.” By then, she had been dead for more than an hour.
But it wasn’t until late Saturday evening that people began to suspect something serious had happened. Jared and Emile were expected at a party held by a member of the football team. When they didn’t show up, and didn’t respond to text messages or social media comments, a group of boys drove up to Freshwater Knoll to find them. “I figured they were grounded,” teammate Jack MacElroy would say. “Their mom could be kind of a b***h about the stupidest stuff, so we thought we’d try to help them sneak out.”
However, the boys came upon a dark house. At this point, some speculated the family had gone away on a trip. But if so, the lack of communication either through social media or by phone or text was starting to look weird. Emile’s girlfriend Madison Key and another girl drove up to the house first thing Sunday morning. They found the quiet unsettling and almost left, but Madison decided to ring the doorbell. Through windows on either side of the front door they could see into the front hall, but from that angle they were unable to see the blood on the stairs or through to the where the bodies lay in the living room. After getting no answer, they went around to the side door. There, Madison spotted the slumped figure of Emile through a gap in the curtains on the side door’s window. When Emile didn’t move despite repeated knocks and yelling, Madison dialed 911 on her cellphone.
First on the scene was Deputy Reagan Rutherford, followed quickly by Barlow County Fire and Rescue EMTs. Not immediately suspecting foul play, they broke through the side door to attend to Emile. He was found unconscious, with dangerously weak heart and lung function. He was rushed to St. Mark’s Hospital in Samuelton, then airlifted to Oregon Health Sciences University Hospital in Portland. He remained in a coma for three weeks, at which point it was decided to take him off artificial life support. He was then moved to a hospice facility.
Additional Barlow County Sheriff’s Department deputies arrived as EMTs were attending to Emile. Upon discovery of the other victims, they performed a thorough search of the house. It was a large rambling mansion dating from Prohibition which had fallen into disrepair. Before Clark and Dorothy took possession in 1992, the place had stood empty for a number of years, any many of the rooms had remained in poor shape while the couple slowly renovated. There were numerous nooks and crannies where someone might hide, and even a small elevator which ran between the first and second floors. Because Odelia and Clark were unaccounted for, the search extended to the wooded ridge above the house. Initially, deputies theorized they had been injured while fleeing a possible home invasion and were unable to find help. The search took some time to organize, but was not fruitful in any case.
Because the city of Samuelton contracts with the county for police service, the investigation was led by the Barlow County Sheriffs Department. Once the scope of the crime became clear, the Sheriff requested assistance from the Oregon State Police. Investigators descended upon the house. Another search was performed, then state criminalists arrived and began processing the crime scenes in the front hall, back stairway, and living room. Six hours after Madison Key’s call to 911 there was still no sign of Clark or Odelia.
Bullets recovered at the scene and from the bodies indicated the murder weapon was a 9mm handgun. Clark Freshwater was known to possess a Beretta M9. However, no weapon was recovered from the scene—nor were any shell casings or unused ammunition. Forensic analysis confirmed the slugs were 9mm, but without a weapon to compare no further conclusion was yet possible. The lack of casings led some to speculate revolver had been used.
At 2:30 pm, Clark Freshwater’s Grand Cherokee was found at the Dryer Lake Resort Village in the north central part of Barlow County about twenty-five miles from Samuelton. It had been left in a parking space outside the hotel. He hadn’t checked in, though one hotel staff member recalled seeing him sitting in the Jeep around noon the day before—several hours after the murders. It’s unclear when or how he left the resort. Those who supported the home invasion theory thought the Jeep might have been taken by the invaders, then abandoned at the resort. For others, this theory strained credulity given the hotel staffer's sighting of Clark and the fact the only fingerprints found in the vehicle belonged to Clark (whose prints were on file from his bank employment background check) and other family members.
A more likely early theory, one held by the lead investigators from the state, was that Clark had committed the crime and then fled with his youngest daughter. Though no one could say why Odelia was spared while the others were killed, this theory was seen as more plausible than home invaders who came out of nowhere, killed four out of six family members, then disappeared with two hostages.
Then the strangest moment in the whole sorry mess occurred. Odelia Freshwater, age eight, came walking out of the elevator in Freshwater Knoll. She was haggard and starving, having apparently hidden for more than a day and a half. When she heard the noise of the police, she’d been afraid to move. Only when the investigators were nearing the end of their crime scene analysis and things had quieted down did she find the courage to creep out.
By this point, a rough idea of the sequence of events had been established. The timing of the shootings was established from a witness, who heard the muffled shots but thought little of it, assuming it was someone shooting up on top of the ridge. Based on the witness report, the first shots were fired around 8:15 am and the last no later than 9:15. Later, this witness was often heard to lament that he might have at least saved the children if he'd called 911 when he heard the first shots, but gunfire up on top of the ridge was not uncommon.
Initial review of Clark’s financials had flagged some irregularities. It would take some time to sort out the details, but investigators began to suspect Clark was the sole perpetrator, first of embezzlement from Rolling Sage Bank, then of a horrible plot to escape his current life in order to start a new one. Odelia’s appearance was seen as reinforcement of this idea, as it eliminated the possibility he was on the run with her. It was believed he’d decided to kill his entire family and then go into hiding with his ill-gotten gains. Odelia had avoided becoming a victim by successfully hiding. Clark probably decided he couldn’t afford to stick around to search for her.
In subsequent questioning by state child services specialists, Odelia was unresponsive. Some believe she witnessed the killings, but if so, she has never admitted it. Others have speculated she merely heard the shots Clark fired at her mother and hid in terror. The latter seems more likely. What is certain is that at some point she crept from her hiding place and saw her dead mother, moving close enough to leave her handprint in the congealing blood. She then returned to her hiding place and didn’t come out for another day.
How the initial responding deputies or subsequent investigators failed to find her during many searches of the house remains unexplained to this day.
Note: much of this account is drawn from articles in the The Samuelton Ledger.
What Really Happened
Dearth Newland, having learned his wife Virginia was having an affair with Clark Freshwater, went to Freshwater Knoll intending to confront Clark. He drove up to the community college campus, on the ridge north of Freshwater Knoll. From there, he walked over the ridge and through the pine woods so he could come upon the house unseen. The campus was quiet on the early Saturday morning, so no one saw him. Even if he had been seen, no one would have thought twice. His company provided mulch and other landscaping supplies to the college.
When he reached the house a little before 8am, he saw no sign anyone was awake. He was unaware of Clark's schedule, but expected to find him at home on a Saturday morning. He wasn't thinking clearly, and didn't really plan for what to do if anyone else in the family saw him. For just a moment, when faced with the quiet house, Dearth almost turned around and left. But then caught some movement in one of the windows and, thinking it had to be Clark, crossed the yard and went in through the side door. In the kitchen, he found himself face-to-face with Dorothy.
Though Dearth hadn't consciously come to hurt Clark, he'd brought his .357 revolver. When Dorothy saw the gun in his hand, she screamed and ran. Panicked, he pursued and shot her. The subsequents killings occurred roughly as they'd been reconstructed, but with Dearth the perpetrator.
Dearth had purchased .357 at a gun show. Only Virginia knew he owned it. Because 9mm ammo was less expensive, he sometimes swapped the cylinder for general target practice. He hadn't switched back to the .357 cylinder the morning he went to Freshwater Knoll. This is why no shells were recovered from the scene, even though the 9mm bullets recovered suggested a semi-automatic handgun—such as the Beretta known to belong to Clark.