The Ship Ashore Mass Murders

“Smith River, Calif.  (UPI) —  An overnight motel guest “went berserk” Sunday night and killed four persons with a high-powered rifle.” That’s the dateline from a newspaper clipping I have from 1975.

He was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, July 23rd, 1951. He had also been in trouble with the law, having robbed and beaten a man half to death.

For that Robert Paul Sander received a three-year probation sentence. When he violated his probation he ended up in a mental health institute for evaluation, where he eventually gained an early release

He eventually ended up working at Sears as a tire changer. This is where he purchased the 30-30 rifles he would use to take five innocent lives.

Sander left Cincinnati, in mid-February heading West through Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona then to Provo Utah, Reno, Nevada and then San Francisco, He left San Francisco, driving north on Highway 101, arriving in Smith River, California,  and checking into the Ship Ashore Motel, Room # 28.

Not yet 15 years old, I would later in life come to know many of the people named in this narrative. Also, when this crime happened, it was the third worst mass murder in U.S. history behind those committed by Robert Speck and Charles Manson.

Around 11 on the morning of March 2nd, 1975, Julie Vick, one of the motel maids, knocked on his door. She asked him if he wanted fresh towels.

He told her he did as he wanted to take a shower before checking out. She gave him a couple of towels, and then went about her business in the room next door.

Seconds later he opened the door to his room to look around, making sure there wasn’t anyone in sight. He got his rifle and quietly walked out of his room, making his way to the top floor balcony.

As a maid at the motel, Ella Beem was going about her business, cleaning the rooms on the third floor. She walked out onto the balcony next to her cleaning cart.

Percy and Barbara Harmon were just leaving the restaurant after having breakfast. They had traveled from Fortuna, California for a nice weekend at the resort.

Gordon Knott, manager of the motel, was at the lobby counter. He was looking over the registration cards to decide who was going to be checking out and those who were going to stay.

His wife, Shirley, was in the adjoining apartment, getting ready for the day. She was in the process of putting on her makeup in the bathroom.

Denise DeGraft and Carla Prough, waitresses at the restaurant, located next to the motel complex, were standing back by the kitchen waiting for breakfast orders to serve to their customers. It was a typical Sunday morning.

In my 1975 high school yearbook, Denise’s last name is spelled “DeGraff.”

Sander put the rifle to his shoulder, putting Ella in his sights. Applying pressure to the trigger, the hammer released, the rifles muzzle flashes as it fires.

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The bullet entered the young maid’s chest. He would shoot her again, believing her death-throws to be movement showing she was still alive.

His attention turned to the parking lot below as the Harmon’s exited the restaurant and was walking across the parking lot to their car. The rifle still at his shoulder, he took aim and fired.

The bullet tore through the mid-section of the old man. He staggered as his wife tries to hold him up.

Inside the restaurant, the waitresses heard what they thought were vehicles backfiring. They walked over to the window overlooking the parking lot.

They saw a man on the ground with a woman kneeling over him. They recognize them as a couple who had jus’ left the restaurant.

Then glass sprayed all over the tables and floor.

Denise fell to the floor, screaming in agony. A bullet had gone through her hand, severing two fingers and into her hip, shattering the bone in three places.

Carla was hit in the arm by flying lead shrapnel from the same bullet and glass from the shattered window. She too dropped to the floor screaming in pain.

David Jimenez, an off duty police officer from Grants Pass, Oregon, was looking out over the parking lot as the bullet came through the plate-glass window. He and his wife fell to the floor trying to get out of the gunman’s line of sight.

Julie, the first motel maid, was inside one of the motel rooms cleaning, when she first heard the shooting and walked outside to see what was happening. She saw an elderly man in the parking lot get shot and saw that the man’s wife was trying to hold him up.

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She watched as Barbara ran towards the lobby entrance and a bullet tears into the woman who sprawls to the pavement.

Her husband, Percy would die the next day from his injuries.

Sander turns and looks into the lobby through the plate-glass windows, seeing the manager on the phone behind the lobby counter. He fires through the plate-glass hitting the cash register just in front of the manager.

Gordon dropped the phone and turned to run inside his adjoining apartment.

Sander follows and quickly fires another shot. The bullet strikes and spins Gordon around, and then another shot sends him falling to the floor, face down in the entry way to the apartment.

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After hearing the shots,  Gordon’s wife Shirley walked out of the bathroom to see what was going on. She surprised Sander who was by the counter.

She turned to run as Sander fired.

The first bullet hit the floor; the second bullet ripped open an artery in her leg. Shirley crawled away; attempting to hide behind the bathroom door, where she bled to death before help arrived.

Sander then got in his blue Chevy and casually drove out of the parking lot.

ship ashore2

The first deputy to arrive on the scene was Dale Parker. He was the resident deputy in the Smith River area.

Because he was first, he was potentially in the most danger, because he had no way of knowing whether Sander was still on the property or gone.

He decided, that while he gave first aid to Percy, he’d hand his pistol and shotgun to a couple of by-standers. They would provide cover-fire if the shooter suddenly appeared.

Deputy Bob Long was second on the scene. He met with Parker in the parking lot and together they concluded the shooter might be on the south-end second floor balcony.

Soon more sheriff deputies arrived, including Dick Williams, Jim McQuillen, Jim Maready and Chuck Hupp. They along with Long and Parker would undertake the task of searching for the gunman.

It would take more than hour for them to learn the shooter was gone. It also marked the beginning of a lengthy investigation that would involve not only California law enforcement, but also Oregon and Ohio authorities.

We had jus’ returned home from church, and as usual the radio was on and tuned to KPOD. When the announcer started talking about what had happen north of Klamath, my parents made sure we stayed inside until the capture of the shooter.

Hours after the shootings, on U.S. 199, jus’ south of Grants Pass, Oregon, recruit officer David Moran, of the Oregon State Police, was on a traffic stop. While talking to the driver of that vehicle, he spotted Sander’s blue Chevy.

He notified dispatch, he was behind the car wanted in Del Norte County. They told him to keep the vehicle in sight, but not to make a stop until he had backup.

That backup came in the form of Trooper Smith of the Oregon State Police. With his arrival, the pair pulled the blue Chevy over and the driver, identified as Sander, taken into custody. Two days later, officers traveled to Grants Pass, Oregon and took custody of Sander and transported him back to Crescent City.

Eleven days after the shootings, a grand jury indicted Sander, charging him with five counts of first degree murder, two counts of attempted murder, two counts of assault with a deadly weapon, one count of mayhem and one count of burglary. The Mayhem charge came as a result of the wounds Denise DeGraft received.

The Del Norte County District Attorney Robert Weir decided to seek the death penalty.

During Sander’s incarceration he threw his food at the guards. Most of the other prisoners didn’t like him and he was constantly being moved from one cell block to another.

However one inmate took to Sander and eventually Sander confided in him about the murders and how he did them. The state would use this inmate during the trial.

Sander’s trial began July 29th. It took a week to seat a jury because six alternate jurors were also chosen.

By August 5th, the first of the witnesses took the stand. Their testimony included the hearing of shots, the puffs of smoke observed coming from the upper balcony and the wounding of the two girls inside the restaurant.

Then came the testimony of the two waitresses. Denise’s testimony left jurors in tears.

Seven years later, I would meet Denise personally. Up to that point she had always simply been a Senior in high school while I was Freshman. She came over to the townhouse to visit and we ended up sitting around the dining table drinking coffee and talking.

Other witnesses told of seeing a bearded man walking from the lobby area shortly after the shots were heard, and then entering Room #28. Still others saw the same bearded man come out of Room #28, getting into a blue Chevrolet and driving away.

Next were the officers and investigators, who arrived at the murder scene shortly after the shootings, describing what they saw, what they did and found. Sales clerks from various stores in Cincinnati took the stand, testifying about Sander’s purchase of ammunition.

The jurors listened intently. Meanwhile Sander sat stationary, acting as if nothing had happened.

The next witness was the inmate who shared a cell with Sander for a short time. Tim Shelly explained how Sander told him about buying the 30-30 rifle and the ammo and how he didn’t believe he would be found guilty and when he got off from this crime.

The last witness was the manager of the bar at the restaurant. Jim Fish told the court how he saw Sander that morning, in front of room #28 at the motel after the shooting stopped.

When asked by Weir if he could identify the man who had the gun. Fish pointed directly at Sander.

On August 19th, the defense began its case. Not to the surprise of the State, it was not going to be a defense of denying the murders, but instead, it was to show Sander was insane at the time of the killings.

The first psychiatrist to testify for the defense was Dr. David H. Gasman from Redding, California. He said Sander cried during the interview which indicated remorse for his victims

The defense then put on another court appointed psychiatrist, Dr. Shelton, also from Redding. He described Sander as having anti-social behavior, depressed, psychotic, and was very depressed at the time of the murders.

The defense then called Dr. O’Neil from Yreka, California. He said Sander appeared schizophrenic.

Two more psychiatrists, hired by the defense came to the stand. The first, Dr. Komasarick who claimed at the time of the attack Sander’s lacked the mental capacity to know right from wrong.

For whatever reason, I have been unable to find Doctors’ Shelton, O’Neil or Komasarick via the Internet.

Finally, a Dr. Martin Blender described Sander as a schizophrenic personality and extremely anti-social. Blender claimed Sander picked Ship Ashore because the voices told him to.

It was time for the state to wrap up its case against Sander with its rebuttal.

The State called Dr. Joel Fort, a bay-area criminalist and forensic psychiatrist. Fort explained to jurors that a person could be a paranoid schizophrenic but still be responsible for his actions – but that doubted Sander was suffering from the disorder.

After 17 days testimony,  more than 40 witnesses, nearly 150 items of evidence and about 5,000 pages of transcript, the prosecutor took most of the day for his final argument. He reminded the jurors how Sander fired with deadly accuracy; eleven bullets hitting the victims.

The following morning, six weeks since the start of the trial, the case was ready to be given to the jury for deliberation.

In less than ten hours, the jury notified the judge they had reached verdicts on ten of the eleven counts. They were unable to reach a verdict on the eleventh count.

Sander was found guilty on four counts of first degree murder, two counts of attempted murder, two counts of assault with a deadly weapon, one count of mayhem and one count of burglary in the first degree. The next morning the jury took less than two hours to return verdict of guilty of murder in the second degree in the death of Shirley Knott.

Because of his behavior, which left a deputy injured, Sander ended up in solitary confinement. While there he attempted to hang himself with his pants but jail staff prevented his ‘half-hearted attempt.”

The insanity phase lasted three days. After hearing all there was on Sander’s sanity, the jury found him sane when he committed the murders.

Next came the penalty phase, where the jury would recommend either life in prison, without the possibility for parole or death. The eight-woman, four-man jury ruled Sander was sane when thus, requiring a mandatory death sentence.

Sander was sentenced to die in the California gas chamber at San Quentin. Judge Frank Peterson includes in his sentencing that Sander serve life in prison in the event the California Supreme Court should ever hold the death penalty unconstitutional.

At San Quentin Prison, on death row, Sander had his own plan. On the morning of December 10th, 1975, guards found him hanging by the neck, a bed sheet, tied to the top bars of his cell.

For their actions on the day of the shootings, the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Washington DC issued Commendations for Meritorious Service and Valor to Undersheriff G. Thomas Hopper, Lt. Charles Hupp, Sgt. James McQuillen, Detective Richard Williams, Deputy Robert Long, Deputy James Maready, Deputy Dale Parker, Deputy Delbert Edwards, Special Reserved Deputy Dale Edwards.

A year or two after the murders, Dad became the Campaign Manager for Chuck Hupp, who ran against Tom Hopper for Del Norte County Sheriff. Chuck lost and retired from law enforcement. I also assisted Bob Long several times by processing crime photos for him. Finally, I knew Tom because his father, Judge Hopper lived in my neighborhood when I was a kid.

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